Recently, Geoff Collins got the chance to sit down and chat with the talented, Mike Carey. In this interview we get a unique look into the world of a comic book writer, along with an in-depth look at Carey’s newest hit, The Unwritten.
Geoff Collins: I’m one of those people that love to hear about the creative process. How did The Unwritten go from the idea to the actual comic?
Mike Carey: A lot of different things came together really. Peter Gross and myself had been trying to launch a new project ever since Lucifer finished — actually since before Lucifer finished — because we both greatly enjoyed that collaboration. We both found Lucifer really rewarding and we wanted to work together again on another book if we could. So we pitched a lot of different projects — I mean, literally, somewhere in the region of a dozen. This is the one that actually went somewhere.
Peter came up with this idea about a character who is simultaneously real and fictional. He saw it as two parallel stories; one about the character in the real world and one about their fictional counterpart. I had an idea about the different ages of the world in Hindu mythology and the change-over from one age to the next being brought about by a musical instrument wielded by an angel. Only in this case it’s actually picked up and sounded by a human being. Initially these seemed to be two completely different stories.
Probably the thing that brought them together was Christopher Robin. I had read the first volume of his autobiography in which he complained about the effect that Winnie the Pooh had on his life — the fact that his father had turned him into this fictional child and throughout his life he was known as a child. As an adult he had to cope with the fact that everyone knew him as this cute little six-year-old. So that was the catalyst for putting all these elements together in one book.
GC: The first issue obviously had some themes of celebrity and media. Is there a theme that really drives the plot forward for the rest of the issues?
MC: I think the dominant theme of this series is the question of importance of stories in people’s lives. When Count Ambrosio says in issue one, “Stories are the only thing worth dying for,” obviously he’s using stories in a very wide sense to include the core narratives of religions and many other things. We’re exploring the question of stories, the role of stories, in people’s lives; the ways in which stories have impacted our reality and shaped reality. So I guess if there’s one Juggernaut that moves the plot forward, it’s that.
GC: In the debate with Count Ambrosio and Tommy where Ambrosio says, “Stories are the only thing worth dying for,” what do you feel this debate serves to represent outside the comic?
I think what people do when they identify themselves with this group or that is that they accept a story and position themselves within it. I’m thinking in terms of political thought, religious faith, in terms of nationality, or whatever, even in terms of philosophical positions. Every group really has a story, a narrative, which explains and justifies its existence. When you join the group, you not only become part of the audience for that story, you also become a character in it. So Ambrosio is saying this is what life’s about. At the heart of reality there is fiction.
Tom is saying, “Yeah, but in this case the fiction doesn’t matter. It’s a kids’ story and you’re going to kill me because you think this story is more about you than it is about me. I don’t care, I don’t care one way or the other, just let me live.”
It’s not a question of one or the other being right. It’s a question of coming to the same proposition from two radically different viewpoints, in deciding how important these things are going to be in your life.
GC: What facets of real life did you tap into to paint the picture of fiction verses reality?
MC: Well, I guess what we do in the book is at first we set up simple oppositions between Tommy books and the real world outside the Tommy books. We have many different strands — many different forms of narrative. We see a dramatized sequence from one of the Tommy Taylor novels but we also see a sequence from a movie, which is a secondary fiction based on one of the Tommy Taylor novels. We have news articles, TV news broadcasts. We have conversations on message board threads — we have a mosaic of different media.
I guess what we’re trying to convey there is just how interrelated these narratives are, and how far and how subtly they embed themselves in our lives. So it becomes a tapestry of stories and opinions, stories and commentaries on stories. We’re involved in each other’s narratives.
It’s important that as you read on you get this sense of a sphere of ideas. Like the biosphere, the sphere of all living things, which is a shallow skin over the face of the earth. But there’s also a kind of ideasphere — a sphere of narratives, explanations, and commentaries that we all partake of, take part in.
GC: During a previous interview you said that Tom Taylor was, “challenged to justify his entire existence.” I thought that was a hilarious line and I’ve been dying to ask you, if you were in that situation how would you justify your entire existence?
