Interview: Michael Carroll Talks Lightning Strike, Blood Of Emeralds and More

Lightning Strike Issue 8 cover. Art by PJ Holden. Colours by Dee Cunniffe

Lightning Strike Issue 8 cover. Art by PJ Holden. Colours by Dee Cunniffe

There are a lot of returns in this interview: Judge Dredd returns to the Emerald Isle, Michael Carroll returns to novels (with Razorjack); prose (with Game Over) and Irish Independent Comics (with Lightning Strike issue 8). I started the interview by asking about Judge Dredd: Blood Emeralds.

What made you decide to bring Judge Dredd back to Murphyville?

It all started with John Wagner’s epic “Day of Chaos” story. Shortly after it began, John contacted the other Dredd writers and told us what Dredd’s city – Mega-City One – was going to be like by the end. At the risk of spoiling “Day of Chaos” for those who haven’t yet read it: most of the city would be destroyed, and its population reduced from four hundred million to only fifty. It was a good thing that John had warned us, because we all had Dredd stories already lined up and they needed to be tweaked to reflect the city’s new status.

It also meant, of course, that some stories we had planned had to be put on hold – but in many ways that was also a good thing because we were forced to come up with ideas that otherwise might never have occurred to us. One of my own stories that came out of “Day of Chaos” was “New Tricks”: I figured that with lots of Judges dead, the Justice Department of Mega-City One would begin recruiting Judges from other cities, and retraining them as MC1 Judges.

2000D Prog 1938 cover. Art by Neil Roberts.

2000D Prog 1938. Art by Neil Roberts.

Since I’d really enjoyed the original “Emerald Isle” story, my first thought was to bring back Judge Charlie Joyce, but “Emerald Isle” was published in 1991… And since Judge Dredd stories take place in real time (a year for Dredd’s world equates to a year for the readers), that means that over two decades have passed. Charlie would be in his fifties, at the very least. I wanted a younger, much less experienced Judge, so I decided that Charlie had a son, Fintan, who had followed his father’s footsteps and become a Judge. “New Tricks” implies that Charlie has died since we last saw him.

I used Judge Joyce again in the story “Traumatown”, in which I confirmed that his father is dead in a short sequence that features what appears to be Charlie’s ghost. The readers’ reaction to that was positive enough to convince me that it was time to go back to the Emerald Isle.

The title “Blood of Emeralds”, incidentally, is taken from a Gary Moore song… Worth checking out if you’ve not yet heard it!

Judge Dredd: Blood Emeralds. Art by Colin MacNeil. Colours by Chris Blythe.

Judge Dredd: Blood Emeralds. Art by Colin MacNeil. Colours by Chris Blythe.

I liked how you took out some of the “Oirish” that was in the original story (written by Garth Ennis) but the Murphyville characters are all very much Irish. I particularly like how Joyce’s mammy made Judge Dredd take his boots off.

Well, the original tale is a minor classic, but done very tongue-in-cheek: most of Ireland had become an Irish-themed resort: shamrocks, shillelaghs, “top o’ the mornin’” and all that godawful, cringe-inducing, diddly-idle begorrah stuff. One aspect of the tale dealt with Irish citizens who were rebelling against those stereotypes… Yet, at the same time, everyone lived in the pub where they quaffed plenty of Guinness, and the baddies used high-powered potato guns. Charlie Joyce even says, “That Dredd’s the quare fella.” I mean, even in 1991 we didn’t talk like that!

I chose not to address most of that aspect of Garth’s story, partly because it seemed rather dated (and I’d decided that after two decades, the country would have moved on socially and politically) but mostly because it felt just a little bit too silly: Dredd stories themselves have moved on and no longer sit so well with idea of a whole country giving up its national identity in order to embrace stereotypes that were borderline racist when they appeared sixty years ago in The Quiet Man, that famous John Wayne movie which is beloved of my parents’ generation and utterly behated by me (I’m not sure if “behated” is a real word, but it should be).

