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DF Interview: Mike Carey talks The Unwritten: Apocalypse
By Byron Brewer
Great Britain’s own Mike Carey has done it all in comics as a writer – from Sandman to Hellblazer, from Fantastic Four to X-Men and everything in between. Yet one of his most eclectic works, one of a hauntingly bizarre nature, also continues to be one of the most interesting: The Unwritten, now with “Apocalypse” added to its title.
Rumors are the final arc of the series is nigh.
What was the inspiration behind this strange father/son/fictional character relationship? Dynamic Forces wanted to find out, and so we attended a local TommyCon and interviewed Carey there.
Dynamic Forces: Mike, let’s go back. How did a teacher from Britain become one of America’s best known comic book writers?
Mike Carey: Very slowly, and sort of accidentally. I was writing comics journalism – reviews and articles – for quite some time before I submitted my first comics pitch. And then I was laboring in the indie vineyards for many years before I got a commission from DC. So it was a very resistible rise, and whatever the opposite of meteoric is. A slowburn sort of thing. The slowest of slowburns.
What I had going for me was a kind of hyperactivity. I dreamed up a lot of pitches and sent them out in a lot of directions. But there were lots of times when I stalled, and it felt like nothing at all was happening. When everything did come together it was a profound surprise.
DF: What did it mean to an aspiring comics writer to get that first regular job with 2000AD where you created Thirt3en and Carver Hale?
Mike Carey: Well, that came later. The big breakthrough wasn’t with Carver Hale, it was with Sandman Presents Lucifer, and then Sandman Presents Petrefax – both of which came before the Lucifer monthly and before my 2000AD work.
The day when Alisa Kwitney called me and asked me if I wanted to pitch a Lucifer story still stands out very vividly in my memory. In a way, my whole professional career has its origin in that one phone call. Alisa explained that they’d had another writer commissioned but that for some reason that hadn’t worked out. They needed someone to come up with a new story from scratch within a very few days, and if it was approved to go straight to script. I put everything I had into that pitch. I’d stopped believing in “the big break” by then, but I still knew it when I saw it.
Nothing was inevitable even then. It’s perfectly possible to get that one commission and then for it not to go anywhere. Alisa went away on maternity leave and never returned to Vertigo as a full-time editor, but she commissioned the Petrefax mini from me before she went and that kept me in the game. At some point I pitched the Lucifer monthly, and after that good things just kept on happening.
DF: Tell us how The Unwritten came about.
Mike Carey: After Lucifer, Peter Gross and I really wanted to work together again. We pitched a lot of things – like, dozens of ideas – to Vertigo but we couldn’t get anything greenlit. After trying for a year or so we gave up and got drawn away into other things. Peter did American Jesus with Mark Millar. I did Crossing Midnight – and my Marvel work – and our next collaboration got put on the back burner. Until San Diego Comicon 2008, when the two of us attended and we both hung out with Vertigo editor Pornsak Pichetshote. We started brainstorming, and Pornsak did everything he could to keep that conversation going. The Unwritten was the result, although it started out as me pushing one idea (the magic trumpet) and Peter pushing a different one (a character whose real and fictional adventures would run in parallel). It was a mash-up, in other words.
DF: Tom Taylor and “Tommy” Taylor: similarities and differences in the distinct characters?
Mike Carey: Well Tommy is a fairly two-dimensional character at the end of the day. He’s a heroic boy wizard with a big heart who stands by his friends, doesn’t know the meaning of fear, and has wild adventures in a magical kingdom where everything in the end comes back to him. None of that changes, because those are the terms on which he was conceived. Wilson wanted a vivid archetype, not a real boy.
Tom, by contrast, has always had to live with hard realities – and we kind of sense that he was damaged by them. When we first meet him he’s embittered, narcissistic, a bit of a whiner. The disasters that Lizzie Hexam triggers in his life are kind of the saving of him. When everything falls apart he has to find resources he didn’t know he had. Part of that is doing the heroic stuff. But a lot of it is just learning to be a decent human being and letting things touch him emotionally.
DF: Two words: Christopher Robin. Thoughts?
Mike Carey: Christopher Robin was the real life Tom Taylor. A man who – when he was still a child and couldn’t give informed consent – became famous on someone else’s terms, as a fictional character in his father’s works. It messed him up in a lot of ways. It led to his being bullied at school, and it led to his life being scrutinized like the lives of celebrities today. It wasn’t something he’d asked for, and he resented it. He found it hard to forgive his father for selling his childhood and getting rich from it. So yeah, he was very much one of our reference points for Tom.
DF: I am fascinated about the concept of “literary geography” used so much in Tom’s stories. How did that develop?
Mike Carey: A lot of that was Peter. We knew the Waldseemüller map was going to show up quite early on in the series, and Peter wanted us to play into that from that start – to reference places in the real world that had fictional significance, and build up the sense that the real world and the many worlds of fiction are endlessly interconnected. These are all beats that finally pay off when Tom is told by Frau Totenkinder – and accepts – that “the ladder of the worlds has no top and no bottom.” It also partly explains why Tom is so good at navigating these interfaces between reality and fiction. He’s been brought up and trained to it.
DF: The addition of “Apocalypse” to the title? Has this changed the manner in which you handle these stories?
Mike Carey: No, not at all. It was just an acknowledgement that we were entering a new phase – and a reassurance, to some extent, to readers who’d come on board with the Fables crossover that they could still get a handle on what was happening and stay with us for the final act of the story. It seemed to work in that respect. We got a good bump in numbers, where we’d been a little worried earlier because we went into the crossover on a dip.
DF: What can you tell us about the mess Tom is getting involved with this month in issue #7?
Mike Carey: This is our grail quest arc – except that as with all things in The Unwritten this is kind of a meta-textual grail with its roots in more than one mythology. Tom has to find this big mythic McGuffin and bring it back, but in order to do that he has to obey the rules of the stories he’s in and try to enact the role of a perfect, morally unblemished knight. Which is fine so long as his opponents are playing by the same rule book, but at a certain point that symmetry breaks down and he realizes he’s walked into a trap.
So it’s a self-referential quest for an ambiguous and multi-faceted grail. With bad guys from a number of other quest narratives coming in.
DF: You and artist Peter Gross have certainly made a lasting team. Tell us about his contribution to this comic.
Mike Carey: Peter and I co-created The Unwritten and we co-plot it. I’m billed as writer, which is fair, but typically the script is part of a dialogue between the two of us. It’s not an instruction manual that he has to follow.
It’s actually the most open and collaborative way I’ve ever worked. It’s labor-intensive, because all the back-and-forth between us takes time, but the results make it more than worthwhile.
On Lucifer I took the lead more, mostly because I was on the book before Peter was and that made him more reticent about coming up with ideas that would have a massive bearing on the story. But The Unwritten has been our joint property right from the start, so it’s different – and I would have to say, one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever experienced, creatively.
DF: Have you yourself ever been to anything like a “TommyCon”? (laughs)
Mike Carey: Yes, I have! It was in Uppsala, in Sweden. It was actually their regular annual comics show, but they had TommyCon posters made up and decorated a part of the hall so it looked like a TommyCon event. It was great!
But if you mean have I done the fanboy thing to the extent of going to a themed Con for a specific fiction, I have to say no. I’ve come close to going to a Discworld convention, and would still love to do so, but something always intervened. That would probably be the only one-shot Con that would tempt me.
Dynamic Forces would like to thank Mike Carey for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer our questions. The Unwritten: Apocalypse #7 hits stores July 23rd!
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