The news magazine of the British Science Fiction Association

Life After Lucifer

John Hunter talks to Mike Carey about his career in comics and becoming a novelist.

John Hunter: Looking back, was there ever a point when you realised that you were now a professional writer?

Mike Carey: It was a long, slow, drawn out process because I’d been writing as a hobby for ten years or more. Initially novels as, you know, short stories are for wusses. I was writing these monumental five hundred, six hundred page novels and sending them off to publishers and getting sometimes polite rejection slips and sometimes…slightly curt ones. But no particular interest. In one case, Collins said we could use this if you did X, Y and Z but most of them were just rejected without any explanation.

Then I switched to writing Comics journalism. I did reviews then articles for a magazine called Fantasy Advertiser, which was one of the big…’big’…one of the few UK Comics Press Publications in the early to mid-eighties. So I was working for them and then the company that produced that magazine was a distributor, a comics distributor called Neptune and they started their own comics line; Trident, and I started pitching comics ideas to them. It was actually my wife who suggested it. She said ‘you’re writing all these novels but mostly what you read is comic books’ which was actually pretty much true at the time. I mean, we were both teaching English at the time, so I was reading a lot of classis Eng lit texts, but comics were mostly what I read at that time for pleasure. So it seemed like a good idea to try my hand at scripting. I pitched a couple of ideas to Trident, which were incredibly derivative for the most part. I was heavily under the spell of Alan Moore at that time. So I pitched a superhero series that was, um…let’s just say ‘inspired’ by Watchmen and leave it at that. And they accepted it. I wrote a lot of scripts for them. I wrote that series and a fantasy/horror one called ‘Legions’ which is about a schizophrenic woman who believes she is possessed by all the demons of Hell. In all, I think I wrote about seven scripts for them and they went bankrupt without publishing a single one of them. Eventually they did publish seventeen pages of the superhero story in an anthology magazine called ‘Toxic’. But I never got paid! They sent me one cheque which bounced.

At the time I felt like whenever I tried to get anything published, actually get anything creative published, it was one step forward and then six or seven steps back. But in fact, whenever I did it I would make contacts that moved me forward at least a little. Through working for Trident, I met Ken Mayor Jr. who’s an American artist. And he introduced me to a woman named Lurene Haynes. Lurene has written a lot of guides on getting into comics and at that time she was acting as a sort of unofficial and unpaid agent for a number of beginners, both writers and artists. She introduced to the people at Malibu and got me some work at Malibu. An Ozzy Osborne comic book. (laughs) They were doing all these books about rock legends so I did this story about Ozzy Osborne…that wasn’t too bad actually, but after that I did a comic about the Texas punk and heavy metal band Pantera, and that was probably the worst thing I’ve ever written. But it brought in a little money! And through that, I met the Pruett Brothers who were editors at Caliber and I started doing work for Caliber and amazingly, little dribs and drabs of money started to filter in. It reached a point where I thought ‘actually, there probably is a living to be made at this’.

Through the nineties I was still teaching. I was teaching full-time and still writing in the evenings and at weekends which was murderous. But I was on fire and I really wanted to get myself out there and everything I wrote for Malibu and Caliber I was sending to DC, to Vertigo. Then I started to get commissions from DC and I decided to give up the day job.

John : So to begin with, what the responses like from Vertigo?

Mike: Initially, I wrote a book for Caliber called ‘Inferno’ which I was very pleased with, Michael Gaydos did the art. In some ways it was a very conventional horror story about a guy who is murdered and goes to Hell. Most of the action actually takes place in Hell, when he gets there, he discovers everybody already knows him. Or they seem to, they call him by a different name. But they tell him that he’s been to Hell before and he’s the only person who’s ever actually succeeded in escaping and having a second life on Earth. And the trouble is, the person they’re actually mistaking him for is a Mediaeval sorcerer called Jacomo Terrence who’s made some powerful enemies in Hell. He discovers that all these demonic entities are trying to kill him and he has no defence against them since, as far as he knows, he has no sorcerous ability at all. We did a five issue arc for that, it was originally going to be a monthly…(laughs knowingly)

There was a whole year between issue one and issue two. It wasn’t my fault and it wasn’t Michael Gaydos’ fault but some really crazy deal that Caliber had with their printer. They used the same printer that DC and Marvel used but they had this arrangement whereby they paid a heavily discounted price provided that their stuff always went to the back of the queue if anything came in form DC or Marvel. It just kept getting bumped back and bumped back and bumped back…A year!

So Inferno only lasted five issues because you can’t sustain interest at that kind of glacial pace. It was a serial, a serial story. But we finished the first arc and I was sending every issue to Alisa Kwitney who at that time was editing The Sandman. Sandman was just about winding down so I guess we’re talking about ninety-five maybe a little bit later than that ninety-six, ninety-seven. She sent me a very polite letter back saying she liked my stuff but making a few suggestions as to how I could improve my storytelling. But she liked what I was doing and invited me to pitch for ‘The Dreaming’ which was just starting out about that time; the ‘Sandman sequel’. I pitched a few ideas to her but didn’t actually get anywhere. But then with Mike Perkins, I did a graphic novel for Caliber called 'Doctor Faustus’ which was our version of the Marlowe play. You know how in the Marlowe version there are a lot of homosexual overtones because Marlowe was pretty up-front about being bi. So we wrote it as a love story, a triangular love story with Faustus and his manservant Wagner and the demon Mephistopholis. Wagner is in love with Faust but can’t tell him and is sort of fighting against Mephistopholis for his soul – and I suppose if you want to be sleazy about it, his body. I didn’t even send that to Alisa, I’d given up by then but Mike Perkins sent her a copy so when Sandman Presents first started up she offered me the scriptwriting on the first Sandman Presents series which was ‘Lucifer’.

