Mike Carey Celebrates The Present In "Re-Gifters"

Tue, April 10th, 2007 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Arune Singh, Staff Writer

"Re-Gifters," shipping June 13th
Six years ago, when CBR News first spoke with Mike Carey, he was a relatively unknown writer working on the new "Sandman" spinoff entitled "Lucifer." But now you probably know him as the writer of "X-Men," author of several acclaimed mature readers Vertigo series and one of the people helping to launch DC Comics' new female-oriented line of comics, Minx. Carey's first graphic novel from the line is "Re-Gifters," a tale of a young Korean girl named Jen Dik Seong who is competing to be the best not only at hapkido, but also in the heart of a fellow student named Adam. CBR News spoke to Carey from his London home early last week, where he spilled the beans on his current Minx projects and what he wants Americans to know about England.

Let's start with your new Minx book "Re-Gifters." You've been a pretty busy guy over the last year Mike - scads of books at Marvel, more Vertigo books and now this! What was the genesis of "Re-Gifters?"

Mike Carey: It actually has something in common with the Vertigo mini-series "Faker" that I'm doing with [artist] Jock. Shelly Bond [Vertigo Editor] and I play a game where we throw words at each other and free associate on the words, seeing what kinds of story ideas they suggest. "Faker" was one of those words, as was "Re-Gift," a verb that we noticed cropping up in a few places. So we were playing this game and thinking what kind of story you could craft around the idea of a gift going around a bunch of people form person to person to person. It was that really. And at the time we just sort of went on to other things, but the idea stayed in my mind and over a month I put together a pitch, just sort of nibbling away at it when I had nothing else on. I sort of arbitrarily decided it would be set in the Korean community of Los Angeles and that it would be about this girl who is a hapkido student. Shelly liked it a lot and she said she'd like to do it as a part of a new line.

"Re-Gifters" page 12
As part of the research for this book, did you go hang out with some young Korean girls in LA?

[laughs] No. I was tempted, but no [laughs]. I did read a lot of autobiographical accounts about the Korean experience in America and soaked that stuff up. I actually went to a dojang in West London and watched people doing their basic figures – not actually fighting, but practicing. That was the only first hand experience I had and the rest was really just reading.

Any particularly interesting facts or revelations during the course of your research?

Yeah, in fact one of the things that kept coming up in all the books I read was the importance of the Rodney King riots to the Korean community in LA. The thing is that the densest concentration of Korean businesses and Korean families was in the heart of the disadvantaged black areas where the riots took place. Because they were such poor and high crime neighborhoods, many of these corner shops and small businesses didn't carry insurance and then after the Rodney King incident, when the riots took place, the owners lost everything. Stores were burned down, ransacked, and these people who were aspirational poor, looking to lift themselves out of the situation they were in, become the poorest of the poor. They lost everything they had. That becomes an important element in the book. Jen's parents have lost their livelihood in the riots and they're trying to put their lives back together.

With that social commentary so pervasive in the book, it would seem inappropriate to label the book as simply a romance or a drama. How do you describe it?

I've just been calling it a martial arts rom-com. It is a social comedy, but the romantic elements are important too, as are all the beats that set up the family drama. Even though Jen is the protagonist, the family are very important too and her relationship with them is at the forefront of the book.

Minx is aimed at the teen female market and while you've never been accused of ignoring female readers - you have many a female fan - these Minx books are a different beast entirely. Did you have to alter your approach to write a book aimed at such a specific group?

"Re-Gifters" page 13
The most important consideration for me was that this was the book that brought me back together with Sonny Liew and Marc Hempel. The "My Faith in Frankie" posse rides again! I wanted to create a book that would complement Sonny & Marc as a team, so in some ways I mined somewhat similar veins to those in "Frankie." Yes, I was also trying to address the interests of that teenage, largely female demographic, but it wasn't a case of trying on a style that I hadn't use before. It was more a case of exploring the same style I used in "Frankie" with Sonny and Marc, exploring a different kind of subject matter but with a similar approach.

Why'd those two seem like the natural choice for this book?

It's an incredibly happy marriage and it would be presumptuous of me to try to describe how we caught this lightning in a bottle. There is just some weird chemistry when Marc goes over Sonny's inks. Sonny does meticulous, beautifully detailed pencils and then Marc will to some extent omit some of that detail, bringing out the spirit of what was there perfectly, while at the same time lightening it, bringing it forward. You can see I'm having trouble because I don't have the technical vocabulary for it. The effect is very ethereal, but it has this rock solid base which Sonny put there.

I think in America we call that "kick ass."

[laughs] Yeah, that's what I meant. It kicks ass!

With all the critical acclaim for "My Faith In Frankie," did it add pressure to achieve a similar success when you re-teamed with Sonny and Marc?

It didn't feel like pressure. The thing to remember about "Frankie" is that while it was very well reviewed, the sales figures were not huge. It was outside of the Vertigo "mainstream," if there is such a thing as a Vertigo mainstream. It was an oddball book and some people looked at it and said, "That's not the kind of thing I'd go for." It didn't feel like we were under pressure to do anything to outdo ourselves and it was, honestly, just really pleasurable. The previous outing had been so much fun, this time around we just jumped right into it, had a good time.

That definitely shows through in the preview pages we've seen and it's almost unusual to see such happiness jumping off the page in American comics books. Was it a conscious decision to eschew that trend of cynicism?

I guess because I wanted it to be a comedy maybe that comes with the territory, though obviously there's black comedy. Maybe what gives it that lift is the family being so supportive. Even when Jen is at her worst and in desperate straits, she's still got her family looking out for her. She's got these two younger brothers who adore her. Her father tries to be this stern father figure but he always fails because there's nothing more important in his life than his kids. This kind of very positive view of family life is probably what gives this book its upbeat feel.

"Re-Gifters" page 15
You make an interesting point, in that you don't see many happy families in American pop culture stories, though perhaps that is different in the UK. Everyone has daddy issues or wasn't loved enough by mommy - so why is it so unique to see happy families in our stories these days?

There's a famous quote by Tolstoy, "All happy families are the same, but each miserable family is miserable in its own unique and distinctive way." There's a sense in which dysfunctional families are more interesting to look at because they're seemingly more distinctive or have more dramatic possibilities. In the same way that most stories end with the happy marriage, the boy and girl coming together to end the story because it's harder to dramatize the happiness. Having said that, I think happy families can still be a launchpad for some compelling and amazing stories. What I wanted to do was create a family that were, y'know, not dysfunctional and while being mutually supportive, were fun and interesting, different from the norm. You still have conflict arising from contact with the outside world.

Now while I understand what you mean about the drama in dysfunction, your own work very clearly shows that Jen's family is full of drama while being happy and supportive - it's just less bombastic than dysfunction. Is there perhaps more depth in happiness than is acknowledged?

Yeah, as you say, even though they are happy and loving, they're under stress because they're poor and work very hard. You see the father, Ku, who had his own business and is now reduced to cutting wires and gluing pieces to help his wife make earrings, to help his wife make some money. Without complaint, the father subordinates himself to his family's needs and helps out, but clearly there are pressures they're under, which we see erupt when he learns that his daughter has been lying to him. There are recriminations. There are problems. It's not all sweetness and light - I'm not creating an unrealistic paradise.

In helping to launch Minx, a highly publicized new line of comics, you're part of something unique. What's that like? And what do you think of the other books in the line? C'mon Mike, give us some dirt [laughs].

[laughs] It's great to be part of it. It's an initiative that Shelly Bond has imagined, brought to fruition and she's been an inspiration, simply awesome. I think the line up of talent is amazing-I read the Cecil Castulluci book, "Plain Janes," which will launch the line and I was blown away by it. And my wife and daughter loved it, too. It's full of great character moments and character beats. I've seen art for the Andi Watson book "Clubbing" and it looks great, as does Aaron Alexovich's "Kimmie 66." I've had the privilege of working with Aaron on another book that comes out this year. The whole time at Minx has been a rollercoaster ride. It's an exciting phenomenon, that will get the attention it deserves.

"Re-Gifters" page 16
I want to talk about the book you're doing with your daughter Louise, but since we're talking about Minx itself, there are two things I'd love to address. The first is the controversy over the name "Minx" for a line of comics aimed at females. Some have argued that the term has negative connotations.

I've heard that argument and it left me feeling slightly bemused to be honest. Some people were saying that "minx" has connotations of sexual promiscuity and I don't think it does. A minx is a kind of wild or uncontrollable girl, someone headstrong and independent, which is neither positive nor negative, purely neutral. I think that some of the things people were reading into the word were bizarre.

The other question would be as to why we need a Minx at all. Theoretically, shouldn't a good book appeal to male and/or female readers simply because of inherent quality and not just because of a concerted marketing plan? Simply put, why do we need Minx?

Why do we need Minx? Because if you look outside manga, and manga is a self-contained phenomenon, the comic book audience - the mainstream American and British audience - has narrowed to become a niche over the last 25 years, whereas comics had once been a part of everyday life. I think the reason we need a Minx is because the big comics companies are no longer - as part of their core business - doing romance titles, sports titles, titles outside of the superhero genre. We need Minx because we need to persuade other groups, other demographics, to try out comics and see that there's something there for them. If Minx succeeds, then one of the side effects is that it will make itself unnecessary. But for now you need to sell and market comics to groups of people who would initially say, "this isn't my thing."

But let's compare a manga like "Naruto," which sells exceptionally well, to a top selling Marvel or DC superhero comics, as there's a lot in common. Both feature super powers, bright shiny leads and lots of actions, but there's a huge difference in the "mainstream embrace." Why do you think that there's such a difference in that acceptance of material, which on the surface, would seem similar?

I don't know. I really don't know and I don't think it's anything inherent in the material. The parallel you're making is a valid one. I think it's a lot of separate things that affect each other and reinforce each other, more than one specific thing, and a lot of it has to do with perception. Looking at the outside, looking at the packing, looking at the cover, looking at the title, whatever and saying "this is my thing" or "this isn't my thing."

Yet at the same time, I'm not disagreeing with you, we can have a movie such as "Ghost Rider" come out, with little perception in the mainstream prior to release and rule the world's box office.

But it doesn't translate into comic book sales. With the Spider-Man movie there was a brief blip in sales, but it hasn't done anything long term for the sales of the Spider-Man comics. There's a similar effect-or lack of effect-with the Superman movie.

Which leads to the second part of my question-why the disconnect? There's an obvious interest and liking for the subject matter, so is it the medium more than the message, if you will?

Maybe so and if it is the medium, then you've got to look at a lot of different things. You've got to look at format obviously. Does the manga being literally pocket sized help? Look at the distribution channels, which have obviously been changing over the last six or seven years, but before that the direct sales market obviously defined the comics market and not everyone shops at comic stores, so you need to look at that.

"Re-Gifters" page 17
Back to "Re-Gifters," and this may not be something you worried about, but how does it represent what you think needs to be out there to appeal to that larger market and broader audience?

Oh Lordy [laughs]. That's a tough question. "Re-Gifters" isn't a manga, despite the martial arts themes and so on. It's not manga inspired in the story or in the artwork. If we take anything from the manga experience, it's the freedom to ignore genre boundaries, the fact that manga don't care if they have humor, action, romance or tragedy, all rolled into the same package. They will gleefully play with your expectations - set something up in one genre and then lead you down a different path, something I think we've done with "Re-Gifters."

You're making manga sound a bit like Shakespeare!

[laughs] I am a great admirer of horror mangas. The best horror manga are far and away more scary than anything I've ever read in a British or American horror comic.

Even more than "Beano & Dandy?"

[laughs] Yeah.

