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AS A COMIC BOOK WRITER, MIKE CAREY has been one of the few talents to explore the fan-favorite character John Constantine. Following such notable scribes as Garth Ennis, Jamie Delano and Brian Azarello, Carey is currently leaving an indelible mark as writer on the character’s monthly title Hellblazer — a book which should see a boost in readership in response to this month’s Constantine movie. But Carey will be the first to admit that he’s made just about every mistake in the book on his way to eventual success. Comic Foundry recently caught up with Carey, and the now-veteran author shares his best — and his worst — from a storied comic book career.
What were some of your early successes in getting your comic strips on the market? What made them successful? What markets worked well for you in the United Kingdom? Conversely, can you describe a few mistakes you made?
I can certainly talk an awful lot about things I did wrong. But there’s a sense in which doing something is always better than doing nothing. I hemmed and hawed and hesitated for literally years before I ever got around to throwing a pitch at a publisher, and all of that time was dead time.
Writing is one of these things where you get better at it by doing it, like sex, say, and especially by doing it publicly — OK, not that much like sex, after all. I mean, the actual process of writing is one that you get more skilled in as you get stuck in and hammer away at it, but feedback is also really useful, and you’re not going to get any feedback if you hide everything you write in your sock drawer.
To begin with, everything that I did seemed like a miserable failure and a complete waste of time. I pitched some story ideas to a UK publisher, Trident, and got them accepted, but then Trident went bankrupt without paying me a penny or printing a single page of my stuff. I felt really despressed about it at the time, but through that short maiden voyage I met Ken Meyer Jr., who introduced me first to Lurene Haines and then to the Pruett brothers. Lurene got me work with Malibu, and the Pruetts got me onto the roster at Caliber.
That was the pattern for me, over about five or six years. I’d seem to get a break, it would fall apart, but it would turn out to be a sort of stepping stone to something else. I did a whole lot of work for Caliber – a mini-series called Inferno, a short for Negative Burn, a graphic novella, and so on. The pay was appalling, but that really wasn’t the point; they had good production values and they got stuff out there, which is all you can ask for when you’re starting out. You need a calling card; getting paid, when it happens, is just icing on the cake.
Anyway, throughout that time I was pitching stuff to every publisher in the book: DC, Marvel, Dark Horse, various U.S. independents and short-lived U.K. wannabes, the whole works. This is where I could have done myself some favors by sitting down and working out a game plan, instead of just going at it in a scattershot, haphazard sort of way. I didn’t do the basic research. I’d send stuff in without an editor’s name attached — like, addressed just to Dark Horse, or whatever. Or I’d choose an editor because I knew the name but didn’t bother to check out what sort of material that editor was already associated with. I mean, I sent superhero pitches in to Karen Berger — after she’d been made group editor for Vertigo! I didn’t read submission guidelines, I didn’t bother to think about formatting a pitch properly … If there was something I could screw up, I found the way.
But I was writing and getting published, and that was my saving grace. I sent copies of all my Caliber stuff in to Vertigo editor Alisa Kwitney because she edited a lot of books that I really enjoyed and respected. And one day she called me and invited me to pitch. Everything grew out of that, although it still didn’t happen overnight and there was nothing inevitable about it.
I think I’d sum up my experience like this. In the end, it was just dumb luck that got me where I wanted to be, but I slogged for years to learn the skills that allowed me to use the luck when I got it. Nothing was wasted, in the end. It all helped, even when it seemed like I was getting nowhere.
Your starting point has got to be one of respect for what’s been done before and for the definition of the character that’s already been laid down.
You’ve worked with established comic book characters - Constantine, Elektra, among others. How do you take into account an already-rich mythos while still striving to leave your mark on the book and explore new story ideas?
The first thing is that you’ve just got to do your research. When I took over Hellblazer I was already well up on John Constantine’s past because I was a long-term reader, but I went back and re-read the whole run and took my own notes as I went along on things I might want to re-visit and characters I might want to use. Your starting point has got to be one of respect for what’s been done before and for the definition of the character that’s already been laid down.
