A Conversation with Jamie Delano – “If I don’t eventually write shit down it eats me.”
with Tabatha Wood
Very few writers can boast of a career as wide and influential as comic book writer Jamie Delano. His contribution to groundbreaking comics spans over 36 years, and he has collaborated with some of the most talented artists in the business.
After a seven-year stint working as a cab driver in his home town of Northampton, and writing the occasional comic for the UK market, it was a personal recommendation from British Invasion writer Alan Moore which led DC Comics editor Karen Berger to invite Delano to come up with a proposal, for what would become a unique and revolutionary horror comic — ‘Hellblazer’. Starting in 1986, Delano wrote all but four of its initial 40 stories focusing on John Constantine — a con man, magician and ‘Master of the Dark Arts’.
It was Moore (‘Watchmen’, ‘V for Vendetta’) who first introduced Constantine in 1985. He emerged in Swamp Thing #37, reminiscent of a seedy doppelgänger of the singer Sting, fresh from his role in ‘Quadrophenia’. In conversation with old Swampy himself, Constantine declares himself to be “… a nasty piece of work, chief. Ask anybody,” before sparking up his signature cigarette.
But while Moore might have brought him into the world, Delano truly fleshed him out and made him real. Although he doesn’t like to talk about it, it is most certainly his version of Constantine which inspired much of the 2005 movie with Keanu Reeves, (despite the jarring departure from John’s customary image,) and the sadly cancelled NBC TV series from 2014.
John Constantine is, to be perfectly frank, a bit of an arrogant bastard. Every friend or lover he’s had over the years has invariably wound up damaged, dead or deranged. He’s not a coward by any stretch, but he’s more likely to kick you square in the balls and run, than engage in actual combat. He drinks a lot and smokes a lot more, and you get the impression that you can probably smell the reek of him a mile off.
Despite all that, he is incredibly, perhaps all too fallibly, human. A flawed idealist with a wry and cynical sense of humour, he’s armed to the teeth with sarcastic one-liners, topped off with a canny knowledge of powerful magic spells. (Although he’d never waste time on an incantation if a simple con would suffice.) Delano is happy to admit that the character is — at least partially— based on aspects of himself.
Delano never shied away from political and social commentary. It can be hard to write political characters which aren’t didactic or one-dimensional, but Jamie managed to be consistently scathing and observant without straying into overt preaching. What comes first is a compelling narrative supported by realistic, engaging dialogue. Storytelling at its absolute best.
But like any good magician, Delano has much more up his sleeve than John Constantine. Up until his hiatus seven years ago, Delano was still writing comic books. His early works include ‘Doctor Who’ and ‘Captain Britain’, with his later stories blending predominantly science fiction and horror in ‘Animal Man’ and ‘Outlaw Nation’ – not to mention the scurrilous ‘Crossed’ – and the prospective science-fiction classic ‘2020 Visions’.
In 2012 he confronted the arduous task of self-publishing his first prose fiction novel ‘Book Thirteen’, a darkly comic and vaguely autobiographical debut under the pen-name A. William James. Two years later he completed ‘Leepus: Dizzy’ writing once more as Jamie Delano, soon followed by ‘Leepus: The River’ in 2017.
Those familiar with Delano’s distinctive voice cannot fail to see the undertone of Constantine lurking in the narrative. The words come thick and fast and hard, the action delivered through dialogue and character in a way which initially seems exhausting but quickly settles into invigorating and curiously fun. Delano drags you down a rabbit hole into a twisted Inglund — an apocalyptic, dark, near-future, both deeply flawed and ultra violent. For a reader entwined in the threads of this parallel world, Delano’s linguistic sorcery blurs the lines of present-day reality and dystopian fiction with disturbing ease.
I talked to Jamie about his life with ‘Hellblazer’, writing what his characters tell him to, and moving on from comic books to embrace new projects.
Firstly, will you settle an argument: how do you pronounce John’s surname — is it Constantine like ‘wine’ or ‘teen’?
It rhymes with ‘wine’.
You were recommended to Karen Berger by Alan Moore as someone who could take up the Constantine mantle. How much freedom did you have with the character and were you ever nervous that Moore might not approve of the direction in which you took him?
Alan and I were friends from our teens. We both harboured ambitions to be writers. But while Alan was driven and energetic, I was lazy and easily distracted, slipping into a succession of ‘dust-jacket’ jobs instead of applying myself obsessively to the pursuit of opportunity and craft.
