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Trail Blazers

Interviews with Jamie Delano and Garth Ennis

by David Carroll

First appeared in Bloodsongs, Issue 8, 1997

'Look at me. No wife, no family. Some power. I'm in the game because I believe what I'm doing is right.'
Cancer-Man, The X-Files

At its best, Hellblazer -- a comic in DC's Vertigo imprint for its rogue pack of mostly-British horror and dark fantasy writers -- is smart, literate and scary. It also recently turned 100, which is pretty scary all on its own, if you ask me. John Constantine is getting old. But then, he always was, which is probably the point. In the first issue, way back in 1988, penned by Jamie Delano and under the quintessential pen of John Ridgeway, John is already running from dead friends and lovers, past mistakes, his own impotence against the unleashed demon. But he gets by, and does what he has to, or at least what he can.

I would go further and say that John is the most realistic character to have a long-term starring role in a mainstream comic, but then, maybe my biases are showing.

The two who have written more of Hellblazer (a 'meaningless title' as Delano says, coined by DC after Clive Barker beat them to the more obvious choice) than any other are Delano himself, and his successor, Garth Ennis, at about forty issues apiece. Ennis took the title through the transition to the Vertigo imprint and greater popularity than ever. Indeed, the success of his run let Ennis create his own title, Preacher, now Vertigo's best selling comic. Both writers were in Australia recently, so I caught up with them to discover their take on John Constantine's world, and what they've been up to since they left it.

David Carroll: As far as most people are aware, you started off with the Hellblazer comic. How did you come to develop Alan Moore's incidental character?

Jamie Delano: Sheer luck, really. I'd been working in British comics on a relatively part time basis for four or five years prior to that, whilst Alan was moving into DC and starting to kick down a few doors there, with his work on Swamp Thing. I had a couple of proposals in with Karen Berger for various projects. There was one that I cooked up which was pretty much how Watchmen turned out eventually, though they didn't want it at the time, so it didn't come to anything. But I'd spoken to them enough, and let them buy me enough dinners on their trips to London, that they knew I existed at least, and that I was keen to work for them. Presumably they had checked out some of the work I had done previously, and thought I was at least reasonably literate. Either they or Alan, I'm not sure which, were responding to some popularity of the Constantine character in Swamp Thing, and decided they'd risk spinning him off into a monthly series of his own. Alan didn't want to write it, he wanted to get on with his Watchmen and various other projects, and they wanted a British writer because it was a British character, and he'd be mainly UK based, and fortunately I was offered the chance to have a crack at it.

I took it on thinking, we'll be lucky if we make more than twelve issues out of this but, what the hell, it's twelve issues, let's go for it. And I pretty much started writing it to entertain myself, basically hoping against hope that it might entertain a few other people as well. Luckily it did.

DC: Did DC think of the Britishness of the character as a bit of a gimmick?

JD: I don't think so much DC thought of it as a gimmick, I don't think they really knew what to expect, I think they were just prepared to take risks, which is one of the things I like about working for DC, and Vertigo particularly as it has become in the years since then. They will take a chance, and if something pays off for them, great, and if it doesn't they quietly sort of slip away. But they're adventurous, and I like that in a publisher. Definitely, it's been good for me.

I think some of Hellblazer's initial appeal to the American audience particularly lay in some kind of perceived exoticism of England and also, because it was England we were writing about, we started to be able to talk about politics and things like that, which didn't happen in comics.

DC: You did have a couple of issues set in America...

JD: Yeah, we had a couple. There was no suggestion from DC that should happen, and no suggestion we should introduce other DC characters, stuff like that. I guess sales were good enough they didn't think that was necessary. I just wanted to write a story about Vietnam, basically, so I wrote that one [#5: When Johnny Comes Marching Home], but generally I was interested in commenting on 1980s Britain. That was where I was living, it was shit, and I wanted to tell everybody.

DC: Was the proliferation of British comic creators, Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman and beyond, was that a reaction to 1980s Britain, or was that going to happen anyway?

