Mike Carey: "I’m not a fan of the way comics have been ghettoised"

The British graphic novelist reflects on the form - and the trouble with reading fan forums.

With the sad news that Kapow! Comic Con has been put on hold this year, Britain is still not short of comic conventions in 2013/ The year kicks off in style next month with the second outing of the London Super Comic Convention. The LSCC hit the headlines last year by scooping Stan Lee as the headline guest, and their follow up sees a pantheon of UK and US stars gathering on the 23rd and 24th of February at the Excel Centre in London.

In the next couple of weeks I'll be talking with guests including the legendary Neal Adams, star writer of Batman, Green Lantern/Green Arrow, X-Men and pioneer of securing greater creator rights for all, as well as  David Lloyd, Tim Seeley, David Mack and David Hine.

We start, though, with one of my favourite comic writers, Liverpool's own Mike Carey, writer of comics such as X-Men, Hellblazer, Lucifer, Fantastic Four and his own Vertigo series, The Unwritten, as well as the popular Felix Castor novels.

We’ve recently seen a graphic novel win a prestigious literary award here in the UK. Mary and Bryan Talbot’s Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes has caused a great deal of excitement amongst the mainstream press (bam, pow, comics not just for kids! etc). As a writer of both comics and novels, what are your thoughts on both graphic novels being included in the nominations for such literary awards, and the reaction?

It seems to me to be a very natural thing. I’m certainly not a fan of the way comics have traditionally been ghettoised. This may be controversial, but I’d point to the Hugo awards as an example of the distortion this can lead to. I shouldn’t complain, as I’ve been nominated a couple of times, but the graphic fiction category in the Hugos has just never seemed to reflect the diversity and maturity of the field the way the novel and short story categories do.

In a way, all awards are about making arbitrary distinctions, but it matters where you draw the lines. In a way I was chagrined to find that it was still considered newsworthy that comic book stories could be for grown-ups.

The length of your comics backlist demonstrates just how prolific and popular a writer you have been, and continue to be, with particularly large bodies of work for both Vertigo and Marvel. The former has seen some major changes in the last few months, with Karen Berger leaving, and Hellblazer wrapping up. Does it feel like an end of an era, or simply another new chapter?

The end of an era, certainly, but not the end of the Vertigo imprint. Karen leaving is a very big thing, and I wouldn’t want to downplay it. She founded the line, gave it its definition and its mission statement, and was personally involved in every aspect of its running every day she worked at DC. But she built well, and Vertigo will go on. It’s in very good hands, with Shelly Bond taking over as executive editor. I’m very sad about the loss of Hellblazer, though. John can go off and have adventures in the DCU. Of course he can. That’s where he was born. But Vertigo is where he came of age, and it’s where he lives.

The Unwritten is currently ongoing, with fantastic sales and popular trade editions. For those who haven’t read it, could you explain a little about it?

A young boy is immortalised in his father’s stories about a lovable boy wizard – the fictional character (Tommy Taylor) having the same name as the real boy. Then the boy grows up, and discovers that he can do magic. He’s forced to face the horrific conclusion that he may be the fictional character somehow dragged across into the real world, all his memories expertly implanted and his whole past a lie.

There’s a lot more to it than that – it keeps growing as we go on. But it’s a story about stories. About why they matter to us and what they do to the world. It’s something that Peter Gross and I dreamed up together, and we’ve both got some fairly extreme views about how far reality actually deserves that name. Stories are where we live, most of the time. Reality is a place we sometimes visit. But paradoxically, that expresses itself in the series when Tom Taylor starts to visit the worlds of various fictional works and to interact with the characters. He has a lot to discover about what he really is and why he exists.

The Unwritten is a fantastic first comic for literature fans if they haven’t yet explored the world of sequential art. What are your main influences for this series?

The most visible, to start with, are obviously the various books and series – and comics – that centre on boy wizards. We’ve got nods to most of those, including the most famous and the most obscure. Underneath that, there’s a very large debt to the autobiography of Christopher Milne – who was the Christopher Robin of the Winnie the Pooh books. Tom’s dilemma at the start of our story is very much the one that Christopher Milne faced. He was famous on someone else’s terms, created or recreated in his father’s works, and the world saw him through that lens, which was a thing he pretty much hated.

As we go on, though, The Unwritten becomes our love letter to the stories that have had a formative influence on us. There are a lot of direct references and a lot of sneakier, subtler ones. We get to do some pretty outrageous things. I’ll never be able to attend a Moomintroll convention, much as I love those books!

