Monday, 29 October 2012

JAMIE DELANO interview

Regular cover for the Italian edition of 2020 Visions. Art by Davide De Cubellis.
Jamie Delano interview conducted by smoky man and Antonio Solinas via email in September 2012, on the occasion of the publication, by Green Comm Services, of the Italian edition of 2020 VISIONS.

For more info about JAMIE DELANO, visit his website.

2020 VISIONS was originally published in 1997-98 by DC Comics/Vertigo, with art by Frank Quitely, Warren Pleece, James Romberger and Steve Pugh.

Getting back to 2020 VISIONS. When did you get the original idea? Why did you depict a so apocalyptic future with so little hope?
Jamie Delano: As I recall it was in the early 1990s that I first thought it might be fun to develop a series of ‘near-future fictions’ through which to explore (and exploit) some portentous visions of tomorrow. I am not naturally optimistic, so to me the exponential acceleration of change – that even in that distant, ‘kinder and gentler’ era was already apparent – offered the dramatic promise of chaotic upheaval. “Dystopic” is the adjectival cliché usually applied to the kind of future I imagine - but for a significant proportion of the world population at a given time the present can equally be thus described (indeed it is default situation. Utopias are aberrant). Everyone must deal with reality as they find it, and it is in the courage and endurance with which individuals engineer their survival against the odds inflicted by callous Fate that human hope resides - and through which I hope my stories are empowered.  

It was the previous millennium, but... Do you think your vision meets, in a way or another, your "comics" expectations considering the current world status? You have always been, imho, a political writer... putting smart, provocative ideas and commentaries in your comics... It's not all just capes and spandex...
Well, I never set out to write a ‘speculative fiction’ as such. The scenarios were designed to explain a future Disunited States of America – economically challenged, politically fragmented, socially chaotic – in which I could focus on the characters I forced to live there, and the consequent ‘evolution’ of their attitudes and behaviours.  The relationship of the individual to the political environment – the power structures that constrain us – is the major force that shapes our life-experience, and it is this fundamental that exercises my concern and provides my impetus to write. But I hope that I generally approach my topic subjectively and somewhat tongue-in-cheek, rather than belabouring my readers with heavy-handed dogma. I prefer to leave the ‘capes and spandex’ for those with a juvenile predilection for dressing up.  

As a British writer working for a USA publisher, 2020 VISIONS was a really "provocative" and strong book for an American audience. Did you remember the reactions at the time? The editor, the publisher, the audience.... Maybe it's also an explanation for DC didn't collect it... Maybe after 9/11 it was more complicated too... Maybe vertigo of the new millennium is not the same innovative force it was in the past...
Reactions...  Well, as with most of my work there were complications to the production process—the editor was distracted by the onset of serious illness and script feedback was haphazard, and it took a while, and another editor, before the art was assembled and the book ready for publication. I suspect that some degree of executive unease was obscured in the confusion—but I always enjoyed a considerable degree of (perhaps misplaced) confidence from those that mattered at the time. There was more resistance to my desire to title what eventually became Outlaw Nation as The Great Satan, but that’s another story. As far as audience response goes: it was somewhat polarised—the book was either loved, or hated. There was talk of a DC collection, post-9/11. Karen Berger was all for it, bless her, but the powers that be nixed the suggestion and I was able to re-acquire the rights. You may be right in suggesting that this was an early sign of a decline in Vertigo’s innovatory impetus. I couldn’t possibly comment.

If you read it again, are you satisfied by it? I know this can be a tough question to answer for a writer....
Nothing is ever as good in retrospect as one hoped in its creation it might be (that’s why we keep writing, in the hope of eventually getting something right) - but although there are always elements and clumsy turns of phrase that evoke embarrassment, there’s not much that I would consider rewriting. A work is necessarily of its time and place. I’m not the same person now who wrote 2020 VISIONS… and the world has changed a little, too.

Even if the settings and cities are important in 2020 VISIONS, personally I think it is a character driven story. Is it right? What about your writing process in this case?
It is right.  I think most of my work is ‘character driven’. My writing process on 2020 VISIONS was pretty typical of my approach: some loose environmental themes for background, a vague sniff of plot, some characters to intrigue my imagination… I set the crazy bastards walking and talking and record the interesting bits, the detail they reveal of their world and their responses to it.

You referred to editorial problems. What about the artistic team? How was it assembled? Did you have any say in the choices?
If my memory is reliable – which I can’t guarantee – the original editor, Lou Stathis, assembled the team of four artists for 2020 VISIONS and I had no quarrel with his picks. I’m sure, had I not been happy, my opinion would have been considered. I liked the concept of having a separate artist for each individual book of the series. Each bought their unique vision to the story and the varied styles helped differentiate between the loose genres represented: horror, crime, western, romance...

In terms of the sheer creative process, how was the work-flow? How much did you communicate with the artists of each chapter?
As I indicated earlier, the production process was somewhat inhibited by poor Lou Stathis’ illness and I seem to recall that the scripts were all completed before work on the art began. I believe it was Axel Alonso who picked up the reins and brought the book to publication after Lou sadly passed away. The artists were all able and professional and there was not much need for day-to-day negotiation by that point.

The William Burroughs influence is very strong, in the book. Is there any other major influence, maybe less in the open but still very important that you can tell us about?
Yes, Burroughs is often to be detected in the background of my work, sneaking around provoking mischief. I can’t immediately think of any other conscious influence on 2020 VISIONS, but writers are all products of our reading experience, so an astute critic may glimpse hidden roots... maybe a hint of J. G. Ballard? I don’t know, you tell me.