JD: I think it was a reaction to the perceived stultification of the American comics industry. Largely it arose as a result of various editors, particularly Jenette Kahn, who was President and Publisher of DC Comics, wanting to make a splash in some way, and noticing a lot of British creators were doing innovative stuff, in a relatively small British comics arena. And they came trawling with a big load of money, basically. They invited anybody whose name occurred to them, or they'd seen in any kind of comic book, to go along to have big expensive dinners at flash hotels in London. They spent a big load of money and bought everybody, for which we're eternally grateful.

DC: So there was 2000AD, Dr Who Magazine and the like, and this was noticed by DC.

JD: Yeah, they came looking. I think the perception was, well, analysing it retrospectively, the state of American comics at that time was a result of the tradition of American comics, and comic creators in America having been brought up on these comics, and you tend to get this sort of 'this is what comics are, we'll just reproduce this.' Whereas us Brits, we didn't have all those pre-conceptions about the nature of the medium. We were seen as some kind of weird radicals or something.

DC: What about the actual John Constantine character, and the magical background of the comic. Later it ended up this sort of Christian soap opera, but it started with this much broader, and older, range of ideas.

JD: As far as magic and the supernatural are concerned, I think magic is pretty much what you make it. Magic is manipulating your environment by efforts of will, and symbolism, and that kind of business. I don't think there are books about magic, or rules about magic you can read, I think you find your own eternal verities -- in nature, particularly, at the root of it all. Though we've tried as hard as we can to divorce ourselves from it, we're still, integrally, natural, a part of nature, and all the fluxes and energies of the planet are at least subconsciously noted by our physical presences, our emotional presences. I think Christianity is boring shit, basically, to me at least. I'm not going to say that nobody ought to have anything to do with it, or believe in it, as long as they keep it to themselves I don't mind. I don't want to know about it. Neither do I want to proselytise any of my own magical beliefs, particularly, but like to open up possibilities to people, to explore in their own right.

DC: How hard was it to come up with this character, who was a little bit magical, but you were never quite sure just how much?

JD: On the surface it was sublimely easy, I started writing it and he gradually came, well, he very quickly came to life and started walking and talking, saying a lot of the things I would have been saying at the time, or thinking at the time, and it was set in a real 1980s environment. We had the real Prime Minister, the real elections going on, real shit that was happening in the Country, trying to capture all of those moods.

When Alan Moore was writing John Constantine he met him, saw him in a café in Westminster. When I was writing him I walked past him outside the British Museum in Bloomsbury. I didn't realise I'd walked past him until I'd gone fifty yards down the road, I looked round, and he was just vanishing round the corner. So yeah, it was all very real and immediate, and the stuff I was trying to make stories out of was real and immediate. We had demons and shit like that, but they were mainly allegorical, comic book convention type of stuff, to a certain degree. Lately I've moved away a lot more from that.

DC: Over the forty issues it really evolved, becoming more intimate as it goes along. It starts off being world-breaking, and then goes down, we meet the man who is going to kill Constantine's father, and then the final issue is very self-absorbed.

JD: It very much internalises as it goes along, yeah.

DC: Was that all planned from the start?

JD: No, none of it was planned, none at all. I've still got such a soft spot for all of those stories, imperfect as a lot of them are, as I am now able to see. I was very much on a wing and a prayer type of thing, very much from the subconscious. I worked out the first two stories, a two-parter, to get the thing off the ground, and then when I got to number three I was stuck, I thought, shit, what am I going to do with this character now. I looked around me and we were just coming up to an election, so I thought, okay, I'll start him walking and talking through this environment and see what happens. Talk about yuppies, everybody was a yuppie then, nasty, and money and stuff like that, and go on from there. I used to have to write one of those things a month, which isn't too hard if you know what you're going to do, but when you don't you find yourself getting in a horrible blind fugue and panic and lying on a settee with your hands over your head for three weeks out of a month. Then I've got to get a piece of paper out, I've got to do it, it's got to be in, deadlines coming, and start writing, and the thing would come out, and you feel great when it's finished. But then you've got to start it all over again. I never wanted to plan any of those stories. Whatever I was interested in at the time was obviously going to be featured in them, but there was no synopsis, and more power to Karen Berger -- she trusted me for so long with that, and not knowing what was going to be happening next.

