In Depth With Mike Carey: Marvel, Vertigo & More

Everybody loves Mike Carey. No, that's not a Ray Romano helmed spin off, nor is it the hyperbole it may seem to be on first glance: there's simply nary a bad word to be said about the British scribe. Ask around and you'll discover that's the truth. On a personal level he's a gracious, patient and modest man, who'll happily engage fans at conventions and lend a helping hand when needed. Professionally, beginning with his work on DC Comics/Vertigo's "Lucifer" series, and his more recent efforts on "My Faith In Frankie" and the Marvel Comics series "Ultimate Fantastic Four," Carey is scoring homeruns with fans and critics. CBR News spoke with Carey, from his home outside London, England, where he was able to pull away from the keyboard for an extended and honest discussion about the projects he's working on.

We're going to start off by talking about your work at Marvel Comics, because we're seeing a lot more superhero work from you at Marvel than at DC. Start off by telling us how your relationship with Marvel got started.

I think you'd have to go back to San Diego 2003. I bumped into some of the Marvel editors, not at the actual convention, but at the bar, and basically I was hearing from a couple of guys that, "If when your current deal with DC is finished, you decide not to renew, then give us a call and we'll talk about what you can do over here." And that's what I did. I love working for DC, particularly love working for Vertigo, and I felt and still feel very strongly about that, but I think in one particular way I was in a hole back then. The problem I was facing was that I had - well I'd like to think I had - a good reputation, but it was for a fairly narrow body of work. I was becoming increasingly identified with horror/fantasy stories. It seems stupid to say that as though it's a big problem, because the books I was writing were ones that were giving me a huge amount of pleasure and fulfillment, but at the same time I wanted and felt I needed to do more mainstream stuff. This was partly to avoid the kind of type-casting that can lead to unemployment further down the line, but also I had an actual hankering to take a shot at superhero books. The trouble was that I had no credentials in that field, so it seemed like taking up that offer at Marvel would be a good way to prove that I could so superhero stuff, to dip at least a toe into the mainstream, without giving up the stuff I was doing at Vertigo. In April 2004, when my DC exclusive finished, I let it lapse and talked to the Marvel guys, and the rest has been, well, as you know… I did "Ultimate Elektra," "Spellbinders" and more recently I've been let off the leash with the "Ultimate Fantastic Four and Ultimate X-Men." And I'm having the time of my life, so I guess on the current evidence at least, that was the right move for me to make.

So creatively, what opportunities does Marvel have that DC doesn't have for you right now?

I don't want to put it in those terms, because it's not like Marvel vs DC. It's just that my DC identity was attached to a particular kind of area, a particular kind of material, and then Marvel offered me the chance to expand into a very different area… we've talked superheroes before, haven't we? You know that they occupy a place in my heart because I learned to read from comics and I sort of grew up with the Marvel superhero books and the DC superhero books of the sixties and seventies and I still read superhero books. I think of superhero comics as a genre that is done better in comics than anywhere else: it's a genre that was cultivated first in comics. So, I guess I was looking for an opportunity to play with those kinds of stories. And my God, Marvel has given me that opportunity to a spectacular extent. So, right now I'm in a wonderful position where I can do horror-fantasy books and maybe some other more personal projects at Vertigo and write superhero books for Marvel.

Looking at what you're doing right now, the next big project you have at Marvel is the "Ultimate X-Men/Ultimate Fantastic Four" crossover. What are the origins of this project?

Basically, I was invited to pitch by Ralph Macchio and John Barber, so I thought about what I could do with a wide-open scenario like that. I really wanted to revisit the character of Rhona Burchill, the Mad Thinker, and I really, once I got thinking about it, wanted to play with the natural tensions between certain characters. It seemed really logical that the Human Torch and Iceman should meet, because they have these elemental powers that are similar and opposite. The idea of a fight between Wolverine & The Thing, and then Kitty Pryde and Invisible Girl, who both have stealth powers, seemed logical to me. I just cherry picked and put together the characters who would best bounce off each other and went from there.

