Brian Azzarello: Shake-up artist

Chicago writer has spent a career taking on comics' sacred cows. Now he grapples with 'Watchmen.'

Brian Azzarello

Comic book writer Brian Azzarello. (Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune / August 8, 2012)

Brian Azzarello sat at his dining room table in Andersonville, eyes wide, looking skeptical, as expected. He often looks this way: skeptical, paranoid, wary, a bit wild. It's his face. With his bald head, granny glasses and brittle little beard that reaches out from his chin, looking more like punctuation than hair, he resembles a crazed Dust Bowl farmer. He doesn't say much either. He glares a lot. One of his friends said he does this thing where if he stays quiet long enough, eventually you talk, just to fill the silence.

"It's his secret weapon," said artist Cliff Chiang, who's working with Azzarello on DC Comics' "Wonder Woman" books. "Brian knows you learn a lot from a person by making them do the talking. It's like a test, I suppose."

Azzarello likes tests.

Take "Wonder Woman," which he's writing. "You know anything about Wonder Woman?" I asked.

"Nuttin," he said.

"Not at all?"

"I read some stories, some history, but I don't worry 'bout it. It's not the Dead Sea Scrolls."

"You've become the guy DC brings in to shake things up."

"Yeah."

"Not worried about being typecast?"

"Nah."

"Why not?"

"Just leave the money on the dresser."

"Wonder Woman" is not what you think of when you think of Brian Azzarello.

If you've ever heard of the guy, you think superstar comic book writer who does crime, dames, busted jaws, broken promises, failed institutions, rat-a-tat dialogue that wouldn't be out of place in an Elmore Leonard novel.

You think provocateur. You think something like, well, "Watchmen," Alan Moore's late-'80s classic about the compromises and corruptions of a former superhero team. Along with Frank Miller's "The Dark Knight Returns" in 1986, it introduced a discordant tone to the superhero universe, popularizing both graphic novels and a gritty approach to comic books that continues. It was also the subject of a bitter ownership fight between DC and Moore (who eventually lost his claim) and became both a 2009 movie and a beloved milestone, earning a place on Time magazine's list of the 100 greatest novels of the 20th century.

"(The) 'Watchmen' book has been seen for so long as the third rail of comic books, this hallowed thing you don't touch," said Dan DiDio, DC co-publisher. Which is why, when DC decided to touch it this year, revisiting Moore's characters with a sprawling "Before Watchmen" project, DiDio immediately approached Azzarello. Of the seven "Before Watchmen" series, each following a different character, DiDio offered Azzarello two. And not just any two but the most iconic, scabrous characters from Moore's book: the noirish fan favorite Rorschach and the nihilistic Comedian, whose murder in the original series established the plot.

"We knew we needed people with real mettle involved," DiDio said. "That's Brian."

That reputation is also why, after more than a decade as an A-list comic book writer of both game-changing original series ("100 Bullets") and two-fisted, tough-talking takes on classic heroes (Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman), the Chicago writer has remained something of an iconoclastic enigma within the superhero universe — the first and last guy you think of when you think of superheroes. It's why DC, with whom he works almost exclusively, likes having him around. He's an insider with the jaundiced eye of an outsider.

Or as Terry Gant, the owner of Third Coast Comics in Edgewater, said: "Brian doesn't seem overly concerned with whether or not you like his take on the world. He's the last guy who cares about your taste."

In the spring I sat with Azzarello at the Chicago Comics and Entertainment Expo at McCormick Place and watched him sign comics for a while. We sat alongside artist Lee Bermejo, with whom Azzarello has worked frequently on "Luthor," a sympathetic morality tale starring Superman nemesis Lex Luthor, and on "Joker," an acclaimed graphic novel about Batman's most famous villain as seen through the eyes of a Joker lackey. Azzarello and Bermejo were there to promote their "Before Watchmen" comics featuring Rorschach, a homicidal antihero whose costume is composed of a trench coat and ink-blot mask; the first issue arrives next week.

Said Will Dennis, Azzarello's editor: "In preliminary talks about the book, we kept hearing (the staff) go 'Rorschach is misunderstood,' and Brian kept saying, 'You don't explain a rabid dog.'"

