Leave Your Spandex @t the Door: SPELLBINDERS interview with MIKE CAREY

Welcome to the 45th edition of Leave Your Spandex @t the Door!

Happy New Year to everyone! This is the first column of 2005, and there’s no other guy I would rather have as my guest to bring good luck for the rest of the year, than Mike Carey! Mike and I sat down to discuss his new project with Marvel Comics, SPELLBINDERS which is going to be released in March as part of the company’s new MARVEL NEXT line. The solicitation for the first issue reads:

Getting through high school is hard enough without having to watch your back the whole time: but magic can give you a real edge over the competition. When fifteen-year-old Kim Vesco moves from Chicago to Salem, Massachusetts, and enrols at John Hathorne High School, she finds that the student body is divided into rival factions of witches and non-witches, with both sides bidding for her allegiance. Kim never believed in witches before, and she certainly doesn’t have any magical powers that she knows of, but someone thinks she does – and that someone is determined to kill her before she uses them. Between the tribal loyalties of the schoolyard and the brutal, fight-or-die logic of the mage-war, Kim has to steer a course that will keep her alive until she can take the fight back to her enemy and reveal the true identity of someone she thought she already knew: herself.

Manolis: Hello Mike! What is the premise of “SPELLBINDERS”?

Mike Carey: Basically, it’s an all-ages book which follows a group of teen-aged protagonists in a setting where magic is an accepted part of everyday life. It’s the real world, up to a point, but this is Salem, Massachusetts, where there’s a well-established tradition of families – bloodlines – with magical abilities.

One of the most important setting is a high school, named for one of the judges in the Salem witch trials, where a large minority among the student body are witches (of both sexes – they’re as likely to be male as female). And because of the way high schools work, being able or unable to do magic becomes one of these things that determines your allegiances and your status in your peer group. Some people think it’s a cool thing, other people resent and mistrust it: but it’s there, along with things like how tall you are, or how good-looking, or your skin colour or whether you can drive. It’s one of the dimensions along which your school identity gets plotted out.

Manolis: How did you come up with the idea for SPELLBINDERS? Is it your own baby, or something you worked together with your editor and artist?

Mike: It arose out of a slightly different project that I was discussing with Mackenzie [Cadenhead, the book’s editor]. We’d been thinking about reviving some very obscure characters from an ongoing Marvel Universe title, but then as we reworked the characters and discussed how they might work in their own book, we got less and less interested in the continuity aspects and more and more interested in this new group and the dynamic that it might have.

Then Mike Perkins came on board with there totally glorious character designs, and it all came together and gelled – but it gelled as something completely new, with the link to this ongoing title (I’m being deliberately coy here) jettisoned.

Manolis: Who is Kim Vesco?

Mike: She’s our point-of-view character for this story. As an outsider coming into the closed world of Salem, Kim has to find her feet at a new school where rival factions of both witches and “blanks” (non-magic-users) seem to want to stake a claim on her. As far as she knows, Kim has no magical abilities at all – she didn’t even believe in magic before she came to Salem. But she has to accept that her family arriving in town at this time may be more than a coincidence, and that her own past life may not be quite as she’s always believed it was. Plus there’s someone out to kill her, and this someone is using a wider range of magical attacks than anyone has ever seen before.

It seemed to make sense to reveal the world of the story first of all from an outside’s point of view. There are things that are taken for granted by the kids at John Hathorne High School that are actually deeply weird from any normal perspective, and having Kim as the main protagonist allows us to reveal those slowly and progressively.

Manolis: How did you come up with Kim Vesco’s name?

Mike: I wrote a Kim recently for Vertigo who had to have her name changed for various complicated reasons – so that name was still in my mind. And I think there was some US financier, possibly a crooked one, named Vesco. I just mix and match, like everyone.

Manolis: The title of the book alludes to a team-book. Will Kim be the sole focus of the book or are there other main characters?

Mike: We have seven protagonists – or possibly eight, if you count the one who’s dead. They break down initially into two smaller groups who hate each othe’s guts, with Kim acting as the reluctant bridge between them.

Each character has a particular type of magic which is their speciality or gift, but they’re not all necessarily useful skills and the various characters have differing degrees of control over what they do. It makes for a very volatile mixture, especially when you get to see some of the personalities involved.