Looking historically at the crossovers that the Ultimate universe has showcased, they've only let some of their bigger names like Warren Ellis or Brian Bendis and now Damon Lindelof really participate in this kind of event. What does it feel like to be part of that elite fraternity?

It feels like someone made a mistake in a memo somewhere, but as long as they don't notice, I'm going to carry on having fun.

So they really meant Mark Millar?

(laughs) We have similar accents, so they get confused. (laughs)

Going back to "Ultimate Fantastic Four," it seems like one of your best received stories and, considering the mixed reviews of the series previous to that, you got almost universally phenomenal reviews from critics. What do you think it is about the Fantastic Four, or at least the Ultimate team, that works with your sensibilities?

Um, that's a really tough question to answer. If you look at the last year and a half, I've written every flavor of Fantastic Four. I've written the Ultimate Fanastic Four, I've written alternate FF in the "What If" story I'm doing now, where Reed Richards is a cosmonaut and has a different combination of team-mates. I've written the original team now in the Christmas Special, and the movie version of the FF in the comic book adaptation. It's looking like a minor addiction, isn't it? I love the Fantastic Four because I think they were the first superheroes I read, way back in the sixties, and there was something about that book, when Lee & Kirby were the creative team, that was really special. Reading it was like opening a doorway to the secrets of the universe. Nothing was impossible. It had an incredible vibe that no other book had and I still think that those characters can touch so many different bases. It's a superhero book, a sci-fi book and it's family drama, because even though the only family relationship was that Sue and Johnny were brother and sister, they all were really family, so they work on that level: the dynamic between them is fantastic - just loaded with possibilities.

So what did you think of the "Fantastic Four" movie? With this kind of love for the characters, I'd imagine you'd be one of the harshest critics.

(laughs) I have to say no, I haven't seen it. It's out here on DVD and I'm going to get it any day now, but I haven't yet. I read the screenplay of course.

What did you think of the screenplay?

I liked it. I thought- I'll tell you what was interesting, working on that "Fantastic Four" adaptation: at the same time, I was working on "Neverwhere" and in one case I was working from movie into comic, and in the other case, I was working from novel into comic. And watching "Constantine" while writing "Hellblazer," it all made me think a lot about how difficult it is to transfer stories from one medium to another. It's like that old proverb about fitting a quart into a pint box. Comics continuity is designed to go on over a long period of time, but movies have to hit you hard and hit you fast, so if you're taking a comic like "Hellblazer" or "Fantastic Four," and turning it into a movie, you inevitably have to try to define what is the essence of the comic and decant it in a different form. I think both "Constantine" and "Fantastic Four" did a good job of that, though many people who loved the comic didn't like the movie in the U.K, because there were things that were essential to their experience of the comic that they felt were not properly represented in the movie. It's always an act of translation and it's not going to satisfy everybody.

Now, for us uneducated Americans (and Canadians), is it "Constantyne" or "Constanteen?"

Every English comic book fan calls it John "Constantyne" and every American calls it "Constanteen." But then again, you say "tomayto." Maybe we should stop pretending we speak the same language and just communicate with each other by nodding and pointing…

While we're on the subject, what did you think of the "Constantine" movie?

I thought they did a damn good job. Maybe a few of the casting decisions were [long pause]


[laughs] Yeah, interesting. Some of them were inspired. Tilda Swinton as Gabriel was great and Peter Stormare, the guy playing Satan, the devil, was superb. I think Keanu did a good job, it's just that he obviously wasn't the John of the comic books and he wasn't really set up to be the John of the comic books. They did the dynamic of heaven and hell very effectively, and I think they built up to a very nice climax with John seeming to be redeemed and saved, and then everything falling apart. That's a very typical "Hellblazer" ending actually.

Agreed. Getting back to the Marvel stuff, you're known for bucking the trend and not bringing out the clichés and old tropes of genres, so should we assume that when the Ultimate FF and X-Men meet, it's not going to be your typical heroes meet and fight because of a misunderstanding?

