London and Hell – Similar places? – Mike Carey interviewed

Mike Carey’s Felix Castor novels are wonderful and go far beyond my initial expectations of the character since he seemed to me to be like John Constantine (he was still writing Hellblazer at the time). He’s carved out a great little noir niche combining crime, horror and fantasy with his own brand of dark humour. I managed to catch up with him recently to talk about Felix Castor and Lucifer, the comic he has recently finished.


What is the challenge to the horror/fantasy genres. Can they be expanded and explored in the light of writers like China Miéville?

I think we’re living in a time when there’s an unprecedented freedom to write across genre boundaries. Partly, I think, this is a result of the increasing popularity of Eastern – by which I mainly mean Japanese and Korean – movies, comics and TV animation over here in the West. Japanese manga and anime and Japanese horror movies don’t observe genre rules in the same way that their Western counterparts do, and they’ve inspired the current generation of novelists, comics writers and screenwriters to be more disrespectful of genre as a set of rules or limits – more inclined to experiment. Probably the last gasps of post-structuralism have helped here, too. Self-aware narratives bring their own pitfalls with them, but they do make you think around cliches. You mentioned China Miéville, and I think he’s a spectacularly good example of someone who’s redefining what you do within a fantasy context: writing compelling horror, existential tragedy and politically engaged social commentary all side by side without any of it seeming to jar or to strike a false note. And of course the writers of supernatural noir are doing – or trying to do – something similar in terms of effacing genre boundaries to allow a broader range of effects and to escape from certain constricting narrative formulas.


How do you see the boundaries of fantasy and reality. Should the fantastic have a grounding in the real?

Always, I think – because the fantastic is only fantastic by reference to the real. If you lose that yardstick, you lose everything. There are a million different ways of bringing the yardstick in, of course: the real world doesn’t have to feature as an actual place, an actual referent within the text, but there needs to be a sense, even if it’s only implicit, of human scale and human concerns. In Lucifer we tried to make sure that every so often there would be a human observer of the huge, cosmic action – and to show, wherever we could, how the epic events in Heaven, Hell and the realms of pain impact on our own Earth and our own lives. It just felt right. I’ve used the analogy before, but when I was a kid I used to build Airfix models – and I remember the model of the Russian Vostok rocket came with a tiny figure of a cosmonaut for you to glue onto the base, standing alongside the model. Without that figure, the model was five inches tall. With it, it was a hundred and fifty feet. There’s also the question of motivation. Within a fantastic setting, characters’ emotions, goals and ideas may be very different from what we know and recognise from a real-world context, but the writer still needs to avoid what Dorothy Sayers among others has called “moral miracles” – characters behaving in ways that the reader can’t easily believe or accept. That psychological underpinning is crucial in any narrative, of course, but it’s if anything even more

vital in stories where physical impossibilities are going to be commonplace.


Does genre matter? Why?

Genre matters because it sets up expectations. It’s a very useful form of shorthand, and it’s also the perfect foundation for a bait-and-switch. Did anyone really see the end of Chinatown coming? By situating that movie in the detective thriller genre complex, Polanski allowed us to believe throughout that Jack Nicholson would get his man. And the closing scenes have that much more power as a result.


How did you get into writing comics? Why the addition of novels?

I got into comics really slowly and gradually – writing reviews and articles for fanzines for many

years before I ever thought of submitting a pitch. Then Neptune, the publishers of a magazine I used to do comics reviews for, branched out into publishing comics themselves and I hit them with a couple of pitches – one horror and one post-Watchmen dark superheroics. They accepted both, and I think I wrote seven scripts for them in all, of which three got all the way to the inking/colouring/lettering stage. Unfortunately Neptune went bankrupt before they ever printed a single issue of any of my stuff, but by that time I’d made some contacts on the American indie scene and I sort of leapfrogged – with a lot of help from Ken Meyer Jr and Lurene Haines – into writing for Malibu and Caliber. That gave me the calling card that I used to get an introduction at DC.


Writing novels was something I’d always wanted to do, not as a progression from comics but alongside them. In fact I wrote novels first, but that was back when I was young and pretentious and very much in love with myself, and none of them were publishable: I had to go away and learn some craft, and then come back and take another shot.


What is it like writing novels and comics in terms of structure and the episodic form?

