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

FRANCESCO ZIZOLA/NOOR/EYEVINE
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The refugee crisis proves that Fortress Europe is a fantasy

In 2015, more people landed in Greece in a single month than the whole EU has agreed to share over the next two years – and it's a tide that can't be turned.

On a stormy night in September 2002 a wooden fishing boat carrying 150 Liberian asylum-seekers broke up on a reef near the long, sandy beach at Realmonte, on Sicily’s southern coast. Tourists were dancing at a café nearby, but such was the noise of the freak hailstorm on the plastic roof that it was some time before they heard the cries for help coming from the water. Of the 35 Liberians who drowned, one was a 15-year-old girl. Most of the dead had no names; their graves, high in the walls of the cemetery at Canicatti, are marked only by a single letter of the alphabet, in bold black type, to distinguish one from another.

The reaction of the tourists and the local people, once they had recovered from the horror, was one of surprise. Who were these strange Africans, washing up on their shore? But the survivors were welcomed, fed and looked after; one of the women, who was pregnant, was given nappies and baby clothes. There was little press coverage of the event.

That was 14 years ago. Today, when the weather in the Mediterranean is fine, boats bring over a thousand people each day to the Greek island of Lesbos alone. Others ­arrive in Europe through Malta, Lampedusa and southern Italy and by the land route through the Balkans. About 42,500 people are said to be leaving their homes every day to seek protection. These people come from Afghanistan and Eritrea, from Libya, Mali, Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan and Tunisia, and from Syria, which on its own contributes 52 per cent of all the new arrivals. Well over four million Syrians are now refugees in 107 countries. There are young men and women, whole families, children on their own, and many of their sea journeys have been preceded by terrifying land crossings, negotiating deserts, bandits and traffickers. As the numbers keep growing, so the figures rather than the people become the story: so many on a single day in April, so many through Serbia, so many others into Italy. It is in order to turn these numbers back into people, each with an identity, past, character, fears and hopes, that three journalists have written new books about what Angela Merkel has described as the defining hum­anitarian issue of our age.

Wolfgang Bauer is a reporter for Die Zeit. In April 2014, taking with him a photographer and posing as an English teacher from the Caucasus, Bauer joined a Syrian friend planning to cross the sea from Egypt to Italy. He grew a beard and bought a false ID, but even so it was a perilous undertaking, because people-smugglers have little time for reporters who might expose their lucrative rackets. Most of the sea journeys are nightmares, involving leaking and capsizing boats and gangs of violent smugglers, often drugged, but Bauer experienced one of the worst. Even before his group left Egypt, they were kidnapped by a rival gang on to whose territory his smugglers were said to have strayed. What followed were days in squalid, unfurnished rooms while the gangs brokered a deal. Bauer excellently re-creates the predatory, tense world of these shadowy men, whom he likens to travel agents, constantly on the phone, bribing, threatening, changing plans. The man who negotiated his trip confided that he had sent 250 boats across the Mediterranean in 2013, each carrying about 200 people.

Once the deal was made, the group was moved to a beach – another dangerous moment, for here, as dusk falls, bandits arrive and smugglers try to extort more money. Here, too, families get separated and children disappear. Bauer never made it across the Mediterranean: dumped by his smugglers on an island and arrested by coastguards, he was eventually rescued by being able to show a European passport. His fellow travellers were not so lucky.

Charlotte McDonald-Gibson is a former deputy foreign editor of the ­Independent. Dividing her inquiry between the five years since the start of the Arab spring and chronicling the most significant moments in that period, she follows in the footsteps of a cast of travellers. One of these is Majib, an 18-year-old working in Libya when Gaddafi began to round up migrant workers. The son of a prosperous doctor and philanthropist, Majib had seen his father killed by a mob during fighting between Christians and Muslims. Subsequently the young man was kidnapped, smuggled and enslaved. Then there are Sina and Dami, an Eritrean husband and wife, both engineers, whose lives have been made impossible by President Isaias Afewerki’s repressive policies, which have driven over 320,000 of his countrymen abroad. McDonald-Gibson keenly evokes the hell of their voyages: water lapping over the sides of boats, nothing to eat or drink, failing engines, bodies thrown overboard. To read these vivid stories is to understand not just the enormity of what is taking place, but the courage and desperation of those who embark on them.