John: And that did very well so was it purely on the strength of the Lucifer miniseries that that became ongoing or had it always been planned?

Mike: Even then it was a ramshackle and sort of drawn-out process…I once had a conversation with Karen Berger, the group editor for Vertigo, way way back before Vertigo even existed. There used to be, there probably still is, a British group called the SSI – The Society of Strip Illustrators. It was a professional body for artists and writers in the comics field. They used to have their own pre-con before the UKCAC conventions in London and Karen was invited to speak at one of these. I met her there and walked back with her towards her hotel because she was lost. We were chatting and I said ‘I’m still looking for the big break.’ And she said ‘There’s no such thing as the big break, you want to stop thinking in those terms. There’s a long, long series of little breaks’. And it was the truest thing anyone in the business has ever said to me.

So I wrote the Lucifer mini-series and Alisa then went off on maternity leave. So the only editor I knew at Vertigo, the only editor I’d ever had any contact with was now out of the picture for at least a year and as it turned out, she never came back. But before she left, she made a point on setting me up on a second mini-series which was ‘Petrefax’. It was just because she was a really really nice person and cared about her job and cared about nurturing new talent. So she got that going but she couldn’t edit it so she gave it to Joan Hilty who was one of the other Vertigo editors.

On the strength of that, I went out to San Diego that year, met Shelly Bond – who was Shelly Roeburg then – the other Vertigo editor at that time. Initially she wasn’t particularly interested in anything I had to sell but I’d also written a short story for the horror anthology ‘Flinch’ on which she was taking over as editor. So I said ‘There’s a script of mine on your desk. When you get back to New York read it and if you like it, then maybe we can do something.’ And she did like it and she called me back so Alisa had just created the links that kept me in the game long enough to pitch the Lucifer monthly.

John: Was writing the Lucifer mini-series your first experience of writing with other people’s characters?

Mike: Yes, it was.

John: How did you find that?

Mike: It was scary but at the same time, it was what I wanted to do. I’ve said this many times before but at the time if anyone had asked me what would be your dream job, what would you like to do more than anything else in the world, I would have said ‘write a sequel to the Sandman’. The Sandman was to me the height of mainstream comics storytelling at that time and in many ways still is. You know, the most sustained and powerful achievement that any comics writer has produced in the mainstream. I’d read it and re-read it and I’d learned a lot about storytelling from reading it. I particularly loved the way Gaiman interspersed his longer arcs with these short, sharp, perfect, little lapidary self-contained stories. And I thought that there were so many beautiful things being done here with pacing and with perspective and I really wanted to do that. I really wanted to play in that sandbox. Sandman-Sandbox…That wasn’t meant to be a pun! So although it was really scary, I was really up for it. I was entirely up for it.

John: With Lucifer, you’ve recently announced that you know where you’re going to end the series. Did you always know how you wanted to end it back at the beginning or have there been surprises? How far ahead did you plan how far you wanted to go?

Mike: We always knew where we wanted to end but there were an awful lot of things along the way that weren’t planned. We had a broad outline with certain high points that were definitely always in there. The fact that Lucifer creates his own cosmos was always a fixed point. The fact that God abdicates and leaves Lucifer and Michael to fight for the throne or sort things out in any way they see fit was another fixed point. And the ending that we’re approaching now was the final fixed point.

But we discovered, and by we I guess I mean Peter (Gross – artist), Ryan (Kelly – artist) and me, the core storytelling team, that when you get into writing a monthly, every story that you tell opens up three or four more stories that you could tell. There are things that you really want to follow up. Gaudium and Spera, who are our two comic relief characters, we keep on going back to. We keep on telling stories about them because we just enjoy writing and drawing them so much and we just can’t leave it alone. Like the Centaur story, I think it was issue #24. I can’t remember what the issue title was but it was the one about the centaur sorceress who sets out to try and warn Lucifer about his impending death. I only wrote that because when I did the story about Lucifer trying to open his gate and everyone entering Lucifer’s creation, Peter drew a centaur in the crowd and I thought ‘Peter draws great centaurs. I’ve got to do a centaur story!’

So there were lots of things like that that were kind of accidental and then you reach a point where you’re choosing which stories not to tell. You’re closing doors instead of opening them. You can’t keep expanding because if you do…well, some comics eventually fall apart because they become too diffuse, they lose their centre of gravity. After a while you have to say no, you have to discipline yourself and say no you’re not going to follow that character any further, that’s an end point.

John: Like in the Sandman, Lucifer sometimes takes a back seat to the supporting characters.

Mike: Very much so.

John: Were the supporting cast created to bring out certain aspects of Lucifer even though he’s still the driving force of all the storylines?