DC: Did you have any set amount of nastiness, or horror content, you had to put in?

JD: No. Again, if Karen likes what you're doing, and the readers like what you're doing, Karen lets you get on with it. I've never been censored, and I've never had any suggestions as to what should be in a story. Actually, that's a lie. Once, Jenette Kahn censored one of the stories, that very first one -- there was an elemental, a demon character in it that caused people to die by means of their own obsession. There was a guy in a Jeweller shop window on 47th St Manhattan who dies from shovelling jewels down his throat, and all the Jewellers in the Jewellery district of Manhattan are Hasidic Jews, so I thought, naturally enough, give him an Hasidic Jewish name. But this was seen as latent anti-Semitism or something, so they changed it to Bruce Parker instead of Aaron Weiss, which I thought was particularly fatuous. It happens. But that really is the only time I've ever been censored.

DC: Moving on, the next large project you worked on was Animal Man, is that right?

JD: I did World Without End, in between, which was a thing of my own conception, which I've still got a reasonable soft spot for, it was pretty mad and over-the-top, but that was pretty good at the time, I thought. Animal Man was an accident, not a regrettable accident by any means, but an accident nonetheless. I was doing a few odd bits and pieces, developing new projects, and Tom Peyer, who was the Animal Man editor at the time, found himself without a writer, for various reasons. He phoned me up and said 'Jamie, I'm in the shit, can you write six issues of Animal Man, and I thought I could come up with a reasonable six issue story. You know, Animal Man, animals, nature, I can get into that, do something environmental, evolutionary, ecological storyline of some sort. I said yeah, and plotted out Flesh and Blood and put it together and it seemed to work alright. Tom still hadn't sorted anybody out to take it over by the time I'd finished that, and I didn't quit, so it sort of kept on going. The whole thing developed into a kind of rolling dysfunctional family soap opera, it was quite entertaining, enjoyable to write and gave me some breathing space to think up other ideas.

And in-between I did ManBat. That was written immediately after Hellblazer.

DC: Yeah, I saw a reference to that in #40. ManBat, coming soon.

JD: It should have been, by John Bolton took five years to paint it.

DC: The most recent work that's out is The Horrorist. Did DC ask you to do that, or did you just want to tackle John again?

JD: Both, really. It was something that had been available to me on a relatively long term basis. I said when I finished Hellblazer that I never wanted to abandon the character completely, and if at all possible I'd like to come back and do a limited series, or a 'Graphic Novel', to use that horrible term. The Horrorist was the eventual result of that, some years later down the line. I had one other brief flirtation with Constantine before that, issue 84, the monkey story, which was particularly unpleasant and depraved and I was rather fond of it. That whet my appetite to get on with The Horrorist, because it was like putting on an old pair of shoes, it was a really comfortable feeling to come back to the character.

DC: Was the Horrorist, the actual character, designed to be something you could develop later? She seems to just get up and walk away at the end.

JD: Yeah, that's right, she does. She could be used again, I have no definite plans, but the possibility exists. I have a lot of sympathy for the Horrorist, she's not like an evil entity, to me, she's a victim of the circumstances that create her, as much as the people that she passes on that appreciation of horror to.

DC: So what plans do you currently have?

JD: I'm currently absorbed in doing something called 2020 Visions, which is a series of near-future fictions, as I call them, set in the year 2020, in a kind of weird dysfunctional United States of America, which has got all sorts of socio-political uproar as a background. I'm doing a series of twelve monthly books, four three-part stories of separate genre. The first one's a horror story set in 2020 Manhattan, which is based around sexual politics in the last seventy years -- the lead character is seventy years old and lived through the Millennium, and it's got all these viral diseases that have outstripped antibiotics, running rampant through the city. Then there's a 2020 Miami crime story to do with genetic engineering and baby farming, sexist procreation and that kind of thing. Then a 2020 Western, set in Montana, in Militia country with autonomous statelets, heavily armed, with Christian Fundamentalists, then a weird LA romance. That gives me a chance to explore, in a not-too heavily serious fashion, some of the contemporary socio-political trends, and try to visualise this post-Millennial world, which fascinates me.

