Talking Castor and Crossing Midnight: Mike Carey interviewed

Dead Man Walking jacket imageMike Carey is a comics and book writer who has also dabbled in screenplays. I caught up with him at Fantasycon and we talked about his Felix Castor novels (Felix Castor volumes) and his comics, Lucifer(Lucifer volumes) and Crossing Midnight (Issue One pdf available here,Volume 1, Volume 2).

How have you found writing the Felix Castor books?

Creatively its been a really fantastic experience. I started out trying to write novels, this is way back in the 80s. I did a couple of aborted novels which I spent years slogging over. The reason why they were aborted was that I had no idea about structure or planning. I had no idea how to go into a story, so I’d write the first chapter and then sit around waiting for ideas to go into a second chapter to occur to me, so I’d end up with these massive shapeless, sprawling things that went nowhere but took a long, long time to go nowhere.

Then I started writing comics – which, apart from being a medium that I love, is fantastic discipline as far as storytelling is concerned. You just have no space to waste in a comic book. If you’re writing a monthly book, you have 22 pages, and your average panel count on a page is five. If you’re going up to six or more panels too often then your editor will say, “you’re squeezing the artist, give him a bit more space”. So you’re talking about 100 panels to tell your story. That means you cost it out, you become like a miser: “Can I afford to go off for a page and have this character beat? Am I going to be able to build this relationship in the story? Can I have this grace note?” When I came back to writing novels with Castor, I knew how to do it and suddenly I was in the luxurious position that I could tell a story and it didn’t matter how long it was going to be because nobody’s going to cut you off at exactly 120,000 words and say “That’s it, you’ve had your lot”.

You’ve got the flexibility and also you’ve got a vertical freedom. With a comic book, you send the plan in, get green lighted for script and you send the script in and it goes out to the artist. Obviously you’ll tend to do a rewrite, one rewrite maybe, and when you see the art, you can tweak the lettering a little but you can’t make structural changes at that stage. Two or three weeks after you’ve written it, it’s out of your hands. If you have a better idea, suppose you’re doing a six part story, and you get to part four and you think, “I should have seeded this revelation, I should have introduced this character.” You can’t, you can’t do it, its already too late. With a novel, you can get to chapter 20 and then decide “Actually I’m going to add this character to chapter three and make him say something, I’m going to put the clue in there”. You can do it. You live with a novel for six, seven, eight months and for all of that time you’ve got access all areas.

So I actually got drunk on power, it was such an open and flexible format. From that point of view, writing Castor is pure joy. But it’s demanding trying to work in those two very different modalities at the same time because typically I’m doing a comic script a week or two comic scripts every three weeks and I’m also keeping the Castor novels going, trying to write a chapter every week or ten days and swapping between those two different ways of working can be a challenge, a bit of a head trip.

You said that you started writing novels, how did you come to writing comics?

How did I come to writing comics? I started off by writing comics journalism. There was a British fanzine called the Fantasy Advertiser (this is going back a long way now to the eighties) and it was taken over by the comics distributor Neptune and became a semi-professional publication – although it still had fanzine production values. I wrote reviews for that magazine, I occasionally wrote feature articles, and then Neptune decided they were going to try and launch their own comics line called Trident and because I already knew the people there, Martin Skidmore, who was the editor of Fantasy Advertiser was also going to be the commissioning editor for comics so I pitched a lot of ideas to him. They accepted two; a horror story called the Legions of Hell and a shameless Watchmen rip-off called Aquarius. Since it was a Watchmen rip off, we have to be talking 1985 or 86. They went bankrupt before they could actually publish anything of mine but I did write a number of scripts for them. Through that experience I met a number of people who were writing and drawing for the American indie scene and I started doing work for Malibu, for Caliber and seven years later, that was what got me through the door at DC.

You’ve just come off a panel on anime and Crossing Midnight, your current comic series, is set in Japan. Is anime a big thing for you and how did you come to write Crossing Midnight?