You were a teacher before turning to comics fulltime, as well as – I believe – a comics journalist? Is the rising prominence of Comic Studies within universities, and comics on reading lists in schools, something you could have foreseen in the early days?

We were already doing it to a certain extent in the courses that I taught. Not literature as such – we had to call it media studies – but we were doing close analysis of comics as texts. It’s very good to see that process being taken to new levels.

And on the journalism/criticism side of things, do you keep up with online feedback to your work, or comics journalism as a whole?

I do read reviews of my stuff – in an anxious, fretful defensive frame of mind. It’s probably not healthy, but I do it anyway. What I don’t do (what, never? Hardly everrrrr) is get drawn into online arguments about my stuff. The last time I did that was during the closing year of my X-Men run. I had Rogue and Magneto become lovers, which seemed like a very natural thing to me, and I was pretty much accused of showing rape and rapists in a favourable light.

Not because I had Magneto rape Rogue, which would have been completely unthinkable, but because some hardline fans who objected to the relationship chose to read literally a simile that had appeared in one panel of one issue of one X-Men comic some years before. Magneto had forced Rogue into direct skin contact with Gambit, triggering her powers. She compared this to a rape, in that her free will had been taken away from her. It was always a very dodgy analogy: if being involuntarily subjected to Rogue’s power is a rape, that would make her a serial rapist. But anyway, there was this elision and there was this argument. And I sailed into a few message board discussions where these accusations were flying. On some, like Comic Book Resources, I was very civilly received. On others I was mugged and rolled and left for dead. You’re never going to win against internet trolls because they’ve got more time to devote to shouting than you can ever give to shouting back, and they get more fun out of it.

A great number of your comics, from Lucifer to X-Men, have really spotlighted the female support characters in a way that some/many titles fail to realise. Do you notice the lack of (clothed, strong) women characters in other comics and/or are women characters as a whole something you are particularly drawn to?

I think the truth is that I write what I like to read, which is probably what everyone does. I like strong female characters, and I often find macho male leads really dull.

Like any medium, comics has its rogues’ gallery of sexist sexist portrayals of women and of relationships between women and men. And it also has some wonderful work that’s the complete opposite of that lazy claptrap. What’s more distressing, in a way, is the way art conventions have shifted. It’s worse because in the US mainstream it’s become ubiquitous and inescapable. It’s almost impossible to find women who are drawn realistically. Mostly they have breasts like dirigible airships, waists you could circle with finger and thumb, and legs that are three times as long as their torsos. And, as you say, they don’t wear any clothes. Or else they do, but it’s the superhero equivalent of bondage gear. I do hate that stuff. And I hate that it’s become a default, so unless you spell out exactly what you want, bondage gear is what you get.

Lucifer is coming back into print this year, due to high demand I imagine as it is such a classic series. Is Lucifer a series you look back on with fondness, and do you keep in touch with Neil Gaiman?

I’m very, very proud of Lucifer. To have written it at all was a wonderful thing for me. I was and am a huge Sandman fan, so getting to play in that continuity was very much a dream come true. And I felt like I did almost everything I’d set out to do – told the story I wanted to tell, and stopped when it was over. That’s one of the wonderful things about writing at Vertigo. If the creative team say “this is where it ends”, the editors respect that decision and support it.

It’s been ages since I talked to Neil, but we’ve always got on really well when we’ve met. He’s been immensely generous to me, both in the creative freedom he’s allowed me with his creations and in the support he’s offered. In the early days of Lucifer we talked a lot, but it was mainly me bouncing ideas off him and him giving me feedback when I asked for it. He was never prescriptive or proprietary about the journeys I wanted to take the characters on, which given his personal stake in that universe is really something.

You’ve also written a fantastic series of novels – the Felix Castor series. Could you extemporise a little on those? The sixth book is due out later this year I believe?

Actually I’m way behind deadline on that one. I wrote something else instead – something that was obsessing me. So Castor 6 will come, but it will be a while.

With the Castor novels, I was trying to do a modern riff on the noir gumshoe approach. I saw them as Raymond Chandler novels if L.A. was London and Marlowe was an exorcist. Certainly Castor has got some of the same DNA as Marlowe. He’s a flawed but mostly likeable man who’s trying to do the right thing in a world that often makes the right thing more or less impossible. He makes his living as an exorcist, but from as early as the first book he starts to have doubts about what he’s doing and to shift his sympathies from the living to the dead. It’s not easy being an exorcist with those sort of scruples.

