REFLECTIONS: "Ultimate Fantastic Four" and "X-Men" with Mike Carey

Reflections, Volume 3, Number 4

Welcome back, dear reader, to the fourth daily installment of "Reflections," CBR's resident interview column. After a summer of interning at Wizard Entertainment, the column is being relaunched with five daily installments of in-depth interviews with the best and brightest in the industry.

You've already missed three, one with Jeph Loeb, one with Bryan Fuller, and one with Simone Bianchi.

Today we've got my good-luck charm, Mike Carey. He was my final interview for the first volume of "Reflections," my first for the second and now he's helping me launch my third. What a guy!

He's finally getting the kudos he deserves throughout the industry, as well. After years of writing low-selling Vertigo titles that were loved by everyone who read them, he's finally hitting it big, working on "Ultimate Fantastic Four" and "X-Men," two of Marvel's flagship titles.

Mike connected with me via one expensive overseas call to talk about all that and more.

Robert Taylor: Let's start way back at the beginning. Why did you want to write comics?

Mike Carey: I guess because they had always been important in my life. There was a period of about three years in my late teens just before I went to university when I wasn't reading comics. That was the only time of my life when they weren't a regular fixture. I've done other kinds of writing, poetry and novels and screenplays, but writing comics always seemed like a natural fit.

RT: Suddenly you are the next big thing over at Marvel, what with your Ultimate books and your "X-Men" work, not to mention all your projects at Vertigo. This is after years of you working in the business. Why the career renaissance?

MC: I'm the last person you should ask that question. I really don't know. A lot of it came out of chance remarks and serendipitous meetings at San Diego in 2003. I talked to Axel Alonso and met a number of other Marvel editors and had very cordial chats with them, not about specific projects, but just about coming over and doing something for Marvel if I ever found myself free. "Ultimate Elektra" came out of that, and then ultimately my work on "Ultimate Fantastic Four" and "Spellbinders." I really enjoyed the projects I was being given, and I got on really well with the editorial teams, and it seemed to snowball, until amazingly at the end of last year, I got a phone call from Mike Marts asking me if I'd be interested in working on "X-Men." There was no way I could be prepared for that. I thought it was a joke at first because it totally came from left field.

RT: Let's talk "Ultimate Fantastic Four" first. Would you have rather written the regular Fantastic Four in continuity, or the Ultimate version?

MC: I'm actually happier writing UFF, though I'd love to write the regular team as well. Of course I have written them, sort of, because I wrote a regular FF story for Marvel's Holiday Special with Mike Perkins that was heartwarming, lighthearted and very short.

But I confess a very slight preference for UFF. With "Ultimate Fantastic Four," you have the joy of going back to the Lee/Kirby stories, taking out the elements you loved when you read them as a kid, and reinventing them within different narrative structures. It's really a blast to write and I can't believe I'm getting paid to do it. Obviously it would be very cool to write the regular FF too, because they are a great team. The characters, the relationships, the whole dynamic of the book is near perfect.

RT: Now which ideas from previous arcs and writers do you want to incorporate into your run on the book?

MC: I loved what Mark [Millar] has been doing over the past year. I think it's been a real thrill ride. There are obviously elements he introduced that I will be carrying forward, including some of the new characters he's introduced. He's also done some interesting things with the core relationships. But the most obvious link in my first story is back to Warren Ellis and his "N-Zone" arc. In that story Warren was talking about a stack of universes, and the N-Zone is introduced as a low-energy universe at the bottom of the stack which is highly entropic and heading toward its own destruction. In "God War" I have the FF going into a more high-energy universe further up the stack where conversely there are more basic forces and there are superpowers we don't even have names for. It's obviously a nod to the elements Warren set up in that arc.

But in terms of tone and mood, I'm closer to Millar's run. I would have loved to have written the return of the Frightful Four, but obviously that was his story and he got to tell it.

RT: Your first arc will incorporate new versions of classic characters, of course, but are any of these additions new characters you created from scratch?

MC: I'm playing fair. All of the characters introduced in the arc have 616 equivalents. They are all based on pre-existing characters. There aren't any characters I've created entirely from scratch, but in some cases they are composites and it's not going to be easy for the reader to identify the original. I'm hoping there will be some arguments about that.

RT: A lot of readers are making parallels between your UFF stuff and later Kirby work, like "The Forever People." Was it purposely done that way?

MC: I don't really have any comment to make there, and I don't think you really expect me to. Again, part of the fun of the Ultimate books is the discovery - or rediscovery, I should say - of familiar characters in new guises, and I wouldn't dream of short-circuiting that process by saying "Threshold is A and Dreamcatcher is B". You can see very clear echoes in God War of the 616 Fantastic Four's first encounter with the Kree, and some of the characters are best viewed in that context. Others call on different Kirby precursors. That's the nature of the game, isn't it?

RT: How long are you planning on staying on the book?

MC: As long as they'll have me. For the long run. As I said before, it's an absolute blast to write. And it's cool working with the Ultimate editorial team: they're a great, supportive group of people.

RT: Do you have a mega-arc planned, or is it more spur-of-the-moment right now?

MC: There is kind of an uber-arc. There are definitely elements in "God War" that we will be revisiting further down the line. That will take some time to come to fruition. But not all stories in between will feed into that. But there is something simmering in the background that will escalate, I'm hoping, to a very satisfying conclusion.

RT: Tell me about your artist on UFF, Pasqual Ferry.

MC: Pasqual! That guy is amazing. I can't imagine many people being able to roll with the stuff I'm throwing at him. There are so many new characters in that first arc, and I was asking him for some pretty specific things, and he kept giving me more than I was asking for in every respect. His visual imagination is awesome. And he is so friendly and so accessible and so easy to talk to, the creative process just becomes frictionless.

