Interview: Jamie Delano on Narcopolis
Jamie Delano is back in the game. The British writer who helped usher in Vertigo with his launch of Hellblazer returns to comics with Narcopolis, his radical new vision of the future, out today from Avatar Press. In this exclusive, we took the chance to interview Jamie and got all sorts of answers about addiction, controlled substances, controlled people, and why you should be careful about getting drunk in a strange bar…
It’s been twenty years since you burst onto the scene here in America, with some rather scathing looks at Thatcherite England and Reagan/Bush America. So what are you looking at now?
Is that the time already? Strange, how one’s life passes. I guess you mean "bursting" in an antiheroic fashion…?
Not entirely sure just what it is I’m looking at now… some sort of ugly foetal monster of post-democracy is clawing its way down the birth-canal of history, though. The aberrant post-war half-century of social liberalism is choking its last, held face-down in the swamp of Terror.
Play out a little bit of Narcopolis for us. Where are we starting from?
As a Necropolis is a city of the dead, Narcopolis is a city of somnabulists, its citizens dazed by recreational narcotics and apathy. Most citizens of this megalopolis consider themselves fortunate, privileged to have right of residence in an economically strong and militarily well-defended city state, protected by a rule of law enforced by agents of all-seeing but responsible and beneficent government, as they pursue their inalienable right to contented self-indulgence. It is generally assumed that outside the city all is dark and savage anarchy.
Gray Neighbor — as his name suggests, an apparently unremartkable Everyman — has been resident in Narcopolis for as long as he can remember, living the life of a pious working stiff, passing his days in honest toil knocking out weapons components at the local defence plant, spending his spare time and change supping squirts of Mama DreamTM — a branded, state-sanctioned recreational narcotic beverage– at his neighbourhood bar, or worshipping at the cathedral’s devotional gambling slots.
Recently Neighbor has become troubled, receiving an unshakeable mental "revelation" – despite absence of exterior supporting evidence – that he is in fact a recently awoken sleeper agent, "magically" raised to awareness and action by his controllers, co-religionists and genetic relatives abroad, to launch his pre-ordained mission to perpetrate psychic-sabotage attacks against the citizens and institutions of oppressive, imperialist Narcopolis and, if possible, to work his way to the monstrous secret heart of the "Terror State" and strike it a fatal blow.
The series seems to be taking Aldous Huxley’s soma induced Brave New World to extremes. Is there a line to be drawn between the two works?
Several people have made this connection — not surprising, I guess. But I didn’t consciously recall either Huxley or Orwell while developing Narcopolis. In so far as I read and absorbed the themes of both writers’ works in my early teen years, and they are both near-future dramas with socio-political themes, I guess they can be counted as influential. The narcotic Joos so routinely imbibed by the citizens of Narcopolis is certainly a kind of Soma. Other than these tenuous connections, though, I think Narcopolis pretty much stands alone.
So what makes someone want to take up the pipe, stick the spike into their veins, what have you?
You’re speaking figuratively of writing rather than literally about drugs, I guess. Although maybe the driving impulses for both vices are the same… boredom, the desire to connect in a shared reality with something beyond the self… the need, as Story Johnson in OUTLAW NATIION put it, "to make sense of the senseless," or, in the case of the literal, perhaps, to ameliorate the stress provoked by that confusion.
Ironically, while putting these questions together, the local Fox affiliate had a blurb on a story for "a miracle cure for drug addiction". Do you think one could exist, and do you think it gets to the root problem?
There have been persistent rumours of a plant derivative from West Africa, called Ibogaine, that apparently possesses powerful anti-addictive properties. If a compound could be extracted, I guess it would become a commercially owned property. The righteous pursuit of profit would ensue. Prices would be high. Perhaps the cure would be "addictive" too. And however many addicts are "cured", more are born every minute. The impetus to addiction cannot be pre-empted… and even if it could be, it is easy to imagine consideraable opposition from a threatened anti-drugs industry. I developed a story called "El Curandero" that had these themes as part of its scenario a while ago, but never got around to finding a publisher for it.
Have you yourself ever engaged in, shall we say, the recreational usage of pharmaceuticals?
I’ve enjoyed (largely) a taste of this and that from time to time, but I generally prefer organics over manufactured compounds.
A lot of your earlier work– I’m thinking of some of the early issues of Hellblazer— had a very trippy, drug-and-other-mind-altering-substances feel to them. Now in Narcopolis, the lead characters seem to be coming out of a drug-induced haze. What prompted the shift?
Hmmm… drugs certainly alter perception, but whether they obscure or elucidate, or even whether the two are mutually exclusive, is arguable. "Drugs" have been an element in my stories largely because, in one form or another, they are an existential reality in the lives of most, and thus have a part in informing the "truth" of any fictional scenario. I neither proselytise nor condemn their use by any personally responsible individual.