That doesn’t mean you don’t make changes, but your changes can’t be what Chesterton would call “moral miracles.” For example, having John Constantine father three children with a demoness was within the parameters of the character we knew: Having him, say, father three children through acts of rape wouldn’t be. It’s a moral miracle: There are no circumstances, barring lame devices like mind control, where the character we know would do that.
At rock bottom, I guess you’ve just got to have a feel for the characters and the world they inhabit. If that basic sympathy isn’t there, and if you don’t really get what the core of the character is, you’re not going to know when you’ve taken them beyond their center of balance. In Hellblazer No. 206 I’ve got a scene in which Chas Chandler beats up his wife. I think it’s a scene that works in context: It’s stomach-churning and repellent and shocking, but it does the things I set out to do. For some, though, it might seem like too big a jump, like a moral miracle. It’s subjective.
How do you approach your scripting duties? Do you operate over short story arcs, to account for real-world changes in plotting, or do you draft an expansive story and then narrow it down for each monthly installment?
There are really four stages to how I work, most of the time, anyway. The first stage is an overall plan which covers either an entire arc or perhaps six months or so of an ongoing title. I got into the habit of doing this when I was working with Shelly Bond on Lucifer, and it was a useful discipline. You can still change your mind about things if a better idea occurs to you, but you’ve got a broad plan, a broad sense of direction, which you’ve agreed with your editor up front.
Then I do a page breakdown or scene breakdown for each issue, which is where all the important decisions about structure get made. It’s typically about a couple of sides of A4, and it’s mostly for my benefit as I write. I treat it more as a budget than anything else: I can give this scene two pages at most because I want to really give that other scene enough room to breathe. It’s pretty rare for me to deviate substantially from this breakdown.
Then when I’m actually scripting I do it on a pass-repass basis. First of all, I rough out the entire issue in the form of crude, simple sketches for each panel, with full dialogue attached. The sketches allow me to make decisions about point of view and pacing, and along with the dialogue that’s sort of the warp and woof of the scene.
Once that’s done, actually typing out the script is quick and easy because it’s just a matter of transcribing. I’ve tried on occasion to do without the rough sketches: It doesn’t work. For whatever reason, I don’t have the sort of mind that will allow me to script directly from a plan. I have to draw pictures first, even though my drawings can only be called “pictures” by stretching the word to breaking point.
How can burgeoning writers avoid getting too far ahead of themselves as far as deadlines and projects are concerned? How much was too much for you when you first started out?
When I first started out, I could manage one script per month, and that was that. I was working full-time as a teacher, of course, and just writing in the evenings, but I think even if I’d been writing full-time I’d still have had to take it slow and steady. I was still learning the craft, both in terms of the mechanical side of scripting and in terms of the possibilities of graphic storytelling. When Lucifer went from mini to monthly, that felt like a huge, dizzying leap into the unknown — terrifying and exhilarating. And I can remember initially saying no when I was offered Hellblazer because how can you do two monthly books? That was just too scary to contemplate.
But gradually I got more confident and developed a better sense of what I could and couldn’t do in a given time frame. Looking back, writing a monthly actually was the huge step that it felt like at the time. That’s when you knuckle down to it and start working to the rhythm, because you’ve got to hit that deadline and get that script out there — otherwise you’re taking money directly out of your art team’s pockets, screwing up shipping schedules and God alone knows what else. You learn to be professional, and to be less forgiving with yourself when you want to play Resident Evil or watch a bit of daytime TV.
But there’s no hard and fast rule, and I’m not sure whether I’m in a position to lay down rules or even guidelines for other writers. One thing is for sure: Until you’ve written on a monthly book, you can’t know what it’s like. Your sense of your capacity and your limitations will come once you’re in that situation.
Many up-and-coming writers have little or no idea on how to work with a group of professional artists on a comic book. What tips can you offer writers on how to deal with the art side of comic publishing?
