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

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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser