When you think of a story where the devil himself, Lucifer, and his brother, the angel Michael, conspire to uncover the truth of god while recruiting various demons and mythological characters, the word "conventional" doesn't come to mind.
Then again, "Lucifer" writer Mike Carey doesn't like being easily defined.
The British author's work on DC Comics/Vertigo's "Lucifer" has drawn rave reviews, steady sales and Carey himself a job on one of the most anticipated DC Comics re-launches (though things have changed, as Carey will reveal later in the interview). It's definitely a series that is fair to term as eclectic and complex, but Mike Carey managed to make it all sound straightforward when talking with CBR News.
"It's the story of the Devil's adventures after his formal retirement as lord of Hell," explains Carey. "We've been at this for three years now, I guess, or four if you count in the original miniseries that launched the whole thing.
"The main character is of course Lucifer himself, who's a cold-hearted, arrogant, self-obsessed son of a bitch with a certain sense of style. Then you've got Mazikeen, a female demon who followed him out of Hell and is still hanging around him, helping out when she can because she's basically in love with him. And his brother, Michael, with whom he has an intense but hard-to-define relationship based on a certain amount of mutual respect and an absolute failure to understand each other's world view. But over the series we've developed a huge cast of supporting characters, and it would be hard to list them all here. My favourites are Jill Presto, a failed cabaret star who became the host for a living Tarot deck and is currently an incubator for its unborn offspring, and a foul-mouthed little imp named Gaudium who's actually a fallen cherub but who talks like a New York cab driver. Oh, and Elaine Belloc, a twelve-year-old girl who turns out to be the archangel Michael's daughter.
"As for the themes, I think the main one is the clash between freewill and predestination. Lucifer is someone who has spent most of the lifespan of the universe so far trying to escape from his place in God's plan and define his own destiny - which, in the Judaeo-Christian scheme of things, is impossible, because everything he can possibly do to rebel has already been foreseen and taken into account. In fact, everything he does is already part of the plan. In a way this is a kind of metaphor for the relationship that every child has with every parent: because we all reach a point where we're trying to be the authors of our own lives instead of playing out a role that's been handed to us and defined for us. That's probably what makes it so easy to identify with Lucifer in spite of the appalling things we see him do."
Character growth and real consequences are a big attraction for fans of "Lucifer" and this is an area in which Carey loves delivering. The characters in "Lucifer" have grown considerably since the beginning of the series and the tricky part has been keeping some of them true to their original, Neil Gaiman personalities. "Well, where I've taken on characters who Neil created in 'The Sandman,' I've tried very hard to stay faithful to the way he originally portrayed the characters and to develop them along lines that are consistent with what we'd already seen. Having said that, Lucifer himself has changed in some ways from Neil's original version - most obviously in his voice. That wasn't planned, it just happened as I got more comfortable and more confident in writing the character. I kept the crudeness and irreverence that Neil had made the keynote in 'Season of Mists,' but I added in a sort of patrician contempt and coldness that's an undertone in a lot of his dialogue with people and beings he has no time for. Which is most of us.
"Mazikeen was very difficult to get a handle on at first, because she's a being of immense power and immense strength of character who - initially - is almost totally passive in her relationship with Lucifer. There's no balance of power, there's just a surrender of her will to his. I wasn't happy about that, so I deliberately put her in a situation where that relationship would have to move onto a new footing, and where she'd be forced to assert herself in a way that wouldn't just be a reversal of the personality she'd shown up to that point.
"Elaine was inspired by my daughter, Louise. Lou is a couple of years younger, but she's got a lot of the same traits - the terrible earnestness, and the transparent emotions, and the romanticism, which I guess go with the territory when you're ten.
"Gaudium arose out of a deliberate attempt to drop an inappropriate and grotesque character into the mix. I wasn't thinking primarily in terms of comic relief, because I think comedy has to arise naturally out of the situation or it's not worth having, but I thought there'd be a lot to be gained from having this totally cynical, anti-epic sort of guy walking through the midst of all the epic goings-on. It seems to have worked very well."
