In an age where “mature” and “dark” have become the buzzwords in comics, few creators embody these terms quite like Brian Azzarello. Hailing from the real-world birthplace of Superman (Cleveland, Ohio), Azzarello caught fire with the release of his Vertigo series 100 Bullets, a hardboiled, noir-inspired epic centering on a mysterious man who gives various characters the chance to enact bloody revenge against those who’ve wronged them.
Besides his work on that series, Azzarello has brought his unconventional approach to DC’s most popular characters and titles as well. His 2005 limited series Lex Luthor: Man of Steel told a Superman story from the villainous Lex Luthor’s perspective, while his 2008 graphic novel, Joker, featured narration from one of the diabolical clown’s henchmen. Completing the DC “Trinity,” Azzarello and artist Cliff Chiang currently serve as the creative force behind the critically acclaimed New 52 relaunch of Wonder Woman.
Demonstrating that his predilection for antiheroes has hardly eroded, Azzerello and original 100 Bullets artist Eduardo Risso are now set to return to that universe (sort of) with Brother Lono, an 8-issue mini-series centering on Lono, the seemingly reformed murderous psychopath who became one of the series’ most popular characters. Having survived the explosive events of the original title’s final arc, Lono now finds himself smack dab in the middle of a vicious Mexico gang war.
In an interview with Paste, Azzerello touched upon the making of Brother Lono, working on the Before Watchmen project, and his past life as an amateur punk rocker.
Paste: Lono’s fate in 100 Bullets was left vague. Did you and Eduardo [Risso], while writing 100 Bullets, always have plans to spin him off into his own series?
Azzarello: No, we didn’t always have plans to do that. We did want to make his fate at the end of 100 Bullets potentially vague, but—and I’ll speak for myself—I really didn’t have any plans. Eduardo came to me and said, ‘I want to do something more with Lono.’ So we came up with this story. I thought, ‘we can’t repeat what we’ve done before with that character,’ so we had to do something else. We needed to explore a different side to him.
Paste: Did it surprise you that despite all the detestable, disturbing things Lono did in 100 Bullets that he still became such a popular character?
Azzarello: No, it didn’t surprise me. I think it speaks to the readers though, you know. And I guess you guys don’t surprise me either [laughs].
Paste: The first issue struck me as being a very self-contained narrative. In other words, it doesn’t feel like you need to have read 100 Bullets to get the gist of the story. Will the rest of the mini-series follow this direction or will there be more references or allusions to the events of 100 Bullets as the series progresses?
Azzarello: There will be no references to 100 Bullets. It is completely self-contained. You don’t have to have read 100 Bullets to understand this story in the least.
Paste: Placing Lono in Mexico puts him near people that, as bad as he was in 100 Bullets, these new guys seem potentially worse. Was that something you planned going in—putting him against people that almost make him look like a hero in comparison?
Azzarello: Lono is such a violent character in 100 Bullets that I wanted to put him in a situation where he wasn’t the most violent and despicable of all, or that he actually might be up against something that’s darker than himself.
Paste: So what do you see as being his character arc over the course of the mini-series?
Azzarello: You know, I’d say redemption but that’d be a lie [laughs]. I think the question is, can a person go against their nature and remain true to themselves?
Paste: So depending on the success of the mini-series, would you and Eduardo consider creating similar stories based on other characters in the 100 Bullets universe?
Azzarello: We’ll see how it goes. Are there other stories? Yeah! When Eduardo came to me and said he wanted to revisit 100 Bullets there was something in particular. Some of the characters were intentionally left alive because I think there’s more that could be said about them.
Paste: In writing the story, did you do any research into what’s going on in Mexico?
Azzarello: I’ve done a lot of research. It’s a pretty violent place right now.
Paste: What kind of research did you do?
Azzarello: Well, I went to the greatest library on earth: the Internet [laughs]. I pulled up lots and lots of stuff written about what’s going on there right now—the drug trafficking industry, the casual way that human life is being treated. It’s barbaric, some of the things that happened. It’s a perfect place for Lono, you know?
Paste: Had you ever visited Mexico before? Coming from someone who lived there for a while, some of the stuff in the comic is so perfectly realized about certain areas of Mexico.
Azzarello: I’ve never lived there for a while. The last place I went in Mexico was Tijuana. I mean, it’s Tijuana, it’s pretty rough. And I’m going to Mexico City soon. Like I said, there’s a lot being written about Mexico right now. And also, the Internet is very informative, but it’s also a fantastic place for perversion to hang out. So there are sites that post all sorts of horrible graphics and they do it gleefully.
Paste: One of the things that’s always struck me about your writing is your use of language. 100 Bullets incorporated lots of slang and street vernacular, Spaceman also makes great use of its own language. What is your attraction with experimenting with language in your writing?
Azzarello: It makes it interesting for me [laughs]. You know, I’m very aware of the way that we talk, that there are certain rhythms and shorthands. People have told me that the dialogue in 100 Bullets is very realistic. I don’t agree. I think it’s the way we would like to believe we sound, you know? When I write, I’m talking to myself constantly to make sure that it sounds ok, it has kind of a nice rhythm and a nice jump to it.
