Monday, April 20, 2009

Mike Carey on Writing Comic Books

When I read a comic I never really look at the images, I’m just kind of right in the text.

- Kevin Smith

I like to read comics. Twenty years ago I might not have so boldly admitted that, at least not in print. Why? Because back then people would view someone purchasing their weekly fix of comics as adolescent. Not so anymore. Comics are a big business these days. When was the last time you heard someone under the age of 40 sob about how their mother threw out their comic book collection? Probably not at all. That’s because most everyone, mothers included, are aware that comics are too valuable a commodity to be disposed of so casually. Of course, they always have been to a small group of aficionados. But times change. And for comics I’d say that turning point came somewhere around the time of Superman’s death, back in 1992 when everyone rushed out to by one of the million copies printed and packaged in plastic wrap. Since then, comic books have become as acceptable and mainstream as the New York Stock Exchange. That’s when I stopped collecting. I still buy comics, but not with an eye toward investment. To be honest, I do it for the same reason millions of people tune into soap operas everyday… I like the stories. The truth is I sold the bulk of my comic collection a long time ago.

But not all of them.

There are a few “complete sets” I just couldn’t bring myself to part with. Not for monetary value, but for literary reasons. Neil Gaiman’s critically acclaimed The Sandman series tops the list. Published by DC Comics under their Vertigo imprint, it chronicled the tale of Dream of The Endless, who ruled over the world of dreams in 75 issues from 1989 until 1996. I had the good fortune to meet Neil back when the series first premiered and was lucky enough to get an original drawing from him before he became the icon he is today.

The other collection I keep stored in the back of my closet is Mike Carey’s incredible spin-off /sequel to The Sandman series, Lucifer. Like Gaiman, Carey has a perspective all his own. He is an engaging story-teller who understands that a story is driven by the sum of its parts and not just the individual pieces that it’s made up of. Character, conflict, emotional beats and compelling back stories are meticulously taken apart, thoroughly examined, then reassembled to form a unique, comprehensive and engrossing story that is nothing short of epic. And, not unlike The Sandman, Carey’s Lucifer ended after a short 75 compelling issues.

So if you want to learn about writing comics you can’t do much better than to talk to Carey himself.

Author of the Felix Castor novels, and of a great many comic book series, Carey is currently writing X-Men Legacy for Marvel and The Unwritten for DC Vertigo Comics. His comic series The Stranded has been optioned by the Sci-Fi Channel, and he has a movie, Trinity, in development with UK producer Slingshot Pictures.

Jeffrey Berman: The easy first question is always, “How did you get your start writing comic books?” but I’m equally interested in what keeps you working in the business now that you’re a successful novelist/screenwriter?

Mike Carey: As far as breaking in goes, I did it slowly and by gradual degrees. I wrote reviews and then longer articles for UK fanzines, and only plucked up my courage to submit a pitch when a guy I already knew in that context became the editor of a very short-lived line of comic books - called Trident because the start-up money came from the comics distributor Neptune. They ended up accepting two pitches from me, for a very derivative post-Watchmen "let's deconstruct superheroes" book and a psychological horror miniseries. But then they went bankrupt before they could publish either project, and I was out in the cold again. Several more years of sniffing around the American indie scene followed, before I finally got commissioned to do the SANDMAN PRESENTS LUCIFER mini for Vertigo. That would have been in 1998, by which time I'd been writing for most of a decade.

Why do I carry on writing comic books? The short answer is that I still enjoy it. Comic books are a narrative form that I'm really comfortable with, and that really means something to me. I'd be more likely to drop screenwriting, which I do very intermittently, than to drop comics, which have been at the centre of my creative life for almost two decades now. I like to think of myself - pretentiousness alert - as a storyteller, first and foremost - I work in a lot of different media, and I've gotten used to the interplay between the medium and the message in all those different contexts. But everyone has a centre of gravity, and mine is comics.

JB: There must have been a great deal of pressure on you following Neil Gaiman’s successful Sandman series. How did you prepare for Lucifer and did you always know how and where the series would end?

MC: I didn't experience it as pressure. When I was commissioned to write Lucifer, what I mainly felt was drunken rapture. Sandman was one of those books that redefines - for a time, in a given context - the rules of storytelling. It opened my eyes to a lot of things about narrative structure in comic books that I'd never consciously thought about before. So getting to play with those characters and to move them about on the same stage, so to speak, was a wonderful thing.

I did the forward planning meticulously - more so than for any subsequent series. My initial pitch for the ongoing book covered about three years' worth of stories, going almost to the end of the "Divine Comedy" arcs. Beyond that, I was hazier, but I always knew where the story was going to end: that there would be a second war in Heaven, with Lucifer fighting on the side of the angels, and that following that there would be a new God seated in primum mobile.

Inevitably, though, many new ideas suggested themselves as I was writing, and some stories eventually got added into the book that I had no conception of when I started out. All the Gaudium stories, and all the centaur stories, would fall under that heading. I just liked the characters and kept revisiting them.

JB: Do you approach writing genre comics, such as Hellblazer or Crossing Midnight , any differently than you do a superhero comic like The Fantastic Four or X-Men and if so, how?

