First Call, First Shot | Brian Azzarello, pt. 1

loveless-header.jpgAs he kicks off the final story arc of his storied crime drama 100 Bullets, the writer joins us for a lengthy chat on the end of that title, his new book Loveless, the American vs. European comic markets, and punching lead singers of rock bands in the face.  



There are very few comics that serve as a sublime example of what happens when images and words collide on a blank sheet of paper. In that rare instance when that comic comes around you cherish it and hope that it never ends. 100 Bullets is one such comic. Unfortunately, the series has just begun its final arc before the curtains fall on one of Vertigo’s longest running series.   

A classic 100 Bullets cover. Click for a larger image.Brian Azzarello is the multiple Eisner and Harvey Award winning writer of 100 Bullets, which he created with artist Eduardo Risso. 100 Bullets is second only to Hellblazer as the longest-running title from DC’s Vertigo imprint, and Azzarello and Risso’s unbroken run on the title is second only to Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley on Ultimate Spider-Man for the longest consecutive issue streak by a creative team in the last 15 years. Recently, Azzarello launched a new ongoing Vertigo title, Loveless, with artist Marcelo Frusin.

In the first part of our expansive interview, Azzarello talks about 100 Bullets, Loveless, the American vs. European comic market, and punching lead singers of rock bands in the face. In the second part of the interview (see related links below), Brian talks about the Batman: Gotham Knight DVD (a companion to this summer’s blockbuster Dark Knight film), his superhero work, the long delayed 100 Bullets game, and why Bruce Wayne is the man. | Carlos Ruiz


PLAYBACK:stl: I read somewhere that you were working as a graphic designer before you broke into comics, correct?

Brian Azzarello: Actually, before I started writing, I did some design work, sort of freelancing, but my main gig at the time was restoring 17th and 18th Century French antique furniture.


Wow! What would that entail? Sanding them down, and then re-staining them?

You don’t sand that stuff down. [laughs]


That’s a pretty straight forward career path: Graphic Designer, Furniture Restorer and Comic Book Writer.

I also used to be on the radio. And I would DJ at clubs.


What kind of music would you play?

Dance mainly. It was the late 80s. I got in a fight with Al Jourgensen once.


Like a "fist fight" fight?

Yeah, it came to blows. [laughs]


What happened?

It was at a club in Cleveland called The Fantasy and he was touring at the time with The Revolting Cocks. I was working at the club and Al went after some guy in the crowd who was dancing a little too rambunctiously. I tried to stop him and he took a swing at me and then I punched him and threw him back onstage.


That’s hilarious. So did you study graphic design in college?

No, I was actually a fine arts major. You know, you get a degree in painting and what are you going to do? You’re going to paint a wall. [laughs] It’s tough. You get out of school and you’re like, "Okay, how can I use what I learned in school?" Well, you can use it in your free time. [laughs]


You have a keen ear for dialogue and just the turn of phrases are just so perfect and well-timed, which is what I love about 100 Bullets. Just in reading your work, it always is spot on.

Well, you know I struggle over that shit. It’s gotta sound right. I don’t turn the script in until it sounds right to me.


So is your writing process a battle with you sitting at your computer trying to figure it out, or do you usually hit on it right away?

Well, both. It depends what I’m working on. Sometimes it just comes to me…usually 100 Bullets is easier than something like Loveless. Loveless is a bit more — 100 Bullets, I’ve been doing it for so long [that] I understand the rhythm of the dialogue that I want to get across. I sit down and I’m humming the same song I’ve been humming for 10 years.


An interior page from 100 Bullets by Azzarello and Risso. Click for a larger image.It seems like a pretty flawless process because every time I pick up 100 Bullets, the way one scene flows into the next, and the way each individual issue ties together, it’s one of the best books out there because it has this incredible rhythm and poetry to it, almost like jazz in a way.

Thank you. That’s a hell of a compliment. I appreciate that.


No problem. 100 Bullets was my main introduction to your work. Obviously you had done a few things here and there and also Johnny Double with your 100 Bullets co-creator, Eduardo Risso, but 100 Bullets was what broke you in right?

Oh yeah.


You guys have a pretty seamless dynamic, so I was wondering exactly how you guys work together? For example, when Wylie Times goes down to New Orleans, the pulse of Bourbon street, the flavor of the Big Easy from the French Quarter buildings to the seediest of the seedy hole in the wall bars and the street vendors, is depicted in such an authentic way that makes me wonder if you were actually there when you wrote it and Eduardo drew it. How much research goes into the book and the backdrops of the story?

I do send him a lot of stuff. I’ve been down to New Orleans a lot, so I had a lot of photographs to send to him, but my reference stuff that I send to him is only a suggestion. He adds life to it, you know. He does a lot of stuff — I mean, he has to do a lot of research on his own.


Since he’s from Argentina?



As far as page layout goes, how much do you have an influence over what he does and how much is Eduardo simply going on his own?

The way I do the pages is I break it down by panels. So if the page needs five panels, I say it’s five panels. And I do that specifically for the dialogue beats.