The first half of that question: is anime important to me? A lot of what I read and watch now is Eastern. I have two big sort of guilty pleasures. One is American TV drama, stuff like Deadwood, Battlestar Galactica, the Wire, the West Wing. I devour that stuff in enormous quantities and the other is Japanese and Korean movies and comic books. I watch a lot of Japanese animation – the studio Ghibli stuff, My Beautiful Girl Marie and stuff like that. Japanese animation is beautiful and lyrical. And I read, voraciously, Japanese horror mangas – Junji Ito, Hideshi Hino, Shigero Mizuki – I love their stuff and I don’t think there’s anything like that coming out in the West. So I think that has become a great creative influence on me.

Midnight Crissing 2 coverHaving said that, Crossing Midnight is not at all a manga book. It’s set in Japan, and it kind of has to be set in Japan, because its heavily based on Japanese folklore and one particular aspect of Japanese folklore which is that all physical objects have souls, that there are spirits that live inside particular objects that we use or live in the places where we live. There are spirits in rocks and tree but there are also spirits in cups and tables and knives and forks and so on. Japanese folklore has these two classes of spirits – the kami and yokai. The kami are almost like gods, they’re spirits that have an overview of a particular aspect of reality. The yokai are more like goblins or leprechauns, they’re strange little monsters. For example there’s a yokai who lives in your bathroom and if you don’t clean you bath after you get out of it, the creature will climb into the bath and lick the dirt off the walls of the bath, stuff like that. There’s this weird supernatural menagerie. So we use that as one of the ongoing themes in Crossing Midnight but ultimately Crossing Midnight is a translation of a Western fairy tale, Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, reset in Nagasaki.

Mythology plays an important role in your work, a lot of it runs in Lucifer. Is that because mythology and fairy tales are fundamentally transient things. As long as you use the core elements, you can put on the skin you want to?

Well, these stories survive because they are uniquely powerful and resonant. If you’re dealing with Greek myth, you’re talking about stories that are two and half thousand years old and still carry meaning for us, and they aren’t still kicking around by chance. They tap into something deep in the human psyche and so there is a sense in which you can give depth and resonance and power to a story just by taking those themes or those events, those characters, those relationships and dressing them up in modern clothes. I’m fascinated by stories that recur, by stories that you see coming up again and again, different mythologies approaching the same stories with slightly different furniture. There is this cliché that there are only seven stories in the world, which I don’t accept – but there are some stories that echo through the human subconscious and you can’t get away from them because they say something deep about us as human beings.

Is that because you find your own meaning. The story has a certain narrative but you can also write you’re own into it, into the space therein?

Yeah, like Oedipus. I mean not so much the sleeping with your mother, killing your dad thing but Oedipus as an avatar of the character who is destroyed by a prophecy, by finding out his future is driven into a box, driven into a trap he can’t get out of. The story of Oedipus is the story of Macbeth. Its a very, very different kind of approach but its the same idea – you get the prophecy and you get the character who is trying to evade the prophecy but can’t and ends up being destroyed by it.

We were talking earlier about how you were trying to construct the fourth Castor book without a plan. How do you normally write?

I got into a habit when I was writing Lucifer for DC Vertigo, when my editor was Shelly Bond. Shelly has a particular way of working which involves very explicit planning, you go from an overview of the whole year to a plan of a specific arc and then within each issue, she likes to see a scene breakdown where you cost it page by page. These are the scenes and how many pages roughly I think its going to be and Shelly will horse trade with you and say, “well I don’t think you need three pages for that scene and if you cut it down to two, you can have a splash over here”. So I got used to doing this and then, well, you know that scene in Shawshank Redemption where after the Morgan Freeman character gets out of prison, he can’t go to the bathroom without getting permission because he’s been institutionalised?

I was institutionalised into doing plans, though most of my editors aren’t as hands-on as Shelly. It seemed to be a very good way of turning a formless idea – this issue is going to be about this – into a series of beats. You don’t have to stick to the plan, of course, because a better idea is always waiting a way down the line but if you’ve got the plan in front of you, you’ve at least got a shopping list. Like, I want the issue to visit these things in roughly this order. My typical mode of working is to do a beat sheet: to think in terms of scenes and to think of each scene in terms of beats. Essentially, I’m thinking along the lines of this is where we’re going to find out this and this is where this is going to happen between these characters, significant glance here, a kiss there, whatever.

