As he makes his way to Schlock HQ’s stomping grounds to form part of Malta Comic Con 2013 on November 30 and December 1, we caught up with celebrated British comic book writer and novelist Mike Carey (Lucifer, Hellblazer, The Unwritten, X-Men) for a chat about his career and what makes him tick as a writer.
Like many of your British colleagues, you started out by writing for 2000AD. How would you describe that working environment, and what important lessons in storytelling did you learn during your tenure there?
You know, that’s an enduring myth that I don’t seem to be able to debunk. I actually came up by a different but parallel route, writing for 2000AD’s short-lived rival, Toxic – and then jumping from that to the US indie scene via Malibu and then Caliber. It wasn’t until after Sandman Presents Lucifer came out that I did any work for 2000AD.
That aside, though, I think the work I did writing five-page shorts for 2000AD was very useful indeed. Those Future Shock stories are incredibly compressed, and writing them gives you a sense of how to pack the maximum narrative momentum into each panel. Almost all comics give you a canvas of a fixed and limited size, and you need to make that work for you. So taking it to the extreme is a good thing.
You’re arguably most commonly associated with Lucifer and Hellblazer – both of which take their starting point from a religious – and, specifically, Christian – milieu. What fascinated you about both these characters enough for you to create some of your trademark and enduring work under their wing, as it were?
My background is a very weird one from a religious point of view. My mother was Anglican and my dad was a lapsed Catholic – and this was in Liverpool, where sectarian divides really meant something. My wife and her family are Jewish, and I’m a pretty thorough-going atheist. But I grew up absolutely steeped in the stories of the Bible, and they got into my blood in many ways. I still love them as stories, and I still go to them, mentally, when I’m thinking about certain ideas and issues. The power they have is no less real for me because I don’t have faith in them in a religious sense.
How would you contrast your work with 2000AD and Vertigo with your work on Marvel properties? Is there any big shift in the way you work when you’re dealing with characters like the X-Men, in terms of the raw work that goes into the writing process itself?
Well, writing on a franchise is always going to be very different from writing on a stand-alone book. With the X-Men, there are half a dozen other monthlies going out at the same time, and obviously you’ve got to be aware of all the things that are happening in those other books. Even if you’re not directly reflecting them, you’re meant to be telling stories set in the same universe, and ideally there should be a sense in the reader’s mind of the wider continuity that your book is a part of.
But really it’s in the planning rather than the storytelling that the differences come out. You liaise with your editor, and where necessary with the other creative teams, and you try to make sure that you flag up any potential clashes well in advance. For example, when both Joss Whedon and I had storylines in development that both involved Cassandra Nova – and were absolutely incompatible. We talked it out via the editorial team, and my story in the end introduced a new mummudrai character while Joss used Cassandra Nova in Astonishing.
In other respects, I think I tend to treat all long-form storytelling in more or less the same way. I’ve got a weakness for the long arc and the slow build, with early storylines gradually piecing together into something bigger. I did that in both X-Men and in Hellblazer.
On a somewhat related note, how do you think that the recent boom in superhero Hollywood blockbusters has offset the way people experience the comics themselves? And do you think this affects the ‘indie’ comics in any real way?
A year or so ago, I would have said there was no influence whatsoever. Recently, though, I’ve seen a lot of anecdotal evidence to suggest that comic-based movies are widening the audience for actual comics. That can only be a good thing, I guess. More readers translates into more publishers and a healthy variety of approaches. Niches can become monopolies, and monopolies almost always stagnate.
But if you’re talking about movie tropes coming into comic storytelling, I tend to see that as a dead end. It happens, obviously. The whole disastrous and short-lived trend for “decompressed” storytelling was an attempt to convey a cinematic experience on the comic page. I can’t think of a single example where it worked. Emerson said, “envy is ignorance and emulation is suicide”. As soon as you start slavishly copying across from any source, you lose what’s unique about your own vision. And that applies to copying from another medium as well as copying from another writer.
Having written both comics and novels throughout your career, what would you say are the writerly qualities peculiar to each? Do you apply distinctly different working practices when working on either a comic book script or a more ‘conventional’ prose narrative, like a novel?
Yeah, very different. Comics and prose projects have their own life cycles, and they’re not similar at all. With comics, or at least with ongoing comics, you’re always working towards the next issue. You produce a plan, a draft, a rewrite, then the artist starts working up page roughs – and as the page roughs come in, then the inks, then the lettering draft, you’re working on them and simultaneously making up the next plan.
With a novel, even if it’s commissioned the deadline is likely to be a long, long way away. You live with the book for months as it takes shape, and you’re tinkering with it constantly during that time, so it grows more slowly and organically. You’ve got a great deal more freedom to make big structural changes late in the day.
What I find these days is that I have to be careful to maintain buffer zones between my comics work and my prose work. I try to set aside blocks of a whole week or several weeks for writing prose, because you lose a day or so getting back up to speed after each break in the process.
Given the way the contemporary comics scene is now – as, like any other art form, it has had to negotiate the minefield that is the internet – what advice would you give to any aspiring comic book writers out there?
I think the internet has created a lot more opportunities than it has threats. Self-publishing is a lot easier and cheaper now than it was when I started out, and it seems to be the route that a lot of people are taking. Print-on-demand and crowd-sourcing are other ways of producing your own work and getting it out there without too great a financial risk.
But my advice is the same now as it’s ever been. If you’re serious about writing, there are three things you need to do.
Read as much as you can, especially in the genres you intend to be writing in. Think about the writers and the works you love. Why are they good? What can you learn from them about your own storytelling, or about storytelling in general.
Write as much as you can. It should come easy and feel pleasurable, at least some of the time. And like any mechanical skill, you get better at it the more you do it. So do it a lot.
And when you’ve done it, show it to people. Get as many people as possible to read your work and comment on it, and listen to what they say – especially the negative comments. You only grow as a writer by trying new things. Your readers will tell you what works for them and what doesn’t, and sometimes they’ll tell you why. You can learn a lot from that feedback even if you don’t agree with it. It can sensitise you to your own default options – the decisions you make as a storyteller without thinking about them.
Malta Comic Con 2013 will take place at St James Cavalier, Valletta on November 30 and December 1. Those of you who are attending should keep an eye out for Friends of Schlock Nel Pace, Daniela Attard and Mark Scicluna! Also, be sure to check our previous Schlock Talk with Jason Lee Weight, the man behind the Sam Sweetmilk animated space comedy.