[laughs] There is a fight, but it's kind of a setup and in a way we do what is obvious and expected, but it's been set up in a specific way. You know Popeye? In the Popeye comic books, there was a character called Wimpy and one of his catch phrases was, "Let's you and him fight." The Mad Thinker has set up a situation where the Fantastic Four and X-Men have to fight, and she's done it very deliberately, very carefully, not because she expects anything particular to come out of it, but she needs time to do something else and this is a diversion that she's created for a specific purpose. So we do have that kind of beat in there, but what we were more interested in was looking at how the characters interact once they're past the misunderstanding and the punch up. How would those characters get on with each other? Where would the tension be? Who would hit it off? Who would continue to hate and mistrust each other after the fight was done? We had a lot of fun answering those questions.

Part of that "we" is Pasqual Ferry. What was it like working with him?

It was stupendous: what an artist! The way he does the action scenes is tremendous and the character pieces as well. There are so many places where he took a hint from the script and created something beautiful on the page. It was pure joy.

Now Grant Morrison isn't mad for stealing him from "Seven Soldiers," is he?

I hope not. I haven't spoken to Grant in a long while, but if he is [mad], could you, like, make up some story that it was someone else's fault? [laughs] Say it was a drive-by thing. They just kidnapped him off the street. I was an innocent bystander. Something like that.

Looking at your other projects at Marvel, what can we expect? More "Spellbinders" or "Ultimate" work?

A "Spellbinders" sequel would be great. As you know, it didn't sell wonderfully as a comic book, but the sales on the digest collections have been strong, so that's possible and something both I & Mike Perkins would love to do. I'm talking to the editors on the Ultimate side about some projects and I'm currently pitching a monthly book, which looks like it will happen. Not a new monthly book, but taking over a monthly book, and I'm hugely excited about that because this is a book I've had my eye on for a while and would dearly love to get my hands on. In fact, without saying too much before it's a done deal, you can expect a pretty amazing announcement there.

If not for that book, which other Marvel property would you like to work on and why?

Again, tough question, because that's a lot of choice and there's a lot of things that get me hot, from a creative point of view. I'd like to work with Doctor Strange. He's a cool character, with a lot of potential and, I don't know if you noticed, but the way we did magic in "Spellbinders," when we used the spell circles, it was a trope we stole from Ditko. You know, the way that the magical battles that Doctor Strange fought were always so incredibly visual. It was always shields and bolts and spheres and spears of force, smashing around on the page.

Well, if you're going to steal, he's not a bad person to steal from.

Well, yeah! [laughs] I wanted to move away from the idea of magic as something cerebral and intellectual and into something like fireworks, so I'd love to get my hands on Strange. I love the X-Franchise and get most of the monthly books, so it'd be fun to be part of that. "Fantastic Four" is still the world's greatest comic book, so it'd be fun to revisit those characters again. I got a little taste of that in the Christmas Special with Mike Perkins. It was a real blast to do. A pure delight.

Now if you had to recommend one Marvel superhero book to people, what would it be?

I've been enjoying the X-Men books: Joss Whedon's X-Men, Peter Milligan's X-Men, Chris Claremont's X-Men, all, in their different ways, great reads.

So I take it you're interested in the new direction after "House Of M?"

Yes, it's fascinating. They're really finding interesting, arresting and disturbing directions to come at that story from. There's a moment in "The Day After" book, were you see the Blob after he's lost his powers and his skin is hanging on him like a tent, which is a real powerful visual. Stuff like that, there's so many great beats in that story. And "Son of M" is shaping up to be excellent, too.

Moving away from Marvel for a sec, you've got a new Vertigo book with artist Jock. Tell us about that.

