A Sci-Fi Special Guy: An Interview With Michael Carroll

It’s been a while since we’ve had an interview and I thought I would reach out to one of my favourite interview people / creators / just person in general, Michael Carroll. Mike has A LOT going on so I am very grateful that he took the time to answer my questions. Also, check out the 2000AD Sci-fi Special that should be out now.

In Proteus Vex, the narration style reminded me of the Encyclopaedia Galactica in Foundation by Isaac Asimov (I’ve just started reading the series). I know yours is different, and I am liking your particular style, but I was wondering if that was an influence on you either for the narration style or the world building.

I haven’t read any of the Foundation books since I was about twelve (in other words: over four decades ago!), so if there is any influence it’s certainly not conscious. The narrative style of Proteus Vex is supposed to evoke the image of someone relating events that happened so long ago no one’s entirely sure what’s myth and what’s true. My initial idea was that in the far, far future Vex has become a sort of Robin Hood or Fionn mac Cumhaill character: there might have really been someone of that name who did some of the things attributed to them, but a lot of the stories are contradictory and there are huge gaps in the narrative. I decided in the end, though, to bring it closer to a history lesson than a mythology lesson: the narrator knows that Vex was real and there are records of his deeds… or some of them, at least.

I guess the single strongest influence on the narrative is probably Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare and the way it attempts to assemble some framework of truth from all the myths, rumours, legends and lies.

For me, the breakout star is Midnight Indicating Shame and my opinion of the character really changed over the course of the two stories as we get more information about them. I was wondering if you had any preference yourself and did it change while writing the characters? You’ve said that Midnight really helped bring the story together for you.

When I first started developing the story Midnight was supposed to be a minor character who’d escaped from a closed society and thus was very naïve about the galaxy. If I needed to introduce a complex story element to the reader, I would simply have Vex explain it to Midnight. It’s cheating, in a way, but then it’s all cheating, isn’t it? Every aspect of storytelling is a gimmick or trick to manipulate the audience’s thoughts and emotions!

It was only as I was plotting the first arc that Midnight really came to life: when Vex returns to his ship where Midnight is held prisoner and sees that it’s been attacked by baddies but they’re now all dead, he says to her, “Don’t think I haven’t noticed the discrepancy with the number of limbs, heads and torsos.” She responds with, “You were gone for ages and I was hungry.” I hadn’t planned that, but it worked so well that I had to take a step back and really look at her.

In order to elevate her to a more prominent role I switched around several story threads and created a few new ones. Going back to the ancient legend approach: if Vex is King Arthur, then Midnight is someone like Lancelot or Gawain. They’re connected with the Arthurian myths but have legends of their own.

I really love the character’s name too. Her species all have quite lyrical names. Is there more to their name or is it just a translation thing?

MC: Her name was chosen mostly because I wanted the Citheronians’ names to sound alien without doing the usual trick of grabbing a handful of tiles out of the Scrabble bag and throwing in a sprinkling of apostrophes…  We’ll encounter more Citheronian names in book three, and I have to say they’re not easy to concoct! Their names aren’t just random words: they’re sentences that are designed to evoke hints of certain images and emotions. Exactly what those images and emotions are, well, that’s up to the individual reader! To me “Midnight Indicating Shame” implies something secretive, dark and perhaps forbidden. “Elevated by Conglomerate” suggests that maybe the individual is of a high station but they’re under someone else’s control. “Glorious Determinate Blossom” is someone who’s highly regarded, maybe a potential leader… but we haven’t met Glorious Determinate Blossom in the story yet so I’ll say no more!

For the second story, The Shadow Chancellor, you had a new artist, Jake Lynch. What was it like working with a different artist on your first “creator created” series?

It was daunting at the beginning because Henry Flint added so much to the world of Proteus Vex. A lot of readers and reviews have mentioned how bizarre or strange or alien the strip is, but a great deal of that is down to Henry’s input. I think that if you could somehow read the story without Henry’s amazing visuals, you’d see that it’s not really that strange after all! One reviewer described it as though it was an unfathomable nonsensical psychedelic trip, but that’s all in their interpretation. Break the story down, and it’s pretty straightforward: Vex is a government agent assigned to find a higher-level operative who’s gone missing. It’s a detective story combined with an old-fashioned space opera… albeit one told through Henry’s incredibly fertile imagination!

