A Christmas Carroll: An Interview With Michael Carroll

I have known Michael Carroll for a number of years so when we get to chat, we talk about a multitude of things. In this interview, I thought it would be fun to devote some time to one of his fandoms: Alphaville. A band that his has made me a fan of. I still haven’t managed to convince him of the merits of the soap opera for males that is wrestling. We still have time.

One of things we chat about a lot (outside comics) is music. I remember you giving one of your patented Secret Panels at Octocon which was partly about your Alphaville fandom. I’ve since become a fan of the band. There’s something about bands who write English lyrics and who have English as a second language. I was wondering if the band ever had an influence on your writing.

Definitely! I first encountered Alphaville when I was eighteen, in October 1994. Their first single, “Big in Japan”, had been a huge hit, and their third – “Forever Young” – had just been released and was getting a lot of airplay. I had a policy at the time that if I liked at least two singles from a band I didn’t know, I’d buy one of their albums. As it happened, the band’s first album (also titled Forever Young) had just been released. Until then, I’d never really had a favourite band and couldn’t really understand the fanatical devotion some of my friends had to, say, The Beatles or The Rolling Stones, but Forever Young absolutely blew me away! Every one of its ten tracks is a masterpiece, lyrically and musically, and I don’t think I listened to anything else for the next year.

After their second album, Afternoons in Utopia, was released in the summer of 1986, I decided to write to the fan club address listed on the inner sleeve, and soon received a bunch of cool stuff about the band, plus their list of names and addresses of other fans looking for pen-pals. I wrote back and asked them to add my details to the next version of the list.

The letters started to arrive, and soon I was writing to Alphaville-fixated pen-pals from all over the world… And the letters kept coming: I was receiving between ten and fifteen letters per week, and answering every single one of them. I couldn’t have realised it at the time, but that was my apprenticeship as a writer: writing three or four letters every day to different people, all of whom were talking about different things, came from very different backgrounds, and different levels of experience with the English language.

So, yes, Alphaville have very definitely had an influence on my writing in that regard, and beyond. I wrote a series of short stories inspired by some of their songs, and I’ve certainly had story moods defined or at least nudged into shape by their music, and a couple of times I’ve named stories after song-titles or lyrics: there’s my novel She Fades Away, short stories “Angels in Different Shapes”, “On Glory Roads of Pure Delight” and “Show Me a Place that Ain’t Hell”, and comics “Judge Dredd: The Paradigm Shift”, “Razorjack: A Glimpse of Summer…”, “Jennifer Blood: Dangerous Places”. Probably a few more that I can’t remember off-hand!

Here’s a little-known fact: I’ve been lucky enough to have my own tiny input into Alphaville. It’s barely a blip, but still… Back in 1998 their manager asked me to write a short article about the band for promotional purposes. I was pretty chuffed a few months later to find that they’d printed my article (with a few minor tweaks) on the actual CD for their 1999 single “Flame.”

Now, thirty-five years after I discovered the band, they remain as important to me as ever. Even though the line-up has changed, Alphaville are still going strong, and the core of the band is still intact: Marian Gold, the lead singer and chief songwriter. He’s been there from the very start, back before they even decided to name themselves after a classic science fiction movie by Jean-Luc Godard. I’ve met a lot of very smart creative people in my time and Marian is right up there with the very best of them. Plus, y’know, the man has a voice so powerful and pure it could cast shadows on angels!

We’ve chatted before about the range of stories you’re able to tell with Judge Dredd. Reading your last two stories, “The Fall Of Barbarbara Grimm” (with Nick Dyer (art) and Quinton Winter (colours)) and “The Harvest” (with Nick Percival), really highlighted this for me and with very different artists too. Is this one of the things that helps to keep the writing fun for you? You’ve done quite a number of stories at this stage.

My Dredd stories tend to fall into two categories in that regard: those written with a specific artist in mind, and those written with my fingers crossed (you know, I think I’ve just figured out why I’m such a terrible typist). Most of the time it’s the latter: I send the script in to Tharg without knowing who’ll end up drawing it. That’s how it was with “The Fall of Barbarbara Grimm”: it could have been given to any artist, but I’m glad that it was Nick Dyer! We’ve worked together before and I love the grittiness and humour he brings to his work. He reminds me a lot of the legendary Cam Kennedy in that regard, maybe with a hint of early-80s Mike McMahon added to the mix. But with very much his own take on it, of course!

With “The Harvest”, Nick Percival and I have been friends since our first collaboration many years ago and I love his style, so if he says he’s coming to the end of something else and is looking for a nice, gritty Dredd to work on, I’ll pull out all the stops to make it happen. One of my own favourite strips is “Rising Angel,” our ten-page Black Museum story. That one came about because Nick wanted to draw Mean Machine Angel. We had an absolute blast working on that one!

Does it keep the writing fun? Definitely! No matter who the artist is, it’s always fascinating to see how they’ve interpreted my scripts. When I’m writing them I always have a clear mental picture of each panel… and almost invariably once I see the finished work I realise that the artist’s interpretation is not just the right one, but the only one. Usually within seconds the real art erases my own mental image of the panel and that’s how I see it from then on.

Without going into details, I know you’ve had some issues with artists not being about to do stories as soon as you, and maybe 2000AD, wanted. I was wondering if this meant some rewrites. Judge Dredd has a rotating cast of writers so things keep moving and keep changing. I bet the rotating nature of the book keeps you on your toes.

So far, I’ve not had to do any rewrites for that reason… but for other reasons, certainly. Because I don’t always know which stories by other writers are coming up, I’ve occasionally had to tweak a few things. For example: there’s an important scene (not saying which one!) in my original script for “The Harvest” that had to be rewritten because it was too similar to a scene in Dredd tale by another writer that was scheduled to appear around the same time. There was no way either of us could have known that in advance. I’m sure it’s gone the other way around, too.