Happy to. It's called "Faker" and it's a six-issue mini-series. What I've been saying about it is that it's like a book which exists at the point where psychological horror and teen gross out comedy meet. It's very difficult to be too specific without spoiling things, but it takes place at an imaginary university in Minnesota, following a small group of characters. They're in their second semester, first year students, and the title "Faker" applies to each of them in a different way. They're all characters who are either deceiving themselves or deceiving others. They're all putting up a front and are not entirely sincere in their relationships or their attitudes. They have a wild party and then the next morning, they awaken - having done drugs, drunk a hell of a lot - in a weird state of mind. And things start to go haywire for them in a number of unsettling ways. There's one character in particular, Nick Philo, who suddenly finds that nobody apart from this small group of friends has any memories of him. There's no record that he ever existed, and the harder he tries to prove that he's who he says he is, the more his life unravels and comes apart. So, there's obviously something going on around and above what we've seen. And then we play out the widening implications of this weird situation for the five of them. I think it's very different from anything I've done before - and for Jock, similarly, a big new departure.

The last major mini-series you did with Vertigo was "My Faith In Frankie," which we've mentioned as receiving a phenomenal response from readers and critics. While this isn't the same as "Frankie," is there pressure to make "Faker" just as popular in the minds of readers?

Um, yeah I guess there's a benchmark you aim for and you're right, this is very different, very different in flavor. In a way, this is a more "classic" kind of Vertigo book, in that one of the main strands of it is horror. It's less of leap than "Frankie," but it's a different kind of horror than I've done before and, in some ways, the inspirations didn't spin out of any horror texts. It's about character: a lot of horror is situational and this is about character. It's about the extent to which you have to lie to live and get on with your life, the tiny deceptions and tiny insincerities which are at the heart of social existence.

So really, with all your work, you're just trying to depress us, right?

[laughs] "Frankie" wasn't depressing. This isn't depressing either. I like to go into dark places but….

You write a book about a man addicted to magic, smoking and destroying his life. You write a book about Satan as a hero. Now you write a book about horrible people rationalizing being horrible. Come on Mike Carey, what's wrong with you? Who are you mad at? Who bullied you as a kid?

[laughs] I need to lighten up. As for who bullied me as a kid…have you read "Hellblazer" #213? That'll tell you who bullied me as a kid. My past in a nutshell.

So Jock is on the book…how'd that happen, besides you both being stuck on the same island?

It was an accident of timing, but I couldn't be happier. We reached that point in the development process where we were discussing artists and Shelly [Bond, editor] said that Jock was finishing up on "Losers" and we could maybe try to nab him in 2-3 months when he finishes, since it'll be a change of pace for him. I believe he did actually have another project he was considering and we sent him the stuff on 'Faker," which he liked a lot, so he said he'd do it. I'd already worked with him on "Hellblazer" and not only is he an incredibly gifted artist, but he has to be one of the nicest guys in comics. Very genuine and very honest. I'll tell you how nice Jock is: when he said he would do "Faker," I said "this time I'm going to buy a page from you, before you sell them all" and he wrote back to me and said "I actually have a page left from the 'Hellblazer' issue" and I said "I'd love to buy it." Then there was the Brighton convention and he just brought it along and gave it to me. He is such a great guy.

Does that make you feel bad about the kind of guy you are?

I guess so. I wish I was less cynical and less of a bastard. But it's so hard to change… [laughs]

You've said that the idea for "Faker" originated with Shelly at Vertigo, but would you ever consider a book with Marvel's Icon imprint?

Oh certainly. But I would never want to lose contact with Vertigo or jeopardize my relationship with Vertigo, because of more reasons than I can possibly list. Vertigo gave me my start, and working with editors of the caliber of Shelly Bond and Alisa Kwitney means you inevitably learn a lot about storytelling and a lot about your own strengths and weaknesses as a writer. The work I've done at Vertigo has been immensely rewarding and I love the way they have of working over there. They're very supportive.

Are there any more Vertigo projects coming up that you might be able to tell us about or hint at?

The monthly book. The ink is still wet on the contract. Again, it's very different from anything I've done before and I can't say anything about it, but I'm psyched. I'll be working with a new editor and I'll be working to some extent in a new genre - or rather, a new conjunction of genres - and it's going to be great fun. I've got another few pitches in at Vertigo, too, but they're all in the early stages.

Any more hardcovers?

Yes, there's one I'm working on with John Bolton. It will be a hardcover OGN under the "Sandman Presents" banner, hopefully coming out in 2006.