Sometime in the early ‘eighties – when Alan had already established a reputation in comics and I was just fucking about, getting stoned and driving my taxi, bored and frustrated with the world and most of the people doomed to inhabit it – Alan graciously offered me an introduction to an editor of his acquaintance, and the consequent chance to write professionally for the first time- a series of short prose stories featuring a character called NIGHT RAVEN for Marvel (UK). One thing led to another, and eventually, I guess, he thought I’d developed my skills enough to be trusted with a crack at his character Constantine.
Lucky for me, Karen Berger trusted his judgement enough to give me a shot at a proposal. Of course I talked with Alan about the first few issues, but I never felt any editorial constraint from either he or Karen- and would doubtless have been too stupid and arrogant (and too subsumed by the work in hand) to pay attention if I had.
Tell me about life before writing. What do you think you would have done with yourself if you hadn’t begun writing for DC comics?
Those dust-jacket jobs I mention included: librarian, book shop manager, paperback travelling salesman, timber-yard crane-driver and chainsaw wielder, taxi driver and radio-controller. If I hadn’t found a way to make a living from writing comics I’d probably have wound up a lot more crazy a lot more quickly and become even more bitter and twisted, given my destructive traits pre-eminence over those more creative.
‘Hellblazer’ frequently pushed the boat out in terms of graphic violence and gore, not to mention utilising controversial themes like ritual murder and child abduction to further a plot. Were there any topics where you thought maybe you’d gone too far, or even not far enough?
I can’t remember any; I was always just writing whatever my characters told me to. They all existed in an (enhanced) reality that I shared and responded to it with a tip of the hat to genre. Being a bit of a squeamish sort, horror has never been my first love. I slipped into writing it largely through the opportunity presented by ‘Hellblazer’ and discovered its allegorical potential. I exploited the genre to dramatise the aspects of human existence that disturbed me.
You were (and still are) very openly critical of many political and social issues — Thatcher, neo-Nazi groups, yuppies and the typical overindulgence of ’80’s consumerism. What sort of response did you receive for that view at the time?
Pre-Internet, response was generally pretty limited, but that I did get was largely favourable. Enough readers appreciated my angle to commercially sustain the book; those that didn’t could easily satisfy their needs elsewhere.
It’s a question which all creative types get asked, but what sorts of stories influenced you as a younger man, and what inspired you to write yourself? Similarly, what inspires you now?
The first book I remember reading for myself was ‘Treasure Island’ and I’ve always been drawn to the exploration of exotic landscapes and mindscapes. I read a lot of ‘sixties and ‘seventies sci-fi (Ballard was influential), and 19th/20th century fantasy/horror: Poe much more than Lovecraft, and Peake.
I read a lot of mythology. For a while the Beats were fascinating; Kerouac swept me up in his amphetamine rush – although revisiting is disappointing – and Burroughs, of course. I enjoyed a lot of stuff from the Picador list in my early twenties.
These days I tend to pick indie books at random, usually through sympathetic social media acquaintance. I have hardly ever read (past tense or present) comics. I listened to a lot of music shared by my subculture in the ‘seventies; these days my selections are similarly random — stuff I chance upon and enjoy tends to stay on the car stereo for years.
I rarely watch movies; the format disappoints me, but I do occasionally find myself sucked into a ‘box-set’ when I feel the need to evaporate a chunk of life. ‘Deadwood’ was the first of these, and ‘The Sopranos’. Recently I’ve been watching ‘Justified’ based on a short story by Elmore Leonard.
I’m not a massive consumer of media now. It’s a sad fact (at least in my case) that the more one develops their own creative obsessions, the harder one becomes to please.
You took a hiatus from writing comics for quite a while before deciding to write and self-publish your first foray into prose fiction ‘Book Thirteen’. What pulled you back into writing again?
Around the turn of the millennium I found myself less than excited by the thought of developing new comics. I dipped in now and then during the subsequent decade – ‘Narcopolis’, ‘Rawbone’, ‘Crossed’ (with Avatar), and ‘Hellblazer: Pandemonium’ (which I obviously couldn’t refuse) but it was increasingly obvious that my heart wasn’t really in it.
I mooched about the house a lot, playing online poker, and allowed my general grumpiness to annoy and frustrate all those forced to co-exist in personal proximity on this dismal plane. I wasn’t happy not writing, but frankly I just couldn’t be fucking bothered. I was sick of the Word and its constant fatuous muttering; the world was going up in flames, what good did writing about it do?
But ever since I was twelve I’d expected I’d one day write a novel. Now I was coming up to sixty, for fuck’s sake; if I didn’t get on with it pretty damn quick, I’d likely be dead or demented and find I’d missed my chance. Trouble was, I had no idea if I actually had a novel in me. I’d really never written very much extended prose and was unsure of my competence. I decided to postpone it for another year or so.
Eventually a good friend put a gun to my head and forced me back to my keyboard. ‘Book Thirteen’ was the eventual result.