Mike: He’s the driving force…Exactly, he’s the catalyst. One of the interesting things about Lucifer is that he can’t change. He is always absolutely and monolithically himself. When Gaiman wrote the Sandman, over the seventy-five issues of The Sandman, you actually do see Morpheus change very much from the sort of proud and insular character he is at the start to a rather more human figure at the end before he engineers his own death. Lucifer is incapable of change. The very idea of it would be anethema to him, the very idea that there was something about him that wasn’t already perfect. He doesn’t want to open up to other people’s perspectives or experiences because it would feel like a kind of surrender of his own identity.

So we haven’t gone down that road. There is no gradual character arc for him. Lucifer as you first meet him will be Lucifer as you last leave him. But he is and can be a catalyst for change in other people and we played very hard on the fact that Lucifer impacts on other people’s lives. Whereas he keeps going in the same direction other people ricochet off him, towards different destinies, different end points. And sometimes it does mean that he is barely there. There are issues where there are only a couple of pages of him and we just follow the supporting cast.

Having said that, I think the story that we’re telling is his story more than anyone else’s. It’s a family drama and it’s a universal family drama. Lucifer has an overbearing father who has always been there and who has always been excessively in control of his life. The father in this case happens to be God but the crisis, the existential crisis that Lucifer goes through is one that everybody goes through: The dilemma of trying to define yourself as a person separate from your parent. The tragedy of Lucifer is that he can never do that because there is a plan that encompasses everything that he does, even his rebellion.

John: And you’ve even managed to make one of the most powerful beings in the Universe seem sympathetic – even though he’s the devil!

Mike: (laughs) Sympathy for the devil! Yeah, that’s what it’s all about I think.

John: Did you always want him to be the hard-bitten, none-changing character? Did you want people to be on his side?

Mike: We always wanted people to see his side. I guess…Stanley Fish writing about Milton’s Paradise Lost says ‘there is no defence against rhetoric at the moment of impact’. So near the beginning of that poem when you have all the different devils planning their campaign against humankind, as each one speaks you are persuaded by their arguments. It’s only afterwards that you think ‘that sucks’ and these are slimy, self-serving and deceitful beings, deceitful even to themselves. We want people to be seduced by Lucifer but we want people to see exactly what Lucifer is. He is selfishness turned into a sort of force of nature. He is so selfish that he would literally set fire to the world to light his own cigarette. He is not capable of taking into account anyone else’s ease or convenience or survival as a factor in any decision that he makes.

This kind of reached its apex in the ‘Naglfar’ storyline where we introduce this other dimension of the afterlife which is between Heaven and Hell - the Mansions of the Silence - which is where the irreconcilable dead go: those who will not say yes to either Heaven or to Hell. There are billions of beings there. The angels who died in the original war in Heaven have all gone there. Other characters both human and non-human have gone there so it’s heavily populated. It’s infinite but it’s heavily populated. And Lucifer destroys it. He destroys it to get Elaine Belloc’s soul back. By entering it, he tears it apart and just consigns all those billions of souls into the void. That’s a perfectly valid action as far as he’s concerned. If he needs something and there are some unintended consequences, who cares?

We do want people to be seduced by him, we do want people to see and to understand his perspective and at times to cheer him on. But at other times, yes, this is actually a terrifying force. Selfishness is evil. This is another name for evil. No one actually thinks of themselves as evil but insofar as you put yourself at the heart of your decisions, that’s where evil arises from.

John: But he’s very charming!

Mike: Yes he is. And he’s always got the perfect put down. It’s bizarre that we sort of write him as an everyman figure in a way. And it makes it easy to identify with him I think.

John: As Lucifer is so powerful, have you had any problem writing stories and making it seem like he is ever in any actual jeopardy?

Mike: That hasn’t been a problem because, as you know, as the story goes on, we’ve introduced antagonists who are operating on his power level or near his power level. But it’s more usual for us to introduce crises which simply can’t be solved by raw power, where power isn’t the point. The problem isn’t really putting him in jeopardy, the problem is putting him in the situations that really work for him and not in those that don’t. We worked out very early on that you cannot put Lucifer in a fight. You can’t have him rolling up his sleeves and getting stuck in. There is a scene coming up in issue 65 where he’s physically wounded and I think that has a lot of impact because generally speaking, he doesn’t need to do all that much. He doesn’t need to physically act very much at all. More often , he knows the absolutely perfect point where the smallest action will exert the greatest leverage and he works in that way.

So writing him is a challenge but it’s more a challenge in terms of making sure he doesn’t step across certain lines which are not always immediately clear. Have you read any of the Lovecraft stories?

John: Yeah the original ones.

Mike: Any of the August Derleth pastiches?

John: No.

Mike: Well they’re a good example of what I mean. Lovecraft writes these Elder Gods and usually does a very good job of making them act in very elder god-like ways. So even when they’re intruding onto the human plane of experience, they retain a sort of numinous and awe-inspiring element or dimension. August Derleth takes the gods of the Cthulhu mythos and has them act like Raymond Chandler gumshoes: that’s what we didn’t want to do with Lucifer. We wanted to make sure that he had that sense of standing above the ruck always and looking down from this god-like height at everything that’s going on.

