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A Conversation with Mike Carey
An interview with Matthew Peckham
October 2004

© Matthew Peckham
Mike Carey
Mike Carey
Mike Carey was born in 1959 in Liverpool, England, where both his parents worked in a bread factory and Mike "got [his] first glimpse of hell." He began writing the Eisner-nominated Lucifer monthly -- a story about the devil's quest for autonomy in a deterministic universe -- for DC/Vertigo in 1999 after working on several projects for Caliber Comics and the British the sci-fi anthology 2000 AD. Lucifer has been described as "a work of genius in the dark fantasy genre" and "the best fantasy comic around." Other writing credits include Hellblazer, Batman: Gotham Knights, Flinch, Sandman Presents, My Faith in Frankie for DC/Vertigo, and Ultimate Elektra for Marvel. His first movie, a romance between the dead and the living, begins principle filming July 2005.

Lucifer Morningstar (Unofficial Lucifer Site)
Straight to Hell (Unofficial Hellblazer Site)
Vertigo Lucifer Site
Vertigo Hellblazer Site
Mike Carey Biography
Mike Carey Bibliography

Lucifer Colection 1
Lucifer Colection 2
Lucifer Colection 3
Lucifer Colection 4
Lucifer Colection 5
Lucifer Colection 6
Lucifer Nirvana
My Faith in Frankie
Ultimate Elektra
Hellblazer 200

In the introduction to the 2001 collection Lucifer: Devil in the Gateway, Neil Gaiman describes Mike Carey's stories as "...elegantly told, solidly written" and Carey himself as "...easily one of the half-dozen best writers of mainstream comics and climbing."

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 think teaching is a really good discipline for going on to do any kind of freelance work. It forces you to be organised and it forces you to live with very short deadlines on an ongoing basis.

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.

Speaking of productive, you're currently writing Lucifer and Hellblazer for DC/Vertigo, you're handling Ultimate Elektra for Marvel, there's your upcoming Detective Comics short story cameo and the forthcoming DC reboot of Wetworks, you've got a movie entering principal filming next July, several pitch projects circulating, and a novel in progress to boot. How do you juggle so much at once? Do your ideas tend to drop to the page full-formed?
You know, I don't even know if I can answer that in any way that makes sense. All I can say is that I don't make decisions about this stuff in advance -- I just find out by going there. There have been times this Summer when I've wondered if I've taken on too much -- not because the work felt like a strain, but because all through the Summer vacation, when I had the kids at home, I was working and not spending a lot of time with them. That made me feel bad -- guilty and scummy and inadequate -- and I'm determined that next year I'll shunt things around so it doesn't happen again.

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.

With Lucifer, you've managed to combine dense archaic and traditional religious symbolism into a fairly action-packed metaphysical plot involving the Judeo-Christian devil's struggle for "ultimate" autonomy. That's the top layer approach, anyway. As one delves into the supporting cast and themes and stakes, the seemingly mundane human elements of the narrative -- sort of swirling around the eschatological vortex -- take on a very rich, very complex subtext. Can you comment on your use of the extraordinary to frame or highlight the "ordinary" in your material?
I think this is definitely a book which -- for all the mythic interplay and the referencing of Christian eschatology -- has very human concerns as its central focus. And I have to say, I think that's what makes it work. You mention Lucifer's quest for autonomy, which is his driving motivation and the very definition of his nature. I see this (at least partly) as a powerful and resonant expression of the struggle that we all go through with our parents as we grow up and try to negotiate our own place in the world. When we're kids, we let our parents control and define us in a lot of important ways -- but then we all reach the point where that doesn't work any more. And typically, the child realises that this point has been reached quite a long time before the parent does. So we get this struggle, which is at one and the same time indispensable and foredoomed. We want to be the authors of our own lives and our own nature: we want to have created and shaped ourselves, and when we rebel against our parents we're rebelling against the part of us that's always going to bear their imprint. But we can no more cut out that part than we can cut off our own head and still function.

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...

Warren Ellis and Brian Azzarello stepped John Constantine down several notches after Paul Jenkins had him chatting up God. With John now struggling against an escalating level of supernatural violence, does the notion of scale you describe apply in a kind of reverse to your take on Hellblazer?
Hmm. That's an interesting point. I guess the answer is yes -- and it's probably because of the way John himself works as a protagonist. The human scale, the human measure of things, is already there in his ironic, deadpan take on everything he sees. A superb example is the early Delano issue where he meets up with this composite monster that has been welded together out of the desecrated bodies of four football hooligans. He notices that one arm bears a Chelsea tattoo, and another an Arsenal one, and he delivers the immortal line "What do you do on Saturdays, lads?"

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.

Some of the most critically acclaimed Vertigo series have been finite in length. With Lucifer just 54 issues in, you've got a clear stopping point in mind. In terms of Hellblazer #200, you've just upped the ante considerably by presenting John in a way he's never been considered. Given that Hellblazer's become sort of a "best of" writer's book, do you see it ever moving in the direction of an end game with a final story arc?
Not under my tenure, no. If John is ageing in real time, or anything close to real time, then I guess the series has to be finite, ultimately -- and it's natural to assume that whoever's in charge at that time will give the old bastard a good send-off. But I think it will happen, if it ever does, as a result of economic necessities rather than because a particular writer comes up with a great idea for a story which just happens to wrap everything up for good and all.

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.

Lucifer has really become your character in the sense that Neil Gaiman's version in Sandman is this curious riff on Milton, and you take that notion and push it through all these ancient cultural themes: Native American creation legends, astrology, tarot, fertility rituals, Japanese and Greek and Norse and Sumerian mythology, and this whole subtext of arcane magic referencing obscure figures like John Trithemius and works like the Art Theurgia Goetia. How much do you hope your readers are getting?
Well, those are sort of the brush strokes on the canvas. You can see the shape of the finished product without being aware of the brush strokes. I think being able to borrow from all of the world's mythologies and religions gives you the ability to just layer in references and correspondences, so you end up with a sort of resonant pinball machine of meanings. God, what a lousy image. Let me try to put that another way.

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.

There's something indispensably charming about your rendition of Lucifer. Do you want your readers to have a sense of sympathy for the devil despite his Machiavellian inclinations? Here's the more loaded question: is there hope for Lucifer?
Yes! I mean yes, on the sympathy thing -- but it's a balancing act. You have to sympathise with him in spite of the fact that he's a complete and utter monster. He's the unhuman extrapolation of a set of very human motivations, so you should see him out there and recognise the reason why he's there, and it should resonate with you. But every so often, you should be brought up short by the absolute facts of his ruthlessness and selfishness -- as when he tears apart the mansions of the silence to keep his promise to Elaine, essentially because he feels he would be lessened by breaking that promise. The billions of souls that he throws into nothingness when he does that don't weigh with him at all. So it should be an uneasy sympathy, very definitely. But is there hope? No. Not if that implies that he has any propensity for change. There will be a scene at the end of the series where he changes his mind about something, but I don't think he's capable of changing his essential nature. There isn't enough give there for him to bend by the smallest fraction of an inch.

This sounds a bit like Shelley's notion of the Devil, when he's talking about evil and Christianity and accuses the Christians of "adopting or inventing" the devil to extricate them from the difficulty of a universe where good and evil are "inextricably entangled." Neil Forsyth follows that out to the notion of the devil as a narrative and not inherently evil force, one whose primary function is to serve as a sort of perpetually dynamic adversary pre- and post-Christianity. Would you say that on some level, Lucifer can't change because humanity won't let him?
Was this in The Necessity of Atheism? It's a nice point. I think it's interesting that Shelley -- when he's demolishing the religious world view -- accuses the religious mind of having recourse to God only when it comes across something which it can't explain by any other means -- i.e., something that doesn't have a visible or proximate cause that we can identify and understand. So God becomes a sort of unknowable abstract beyond the space that Reason has furnished. Then in The Defence of Poetry he makes an almost exactly opposite point about Satan (or at least Milton's Satan): he says that when Milton drew Satan he used the elements of human nature as his palette. So God is what takes up when we leave off, if you like -- he's everything in the universe that isn't us and resists our understanding. Whereas the material that Satan is made of is ourselves. So coming back to Forsyth's point, if the devil's function is mainly a narrative function, then the story we're telling through him is the story of our own resistance to the divine plan. Maybe that's why he has to lose -- like the femme fatale in film noir, who has to die at the end of the movie so that we can exorcise our own susceptibility to her charms.

It's from Shelley's essay "On the Devil, and Devils," where Shelley says that the devil "is the weak place of the popular religion -- the vulnerable belly of the crocodile..."
Hmm. So Shelly defines and sets up the Neil Forsyth project -- that's actually very cool.

"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.

It's interesting that you mention Le Guin. She's a writer that has been comfortable navigating the bounds of the various and often contentiously guarded literary and genre (et al.) geographies. How do you feel about the current state of comics, i.e. sequential art in terms of its acceptance as something that has the potential to be (and maybe is in certain cases) something to handle alongside Joyce or Picasso? It has been twelve years since Spiegelman's Maus won a Pulitzer (and then it was a "special citation," not the coveted fiction award). Do you think there's hope that we'll see further erosion of the border lines?
I think the border lines that matter are not the ones that relate to glittering prizes, but the ones that stop a large proportion of people from ever picking up a comic book in the first place -- and as far as that goes, I think there are positive signs in the growth of the bookshop market for OGNs and the whole manga phenomenon in the US. Recognition and acceptance by the literary/artistic establishment is arguably a crock of shit at the best of times: I'd never hold it out as something to aspire to or be concerned about.

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?

Can you tell us a bit about this movie that's been green-lighted? What other projects do you have in the works?
Well, it's called Frost Flowers and I've been describing it as an erotic ghost story. It's about a man who has a passionate relationship with a ghost. It's also about memory and desire, and the ways in which we're doomed always to enact the same role in all of our relationships because we can't get away from our own natures. I'm genuinely very proud of the screenplay: I think it's one of the most disturbing and unconventional stories I've ever written. One of the central conceits is a vision of the world of the dead which is both visually striking and conceptually very unsettling. I hope.

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...

Copyright © 2004 Matthew Peckham

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

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