THE REAL SECRET ORIGIN OF THE UNWRITTEN Part 1
The second volume of THE UNWRITTEN, Inside Man comes out today everywhere books are sold and since THE UNWRITTEN is about the story behind stories, I thought it’d be fun to celebrate Volume 2 by going through the secret origin of Mike Carey and Peter Gross’ history at Vertigo; a kinda 3-part series about and how they went from individually breaking in to writing a New York Times Bestseller. What they came back with, though, far outshadows that, and for anyone looking to break into Vertigo –for anyone looking to break into comics in general – these are great examples to learn from.
1. Sandman Presents: Lucifer - The Morningstar Option #1-3 (prequel to Lucifer) (1999)
I’d been banging on the door at Vertigo for about two years at this point. I had a lot of stuff coming out for smaller American publishers – Malibu first, then Caliber – and everything I wrote I would send in to Alisa Kwitney (who was then editing The Sandman), along with a begging letter containing some variation on the theme, “gee, I sure would like to work for you.”
Then one day I got a call from Alisa, in which she invited me to pitch for the new Sandman Presents title. It had to be a Lucifer story, and the pitch had to be completed and sent through in about 48 hours. The solicits were ready to go out, I think, and then at the eleventh hour somebody very senior had decided not to go with the story that they had. So everything was back in the melting pot, and they needed a workable script fast.
My first outing at Vertigo – and it teamed me up with Scott Hampton! It was a huge thrill, and a steep learning curve, because I’d only ever once worked with a painter before – Ken Meyer Jr – and Ken was far too nice to slap me down if I asked for something unreasonable.
2. The Sandman Presents: Petrefax #1-4 (2000)
Just before Alisa left Vertigo, she commissioned a second Sandman Presents miniseries from me, which Joan Hilty took over as editor. I had really ambitious plans here. I wanted to write an eighteenth century picaresque novel in comic book form, with bawdy comedy, high adventure, ridiculous coincidences, the works. The journeyman undertaker, Petrefax – from the Worlds End arc of The Sandman – seemed to be the perfect protagonist for a story like that, in that he’s a romantic figure, an innocent abroad, and a great narrative voice.
As things turned out, this was one of the most purely enjoyable books I’ve ever worked on. We packed more twists, reveals and reversals into a four-issue miniseries than you could shake a stick at, and accomplished most of what we’d set out to do. Sadly, a sub-plot involving a nymphomaniac landlady (modeled on Yootha Joyce’s character from Man About the House) had to be cut for reasons of space, but that was my only cause for regret.
Second outing at Vertigo – art by Steve Leialoha. Somebody up there seemed to like me.
3. "The Wedding Breakfast" (in Flinch #16, 2001)
This is a weird parenthesis – and it comes before Lucifer, even though it was published six months or so after Lucifer#1.
On the basis of having written The Morningstar Option (aka Sandman Presents Lucifer) and having pitched the Petrefax mini, I did two things in the summer of 1999 by way of furthering my connections to the Vertigo imprint. One was to write a short story for the Flinch anthology, which Alisa Kwitney was editing, and the other was to travel out to that year’s San Diego Comic-con.
At San Diego I approached the DC booth, bearing my sparse and tattered credentials, and asked editor Shelly Roeberg (now Shelly Bond) if she’d meet with me and talk possible projects. She agreed to meet, and invited me to cold-pitch some ideas to her, but… you know how sometimes you just feel like you’re off your game, and nothing you do is going to come out right? It was like that. I was over-awed, far from home, and it felt like anything that came out of my mouth was going to sound like garbage.
So having gotten Shelly to give up an hour of her valuable time for me, I only talked generalities with her instead of actually pitching anything substantial. But I did say “Look, I know you’re taking over the editing reins on the Flinch anthology when Alisa leaves. There’s a script of mine in there – “The Wedding Breakfast.” If you like it, then let me know, and I’ll pitch you some stuff in the same sort of vein.”
She did like it, and she found the perfect artist for it (Craig Hamilton). It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Shelly’s still one of my favourite editors to work with, and she’s shaped my writing in more ways than I can count.
4. Lucifer #1-75 (2000-2006)
By this time, I’d met Karen Berger (Vertigo group editor and progenitor) at a convention in London, and we’d had a memorable conversation about breaking into comics. When I told her I was waiting for my big break to come along, she said, “There’s no such thing – it’s a whole lot of little breaks.” She was right, and actually that perfectly describes my career up to 1999.
But the Lucifer monthly was a break on a different scale from anything that had happened to me up to then. It was my first monthly book, and it’s really impossible to over-estimate the importance of that. Having to meet that monthly deadline and to work within the rhythms of an ongoing book is a great proving ground for a writer: it was certainly a huge turning point for me.
No, let’s be honest: it was THE turning point. Through Lucifer I forged friendships and professional relationships that changed the course of my whole life. Shelly Bond. Peter Gross. Chris Moeller. Dean Ormston. Todd Klein. The list goes on. If every action births a universe, then the universes where I didn’t write Lucifer probably all have much less happy and fulfilled Mike Careys in them. Boy, I’m glad I don’t have to live there!
