Mike Carey: Carrying on the X-Men Legacy

A comics interview article by: Matthew McLean
In the wake of the 13 part “Messiah Complex” Professor Xavier is gravely injured and the X-Men are disbanded. As such, Marvel Comics is retooling all the X-Men titles with new creative directions and in some cases, new creative teams. Mike Carey (Faker, Crossing Midnight, Stranded) remains as writer of X-Men, which has been renamed X-Men: Legacy.

Comics Bulletin’s Matthew McLean gets the lowdown on Carey’s Legacy plans and the unique challenge in writing the X-Men

Matthew McLean (MM): The last time we spoke we talked about Faker which is obviously a very different title than X-Men: Legacy. In Legacy there's more violence, the stakes are higher and the characters are someone else's creations with a long, storied history. So how do you work with that?

Mike Carey (MC): You're right, it does present different challenges and the opportunity to stretch a different set of writing muscles. I think, by and large, I have a reputation as someone who comes in with a respect for existing continuity. But clearly with X-Men you are dealing with such a colossal weight of continuity, with such an expansive, epic back story. Just getting up to speed on it and acknowledging it in ways that don't overwhelm the current story arc is a constant challenge. You always have to keep it in mind.

The way I approached it when I first came on board with X-Men was to immerse myself in it. I'm a long time fan, so I already had a reasonably good background knowledge, but when you consider that there are 4000 or 5000 X-Men related issues of story-telling, there were bound to be gaps. I spent a very enjoyable couple of months filling in some of those gaps, reading stories that I missed and generally getting prepped.

The other challenge is that this is the first time I've ever written a book in a franchise, as it were, a book that was a part of a line of titles, which have to share continuity and acknowledge each other. Fortunately for me, this is not a new situation for Marvel and they were very good indeed, very efficient at keeping the writers and the artists up to speed on things, passing on information, passing on actual scripts. So you're always aware of where everyone else is on the game board, and I think as a result of that we played off each other very effectively, both in the build up to "Messiah CompleX" and in the crossover itself.

MM: I can see how that would be a pretty massive undertaking.

MC: It was. But I wasn't undertaking it from scratch. I go back a long way with the X-Men. In fact, it was Chris Claremont's X-Men that got me back into reading comics at a time in my teens when I had more or less given up. I was just walking past the store when I saw one of the "Starjammer" issues and picked it up and read it. I pretty faithfully kept up with it for a couple of decades after that.

MM: Wow. So, you've got a good many projects on your plate lately, so you probably have to write on more than one title in a single day. How do you mentally switch gears when you move from projects that are very different, from, say X-Men: Legacy to Crossing Midnight?

MC: What I try to do, and I'm not sure if this is the best way or not, I try to set aside one week for a project. I'll work on X-Men one week and Fantastic Four the next week and then a Stranded script. I try to make that the game plan.

What tends to upset that, of course, is the planning and, to an even greater extend, the re-writes. They just happen when they happen and they run right over those guidelines. You have to do things like that when it's appropriate. Your editor needs to know where you are going so he can commission covers, so he can make decisions about art teams and so on. And re-writes can come in any day of the week and sometimes they come in with a certain amount of urgency. There is always some mixing and matching on the fly – firefighting – and it can be hard. What I have to do in those situations is build buffer zones in wherever possible and when it's not possible, roll with it. Spend a few hours re-familiarizing myself with the arc, re-reading the last couple of scripts, soaking up the atmosphere and getting in the right frame of mind to write.

MM: What do you mean by buffer zone?

MC: Buffer zone, yeah again, this is probably not universal but its something that I do. If I've been working on an X-Men script but I have to do a Crossing Midnight re-write, say, in the same evening, in between there I'll spend some time doing something that's completely unrelated to comics. Typically, I'll do a sudoku puzzle or maybe I'll read a chapter or two of a novel. Kind of getting my mind out of one mind set before I try to get it into another.

MM: Sudoku is an interesting choice for that. I could see how that might work very well for changing your mindset given the numerical nature of it.

I suppose we should actually talk about X-Men: Legacy itself. So to get more into the future of X-Men: Legacy Professor Xavier has been shot in the head and Cyclops has disbanded the X-Men. Where does Legacy take readers from there?

MC: Legacy picks up almost immediately after the events of X-Men #207 so it is scant minutes after Xavier's been shot. We pick up in a different location but with a very short amount of elapsed time. We are dealing with an attempt to revive him, to save his life even though he's technically already dead, by Exodus who is perhaps one of the very few characters in the X-verse who has the raw power needed for a job like this. Although, as it turns out, he's not able to save Xavier in any meaningful way by himself. He needs help from other sources. The first issue deals with that attempt to repair the physical, organic damage to Xavier and also to begin addressing the damage to his mind which is colossal. He lost a large amount of his brain mass.