DC: Do you think it will all become a bit more sane once the Millennia is over with?

JD: Well, Millennia Fever is illogical but is a cultural phenomena nonetheless. It's a purely arbitrary date, I don't believe astrologically there is any significance particularly, but culturally there certainly is. Also, just with exponential acceleration of technology, and all the stresses and strains that puts on the stone age physical and emotional creations that we are. Culturally we evolve really rapidly, but emotionally we don't evolve hardly at all. It those kind of weird juxtapositions that fascinate me. I've never been renowned for my optimism about the future. I'm looking forward to it with huge anticipation, I've ceased believing in total apocalypse, but I believe in the slow apocalypse, if you like. I think we're living through the apocalypse, the changes we're going through are really extreme, and we're going to end up pretty goddamn different to how we might have been over the last thirty years. But stop thinking about the end of the world.

DC: Is it salvageable?

JD: Well, you'll never get it back to how it has been, but I guess we're going to survive one way or the other. And I guess some of us will survive in a lot more ease and comfort than others of us will.

David Carroll: You could be considered part of the second wave of British writers to invade Vertigo...

Garth Ennis: Well, I was in at the start of Vertigo, which was in '92. So I got in just by accident really. I was writing Hellblazer at the time and had been for a couple of years. Hellblazer became a Vertigo book, and there I was, really.

DC: Was there any change in the title during the changeover?

GE: Yes. The sales tripled... Just for one issue because there was a massive publicity push, which died away instantly the next issue, but it did us a lot of good. Even when the sales died down again they were still not quite double what they had been, so that was pretty good. A bigger audience got into Vertigo, and into that kind of comic.

DC: Was it easier for Karen Berger to push the limits a bit more under Vertigo?

GE: I think so. She'd been trying to get Vertigo up and running for some time, once she realised she had all these books like Swamp Thing followed by Hellblazer, Sandman, Shade and the Grant Morrison stuff, Animal Man and Doom Patrol, it only made sense really to group those books together. She was editing them all, for one thing. It made sense that DC would have a place where people could do sort of, for want of a better word, 'adult' material. It meant that every Vertigo book would have a 'Suggested For Mature Readers' label on it, you wouldn't have that big DC logo and you wouldn't have all that crap about people confusing Vertigo comics with regular DC books, and kids ending up with them -- there's no excuses for that. So that made it a lot easier to get the more extreme material approved, and that continues to this day. Every issue that comes out, every strip that comes in, every new story that starts up, it's that little bit easier to get some new piece of extreme material in.

DC: What about the British connection?

GE: That came about originally because, in the early 80s American comics were suffering a bit of a malaise, especially at DC -- the American writers and artists had basically grown up reading nothing but there own comics, and they weren't able to do much more than reproduce there own comics -- I'm talking in very broad strokes here, obviously there were people like Frank Miller, for example, who were capable of something different. But DC needed some fresh blood, so they sent Karen Berger and a couple of people over to England with a big chequebook, just to sign up every writer and artist in sight, and most of them were working for 2000AD. So Karen looked through a few 2000ADs and said, we'll have Dave Gibbons, we'll have Cam Kennedy, we'll have John Wagner, Alan Grant, Ian Gibson, John Higgins, all those guys that made 2000AD as great as it was. From then on it was seen as almost a training ground for American publishers. Everyone knew that DC were reading it, so if you were any good at all in 2000AD, or any of its companion publications like Crisis or Revolver, it was a safe bet it would end up under the DC noses. And because the rights and conditions you worked under, in terms of money and freedom and decent treatment by editors, were ten time better at DC and most American publishers then you would get in the British ones, people were quite happy to drop what they were doing. That situation has changed now. I don't think anyone really bothers reading 2000AD these days, certainly not DC because they know they are as likely to get good work anywhere.

DC: Did 2000 try to get you back?

GE: I've been asked a couple of times, but they've never really followed up, and I'm not interested in working for them, really. On the whole I didn't have a particularly happy experience working with them.