The amazing thing, when I look back on it, is that it ended up being such a personal book. Peter and I never talked about it much up front, but gradually we morphed the cosmic story of the Adversary and his war against God into a family drama about sons seeking to free themselves from their fathers’ influence. Lucifer is one of the scariest monsters I ever created, but I think it’s still easy to identify with him because I wrote him as Everyman: mutatis mutandis, the stuff he’s struggling with is stuff that we all have to go through.
1. Swamp Thing # 102 inking (1990)
Swamp Thing #102 was the 2nd thing I ever inked for DC and the first for what would later be Vertigo. It was also the first job I ever did with editor Stuart Moore who became one of my best friends in the comic biz. I had been doing a self-published series called Empire Lanes that got me some attention in comics and had even led to a lunch with Karen Berger at a Chicago Comic convention where she asked me to submit some ideas to DC.
The thing I remember most about that inking job was that the penciller called me up to complain about the way I inked him. But Stuart was okay with it, and life went on. I think I even got to pitch a Swamp Thing story out of it--one that I can’t even remember the details of anymore.
2. Shade the Changing Man # 36 (1993)
I was sitting in my studio working one day, I think that it was a slow time because Doctor Fate, which I had been penciling and inking had been cancelled (because it dropped below 40,000 copies per issue--those were the days!) and the phone rang. It was Shelly Roeberg (before she became Shelly Bond). Shelly had briefly been my editor at Comico on Empire Lanes. I hadn't talked to Shelly in a few years and as far as I knew she had completely left the world of comics. "So guess where I am?" she said. I'm sure I replied with something witty but I don't remember what it was, and that's not the point of this story. She continued, " I'm in Karen Berger's office in New York. How would you like to draw a fill-in issue of Shade the Changing Man?"
That fill-in was my first Vertigo work, appearing about 4 months into the imprint, and it's been pretty much steady Vertigo work ever since. I’m pretty sure I've done more art for the imprint than any other artist, and I might even be the only artist or writer who has produced work during every year of Vertigo's existence (can that be true?)
The other thing that I remember that issue of Shade for is that it was the last time I inked on acetate (a clear film media). Because part of the issue was drawn on paper by Chris Bachalo and part on acetate by me, it was all set up and photostatted to the same exposure, so my pages ended up reproducing pretty terribly. I decided if I couldn't control the scanning I’d better switch to paper, and it's been paper ever since!
3. Arcana Annual # 1 full art (1994)
Stuart Moore hired me to draw the Tim Hunter part of The Children’s Crusade, the first and, to my memory, only Vertigo-wide crossover event. The Arcana Annual was going to lead to the launch of a Tim Hunter series intended to be called Arcana ( rather than the much more obvious Neil Gaiman derived “Books of Magic.” (What were they thinking calling it Arcana anyway?)
I remember this book most for two things: first that it was a lot of pages and I was only going to pencil it or at least wasn't meant to ink the whole thing but as we were looking for an inker I kept inking away and by the time we got to where someone we wanted was free I had basically finished the whole thing.
Secondly, I remember that Stuart asked me if I was interested in working on the Tim Hunter series that was going to launch soon after, and I passed. I was working on Hellstorm at Marvel and thought I was finally going to make my mark there, and I thought the Tim Hunter series was going to bomb. The annual was a lot of pages where not a whole lot of stuff happened and it was written by someone who was not Neil Gaiman, so I thought it had no chance.
Cue my next vertigo milestone; inking Books of Magic...
4. Books of Magic # 1- inking (1994)
I was happily working over at Marvel after finishing the Arcane Annual and I got a call from Vertigo editorial (it must have been Stuart but I'm not totally sure) asking if I might be able to do some inking for Books of Magic. The first issue, drawn by relative newcomer Gary Amaro had come in and the powers-that-be weren't totally happy with the way the inked art looked. So they asked me to re-ink the issue from photocopies of the original pencils. I thought sure, I could handle that (and not take any blame for the failure I knew the series was going to be). To my surprise, the story by John Ney Rieber was great, as were Gary's pencils on the book. So I inked that issue and signed on as the regular inker on the book.
5. Books of Magic # 4 - 75 - (1994-2000)
So it turns out that relative newcomers to comics often discover that they aren't as fast as they need to be and about the fourth issue of BoM, Gary Amaro had fallen behind on his deadlines. They had me pencil 1/2 of the issue in addition to inking. It was the issue with Death appearing, maybe the first official non-Neil scripted appearance of Death and the first time I got to work on the character. You'd be amazed to find out how many convention sketches I’ve done of Death since then! What a great character. BoM was also nominated for the best new series of the year--a tradition I'd be lucky enough to repeat on all my Vertigo series yet to come!
Next week, both the guys hit Vertigo milestones: Peter becomes one of the first artists to write and draw an ongoing series for Vertigo, while Mike takes on a Vertigo icon.