That's the initial crisis; bringing him back. For reasons I won't go into just yet.

MM: OK, I can certainly respect that. Overall, what would you say that Legacy is about?

MC: It's a book which explores the very, very rich backstory of the X-Men universe, the X-Men shared continuity; a book that looks again at some of the key moments, key events and key relationships that have shaped the present status quo. It's looking through the lens of one man's perceptions, it's about Xavier's pivotal role in forming, shaping and defining X-Men. But put like that, it sounds sort of like a history book. It's not, it's emphatically not a history book. It's about the present as well as the past and it's about ways in which the past constrains the current situation in the X-verse, right down to things that some characters may not even be aware of. We're going back to moments in X history which we already know about but we don't know the whole story about and we're filling in those gaps.

We're also dealing with Xavier, in some ways, reinterpreting his own life, re-examining his own life in the light of recent events. So it's a book that looks at the past, but it's a book that looks at the past in the rearview mirror as it's going forward.

MM: Well, it's refreshing to have a book that'll do that without relying on a time machine or something like that.

MC: [Laughter]

MM: Well, as you've said and as readers are probably guessing from the name Legacy is said to focus on past characters to some extent. Who are readers going to see and in what capacity?

MC: The only character who will be on stage all the time is Xavier himself. Around him is a rolling supporting cast. Initially we see him in relation to the Acolytes, Omega Sentinel, some other characters that I won't mention, but not the X-Men. It'll be a long time before we see him interact with core cast. There are very good reasons that he doesn't initially come to them and say, "I'm alive, let's be friends again." Things that have happened recently have made that difficult to do. Also, he has other priorities, other more urgent priorities that he has to address.

In the second and third arcs we bring in Rogue and Gambit; we bring in some classic X villains – Sebastian Shaw is going to make an appearance. Beyond that there will be some surprises. I won't name any more names if you don't mind.

MM: No, not at all. Can you talk about what Xavier's priorities are going to be at all?

MC: It has to do with putting himself back together, putting his own mind back together. Exodus has some of the strongest telekinetic powers of any X-Men character and he's able to repair Xavier's brain at a cellular level absolutely perfectly and absolutely seamlessly. The problem is that during the time that Xavier is dying and then dead a lot of the memories he had drained away. The damage was so massive that the memories couldn't be restored. We're talking about significant physical damage and therefore significant memory loss. What he's doing in the first few arcs is trying to fill the gaps in his knowledge and understanding of himself by going to the people that he knew at key moments in his past and taking their memories of him to replace his own memories of his own actions.

Inevitably, that means he's getting contradictions and distortions, so he can't necessarily trust what he's getting. But at least it's a starting point – it's better than nothing.

MM: So he's going to be reconstructing himself, on some level, through people's views of himself?

MC: Yeah.

MM: [Laughter] That should be entertaining to read. I do not envy him.

MC: No, it's a terrifying existential crisis really. And, of course, some of the people who he will be choosing to visit are old friends, old lovers even. Others are inveterate enemies and they're gonna be problems. He's [Xavier] quite concerned to do this ethically, not simply to steal without permission what he doesn't have.

MM: That sounds very Xavier like. I can't imagine how frightening that would be.

MC:: I guess the gem of the idea came from reading Oliver Sacks, the guy who did Awakenings. He wrote about a number of patients he treated, who had Korsakov’s Syndrome; they couldn't lay down new memories, couldn't transfer memories from short term to long term. They were always in a state of waking up and realizing they were in unfamiliar surroundings. They'd close their eyes for a few seconds and when they woke up, they wouldn't know where they were. You could introduce yourself, walk out of their line of site and when you come back in, seeing you again is like seeing you for the first time. It started me thinking about things like that and how they would impact on your identity as a human being.

MM: That actually touches on a question I wanted to ask you: Where did the concept of Legacy come from? Was it something that was editorial driven, emerged from a retreat, or was it an idea you pitched?

MC:: It was kind of a fusion, coming from me and from the X office. There was a feeling, and I think both Axel and Nick agreed on this, that every X-Men book coming out of "Messiah CompleX" should have a unique identity, that a proliferation of teams doing similar things was probably not the best shape for the line. Nick had said that one of the things that would be very cool to do would be to explore the X-Men's past. You've got readers out there that have come on board at many different points. There are lots of storylines that have never been collected, never been re-distributed, there are dangling plot threads from a long time ago that could be picked up again. And he asked me if I'd be interested in writing a book like that. My first thought was, "My God, that would be a hard thing to do."

MM: [Laughter]

MC:: Then my second was that it was pretty irresistible. Because it's so much damn fun. Somebody I know who writes about comics from a critical perspective said to me once that if you just consider the X-Men and all the stories that are attached to the X-men as a single text, it's the single biggest mythological text that the human race has ever produced.