Speaking of "Sandman," you seem to be the only one, recently, who's had major success with the "Sandman Presents" banner, as "Lucifer" has found a solid audience, steady sales and all that. Why do you think you're succeeding?

I don't know. But "The Dreaming" did well and lasted 60 issues, so let's not forget that. I think for me, "Sandman" was a huge inspiration because the things that Neil [Gaiman] was doing with the form resonated with me and were things no one else was doing at the time. I loved the fact that "Sandman" had long arcs then one offs, with the one offs often having fuck all to do with the main character: he would spin off in any direction he wanted to, creating these wonderful little stories that were terrifying, fantastic, hilarious - whatever mood he wanted to go for. It was that structural innovation in "Sandman," more than anything, that hit me where I lived. I don't know why spin-offs from "Sandman" have proved problematic: maybe it's always problematic trying to expand a franchise associated with one writer and that writer's sensibilities.

Sort of like the "Buffy" and "Angel" kind of thing?

Yeah, very much. Can you imagine someone other than Whedon being at the helm of "Buffy?" It would be a huge risk, even if it worked.

You mention "Sandman" as inspiration, but is there anything in comics right now that inspires you that way?

Well, I've been reading a lot of Japanese stuff and there's a guy name Junji Ito. He did "Uzimaki" and "Gyo," and that is spectacular horror. As with "Sandman," one of the reasons it's surprising and exciting is that it doesn't work like traditional horror does on a structural level. Have you read them?

I'll admit, I'm not a big horror fan, in any medium, but from what I've read of "Gyo," I'm impressed with the storytelling and technical aspects.

I'll tell you what impresses me. He'll create an idea, like in "Tomi," with the girl who is reborn and in "Uzimaki," with the spiral as the monster, and then instead of creating, like, one set of core characters, and spinning out a story based on that idea, what he does instead is he creates a kind of anthology of mini-stories each of which takes one strand of that idea and develops it. It's like watching fireworks go off: here's a thing, here's a thing, here's a thing! It keeps hitting you harder and harder. In "Uzimaki," the spiral is the monster in each story and the thing that comes in to destroy you is always related to that, but you don't know how it's going to enter and affect the lives of the characters. He sets up rules and then he surprises you.

One of the main criticisms of the North American comic book industry, especially when put it up against the Japanese industry, is that there's a lack of diversity in the product coming out over here, which mostly seems to be men in tights. Why do you feel that there hasn't been a conscious move, if that's your belief, by American publishers to diversify their comics? Or has there been, and are we all too stuck in our cynicism?

Wow…hmm. There have been attempts, haven't there? They've met with varied success. Look at the science fiction imprint that DC had 15 years ago, Helix. It never got a chance, I think, to show what it could have been, but it gave us "Transmetropolitan," which became a Vertigo book and ran to a considerable length, with Warren [Ellis] completing his story and doing great things with it. Once in a while from Vertigo we'll see a romance story, they're doing a western now and you'll see a lot of crime stuff as well.

I seem to remember a romance book called "My Faith In Frankie."

[laughs] Heartwarming book. Everyone should buy it. [laughs] I think that there's always going to be an element of assumptions, expectations…every single society uses its mass media for different things and chooses specific media to explore specific kinds of material. Like in Norway, they're really big on adventure books and they can't get the hang of superheroes. They're the only country in Europe still originating "Phantom" material. They'll barely buy DC and Marvel superhero books, but they buy Vertigo and they're crazy about funny animals. Karl Barks is a national hero there. I think it's just the case of reading your demographic and analyzing what they expect as your starting point. Not letting it dictate what you do, but guiding you as a way of initial approach.

I think the diversity is there, but there's also diversity in distribution, so perhaps using Diamond sales as our only gauge for popularity isn't so accurate.

Anything else you want to talk about comic book wise? Any announcements? Did you want to start a feud? C'mon, let's start a Grant Morrison vs Mike Carey feud, for the heart and soul of Pasqual Ferry!

[laughs] No, not right now.

Please check with CBR News tomorrow for more with Mike Carey as he discusses his plans for books, movies and much more.

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