Although probably best known for his 75-issue run on Lucifer, Mike Carey‘s work is nothing if not diverse.
He’s tackled superhero adventure with X-Men and Ultimate Fantastic Four, offbeat romance with My Faith in Frankie, sword and sorcery with Red Sonja: She-Devil With a Sword, and contemporary horror with Hellblazer and Crossing Midnight.
But it brings him to Blog@Newsarama, where he’ll blog with us each Friday for the rest of June, talking about Re-Gifters, his countless other comics, his novels, and anything else that strikes his fancy. First, though, he answered some questions from me.
Re-Gifters, Crossing Midnight, X-Men, Faker, Confessions of a Blabbermouth, Ultimate Fantastic Four, The Devil You Know — and I’m sure I’m missing a few. How do you make time for all of these projects? Do you ever sleep?
If you add up the amount of time you spend blinking every day, that must be four or five minutes of shut-eye right there. Who needs sleep?
No, to be honest I get about five or six hours most nights. I used to be able to function on a lot less — now I find my concentration gets all shot if I push myself past a certain point. Getting old.
What’s a typical work day for you? Or is there such thing as a “typical” work day?
A typical day for me goes in stages. I’m usually up around 6:30 or 7 getting the kids breakfasted and out of the door. My wife works three days a week at a Central London archive, and she can only get to write on the days when she’s not “at the day job,” so mostly that start-of-day routine is my responsibility.
I sit down at the keyboard when the door closes behind my family and I’m alone in the house. Typically I’ll start by dealing with emails that have come in overnight, because of course when I hit the sack it’s still early evening in New York — in California, mid-afternoon. So there’s often a lot of correspondence to clear, plus chess moves to make in a few of my games on Itsyourturn.com.
By 9 am or shortly after I’m getting into some serious work, and I’ll work through more or less solidly to 4 pm when the kids come home. Then there’s a period that kind of gets taken up by talking about their day, getting a meal on the go, doing a lot of household stuff.
At 8 pm, after dinner, I’ll usuall go back into the workroom and do a couple more hours. I try to clock off at 10 pm so I can watch some TV drama or do a little reading before I turn in. I hate going straight from work to bed: my mind is still jumping and I can’t settle.
You’ve described your latest graphic novel, Re-Gifters, as a martial arts romantic comedy. What was it about the world of competitive martial arts — hapkido, specifically — that appealed to you as a backdrop for the story? And why don’t we see more martial arts romantic comedies?
Good question! You’d think there’d be a niche there that deserved to be exploited, wouldn’t you?
The weird thing about that whole creative process was how little I knew about the subject before I started. The re-gifting idea came first, then the idea for the social setting and the background stuff. And then when I started reading about the Korean community in Los Angeles, Dixie came into being in my mind — although at that point her name was Tully, Tung Lian Kim. It was just fortuitous that I pitched my tent in such an incredibly fertile area, because there was this amazing canvas and this enthralling story to be told about the Korean experience in LA and how it was shaped by the Rodney King riots.
So it was that stuff. Competitive martial arts came into the mix because it provided a ready-made structure that made sense in terms of the characters’ lives and backgrounds — and a forum where people like Dixie and Adam and Max would naturally meet. It was the perfect McGuffin.
Did you know anything about hapkido before you started work on Re-Gifters, or was there a pretty steep learning curve?
I’m so far from being an expert on any of the martial arts stuff that it isn’t even funny. I was writing with a book of throws and blocks and basic positions open in front of me. The learning curve wasn’t just steep, it was a series of bumpy parabolas as I hit the ground, launched myself again, hit the ground again …
If I may steal the title of Chapter 2, What’s “the David Copperfield stuff”? What do we need to know to make sense of Re-Gifters?
Downtown LA is a huge cultural melting pot. Black and Hispanic and Korean communities live side by side: some of the people in these communities are among the poorest and most disadvantaged in the city, and some had their livelihoods and prospects very badly affected by the Rodney King riots. The situation there was that many Korean families ran convenience stores or had small retail businesses in the areas worst hit by the riots – and because these were poor, high-crime neighbourhoods most of the stores and businesses were uninsured. A lot of families lost everything they had overnight — went from being aspirational poor to being hopelessly poor.
The cast of characters in Re-Gifters covers an enormous range in terms of ethnicity and in terms of affluence. As in LA itself, you’ve got the haves and have-nots rubbing shoulders, getting by, their lives inter-penetrating in complex and non-obvious ways. That’s the social situation we’re playing with, and it’s what gives a serious core to this pretty light-hearted story.
How difficult was it capture the Korean/Korean-American experience? Were you worried you’d get something wrong, or your portrayal wouldn’t ring true?
Yeah, I seriously was. I always am worried, whenever I write about something I don’t have first-hand experience of.
I think the thing to bear in mind is this. As a Brit writing about Southern California, I’m never going to get all the details right. Can I capture the Korean-American experience? Of course not! I couldn’t even make a decent fist of the Korean-British experience. It’s like the way I write Nagasaki in Crossing Midnight: that’s a Western idea of an Eastern city.