John: But then there are a few moments where he does get into a spot of fisticuffs and it’s clearly so easy for him. When he goes to stay with Christopher Rudd before his duel with…

Mike: Amenadiel. (Ah-mun-add-ee-el)

John: Thank you. Just realised I’d never said that out loud. But he gets into a fight and just takes the guy’s face off and it just reminds you really not to try anything like that!

Mike: And again that issue ends with him realising that he’s been wounded in the side. I think those moments where you realise that he’s not entirely impervious or invulnerable have a certain power because of the way we’ve built him up beforehand.

John: You’ve been writing him and the series for so long now, has it really become your nine-til-five? When people ask what you do, do you say ‘I write Lucifer’?

Mike: Oh God, my working day is mad! It’s really quite sick in some ways. I’ve tried to find other ways of organising my time. We have three kids. My wife works three days a week so Monday to Wednesday I drop the kids off at school. I come home and by the time I’m sitting down at the desk it’s quarter past, half past nine and I’ve only got until three o’ clock before I go and pick them up, so a very, very narrow working day. And then once they’re home I’m making supper for them, I’m helping them with homework and doing this and that and I don’t get to sit down at the keyboard again until they’ve gone to bed which is about nine o’clock and I just have to work until whenever. It drives me crazy. I need to liberate more time without stealing time from the family. It’s a real problem at the moment.

But yeah, I guess I work nine til three and then there’s a late shift. But it’s not just Lucifer. In the last year I’ve taken on more projects than I’ve ever done in any time in my life really. I’ve been writing up to four of five comics a month and I’ve also been working on a novel and before that I was working on a movie screenplay. (laughs) So life has become very full…But I’m not complaining about it! It’s been a hell of a year.

John: So you were writing one of Vertigo’s flagship titles and then you decided to take on another one as well. How did you end up writing for Hellblazer?

Mike: They offered it to me. Will Dennis phoned me up to say that Brian Azzarello was leaving the book, that they’d been talking about possible successors and that my name had come up and he wanted to know if I was interested. And I actually said ‘no’. Even though I loved the John Constantine character and had been reading him since the series first came out, in fact since the character was introduced in Swamp Thing, the idea of writing two titles in a month struck me as ludicrous at the time. I mean how could anybody possibly do that! Which is kind of ironic considering how things turned out later. But Will wouldn’t take no for an answer. He said ‘just think about it because we don’t need an answer just yet. Brian is going to be working for another six months or so.’ So he just let the idea percolate. It was round about late November (of 2002) and he said ‘enjoy your Christmas and I’ll talk to you in the new year’. I talked myself round. I thought it would be appalling not to do this. So I just thought I’d suck it and see and wasn’t going to do it for very long. I think originally I was going to do it for six issues, or something like that. But I immediately started getting ideas for a long arc which would probably take a couple of years to tell so I ended up writing forty issues.

John: So you were bullied into it?

Mike: (laughs) Yeah, my arm was twisted!

John: First let’s just go back to how you pronounced his surname.

Mike: Oh, Constantine (Con-stan-tyne). The English pronunciation.

John: Excellent. So eventually you’d agreed to do it. When other writers had taken over the series they’d launched in with, for example, Garth Ennis had given him lung cancer and Brian Azzarello had thrown him in jail. How did you decide you wanted to approach him by taking him back to his roots and back to Liverpool?

Mike: Yeah that was it really. Although I enjoyed very much what Brian Azzarello did with the character I wanted to put the magic back in and back at the centre. I wanted not so much to re-define John but to take him back to what he’d been at the start under Jamie Delano and under Warren Ellis. Those were my favourite runs on the book. It’s noticeable that most of the supporting characters that I didn’t invent for myself I took from Warren’s run, Warren’s very short run. So I reintroduced the magic, took him back to the places that define John for me, which are both Liverpool and London. You see I’m a Scouser living in the South and John is a Scouser living in the South so to some extent I write John as me. I have him living in the places where I used to live and drinking in the places where I used to drink and so on.

There’s an issue coming up, issue #213, which is a story about John being bullied as a child. And actually many of the events and many of the people in the story are real, it was just me that it happened to.

John: So even though a lot of your stories are all about Gods and Monsters, you’re still able to draw from your own real life?

Mike: Oh all of the gods and monsters stuff happened to me as well!

John: Oh right, sorry. Should have done my research better. So are you still able to draw influences from the news or things like that?

Mike: I think you have to. If you want the gods and monsters bit to have any kind of resonance, you have to have a realistic substrate. You have to anchor the story in reality. So there was that aspect to what I wanted to do with Hellblazer. I also think that…I’ve always seen John as being at his best when he has absolutely no cards to play with. When he’s up against the wall and all he can do is bluff. Some of the best Hellblazer scenes have had him playing an empty hand really, really well. I wanted to put him in those situations. I wanted to strip away all of his supports and show the essentials of the character in extremis.

John: I think that’s really come across. But in Lucifer with all the gods and monsters it can be quite grand but you seem to have really relished writing the dialogue for John. Has writing such a human character at the centre been a good contrast to writing Lucifer?