DC: What about your taking over Hellblazer, how did that come about?

GE: Jamie Delano was finishing off his run, this was about '90, '91 I suppose, and obviously they were going to need a new writer, so they asked a few people to submit synopses. There was me, and two or three other guys I don't think you would have heard of. There was Mark Millar, who was writing Swamp Thing, and John Smith, who did that Scarab thing.

DC: He did one issue of Hellblazer...

GE: Yeah, so we all submitted proposals and they picked mine, basically.

DC: Did you want to make a distinctive change from the previous issues?

GE: I did want to do it differently, because I don't see Constantine quite the same way Jamie does, but as well as that I thought, you're following an established writer on a book, you're going out in front of a new audience, and it's like you're really only going to get one shot at this, so you better impress the hell out of them first time, and do something extreme, and do something radical -- even if you're biting off more than you can chew, you have to try and make a splash because otherwise all the readers, their automatic assumption is that this new writer won't be as good. They're only going to try a couple of your issues, so you better grab them by the balls first chance you get. So the thing I did was to give him lung cancer, and from then on it developed into a slightly more cheerful, more Rabelaisian character, but still with that sort of miserable doomed heart, and still with his friends dropping dead all around him.

DC: You brought in a lot of Christian mythology, demons and angels and the like. What's your take on Christianity?

GE: I've never done anything but disliked it, really. I've never been able to relate to it, or see what the point of it is. I've never seen it cause anything but misery and suffering, although I'll have to admit there's some people it has helped, gives them a crutch to hold them up. I'm told that everyone needs something. Personally I'm fine. I don't believe in all that. There's me and the world and we get along fine. But some people do need to believe there is something beyond, and so when it comes to writing my stuff I either ridicule it or attack it.

DC: You're not a rebelling Catholic boy, or something?

GE: No, everyone thinks that, thinks I must have had this dreadful childhood where I was sent off to Catholic school and they beat the hell out of me with rulers. You hear all these dreadful stories from people... I know friends, actually, who were Catholics. But no, I had a fairly atheist upbringing really. These things that chew up in my work about religion and so on, I think they're just my fascination with this sort of weird voodoo act that is religion.

DC: And that lead on to The Demon?

GE: Not exactly. I'd been doing Hellblazer for a while, Alan Grant was leaving The Demon, and they needed a new writer. People weren't as keen to take over The Demon as Hellblazer because The Demon was not doing too well.

DC: That wasn't a Vertigo title, was it?

GE: No, it never was, and it wasn't really as popular, people just weren't that interested. But I always wanted to write Etrigan because I thought it'd be a great laugh, and I liked the way Alan treated it as a joke from the start, so I jumped at the chance. And, alright, it was cancelled but Johnny McCrea and I still got to do twenty issues worth of just having a great time, enjoying ourselves, making it as funny as possible.

DC: Since then you've been developing a lot of your own projects, Preacher is obviously the most prominent. How'd you go about getting those ideas developed?

GE: What it was, they knew I would be winding up on Hellblazer, I was getting ready to finish my run so ten months before I was planning to come of it they said, what do you want to do next, do it with us, give us a new on-going book, you and Steve [Dillon] do it together. And I was basically given carte blanche, so I felt it was time to do something, the kind of thing I've always wanted to do -- a comic that will entertain me. I can deal with exactly what I want to write about and not have to put it through something else, like Hellblazer, where you use someone else's character, to talk about what you want to talk about. Which is fine, especially when it's a character like Constantine, but when it's your own you can do exactly what you want. That's where Preacher came from.

DC: Is there any worry you've got about somebody else taking it over?

GE: No, I own it. Steve Dillon and I co-own the trademark and copyright, so basically when we want to end it, we end it, and no-one else is going to be writing it.

DC: Is that power you've got something new?

GE: Yes, it's developed over the past five or six years. The same thing happened to Grant Morrison, he came off successful runs on Doom Patrol and Animal Man and they basically said to him, when you do want to get a new monthly together we'll take it. It's a nice situation, and it's definitely bound up with what Vertigo's all about, which is more about the individual voice.