That said, I didn’t want to completely strip the story of all humour, plus it was important to me that there was a certain Irishness to its flavour. Hence the appearance of Judge Joyce’s mother, who is – let’s be honest here – also something of a stereotype, albeit a more gentle one. In fact, Mrs Joyce appears obliquely in “New Tricks”: When Fintan arrives in Mega-City One he’s on the phone to his mother while he waits to be picked up. He says to his mother, “I’ve got to go, Ma. Here’s Judge Dredd now… No, Ma, you can’t say hello to him.”

In “Blood of Emeralds”, Joyce warns Dredd that she suffers from a case of Irish Mammy Syndrome: she constantly refers to Dredd as “Mister Dredd” and berates her son for not giving her more notice of his visit because she didn’t have time to go out and get biscuits.

There’s an interesting political aspect to the story with the relationship between Murphyville and Brit-Cit.

It was important to me to address that: Garth’s story mentions that after the atomic wars of 2070 Ireland was in a pretty bad way, and was rescued by financial aid from Britain, with the proviso that British corporations would have influence on the redevelopment of the country.

Since pretty much everything that happens in a Judge Dredd tale is considered canon (no reboots or resets every couple of years… unlike certain Big Name American comic publishers I could mention, but won’t because I still hope to work for them one day), I decided that the relationship with Brit-Cit was important enough to be part of the story. Can’t say any more than that, of course, without giving away too much!

Not to be too spoilery but the ending suggests that you have more to say about Murphyville.

I do have some plans, yes! I’d like to take Judge Joyce back to Murphyville again, on perhaps a less urgent story: give him time to catch up with former colleagues, perhaps some who joined the Emerald Isle Department of Justice at the same time he did, but they stayed behind when he went off to the Big Meg… I mean, we’ve all got that one friend who emigrated years ago and every time she comes home she expects to find that nothing has changed in her absence!

The political aspects of the tale could be interesting to address too… but I can’t say too much about that either.

I have to mention the art. You had Colin MacNeil of Judge Dredd: America fame working with you. It must a bit strange working with someone who was big part of a story that I know you’re a big fan of.

Yeah, I love Colin’s work! In fact, the main character of my New Heroes series of young adult superhero novels is named after Colin MacNeil and John Wagner! When I received an e-mail from Colin last year saying that he’d been assigned to draw the script for “Blood of Emeralds”, I have to say I came down with a serious attack of fanboyishness.

I’d met Colin at conventions several times, and he is just about one of the nicest guys in the industry. And he certainly knows how to tell a story: a few times he wisely chose to ignore my panel descriptions and do it his own way, and he was right in every case. I know that some comic writers get very precious about their scripts and hate it when an artist doesn’t follow them to the letter, but that’s not my way. As I see it, my job is to tell the story to the artist, colourist, and letterer: it’s their job to relate the story to the reader, so if they have a better way of doing it, then I’m more than happy with that. After all, any piece of fiction should be about the reader’s experience while reading it, not about how clever the writer wants to appear.

Colin added a lot to “Blood of Emeralds”, particularly some great background gags. Though one of the tweaks he made was a tiny bit contentious: in the script there’s a pub called “Dillon’s” – named, of course, after the artist Steve Dillon who’d worked on “Emerald Isle” alongside Will Simpson. But Colin decided that it would be better to rename the pub – without checking with me! – to “Shalvey’s”. I have no idea who this “Shalvey” person might be… 🙂

Razorjack: Double-Crossing. Cover by John Higgins.

Razorjack: Double-Crossing. Cover by John Higgins.

I’m a fan of your digital novellas (both set in the world of Judge Dredd). You have a new digital novel out but this time it features John Higgins’ Razorjack. For those not familiar with Razorjack, can you tell us something about the character and the story?

Razorjack is the title character of the graphic novel created, written and drawn by John Higgins. She’s an extra-dimensional despot who is basically the personification of pure evil! Her ultimate goal is the death of everything, for reasons only she understands. In the graphic novel, Razorjack finds a way to extend her influence into our dimension. She can’t travel across the dimensional gap herself, but she can send her warriors; powerful, vicious humanoid killers called Twist Bitches. Two American detectives, Ross and Frame, get caught up in Razorjack’s plan… It’s a gory, fast-paced tale with some downright disturbing imagery!