After thirty years in the craft, you’d clearly established yourself as an exemplary writer. Can you tell me why you choose to self-publish and, at least initially, under a pen-name?
I was too shy to submit it to a publisher, and I’ve never bothered with agents, and anyway, I thought, these days you can do it all yourself and escape all that tedious interference. So I set up my own imprint: Lepus Books. The alias was down to a misguided desire not to ‘misrepresent’ this ‘different’ type of work as allied to my comic-writing persona. Makes no sense to me now, but it did at the time.
Once I’d got the logo and a raft of ISBNs, it seemed silly to reserve the imprint for my sole selfish purpose. So I invited a few pals with a yen to string words together to join me in literary freedom and obscurity – the only condition being that I could satisfy my own (hopefully useful) editorial desires.
Ultimately I was reasonably satisfied with how ‘Book Thirteen’ turned out and decided to explore the novel format further, reverting to my Jamie Delano identity to write the kind of weird fiction I found personally entertained and absorbed me. There are now two Leepus novels, and I’m circling the third. I don’t think they’re the kind of work that easily fits the requirements of mainstream genre or literary publishers, so I intend to stick with Lepus Books (and consequent negligible sales) into the murky future.
I can do what I like now, with no one to blame or please but myself. This makes me happy.
There are a whole slew of fantastic lines in ‘Leepus: Dizzyy’, but one of my favourites is this:
“It’s true most of the happy idiots don’t have a clue what the writing on the wall says — but a few sick individuals get off dreaming of disaster, anticipating catastrophic adventures. Maybe they even make their living relishing bleak outcomes, when they should be energised by terror — spurred into desperate revolutionary last-ditch action, manning barricades of hope to preserve a future for their children.” (p. 247)
That’s a pretty pointed and scathing piece of social commentary. For someone who takes inspiration from real-world events to help create dark, dystopian fiction, how does the current political climate in the Western world affect how and what you write?
Leepus’ first incarnation is as a cult-fiction character created by The Old Writer, whose story of comedic writerly and familial angst is the subject of ‘Book Thirteen’. In the later, eponymous Leepus novels, there is a pervasive, metafictional subtext that suggests that perhaps, in an alternate, or previously lived reality, Leepus – although he virulently denies it – might himself have been a writer.
Perhaps, in the weird Inglund where we now meet him, he prefers to influence reality directly rather than (disastrously) imagine it. Maybe, although he’ll never acknowledge it, in some way he feels culpable for the situation he and all around him endure in.
I have long harboured the superstition that writing about shit that scares you may keep it from your door. Maybe Leepus once thought that too. Maybe he was wrong, or maybe he wasn’t. But venture too deep into that tangled wood and you come out – if you come out at all – stark, staring bonkers.
You once said that the two things which frequently inspired you to write were “anger and boredom”. Is that still true?
Yes – plus I have nothing else to do, and if I don’t eventually write shit down it eats me.
It’s a cliché, and I apologise, but what piece of essential advice would you give to anyone wanting to write good horror or speculative fiction?
A writer is just a scribbler; don’t imagine you’re omniscient and try to govern your story. Whatever genre or otherwise you’re trying to work in, put your characters in situations that scare, move or similarly inspire you, let them reveal themselves to you. Observe what they say and do and feel – who they meet and where they go – and learn to write down the good bits and keep the rest to yourself.
After that it’s just one word after another until you reach The End. Then publish and repeat ad infinitum until finally you get it right. Or, more likely, reach your own wordless end.
Born: 1954 Jamie Delano was variously employed before becoming a professional comic book scriptwriter in the early 1980s. In addition to diverse comics work, Delano has experimented with screenwriting and, latterly has focused on prose, his first love. He also manages Lepus Books, a cooperative imprint established in 2012 to bring his own prose work, and that of others appealing to his own idiosyncratic taste, to potential readers. Jamie lives with his partner, Sue. They have three adult children and five grandchildren.
Tabatha Wood lives in Wellington, New Zealand. A former English teacher and school library manager, her first published books are non-fiction guides aimed at teachers and others who work in education. She now teaches from home, while writing in her spare time.
Born in Whitby, North Yorkshire, Tabatha has always had a passion for weaving strange, unusual, and often gothic tales, entwined with her deep love for the land and sea. She strongly encourages the use of writing and creativity for positive mental health, and runs a group which supports women who write for wellness. She also hosts writing workshops, often gets involved in cosplay charity events, and enjoys knitting and making jewellery.
Her short story collection, ‘Dark Winds Over Wellington: Chilling Tales of the Weird & the Strange’ was a passion project, and is the first time she has published her fiction.