My art direction though is fairly sparse. I rarely tell him what to draw. I mean, I don’t think I need to.


An interior page from 100 Bullets by Azzarello and Risso. Click for a larger image.In looking at both Loveless and 100 Bullets both books have a completely different look and feel to them. Granted they’re both done by two completely different artists, but they’re both written in such a different style that they feel like very different books. Sometimes with certain writers work, it doesn’t matter who the artist is, their books always play the same because they have the same panel layouts and beat progressions.

I know. That’s awful.


That is actually why I was so curious about your scripts, because both those books have a completely different tone to them so I was wondering if your scripts were really loose or if they were generally really tight.

Would you like someone telling you what you had to draw? I can’t do it. I can’t bring myself to tell the artist what to do. With anybody I work with, they’re my collaborator. I get my rocks off on the dialogue. They get their rocks off on how it looks. I have to respect the guy I’m working with. When I’m writing the script, I’d like to think that I’m bringing my A game and I have to leave room for them to bring theirs. If I was that descriptive of what I wanted, then I would just draw it myself.


So why haven’t you drawn anything yourself? You went to school for art.

I’m not that good. [laughs] Cuz’ I’m working with guys that are WAY better than me. There is a big difference from painting on a canvas and being a graphic storyteller. Huge difference.


Is there a work that you have that is so personal that only you can illustrate it or paint it?

No, I don’t. I really don’t. At this point in my life I really, really enjoy working with other people. It’s a good time.


So there are 12 issues left on the series, right? [Note: this interview took place shortly before the release of 100 Bullets #89.]

Yeah, the entire last story arc is waiting. The arc is twelve issues.


I have to say that I’m extremely disappointed that there are only 12 issues of 100 Bullets left.

So am I.


Has it been hard to wrap it up and close the book out?

It hasn’t been hard, but I’m going to miss these guys.


Yeah, for me the most shocking moment has been when Wylie Times was shot. I was just blown away.

A lot of people were.


Looking back on it, [though], I realize that he had to die.

The story arc was done. I had taken Wylie’s character as far as he was supposed to go. And I thought his death was pretty poignant.


It was a good death. Maybe not as good as Milo’s death but still pretty good.

[laughs] Suicide by Lono.


An interior page from 100 Bullets by Azzarello and Risso. Click for a larger image.So out of all these guys, all these great characters, who do you enjoy writing the most?

I like writing all of them. There isn’t one who I don’t enjoy writing. My favorite characters are dead. [laughs] I enjoy writing Graves. They aren’t very likable people, but I really enjoy making them compelling.


You think they’re not likeable?

Is there any character in 100 Bullets that is likeable?


I think there are a lot of characters that are likeable?

Like who?


Like Wylie. Wylie was likeable and then you killed him.

Wylie was likeable. That’s why he got dead. [laughs]


Milo was likable.

Milo was a bastard. He was compelling. He was interesting, but not likeable. Probably the most popular character in the book is Lono and he’s a complete sociopath. Ahh, man. I’m telling you today I did something with Loop, Jack, all these guys, by the end you’re not going to like any of them.


I really can’t wait! I know it’s going to be an interesting ride. Speaking of the end, did you have everything planned out right from the get-go or did you have a beginning and an end planned out and the middle sort of had to be worked out? In other words, did you know the whole story from the get-go or did the story sort of write itself as you went along?

I had an outline, but the outline was loose enough where I could do some improvisation. I knew all the notes but the song sort of came together.


So after almost 10 years are you ready to move on?

No, no, no, I am not ready. Eduardo and I have talked about it and it’s something that Vertigo doesn’t want to end. They said if you want to keep going, then keep going. We talked about it but we decided no.


I read somewhere that regretted saying the series would stop at 100 issues.

I should never have said that it should go to 100 either. [laughs]


An interior page from 100 Bullets by Azzarello and Risso. Click for a larger image.Well, 100 issues ties in to the attaché which has 100 untraceable bullets, so each issue functions like a single bullet. It’s very poetic.

Maybe there is one in the chamber. Maybe we’ll get 101. Nah, we’re going to stop it at 100, it’s a 100 issue comic novel. But that doesn’t mean that Eduardo and I are done working together.



So are you guys thinking about your next project?

We’re actively talking about our next project.


Can you drop any hints for us?

That’s about it. That’s about as big of a hint as I can give you. We are talking about what we want to do next. We both want to continue to work together. It’s been a very, very fulfilling collaboration for both of us. I was sort of worried Eduardo was sick of me after ten years. I guess I change it up in the bedroom enough for him.


Well you’re globe trotting all over the place and there are tons of characters to work with so it seems to me that as an artist it would be hard to get tired of working on a book like that. It’s not like you have two people stuck in an apartment and that’s all you have to draw.

It’s not my book. It’s our book. You touched on something earlier about writers in comics today and how all their stuff is the same. It’s all, "My, my, my." No, it’s "ours". I give him all the credit in the world. It’s not just my voice when you read 100 Bullets. It’s our voice.