When we found that Henry wasn’t available for book two, we could have delayed the book until he  was ready or pressed on with a new artist. At first that latter option didn’t seem feasible: comic book artists of Henry’s calibre come along maybe once a decade, and that’s only if we’re lucky.

But as it turned out, we were lucky, because Jake Lynch was free and willing to draw book two! Jake’s an incredible artist. His natural style is very different from Henry’s but he’s more than talented enough to adapt his style to match, while also bringing his own unique flavour.

I think at first Jake was daunted by Henry’s skills and reputation, which is understandable, but Henry knew he’d be a good replacement. Jake’s approach to the strip is arguably more grounded and less “out there” than Henry’s, but I have to say I love it. When I was writing the first book, “Another Dawn,” I had my own mental images of the characters, hardware and locations, but naturally Henry went off on his own tangents! For book two, “The Shadow Chancellor,” I had a much stronger idea of how it was going to look because I had the first one as a basis. This meant that Jake and I were more or less moving in the same direction: he sent me the episodes as he completed them, which in one or two cases gave me to chance to request a couple of tweaks.

Jim Boswell took over the colouring duties, and he too has done a superlative job. Like Jake, Jim is very much into the collaborative nature of comics so I had a chance to see the coloured episodes before they went off to the editor. Brilliant, brilliant stuff!

I’m happy to say that Jake and Jim are both back for book three: I can’t wait to see what they bring to it all this time around!

Silly Wikipedia question: I’ll admit I was updating your bibliography (it is the first time I’ve ever actually done that and sidenote: your website is actually a great resource and other creators should imitate you in this area). Anyway, your Dreadnoughts series, should it go under Judge Dredd or a separate thing?

Hmm.. that’s a good question! You know, I think that Dreadnoughts should be in a separate category to Judge Dredd, The series is definitely connected with the Dredd universe but DeMarco, Cadet Dredd and Tales from the Black Museum are separate, so Dreadnoughts should be too! Thank you for updating the Wikipedia page, by the way. I keep forgetting that it’s there! (I was told long ago that it’s considered bad form for someone to update their own page so I’m rarely moved to look at it!)

In August, the Sci-Fi special arrives, which you co-plotted with Maura McHugh. What was it like working with another writer? Can you tell us a little bit about the story?

Working with Maura was a joy, and not just because she’s a friend! We had several lengthy phone chats where we generated far too many ideas for the forty-eight pages we had available. Honestly, we could have filled ten times that much space.

I think that one of the reasons we worked so well together is that we both have a lot of experience: more than enough to be able to recognise the strengths in the other person’s ideas as well as our own. If either of us had been “precious” about it, or allowed our egos to get in the way, we’d never have managed to get anything done. Maura is smarter, kinder and more talented than I am, but I live nearer, so I think we have a good balance.

Without giving away too much: the story concerns a global threat that first shows up in a waste incineration plant in the Cursed Earth. It’s connected to events happening elsewhere in the world, which allowed us to bring back other Dreddworld characters like Chopper, Devlin Waugh, Inaba and Armitage.

I know you worked with other writers on the Judges novella series. Was that in any way similar to working with the other writers who are working on the project?

With the Judges books my main role is to steer the overall series: the whole run spans five decades of Dreddworld history, with three books per decade, so there’s a lot of ground to cover. With each book, we tell the writer when the book should be set – early 2040s, late 2050s, that kind of thing – and what the world looks like at that time. We might suggest briefly what the book could be about – there are certain milestones in Dredd’s history that we want to acknowledge – but mostly the story itself is generated by the individual writer. They supply a plot outline and character notes, and when that’s given the go-ahead they write the book and we’ll go through it checking for quality, consistency and so on.

For the 2000AD Sci-Fi Special, Maura and I created an overall story arc. We knew from very early on that we wanted to start with a Judge Dredd tale (written by me), and finish with an Anderson story (written by Maura) and capped off with a finale that we’d co-write. For the other stories we created “serving suggestions” with certain elements that would tie in with the main arc.