Manolis: Is Kim a witch herself?

Mike: Ah, well that’s very much an open question. A lot of people think she is, but if she is she’s never known about it – and she has no idea what she can do. As part of the first storyline, Kim will undertake a sort of spirit journey to see if she does have any magical heritage, and in the process she’ll learn some pretty earth-shaking things about her own past. I wouldn’t want to give any hints about the outcome of that process.

Manolis: Does the book take place in the Marvel U. proper? Will any other established Marvel characters be making an appearance?

Mike: It is the Marvel U, but that’s not going to be a big issue: no other Marvel characters will be making a showing, or getting a mention. It’s a free-standing title, essentially, at least to begin with.

Manolis: Magic plays a big role in SPELLBINDERS, and it is also a prominent theme in your other ongoing series. What is your relationship with magic? Do you believe in it and have you ever practised magic in real life?

Mike: Me? Me personally? Naaah. I mean, I believe that there are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamed of, et cetera, but I don’t specifically believe that magic works or that people can use it to do things that science can’t explain. I used to do Tarot readings once, but it was just for fun, really – and I stopped when I gave someone a negative reading and it shook her up badly.

Manolis: Do you use any books for reference on magic?

Mike: When I want to use magical rituals and make them seem a little more authentic, I use websites. There are some excellent ones that have entire mediaeval grimoires scanned in page by page. But the magic in Spellbinders won’t function in that way: it’s got a different logic and a different way of taking effect. By and large, you won’t hear any actual spells being cast: no cod mediaeval Latin, no chalk circles, no skulls and candles.

Manolis: Magic in the Marvel Universe has always had a distinctive comicbook “sparkling beams of light” flavour, as opposed to the more subtle effects you’ve used in HELLBLAZER and LUCIFER. How do you show magic on-page in SPELLBINDERS?

Mike: We’re sort of developing a “visual language” of magic, where each magical effect has its own distinctive sigil – kind of like the charter marks in Garth Nix’s Abhorsen trilogy. Mike’s reproduced this really elegantly and beautifully on the page, so that it sort of nods towards older traditions of magic, or quotes them, while at the same time being more stripped down and spontaneous.

Manolis: SPELLBINDERS is part of Marvel’s new ‘’MARVEL NEXT” line of books that are set to reach out to younger readers and female readers. Who do you think as the target audience of this book?

Mike: Everyone.

Manolis: The majority of your past work has been on Mature Readers titles. How do you approach the writing of this title differently from books like Lucifer or Hellblazer?

Mike: Well I’ve already had the experience – through My Faith in Frankie and Re-Gifters – of writing teen protagonists in a context that’s (at least to some extent) “all-ages”. I enjoy doing it, and it seems to come quite easily to me. It does mean that you have to think more carefully about how certain kinds of content are represented. There’s a scene in Frankie where Kay takes out Dean Baxter with a hedge trimmer, and that got slightly more graphic than I wanted it to be, but overall I think we held the line well. There are similar issues here, where disturbing things are happening and you have to be very clear in your own mind about where the line falls between showing and suggesting.

The important thing, though, is to see it in those terms: not whether you can handle certain kinds of material, but how you can present them within a given story. Apart from sexual acts, which are an entirely separate issue, I don’t think there’s any kind of material that literally and absolutely can’t be handled in an all-ages book. Harry Potter, for example, has several minor characters being tortured to the point where the pain drives them insane: it doesn’t happen “on-stage”, but it’s there as an element in the world of the book. Pullman’s Dark Materials novels have devastating acts of cruelty being performed by adults on children, including at least two scenes where I had to put the book down for a while and go away and do something else.

In other words, writing an all-ages book doesn’t mean bowdlerising yourself or talking down to your audience. It means choosing different tools for telling the story you want to tell.

Manolis: All your books prominently feature young female leads (Elaine in LUCIFER, Angie from HELLBLAZER, Elektra, Frankie, and now Kim. Do you ever play favourites between them?

Mike: Elaine will always have a special place in my heart because she’s based on my own daughter, Lou.

Manolis: This isn’t your first collaboration with Mike Perkins. What was the first time you worked together?

Mike: Mike and I go way, way back. Just about the first thing I ever wrote for a US publisher was a graphic novella based on the Faust legend. It was actually based on Marlowe’s play, Doctor Faustus, and it was a strongly character-driven piece: a love triangle, essentially, between Faustus, his servant Wagner, and the demon Mephistopheles.