Novels give you more freedom in one crucial respect: you live with them for a lot longer, with deadlines being measured in months rather than weeks. So if you get to chapter twenty and you realise that some character or event should have been foreshadowed in chapter three, you can go back and do a rewrite. With comics if you’re writing, say, a six-part arc you’ll typically send the first part in and get it approved, and then that will be sent on to the penciller while you’re writing the second part. The window for changing your mind is much narrower. So there’s a kind of vertical dimension there, for want of a better word, that isn’t there to the same extent in comics.


Having said that, a comic like Lucifer was essentially a novel in graphic form. All seventy-five issues, or seventy-eight if you include the original miniseries, tell a single sustained story in a great many chapters. And as in a novel that meant knowing when we started where our end point was going to be, and planting seeds along the way so that there’s a logical and inevitable sequence of events.


I love comics – both reading them and writing them – and think the discipline of writing comics has been very good for me. When you only have twenty-two pages, with no leeway, to tell a story or a segment of a story, you’re forced to be creative and experimental in how you show and tell certain things. And you’re forced to think very hard about whether each scene, each panel, is really paying its way.


In Lucifer, you discuss the creation of worlds and the responsibilities this entails. Was that a general thing, talking about the writer’s creation of the words and characters. Was your creation and recreation of worlds comment upon the standard creation of worlds in comics, such as X-Men’s periodic rewriting of their own world, or Tolkien’s view of creating secondary worlds?

You mean, does Lucifer as universe-maker stand in for the writer. Interesting. No, I don’t think he does, because the central metaphor in that book is a different and more universal one. I’ve always seen the series as a family drama, in which Lucifer’s dilemma – in trying to defy divine providence and define his own role – is everyone’s dilemma as they grow up and try to escape from their parents’ influence.


Your parents, up to a certain point in your childhood, are god. But it’s true that the image of writing or telling your own story – of meta-fiction – comes in again and again in Lucifer. And it’s also true that there are times when Lucifer speaks as me, so I wouldn’t want to argue that you can’t read the book in that way.


Religion underlies the Felix Castor novels and Lucifer. Is this a backdrop or is it a working through of ideas to a logical conclusion?

In Lucifer it’s a working through of ideas. There’s a dialectic going on, most obviously about free will and predestination. In Castor religion is more ubiquitously present – in the form of Castor’s brother, Matthew, in The Devil you Know, the Anathemata in Vicious Circle, and so on. But here it’s the social dimension of religion that’s important. Religions are the human institutions that are most directly affected by the rising of the dead, and we see how they’ve responded to it and how they’ve accommodated it. Ultimately in both cases it’s my own obsessions – stemming from a childhood in Liverpool as the product of a mixed-faith marriage – that are coming to the surface. How difficult is it to write about the locales of London and Hell and still maintain an original voice. Hell is harder than London. I write the London I know and live in: all the settings that Castor moves through are either real places or based on real places (just as his childhood in Liverpool is broadly based on my childhood in Liverpool).


Hell is harder because Hell is literally unimaginable. You have to cheat, to a greater or lesser extent. In Castor, of course, we don’t actually get to see Hell: we only meet some of the many

different forms of life that Hell has spawned – the succubi in The Devil you Know and Vicious Circle, the Shedim in Dead Men’s Boots and so on. We describe Hell by implication when we define its ecosystem.


How challenging has it been to work on Neverwhere or draw from one of Gaiman’s most popular supporting characters, Lucifer?

Neverwhere was challenging because it was the first time I’d ever done an adaptation from novel to comics. I found it fascinating and fun and sometimes very hard to do. To take one example, comics is less forgiving to long conversations so in a lot of places we had to cherry-pick from Neil’s dialogue and find visual rather than verbal ways of getting certain bits of information across. Lucifer, by contrast, became very easy to write very quickly. Naturally I was nervous at first about writing a character who Neil had voiced so effectively and convincingly. But I genuinely felt like I knew where Lucifer was coming from and like I could write him from the inside. Which isn’t to say that we’re alike in any respect at all, just that he made a strong and indelible mark on me when I read him in Sandman.


So there was a performance anxiety, but there wasn’t really much of a learning curve in terms of “who is this guy and what does he want.” He was there in my head from the moment I read Season of Mists, and although that initial conception did firm up in the course of our first year, it was an organic process and not something I had to work at.


How important is gallows humour to making the character work?