Mike: Yeah, I think so. You know a lot of people said when I took over Hellblazer that they were the same character. They’re both arrogant sons of bitches, totally ruthless and both incredibly dry, which is true up to a point. But I think the key to John’s personality is that underneath that superficial ruthlessness and flippancy he’s actually terribly scarred by the things he’s had to do. He is someone who’ll sacrifice his friends if they happen to be the most useful tools, or the ones most ready to hand. But he can never forget what he’s done, he can’t walk away from it afterwards. He carries this awful burden and that paradox between his incredibly pragmatic approach to life and the ways it harms him in the long run is, I think, is the key to writing him.

John: But you started on, I think, issue #175 so you had all of this back story to put on to him. But you were the lucky one to be writing him when the movie finally rolled round. Did the movie coming up affect how you were working on the series at all?

Mike: It didn’t affect how we were doing the monthly at all but it did give me a great opportunity in one respect. They wanted a Hellblazer book to come out at the same time as the movie which was more or less continuity-free, and that was ‘All His Engines’. So they just gave me this massive canvas. They said ‘write a Hellblazer story, you can go over a hundred pages if you like, Leo Manco will do the art and don’t tie it too closely to anything that’s happening in the monthly book’. It’s still the real John, I mean it’s not ‘Keanu John’, it’s still the John from the comic but it had to be a book that people could pick up only having seen the movie and still understand. So the only supporting character that I brought in from the regular series was Chas. And it turned out to be a book which was largely about the John-Chas relationship which I think is a very fertile relationship to write.

John: I must admit when I was reading it that I thought this was the one where you finally going to off Chas, as so many of his friends have gone. (Mike laughs) So was that the only brief you had, a continuity-free story?

Mike: Yeah. I pitched two or three ideas and that was the one that took. It was this story where in order to defeat a demon, John has to make a dodgy alliance with a death god. It was showing the different kinds of supernatural entities in his world and how he plays them off against each other and what John does when he has absolutely no resources on his side at all. Nothing except his wits and his cunning. One of the scenes I like very much in that book is at the very end when Mercedes accuses John of playing poker with a little girl’s life and he says ‘That wasn’t poker. Poker’s a lot more subtle than that. That was chicken!’

John: There’s lots of great bits like that actually and it reads very filmically. Even though it’s in chapters, it still reads very much like one story. Did you plot it or structure it any differently knowing that people would have the next chapter instantly rather than a serial storyline?

Mike: Yeah, we did. We divided it into chapters mainly so we could get the beats and use the quotes from Milton which added a kind of resonance to some of the key events. But yes, it was just planned as one monolithic story which means that you can spread yourself. When you’ve got a hundred and five pages or whatever we eventually had, you can afford to put in spreads and splashes like Leo’s visions of Hell. Some of the spreads were absolutely gorgeous…and very unsettling. Leo’s a deeply sick individual, which is just one of the things I love about him. And also you can give all of the relationships and all of the dialogue more weight, you can just take the pace very much as you want it. It was a glorious freedom. I think I’ve become pretty adept now at writing in twenty-two page segments but having a bigger canvas certainly appeals.

John: It did certainly read differently than your serial Hellblazer as it had just enjoyed a bit more space for some sorts of scenes.

Mike: I’m actually being accused now, with ‘Down in the Ground’ the latest storyline, of writing with the trade collection I mind. They’re saying I’m spreading myself out too much, which is not something I’ve ever done. As witness, they’re having real trouble trying to work out where to put the breaks now that they’re collecting my Hellblazer run. It’s proving really hard for them to find appropriate break points. I don’t write with the trade collection in mind, I do think each issue has to stand out by itself.

John: As much as I love the serial aspect of comics, and as much as I loved picking up ‘All His Engines’ and reading it in one evening, do you still see the serial nature of the comics industry going strong?

Mike: I would hope so as it’s always been central to my pleasure in reading comics. I can remember reading Watchmen and I can remember reading Sandman and getting to the last page and thinking ‘aaaargh, it’s another four weeks before I get the next bit!’ But it was how Dickens was originally read – all the Victorian novelists used the serial format. The anticipation and the build up, the sort of orchestration of audience response is part of what it’s about.

John: So you still enjoy teasing people?

Mike: Yes, very much. But it is sad that the sales of the monthlies are going down. I don’t think we’ve reached the bottom yet but at least now we’ve reached a point where having this secondary market, this secondary audience with the trades allows books that aren’t doing particularly well in a monthly form to survive. A good example of that would be Transmetropolitan which actually had very low monthly numbers for some of its run - and Lucifer too, of course. But the trades just keep on selling and that makes the series as a whole profitable enough to continue.

John: Oh, so it’s a bit of a fine line at the moment?

Mike: Oh no. It’s not a fine line, but Vertigo titles operate on lower numbers than the DC Universe titles do. A successful DCU title could be selling on first printing a hundred ten, a hundred and twenty or a hundred and thirty thousand – for a Vertigo title you’re probably talking twenty-five or thirty thousand. So it’s important to have that additional market.

I suppose even in the trade collections, you can have the cliffhangers at the end of each chapter – but you know you’ve only got to turn the page to find out what happens, like with a regular book.

