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

Marcelo Krasilcic
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“I don’t want to burst into tears on stage”: The Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt

The cult chamber pop curmudgeon on the process of writing a song for every year of his life – and how he avoided soul-searching.

Stephin Merritt has a stye. Sitting in a hushed greenroom at London’s Barbican, he presses a hot mug of tea against his left eye and winces.

An enormous Steinway grand piano shimmers by the wall, reflecting the room’s sparse glow from an electric candle and mirror framed in fairy lights.

“Have you ever had one?” asks the 52-year-old musician, after bowing in his chair in greeting (to avoid germ contact).

No, I reply.

“Don’t.”

Set against the grandeur of his surroundings, it’s a fitting introduction to The Magnetic Fields frontman and cult chamber pop curmudgeon.

Medical complaints are just one theme in his painfully personal new album, 50 Song Memoir. It’s an epic, genre-bending variety show with a song for each year of his life, performed in two halves. The 1992 track “Weird Diseases” cites an ear condition that confines him to a soundproofed shelter from his band onstage – and means he covers his ears when applauded by the Barbican audience later that evening.

Waiting for his soundcheck in his signature brown flatcap, a beige and turquoise argyle jumper and fawn trousers (he only wears brown – it’s hard to get dirty, and matches his eyes, hair and beloved late chihuahua Irving), he’s about to perform the last show in The Magnetic Fields’ first tour in five years.

“I hate touring,” he tells me in his baritone drawl, his head cupped in one hand. “I can’t wait to get home.”

Before he returns to Hudson, New York, he’s taking a week’s holiday in London, which he first visited at 15. As he wrote in the song for 1980, “London By Jetpack”, its blossoming New Romantic scene passed him by.

“I was here at the right time, but I was not in the right places to experience it,” he sighs. “So I was doing touristy things and going to Madame Tussauds. Eating English pizza. I bought a Sherlock Holmes hat and London trenchcoat for my costume, I guess which was fun.”

Merritt went to high school in Boston, where he founded the revolving gaggle of musicians that make up The Magnetic Fields in 1989. The album 50 Song Memoir is their 11th. It’s an eccentric, dizzying journey from Merritt’s nomadic childhood of cults and communes with his bohemian mother, via a cockroach-infested ménage à trois and the 9/11 aftermath, to writing a silent movie score for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

But it has the regular stuff too. Break-ups, unrequited love, absent fathers and all too present ex-boyfriends. In scope and ambition, it’s similar to The Magnetic Fields’ most famous work, 69 Love Songs (what it says on the tin), but it’s the first time Merritt has written a first-person, autobiographical album.

We hear bitterness and mockery in equal measure about his beatnik upbringing (“My mama ain’t no nudist/Except around the pool/She’s a Tibetan Buddhist/Like Catholic only cool”), dark musings on the AIDS crisis (“We expected nuclear war/What should we take precautions for?”), and the final song, 2015’s “Somebody’s Fetish” – like a filthier version of Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love” – acts as Merritt’s self-deprecating justification for finding love (“Nothing’s too strange for somebody’s palate/Some spank the maid and some wank the valet”).


Stephin Merritt. Photo: Marcelo Krasilcic

Like the Stephen Sondheim of New York’s underground scene, or a rock ‘n’ roll Noël Coward, Merritt’s acerbic observations and camp brand of miserablisim have established him as an extraordinary lyricist over a quarter century of music-making.

Throughout the 25 albums he’s made with different bands and as a solo artist, Merritt’s words are brought to life by theatrical scores and an experimental use of instruments – but nowhere more celebrated than with The Magnetic Fields.

“I keep wondering if this album has been so well-reviewed partly because people think it would be boorish to question bearing my soul,” he says. “Because reviewing it is like reviewing a person.”

Although 50 Song Memoir seems like a highly revealing “audio-biography”, Merritt insists: “I am against soul-searching in general. I don’t believe in souls in the first place – and if I did, I don’t know how one would search them.”

He points out that these songs are more likely to provoke laughter than tears. The “psychoanalysing” by critics annoys him. “I have to perform these things and I do not want to burst into tears on stage,” he says, his eyes widening. “I don’t want to stand on stage humiliating myself and the audience.”

Merritt recalls crying while performing The Magnetic Fields’ classic ballad “The Book of Love” at the funeral of a friend who died suddenly. “That is the last time I will ever do that,” he smiles drily.

The 50 Song Memoir show is more of a revue, with wry narration by Merritt between each song, and band members playing everything from the omnichord to a saw. The singer himself sits in his pastel-hued soundproof booth, surrounded by 16 dolls houses and other trinkets from his own home – Hooty, his stuffed owl, little wooden animals, quirky instruments and “some of my lunchbox collection”. It makes him feel “weirdly” at home.


Before releasing these songs, Merritt contacted every person he names to run the lyrics by them – including his mother, who burst into tears when he played the music for her in his studio.

“What I’m saying about her is not necessarily criticism on her terms,” he says. “So she should not feel insulted, and I said that. She agreed and said in fact [she didn’t] feel insulted.”

You get the impression Merritt enjoyed the mechanics of writing 50 Song Memoir more than the emotional vulnerability. It pieces together lyrics and music he had written back in the Eighties and never released, and even a guitar solo he wrote at the age of 11. It features 100 instruments, many from his own collection. He also notes the challenge of finding rhymes for so many proper nouns. “I usually let the rhymes lead the narrative,” he says, calling them, “the automatic plot generator”.

Merritt mostly wrote this album at a couple of bars in his neighbourhood, filling around five notebooks overall. He buys expensive pads – to try and guard against losing them – which look as different from each other as possible, “in the hope I will be able to find a song or a thread more easily with visual help: ‘this was the piece of music I wrote in the flowery notebook with a robot on the cover’”.

A useful system for when he returns at the age of 100 to fulfil his vague ambition of adding another 50 songs to the piece (“I have quite a while to decide.”)

It’s soundcheck time. After admiring my rucksack (it’s brown), Merritt says goodbye without getting up, apologising again for his stye.

Never mind, perhaps we’ll hear about it in a song in 50 years’ time?

He gives a rare chuckle. “48, actually.”

The Magnetic Fields performed both halves of 50 Song Memoir at the Barbican. Listen to Stephin Merritt discussing the show on the Barbican podcast here.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.