Something that hasn't changed about "Lucifer" are Carey's goals and the writer explains that the stories you see now are the ones he's been building to since the beginning. "I guess the main thing was just that I wanted to use the full width of the canvas," admits Carey. "You can't have a character like Lucifer and put him into piddling little stories: it's got to be huge, with unimaginably high stakes. I wanted to do an epic - and I wanted to do a book where, looking back from the end, you could see how the whole thing was basically one story divided up into chapters with different titles. That's been the aim all the way through, and it still is."
Fans of "Lucifer" are aware that the series is a finite one in Carey's mind and the writer says the series is about half way done. He also says that something big will happenï¿½ that'll totally destroy any theories people have about how the series will conclude. "Hmm... the snag in answering this question is that something momentous is about to happen, in #40, which will obviously change the direction in which the series is going. I think everyone can see at the moment how we're building to a rematch in the only contest that really matters in the Lucifer universe - which is the contest between Lucifer and God. But it's equally obvious that this isn't a contest that's going to be settled by two armies fighting, or two individuals fighting. There has to be a whole lot more to it than that - and with #40 some of those other factors start to become clear.
"The relationship between Lucifer and Michael is going to come more into the central focus, and so is the relationship between Lucifer and the rest of the Host of Heaven. We've also got unresolved plot lines in Hell, with Christopher Rudd and Remiel and Duma, which are going to be twined back in again.
"The end is going to be, in some ways, a replay of Lucifer's original rebellion, and the issue of his free will, his ability to define himself by his own actions, is going to be finally resolved. But it's not going to be, for example, the duel scene from #32 with a bigger set-up. In the final conflict, every character who's been introduced in the series so far, and some others still to be introduced, are going to play a part. And nothing that matters is going to be left hanging, or left ambiguous."
"I guess we're exactly on that cusp of the half way point now - or as near as damn it. With thirty-seven issues out, we're either on or just past the halfway mark. I'm imagining that the series will wrap up somewhere between #60 and #75. It would be nice to go to #75, just for the symbolic significance of that number, but I'm not going to pad the story out if I reach the conclusion before then. After that I want to just walk away clean. It's not like the story will be over, exactly: but it will have reached a logical and (I hope) satisfying conclusion. I'd like to leave it there."
With any writer working towards the end of a comic, even a pre-determined end, there's always going to a time when one reflects on what could have been and the missed opportunities. Carey says that there are things he wanted to do in "Lucifer" that he couldn't, but it's not because of DC editorial, who some have criticized as too conservative in recent years. "Not because of editorial reasons - Shelly has been fantastic to work with, and has always encouraged me to move outwards in new directions. But writing a monthly is a sort of Zen experience: every story you tell rules out two or three others, until you reach the point where you're almost painfully conscious of all the stories you're untelling as you go along. Probably Lys is the character who had the biggest untold story in her; closely followed by the centaur people we introduced in #24. But of course there's a whole universe full of untold stories in Lucifer's cosmos. You just have to accept that you never get to fill in all the gaps - because, of course, if you went back to tell those stories you'd open up more territory with untold stories of its own , and so on. It's one of the ways in which ongoing fictions of any kind are like life. You never get to know everything even about the people you're closest to."
One way of telling these additional stories is through one-shot side stories outside of the ongoing series and Vertigo successfully accomplished this with the "Lucifer: Nirvana" special last year, but Carey doesn't plan to go this route again anytime soon. "Not at the moment," he admits. "'Nirvana' was great to do, because it allowed me to work with Jon J Muth. At one time we were turning over ideas for a Mazikeen mini, but none of them ever really panned out. Probably at the moment if Shelly gave me free rein and invited me to do a one-off based on one of the supporting cast it would be Gaudium. I really got a big kick out of writing #28, which was the issue that centered on his quest for the mummified goddess. I could have lots of fun with a Gaudium one-off."
Something that Carey is having a lot of fun with is the current "Lucifer" storyline, entitled "Naglfar," that features the secondary characters of the series taking the lead. The story, as all of them tend to do in "Lucifer," will change the face of the series and lead in the big change that Carey has planned for issue #40. "The title came from Norse mythology, as I glossed very quickly in #36," explains the Brit. "Basically the Naglfar is a ship made out of dead men's fingernails, and the giants are meant to be working on it all the time. As soon as it's finished they'll use it to sail to Asgard and fight the gods in the final battle of Ragnarok. So if everybody does their duty by the dead and trims their fingernails before burial, Ragnarok can be postponed for as long as possible.
"Actually the introduction of the ship itself came at a fairly late stage in the story's development. The initial idea was just to have Lucifer send all these mismatched people and beings into a new part of the afterlife - a place where he can't go himself because it's too fragile to sustain his presence. I had an idea that Scoria's clock could be the vehicle they traveled in, because we've established earlier on that it's loosely tethered to time and space: you could use it to go anywhere you wanted. But then I started working up the Lucifer/Michael plot thread, and I realized that the clock would be the perfect place for them to have their confrontation with Yahweh, so I brought in the Naglfar instead. That was a serendipitous decision because it allowed Lucifer to meet Loki and brought in the new character of Bergelmir, who really seems to work well as a foil for a lot of the female characters.
"The voyage of the Naglfar is a major turning point for the series - both because of the actual outcome of the quest and because of what happens to Lucifer and Michael in the parallel plot thread. We're building to a huge and I think quite disturbing climax, in which we'll get to see a side of Lucifer's nature that's easy to forget. I described him once as a guy who'd happily set the world on fire to light his cigarette: well, there's a perfect example of that coming up."
Two characters getting a lot of spotlight in this story are Jill Presto and Mazikeen, popular characters in their own right, but also mortal enemies. When CBR News asks Carey if readers can expect both of these characters to walk away from this story alive, he smiles and answers, "You don't really want an answer to that, do you? There are going to be tensions, certainly - but the way things work out, they've got much bigger problems than each other. There are fatalities among the Naglfar crew. In fact one of them dies twice. And the Jill/Mazikeen relationship moves... forward. Sort of."
In this story, the machinations of Lucifer are becoming a bit more clear- relatively speaking for this series- and oddly enough, the devil is become a bit more understandable to readers. With some almost being able to rationalize and empathize with Lucifer's actions, one has to wonder if Carey has a hard time reminding readers that Lucifer is, frankly, the devil and that he's not the nicest guy. "Haha," laughs Carey. "See above. I don't think it's a matter of liking Lucifer so much as identifying with him. As you say, in spite of everything he does we can see exactly where he's coming from, and his goals - as distinct from the way he goes about achieving them - are entirely recognizable from our own experience. Look at some of the earlier fictional avatars of Lucifer - Blake casts him as the hero against the cold, repressive power of God and religion, and even implies that Lucifer is the real Messiah. His struggle to be free and to assert his own nature against an ancient order that denied and perverted it made him an emblematic figure for the Romantic movement, and a lot of that has come through in my depiction of Lucifer because I was steeped in that literature myself.
"But he is the most terrifyingly ruthless bastard that ever walked the Earth or anywhere else, and it's important not to blink from that. In #28 we had Gaudium's version of the war in Heaven, and he pointed out that although Lucifer wooed the rebel angels with talk of freedom and self-determination, what he immediately did was to impose his own will on them and forge them into an army. 'Congratulations - we've decided to give you liberty and death.' It's been said before that absolute freedom for any one individual implies total slavery for all others. Lucifer wouldn't have any trouble at all with an arrangement like that. So yeah, he's sympathetic, but hopefully he continues to be scary too. He's a monster, in the truest sense of the word: something awesome to look at, but if you had any sense you wouldn't want to get too close."
While "Naglfar" is a more obvious spotlighting of "Lucifer's" supporting cast, the series has always showcased a couple of smaller characters in each story and it seems that they always take on a life of their own. "That's a strange and fascinating thing about writing any kind of ongoing fiction - the way secondary characters start to assert themselves in a story and carve out a space for themselves that wasn't the space you had in mind," remarks Carey. "I remember a conversation I had with Neil back when I was pitching a lot of stuff for the 'Sandman Presents' title. He said, 'You should write a monthly. It's a very useful discipline.' I said something like, 'You mean, in terms of having to plan stuff out a long way in advance?" and he said, 'No, I was talking more about the improvisation.' 'Sandman' - I mean the whole of 'Sandman' - is such a powerful and coherent fiction that you tend to see it as something that was all there right from the start. A lot of it was, but Neil said that other things, including some very important things, just happened along the way. It's the flipside of what I was saying earlier about 'unwriting.' As well as closing off vast acres of story every time you write, you're also opening up new areas and some of them just work better than what you were originally planning to do.