John self-published the first part of the story back in 1999, and then completed it a few years later in a two-issue series published by Com.X. A collected edition was published in 1999, again by Com.X, then last year Titan Books decided to create a definitive “remastered” version. I’d been friends with John for years, and he knows my writing style, so he asked me to completely rescript the graphic novel. I rewrote all the dialogue and captions, and smoothed over a few anomalies caused by the lengthy gap between his first part and the two Com.X editions. Plus I wrote a brand-new eight-page Razorjack story, “A Glimpse of Summer…” for the remastered edition.

With my novel – Double-Crossing – I didn’t want to cover the same ground John had visited with his tale, but at the same time I really didn’t want to ignore it. Instead, I elaborated on Razorjack’s back-story and fleshed out her world a little more, then gave her a new set of humans to play with. My protagonist is Kevin Dixon, a London-based small-time crook who double-crosses Leonard Cotterhill, a local crime-lord. Cotterhill is contacted by Razorjack who offers to send one of her warriors to track down Dixon and his cohorts, in exchange for Cotterhill’s aid in recovering a piece of Razorjack’s technology.

Have to say… After years of writing young-adult novels where sex, swearing and ultra-violence are not really permitted, it was quite a release to be able to write an adult horror/science fiction novel! I know I probably went a little overboard with the violence, but, hey, there’s lot of funny bits in there too!

Just to step away from comics for a second, you were also part of a horror anthology about arcade games called Game Over. What was your story about?

My story is called “Last Life” and it’s about… Nope, I can’t say anything in case I give too much away! All of the stories in the anthology are based (to a lesser or greater degree) on old arcade games, and there are some absolute smashers in there. I don’t write much short prose fiction these days, so that was a lot of fun to work on. The editor, Jonathan Green, is an extraordinary writer himself, so it really was an honour to be invited to contribute. Fingers crossed Game Over will be a success and he’ll do another one!

You’ve taken your first step into the Irish indie scene with a story for Lightning Strike issue 8. Can you tell us something about that?

First step? Pfff! Listen, you young whipper-snapper, I was writing Irish indie comics when you were still in short pants! My first-ever published comic strip was a superhero tale called “Overman”, drawn by Johnny Rothwell and published in the anthology comic Phase Two by the Irish Science Fiction Association in 1994 (you can find “Overman” on my website Go to the Comics section and scroll way down to the bottom of the page for the link). Admittedly, my second-ever published comic strip didn’t happen until ten years later, but still…

Necrophobia: All Cried Out page. Art by Robert Carey. Colours by Triona Farrell.

Necrophobia: All Cried Out page. Art by Robert Carey. Colours by Triona Farrell.

My story in Lightning Strike is called Necrophobia: All Cried Out. A long time ago I came up with the basic idea behind Necrophobia (which I won’t mention here, as that’d spoil “All Cried Out”), but for ages it existed only as multiple pages of notes, like so much of my as-yet-unpublished work. See, an idea is not a story, at best it’s the seed of a story, and sometimes it can take a while to find the right kind of soil for that seed to germinate. With Necrophobia, it took years before I had a story I was happy with.

When I was chatting to the Lightning Strike folks about working with them, I knew I wanted to do something along the lines of Necrophobia, but the story I’d developed would take somewhere in the region of 120 comic pages to properly tell. So I took a step back and had a good think, and came up with “All Cried Out”, a ten-page strip that works as a stand-alone tale and could also serve as an introduction to the full-length adventure, should that ever come about.

Necrophobia: All Cried Out page. Art by Robert Carey. Colours by Triona Farrell.

Necrophobia: All Cried Out page. Art by Robert Carey. Colours by Triona Farrell.

I’ve been lucky enough to see some of pages. Your art team (Robert Carey and Tríona Farrell) are doing superb work. What is it like working with up and coming creators?