Lucifer’s humour is so dry you could die in it: he makes these merciless, acid observations, but you suspect there isn’t much that he’d laugh at. In fact, I think he only laughed once in the entire run, when he was acknowledging Jill Presto’s description of him as “an arrogant son of a bitch on a permanent power trip”. But yeah, Castor’s humour is an integral part of him. He’s a laconic, detached commentator on other people’s weaknesses – and on his own, come to that. Gallows humour is a good way to describe it, because it goes with an essentially pessimistic world view.


I wanted to give him a very distinctive voice, and those sardonic asides quickly became an important part of that. My personal favourite comes at the end of Vicious Circle, when he’s just been dealt a devastating blow in terms of his ongoing relationship with Juliet. He comments “They say that if you suffer in this life, you come back as something better in the next. I’m coming back as



Your last few central characters have been anti-heroes. Was this a conscious decision, especially for Felix Castor, or is it a question of writing about what interests you?

Well, the Castor novels are essentially noir, and the noir hero is always terribly flawed: that’s part of what makes him interesting. Lucifer. John Constantine. Castor. Yeah, they’re all in their different ways bastards. I’m trying to think of somewhere where I’ve written an admirable and uncomplicated hero, outside of contexts where I’m writing other people’s characters. I think the closest I can get is Jeriven in My Faith in Frankie, and there are lots of ways in which he doesn’t count. Not least because he’s a god. I’d better throw my hands in the air and admit that I *do* like heroes with a dark side to them. People who do the right thing for the right reasons all the time are pretty hard to sympathise with. At least they are for me.


I gather that you are working on a new comic series, Crossing Midnight. What is it like working on your own creations as opposed to working within other people’s worlds. Can you tell us anything about it?

Well I’ve done creator-owned stuff before, so this isn’t a complete novelty, but it’s always fun and rewarding to be defining characters from the ground up. Crossing Midnight is a horror/fantasy series that’s going to be seriously schizophrenic. The aim was to marry too very different aesthetics, which we’ve roughly defined as Miyazaki and Miike: in other words, poetic and lyrical fantasy on the one hand and very in-your-face horror on the other. The story revolves around two twins, Kai and Toshi, who are born in modern-day Nagasaki. Kai, the male twin, is born at seven minutes to midnight: Toshi, his sister, is born at two minutes past. So they’re twins with two different birthdays, and as it turns out those few minutes make a huge difference in their lives. Toshi, the after-midnight twin, has an affinity for the spirit world and is increasingly involved in its working. Kai appears at first to be entirely normal and unaffected by any of this stuff, but that’s more a question of perspective than anything else. When Toshi is taken by the kami, the spirits of everyday objects, and particularly by Aratsu the kami of the knives, Kai goes looking for her and both twins get to learn a lot about their family and their own past that they didn’t know. It’s a folkloric book rather than a mythological one. Belief in the kami is a folk tradition in Japan, repudiated or at best grudgingly tolerated by the major religions but still retaining a hold on the popular imagination. Jim Fern is doing the pencils for the book, and doing an amazing job of creating an authentic, believable world for these character to inhabit – so that when the fantasy elements kick in, they do so with a vengeance.


Now that Felix has been thrown out of Pen’s place and Juliet is feeling frisky again, what does life hold for him?

Not a win on the lottery, you can bet on that. 🙂 Book three has him illegally subletting a friend’s flat, and getting drawn in very much against his better judgment to the mysterious circumstances surrounding another exorcist’s suicide. Just as Vicious Circle builds from and expands on The Devil you Know, this is a further escalation and a deeper exploration of Castor’s world. And this time around we get to meet one of the other families of demons, the shedim, and learn about their feeding habits. Plus there are loup garous, zombies and ghosts and the whole menagerie we’ve come to expect – and further developments in Jenna-Jane Mulbridge’s attempts to get hold of Rafi. The consensus among people who’ve read it is that it’s the darkest and scariest book so far.


Does horror/dark fantasy allow the writer to explore the underside of the “Enlightened” modern age. Is it a safety valve?

That’s a yes and a no, respectively. I sort of feel like we’re living at the moment in a sort of backlash against the Enlightenment. Fundamentalist religions – and I’m thinking at least as much of Christianity as I am of Islam – are in the resurgence, and the church is embedding itself deeply in the state again after being violently and painfully expelled a scant couple of hundred years ago. The defining struggle of the twenty-first century, I think, is going to be between the secular and the religious world-views, and I can’t help feeling that we atheists start on the back foot. Maybe because of our comparative reluctance to swear out jihads against people we don’t like…

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