2020 VISIONS shows a very grim future, yet each story has many elements of redemption and almost always ends on a positive note. Is that correct, from your point of view? Can you elaborate a bit on that?
Over the years I have acquired a certain reputation for bleak despondency – which I would kind of refute, preferring to characterise my tone more as ‘black comedy’. I think the ‘redemptive positivity’ in the endings of the 2020 VISIONS stories was a kind of tongue-in-cheek subversion of the stereotype.  While there are hints of hope apparent, none of the endings are traditionally ‘happy’.

Do you have a preferred story, of the four comprising 2020 VISIONS?
From a writer’s perspective, I think I find “Renegade” the most satisfactory – but the book is the sum of its four parts. Artistically, I have no favourite. I remain more than happy with the integrity and accomplishment of all four of my co-creators’ contributions.

You worked with artists with a very realistic style (such as John Ridgeway, but also Alan Davis), as well as artists with a more graphic/stylised style (Warren Pleece, Philip Bond, Sean Phillips). Do you have specific preferences from this standpoint? What are the characteristics of your dream collaborator? What are the defects that you would avoid, for an artist working with you on a comics?
Hmmm... I think I would put an ability to capture and communicate mood and emotion over pure draughtsmanship. I like artists who instinctively understand the story and how to tell it visually – who display an awareness of environment and landscape, and an understanding of how the relationship of a character to his setting is important in defining the tone of a scene. I like it when an artist picks up on the significance of details in a panel description. It’s not important to me that they reproduce my imagined design on the page, but that they understand the intention behind it, interpret and hopefully improve upon it. It’s nice when they’re in tune with the rhythm of the text, too, and provide a pleasing visual counterpoint. I’m less happy when an artist appears to be in ‘robot’ mode and produces a functional graphic realisation of the story without giving any sign that they have engaged with it on an emotional level – necessitating an adjustment of the copy in an attempt to ease its relationship to the art. As scriptwriter, I like to compose the ‘beat’ of the story that will carry the reader along. Fortunately, the times in my career when I have been disappointed have been few and far between.

In recent times your involvement in comics has been limited, considering you just wrote two miniseries for Avatar, and if I remember well, a short Lovecraft adaptation story... why? I know you were focused on writing your first novel... Can you say more about it? What is it about? Also can you explain your decision of self publishing and digital distribution?

My dismal record of productivity over the last decade (Jesus – tempus really does fugit, huh?) is probably due to a fatal combination of my intrinsic laziness, a perennial ‘uneasiness’ with the comics medium in general and a bad dose of 21st century ennui. Simply, I think I have been at a loss as to how to engage with the medieval madness that has engulfed our civilisation post 9/11 through the medium of fiction generally and comics in particular. The cultural and political change inflicted on us was both too vast to tackle or too ignore. I – rightly or wrongly – detected an editorial reluctance to attempt to engage with that reality, even obliquely, within my Vertigo comfort-zone; and so, subconsciously, I think I decided to shut up and sulk for a while. I did write HELLBLAZER: PANDEMONIUM too, though. And I was pleased how that turned out.

As for my “book without pictures”, Book Thirteen, I always intended from an early age to one day write a novel, and indeed have often been criticised in my comics work for displaying signs of being a ‘frustrated novelist’. Since I wasn’t working much on comics, and was getting older by the day, it seemed like time to find out if I could actually do it. Unfortunately, I struggled to overcome a kind of stage-fright at tackling extended prose. Even with the encouragement and threats of friends and family it took a while to summon the nerve and energy to begin.  Once I did, though, I found the experience highly rewarding – so much so that I plan to develop my prose skills in writing more; something a bit more genre this time, probably a ‘dystopian future crime’ series, to revert to my stereotype.

Because Book Thirteen – which is a tongue-in-cheek black comedy concerning an ‘old writer’ and his struggle not lose the plot of his life in a weird limbo between reality and imagination (set in a parallel universe considerable orders of magnitude removed from my own, I emphasise) – was kind of an un-commissioned experiment bearing little resemblance to my comics work, I decided to go the whole independent route and keep control of the design, printing and publishing and anti-marketing of the thing solely with myself.  I compounded this commercial suicide by putting it out under a new nom de plume.

Anyone tempted to assess my future literary prospects can acquire a copy via where print editions can be ordered, or links will direct you to various ebook retailers from whom it is digitally available.

Back to comics. You are one of the fathers of the Vertigo style. Do you see a "new Jamie Delano" in comics, right now? And.. which comics do you regulary follow? Or just the last ones you read...
I really should prepare a pat answer for this perennial interview question—which always makes me look like an arse...

It is embarrassing to admit, but I just don’t pay enough attention to what’s going on the industry for my opinions to be valid, or even mildly interesting.  This deficit is down to laziness (and a weird hiatus in my former considerable enjoyment of the work of others that overtook me as I became a creator—a syndrome I find hard to analyse) rather than arrogance, but my ignorance is nonetheless real.  But I’m sure there are many energetic young creators currently producing fantastic and innovative work who have no need of, or desire for, the attention or approval of a superannuated hack like me.  In my day-to-day stumbling through the world of culture, I glimpse many promising and original new works – mostly self-published, or the product of independent producers – which intrigue me, but I never seem to get around to acquiring copies for closer perusal.  And since I no longer work regularly for DC I don’t get complimentary copies of Vertigo stuff (the rest of the ‘mainstream’ leaves me cold)—although I did enjoy some random issues of SCALPED, and ARMY @ LOVE, and Lemire and Pugh’s ANIMAL MAN looked promising.   

Sorry.  “Must try harder” as my school reports used frequently to remark.
Variant cover for the Italian edition of 2020 Visions. Art by Davide De Cubellis.

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