|A Conversation with Mike Carey|
|An interview with Matthew Peckham|
| October 2004 |
Your academic background is very impressive, including a degree from Oxford, and you actually started out teaching for fifteen years in Britain. What sort of effect did that have on your writing? Do you ever miss it?
I loved the job in its own right, but I think it's only fair to say that I hated it too -- sometimes simultaneously. I enjoyed the actual classroom side of things, and I was pretty good at it. I was lousy at the admin, though, and once I got promoted to head of department level that took up a disproportionate amount of my time.
A colleague of mine at Luton Sixth Form College once told me that the word that came into her head when she watched me working was "entropy" -- which she defined as a vast amount of energy pouring out into a vacuum. I know exactly what she meant. I seldom re-used lessons from one year to the next, and the notes I kept were sketchy ones -- performance aids, more than anything else -- so I was always making new stuff up and always spending hours of every day in lesson prep and materials prep. I don't know if that was what got me into the habit of working overtime or whether that's a side effect of my personality and would always have come out, but I'm still incredibly productive. I can write six or seven thousand words of script in a day, and then get up and do the same thing the next day: I know, because I've done it. I'm not claiming this as a virtue, exactly, but God knows it has got its uses.
But so far I haven't found my limit in terms of how much writing I can do. Doing a lot makes me want to do more: I get up onto a new plateau, moving faster but still feeling calm. I mean, there has to be a limit. Obviously there has to. When I find it, I'll probably hit it like a brick wall and explode.
Having said that, there is one level upon which I am capable of planning and thinking ahead, and that's in terms of mixing and matching short-term and ongoing deadlines. I wouldn't dream of taking on another monthly right now, but a mini-series can be handled in a lot of different ways, and slotted into dead time between other things.
There's also a sense in which one kind of writing feeds off and is nourished by another. I wouldn't ever want to do more than one comic script inside of a week -- but I can do one comic script and a chunk of something else, and each can sort of act as a break from the other. I honestly find that there's a cross-fertilisation if I do that, and both things seem to come out better.
But I look back in wonder now at the days when I was just writing Lucifer -- and I think, what the hell did I do with the rest of my time...?
Oh, and the novel isn't in progress yet, exactly -- it's at pitch/sample stage. But I've had really strong positive feedback on the pitch, so I've got good hopes that it will happen.
So Lucifer is, I think, a figure who it's very easy to sympathise with, because the fight he's engaged in is one in which we've all had experience. There's a scene in #50 when Lilith tells the young Lucifer that if he were to kill Yahweh, it would destroy him too. "You'd have him hanging over your shoulder forever, then. You'd never know what you might have been without his influence." Lucifer replies that this is precisely the problem: there isn't anywhere he can go to be free of that influence, because Yahweh's thumb print is on the whole of Creation. "There's nowhere I can go where I won't meet him." Okay, this is a special case, but the anguish and frustration that he's voicing... well, it ought to strike a chord for us, too. It's the complaint of a contingent being who wants to be absolute.
In a broader and more banal sense, too, I use human characters in almost every story line to provide an anchor for the reader, so that the story doesn't lose itself in rarefied cosmic transactions. I try to make sure that there's always an emotional focus that's real and -- to some extent -- universal, running alongside the "mythical" narratives in a way that's a bit like a commentary track on a DVD. Not that there have to be direct correspondences, because that's not what I mean. When I was a kid, I made up the Airfix kit of the Russian Vostok rocket ship. It was only about a foot high -- not that impressive, really. But they gave you this tiny little figure of a suited cosmonaut, in 1/144 scale, to stand next to the ship on the display stand. He gave you the necessary sense of scale...
So with John as your point of view character, you never have to worry about keeping that human measuring point in view. You've got your little cosmonaut built in, as it were.
I wasn't consciously trying to adjust the scale of the Hellblazer stories, though. What I was trying to do was to put back the sense of the numinous, the supernatural, which I think had to some extent stopped being the central focus of the book over the years before I took it on. I liked Azzarello's Hellblazer stories a lot, as stories -- but I missed the whiff of brimstone, for want of a better word, and I was keen to restore that dimension to the book. John plays best against demonic adversaries, in my opinion.
Generally speaking, the series that have had their complete runs at Vertigo and reached a definite end-point have been strongly identified with one creative team, or at least with one writer -- Sandman with Gaiman, Preacher with Ennis, Transmetropolitan with Warren Ellis and so on. Hellblazer is different because John Constantine began as a "legacy" character -- created by Alan Moore within the Swamp Thing title, and then spinning off into his own book under a different writer. From the very start, he was no one person's property, and now, after the Delano era, the Ennis era, the Jenkins and Ellis and Azzarello eras and so on, he's even less so. Nobody has the right to kill him off, or to kill his story off, if I can put it like that.