MM: I don't doubt that.

MC:: So I said, "Yes, I'd like to do it." Then I went away and tried to think of an interesting way into it that would be cool, not re-telling this story or that story, but telling a new story that touches on all of them.

MM: Let's get into some more details. How was the decision reached to flip, or seemingly flip, Bishop's position from hero from the future to traitor?

MC:: The decision really never presented itself in those terms. I know that's how he’s described online – as the X-traitor. But that's certainly not how he sees himself. Let's not forget the reason he came back to our time in the first place was to flush out a traitor. He had the survival of the X-Men very much at heart. I'm absolutely sure that he sees himself as a good man committing a necessarily evil act. He doesn't see himself as a villain. I would imagine that it gnaws at him an awful lot, that he's got to sever his ties with the X-Men in order to do this. But as far as he's concerned it's the survival of the mutant race and, to some extent, the survival of the whole world that’s at stake.

MM: To that point, on one hand we've got Bishop claiming the child is a mutant anti-christ and on the other you have Cable saying she saves both human and mutant kind. Obviously, it can't be both. Will Legacy play a role in defining what the child will be?

MC:: No. Certainly not in the short term. The child's fate is going to be played out in Cable.

You're right, you can't have it both ways. But in a sense you can have it either way. The future is not set in stone and everyone has the potential to play a great many contradictory roles on the world stage and even in their own personal lives. You have the experience, I’m sure, of how sometimes the course your life takes is not entirely under your control.

MM:: Definitely.

MC:: Chance things, or things that appear to be chance, impact on you and make you choose one path or another path, a kind of butterfly effect of tiny variations with huge consequences. Let's say for arguments sake there's a parallel universe in which Adolf Hitler fell in love with a Jewish woman early in his life and she was intelligent and compassionate and helped him solve his own personal issues. So he still became the chancellor of Germany but there was never a second world war, because he was an enlightened leader. That's a ridiculous example, I know, but people don’t necessarily lead lives that are primarily shaped by their own aspirations. Sometimes external things act on us, shape us and push us down unexpected pathways.

MM:: Out of curiosity, I've got to ask, what made the baby's birth possible after the events of M-Day?

MC:: That's something we simply can't answer at this stage. We can't even guess at it. Maybe it could be the resurgence of the X gene, maybe the birth is a sign that whatever Wanda did is starting to unravel at the edges, in which case we would expect to see many more mutant births. But if this remains a one-off event, which at this moment it seems to be, then it must be something about the nature of this child, something very very special about this child which negates or transcends what Wanda did. If that is the case it will be something that will be revealed in time.

MM:: Interesting. That was also a much more interesting answer than 'No comment' as well. I appreciate that.

MC:: [Laughter]

MM:: In addition to having this vast history, the cast of the X-Men is almost equally large. Do you have a favorite character, or on that's easier to write? Is there one that is the most difficult?

MC:: I have a lot of favorite characters. I love Cyclops. I've always loved Cyclops. I think I can identify with him as a kind of wish fulfillment role model. I like him because he's so straight laced. He's the guy who always does the decent thing but we're seeing that within that there's a colossal strength, an ability when the need arises to be ruthless and pragmatic.

MM:: To make the hard choices.

MC:: Yeah, exactly. I like Cyclops, I like writing Cyclops, I think he's a fully rounded character and a very satisfying one.

I'm fond of Beast. I like the fact that he's an intellectual in an animal body.

I like Emma because it's always fun to write a really bitchy character.

MM:: [Laughter]

MC:: They always have the great one liners.

I love Rogue. I've always loved Rogue, from the moment she was introduced. I love the way her power works, and the way it's screwed her up. In a way, Rogue is the quintessential X-Man for me, because power is not a blessing for her, it's a curse. It brings so many entanglements and so many problems in its wake it almost negates itself.

Who else? Wolverine is lots of fun to write. I enjoyed writing him in the Firebreak one-off and in "Messiah CompleX".

I like a lot of the kids, the new X-Men. Pixie's very cool

MM:: Is there one that is the most difficult?

MC:: Uhmm…I have to think about that one.

I guess there are characters that you are intimidated by because other writers have voiced so well that you're afraid you'll fall down here, that you won't do the character justice. Kyle and Yost’s version of X-23 would be an example there.

MM:: Well, that's all of my prepared questions. Is there anything you'd like to plug while you've got an audience?

MC:: Besides Legacy itself? I've got a number of new projects. Stranded #1 is out from Virgin Comics this week. There's a number of things I'm working on but they won't hit till later this year. That's about it I guess.

MM:: Thanks for taking the time.

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