In March 2015, the Guardian appointed Patrick Kingsley as its first migration correspondent; he set out to visit 17 countries and write about people as they fled across deserts and seas. Of the three books under review, The New Odyssey is the most analytical, consistently trying to make sense of information and pin down the facts. Kingsley has gone further than the others in trying to explore the economics of the smugglers and their accomplices. He writes at fascinating length about the “second sea”, the Sahara, which most people from the Horn of Africa have to cross and where many die even before they reach the Mediterranean. In Agadez, he discovers about 50 compounds where smugglers gather their customers before despatching them in overcrowded Land Cruisers across the sands to waiting boats, with the connivance of the Nigérien military and police. Interviewing smugglers, he spells out the profits: with each of a group of 100 paying $1,000 or more, and the only costs involved the buying of old boats and bribery of coastguards, the profits are immense. Middle-class professionals from Syria face extortionate demands. It is a world of blackmail and thuggery against vulnerable, frantic people.

Once Libya had slid into civil war, its borders made porous by lawlessness, the Syrians found their route to Europe. What is striking is how appalling their lives had become before they were driven from their homes; how much they lost; how they were exploited, menaced, terrorised along the way; and how dismally and ungenerously they were treated on arrival. Some encountered kindness but this kind of treatment was the exception. How far they fled and the means of travel depended on how much money they could raise. All but a few arrived in Europe destitute, having lost houses, cars, jobs. As a mirror to modern life, all three books make for bleak reading.

It was only in October 2013, when 368 people drowned within sight of the Italian coast, that notice began to be taken of the mounting numbers of deaths at sea. The then president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, vowed that such a tragedy would not be allowed to happen again. In its wake came talks, guidelines and promises. “As things stand,” Malta’s prime minister said, “we are building a cemetery within the Mediterranean Sea.” Pope Francis inveighed against the “globalisation of indifference”. That the deaths have not only continued but the volumes grown – 700 reported in 2013, 3,500 in 2014 and 3,771 in 2015, with the true figures certainly considerably higher – says much about the intractability of the problem, something all three writers try to address. As Bauer optimistically puts it, “We need to stop the wars in the Middle East from robbing Europe of its concept of humanity.”

All offer the same eminently sensible ideas: a need to improve lives in Syria’s neighbouring countries; the importance of identifying the dead; greater investment in Africa; more aid for Lebanon and Jordan, both home to vast refugee camps; more support for Italy and Greece, which bear the brunt of the arrivals. Yet these suggestions have been made many times, and there is little will to help realise them.

Rightly, Kingsley offers scathing criticism of the myth that European leaders like to milk – that the smugglers are the problem, and that once you do away with them, the frenzy of migration will cease. As the interceptions at sea, crackdowns on traffickers and strengthened monitoring of borders close one route, so another route opens. When the crossings to Lampedusa were reduced by more interceptions at sea, so those to Lesbos grew. When three fences with motion sensors tipped with razor wire – the trenches in between them filled with more razor wire – were put up at Ceutá, the Spanish territory on North Africa’s coast, a new route was found. In camps across Europe, in disused factories, tented cities and crumbling buildings, under dripping tarpaulins or clearly visible out in the open, the population of displaced and unwanted is growing steadily. If they were a nation, they would be the 24th-largest country in the world. In refugee circles, the vocabulary is all about growth: more child refugees, more migrants in detention, more people in more camps, more asylum applications.