Do you watch Doctor Who at all? Do you remember how when they first did the VHS collections they took out the end credits and the overlap bits. You just watched it as one continuous story and they totally destroyed the structure of it! And they realised when they got the backlash that you just can’t do this, it was meant to be consumed in a certain way.

John: I think we’d miss the serial aspect but you did enjoy writing the bigger more filmic arc for ‘All His Engines’ and now you’re writing your own films at the moment. Can you tell us about your film projects or is it hush hush?

Mike: I can tell you a bit about it, yeah. It hasn’t gone into production yet. They’re still casting but, in theory, it’s about to happen. I was working on an animated TV series called ‘Spherics’ which starred the little blue guy and the little purple guy who were the mascots in the last World Cup. I can’t remember what their names were because their names kept changing but I ended up writing about ten or eleven episodes of this series. And the producer on this series was a guy called Alex Cox. We got quite friendly and he happened to mention to a friend of his, who was a movie director, that he was working with me. And the movie director, Andrea Vecchiato, was big Lucifer fan and so he approached me through Alex and said that it would be great if we could get something going.

There was a period of about a year when I was pitching ideas at him and nothing quite worked and then I got the idea for an erotic ghost story. A story about a guy who is sexually infatuated with the ghost of a woman and about how that relationship can be consummated and what the consequences might be. So that’s it, ‘Frost Flowers’ it’s called. I use the word erotic to avoid the word pornographic because actually the sex is extremely graphic in places. But I’m very proud of it. It’s a dark and twisted, scary story. Like Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea novels it has a particular view about how the world of the dead and the world of the living interact and interpenetrate and relate to each other, and that’s at the heart of the story. You set up the rules and then you spring the surprises – which I suppose is how I work when I’m writing Hellblazer, too.

John: Did you find that writing a film was different to writing a comic in terms of budget restraints and so on? You can’t just tell Peter Gross to draw whatever you want this time.

Mike: (laughs) That’s true. But I didn’t have to worry about that because the special effects budget is the director’s and the producer’s thing to argue about. But one of the differences that I’d already sort of encountered in television is that you relinquish control much more. When I write a comic, I write full script which means I do very, very detailed art direction. Obsessively detailed when I started, because to begin with, I was looking at Alan Moore’s scripts and using them as a model. So I was going into detail about what was written on people’s coffee mugs, the number on a bus in the background of a single panel, stuff like that. Eventually you learn what you can leave to the artist but I still keep a large measure of control. I still specify camera angles if you like, point of view, transitions and the works. Whereas when you’re writing screenplays, you don’t do that. In fact the director would usually smack you down if you tried. You just do direction for the actors, in terms of onscreen action and dialogue. It gives you a certain freedom, but in a way it feels like flying without a safety net. I feel like there are decisions that I should be making that I’m not. But it’s easier because you don’t actually have to get into the nitty-gritty of what is the camera actually showing us here, what angle are we on and how close are we to the characters. It’s actually a fairly effortless process and it just feels a bit weird after the control-freak thing of writing a comic.

But having said that, not every comics writer is a control freak. There is this other way, which used to be called the Marvel way, where you just write a plot summary and the artist draws and presents you with finished art and you add dialogue to this finished art. I couldn’t, could not possibly do that! I remember reading these Chris Claremont X-men issues where there would be these massive dialogue balloons covering most of the action and then there would be these three really sparse pages with nothing much happening and I think that’s a consequence of writing in that particular way. The artist doesn’t always pace the beats where the writer would necessarily want the beats to be placed.

Working with someone like Peter, who I’ve now been working with for something like six or seven years, eventually you get a really beautiful organic thing going on where I’ll say ‘In this scene, this is how I see this scene going but feel free to play around’. An example would be when we do Rudd’s flashback story in ‘A Dalliance with the Damned’ and we find out why Rudd went to Hell. I wrote that as a sequence of three pretty ordinary pages, perhaps slightly overpacked with seven panels on a page or something like that. Peter turned them into three pages of five by five, twenty-five panel grids and was able to keep repeating certain visual motifs. Like the handkerchief that Rudd’s wife is sewing that he later sees in the hands of the other man which makes him click that his wife is having an affair with this other man. We see it four or five times which is great because we see how obsessive Rudd is over these events. After being in Hell for four hundred years, he’s still reliving them all the time. It’s a beautiful scene and the pacing of that was entirely Peter. That was him taking something I’d done and turning it into something much better.

John: And that’s just something that’s built up after working with each other for so long, trusting each other?

Mike: Exactly. He’ll email me while he’s working on a story and he’ll say can we do this or do that and I’ll usually say yes because he’s been a writer as well as an artist so he comes to the table with all sorts of ideas for story and character.

John: So…there’s Lucifer, you’re currently adapting Neverwhere to a comic book and you’ve done the Sandman Presents Petrefax and The Furies. Neil Gaiman. Discuss.

Mike: (laughs) I’ve got nothing for Neil except praise and gratitude. He’s been the most generous and thoughtful of collaborators – if I can call myself a collaborator. When I was working on the original Lucifer stories, the original mini, he took the time to have several long telephone conversations with me about the Lucifer-Mazikeen relationship and things that I was proposing to do and how they might play out. We developed a sort of very cordial relationship there. He’s always given a lot of freedom and on the Lucifer monthly, he’s always backed me in everything that I’ve done. Increasingly he’s taken more of a back seat as he trusts my instinct. The only time that he watches me closely now is when I’m writing the Endless. So if I have Death, Delirium or Destiny making a cameo then he’ll check the dialogue. Which is only to be expected.