MC: [Laughs] Um, I think I’d point to my kids. I’ve got three kids and I look at them sometimes and think, “I could die now and my life would have had a point.”
MC: I did a kind of very tongue-in-cheek chat show panel in Leeds. One of the questions that panelists were asked to respond to was — they were given a particular comic book and asked how important this comic book was to their lives and what memories they attached to this comic book. When mine came up I had no idea what the book was. It was Mind-Boggling Adventures #573 or something like that, and I had no associations to it whatsoever. So I was like, “Oh, well when I was on my third tour of Vietnam I had that comic book rolled up in my breast pocket. Somebody shot at me and the comic book deflected the bullet.” It was honestly the best thing I could come up with.
GC: The first issue has a lot of literary geography references and it takes place at a few London landmarks. How important is literary geography to this story and to your writing in general?
MC: It’s very important. It’s no accident that Tom was being schooled in that way — that his father gave him those tests and gave him that knowledge. On the very last page in the comic there’s a page of notes and behind that is a map: we’ll be seeing that map in issue three. Actually we even glimpse it in #2, but in a flashback. It plays a very big part in this story as it unfolds. It’s the Waldseemüller Map which is the first map ever to refer to the American continent by that name. Wh
en Tom finds the map there are certain things he has to do as a result and literary geography becomes a very central theme.
GC: Why did you decide to make the Tommy Taylor books similar to a real life series of books?
MC: It’s not just one series of books; there are references to different books which will become more obvious as we go on. Frankenstein comes into the third issue. We put together a kind of smorgasbord of fictions, including some of our favorites. We let our story cross refer to these other stories as we go along. What you get from that is a richness of reference, a richness of cross reference, and an increasing momentum as the story goes forward.
But we used the “boy wizard” archetype as a starting point for very obvious reasons: maximum recognition, maximum impact. Everyone can read the shorthand and take the point about story becoming celebrity becoming cultural phenomenon.
GC: A lot of Tom’s fans refer to him as being a messiah in the first issue and there’re a few references to the Bible. Does the Bible serve more as a literary reference or a religious reference?
MC: I’m not sure that we would draw a distinction between those two. What we would say is we’re interested in the narratives of the great religions. Religions provide spectacular examples of stories that persist and survive and replicate themselves. They are among the most successful stories ever told in that they sort of brand themselves on the human consciousness. They make huge communities who are bound together by nothing but that story and yet still feel a sense of identity, a sense of belonging. For us — I don’t think Peter will mind if I put words in his mouth here — a religion is to a large extent a phenomenon that relies on a narrative. That’s not meant to sound like a reductionist point of view: the story comes first and people believe in the story and the religion grows out of the story.
MC: They offer different kinds of satisfaction, different kinds of pleasure. With X-Men for example, one of the things that’s so cool about writing the X-Men is that I grew up loving those characters and reading the adventures of those characters, so being able to add some chapters to their story feels like a great thing, feels like a really cool thing. I’ve sort of had to pinch myself a few times because it’s hard to believe that ambition has been realized.
When you’re working on a book that you create yourself then the pleasure is that you’re building everything from scratch, you’re building a world. When you step back you can think, “This is mine, this is ours. It didn’t exist before we came along.” It’s also very, very exciting but in a different way.
GC: What are the similarities working with the two?
MC: I guess my working method. My approach to planning and writing a comic book is pretty much invariable. I always use a top-down method where I’ll do a huge overview plan of a year or a couple of years’ worth of stories. Then I’ll do a plan for an arc which is narrowed down to more details and then I’ll do beat sheets — scene breakdowns — of issues and then I’ll write. It’s incredibly anal, but I have to go through those three stages before I write. If I try to go straight to script without doing a beat sheet I can’t do it. It kind of falls apart in my hands. I need to have planned it all out beforehand. Even if I then ignore the plan, move away from the plan, I still need to have the plan there.