MC: No, I think my overall approach is probably the same. Where there is a difference, it relates less to genre, more to the question of what's come before and how I'm going to launch off from that existing continuity. With Crossing Midnight, I was able to make all the rules for myself because it was a creator-owned book: the same with Faker, My Faith in Frankie, even Spellbinders (although Spellbinders isn't creator-owned). That freedom can be very refreshing. With Hellblazer and X-Men, there was a lot of backstory to be acknowledged, and the starting point for my own planning was "well where do I go from here?" With "here" being the point that the story had already reached under my predecessors. Very few writers ever go forward along exactly the same trajectory that was being mapped out by the previous creative team, but I always like to anchor myself in continuity rather than to slash it to ribbons on principle. With Hellblazer I put my anchor in the very brief Warren Ellis run, and used a lot of the supporting characters he'd added to the canon - then I started adding my own. With X-Men, I was allowed to pick my own very bizarre team, and the stories flowed very easily - first of all, explaining how this heterogeneous cast came together, and then letting their personalities and interaction guide the narrative.

JB: Take me through your process of writing a comic from start to finish? Do you work from an outline? Pad and paper versus computer? Any deities you offer up a sacrifice to before you begin?

MC: I tend to start with a beat sheet - a list of scenes, either roughly costed for page count or else just listed in sequential order. There are some basic assumptions I'll make here. One of them, which is going to sound a bit mechanical, is that a 22-page comic will have roughly 11 scenes. I'll allow myself to go a couple under or a couple over, but generally no more than that. Some comics don't lend themselves to being chopped up in that way, but it's a reasonable starting point for most. Of course, you don't necessarily stick to the plan once you start writing, but it's still good to have one.

The second stage is a very idiosyncratic one. I draw page roughs. They're very crude, rough-and-ready little sketches, but they allow me to do two crucial things - to decide on the POV and framing for each panel, and to write all the dialogue and caps. This is the most creative part of the whole process: all the most important decisions are made here, and it typically takes me a day and a half, maybe two days, to finish the roughs.

Then I type up the script, usually deviating from the roughs in a number of significant ways, but sticking to them for easily three-quarters of the time. This only takes a day, because the hard part is already done: a lot of the time, I'm just transcribing what's already there in the roughs.

No sacrifices, but a lot of strong coffee and the occasional Snickers bar.

JB: Was there any trepidation on your part when you took over writing chores on Hellblazer? Did you feel weighted down by Constantine’s lengthy history and if so, did that have any effect on you bringing your own perspective and unique narrative to the book?

MC: It's strange to look back on this, but the biggest worry I had was whether I could handle the workload. I was writing Lucifer by then, so I had one comic script to submit on a monthly basis - and I didn't see how anyone could write TWO comics in a month! So initially, when Will Dennis offered me the gig, I declined with thanks. Fortunately, Will said he wouldn't take my first answer: he'd let me think about it for a day or so, then ask again. The second time, I said yes.

That was in 2002. By the end of 2004, I was happily handling four comics projects in a month, with occasional spikes up to five or six. It never felt like a strain.

As for the backstory, well, see above. I think there's a sense in which everyone writes John Constantine as themselves. Certainly, every writer has their own unique perspective on the character, so he changes a lot from one incarnation to the next - while still remaining recognizably himself.

JB: What advice would you offer to aspiring comic book writers just starting out?

MC: There are a lot of things that will make it more likely that your work will get picked up. One is presentation. Use a proper script format, clear and legible and consistent, with a header or footer that has the title of the project, the issue number, maybe your name and contact details. There are lots of examples out on the web now, and many more included as value-added features with trade collections or in "director's cut" reprints of popular books. I'd say brevity is a virtue. Don't skimp on necessary detail, but don't fill out your script with unnecessary verbiage. Novel-length scripts are only good if you're Alan Moore: most people aren't.

Check online submission guidelines if you're in doubt about what to send with a pitch. Some companies have fairly precise rules, but they're mostly posted right up there for you to see.

Do your research: make sure you're sending your precious pitches to people who might actually be interested in them. I once sent a Superman pitch to Karen Berger - after she'd already founded and moved wholly into the Vertigo imprint. Address submissions to a named editor, and follow up with an email or phone call after a decent interval of time. Don't bug the editor endlessly: if you become irritating, it's game over. Be persistent, but only within the bounds of politeness.

Don't assume that you can abridge the process and start at the top. Sometimes you can, but more usually not. DC and Marvel both prefer you to have a track record of published work before you approach them. The exceptions tend to be for people who've already made their names in another area outside of comic books and probably have transferable skills.

But the two biggest things are the two most obvious: read a lot and write a lot. If you read passionately and love stories, it's easy to take that love one stage further and think about what precisely floats your boat: what distinguishes a passable story from a good one, and a good one from a great one. It's important to think about how stories work and to expose yourself to a lot of them - not to copy them, although you may start out by doing that in some respects, but to get a feel for their internal geography.

And write, write, write until your eyes cross and your keyboard melts. Writing is one of those things - like sex, say, or riding a bike - that you get better at by doing it. That's especially true if you then show what you've written to other people, get feedback on it, and take the feedback seriously. You can't do this alone. You need a test audience. More specifically, you need a test audience who are prepared to be honest with you.

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