I'm aware that you could say exactly the same thing about Lucifer, of course -- he was born elsewhere, and the book I write is a spin-off title. But it's become thematically different from its predecessor, and it's only ever had me writing it, so it's a slightly different situation. John seems to belong to everyone, somehow. When you write him, you look over your shoulder at posterity.
Usually when I reference someone like Trithemius or Bankei Zenji or whoever, it's because I've found a particularly juicy quote that just sits right and sounds right in a story. Those are one-off riffs, and you don't need to know anything about where they come from to get the flavour and the relevance of them. Bankei Zenji had this comment about Samsara in the context of Buddhism -- that it's right and natural in a way for us to yearn towards the beauty that we find around us on Earth: "the heavens are not a place for human souls". I used that on the final page of Nirvana to caption a shot of Lucifer soaring away into the sky over Beijing, and I think the irony of having that comment apply to him as well as to the narrator, Cai, is pretty clear.
The mythological characters who actually come into Lucifer and play a part in the story lines present a different sort of case, because they're around for longer and they interact with Lucifer in ways that can sometimes come to seem like a sort of psychomachia -- a symbolic clash of figures who stand in for specific ideas. Sometimes I do that on purpose, other times I'm just aware of it as a possible option on how you interpret a scene.
In any case, the references are there for the reader to pick up or ignore. They're seldom crucial to how the scene plays out. In "The Morningstar Option," when Blue Flint Girl refers to Lucifer as Atse'Hashke (the coyote god known as "First Angry One" in Navajo myth), she sets him free, by implication, from his Judeo-Christian context and acknowledges him as a more universal figure, a name for an archetype. But at the same time, simply because she names him, she implies that he has been labelled, recognised, confined to a measurable and specific place in the world-view which she embodies. She enlarges him and reduces him at the same time. But you don't have to take any of that on board to get the primary point that this canny old lady seems to have Lucifer's number.
"The vulnerable belly of the crocodile" is great too. It makes religion seem like this ponderous, predatory beast that you can attack and defeat through its own tropes. That's not how I use Lucifer, though, I have to say. There's no intention in the book of turning him into a guided missile aimed at the contradictions and inadequacies of religion. Coming back to my earlier point, I'm happiest when I'm telling stories where the mythological elements become an index for psychological dramas and traumas that we all enact and suffer. I often feel like I'm writing Lucifer as Everyman: the driven, dangerous, but perversely appealing bastard in all of us.
Ursula K. Le Guin wrote a foreword to the paperback edition of her short story collection, The Wind's Twelve Quarters, in which she said something like this. Sci-fi is not escapist literature because the apparent excursions of the genre are actually incursions: spaceships and aliens and the future and other planets are all metaphors which allow sci-fi writers to discuss aspects of human experience in a way that's freed from the specifics of one situation. If that's true of sci-fi, it's surely a methodology that's stolen wholesale from the way myth works. That's why The Sandman was so powerful: it was about us. And Lucifer is about us, too, whether what I'm saying is worth anything or completely banal.
There's a part of me that actually likes the disposability of comics. There's something very appealing about an art form that hits peoples' lives in that direct and casual a way -- something that you slip into your back pocket, consume in ten-minute gaps between other things, read on the toilet or in the underground, swap or give away or leave on the table when you've finished your lunch. From a memetic point of view, things that are that soluble, that pervasive, are also going to be tenacious in their hold on people's imagination. What's a Pulitzer compared to an acre or so of the collective unconscious?
I wrote this for Hadaly Pictures, whose first feature-length release (Luminal) is coming out this Autumn. That's a story that the director, Andrea Vecchiato, describes as a vampire movie without any vampires in it. It's about two young prostitutes who use the drug Luminal to sleep through most of every day, so that their lives are one long string of uninterrupted nights. After one of their friends dies in an erotic exchange that goes terribly wrong, they murder their pimp and flee to London, but their past catches up with them. It's a superb piece, and since the same production team are mostly going to be involved on Frost Flowers, I'm really colossally excited to see what they do with my story.
As for other projects, I've just pitched an idea for a sequence of novels to a UK publisher. I've had some very positive feedback but I'm still waiting to see what comes of that. I'm also hoping to do a game scenario for the PC with a US producer, and some episodes for an anime TV series. My deal with Hadaly is a two-movie package, so at some point (all being well) I should be working on the second screenplay, provisionally titled The Red King's Dream.
In comics, I've got the Hellblazer OGN coming out in February, and later on in 2005 two more OGNs -- one for the Sandman Presents series with John Bolton, the other a Carey/Liew/Hempel extravaganza that I can't talk about yet. Wetworks is debuting in (I think) March. I'm hopefully doing another mini-series for Marvel next year. A Superman arc is in the can, a Batman (Legends of the Dark Knight) arc ten pages short of complete. I've got the Neverwhere adaptation coming out next year.
So, you know, I keep myself busy...
Matt Peckham lives in Nebraska and Iowa. His first book, a guide to Mike's Carey's Lucifer, will be published by Wildside Press. For more about Matt, check out mattpeckham.com
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