This is the first part of a two-part interview.
I’ve long followed and promoted the adage that knowledge is power and one can become smarter by reading books, but lately I’ve found there are exceptions to these rules. That’s one way of saying that I keep finding new topics and artists of which I have been ignorant. Take, as a case in point, Mike Carey. When I was sent a copy of Carey’s first novel, The Devil You Know, I had to google him to see who he was. My belated apologies to Carey for my cluelessness.
I quickly ascertained that he has been writing the X-Men and Ultimate Fantastic Four comic books and has been a major name in comic book circles for more than ten years. Surely I should have known his name before this. I have had my eyes opened in recent years — as I mention to Carey during this email interview — that the comic book form is ripe for experimentation, as with Larry Gonick writing what are essentially textbooks in comic book forms.
I asked a friend recently whether she reads any comic books or graphic novels and she said no. I pressed her on why that is, saying that surely if she read some of the graphic novels by Neil Gaiman or Art Spiegelman (especially Maus) she would find much she liked. But she had fallen victim to the same stereotype that I believed for too many years – that comic books are full of weak writing and dialogue and are just for kids.
Carey’s novel is proof that not only can a comic book writer’s story stand up well when stripped of the images, but that it can be one of the most unusual, compelling, fascinating books I’ve read in years.
The Devil You Know is about Max Castor, a down-on-his-luck freelance exorcist who uses music to fight demons. He is a horny guy and when he falls for the wrong woman she turns out to be a succubus. He is assigned to a job which grows more complicated and sinister and troubled, while violence, threats and other problems soon come at him faster than you can say "there are more undead in this book than you can shake a stick at." It's imaginative, engaging and great fun.
Scott Butki: First, how did you get into writing comic books?
Mike Carey: Like most people in the industry, I guess, I was a fan before I was a creator. I learned to read from comic books – notably from the so-called "Power-House Comics" of the mid-sixties, which were largely written and drawn by British comic book legend Leo Baxendale.
Then I started borrowing and reading my older brother Chris's American superhero books, discovered the Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four, and that was it – the beginning of a life-long love affair. Or addiction, if you want to be cruel. So I was pretty much always reading comics as I grew up, apart from a short spell in my teens. Then I started to do comic reviews and articles for fanzines and semi-pro-zines, and from there I started pitching actual scripts and ideas to Martin Skidmore, who was briefly the editor on the UK Trident Comics line.
They picked up two of my stories, but went bankrupt before they could pay me or publish me. It didn't matter by that stage, though. I'd made some contacts through that experience, and I started writing on the American indie scene, through the good graces of two very generous people, Ken Meyer Jr. and Lurene Haines. I worked for Malibu, then for Caliber, and I slowly leapfrogged my way to DC's door.
What has been your high point and low points in writing comics?
The low points tended to be when a publisher I was writing for went bankrupt or ceased trading, leaving me out on my ear once again. It seemed to happen a lot. A creative low point was the Pantera comic book I wrote for Malibu's Rock-It imprint. It was… well, it was the adventures of the thrash metal band Pantera as they face down evil vampires and kick supernatural ass somewhere in Texas. And it was so bad it sort of imploded and created a local black hole wherever it was read. Dangerous stuff.
Highs… Well, it's hard for anything to compare with the day when Vertigo editor Alisa Kwitney called me and invited me to pitch for Sandman Presents Lucifer. I'd been banging my head against the door for seven or eight years by that point, and suddenly it opened to reveal a land flowing with milk and honey and actual pay cheques.
More to the point, it was my dream job. I was such a hard-core Sandman fan, and there I was writing a book centered on one of the iconic Sandman characters. There was no living with me. More recently, both having a novel published and co-writing a book with my daughter were spectacular highs.
What made you decide to write a novel?
It was something I'd always wanted to do. It was also something I'd tried and failed to do a long time ago, back when I was still teaching. I didn't have any grasp of story structure back then, and I'd never learned the discipline of planning, so I wrote these things that were not so much novels as big, shapeless, bulgy bags of events.
But comics teaches you to plan scenes and story beats like a miser working out his monthly outgoings. "If I cut the exposition here I can have a splash page there…" I knew that after ten years writing comics in a dozen or more different formats, I could write a novel and make it work. And beyond that, the Castor books revolve around the use of music in an exorcism ritual. They'd make really rotten comics because music isn't visual and you pretty much can't make it visual. I needed Castor to be a novel or a movie.
Now here's the part I find confusing – this book is being marketed in the United States as your first novel, which it is, but Wikipedia says your second book is already out in Europe and you're working on your third novel. Do I have that straight? Are we a year behind in the United States or something? As if it's not bad enough that you guys in Britain have better chocolate – now this?
Nah, I'm working on the fourth now! The gap is widening… The truth is, Warner got the U.S. rights very early on in the process, but they wanted to do their own promotion and marketing for the series and so they cut themselves loose from the U.K. publishing schedule and did things in their own way. That's opened up a gap, but I think the plan is to have shorter intervals between releases so that the U.K. and U.S. schedules eventually dovetail. You're right about the chocolate, though. Cadbury Whole Nut is the best there is…
What do you like better – writing novels or comic books? Which is more difficult?
The two processes are very different. One of the biggest differences is in terms of the way the work impacts on your life on a day-to-day basis. It comes down to pacing again – or maybe I mean scheduling. In comics you work to very short deadlines. You plot months in advance, so you know where you’re going, but you’re writing the story in short segments that have to be completed within a finite and tightly defined time frame. So you write the script, you send it in, you get the edit notes and do a rewrite, and then off it goes to the artist. If you’re in the middle of the next issue or a few issues down the line and you suddenly think “Oh wait, I should have introduced this character earlier” or “I should have prepared the ground for this!” it’s too late and you can’t change your mind. The freedom to change your mind is very limited.
A novel is something that grows gradually. You live with it for six months, or maybe longer, and at any point within that time you have the option of changing your mind about very substantial things. If you get to chapter 22 and you want to go back and change something in chapter five you can do that because chapter five is still there – it hasn’t gone anywhere and nobody else has seen it yet. Nobody else is waiting for it to arrive so they can start doing pencils or lettering or whatever. So you have this vertical freedom which I really enjoyed a lot.
But comics have their advantages too. Scene-setting is effortless — for the writer, anyway — because so much can be conveyed in the visuals. And since you’re telling the story essentially in two modalities, you can make words play off images to produce some very cool effects.
It’s horses for courses, at the end of the day. Some stories work best in comic form, others play beautifully as novels – and some translate readily into any medium.
You're at least the fourth cartoonist I've interviewed recently, which is interesting since, with a few exceptions, I haven't read a comic book or graphic novel beyond those reviewed and since Doonesbury in a few years. I reviewed books by Larry Gonick (the Cartoon Guide History of… ) and Lloyd Dangle (Troubletown) and Brad Meltzer (who is starting to writing some of the Buffy comics.) Do you know of any of these guys? Any thoughts on them?
I don't know any of them personally, but obviously I know their work. I read Larry Gonick's Cartoon History of the Universe way, way back and loved it. I think I picked it up in a second-hand bookshop while I was at College. Troubletown is amazing, and I'm enjoying Meltzer's Justice League of America a lot. But you mentioned Trudeau in there too – he's like a god to me. There never was another strip like Doonesbury, although there are many strips around now that are indebted to it.
Has there always been switching by writers from comics to novels and back that Neil Gaiman and others does – or is that a more recent trend?
I think it's always been there, but only to an extent. The permeability now is massive and universal. Comics publishers are aggressively recruiting writers from the fields of TV, novels, movies – and writers are discovering that once they've reached a certain point their name becomes a sort of brand, which allows them access to other creative spheres. It's a positive thing, I think. The more different kinds of writing you do, the better your instincts become. And you keep yourself fresh by working the changes. If you stay in one niche, the temptation to do the same thing again and again is always going to be there.
Where do you see yourself in five years – still writing both comics and novels or doing all of one or the other?
Still writing both. And doing TV and movie work.
And swimming the English Channel blindfolded. Multi-tasking is my thing.