All of this is against the backdrop of a world where the dead have started to rise in serious numbers. There are ghosts, zombies, even were-creatures, so there’s a big demand for exorcists, and there ‘s money to be made if you know what you’re doing. But the books have got their own take on the supernatural bestiary. There’s an explanation for the existence of these entities, and it’s the same explanation each time. I think that’s what I love about writing Castor – one of the things, anyway. It’s all internally consistent. There’s a big mystery underlying all the little mysteries, and the answer makes sense.

Having written across various mediums – comics, novels, screenplays, games etc – as well as writing adaptations from one to another, how strongly would you say that the medium is the message?

I think every medium has its own architecture, and you have to understand it to use it. When I started writing for film, I treated screenplays exactly as if they were comic scripts, and I was a little unhappy and nonplussed when the results came out unworkable.

You can’t ever just copy a story across from one medium into another. You have to re-invent it in the new medium, which is a lot more exciting and challenging.

The Unwritten is a creator owned property, and you write on many corporately owned titles as well. There has recently been a large movement of creators away from DC/Marvel for various ethical reasons, and “creator rights” is once again being discussed at length. Other writers, like Grant Morrison and yourself, seem happy to juggle both worlds – creating your own titles and playing in the mythic sandboxes. Is that fair to say, and what is your stance on creator rights?

Wow. That’s a tough question. Can I unpick it a little?

Creator rights. I think it’s a battle that’s never won. A standard gets adopted, then new media come along or the industry re-organises itself and it’s all to do again. There was a titanic struggle just before I started writing back in the late 80s, led by people like Alan Moore, and I got the benefits of that. But however that plays out, there will always be work for hire in the comics world. It’s the way the industry is organised. Books appear on a monthly basis, year in and year out, and characters outlast their creators. So I’m wary of contracts that I see as exploitative, and I’ve sometimes refused commissions because the contract called for a buy-out and there was no good reason for it. But so long as the terms are clear and you know what you’re signing up for, I don’t have any problem with doing work for hire. It’s the price you pay for working in that mythic sandbox, as you say. I wrote on X-Men for six years and for most of that time I absolutely loved it.

The London Super Comic Convention is relatively new, starting with a bang last year. Are you looking forward to attending?

Yeah, I really am. I’m old enough to remember when there was only one British con, and I’m revelling in the fact that there are now half a dozen. They’ve all got their own vibe. Thought Bubble is informal and friendly and intimate. Kapow is loud and brash and exciting. And LSCC is like a British San Diego, which means it’s got a bit of the three-ring circus about it. Lots going on, lots of spectacle, big headline acts, and a carnival atmosphere.

Finally, what works do you have coming out in the future? I’ve heard rumbles about a zombie novel and perhaps a Boom Studios superhero title?

Those are impressively accurate rumbles!

I am working with BOOM!, on a book that I’m having a huge amount of fun with. I’m also writing Houses of the Holy for the Apple Madefire app, with the amazing Dave Kendall doing the art.

It’s also true that I’ve written a sort of a… well, a horror novel, yeah. With zombies in it. Sort of. But it’s very hard to classify, and not at all like anything I’ve written before. I’m very excited about it.

And I’m co-writing another novel with my wife, Linda, and our daughter Louise. The first wasThe Steel Seraglio, published in the US by Chizine and about to be published in the UK by Gollancz. That was our homage to The Thousand and One Nights. The second, which uses the same structure of short stories embedded in a longer frame narrative, will probably be called Many Mansions.

And I’ve written the screenplay for a movie, Dominion, that seems to be about to go into production.

And this is going to be a big year for The Unwritten, of course, with our Fables event coming up, and something else very close to being announced.

So quite a lot, really. Life feels about as full as I want it to be!

Blimey! Before starting on all that, Mike will be at the London Super Comic Convention on the 23rd and 24th of February, happy to sign books and chat with his fans. Tickets are still available.

Panels from the Unwritten #1. Photograph: Mike Carey/Peter Gross/Vertigo Comics

Laura Sneddon is a freelance journalist. Find more of her work at comicbookgrrrl.com

David Brent: Life on the Road
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Ricky Gervais thinks his latest brand of David Brent comedy is subversive and clever. It’s not

Unlike The OfficeDavid Brent: Life on the Road is lazy, cheap, dated, and appeals to the lowest human impulses.

I love The Office. This is not a controversial statement. Who doesn’t love The Office? Just this morning, the series came second in a BBC poll of the greatest British comedies of the century. I loved The Office so much as a teenager that I watched every episode so many times I knew them by heart. I even knew parts of the DVD special features by heart. Still, now, if I want to cry with laughter I’ll watch Martin Freeman cracking up in bloopers. If I just want to cry I’ll watch the Christmas special.

