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Comics Fest 2014: In Conversation with Mike Carey

In the build up towards the launch of ARTsouthAFRICA’s comics supplement in the upcoming December issue (13.2), our newly appointed Comics Editor, Andrew Lamprecht, will be speaking to various comic artists attending the 2014 Open Book Comics Festival in Cape Town. Our first conversation is with British writer, Mike Carey; whose long and illustrious career has included numerous comics, novels, film scripts and TV shows. He is most well known for DC/Vertigo’s ‘Lucifer’, which is the longest-running and most successful ‘Sandman’ spinoff to date. He has also been the lead writer for Marvel’s ‘X-Men’ since 2006.

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Mike Carey in conversation with Andrew Lamprecht. Photograph: Fay Jackson. 

Andrew Lamprecht: Hello Mike, and thank you so much for your time. We’re here to talk to you from ARTsouthAFRICA, which is a magazine about contemporary art from Africa. From the next issue onwards, we’re looking to include a dedicated supplement on comic art from the African continent, and we’d like to talk to you a little bit about your comic work.

I’d like to go back in time to Toxic, which was very early on in your career, because it’s a comic that I remember very well as somebody from South Africa. That’s the sort of thing I’m interested in because, in South Africa, we’re entering into a moment where comics are becoming popular, but we’re really only starting out, only beginning to develop. The kind of energy that I remember from Toxic seems to be similar to this current energy, people just doing whatever they want to do, crazy stuff.  Almost, if I may say, completely oppositional to what’s considered to be the norm here; a lot of official comics deal with sports, or the life story of Nelson Mandela, or AIDS awareness and that sort of thing, and often they will be distributed in schools. These days, however, we have people doing quite dark and dangerous things with comics. Would you mind telling us a little bit about how Toxic started out?

Mike Carey: That was really the dawn of my career. At the time, I was teaching full time and writing was just a hobby, but I started doing reviews and some feature articles for very small press magazines – fanzines, do you have that sort of thing here? These are amateur publications, so you do the work for free; you do it because you love the medium. I did that for many years for a magazine called the Fantasy Advertiser, and the editor there (Martin Skidmore) happened to be the editor for Toxic as well. So, because I already knew him, I had the courage to submit pictures to him. I actually pitched two ideas; a superhero series, which was very heavily influenced by ‘Watchmen’, and a horror series called ‘Legions of Hell’. They commissioned both of those and I ended up writing many scripts for them, but they went bankrupt very quickly. I think Toxic only existed for a period of six or seven months, and, sadly, they ran aground because they were working on what they thought were accurate profit projections. They thought they could break even on 30 000 sales and they couldn’t. They needed about twice that to break even.

I think that’s a useful lesson.

I only got into Toxic as it was falling apart, and, as you say, there was an incredibly anarchic energy about the publication. They used a lot of the Pat Mills and the Kev O’Neil ‘Marshall Law’ kind of stories, which are some of the darkest and the hardest-edged superhero stories ever told.  That introduced me to a lot of people that were doing the same thing in America − working on the small press scene − most crucially Ken Meyer Jnr, who was my artist on Aquarius (a superhero story I wrote). Through Ken, I met a lot of the people that were working on Malibu, on Calibre, America’s small press, and that really kind of gave me a toehold in the industry as Toxic was coming to an end.

One of the things that a lot of South African creatives use as a kind of touchstone is just that – breaking into the American scene.  For South African artists, this is represented by drawing for Batman, or Lauren Beukes writing for Vertigo, for example. Do you think that it’s a danger? Should we really be focusing on our own local production or is it a good thing to celebrate those people who have broken into what is, after all, the world’s biggest market?

I think it’s marvellous that the American mainstream is there, because it keeps a lot of us alive as creatives! (laughs) You know, there’s a living to be made there, and, once you’ve got that, you can do other things, and most creatives do work in their home countries as well. It’s exactly the same in the UK, if you’re a British comics writer, what can you do? You can work for 2000AD Comics, but even if they love you, you’re only going to get 5 pages a week. You can’t live on that. So, you aim for America, or you aim for greater Europe, and I think it’s both sad and reassuring. Obviously, the best thing is to have a vibrant domestic market.

When I was growing up, there were literally dozens of British comics, for little kids there were humour anthologies like Sparky, Beano, and Whizzer and Ships, and for older kids there were sports comics, there were war comics, there were horror comics, there were science fiction comics, and they’ve all died, one by one.  What we have now is 2000AD, and we still have Beano, but that’s pretty much the whole of the British market! It is changing. People are bringing out small press stuff again, and we seem to be going into another expansionist phase, but writing for America, writing for DC, writing for Marvel, has kept a lot of us going for a long time.

I want to get onto something I’m really very interested in, in terms of developing a new market and new readership in South Africa. One thing that has impressed me about your work in recent years is that you’ve focused on young woman and teenage girls and I think that the co-script writing work you’ve done with your daughter is incredible. You’ve also done responsive work with your fans, allowing readers to impact on the development of the plot through social media. Could you speak a little bit about working with previously untapped markets and the kind of creative impetus it takes to write for teenage girls?