In a lot of my early ventures, I had no direct contact with the art team at all. I submitted a script to the editor, who took me through rewrites and polishes and whatever, and then handed it on to the penciler. Then somewhere down the line, a set of finished pages would drop onto my doormat. Or not. Some stories I never saw until they appeared in print.
So the most important thing for me was to specify art direction clearly and effectively because it was a one-way process, and the artist wouldn’t be coming back to me to say, “What the hell is that about?”
At first, I took the view that more was always better, and I wrote scripts that were ludicrously, impossibly over-specified. The example I always give, which is a true example, is that if two characters were drinking coffee I’d describe the design of the coffee mugs. (”Fran is drinking out of a mug that says NICARAGUA TEN YEARS OF FREEDOM, and her sister Sally out of one that reads NO PASARAN.”) This is bad for a lot of reasons. One, it’s unnecessary work for you. Two, it’s insulting to the artist, who is a lot more than a robotic amanuensis. And three, worst of all, if you specify everything then the artist has no way of telling which details are significant and will at some point have a plot function and which are just you blathering on for the sake of it.
Specifying everything is ultimately the same as specifying nothing: The artist will have to ignore some of what you’re telling him, and he may well end up ignoring stuff that really matters. So you should concentrate on what matters in the first place and explicitly set things up in the art direction. “We need this wooden chest to be in the corner of the room because he’s going to hide the body in it later.”
In a way it’s a lot easier now than it was 15 or 20 years ago because so many trade paperback collections come with scripts as “value-added” features, and there are scripts available online, too. The full script for Lucifer No. 4, “Born With the Dead,” is available at Matt Peckham’s Lucifermorningstar.com Web site, for example.
Were you involved at all with the creative process for the “Constantine” movie?
No, I wasn’t involved at any stage, and I don’t think anyone else related to the comic book was, either. From what little I know of it, it should be a fun movie in its own right. It’s not John Constantine as we know him, but that doesn’t mean it’s not going to work well on its own terms. You can see it as being the John Constantine of a parallel universe kind of thing.
Your movie “Frost Flowers” is in pre-production. How involved are you in the creative process in that movie?
At the moment we’ve got production art coming through and Andrea, the director, is heavily involved in casting. He’s bringing me in on all decisions, which is hugely exciting. He’s also made it clear that I’ll be welcome on set, and I’m definitely going to be turning up for some of the shooting if only to convince myself that it’s really happening. This isn’t my first movie, but it’s my first live action movie, and that makes it real in a whole lot of ways that my animated features weren’t.
Do you have any plans for “The Barker” after the four-part story is finished in Detective Comics?
“Plans” would be overstating it, but John Lucas and I love the characters and the way they interact. If there was an opening to do another Barker story, I can’t see either of us saying no. Personally, I’d like to write a story in which Painted Rose, the tattooed contortionist, plays a more active role. As I wrote her, I came to appreciate her unexpected gentleness and the way she plays off the short-tempered, often brutal Calahan.
Are there any other helpful tidbits you’d like to add to help out the next generation of comic writers and artists out there?
Don’t give up. If you love it, keep plugging and plugging and plugging away at it until it comes together. Show your stuff to as many people as you can, and listen to what they tell you, especially what they say you’re doing wrong.
If you’re a writer, use your spell checker and take care with the boring, mechanical stuff like correct pagination, formatting, consistent fonts and so on: It gives the impression that you’re a professional and makes people more likely to trust you. Put your contact details on every bit of paper you send out, something I didn’t do the first time I wrote to Alisa Kwitney, and boy did she rib me about it later; I almost fell at the first hurdle. Be persistent but never pushy or rude or obnoxious. Carry a condom at all times, and address bishops as “your grace” rather than “your reverence.” Never type your credit card number onto a Web page that isn’t secure. And would it hurt to call your mother once in a while?
And good luck.
- Interivew by Patrick Rollens