DC: How would you describe Preacher to somebody who hasn't seen it, or doesn't know a lot about the modern horror comic?

GE: I suppose I'd emphasise the odd-ball aspect of it, the fact it's a bit mad, that there's plenty of lunatic stuff happening in it. The kind of people you're going after is the people who see movies these days, a lot of contemporary novels and stuff, people who have enjoyed movies like Wild at Heart and True Romance and things like that. I think they get a lot out of Preacher, because it's all, my God, what's going to happen next?

DC: Going back, why did you get into comics?

GE: I never really wanted to, and never really had any direct plans to write for a living. But when I was seventeen or eighteen I started to find out there was an actual comic scene, as it were. There were a lot of people involved in this. You could make a decent living at it, and you could be quite creative. The stuff that was coming out was Watchmen, and V For Vendetta and Elektra: Assassin, Concrete and things like that. And then I started to think, I could write this. There was a British comic called Crisis that was a sort of political comic, like cutting edge stuff. There was a story in it called Third World War about multinational exploitation of the Third World, and they were trying to be very politically right-on, and they were trying to get as much material out there as they could, all this conspiracy stuff. What I thought I could do for them is write them a comic story about Northern Ireland, the war that was going on there, and by the time I get back it probably will be again, that would be like the first time anyone's had a stab at that.

DC: Was this dangerous? Being a political writer in Ireland?

GE: Nah. It wasn't really my intention to become a political writer, it was, to be honest, a fairly cynical move. No-one's really done this before. I believe Spiderman came to Belfast once. But I can imagine the depth and subtly of that piece. A mate of mine read that story, he said it was terrible, there were these two brothers and one was in the IRA, and one was in the UVF, but they kept it secret. You know, as if you could. As if two brothers... one would be Catholic, one would be Protestant. And Spiderman gets involved and one brother kills the other and it's all a tragedy, and why can't we learn to stop the horror, you know, bollocks. So I thought, if I could present them with this, they'd jump at it, and I was right, and after that it was a case of being in the right place and the right time, because just as I submitted this the back-up strip in Crisis was coming to an end. They decided to chop it, figured it would never work. They really needed something to fill up their back pages. They needed something fast, it wasn't a case where they could sit back and look through the submissions pile and very, very carefully check out all the writers and artists. They just grabbed the first half-decent looking thing they got, phoned me up, and I was on a plane to London, within a couple of days. Straight over, sorted it out, and home again, and the rest, as they say, is history.

DC: What are the advantages of comics to present the ideas you've got?

GE: They're fast, they're immediate, they're cheap. I write an issue of Preacher and between me writing it, and it actually getting published, five months, six months... So there is that immediacy there. Something you are concerned with at a particular time will still be relevant to you, and to readers, by the time the thing gets published. It can take up to five years to get a movie going, it can take a writer two years to write a novel, and no-one looks at paintings any more anyway, sadly, so the chance for the average painter to communicate on a wide level is sadly diminished. Even novels, unless you're talking about a major thriller writer, average novelist is likely to sell twelve thousand copies, whereas most Vertigo comics sell in the teens, and Preacher does forty thousand. You're talking to more people. To really answer your question, the way I see comics is that they're like cheap little movies. Obviously they're a art-form in their own right, but there is an aspect of them like a movie. It's cheap as far as you've got an unlimited special effects budget, because it's whatever the artist can draw, and how many KABLAMs the letterer can stick in for you. I do try to write in a cinematic way, where the characters tell the story with their dialogue rather than have too many narrative captions. All in all, I'd emphasise that, the cheap, speedy aspect of them.

DC: Thanks greatly for your time, and the best of luck for your continuing success.

Hellblazer continues its monthly production, now under the team of Paul Jenkins and Sean Phillips. The Horrorist should still be available, as well as the graphic novels Original Sins and Dangerous Habits. These two collect the first stories from Delano's and Ennis' run, and are both unreservedly recommended. Other writers to work on Hellblazer include Grant Morrison and Neil Gaiman, as well as Eddie Campbell, who spoke to David Carroll about the experience, and more, in Tabula Rasa#4.

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