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+ Truth, Justice, and the British Way


Just recently, PopMatters had the opportunity to speak with renown comic book writer Jamie Delano. As the mind behind works such as Batman:Manbat, The Horrorist, and Hellblazer, the UK native was kind enough to give his thoughts on the “British recolonization” of the American comics industry, an event that, he says, has been on-going for at least the last 15 years. With a new series — Outlaw Nation, being illustrated by Goran Sudzuka and coming from DC Comics this September — Mr. Delano shared insights from past and present American affiliations as a Briton in a no-longer-so-strange land:



PopMatters:

Mr. Delano, you’ve done work for comic publishers on both sides of the Atlantic. How do the two nations’ comic industries differ, in your opinion? In addition, how does the general populace’s opinion of comic books differ?



Jamie Delano:

I suspect that the major difference between the mainstream U.S. industry and that of the U.K. is one of scale…that of the media corporations who control them. In the U.S., greater financial resources have perhaps allowed parent companies the “luxury” of sustaining comics as a creatively fertile breeding ground for ideas and “properties” — which, sooner or later, may throw up a new Batman or Superman with the potential to be exploited across the diversely proliferating media of the 21st Century. U.K. companies may have been less willing to make this investment, choosing to let our native industry wither on the vine.



PM:

You mentioned Batman and Superman. But, you have been a key component in successfully launching/revamping some vitally British characters, such as Captain Britain and Hellblazer‘s title character, John Constantine (after his creation by fellow Englishman Alan Moore in Swamp Thing). What did you “bring to the table” with these characters that a non-British writer may not have been able to? Conversely, was there anything frustrating or difficult about the origin/nationality of these characters that other writers with other characters would not have to encounter?



JD:

“Component” is the operative word — a comic book is always a team creation…however frustrating that might be from time to time. British or non-British, I guess the only the thing that I “brought to the table,” that any other writer may not have, was my own style and “voice” developed from my own experience of the world. These are all that any writer has to work with, regardless of nationality. That said, it was undoubtedly the “Britishness” of John Constantine that originally allowed that voice to be heard. I was lucky. If DC had not perceived the need for a U.K. writer to give Moore’s creation an authentic voice, I doubt that I would be working in comics today. Hellblazer provided me with a forum in which to create the kind of stories that I wanted to write…And, it has been a continuing arrogance of mine since, I guess, that I have always been concerned to make the character of any book I work upon serve the story rather than merely inventing plots to support an established character.



PM:

Well, you certainly have worked with a good number of “established characters” — ones that you’ve taken and given your own spin to. In particular, many of them came with a British creative influence already. Alan Moore created John Constantine, various Marvel talents created Captain Britain, Grant Morrison kicked off Animal Man, etc. How did you work to keep them fresh without invalidating what came before? In general, which of your works are you most happy with, whether they be original or pre-existing?



JD:

Established characters are always difficult. You have to have something to say and the confidence to say it, while respecting the work of those who have gone before enough not to ride totally roughshod over continuity. The works of mine that I am most happy with (apart from odd issues of Hellblazer) are generally ones of which I have been the instigator, working from a blank page on concepts and characters. I was pleased with 2020 Visions. I’m even more pleased with the way my new monthly series, Outlaw Nation is turning out.



PM:

One of the characteristics ascribed to British comic writers above their U.S.-counterparts is that they are more “mature” — both in their story-telling, subject matter, and graphic vividness. How do you respond to that generalization? What is it in the two cultures that lead to this distinction? Why do you feel that American audiences have taken so well to your style of writing, both as a U.K. citizen and as an individual?



JD:

As a generalization. I imagine that most of the writers you are thinking of work or have worked forked for Vertigo (DC Comics’ adult audience line). Vertigo arose as a response to a demand for comics for “mature” readers revealed first by Moore’s work on Swamp Thing. I suspect that other opportunistic and vaguely literate British writers, myself included, saw opportunities in this type of work and exploited them. Had a vaguely literate U.S. audience not continued to be receptive, then we would all have had to adapt to writing superheroes or go back to our day jobs.



PM:

Since your time on Hellblazer, it has been written by two other “hot” British writers, Warren Ellis and Garth Ennis. What are your opinions on their work in general and on the John Constantine character? How did your approaches differ?



JD:

[Urban magician] John Constantine is a character uniquely flexible enough to accommodate the peccadilloes of his various authors without becoming unrecognizably contorted. All the writers who have worked with him have brought aspects of their culture and personality to his world, and that is the way it should be.