Plus Dave Johnson’s covers are amazing.

Yeah, they’re great.


When people who don’t read comics ask me why I read comics, I point to 100 Bullets. It’s a prime example of what the art form can accomplish. It’s a perfect fusion of words and pictures, of dialogue and art, of movement and style and story that to me, is note for note, absolutely flawless. And it gets better with each read through.

I appreciate you clocking for me.


I think the multiple Eisner Awards speak for themselves.

Does it do anything for you? It doesn’t do anything for you. I also won a Harvey, but does it do anything? It’s nice to get recognition but it doesn’t boost sales. But that’s just the American market I think. I’m big overseas, in Spain, Italy and France.


I think the European market has more of an appreciation for the diversity that can be found in comics, especially with a comic like 100 Bullets.

I absolutely agree. No question


Yeah, it seems that most of the American fanbase only gets behind guys in tights where as in Europe they are a little more eager to embrace new and different endeavors.

The European readership there is much more accepting of different types of stories. And they’re not so keen on the adolescent aggression that is pretty much what superhero comics are. Superhero comics are guys beating each other up and nobody gets killed. That’s high school. Well, it used to be high school but maybe it’s not anymore.


I never though about it like that, but that’s pretty spot on.

No I think about this shit. [laughs] That’s why I don’t like superheroes.


Loveless art from Marcelo Frusin. Click for a larger image.Well, especially when there is so much more interesting stuff out there, like Loveless. Loveless is about this guy, Wes Cutter, who comes back to his hometown of Blackwater, Missouri, after fighting for the Confederates in the Civil War only to have his land taken from him by the government, his wife raped, and the town under the rule of Union appointed carpetbaggers from the North.

Loveless is a book we haven’t talked about yet and I think it has some of my best stories in it. There is something about the world that I’ve set up that I’m finding real voice for. I really enjoy writing that book. No one’s reading it, but I enjoy writing it. [laughs]


It’s a great commentary on a situation that would fit in today’s world, with everything going on in Iraq and the state of the war on terrorism.

Well if you win a war, you’re stuck: you occupy. We have a history of occupation. We’ve done it here – that was the first one. You have to change the rules, change the laws of those you occupy. You won, you’re in charge now. People resent it. People still resent it here.


Yeah, you go down to the deep south and every other truck has a Confederate flag on it.

"Fuckin’ Yankees!" I mean, "THE FUCKING YANKEES!" Besides the fact that they signed Billy Crystal and made a mockery of baseball. I am incensed about that!

[Author’s note: Brian and I then begin talking about baseball, our mutual hatred for the Red Sox, the best rivalry in baseball: Cubs vs. Cards and how Albert Pujols has twice been robbed of the MVP Award.]

Well there is bunch of baseball in 100 Bullets. It’s the greatest game ever.


Indeed. So you’re a Cubs fan because you grew up in Chicago, right?

Actually, I’m originally from Cleveland, but I’ve lived here for about 20 years. You know, being transplanted is kind of a cool thing, at least I found. I write about Chicago a lot, but it’s nice being a transplant because I think I have more of an objective eye. I have a very good friend who is a professor at Northwestern. He teaches Chicago, he’s completely immersed in Chicago history, and we get into arguments all the time about motivations for people. Which brings me back to Loveless. Loveless is about the way people behave and what motivates them and they’re two different things. On the surface there is a lot of hatred. Politically based hatred, but underneath it’s personal hatred.


What I find as a reoccurring theme in many Westerns and post Civil War books is these Southern soldiers come back from war and they have nothing. They’re disillusioned and broken so they turn to crime. In a way, they never stop fighting the North because now they’re fighting a guerrilla war against the Northern institutions that displaced them. They’re not noble or fighting the good fight, they’re just criminals.

Exactly. "I’m doing this for the greater good," when no, it’s, "I’m doing this for my own gain." Which is exactly what the carpetbaggers were doing, too. Loveless is about vouching personal vendettas under political ones.


One of my favorite television shows of all time is Deadwood. You see a very raw and real take on how hard living in those times was. Unlike the Hollywood westerns of the 50s, where the sheriff wore the white hat and was good and the bad guy wore the black hat, Deadwood shows all the characters in shades of grey. Loveless is also a harsher and more true to life take on how things were a only 150 years removed from today and, much like Deadwood, occupies those shades of grey.

I don’t think anybody is just good or just evil. We do both things. Everyone has fucked over somebody. That’s kind of where 100 Bullets comes from. There are people in my life that I’ve fucked over and there certainly have been people who fucked me over. Loveless, too. There aren’t white and black hats. I think that’s a creation of storytellers and it’s something I don’t agree with. Which is probably why my superhero work has been so criticized: I look for the flaws in the heroes.


Aren’t the flaws what make the characters so interesting?

You would think.


What’s the point in writing a character that’s perfect?

It’s boring. If the heroes are flawless there is no story. And it the villains are completely evil then they’re boring too.


Check back next week for part two!

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