Let's move on to your next Minx graphic novel, "Confessions of A Blabbermouth," which ships this fall. You're working on it with your daughter Louise, co-writer on the book, which has to be a unique experience. How did she come to work on this project with you?

Well, I have to tip my hat to Shelly again. My daughter is 15 now and she's kind of a precocious talent when it comes to writing. She's working on a novel called "Bethany's Words" which is progressing slowly because she has a very full and crowded life, as I discovered when we tried to write together. She's been working on this novel and I sent some of the chapters to Shelly, who loved it and said "this is amazing for a fifteen year old. It's so mature. Have you guys ever thought of co-writing something?" She asked for a pitch, so Lou and I decided to give it a go. "Confessions" was what we came up with and the rest is history.

Did she grow up thinking comics were cool because her dad writes them or have any interest in comics?

She was a hard sell on comics. She grew up aware of British comics like "Beano & Dandy," which you mentioned earlier - and so did her brothers. Then as they grew up I introduced them to more comics because I was determined they would not close their minds to the medium, so I introduced all three of my kids to Jeff Smith's "Bone." They've read "My Faith In Frankie," which aside from the language is pretty kid friendly. There's one muted sex scene, but off panel.

See, if you'd said it was on-panel, you'd have higher sales on the book, Mike!

[laughs] So I was feeding stuff to them, the comics I like, but apart from "Frankie" I couldn't show them the comics I actually write. They couldn't read "Lucifer!" There's far too much dodgy material in there and in "Hellblazer" as well. But Lou does like comics now. She's discovered manga, and she has a number of series that she follows quite devotedly.

I was hoping you'd tell me that one day you just yelled at the kids that, "This is the house Lucifer built and that Wolverine furnishes!" [laughs]

Well they do think that what I do for a living is cool. What's funny is that the boys were going into school and saying "my dad's writing the X-Men now" – and there were kids in their class whose jaws dropped because they'd never made a connection between the Carey twins they take Math with and this other Carey who writes X-Men.

"Re-Gifters" page 18
Ok, now we've got the history, so it's time for the sales pitch. What's this book all about?

Again, the context is family but it's not a family like Jen's in "Re-Gifters." This is a family that is in meltdown. The lead character is Tasha. She lives with her mother who is separated from her father, and the mother - we're not sure if it's a divorce or not - is back on the dating circuit, bringing these very unsuitable guys home. Finally she takes up with an obnoxious, self satisfied guy named Jed Hazel, who's a novelist and Jed brings a daughter of his own, Chloe, into the mix. She's aloof and cold and uncommunicative. Tasha and Chloe don't hit it off at all, they have no time for each other, and Tasha hates Jed, because he's trying to be a strict parent: he thinks that's what she needs, growing up without a father figure. She rebels against this and it becomes a war of words. He's a novelist and she has a blog called Blabbermouth, hence "Confessions of A Blabbermouth." She starts fighting back against him by writing about their relationship on the blog. Things go from bad to worse and then Tasha's mother decides a family holiday will sort things out, so they head to America - Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon, which is actually a holiday that the Carey family went on.

Wasn't that a trip that also influenced the first "Lucifer" mini-series?

Yeah, it did - good memory. While they're on the holiday, Tasha thinks she discovers something horrible going on and that Jed isn't just obnoxious and a pain in the ass: he may be something much worse. She decides to find out if she's right and that becomes the main crisis in the book.

So while the trip is drawn from your experiences, this war of words isn't, is it?

No, that's completely made up. When we fight, we fight with fists and bottles and stuff [laughs]. In Britain we just drink, erupt into violence and then slump over unconscious.

This is the book you're working on with Aaron Alexovich, correct?

Yeah, that's the one. And it's been great. Aaron is insanely talented. We were feeding him pages in chunks, so after the first chapter we had inked pages to look at. And we found - as I've found with Peter Gross and Mike Perkins - that seeing his renditions of the characters really fixed their voices for us. They were living, breathing people. And the comedy beats are just immaculate. We'd both love to work with him again.

So are you looking at more Minx books after this one?