I worked wherever I could from interviews with first- and second-generation Korean immigrants living in California, and I tried to weave real-life accounts — with names changed and identifying marks erased — into the backdrop of the story I was telling. I was conscious throughout that there were going to be details that weren’t spot-on. But if I’d worked on it for three times as long, there would still have been those details. If people want to go through the story with a fine-toothed comb, I’m sure they’ll find a lot.
But you don’t have to get all the details right to get to an emotional truth.
Although Re-Gifters is a comedy, there are serious elements that touch on race and class: Dixie’s family still feels the economic effects of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, and when Dixie leaves Koreatown on an errand for her mother, she’s harassed for walking on the “wrong side” of the street. The class divide becomes apparent at the “street sweep” contest, where Dixie is confronted by a kid whose family can’t afford hapkido lessons. Even Dixie’s two potential romantic interests come from opposite sides of the tracks. Why did you think it was important to weave social issues into Dixie’s story?
That stuff just got into my head when I was doing the research, and it ended up being the backbone of the story in some ways. I mean, it’s Dixie’s odyssey — her fall and rise — but it only makes sense if you get where she’s coming from and what’s at stake for her. Without that it might just as well be a fairy story.
I keep doing this with American settings — getting sucked into the story of the place when to begin with I’m only looking for an interesting stage set. I had the same experience when I went to New Orleans to research Voodoo Child, the book I’m doing for Virgin. You come away feeling something like a pressure, a performance anxiety. It’s like “whatever fiction I create has to try to be as interesting and unique as this reality.”
Dixie’s family is obviously making sacrifices so she can take hapkido lessons and compete in the tournament. Why is hapkido so important to them?
Because it’s an element of their culture — part of their sense of who they are. There’s a scene in the book where Dixie’s father tells her about the Japanese occupation of Korea, and how it was illegal at that time for Koreans to practise martial arts. I think that was a combination of two things: the Japanese occupiers being genuinely concerned that martial arts skills could be used in any rebellion, but also just the logic of any occupation and how it works by suppressing the culture of the subject people as a way of sapping their will.
So now they have the freedom to express these aspects of their heritage it’s important for them to do so. It’s an affirmation.
“Re-gifting” — giving an unwanted gift to someone else — has made its way into the language thanks largely to Seinfeld. But in Re-Gifters you toy with the concept a bit, and send the present on its own little journey that ends up changing relationships. Did you know immediately what role — and how big of a role — the re-gifted item would play in the story? How did you settle on what the present would be?
That was the original kernel for the story. Re-Gifters, along with Faker, is a tale that has its origins in a bizarre but cool game I sometimes play with Shelly Bond. It’s kind of a free-association word game where we fling words at each other and then try to build story pitches around the words.
The comedy aspects of the story all revolve around this unlikely journey that the gift makes and how it comes back to its starting point at a crucial moment. It’s like when a juggler throws one ball or baton way, way up into the air, so when it comes down again and gets woven back into the routine you’ve almost forgotten it. And if it’s done right it looks amazing. That was the effect we were going for.
So yeah, the gift was the core idea and everything else accreted around it. We didn’t know until late in the day exactly what kind of object it would be, but I wanted it to be something that could … umm … hit the wall the way it does in that climactic scene, and make an impact. And of course the bigger and clunkier and more unwieldy it looks, the better …
Aside from Dixie’s twin brothers, I think Dillinger — “the toughest guy in the whole school” — is my favorite supporting character. At first he seems like just a laid-back street tough, but you give him his own story arc that really allows him to develop and show depth. In many ways, he’s the opposite number of Dixie’s crush, Adam, isn’t he?
Oh, yeah, very much so. And in a lot of scenes where the two of them appear together we can see a tension — an opposition — being set up between them in subtle or indirect ways. There’s obviously a huge and instinctive mistrust of Dillinger on Adam’s side — distrust and distaste. It’s bubbling under, they never face off in any way, but it’s there.
And in social terms, of course, this is exactly what we’re talking about: two different worlds colliding.
Re-Gifters reunited you with Sonny Liew and Marc Hempel, your collaborators on My Faith in Frankie — which I think of as sort of a “proto-Minx” book. What was it like working with them again? What do they bring to a book?
It was pure pleasure — and in fact, one of the big draws of doing the book. The Frankie chemistry was so amazing and so exuberant, we were all really up for going back for one more pass.
It’s a strange thing. Sonny was reluctant to let anyone else ink his stuff on Frankie, but when he saw Marc’s sample pages he was really pleased with how it worked. He does very detailed pencils,a nd to some extent Marc abridges some of that detail, but he captures the essence and the essence is absolutely beautiful. It’s one of these fortuitous pairings that seems inevitable in retrospect.
And finally, have you ever re-gifted? Come on, be honest …
What? Who have you been talking to? I wouldn’t dream of …
Well, yeah, once or twice. And I like to think of those woolly scarves and bottles of cheap sherry going around and around until I meet them again in some unimaginable future …