The fourth Castor novel is the first major piece of writing that I’ve gone into with a plan written on the back of an envelope. I exaggerate slightly, but what I did with Thicker than Water was I catechised myself. I wrote down a series of questions and then I tried to answer them so I got a feel for what the story was gong to look like and then I did an index for each chapter with two or three key words and that was my plan. Whereas the plan for Dead Men’s Boots was forty pages, almost twenty thousand words, which is a sixth of the length of a novel. In a way its been problematic because I’ve had to make more changes as I went along with this than with any of the other books but I’m really happy with what its led to and I think the final shape of the book works really well. It’s like the difference between doing a trapeze act with a safety net and doing it with nothing but the hard, cold floor. But there’s a kind of edge you get working without a safety net.

The Castor novels are all set in London. Is there is a difficulty writing about a place which has been so heavily written about?

I don’t think it’s a problem that London is a big fictional presence elsewhere. I write about the bits of London which mean something to me. Everywhere that Castor goes by and large is a place where I’ve been around and I tend to use places that I think are cool, scary,atmospheric, whatever. So you get a lot of references to the Barnet and Enfield area, you get a lot of references to Wembley, Willesden and Harlesden because I used to work at the College of North West London for several years. You get references to some bits of South London where my friends live and so on. “Write something that you know” is obviously not a maxim that I live by because I write fantasy, I write horror, the kinds of fiction that cut off at right angles to reality in all sort of ways. But I think for that very reason it has to be embedded in the real world at some level. If you get the settings right, and they feel authentic, then people will accept the fantasy stuff when it comes, and the fantasy stuff will be more powerful because the real world stuff convinces.

In Hellblazer and Felix Castor, and very much in Lucifer, there’s a question not so much of religion but in faith, a certain black humoured questioning of it. Is that something which came out because of Lucifer?

This is going to take me into some very personal territory. One reason why I keep coming back to religious themes in my work is because – although I’m now an atheist – I grew up in a mixed faith family. My Dad was a lapsed Catholic and my Mum was Anglican. This was in Liverpool which is a city with a huge sectarian divide, a city where whether you’re Catholic or Protestant matters a lot and I was neither or both. I can remember growing up and being surrounded and saturated with religion and by and large only seeing the negative side of it. On the 12th July, there would be the Orange Day parades and you’d get the Lodge marching through the streets with kids dressed up as William and Mary. You’d get other people lining up to throw things at the march, to throw pepper in the eyes of these little kids and its stuff like that which stayed with me. I saw so much of how divisive a force religion can be.

So I grew up on one level deeply engaged with the Christian narrative and on another completely emotionally detached from it. It seems that it stayed with me and now that I’m an adult it seemed the easiest way into certain questions for me, the easiest way to frame certain issues, particularly issues of faith and the extent to which you create the reality around you through your own belief in your own self, in a god or whatever. Issues of freedom and predestination.

Lucifer is a book which is about trying to define yourself, trying to break free from your influences, to become you own person. Its also a tragicomedy, to some extent, because the influence Lucifer is trying to break away from is God and so he’s always going to fail. The divine plan encompasses everything so wherever he escapes to, his father is already there. On one level its a family drama, its everybody’s struggle against their parents and on another level – I’m thinking of Elaine in some of the later issues – it’s about a different kind of determinism. We’ve been seeing in the last few decades the growth of a kind of reductionist Social Darwinism here in the UK and in America where people say “ well , we’ve found the gene for homosexuality, we’ve found the gene for obesity, we’ve found the gene for being tight with money”. Its crazy, human behaviour is not like that, its not determined by on/off switches at the genetic level but there are people within the scientific establishment who are saying you are this input and nothing else. I think Lucifer became my way of kicking against that idea.

Map of Midnight: Crossing Midnight Volume 2 is out 21st March

Previous Mike Carey interview

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