RT: Are the stories going to be mostly six-issue arcs or will there be shorter ones as well?

MC: The second arc is going to be either a three or four parter, then another three-parter, then another long arc.

RT: Will Pasqual be staying with you for the long run, or will you be mixing it up with artists?

MC: He's staying with us. We may occasionally need a fill-in artist, but he is as committed to the book as I am.

RT: Now who is your favorite member of the Ultimate Fantastic Four?

MC: I tend to give a different answer every time I get that question. I think it has to be Reed, though. I am a bespectacled nerdy guy, and in school I was chosen last for football and all that. And Reed is the wish fulfillment for all of us scrawny four-eyed guys.

RT: How'd you like the "Fantastic Four" movie?

MC: I enjoyed it. I thought there were some beats that should have been taken further, but I didn't object to the changes from the canon. I recognize that movies have to do things in a different way because they're for a different, wider, demographic. I'm interested to see what they do in the sequel.

RT: Have you been pleased with the reaction to the first few issues?

MC: On the whole, yeah. Most people seem to be liking the cosmic tone and the new characters. Inevitably there have been a few reviews that have taken the position "Hey, this isn't Mark Millar!" and that's a fair comment as far as it goes. I'm not.

RT: Ready to move onto "X-Men?"

MC: Sure.

RT: Okay then. Why "X-Men" instead of "Ultimate X-Men" or a solo book?

MC: That's the book they offered me - and obviously it's one of the core books in the line. It felt terrifying taking on a book that had that amount of continuity behind it, which I had to master before I could start to write. Even though I'm a long-term fan and even though my collection is extensive, it was hard. You have to make sure the characters are hitting the right beats because they've been around for such a long time and they have so much history with each other. I mean, okay, it's always possible to cheat - have characters brain-wiped or mind-controlled or whatever and use their "born-again" status as a rationale for never referencing stuff that happened before, but I've tried to play fair and so I had to put a lot of work in up front to make sure I hadn't missed something crucial here or there that would need to be referred to.

But man, it's exhilarating. On a title like this you can hit beats you can't with other books and other kinds of writing. I'm a big X-Men fan. For my money, the Fantastic Four and the X-Men are the two best superteams in comics. They work in different ways and have completely different logic. The core of the FF has always been those four characters, but the core of the X-Men is a cast of thousands with a history going back forty years!

RT: How has the reaction been on the first couple of issues?

MC: So far the reaction has been incredibly positive. Some people were suspicious at first because it was such an odd team. There were rumblings that the characters were chosen purely for their headline-making potential. They weren't. There was a solid reason for each character being in the team, and that's really the point of the first story, to find the logic of why those characters are together.

RT: People seem to be complaining because Chris Bachalo's art can be so out there, but personally I love a book where you can sit down for an hour and take it in. First you can read it for the major story beats, but then you can go back and immerse yourself in the artwork and the character designs and singular artistic storytelling.

MC: There is an incredible visual richness and density to the artwork. I love the multiple dimensions Chris adds to every panel. And of course he knows these characters inside out, so he brings a lot to the book beyond just that amazing aesthetic sense and draftsmanship.

RT: What is coming up?

MC: After the initial arc we're beginning the buildup to issue 200. The second arc, which is tentatively titled "Primary Infection," is going to reveal why the Sentinel and Lady Mastermind were in that hospital. And we're already seeding the build-up to the return of a very formidable villain from the X-Men's past, who will be coming back in issue 200, and that will be an amazing story.

RT: And how long do you want to stay on this book?

MC: Again, I'm in the honeymoon period. At the moment it's all good. Basically I hope I'll be able to stay long enough to leave a mark and to tell a story that people will remember. There is no exit point planned.

RT: How are you liking "Uncanny" and "Astonishing" right now?

MC: I think they're both on creative highs. It's Summer in the X-verse! What Ed is doing on "Uncanny" is really fresh - a huge, grand, sprawling epic of the kind I relish - and "Astonishing" continues to be astonishing. I'm a huge fan of Joss's work. There's a sense that all of the X-books are being reinvented, and it's really exciting. There's an overall feeling of pace and momentum, and it's wonderful to be part of it.

RT: Are you a big Spider-Man fan? Would you like to get your hands in that pond soon?

MC: I'd love to give Spidey a cameo in UFF. I think everyone's got a Spider-Man story in them, just like everyone has a Batman story in them. So yes, it would be fun to do one.

But I do have to admit that the Fantastic Four and the X-Men are my favorite Marvel characters, so pretty much all my wishes are fulfilled. I would like to work with Doctor Strange at some point. I may find a way of sneaking him in somewhere in a story I'm planning for UFF.

RT: Are you enjoying "Civil War?"

MC: I think "Civil War" is incredible! It's a topical storyline that shows us aspects of these iconic characters that we've never seen before. Who would have predicted that Captain America would be the one who wouldn't go along with registration? I think it's a great read.

RT: Anything else coming up with Marvel that we should be aware of?

MC: I'm doing another story with Mike Perkins for the Marvel Christmas Special this year.

RT: Yes, I had to buy two copies of your first collaboration with Mike last year because I drooled all over the first.

MC: It's always great to work with Mike. He's one of my best friends in the industry and incredibly talented, and when we work on something like this it's like a fortnight's holiday by the seaside - just purely fun and rejuvenating.

RT: Well, that's all I've got for ya.

MC: Cheers, Robert!

Next up: Danny Bilson and Paul DeMeo!

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