That's signature Azzarello.

A fan in a Blackhawks jersey approached with an armful of Azzarello comics, dropping the stack in front of the writer. "I am liking your 'Wonder Woman' a lot," the man said. "Just lean and mean and real mythology."

"Yeah," Azzarello said.

Another approached: "Loved 'Joker,' loved 'Luthor,' more than anything I've read in years," he said.

"OK," Azzarello said.

The line stretched around ropes and corners and did not abate for an hour. Fans were limited to five autographed books. Most brought five: Lovingly cared-for hardcovers of "Luthor" and "Joker," issues of "Wonder Woman" and his surreal oddity "Spaceman," compendiums of his Batman comics.

And almost everyone in line carried at least one compilation of "100 Bullets," his crime opus, the comic that made him a brand name. Set partly in Chicago and centered around a mysterious organization that offers revenge (and untraceable bullets), it ran for 100 issues from 1999 to 2009, starting as a noir, ending as a conspiracy epic. Published by Vertigo, DC's then-fledgling, edgier, fantasy-heavy imprint, "it changed the way people thought about Vertigo and DC," Dennis said. It made a compelling case for hard-boiled, relatively realistic crime comics, a genre that Azzarello had grown up with but, Frank Miller's"Sin City"aside, had largely vanished.

Another fan approached.

"Loving 'Wonder Woman,'" the guy said. "Not saying it's Vertigo good, but it's edgier than anything else."

"OK," Azzarello said.

And another fan: "I have nothing to sign. I just wanted to say thanks for '100 Bullets.' Sincerely."

Azzarello blew air and nodded and looked away, embarrassed by the compliment. Later, Bermejo told me: "Brian's characters are thinkers. They think about what they say, so it's often perfect. But they don't say a lot. And that's Brian. He might take offense at this, but there's a sweet earnestness behind the way he is."

A woman approached the table and slid a stack of his books to him.

"Your name?" Azzarello asked, pen poised to sign.

"Not for me," she said. "For my husband. He's a police officer. He couldn't come. You're his favorite writer."

"A Chicago cop," Azzarello said. "Yeah, OK."

Azzarello turns 50 Saturday. He's married to comic book artist Jill Thompson, herself something of a brand name, having illustrated "Swamp Thing," "Scary Godmother" and Neil Gaiman's "Sandman" series. She said when he sends direction to the artists he's working with, "it's as succinct as he is as a person. It's hilarious. Take Brian's most popular comic book location, a bar. Most writers would send (an artist) something like, 'We have a medium to overhead shot, looking down on a bar with a walnut finish, peanuts in a bowl, burns in the bar where someone did flaming shots, and here's a woman with acid-washed mom jeans.' Brian'll send them: 'Dive bar. Also there's a tourist standing at the bar.' And that's it."

She also said he's the last person to acknowledge he has a following, telling me a story about howSamuel L. Jackson, a huge fan who was pointedly reading "100 Bullets" during a scene in "Snakes on a Plane," once accosted the Chicago writer at San Diego's annualComic-Con. "But Brian will never tell you that."

Indeed. Chicago actress Diana Slickman, a close friend of Azzarello's, told me she knew him for a while before she knew "he was a comic book god, a big deal. You bring it up, he pooh-poohs it. I get the impression he doesn't want to be defined as Comic Book Guy. Maybe because he's just a fantastic writer in general."

Azzarello grew up in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. His mother ran a restaurant; his father was a salesman. He was not a superhero fan. He read war and monster comics. He later studied painting and printmaking at the Cleveland Institute of Art, then spent years working odd jobs: as a janitor, in demolition. He painted at night and moved to Chicago in 1989; it was cheaper than New York City.

Around this time he became enamored of Black Lizard Press, which published scores of vintage crime noir from unappreciated authors such as James M. Cain, David Goodis, Lionel White. Also, the work of novelist Jim Thompson, whose books included "The Grifters," "After Dark, My Sweet" and "The Killer Inside Me," was seeing a revival.

After meeting Jill Thompson (no relation to Jim) through friends, he sent her — a fan of movie monsters — a story he had written about a werewolf. She was drawing for Vertigo and introduced him to editor Lou Stathis, who, Thompson said, "pretty much hated what he was working on, always referred to Vertigo as 'fairies and elves and (expletive)' and was, like Brian, a great, grumpy guy who thought comic books should be broader."