Rewrites can be a pain, but they really are the essence of story-telling. Deep down, there’s a part of me that likes to think that I’m crafting the finest art in its purest form and therefore to tinker with it could only be detrimental, but that’s just my rampant writer’s ego having its tantrum. The reality is that most of the time rewrites don’t weaken a story: they shore up its foundations.

I am really happy to see that you are doing a creator owned series, Proteus Vex. Henry Flint was suggested to you as the artist. I know you have worked with him before on Dredd but this must be the first time you’ve had to work with him, or any artist, on a story from the ground up.

Aside from some early small-press stories and a couple of Future Shocks for 2000AD, yes, Proteus Vex is my very first comic-strip that sprung entirely from my own imagination! At a visit to the Nerve Centre last year Tharg suggested to me that Henry would be soon coming free and was keen on doing something with lots of aliens. I’ve been a fan of Henry’s for a long time, and we’d already worked together on a couple of Dredd stories, so I absolutely jumped at the chance.

I worked out the basic plot quite quickly, but it took me a couple of goes to find the right approach: one of the biggest changes I made for the final script was to move the Big Reveal to right at the beginning. Originally, the whole thing revolved around the mystery of how the Imperium Ascendant destroyed the Obdurate race’s solar system, and I kept tripping over that, story-wise, because it was just so big. Well, one of the most important lessons about plotting is to never be afraid to take a step back and look at your idea from a different angle. What if I just took the mystery away completely? So now, right there on page 1 of episode 1, the narrative just tells the readers what happened. That changed everything: it freed up so much about the universe, and gave shape to the rest of the story: it’s not about what the Imperium did to end the war. It’s about the impact of that action.

(You’ll note I’m being very careful here not to reveal too much about the final story!)

I was very pleased with the script, and curious as to what approach Henry would take. Along with the script I’d sent him a Story Guide describing the major alien races, and characters, locations and hardware: I’d even designed 3D models of a couple of the starships. And then, eventually, I saw some of the artwork, I realised immediately that Henry had completely ignored most of my ideas and very much gone his own way. One of the main characters in particular – Vex’s captive/companion Midnight Indicating Shame – is completely different to how I’d described her, to the point that I could now reuse her character description for someone else and you’d never be able to guess who they’d originally been.

That was a bit of a shock, and took a few minutes to get used to, but, you know, he was absolutely right. Henry’s designs are far, far better than anything I could come up with. The whole look he’s taken for the series is just stunning – and now I can’t picture the characters any other way. I can’t help wondering how the story might have evolved if I’d seen his designs before I’d finished the script…!

The series launches with one of 2000AD’s jumping on point books (where every story is part one) and it is a holiday special. It is pretty good issue to start off on. What’s your “elevator pitch” to potential readers?

Ah, now, you see, the purpose of an elevator pitch is to get across the essence of a story in a very short amount of time in such a way that the producer or editor with whom one is sharing a lift is so intrigued that they want to hear more. They’re great fun to do, but it’s not necessarily wise to make such a thing public if the story in question has only had one episode published so far and the pitch would actually spoil some of the surprises!

That said, when Tharg first mentioned to me that Henry was looking for something he suggested, “Jason Bourne but with aliens.”

Actually, the best elevator pitch for Proteus Vex is pretty simple: “Henry Flint is drawing it.” But beyond that, it really is hard to come up with a pitch that doesn’t spoil the story… How about “After fourteen centuries, the great galactic war is over. Now former soldier Proteus Vex is a special agent for the side that was victorious… and it’s his job to keep it that way, at any cost.”

With it being creator owned, I assume you are able to plan more and plant more seeds. I think you’ve said that the upcoming story is “volume one.”

To clarify: Proteus Vex isn’t actually “creator-owned.” It’s just “creator created.” Henry and I don’t own the rights to Proteus Vex any more than we own the rights to Judge Dredd. We’ve created the strip for 2000AD, so it belongs to Rebellion, who own the comic. They could, if they chose, give the series to a different creative team, or sell the movie rights, or anything else. It’s their box of toys, not ours. We knew that going in, so we’re happy with that!

I’m working on the second series of Proteus Vex right now, and I do indeed have plans for more. There’s a lot of seeds already planted, and an overall story arc that begins in “Another Dawn” but I want to see what the reactions are to the first series before I get too deep into the plotting of it. There’s no point in me working out the intricate plots and twists of multiple series if the majority of the readers despise the first one!

Last question: an underrated song or album by Alphaville that you’d recommended.

I think their fifth studio album, Salvation, is rather underrated. After the anger and rawness of the fourth album, Prostitute, this was a return to simpler, cleaner, generally more upbeat songs, and I think some fans saw it as a step backwards, as though they’d realised they’d gone too far. Not me! I saw it as a step through, as the outcome of the catharsis of the previous album. Salvation contains some absolute classic tracks, especially the hardcore “Control”, the smart and slightly sinister “Dangerous Places” and the final track, the ethereal “Pandora’s Lullaby” – beautiful stuff!

I also highly recommend Marian’s second solo album, United, which doesn’t get nearly as much love on-line as it deserves, and the Atlantic Popes album, a one-off (so far) project by former Alphaville member Bernhard Lloyd.

But in my opinion, of the two hundred(ish) songs Alphaville have released over the past thirty-five years, the very best is the final track on Strange Attractor, their most recent album: “Beyond the Laughing Sky.” I love it so much that I even included it on the official Proteus Vex soundtrack on Spotify!

Proteus Vex started in 2000AD Prog 2162 which was released last Wednesday in newsagents and comic shops.