"A good example of that is the centaur story in #24, 'The Writing on the Wall.' It's one of the 'Lucifer' issues that I'm proudest of and most satisfied with, but really it just grew out of the centaur that Peter drew in a single panel of - I think - #21 and the centaur that Chris painted on the cover of that issue. I thought "actually it would be very cool to do a story around a character who looked like that." And it worked really well, or at least I felt it did.
"I guess there is an irony in a character like Gaudium becoming so popular with 'Lucifer' readers. But it makes sense in a lot of ways. You could compare it, say, to the character of Frodo Baggins in 'Lord of the Rings' - this ordinary little guy thrown into the middle of chaotic, epic events. Of course, Gaudium has a fouler mouth. And he smokes stogies, whereas Frodo favours a pipe."
One of the supporting characters who hasn't been seen in a little while is Christopher Rudd, the dashing young man introduced earlier in "Lucifer." Many fans have likened him to Neil Gaiman's tragic version of Lyta Hall in "Sandman" and Carey's intrigued by that perspective. "Hmm. I hadn't heard that comparison, but I can see it. They're both characters who are initially just flotsam swept up in the schemes of the more powerful protagonists, and who then succeed to some extent in imposing themselves on events. Game pieces who become players.
"We're definitely going to revisit Rudd in the aftermath of the 'Naglfar' storyline, but we'll be seeing him in some odd company and some odd places. As we now know he's got a very ambitious long-term plan - to close down Hell. We'll see how that goes, and how it squares with some other people's agendas when some big events have sort of shaken the tree a little. In the long term he has a key role to play in the series finale. I think Rudd is very easy to identify with. In a way his rise to power parallels some of Lucifer's victories, in that he just uses his wits when he's got nothing else going for him, and parleys a hopeless situation into a stunning victory. And like Lucifer, he's got terrible flaws. In Rudd's case, whatever admiration you feel has got to be mixed with pity and contempt because of what he did to get sent to Hell in the first place. But when someone is powerless, manipulated, controlled, and they try to turn things around on their masters or owners, it's natural to want them to succeed."
Anyone knows that a comic book series named "Lucifer" is bound to challenge the mainstream Judeo/Christian view of God, Angels and the Devil, but recent stories have taken it to another level. With Lucifer and his brother Michael working together to take on God and discover the "truth," there's definitely a chance of some people being offended, but Carey doesn't set out to offend anyone's sensibilities. He believes in accepting other points of view on religion, even if he isn't a religious man himself. "I'm an atheist," reveals Carey. "I do, in a sense, believe in spirit, but I can't bring myself to believe in God - any God. There's a French philosopher, Bergson, who describes mind or spirit as being something completely alien to the universe of matter: because all matter is governed by entropy, and is therefore always in the process of falling apart. But mind creates and integrates and works against entropy. I can get behind that idea - and to some extent, behind the Hindu premise that would make us all fragments of the godhead, separating when we're born and recombining when we die. That's as far as I can go. I can't see God as something or someone outside of Creation who invented or ordained everything that happens.
"But like any kid growing up in the UK, I got a solid religious education, and I love the stories as stories. I engage with them on that level: it's therefore not an irreverent approach, it's just not a religiously reverent one. I like to think that I have respect for the beliefs of others and that there's nothing in 'Lucifer' that mocks or condemns those beliefs. Lucifer is the Satan of the Old and New Testaments, in a lot of important ways. We've just incarnated him as a character with a consistent motivation for what the Bible tells us he's done.
