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."
"Not worried about being typecast?"
"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."