The other writers (Davie Baillie, Karl Stock and Liam Johnson) were chosen by Tharg… and as always The Mighty One did a great job. Maura and I hosted a conference call with the other writers and it was electric: so many ideas buzzing around! I have to say they were all very amenable to the process: Maura and I were much more hands-on than is usual for 2000AD, and we weren’t shy about bouncing the scripts back for revisions if necessary. We probably drove Liam, David and Karl crazy with our “meddling” but it was all for the good of the story, I promise!

The project has a lot of different Dredd-verse characters including Devlin Waugh and Hondo-Cit Judge Inaba. When you (and Maura) were plotting the series, was there one character that made you think “I’d like to do a longer story about them”?

Oh yeah, all of them! Devlin Waugh’s still around, and David’s Chopper story follows on from his excellent “Wandering Soul” series from a couple of years ago, but Inaba and Armitage hadn’t been seen much at all in the past decade, so it was great to go back to them. As I’ve mentioned many times before, Judge Dredd’s world ages in real time, so if a character doesn’t appear in the comic for, say, five years, then when they do come back they’re going to be five years older, so the stories have to reflect that: there are no reset buttons or retcons or alternate universes or other “get out of jail free” cards for us!

Armitage was already at least in his fifties when he debuted in 1991, so he’s pushing ninety now,(actually, he’s very possibly pushing it from the other side). Maybe he doesn’t have many more stories left… But then, these tales are set 122 years in the future, where 100 is the new twenty-five or something, so there’s no reason he can’t carry on grumpily policing the streets of Brit-Cit for a few more years at least.

Likewise, Inaba’s initial youthful attitude has been sanded down by her time on the streets, but while she’s smart as ever and still fearless, she’s now very much a seasoned Judge… but I really want to see what she’s been up to since she last appeared, and see how her story progresses from here.

There were also several other established Dreddworld characters we’d have loved to revisit, but I won’t say which ones because you never know: we might get the chance to do something like this again!

I’ll ask you a Rusty Staples question to end as I really enjoy the site. You have blog entries on all the stats and info about British comics but there are some books where the information simply isn’t out there. Is there one series in particular that you would like to know more about or maybe even get a copy of an issue?

I’m glad you enjoy the blog! It’s definitely a labour of love for me, but as I get more and more knowledgeable about British comics, the more I realise I don’t know… especially about girls’ comics!

Every now and then I’ll come across a girls’ comic or story-paper or teen magazine (the ones with comic-strips or photo-stories so count as comics!) that I’ve never heard of before but somehow it ran for eight years and published over four hundred issues. Or I’ll discover that a seemingly-cancelled comic was actually merged into another one.

I’ve been trying for years to find out how many issues of My Guy were published, and what its ultimate fate was – was it absorbed by another title, or just abruptly cancelled without warning? – but no one seems to know. I’ve even been in touch with people who worked on it, but they don’t know either. I’ve still got some feelers out on that, but it’s not just a matter of ten different people telling me that “I read on-line that it lasted for 873 issues and was cancelled in the year 2000” because the plural of “anecdote” is not “evidence”! The highest-numbered issue of My Guy I’ve seen is #868, from February 1995 – so if it did stick around for another five years, and stuck to its weekly publication schedule, then it should have had at least another 250 issues… Someone, please, send me a scan of the mag from its later years so I’ll know for sure that it did make it into the latter half of the 1990s!

In light of the wealth of information on-line about boys’ comics, it’s a shame that so many girls’ publications seem to have been almost completely forgotten. Some of them, in their halcyon days, would have had circulations well into the six-figure range. DC Thomson’s Debbie, for example, ran for almost exactly ten years before it was absorbed by its older sibling Mandy. That’s 518 issues. Multiply that by a very conservative average of 100,000 copies per issue and we get fifty million copies… fifty million entertaining half-hours enjoyed by impressionable readers. And yet few comic fans these days would be able to name even a single strip that appeared in Debbie, or any of the creators who worked on the comic. That’s a shame: those editors, writers and artists worked just as hard as the creators of the much-better-documented boys’ comics!

Every comic meant something special to some kid, even if that comic only stuck around for a few months. As I asked at the end of my review of an issue of Hotspur, “where is it written that only the very best deserve to be remembered?” Everyone deserves their moment in the sun!