I quote from my response to a similar recent interview question:
"Anyone who takes a drug does so to medicate their experience of the human condition… from ennui, to cancer through chronic back-pain. Our consciousness and physical realities are all we really own: it is our absolute right to modify either however we deem appropriate… and our absolute responsibility for the outcome of that modification. Although, in a humane and mature society, those that are ill-equipped to control the consequences of their bad-choices should be considered a burden to be carried by all as a cost of our wider liberty. Some people consider their experience needs no alleviation or enhancement, they are comfortable in the shoes in which they walk, with their direct interaction with the world. Good luck to them. Others desire mediation by some chemical or spiritual agent ranging from alcohol to god. Good luck to them, too. We all deal with the world as we find it.
Personally, I like to operate with the benefit of the vague detachment conferred by employment of a habitual mix of nicotine, caffeine and hashish. Like all benefits there are hidden costs attached and I’ll get the bill in due course. Basic rule of life: always be aware of both benefit and cost when making any decision.
Any particular place you had in mind for the setting of the story? (Or in other words, what’s the most drugged and/or unreal and/or reality-denying city out there?)
Narcopolis is more culturally than geographically symbolic… but for shorthand I guess you could think New York/Los Angeles/London inspire the caricature.
How does Narcopolis compare to other work you’ve done? What makes this a Jamie Delano story?
Comparisons must be for others to make, but I’d like to think I generally offer reasonable value for money. This, like most of my stories, I’d suggest, is a good-looking, character-driven, fast-moving, original fantasy based around serious dramatic themes, with a satisfying subtext for those who like to masticate such things, but spiced with enough novelty and dark tongue-in-cheek to avoid accusations of pomposity.
You’ve spent a lot of time pushing boundaries in your work. What are you butting up against here?
Absolutely nothing, in terms of creative inhibition… Although it is occasionally difficult overcome a personal reluctance to add pointlessly to the swelling global media cacophony. All these voices shrieking to be heard, and the end is result is just noise… But then other days I recall a quoted self-exhortation (James Joyce, I believe) that I once had taped to my PC monitor: "Write, you fucker! What the hell else are you good for."
How did you get hooked up with the lunatics at Avatar?
Got drunk in a strange bar, lost my house to William Christensen playing poker.
What’s it like working for them?
Sheer fucking misery.
What are the advantages, for you, of working for them?
Are you kidding? Well, I guess having Jeremy Rock illustrate, and Greg Waller color the results of my indentured labours, is a pretty significant bonus.
The comics industry has gone significantly more global in the past two decades, fueled in no small part to you and your generation of writers. What does that bring to the table? What does a writer from Northampton bring to a story that gets read in New Mexico?
I don’t know. Like I say, I’m just another jabberer clinging onto the Tower of Babel. All any writer does is attempt as an individual to sift the garbage of his life and mind for some common truth, reproduce it in dramatic form and, present it, pathetically eager for the recognition and approval of his fellows. Somehow there is commercial value in providing a New Mexican with evidence that his life has more in common with someone in Northampton, or Nagasaki, than he might have been led to believe. At its best, writing can shrink worlds, and erode borders, I guess. Of course some might also say that writers are arrogant know-alls, attempting to evangelise their own psychopathically paranoid worldviews…
Bottom line, Northampton speaks to New Mexico, and vice versa, through the beneficence of globalized digital free-market Capitalism and praise the lord for the wonder of it.
I’ll shut up. I’m rambling. Must be the ‘flu medicine kicking in.
I understand that this is the first creator-owned work you’ve done in your career. What took you so long?
Depends what you mean by "creator-owned". Contracts on various DC projects in the past have allowed ownership to revert to myself and co-creators in a number of instances. For example, off the top of my head, I have control of all rights to: World Without End, Outlaw Nation, 2020 Visions, Hell Eternal, Cruel & Unusual. Some are currently in print with publishers, or under option for movie development, some are available for licensing.
Hey, it’s just what the press releases tell me. This ties in, and since various people always seem to ask: what is your ownership profile, if any, on John Constantine? The received common wisdom is that Alan Moore has assigned some rights to you, but what’s the real story?
Received common wisdom has it about right, if it’s any of its business. Moore very generously assigned me (I believe) 50 percent of the writer/creator royalty in recognition of my contribution to the development of his original character, so I do have a tiny percentage interest in the longevity of John Constantine. Just as well, I’m grateful, I may need that contribution to my pension… if the dollar ever regains a value greater than that of Monopoly money, of course.
Narcopolis #1 is out in comic book stores today.