Paste: What sparked your interest in these dark, crime stories you’ve become so acclaimed for writing?
Azzarello: Man, I think mistakes—that’s what makes us distinct human beings. Those imperfections. Good people struggle against what’s imperfect about them. The people that we call bad people embrace that kind of stuff, embrace the darker side.
Paste: Going along with that, you’ve had a fantastic run in Wonder Woman recently. Unlike a lot of characters in 100 Bullets and Brother Lono, Wonder Woman is a character with a very strict moral center. Was that a challenge for yourself as a writer?
Azzarello: Yeah it was a challenge. I don’t know anyone who has such a strict moral center, so I’m making this up as I go along [laughs]. But yeah, along the way I found that her morals and her adherence to them is something that makes her very, very interesting. She’s got a strength to her that a lot of characters I write don’t have themselves. [Wonder Woman’s] got some discipline. She’s so unlike me [laughs].
Paste: It’s fantastic that she’s in this world where so many things are corrupted and so many things are ruled by petty emotions, so she’s all the stronger for having this moral center.
Azzarello: That’s kind of the world Cliff and I created for her. There’s a hurricane swirling around her between all these different gods and the crises that she goes through, but she’s unwavering in her determination.
Paste: Do you see yourself doing that run a longer time? Or do you see yourself having a stopping point?
Azzarello: About another year, yeah.
Paste: Is there anything you can tease or that we can expect from future issues?
Azzarello: Boy, let’s see—things are going to get worse before they get better [laughs]. Not all the characters that we’ve introduced are going to make it out to the other side.
Paste: I was reading an interview and you mentioned you were in a band at one point. Can you elaborate on that?
Azzarello: Oh God, that was a long time ago. Long time ago. I might not even have been 20 at that point. No, no—I was because I was old enough to go to bars. But I was 18 back then—it was a different world. But yeah, we were a garage band. Three-chord punk rock… I wrote the lyrics and sang.
Paste: Did it ever go anywhere?
Azzarello: No, we didn’t go anywhere [laughs]. What happened is we went to different schools.
Paste: For the Before Watchmen series, you contributed the Comedian and Rorschach stories. Can you tell me a little about that experience?
Azzarello: Yeah, the deluxe collection [compiling all of Azzarello’s issues] of that comes out July 10. You know what, my approach to [Rorschach and The Comedian] is the same approach I had to Brother Lono. Their stories are completely stand-alone stories. I’m telling a story about Rorschach, I’m telling a story about The Comedian, but I’m not telling a Watchmen story.
I think the most challenging aspect of those characters was definitely finding another angle to come at them. I didn’t want to come at them with the same angle that they did in Watchmen because it’s been done. With Rorschach, [artist] Lee [Bermejo] and I were especially conscious of that when we were hashing out what the story should be. Why tell something that’s been told already and told so well? We wanted to come at it with—I don’t want to say ‘fresh take’—but bring a different perspective of the characters.
Paste: Has Alan Moore contacted you at any point?
Azzarello: No, I haven’t heard anything from Alan and I don’t expect to [laughs].
Paste: Did you have to be convinced to take on characters that have become so iconic in comic books?
Azzarello: No, actually. I mean, they came at me with Rorschach. I was hesitant. I wasn’t sure I had a story. But then I’m thinking about it and, immediately, Lee popped into my head. We’d done [Man of Steel: Lex Luthor] and we’d done Joker and I just thought of a Rorschach story with Lee and thought, ‘oh my God that’s fantastic.’ So after I got off the phone with [DC Entertainment Co-Publisher] Dan DiDio, I called Lee, and said ‘what do you think about doing Rorschach?’ He jumped on it immediately with no hesitation at all.
Paste: How do you feel about the experience as a whole?
Azzarello: It was grueling—sometimes in a good way, sometimes in a bad way. But hey, we made it out and we made it out alive. Now, it’s a collection. I think readers are going to get to experience these stories probably the way 99.9% of them experienced Watchmen—as one entire story.
Paste: Now that you’ve done the “DC Trinity”—Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman—as well as iconic characters like Rorschach and The Comedian, are there any characters you’d love to write that you haven’t, or would you like to focus on developing your own stories?
Azzarello: Both. I can’t think of a character off the top of my head that I haven’t done that I want to, but those things just sort of happen. An idea will come to me and perhaps there’s something I could say about a certain character that hasn’t been done before. And then, I’d love to do more creator-owned stuff, absolutely. We’re negotiating right now on a new project with Vertigo.
Paste: Can you tell us anything about it or is it still hush-hush?
Azzarello: I just did. We’re negotiating. [laughs]
Paste: Can I get a genre?
Azzarello: It’s crime, but it’s not going to be what you expect. There’s a lot of language involved. Once again, I’m going to be doing a lot with linguistics. I hope [laughs]. I’m very excited about this.