PM:

Certainly, neither Ellis or Ennis shied away from gore and violence with their interpretations. In terms of violence, is there a limit to what can appear in a comic by your standards? Did your predecessors ever take it too far with Hellblazer?



JD:

There is a limit to what can appear in a comic book at my instigation. Though no stranger to bad-taste, I generally prefer to work with innuendo spiced with occasional shock, rather than with blatant and graphic scatology and violence. But, while I can be offended and even disgusted, theoretically, my preferences and prejudices should have no place in determining the means other creators use to reach their audience.



PM:

What elements (sexuality, profanity, violence, etc.) do you personally find exploitative and inappropriate in a comic, if any?



JD:

If I were a publisher, I am certain I would draw lines. Some imagery is undoubtedly the wrong kind of fuel to feed recklessly to the mass psychosis of our society. However, before we start banning comic books and videos to make the world safe for our kiddiewinks, let’s get rid of a couple billion fucking handguns, huh?



PM:

That leads me to ask about the American Comics Code. This self-regulating comics policy came about from mid-century debates on the wholesomeness of comics and if they were, as Fredrick Wertham titled his anti-comic writings, a Seduction of the Innocent. What views do you have, if any, on the American Comics Code today? Do you liken it to any comic guidelines in Britain?



JD:

I’m not necessarily opposed to advisory rating systems on media whose intended audience may be unclear. But, I am opposed to all species of moral Ayatollahs who attempt to dictate universal standards. If I had to operate within the Comics Code, I guess I would have to try my hand at writing books or movies.



PM:

A sensible response, since, if one had to pigeonhole your writing — an inadvisable thing to do, for certain — you certain write a plentiful amount of horror or horror-tinted material (e.g. Batman:Manbat, The Horrorist, and certainly Hellblazer.) And, the EC Comics, known for its dominant horror line at the time, were the major casualty of the Comics Code. Does your work “play” at all differently to American and British audiences? What are your influences in this style and how might your draw to horror be the result of British culture, if at all?



JD:

Yeah… well I do have to confess to being inclined to see the dark side of any situation — a useful knack perhaps when writing a horror book, which Hellblazer set out to be. And, the late Eighties were a grim time in Britain for those of my (then) thirty-something generation and cultural inclination — facing a third term of the Thatcher Reich which seemed to have steamrollered the counter-culture dreams of our adolescence and obliterated our twenties. I don’t see myself as a genre writer, overall, though…most of my work has a (albeit blackened) tongue stuck firmly in its cheek. I always write to please myself before anyone else. I don’t know if my work does play differently to British or US audiences. I think it plays to sympathetic intellects anywhere…fortunately, there must be just enough of these international curiosities spread around the planet to keep me a financially viable proposition. Reassuring or scary, depending how you look at it, I guess.



PM:

Probably reassuring, all things considered. Before writing for them, how did you view American comics? Where will American comics (or, comics worldwide) go next — or, is there a risk, in your mind, of the end of comic books, period?



JD:

Before writing them, I hardly viewed American comic books at all…except for the “underground” offerings that came my way. I imagine that comics will become less and less a mass-medium. At least at the mature readers end of the market…following the European model into the higher priced album/collected-edition for the bookshop market and surviving, along with other substantive print media, as works of three-dimensional tactile beauty in a transient digital world.



PM:

Implying that good comics — created by Americans or Britons — will be with us for some time to come. Still, there are a compelling amount of British professionals working in American publications. From your own experience and your association with other professionals, what does it take to be a good writer, specifically of comic books?



JD:

It helps to be able to spell and write in rudimentary sentences. The ability to survive long-periods of isolation and radiation damage from PC monitor-screens — as you sit staring in blank terror, trying for days to call up imagery from the white-out that has closed down your brain — is also useful. Number one for me though, I suppose, is a driving, never-fulfilled desire to simplify and make some kind of sense of the outrageous complexity of the world, and the mysterious species which dominates it. Writing comics specifically requires a strong visual imagination and an appreciation of the power of image, and the ability to use words with accuracy and economy while remaining readable and seemingly naturalistic.



PM:

Well, thank you for your time and answers, Mr. Delano. Finally, before we end, where do you plan to go next, professionally? Do you see yourself in comics for the long haul or is there another medium that appeals both to you and your skills? If you are here to stay, what about your work do you want remembered and to stand out?



JD:

I plan to stick around in comics for a while…although, I have also been doing a little work on a screenplay recently…And, sooner or later, I will get around to writing a novel or two, I hope. I guess, at the risk of sounding pompous, I would be happy to be remembered as a writer who — even if sometimes his fictions turned out to be flawed — at least never just phoned them in.

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