"But okay, there's only so far you can push that argument. And there's nothing in the Bible to justify our take on the Lucifer/Michael relationship, with its mix of sympathy and antagonism. Moreover, the 'Naglfar' storyline has some revelations about God's great plan which no Christian except a strict Calvinist would be able to accept at face value. So obviously there is potential - huge potential, in fact - for people to be offended. The intention is not to offend: we're exploring a lot of the big issues which religions explicitly grapple with, but we're doing it in a different way. Some committed Christian readers of Lucifer (and one Jewish reader) who I've talked with see the book as a meditation on those issues, and are entirely comfortable with it on those terms. To compare great things with small, when Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses was published, and the Ayatollah declared a fatwa on him, part of his response (or it might have been something that somebody said on his behalf) was 'this can't challenge or disturb your faith unless your faith is a very fragile thing indeed.' Robust belief thrives on argument, debate, and exploration, even doubt. If you've never questioned your beliefs, then arguably you don't believe at all. You just echo."
Despite any chance of offending readers, "Lucifer" has been blessed with seemingly universal rave reviews and it's hard to think of the last time a critic spoke negatively of the series. Though some fans posit that Carey must feel on top of the world with this series, the writer does admit that sales could be higher, but that's he's happy to have a loyal fanbase. "Well, I don't see myself as being on top of the world: our sales have only ever been comfortable, so it's not like we've taken the world by storm or anything. But it's true that most reviews have been very positive, and the message board crowd (the students of Morningstar High) are very, very supportive. In all the ways that matter, I've got to admit that I've had a very easy ride, and it's been great. I look at some of the rocky launches that Vertigo had two or three or four years ago, and I sort of think 'there but for the grace of...' But being an atheist, I can't finish that sentence. Seriously, in our first year, when we got all the Eisner nominations, I was bumping my head off the clouds. Unbelievable."
So what's next for "Lucifer?" Carey won't share a lot, but what he does reveal will no doubt leave fans of "Lucifer" drooling with anticipation. "Okay, well, let's just say that the big conflict - the one between Heaven and Hell that began with Lucifer's rebellion - has never really ended," smiles Carey. "Before the series finishes, that conflict is going to be resolved. And it's going to pale into insignificance beside another, different conflict that we're going to introduce. We're not going to leave anything hanging: Lucifer's quarrel with his father is going to reach a conclusion, and so is the fate of the second Creation, the 'Luciverse.' And I hope and believe that readers won't be able to second-guess us on exactly how each of these threads is going to be wrapped up."
Many Carey fans were excited about the scribe's next big project, "Firestorm," but he reveals that he won't be involved with the series any more, due to reasons beyond his control. His other project, "My Faith in Frankie" (which he's discussed exclusively with CBR News in the past), is on track, he says. "'Frankie' is all but done. Marc's inks are in for #3, and Sonny's pencils for #4. The main reason it hasn't been scheduled yet is because there's some discussion at Vertigo of trying out a new format for the series - about which I'm not allowed to talk. In fact, just for saying the words 'new format' I'm likely to turn up dead in an amazingly unlikely accident of some kind. Baked in a quiche, say. I MISTOOK HIM FOR A STRIP OF BACON, SAYS BLIND CORDON BLEU CHEF.
"I'm no longer involved with 'Firestorm,' sadly. I think the project is still going ahead, but the higher-ups at DC decided that they wanted to take it back to the baseline and rebuild, and that included bringing in an entire new creative team. Watch this space. Anyway, I'm off the book, which is kind of a shame after all the time and the effort, but what can you do?
"That's really it in terms of my comics workload at the moment. I've got some pitches in with Vertigo, but they're all at fairly early stages and pretty speculative. John Bolton and I have been talking to Shelly about joining up on another project, because The Furies was such a blast. And we've got big plans for 'Lucifer#50,' which might be very reminiscent of 'Sandman#50' in some significant ways.
"Apart from that, I'm writing a movie screenplay - currently on the second draft, and it's going great - and talking to Simon and Schuster about a novel. It's enough to keep me fairly busy."
So if you're intrigued by the "Lucifer" concept and not quite sold on the comic yet, Mike Carey provides a most compelling reason to buy the comic:
"Because it will bring readers face-to-face with the potential for evil in their own nature - and net me a clear seven cents after tax."