I think it is increasingly a theme in my work (focusing on a young, female audience), and I can only partially explain it. Working with Louise (my daughter) was a unique and amazing opportunity, which arose almost backwards out of the popularity of manga in the US. There was a point where DC and Marvel, the big mainstream publishers, realised that they were being outsold by a factor of ten to one by the best selling manga comics. Shelly Bond, from DC, who was a big editor of Vertigo, was Lauren Beukes’ editor, created her own imprint as a subdivision within DC called Minx, which was an attempt to get manga readers, not just teenage girls, to read domestic content as well. It totally failed; it existed as an imprint for perhaps three years, and they produced lovely books with great creative teams, but somehow they just totally failed to find an audience. Manga audiences are very cautious about reading things that look like manga, but actually aren’t – they’re suspicious of forgeries.

It was Shelly who suggested that I work with my daughter and write for an audience of teenage girls, and I laughed my leg off! I thought, “What a preposterous idea!” But I turned to Louise and asked her, “Do you want to try?” and she said, “Yeah, why not?”

More and more I write from a female point of view, and I don’t know why that is…  I think I find it easier to identify with women and girls than I do with men and boys.

Your work can be characterised as quite dark, and even gothic in some way. Interestingly enough, in South Africa, there appear to be two different streams developing. The mainstream stuff, of course, which I mentioned before, is very didactic and often sponsored in some way. On the one hand we have very light, fun stuff that plays into an almost Tintinesque kind of world, influenced by publications like Beano and Dandy and stuff like that, which are even more widely distributed than American comics in some cases.  On the other hand, there is work that is very, very dark. There are comics that have been banned from some schools in the country, and there have even been burning demonstrations by churches and things like that. One might say that this has developed out of a history that is a very violent post-apartheid history. In your experience, coming from a Thatcherite Britain, would you say that you have similar streams developing? One that glosses over and one that digs to the deepest, darkest depths?

I totally see the subject of the question, and I agree with what it is that that I think you’re saying. I’m absolutely convinced that real political events create fictional frameworks or can create the content of fictional production. It’s no accident that 2000AD grows up in the Thatcher era; almost every story in 2000AD is about a dystopian world, very often a world with fascistic undertones to it. The British state is becoming very centralised, there’s the political use of the police force, and there’s the mining strike, which are similar issues that South Africa is facing at the moment. I think that this political turmoil continues to be a very powerful strand in stories by British writers, and a lot of stories very obviously play off of current events, even though they pretend not to… I’ve seldom been overtly political in my work, but I think you could probably find the same thread woven through almost everything that I’ve written.

One of the things that you do is look back into British history and legend and draw from that, and that’s something that South African artists do as well.  It’s an interesting trend. We find a lot of South Africans doing sci-fi takes on African legends, folklore and mythologies, and also a lot of work looking back at the Dutch-colonial period, for example. Could you perhaps speak a little about your historical influences?

I do tend to draw on mythology an awful lot, not necessarily British, or even European, but because I studied literature at university, I’ve always been steeped in old stories. When I started writing ‘Lucifer’, that was the brief, and that was the genius of ‘Sandman’, of what Neil Gaiman had created. He produced this mythology, which was an overarching mythology, a mythology that had room for all existing mythologies and religions within it. You have a stage where Judeo-Christian angels meet Japanese storm gods and Navaho tribal deities, and it makes sense. They can talk to each other on an equal footing.

I firmly believe that Booker’s ‘Seven Basic Plots’ theory is false, but I do believe that an awful lot of stories have meta-narratives hiding inside them. For example, The Girl With All the Gifts, my most recent book, is basically the story of Pandora retold in a dystopian future. There’s a reason why myths continue to have power over us, and it’s because they plug into really basic instincts and emotions, and I don’t think you can get away from that. It seems the more you try, the more those old stories come to inhabit your stories.

As an emerging market, what advice would you give to South African creatives working in the comics industry? At the moment I would say it is robust yet fragile, in that we have a very strong fan base even though its very small, and our artists have a lot to say despite their outlets being very limited. This is why I started with the question about Toxic; do you have any sincere advice to give to young up-and-coming people who want to build and develop the South African comics industry?

I wouldn’t presume to… I would feel like a total fraud offering advice because I feel that I’m a fairly pampered institutionalised sort of beast (laughs).  I’ve done a lot of work for DC, I’ve done a lot of work for Marvel, all my novels have been commissioned before they were written, so it’s been a long time since I was at the cutting edge, its been a long time since I did indie stuff. I’ve lost that kind of hand to mouth thrill, but I guess if I were to offer any advice it would be to stick to your guns, to stick to your voice, even while you work within the mainstream. The mainstream is a safety net and it’s a lifeline because it gives you money to live on, but you need to remember to do your own work, to do your passion projects too, and don’t deviate too much from that.

 

As I mentioned earlier, ARTsouthAFRICA is going to be introducing this comic supplement with each issue now, and we’re finding that comics are entering into some serious high-culture. The British Library recently presented ‘Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK’ for example, which was criticised in some quarters by people within the comics industry as being a kind of sell out. Is it a question of comics having arrived in their rightful place as art, or is there a danger that the edginess of comic art is something that will get lost? Comics tend to always have been slightly anti-establishment, but, these days, some of the biggest movies in Hollywood are Marvel and DC superhero movies, is this a danger or is this a strength?

I don’t see this as comics having arrived. It’s great that they’re receiving serious critical attention, and its great that Mary Talbot won the Costa prize, but the thing about being anti-establishment is that the establishment moves, and it moves like a juggernaut that either swallows you whole or crushes you. Often, things that start anti-establishment become assimilated into the establishment, and you almost have to ignore that and carry on doing what you’re doing. Don’t do it for a critical-acclaim pat on the head; do it because it means something to you.