I pitched a whole load of Sandman Presents minis at various times and he’s always been prepared to chat either by email or phone and to help me brainstorm ideas. When I finally got to meet him at a San Diego convention he was incredibly cool. It would be possible for him to be possessive about the Universe he’s created and you could understand it perfectly, but he’s not! He’s always given me room to do what I wanted to do and at the same time, given me guidance whenever I needed it. Great, great guy!

John: So far then, is there anything that you feel that you’ve absolutely nailed, that’s your favourite that you’ve written or are very proud of?

Mike: I have a couple of favourites. I’m very proud of My Faith in Frankie because I’d never done comedy before and I think it came out pretty well. It’s probably one of the most offbeat ideas that I’ve ever pitched but it was also the easiest sell I’ve ever had. I only sent off a one page summary and it was accepted right there and then. That’s not my usual experience. And I think the artists on Frankie were a perfect team. Originally Sonny was going to do inks as well but then Shelly Bond had the brilliant idea of bringing Marc Hempel in on the inks and on the covers. I just think that the finished package was something that I was one hundred percent happy with. What else? There’s another story that I’m doing with the same team called ‘Re-gifters’ that’s coming out next ear and I’m really, really happy with that. It’s a martial arts Rom-Com.

John: Did you just have to write that as a selling document?

Mike: Ha. It’s about a Korean-American girl. It’s strange, I just had this idea of a girl in a martial arts tournament who falls in love with the guy she’s got to beat. There’s a sub-plot, which gives the book its title, about a gift that one character gives to another who then gives it to a third character. And it goes around all of the characters and in the end it comes back at a crucial moment to the girl, our protagonist, who originally gave it as a gift. When I pitched it, I needed to give her a background so I said she was Korean, a second-generation immigrant living in Los Angeles. I started doing the research for it and discovered that sometimes you just pitch your tent in a place where everything you need is right there. There turned out to be this fantastic story to be told. The Korean community in Los Angeles, they live in neighborhoods where there are large black and Hispanic communities - in some of the most deprived areas of the city. They’re a very aspirational group, really into self-improvement and getting yourself up and out. But then in the Rodney King riots, many of them lost everything. Their premises were burned. They’re corner shops were burnt to the ground and they weren’t even carrying insurance because of the areas where they were living. So from being aspirational, they just became dirt poor. Just thrown right down to the bottom of the heap again and that’s the kind of background that we included in the story.

And also, I discovered when I started researching it seriously, how Hapkido plays a very important part in Korean culture because under the Japanese occupation they weren’t allowed to practice martial arts. So it’s an area of expression that was once denied to them and it’s sort of become a badge of identity. This girl’s family are incredibly supportive of her competing in this tournament and in a way she unwittingly becomes a champion of her community. She’s not just fighting for herself because there’s all these expectations riding on her which are making her life harder. So I think that’s going to be really, really good. I’ve seen most of the art for that now and it’s got me clicking my heels. We’re not doing it in monthly form we’re doing it straight into the smaller digest form, and it really lends itself to that approach.

Other favourites… I was quite pleased with the way my Ultimate Fantastic Four arc went. I was happy because I felt like I’d really nailed the characters. I felt like I’d really got a handle on who they were and how they would talk and act.

John: So as your massive runs on Hellblazer and Lucifer build up to their final push, obviously after a break, what do you see yourself doing afterwards? What’s the next big thing?

Mike: I have got a monthly pitch in with Vertigo, which looks like it may very well happen. It’s fantasy again but it’s fantasy of a different kind. It has the same mix of elements as Lucifer but it’s more folkloric in feel rather than epic mythical. And there is the possibility of doing a series for Marvel involving a classic Marvel character, who I’d quite like to take in a new and slightly odd direction. Apart from that all the pitches that I have in are mini-series and one-offs of various kinds. I’m doing another book with John Bolton, a Sandman Presents hardcover called ‘God Save the Queen’ which uses most of the Faerie characters. I’m doing a Vampirella arc, which is a hell of a lot of fun to do, and I may be doing some work for a Canadian publisher, Speakeasy. But again it’s all six-parters and eight parters. The Vampirella was a three parter. It is nice to work on smaller and self-contained things. But on the other hand it’s going to be odd, it’s going to be very odd, not having Lucifer to write.

John: Are you now in a position to be a bit more experimental if you like?

Mike: I think so. And certainly if the Castor novels take off I will be doing less comic work and will only have time to do the things that I can get passionate about and not just take stuff on automatically. When you start off as a freelancer you say ‘yes’ to everything. You say ‘yes’ and ask questions later (laughs) and that’s how I ended up doing the Pantera book!

John: With the Castor novels, why did you decide to write this idea a series of books rather than a feature film or comic books?

Mike: It was something I’d always wanted to do. Back when I was starting out as a writer, I used to write these massive tomes that had no structure at all. Writing comics has been excellent discipline in terms of placing narrative beats, developing character and so on. I reckoned I was about ready to take on some serious prose again and I had this terrific idea that seemed to open out in a lot of different directions. So I pitched it to Orbit and they signed me up for a three-book contract. But I think there are a lot more stories in Castor’s world so I’m hoping to be working on this series for some time to come.

John: How does writing Felix Castor himself compare to writing your other characters?

Mike: He’s probably most similar to John Constantine in that he carries a great deal of guilt around with him but never lets it get in the way of the job. He’s also like Constantine in that he’s a Scouser living in London – but that’s not me stealing ideas from Hellblazer. It’s actually me borrowing from my own life again. Ultimately Castor is a character who's gotten a lot of things wrong in his life, and then unexpectedly gets an opportunity to put some of them right again - but as is the way with deals like that, the price turns out to be higher than he expected. You don't buy redemption cheap. I think he's also a character who at least when we first meet him is trying hard not to face up to some of the more disturbing implications of what he does - but then is made to do exactly that in the course of the story.

John: What new avenues is the world you've created for the Castor series allowing you to explore?

Mike: There's a lot in there about the big issues that continue to bug me - issues of life, death and faith. What I used to love about H.P.Lovecraft's stories was that they were often a kind of metaphysical horror in which the "monster" was an idea rather than anything you could actually see or touch. In Castor, likewise, the scariest things ultimately are the explanations for what's happening and why it's happening.

John: You've described Castor as a classic 'gumshoe' character. What else has influenced your novel writing?

Mike: That's quite hard to say, really. I suppose the biggest influence on my early prose stuff was Ursula LeGuin, and I still love her rigorous humanist sensibility. More recently I've been blown away by Garth Nix (the Abhorsen books - not Keys of the Kingdom) and China Mieville. Mieville in particular has made me re-assess, as great genre writers do, what's possible within a horror/fantasy context. Some of that is bound to seep through into Castor, because it's been on my mind so much, but I'd be surprised if it showed itself in any stylistic borrowing.

John: How long has it been since you were last writing prose and how has writing comic books in between affected how you're writing them?

Mike: I think writing for comics forces you to wrestle with structure in a very intimate and explicit way. A monthly comic book has 22 pages, and in most cases that's absolutely inflexible. Obviously you can combine individual issues into longer arc stories, but even when you do you've got to make each single monthly instalment stand on its own feet and make its own impact. So you learn a lot about pacing, because you're always thinking about it and you're always involved in trade-offs to make sure that the final beat in each issue falls where you need it to. With something like Lucifer, which I've been writing now for six years, there's a combination of short-term and long-term plotting going on all the time, and I think it's been a really valuable experience for me having to develop that kind of double vision.

John: And so finally Mike, have you actually yet seen the ‘Constantine’ movie?

Mike: I have, yes.

John: And what were your thoughts?

Mike: I enjoyed it. It’s a fun, mainstream, Hollywood movie. It’s not Hellblazer, it’s not the film of the book and Keanu is not John Constantine. Notice I call him Constan-teen there because I’m talking about the movie. The film, in itself, I enjoyed. I think it did a lot of things right. The way they envisioned Hell I thought was really good, a really good visual dynamic for Hell. And a lot of the ‘business’ works. The way John gets his audience with Lucifer at the end works nicely. What annoyed me was that it seemed to me that the director and the producer were somewhat cavalier with the source material. I know in a way they’ve got to do that. They’ve got to move away from the source material because what works in a monthly comic book is not necessarily going to work in a two-hour movie. You’ve got forty thousand pages of Hellblazer and you’ve somehow got to distill that into a hundred or so minutes of screen action so you’ve got to be ruthless.

But it annoyed me that they started from a position of disrespect in some ways towards the source material. So you get Lorenzo di-Bonaventura saying ‘comic books work in a very black and white way. Who’s good and who’s bad. Who stands for what and why do they stand for it’. And the director, what’s he called? Francis Lawrence? He said at one point in an interview that ‘although this movie has its origins in a comic book, I didn’t want it to have a comic book feel. I wanted it to be grounded in reality’. So you get all these judgements about how comics work. That comics have black and white morality, and that comics are stylised and unreal. And actually if you look at the movie and you look at the comic, the movie shows a John Constan-tyne or Constan-teen whose motivation could be summed up, and probably was summed up, in the initial pitch in a single sentence. “Because he succeeded in killing himself he is damned to Hell, so he’s trying trying to redeem himself by fighting these battles against demons.” Now look at the John that we know from the last eighteen years of Hellblazer continuity. You can’t sum up why he does what he does. There are any number of reasons why he does what he does. Okay on one level, he’s trying to do good and he does have altruistic instincts. But on another level, he does it for fun because he’s an addict, he’s a magic junkie and he enjoys the high it gives him. And then there’s all this network of responsibilities and guilt and some things he does as favours to friends and so on. He’s a difficult character to pin down. I think ultimately, he’s an impossible character to pin down and that’s what makes him satisfying! I didn’t mind the movie at all. I really enjoyed the movie as an experience but I don’t think they should diss the book.

John: And then I gave him a copy of Constantine for his very own...

Mike Carey can be found at

This article first appeared in Matrix 176. Back issues of Matrix are available from