As nationalist parties make electoral gains by delivering xenophobic speeches, and as political leaders squabble and temporise, with Merkel one of the few to consider the moral implications of the present crisis, so European countries prefer to erect more barriers, pay for more security measures and bicker over commitments, rather than attempt to reach humane and practical agreements. In the summer of 2015, the UN High Commission for Refugees was $2bn short of what it needed to keep its camps functioning in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. As Kingsley notes, more people landed in Greece in a single month in 2015 than the whole of the European Union has undertaken to share between its members over the next two years. The wealthy states, as Jeremy Harding wrote in the London Review of Books in 2000, “have learned to think of generosity as a vice”. At the peak of the landings on Lampedusa, Silvio Berlusconi spoke of the “grave danger” that refugees posed to Europe’s stability. The right-wing Lega Nord put it more succinctly: the party’s leader told migrants to “piss off”.

The future, in this context, does not look promising. Global warming threatens to send people displaced by flooding – the so-called environmental refugees – to join the flight to safety. Half the population of Bangladesh lives less than five metres above sea level. Given continuing conflict across the Middle East, the rise of murderous fundamentalism, the enduring powers of military dictatorships, and the extreme poverty and lawlessness in which so many parts of the world live, it is perfectly possible that up to three million more refugees could reach the shores and borders of Europe within the next three years. One of the things that makes the subject so confusing is the way it shifts: Egypt, once considered a safe haven in the Middle East, ceased to be one when Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and the military took power and turned against the Syrians who had found shelter there.

Whether those who flee are “good” refugees (in the sense of falling under the 1951 Refugee Convention, facing a justifiable “fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality” if they return home) or “bad” (so labelled because they are seeking work and a better life) has become largely meaningless in the world today. No one, ever, anywhere, wants to be a refugee, but for many there is no alternative. A Syrian man told Kingsley, in words that are repeated, in different forms, by many of the people interviewed for these three books, that whatever steps Europe takes to keep migrants out, even if they include bombing their boats, they will make no difference, because if he stayed home he was “dead already . . . a destroyed human being”.

There are precedents for the absorption of migrants, whose presence in Europe can in any case be hugely beneficial to ageing populations. At the end of the Second World War, not long before the Refugee Convention was drafted, about 12 to 14 million people made stateless by the fighting and the shifting borders were resettled throughout Europe. So were 1.3 million people after the war in Vietnam. In comparison to the numbers of refugees settling in countries bordering on those in conflict – there are 1.2 million Syrians living in Lebanon alone, and 85 per cent of the world’s refugees remain in their own regions – those who survive the journey to Europe are relatively few. It is the global South, not the prosperous North, that lies in the eye of the storm.

There is a crisis in migration but, as Kingsley insists, it is largely of our making, caused less by the flow of arrivals than the chaos of how we have received them. As right-wing parties make gains, governments respond with varying degrees of panic; scenes of rioting at borders, at train stations and at ports lead to more barbed wire, more attacks on refugees and more fodder for populist politicians. Yet sealing off Fortress Europe is not a viable proposition; fences and walls are nothing more than symbols, illusions for domestic audiences, promoting the fallacy that what is happening is a temporary phenomenon. And the more difficult it is made for refugees to reach Europe, the more refugees will die. Barriers, leaking boats, deserts and people traffickers are doing nothing to halt the flow. So, what will? There are 60 million people now on the move, half of them children. The choice that faces the West today seems to lie between an orderly system of mass migration – and chaos.

Caroline Moorehead’s book “Human Cargo: a Journey Among Refugees” has recently been reissued by Vintage

Crossing the Sea: With Syrians on the Exodus to Europe by Wolfgang Bauer is published by And Other Stories (144pp, £15)

Cast Away: Stories of Survival from Europe's Refugee Crisis is published by Charlotte McDonald-Gibson (272pp, £14.99)

The New Odyssey: the Story of Europe's Refugee Crisis by Patrick Kinglsey is published by Guardian Faber (336pp, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster