By:Rich Handley
Date: Wednesday, September 20, 2000

Story-telling, for thousands of years, has preserved the tales of generations past. Story Johnson, though only a hundred years old, is also concerned with past generations--namely, those out to kill, not preserve, him. Johnson is the protagonist of British writer Jamie Delano's ambitious new series from DC Comics' Vertigo imprint, Outlaw Nation, which debuts on Sept. 20. Illustrated by Goran Sudzuka, with covers by Hellblazer and Preacher artist Glenn Fabry, the series finds the centenarian pulp-fiction writer hunted by members of his own family.

As the series opens, Story, the illegitimate son of an English whore and an immortal American Wild West show impresario, returns to America after a quarter-century MIA in Southeast Asia and encounters Ruth, the 'hippie chick' lover he abandoned. 'She is now the embittered mother of his twenty-five-year-old son,' reveals Delano, 'whose own rebellious nature has led him to join an armed militia.' Although Story never knew she was pregnant, Delano says she still blames him for 'fucking up the lives of her and her son, both through his absence and through the legacy of his weird Johnson blood.'

Setting out to find their son, Sundance, Story learns that some of his immortal kin want him dead for a perceived 'wrong.' 'We'll discover his 'sin' eventually, and make our judgment on his 'guilt,'' says Delano, 'but the details of his past will only be revealed in increments as the story progresses.' To make matters worse, Story's father, Asa, is still embarked on what Delano describes as 'his imperial enterprise to capture the hearts and minds of the people, and enslave them for his own entertainment and profit.' Very old and easily bored, Asa enjoys manipulating geo-politics for fun and profit because, as Delano explains it, the Johnson family are 'natural revolutionaries, historically opposed to the oppression and exploitation of the individual by government and capital.'

Because of this socio-political subtext, Outlaw Nation was originally titled The Great Satan, referring to the late Iranian religious leader Ayatollah Khomenei's unflattering characterization of America. Vertigo requested the change to avoid confusion with the latest Sandman spin-off, Lucifer, even though the new series draws nothing directly from either Judeo-Christian or DC/Vertigo mythology.

'Hell' of a Past

Delano is no stranger to Vertigo readers. In 1988, he elevated John Constantine from a minor player in DC's Swamp Thing to star of his own title, Hellblazer. Critically praised for his harsh but honest portrayal of Constantine, Delano remained with Hellblazer for forty issues before stepping down as regular scribe, returning occasionally to write issue #84, The Horrorist and the current mini-series, Bad Blood: A Restoration Comedy.

As with Hellblazer, Outlaw Nation will feature its fair share of the macabre, not too mention a hefty dose of socio-political commentary. The series' genesis actually dates back to 1997, when DC editor Stuart Moore persuaded Delano to embark once more on a monthly book. 'I decided to develop a broad-scoped scenario that could sustain a fast-paced 'weird American adventure' story,' recalls Delano. Armed with that basic premise, Delano decided to combine and contrast 'the tradition of popular American fictional heroism and anti-heroism with the reality of history, culture and politics' by taking what he calls 'a sly look at 'The Land of The Brave' through the eyes of a kid eating from a trash-can within sight of the capitol in D.C.'

Delano developed his idea based on a concept from Naked Lunch author William Burroughs, who saw 'a world peopled either by 'Johnsons' or 'shits'--good guys versus bad--the stand-up American outlaw spirit versus the venal sneak, the independent individual against the corrupt establishment.' From that premise, Delano also plans to examine the phenomenon of American cultural imperialism, exploring 'the space between reality and fiction, the clash between the sometimes tragically self-perpetuating mythic image of its culture and society the U.S. projects to the world and to its own people, and the real-world experience of the average citizen slave of the Capitalist Machine.'

Taking Action

More action-minded readers shouldn't worry, though. Such heavy-duty philosophy is mixed in with a host of unusual characters. In issue #1, readers will meet Kid Gloves, Story's cruel half-brother, who exhibits a penchant for ruthless violence. 'Kid Gloves is less than enthralled at the prospect of the brother he thought he killed 25 years ago bobbing back up like a turd to stink up [his] world again,' explains Delano, who says the issue draws out many intriguing plot threads. 'Some of these will be resolved over the next six issues. Some will be tangled more intriguingly.'

The second issue will find Story washed up in an inner-tube on a South Florida beach. 'Before he can start ringing the changes of the 21st century, he's beaten into confused amnesia by Miami Cuban exiles insulted by his startling physical similarity to Fidel Castro.' Along the way, Story will meet mysterious swamp-dweller Pete Mudd, who helps him get back on the trail of his past. However, the answers won't come too easily. Story, and readers, will have a little difficulty sorting out which of his memories are real and which are fictional.

Headed west in issue #3, Story will then arrive at the Florida pan-handle town of Blessed, which Delano calls 'a bastion of Christian paranoia.' There, he encounters Devil Kid and his phone-sex peddling mother, Jenny. 'Devil Kid is in trouble with the law,' says Delano, 'for writing a school essay about 'a fucked-up kid whose gun talks him into taking it into class one day,'' says Delano. 'Story has some sympathy with the boy's predicament--and he kind of likes Jenny, too--so he offers his services as getaway driver to extract them from town ahead of the lynch-mob.' Jenny and Devil Kid will stick around for a few more issues, according to Delano, while Story begins reassembling a rudimentary understanding of his life. 'The plot thickens remorselessly [after that],' adds Delano slyly, 'but if anyone wants to know more, they'll have to pay money.'

Creative Endeavors

Delano may not be the century-old son of a whore and an immortal, but he does see similarities between himself and Johnson. 'I sometimes feel as if I make my life up as I go along,' admits Delano, 'asleep at the wheel, traveling hopefully in search of a satisfactory plot.' Like Johnson, writing is also of vital importance to Delano. 'The stories I write generally arise from my personal interests and obsessions, and my individual experience of the world. Sometimes I do direct research, but being a lazy bastard, I usually prefer to utilize what I already know. Writing about something is often a good way to understand it.' In particular, Delano favors mood and characterization over plot, because 'a tight plot can be reassuring for a writer, but it can also make him lazy and, in my experience, the creative task excruciatingly boring.'

Delano also defends Vertigo's use of gore, violence, nudity and adult subtexts, of which Outlaw Nation is no exception. 'It's all a matter of intent and, to a degree, taste,' argues Delano, 'and taste is too personal a measure to consider. I go with absolute right of free expression, though I sometimes modify that right--I like to think--with a little responsibility in application. When it comes down to it, I'll accept your right to offend me if you will reciprocate.'

For the most part, Delano's partner on Outlaw Nation, Croatian artist Goran Sudzuka, concurs. While Sudzuka, confesses that he doesn't enjoy drawing violence, he says, 'If it has to be done, I have no problem with it.' Nudity, however, is another matter entirely. 'I definitely like drawing pretty women--naked and with clothes. Working on Outlaw Nation has put me in a position to draw a list of things I never did before. It makes this job tougher, but more fun.'

The road to success wasn't easy for Sudzuka. When war broke out in Croatia in 1991, he says everything fell apart. 'Living from comics became almost impossible,' says Sudzuka, 'so we all tried working for foreign publishers with more or less success.' In the 1990s, he followed writer Darko Macan (his long-time collaborator and friend) to the United States, hoping to break into the American comic scene. After a failed attempt with manga publisher Antarctic Press, he contacted Vertigo. Eventually, Moore offered him Outlaw Nation and the chance to work with Delano.

Sudzuka has nothing but praise for Delano and their working relationship. 'Jamie was endlessly supportive and full of understanding, not only as somebody you work with, but also as a friend. I get the scripts an issue or two in front, and Jamie takes care of the things we're dealing with now that are going to pop out later.' According to Sudzuka, he uses his art to tell stories that are 'as clear as possible,' though he concedes, 'It's not hard when you're working with writers like Jamie and Darko. Outlaw Nation is, by far, the most complicated project I have done.'