They hit it off.

At Vertigo, Azzarello met Axel Alonso, Stathis' then-assistant, who sent Azzarello an old comic featuring an obscure character, Johnny Double, beatnik detective. Azzarello and Alonso also pitched "100 Bullets" but were turned down. When "Johnny Double," drawn by Argentine artist Eduardo Risso, who later collaborated with Azzarello on all 100 issues of "100 Bullets," became a modest success, "100 Bullets" was revisited.

"I really wanted to show the viability of the crime genre," Azzarello said. "Because, and people forget this, but at the time, when you did have a cop in a comic book, the chances were that cop was probably possessed by the devil."

Chiang, who was working on "100 Bullets," then as an assistant editor, said: "Right away, ('100 Bullets') felt fresh. Because Brian's writing, which has this piercing, honed quality, felt new. It was the perfect vehicle for him — these dense little packages of the worst of human nature, all told through this terrific framework. Brian really became this vital counterpoint to the optimism that comic books so often tend to peddle."

When writer Warren Ellis walked off "Hellblazer" — DC refused to publish a story he had written about a school shooting, the Columbine shooting having just happened — Azzarello stepped in on the popular comic. Which led to work on Batman and Superman. He created a Western series named "Loveless." When he came across a list of characters that DC was not using anymore, he and Chiang teamed up for the very meta "Doctor 13," about a band of rejected comic book characters traveling to New York to confront their creators.

"I knew he was successful when he stopped showing me his stories before he sent them out," Thompson said. "He had so many comics spinning at once that he just didn't have time to show them to me anymore."

Indeed, Azzarello — who said he reads his dialogue out loud as he writes, establishing a theatrical rhythm (tellingly, his editors in New York said he talks to them more about Chicago theater than comic books) — became known for brashly stepping on the feet of iconic characters. DC liked the change of pace, but some readers, Azzarello said, "cry bloody murder." Like the time he and Risso gave Batman the heart of a sadistic creep and an internal noirish monologue, treating the cape with the all the gravitas of a cheap trench coat.

Asked if the criticism bothers him, he said, "I like being a cult figure."

Asked why he doesn't branch out and write for Marvel more often, he mentioned that Alonso is Marvel editor-in-chief now and the pair had a falling-out when Alonso left and Azzarello didn't give Marvel a chance to offer a deal. (Alonso didn't respond to requests to talk about Azzarello.) Besides, he's written for Marvel, he said. A decade ago he wrote a Hulk book. In it, Bruce Banner, Hulk's alter ego, tells a story about trying to kill himself, about sticking a gun in his mouth and pulling the trigger, and the Hulk just spitting out the bullet.

Huh, I said, an anecdote just like that made it into the "Avengers" movie. Azzarello grinned and said nothing.

Who else would think of that?

Before I left Azzarello's dining room, which is packed with art from his wife and from him — art stacked against art in every corner, as well as dime store paperbacks, Ian Fleming novels, James Ellroy books and Jim Thompson biographies, and Eisner Awards, the comic industry trade award, won both by Azzarello and his wife, scores of the Daily Planet-shaped trophies everywhere — he told me that following the success of "Luthor," DC wanted him to take on every DC supervillain. But after Luthor and Joker, he lost interest. They are the only real iconic DC villains, he said, the only compelling ones. I said, "But you write villains so —"

He said, "Because I get 'em. Their motivations make sense to me."

I said, "You sound like a psychopath —"

"Luther is altruistic. He wants what's best for humanity. I think I agree with everything that Luthor says."

"And you mean that?"

"He's twisted about it, but yes."

"He's sincere."

"He's a person. Superman's an ideal. With Luther — OK, say you got a freeze ray."

"OK."

"Do you rob a bank or chase a guy in a red suit?"

"You —"

"You rob a bank. Look, if I had superpowers I'd rob a bank. To see if I could."

"You would."

"Yeah. A lot of people would, and I don't think I'm alone in this world."

cborrelli@tribune.com

Twitter @borrelli

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