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Carey's Faker: A Thriller Rooted in Paranoia, With Some Existentialism Thrown In

A comics interview article by: Matthew McLean
Mike Carey, author of long running stints on Lucifer and Hellblazer, recently connected with SBC to discuss his current Vertigo six-part miniseries, Faker. Centered around a group of five college students, Faker takes the readers on a journey that starts in anywhere, USA and stretches out into the lands of paranoia. Carey took a few minutes to answer questions about the mini-series and its multi-layered characters.

Matthew McLean (MM): Faker is a story that largely centers around questions of identity, but it also deals with elements of speculative fiction. How did this idea evolve for you?

Mike Carey (MC): I have to say the genesis of the story lies in a rather strange word game that I play with Shelly Bond, who is the editor on Faker and has been my editor on many, many projects, going back all the way to Lucifer. Occasionally, Shelly and I will just fire words off at each other and see whatever words spark story ideas. It’s really just kind of a mental exercise. But strangely it has sparked some of my best recent works; Faker and Re-Gifted were both words that Shelly threw at me that I sort of then worked up into stories.

So as soon as Shelly said the word ‘faker’ I found myself thinking about the extent to which our social identities are built upon lies or, at the very least, imperfect or incomplete representations of ourselves – how we deliberately create masks, fake versions of ourselves for different situations. Especially, I think, when we’re going into new situations or meeting people for the first time – that’s when the process is at its most intense.

MM: I think that’s what people here in the United States call their game face.

MC: Right, right.

MM: Well, one of the main characters, Nick, who appears at the end of the first issue, begins to have problems early in the story as proof of his existence seems to be vanishing. If there was ever a place for a person to disappear, I think a university bureaucracy seem like a pretty likely place.

MC: [Laughter]

MM: Do you have any personal experience that shaped that choice?

MC: Only the same experiences that everybody has. It’s not just college bureaucracies, it’s bureaucracies in general. We live in an age when your informational footprint defines who you are, when you can find yourself denied loans or mortgages because your credit rating is shot because somebody else has been using your name and built up bad debt or because of a faulty record in some credit agency’s database. When information runs so much faster than we can hope to keep up with. That’s kind of the modern experience, the experience of having to prove yourself, having to provide the documentation that shows you are who you say you are. And, you know, biometric passports, ID cards, which are about to come into the UK, all of the post-9/11 developments in population control sort of feed into that. We live in an age where your identity is not taken for granted, where you have to keep constantly re-inscribing the space that is you.

MM: Well, that seems to be coming true of just about all bureaucracies.

What’s true and (as one can tell from the title) what’s not, the lies we tell others and the lies we tell ourselves, is an important element to the story, to a point where it becomes an element in the story that keeps the reader guessing. Was this something you set out to do or did it come out as the story took shape?

MC: It was definitely part of the original plan that the story would open out in different stages, things that we take for granted at the start were gradually be shown to be false. There would be no safe ground, in a way. That’s true even beyond issue #4. There are revelations in issue #4 that seem to be stripping away the lies, the deceit, the sophistry of many of the characters but there are layers beyond even that. I think if there’s a sort of core moment, a moment when the book’s central premise is stated, it’s when Jessie is talking to Yvonne and Yvonne says that there’s the false face you show to the world and then there’s the real you. And Jessie says, nope, there’s no real you, only the lie you tell yourself, it’s just the ultimate mask, that there is no heart of truth underneath the lies.

MM: That certainly puts the character Nick into an interesting light but I’ll get to that in just a minute. But speaking of Jessie, early in the first issue she seduces a teacher. At one point in your career you were a teacher yourself. How did it feel writing about something as sensitive and heavy as teacher / student sexual relations?

MC: [Laughter] Well, you know, there were…I had plenty of first hand and second hand experience to draw on there. I never met a Jessie. Jessie is, in some ways, a sort of extreme and unrealistic character. She’s kind of a concentration of a lot of different people who I’ve met in different capacities in different stages in my career.

Yeah, it’s raw stuff because it’s partially based on my experience and the experience of people who were very close to me. And I’m aware as I say that that the issue of teachers abusing and coercing students is far more widespread. I came across that on occasion too.

MM: So, having so much experience in that regard, was it something that you felt comfortable doing or did it still set parts of you on edge to put that to paper?

MC: I don’t think there’s anything about Faker or the core situations in Faker that you’re meant to feel comfortable with. It’s meant to be very uneasy and queasy making material. And we, sort of deliberately, pushed Jessie – we wanted Jessie to be the kind of character that would set alarm bells ringing for everybody wherever you stand on the political spectrum, however you stand on women’s rights and on the whole question of sexual exploitation of women. Jessie is a…something of a monster that cuts through and defies other people’s moral frameworks, and thereby becomes a touchstone for the people around her.

MM: The first issue starts off with Jessie who is, as you mentioned, a decidedly manipulative and, in many ways, unlikable character, being a serial blackmailer and (seemingly) emotional train wreck. Why did you decide to start the book from her perspective?

MC: I think the answer to that is in the course of the planning process Jessie just overtook all the other characters. She became, far and away, the most compelling and interesting character, so we have to start with her. Start and finish with her, she being the point of view character in issue six as well.

From some perspective, she is a monster and we deliberately put the worst foot forward. We show you the darkest side of Jessie’s nature right out of the gate and then we explain her, very gradually. We piece together some of the possible reasons why she became what she is. I think by the end of the story we understand her a lot better. By the end of the story, if we’ve done our job right, if we’ve told the story right, we should see the parts of Jessie…when we come to the end of Jessie’s story, we should be on her side. In a way the story ends on an open question and we should want the answer to be, “Yes.”