GC: Do you prefer doing the self created or doing the publisher owned?
MC: I don’t think I can answer that. Every project is different. Some of the things I’ve had the most fun with have been my own and some have been company owned. It’s like saying, “What’s your favorite movie?” or whatever. You can come up with an answer but it’s never the real answer because the truth is that you have 20 or 30 or 40 favorite movies. You can’t really choose. When you get to the top you can’t really choose between them because they’re all great in different ways. Is ice cream better then pickles?
GC: A lot of my friends that are writers refer to the characters they come up with as their “children” or their “babies.” I was wondering, working in comics, how’s it feel when a new creative team takes over a character and moves them in their own direction?
MC: So far when that’s happened I’ve usually felt a sense of pride, a sense of satisfaction. If you create a new character and then he or she becomes a part of a mythos or if you pull a character out of obscurity and put them in a spotlight and then someone else comes and moves them forward that’s actually a really cool thing. I’ve never felt any sense of ownership about characters.
When someone asked Neil Gaiman about the similarities between Books of Magic and Harry Potter, and said, “How do you feel about the fact that some of the ideas that you’ve created seem so similar to this thing JK Rowling has created? Do you feel like she’s stolen anything from you?” Gaiman said, “No, of course not. It’s ridiculous to think in those terms. Popular culture is a stew. And what happens when you write is that you take a big ladle full out of the stew and if you’re lucky you put stuff back in the stew as well, then other people take from that. These ideas don’t belong to me, they don’t belong to Rowling, they’re just part of the stew.”
GC: How was your experience working on Ender’s Shadow and adapting a novel into a comic book?
MC: I’ve done this twice now. I also adapted the novel Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman into a Vertigo series. I find it really, really fulfilling. It’s strange. It’s a more intellectual process in some ways than writing your own stuff because you start by looking at the original book and abstracting from it the things you want to include. There’s a hierarchy of things that absolutely have to be there versus things that are less essential, and then there’s another hierarchy of things that can be lifted straight across versus things that need to be changed or translated in some way. So there’s something of a crossword-solving element to it in the first stage. Then you have to move from that abstract to something more concrete and more resonant, you have to put the heart and the feeling back into it again. It’s wonderful. It’s a process that stretches you as a writer. It makes you think about narrative in a very conscious way. Sometimes with your own stuff you go by that gut feeling, but with an adaptation the most important decisions are more conscious and explicit.
GC: What creative liberties do you feel have to be taken when adapting a novel to a comic book?
MC: In some cases you have to abridge. A novel is a huge shapeless bag, it can be any length at all; comic books have a fixed length by and large, unless you’re doing a one-off graphic novel. If it’s a monthly book, a monthly series, you have a rhythm which is imposed by that and you have to make sure that the story you’re telling fits
that rhythm. That may mean moving some scenes. It certainly means abridging some conversations. If you put every word of every conversation from the novel into a comic book you’d probably end up with a comic book that’s about a thousand pages long. That’s one thing.
Another thing is that narrative formulas work differently in the two media. For example when we were doing Neverwhere, I think one of the most profound changes we made was that we took the character Richard Mayhew and we made him a first-person narrator for the story. The novel, like most novels, like maybe 70% of novels, has an omniscient third-person narrative; it’s all told in the third-person. That device is so ubiquitous that it’s completely invisible: it’s hardly perceived as a device at all, until the writer starts to play variations on it — like Bleak House, where you get alternating first-person and third-person narratives. In a comic book third person narrative is not invisible, it’s very marked. It used to be used a lot, but for the last 25-30 years it hasn’t been widely used and so it draws attention to itself when it is used. That’s fine if you’re making a specific point that requires a specific approach: we weren’t, and we felt that a third-person narrative would be a stumbling block in telling the story. So we decided to have a first-person narrator.
And some readers hit that and bounced. If you come straight from the novel to the comic, of course, it’s a jolt. And some people always want the adaptation to recreate the original experience perfectly, which it can’t.