I’ve been very impressed… but in the least not surprised: they’re both very gifted creators so I knew they were going to do a superb job! Rob’s inks and Tríona’s colours have really brought the story to life. Gritty, dark, very atmospheric – exactly how I pictured the scenes when I was writing the script. I haven’t yet seen Miriam Abuin’s lettering, but I know she’ll do an equally professional job. Behind the scenes, on the editorial side, I’ve seen nothing but quality work from the Lightning Strike team. I’m rather chuffed that in a few years’ time when they’re all setting the comics industry on fire I’ll be able to boast that I worked with these guys when they were just starting out.

What is your opinion of the Irish comic scene?

In the past few years the quality of Irish comics has shot up. There was a time when, to be frank, most of it wasn’t up to standard and only a handful of titles stood out. The others… Well, some of them were churned out by people whose only qualification seemed to be access to a photocopier. Shoddy artwork, lame stories, and that strongest of all indicators of poor quality: absolutely atrocious lettering… (Folks, if you’re creating your own comic spend some time learning at least the basics of lettering: no prospective customer flicking through your comic is going to be impressed with badly-placed, wonky speech bubbles and captions filled with a barely-legible scrawl!)

The first Irish titles I can recall that really smacked of professionalism were the Atomic Diner comics, and that was because Robert Curley, the publisher and editor (and writer of many of the titles), wasn’t willing to compromise. He created strong stories, found the best artists, and invested good money into the titles. (Another tip: the editor must not be afraid to tell any of the creators the truth about their work. When I was invited by the Lightning Strike folks to contribute, I made it clear that I expected my story to be rejected if they didn’t like it. It’s important to remember that the buying public doesn’t know or care whether a story was written by your mammy, or drawn by your best mate, or lettered by a paid professional with thirty years’ experience: if you’re not producing the best possible quality work in all departments, you’re not going to sell enough copies to cover your costs).

But the scene in general appears to be very friendly, with creators eager to pass on tips and help each other out, and now we’re seeing some remarkably strong stuff. We’re at the stage where most of the Irish comic books actually deserve to do well!

There are some remarkably talented people working in the Irish comics scene these days. I’m not going to name any of them because I’d inevitably leave someone out…
You’re going to be a part of ComicCity Fest in Derry (where Lightning Strike issue 8 launches). It must be nice to get to talk with fans of your work.

I’m really looking forward to that! Leonia and I were at the 2D Festival in 2012, and we had a blast. This year there’ll be some amazing people there – we can’t wait! It’s a great city, too, setting aside the sole drawback that you have to be sure you know who you’re talking to before you mention the city’s name. (My own proposal, “Dublinderry”, was not particularly well received the last time I suggested it. Hmm… Maybe “MegaDerry” would be more acceptable?)

Meeting the readers (and potential readers) at conventions and festivals is definitely one of the best things about being in the comics industry, but by crikey those events can be exhausting, especially if – like me – you work from home and therefore only meet one or two people in the average week.

And conventions can often be a little humbling, too… In 2013, I was at C2E2 in Chicago, a huge event, where I met lots of fans of my books and comics, among whom were a father and his two teenaged sons who had travelled all the way from Florida just to meet me. That was a real boost to the ego! Then, shortly after that, I was a guest at a con in the UK where they had a special signing room. We were scheduled for one-hour sessions, two guests at a time. I was scheduled alongside Mark Buckingham… His table had a line of eager fans that stretched out out the door and down the corridor that never seemed to shrink for the entire hour. During that hour my own table was visited by just one person. Not even any of my mates who were actually at the convention turned up, the swine!

This year, too, has been a mixed bag. I’ve been a guest at seven comics events already, and while some have been fantastic, a couple have been absolutely soul-destroying. In particular, there was one highly-publicised event where none of the event’s organisers even bothered to come and say hello, nor have I received a single word of thanks. If you’re organising a comics event it’s important (and only polite) to make your guests feel that they’re welcome. So, y’know, actually thank them for making the effort, spell their names correctly on your website (two Rs and two Ls, guys – it’s not hard to get right!), and remember that every day they spend at a convention is a day they’ve taken out of their work schedule, so make sure they feel it’s been worth their time!

ComicCity Fest takes place on Saturday 12th and Sunday 13th September in the Millennium Forum in Derry. For more details check out