That was for Caliber, and the editor, Jim Pruett, suggested Mike as a possible artist. We got together on the phone to talk about possible ways into the story, and we just hit it off immediately. Mike is one of the nicest, most generous and most easy-going guys I’ve ever met, as well as being one of the most gifted and intuitive graphic artists. What he did for the Faustus book just blew me away. He was living in Poland at the time, and since the story was set in pre-Renaissance Germany, he traveled around to look at buildings from the same time period so he could get the architecture right. But the truly amazing thing was how he represented the characters and the interplay between them: this was a tragic love story, and he gave it all the weight and power it needed.

Then we got together again a few years back, just before Mike moved to the States, to do a short series for 2000AD – Carver Hale. That was pure fun: the lead character is sort of like a John Constantine with an over-the-top mockney accent and a double-barreled shotgun. I think now that I gave Mike a very hard ride with that book, because some of the climaxes were set up so that they weren’t all that visual in the way they played out: but Mike found ways to bring them to life on the page, so nobody actually noticed.

Manolis: Why do you think Mike is the ideal artist for SPELLBINDERS?

Mike: Because he can handle the large cast and make each and every one of them distinctive and believable. And also because he makes the action scenes almost balletically beautiful. And also because he has an amazing visual imagination.

Manolis: SPELLBINDERS features a great range of original characters. Did you have any particular ‘appearance’ for each character in mind that you passed on to Mike, or did he handle all the design work on his own?

Mike: It was a very organic process. I’d done brief descriptions which leant more on personality than on appearance, and Mike turned them into sketches that sort of riffed off the general idea we wanted to convey in each case. Then I commented, Mackenzie commented, and Mike tweaked the sketches. The character designs are overwhelmingly his rather than mine. They took vague ideas of mine and fleshed them out.

Manolis: Is Spellbinders going to be collected in the Digest format like the other MARVEL NEXT books? Your other recent Vertigo book MY FAITH IN FRANKIE was recently collected in digest form. Which format do you prefer? Do you think the digests are more attractive to female and younger readers?And what about the ‘regula’ comic readership?

Mike: I think the idea is to do it as a digest at some point, yeah. I like the digest format a lot, because it’s cheap and portable and I guess also because it allows a comic to be seen and sold in a wider range of venues. Most book stores have graphic novel sections now, but paperback-sized books get under the guard of people who would shy away from an obvious comic book format.

I don’t believe, though, that format is the secret of Manga’s success or that switching to a digest format will automatically open the doors to a different and wider audience – any more than using a Manga art style on a traditional book would do that. It’s a question of the story you’re trying to tell, and choosing a format that works with rather than against that story. Digest was right for Frankie, for example, and I was really delighted with how that little book turned out. Spellbinders is a very different kind of proposition, but again I think it will play well in a digest form.

Manolis: What other projects are you currently working on?

Mike: Quite a lot, really. I’m writing the comics adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere for Vertigo; I’m also working on another project with Sonny Liew and Marc Hempel, Re-Gifters, which will be out later this year, and another OGN with John Bolton which will come out under the Sandman Presents umbrella. I’m still working on the relaunch of Wetworks with Whilce Portacio, and I’m talking to the Vertigo editorial team about maybe starting up another ongoing book after Lucifer finishes in a year’s time – hopefully that will include some more work with Lucifer artist Peter Gross, who I really enjoy collaborating with. Outside of comics, I’m writing a series of novels for Orbit with an exorcist as the central character, and another movie screenplay for UK production company Hadaly Pictures. I’ve done one movie with them already, Frost Flowers, which goes into production in June 2005.

That feels like a pretty full slate, but I’m having such a good time I don’t think much about whether it’s a light or a heavy workload. I just keep hammering at the keys on my PC, some of which now have the actual letters on them rubbed away so that I have to work from memory”¦

Manolis: Thank you for your time, Mike! I’m really looking forward to getting SPELLBINDERS #1!

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Coming up next week: The Nexus Indy and Mature Readers Comics Awards for 2004!
As always, I’m waiting for your comments through email or in the new official LYS@D discussion thread.

Manolis Vamvounis
a.k.a. Doc Dooplove

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