It’s the toughest possible act to follow. Ricky Gervais has had to state over and over again that it would be crazy to try and recreate it at this point, and that the David Brent-starring works that have followed the series are not meant to be The Office. Still, the latest instalment, Gervais’s film David Brent: Life on the Road, begins in a (new) office, with the same mock-doc format as the television series. We see Brent making bad taste jokes with colleagues, telling the camera about his love for entertaining, embarrassing himself regularly. This is where the similarities end.

Perhaps deliberately, Life on the Road rejects every structural feature of The Office that made it such a celebrated programme. The Office stuck pretty rigidly to the documentary format, and used the constraints that format placed on the drama to its advantage (with scenes glimpsed through plastic blinds, or filmed from slightly too far away, feeding into the observational nature of the show). Life on the Road never bothers to commit either way, with cinematic shots and documentary style film-making meeting awkwardly in the middle alongside talking heads that would feel more at home in an overly earnest toothbrush advert than a tour doc.

The Office team knew that the best way to deepen our empathy with their characters was to hint at their emotions without ever fully giving them away. The most excruciating feelings in the show remained out of shot and unsaid, with glances across rooms (or the lack of them) becoming as dramatic as a high-octane argument in the rain. The romantic climax between Tim and Dawn in the second season comes when they disappear into a meeting room and take their microphones off – the audience never gets the satisfaction of hearing an explicit conversation about how they feel about each other.

Life on the Road takes the opposite tack – at every turn its characters tell the camera exactly how they feel, or how Brent feels, in detail. A receptionist we barely see interact with him at all wells up as she feels Brent is “bullied”, another female colleague notes that she can see the sadness behind his smiles, and Brent’s band repeatedly explain why he behaves in certain ways (He’s bad around women because he’s insecure! This man is strange because he’s desperate to be liked!) when they really don’t need explaining. It’s the ultimate example of telling instead of showing.

All the drama of the film unfolds this way. There is no real narrative arc to the story (the plot can be summed up as Brent goes on tour, it’s not that great, and he comes home), so instead, it uses talking heads to tell the audience how they should feel. Brent’s backing band are in effect a voice for the audience – they say how cringeworthy Brent is after he does something cringeworthy, they express pity for him in his more tragic moments.

“I didn’t quite know whether to laugh or cry,” one says to camera after Brent injures an audience member at a gig. “There’s been quite a few moments like that.” It’s a line that feels like it could have been written for the trailer – clearly, this is where the makers of this film position their ideal audience.

Of course, there comes a point where this film wants you to have more empathy for Brent. When this time comes, the script doesn’t bother to show any change in behaviour from him, or show him in a more redeeming light. Instead, it shrugs off the issue by getting a few band members and work colleagues to say that actually, they find him quite funny, and that really, he’s not so bad, he just wants to make people laugh.

As Brent reaches the end of his tour, he begins to feel that it’s all been a bit anti-climactic. (So, too, does the audience.) Already in debt, he wants to waste even more money on a snow machine, to provide his tour with “a magic moment”, but is persuaded against it. “I just wanted a magic moment,” he repeats to camera, just so we all get what is coming. In the very next scene, while on stage, he is surprised by falling snow – a bandmate has bought a snow machine for him, and thus the film’s magic moment arrives. But in actuality, it feels limp. You can’t create “a magic moment” by simply telling your audience that it is one. The Office would never speak in such cloying terms in the first place.

All these problems pale in comparison to the issue of Brent himself. The Office realised that the beating heart of the show was not David Brent, but the other office members and their relationships (basically, Tim and Dawn), Life on the Road doesn’t make even a half-hearted effort to engage with any peripheral characters, instead choosing Brent as its emotional centre. Trying to encourage an audience to empathise with such a dislikeable character is tricky territory, but not impossible to navigate. But Life on the Road barely even tries.

In The Office, Brent is a pretty horrible character offered occasional, heartfelt moments of redemption – when he stands up to a sexist, bullying colleague, or challenges his own patronising and cruel approach to dating after he meets a nice woman. In Life on the Road, Brent is self-absorbed, mean, sexist, racist, homophobic, ableist, delusional and exploitative. There is nothing, except the tragedy of his life, that even begins to counterbalance that.