I certainly hope so. We've got some possibilities in the pipeline - both Lou & I would love to do this again. It's great having 144 pages to play with and I love working with Minx. There are things that you can do there that you can't do in other formats.

Thinking back to "Lucifer," are there ever times where you look back and think "I wish I could have told that story!"

Yes, definitely [laughs]. Funny you should ask that because I was just thinking today about "Dalliance With The Damned" and how I'd like to do a story set entirely in hell, but a different area with different rules. There's a lot of things about "Lucifer" I'd like to go back to, but none of them involve Lucifer, y'know? We brought his story to an end point and I would never want to add a new chapter to that, but I'd love to do some stories with his supporting cast.

In Hell? That could be a really good Minx book [laughs].

[laughs] Yeah, actually it could.

It's a metaphor for teenage life.

[laughs] You're absolutely right. But you don't realize that until you get some distance from it.

Speaking of teenage life, do you think you could have done "Re-Gifters" with a cast of a different age? I mean, how integral do you think Jen's age to the story you're telling?

I think that's an interesting question. Jen's inexperience, her lack of control over her own emotions, her lack of knowledge of herself, is key to her character and is key to the situations she finds herself in. It's definitely a book about the first steps you make in your relationships with the other sex, which are fraught with stupid reactions and stupid mistakes you're less likely to make later in life. The crisis that kicks off the story, where she spends more money than she should on this gift, and screws up other things as a result of it, is a teenage situation in a way, because she's over-responding. She's convinced herself that everything depends on attracting Adam's attention. Everything depends on the relationship moving forward now.

Yeah, that immediacy when you're a teenager can lead to some stupid choices.

Everything hurts more. Everything is better or worse than it will ever be again.

Wow…thanks Mike. Now I wish I was ten years younger and learning about quadratic equations.

[laughs]

Let's check in on some other projects. What's the word on your "Felix Castor" novels?

I'm going on a book tour in the US. In July, when the first Castor novel, "The Devil You Know," gets its American release. I'll be visiting ten American cities, ending up at the San Diego Comic Con and I'm really looking forward to it. I'm writing book four at the moment and the first two volumes are available in the UK. I'm signed up to do five books in total and then we'll see where we go from there.

I also remember you mentioning a possible television series based on the novels. Any updates?

Bentley have the television rights and at the moment, along with New Line, they're looking into making a Castor movie, but there's no other news right now.

You've also got another film, "Frost Flowers," in production. Have you been reading lines with Holly Hunter in her trailer?

They said a spring shoot. I don't know where it is. I hope it's on schedule, but we will see.

Now as we've discussed before, your country has a lot to offer America and I think it would help us if you would educate us in all things English. So let's begin with this question: what's the greatest thing you've learned from Tony Blair?

That if you're going to tell a lie, you should tell a really, really big lie because more people are likely to believe it.

Does every man in England grow up wanting to be James Bond or are they just born like Bond?

It's about fifty-fifty. Some of us end up like Bond and the rest turn into Blofeld.

Why is the BBC so obviously and inherently better than American news channels?

We had this guy, Lord Reith, who was involved in setting up the BBC and here's the weird thing: you guys have a constitution and we don't. But Lord Reith wrote a constitution for television and it's brilliant. It lays down all the responsibilities, impartiality and level of coverage - it's a great document.

Besides Billie Piper, Ricky Gervais and the BBC, what more do we really need from England?

[laughs] Marmite. It's a yeast based spread that you put on bread and it doesn't taste like anything else on Earth.

If Tony Blair told you he would take back one of Britain's old occupied territories from the days of the Empire, and said you could choose, which one would you choose?

Wow. We let go of the Empire very reluctantly and a lot of those countries are still part of the British Commonwealth. I'd like Canada back please. It's a nice place and everyone's really polite.

Now on a serious note, if there was one thing you'd want Americans to know about England, what would it be?

We know how to spell words and you don't. Also, you should drive on the left side hand of the road.

Now discuss this story in CBR's DC Comics forum.

 
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