MM: Was there any concern between you or your editor that starting the series with such an unlikeable character might put people off from the rest of the series?

MC: It was something we talked about, but it was something that Shelly was always prepared to go with. It’s kind of like the difference between – and this is going to sound pretentious, I’m not preparing myself to classical literature – if you look at the greats in British drama there are two models really and they go all the way back to Shakespeare: You can either have a model where you get inside people’s heads and caring about the characters is essential. And that’s the way Shakespeare plays it all the time, essentially. Or you can take the Ben Jonson approach where you have a savage, satirical, external look at the characters and where sympathy is not necessary because the characters are basically there to state a premise and you enjoy yourself without emotionally engaging with them. I’m overstating the case, but do you see what I mean?

Faker falls towards the Ben Jonson end of the spectrum. It’s kind of like, we’re looking at relationships, we’re looking at the social forum where we play out our social identities. We’re looking at it in a detached way to begin with, although you have an increasing emotional commitment that comes in the course of the story. Or you should do. I hope you do. Shelly knew what I was trying to do and was right behind it. So it wasn’t a problem. Potentially it changes the way you relate to the material, but whether it lessens the pleasure, I don’t know. I hope not.

MM: In the latest issue of Faker “Angel’s Kiss” the supposed liquid hard drive is revealed to be a hallucinogenic and psychotropic weapon. What served as the inspiration for this?

MC: Well, I read about the experiments carried out by the American military in the ‘60s with LSD.

MM: MKULTRA.

MC: Yeah, yeah – there’s a long history of trying to use psychotropic drugs as a weapon. In that sense there’s nothing far fetched about “Angel’s Kiss”. The actual science of Angel’s Kiss doesn’t exist yet, but you can bet that when it does exist, military applications for it will be a part of what drives it.

MM: I’m sure that’s true. Specifically, how did the idea of it giving physical manifestation to an enemy combatant’s fears come into the story?

MC: From the point of view of the central themes of the story it’s kind of the ultimate expression of the fake you, of the fake self. I don’t think I’m giving too much away, by the time you get to issue #4 this is more or less stated – Nick is a mask jointly created by the other main characters – a fake self that manifested out of them when they were drunk and stoned and vulnerable. He expresses certain aspects of them that they don’t normally express in their day-to-day interactions with each other. He is more compassionate, more emotionally available then any of them allow themselves to be when they are dealing with themselves and their peers.

So Nick just isn’t like the horror concept at the core of the book, he’s also a statement of the book’s main theme about identity and how identity is continuously being generated in our interactions with others.

MM: That was something that I wanted to touch on, I’m glad you brought it up. It seems that Nick seems to have been born out of an evening’s camaraderie among a close group of friends, namely the main characters. But, as you pointed out, it’s a group of friends that aren’t entirely truthful to one another. Maybe they’re not even remotely truthful to one another. What does that mean for him? Is he the best of them? The worst? You mentioned he’s kind of this constructed mask for all of them – what does that make him as an individual?

MC: I think he’s the part they don’t use, he’s the part they don’t allow themselves day-to-day conscious access to, so he’s an amalgam of many things. One of the things he is to Jessie is a repository for memories that she’s suppressed, memories of sexual abuse that she suppressed. For all of them I think he’s the face that they don’t allow to show, the options they wouldn’t take in their normal interactions. Nick is compassionate, he’s caring, he’s thoughtful, he’s concerned – he’s kind of like the antithesis in some ways of the hard-nosed, witty, socially engaged, emotionally detached persona that our protagonists feel most comfortable with – that many people of college age feel most comfortable with.

MM: I could definitely see where you would draw that opinion. But if Nick is kind of that representation for the protagonists, is he anything for himself?

MC: In a way that’s kind of the core question. Readers will have to answer that questions for themselves. I don’t want to give a definitive yes or no to that. Is he anything for himself? You have more information to go on by the time you’ve got to issue six – we see him making decisions in extreme circumstances and we see him do something which seems not to come from them, but I don’t know. I don’t know what the answer is there. The story has to speak for itself.

MM: The latest issue of Faker [#4] brings up the possibility of the physical aspect of identity vanishing when government agents show up and whisk the characters to an unknown place. And that kind of ties into what you were talking about with the post-9/11 paranoid culture. Is that where the focus of the story is headed?

MC: In terms of structure, yes. If the first part of the story has that kind of individual focus on Nick’s existential crisis, the second half has more of the flavor of a ‘70s paranoid thriller – the whole military industrial complex and the idea that they’re out to get you and they make the rules and you’re completely helpless in the face of that machine. But it pulls back to the existential dimension at the end. It ultimately focuses in on Nick’s crisis and Jessie’s crisis and the crises of the other main characters and ends where it began. Emotionally speaking. We end on Nick and Jessie.

MM: Interesting. Well, that is all of the prepared questions I had for you. Hopefully, if people reading this haven’t picked up Faker yet, this conversation will intrigue them enough that they will. Is there anything you would like to add?

MC: Yes! I’d like to give a really, really strong recommendation to a book I’m reading at the moment, which maybe because Faker is on my mind, made me think aboutFaker. It’s by Geraldine McCaughrean and it’s called The White Darkness. It’s a wonderful, fucking brilliant book, one of the best books I’ve read in many years. It has a lot to say about faking it, the false front we put up to others and…Jesus, it’s just a magnificent book.

MM: I’ll make sure to check it out. Thanks for taking the time.


Be sure to visit Matthew McLean’s website here.

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