Let’s start with the sexism. Life on the Road has a few female characters who fall largely in to one of three categories: women who we like and see as good because they put up with all of Brent’s shit, and even like him for it, because he’s “funny”; women who don’t like him at all and are therefore condemned as sullen bitches with no sense of humour (men who don’t like Brent, in contrast, are allowed to exist on a spectrum of sensible to awful, heartless cunts); and fat women. And fat women, of course, have no worth, outside of their capacity to be a punchline. Brent’s only response to fat women is to shake his head in disbelief: he does it about a fat woman he accidentally shoots with a tshirt gun, a fat woman he tells us he used to date, and a fat woman he invites into his hotel room.

It’s easy here to claim, in Gervais’s defence, that the joke is actually about Brent’s own sexism, but when the punchline of a scene repeatedly involves zooming in on a fat woman as she eats chocolates and crisps (and focusing in on the wrappers again the next morning), it feels less and less defensible. The portrayal of women as either personality-less voids that take on the burden of Brent’s sexism by constantly making excuses for him, or as tight-lipped, po-faced and joyless (as a woman who doesn’t “get” the point of Brent in his current form, I’m confident that Gervais would see me as one of these), shifts the blame away from Brent and onto the women around him, perpetuating the idea that offence is simply taken, not a product of offensive acts.

Racism functions in a similar way. Brent uses the black people around him as props by which he can demonstrate his own progressiveness – bringing his friend Dom (Doc Brown) to work to “prove” that he is not politically incorrect after he is disciplined for a racist impression of an Asian stereotype (a Chinese man called Ho-Lee Fuk, a character my cinema screening found pretty funny). While Dom is one of the most developed characters (which isn’t saying much) in this film, it sometimes feels as though Gervais is doing the same thing – when Dom excuses Brent for his use of the n-word, the audience is invited to as well, which feels uncomfortable to me.

So, too, does ableism. In what I found to be the most egregiously offensive scene in the film, Brent sings a song called “Please Don’t Make Fun of the Disableds”. The song’s lyrics include references to those “mental in the head or mental in the legs”, “the ones with feeble minds”, “the awkward”, and reminds the listener to “understand you might have to feed the worst ones through a straw: it’s basically a head on a pillow”. Rarely do we hear disabled people dehumanised quite so violently as this. If the joke here is how deeply offensive Brent’s behaviours are, why is he never condemned for his actions? (All that happens at the end of this song are a few pained expressions from bandmates, and an awkward raised pint of semi-thanks from a wheelchair user in the audience.)

No, the joke here is simply the shock of the language, and when you say that shock is funny for shock’s sake, regardless of who you target, you encourage the grimmest forms of oppressive humour. Sadly, the belief that people with severe disabilities are essentially subhuman is far too common to be handled flippantly on screen – never mind perpetuated and left uncriticised. The bad taste of the whole thing rancours even further when you remember Gervais has a history of using ableist language casually. It’s not edgy. It’s lazy, cheap, dated, and appeals to the lowest human impulses.

We also see Brent being occasionally homophobic, and generally inconsiderate towards all those around him. He’s a bad friend, buying people’s time rather than stopping and thinking about how his behaviours make people unhappy to be around him. When Dom, who has consistently and inexplicably supported Brent, starts to become successful, he offers him none of the same kindness and rejects him. He expects endless generosity from his fellow man, but sees no reason why anyone should receive the same from him.

Despite all his stunning flaws, we are meant to love him. “I don’t think there’s any real racism on David’s part,” a band member tells us. “He just doesn’t quite get it.” Clearly, we are meant to agree. On The One Show, Gervais confirmed that he does not see David Brent as genuinely bigoted.

“He’s accidentally offensive. He tries to please everyone, he’s trying to say the right thing, and because he’s not sure . . . It’s about that white, middle-class angst where he knows about political correctness and he doesn’t want to put his foot in it. And he’s not racist, and he’s not homophobic, and he’s not sexist, but he panics, and he digs himself into a hole.”

Let’s be clear, David Brent is all of those things. Life on the Road is not an interrogation of white, middle-class anxiety. It’s a portrayal of a racist, ableist, sexist person who we are encouraged to forgive because he has “good intentions”. I know a saying about good intentions.

When confronted about homophobic impressions, Brent responds, “I never actually specify whether he is a homosexual or not, so that’s in your mind.” Like Dapper Laughs, defences of Brent rest on the idea that if you find him offensive, the joke’s on you – that Brent as a character is actually mocking the Brents of real life. But in Life on the Road, it’s too unclear where the joke truly lies, and Brent is simply let off too easy. Personally, I wish I’d stuck to re-watching The Office.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.