100 Sound Bytes: Brian Azzarello Interview

Thu, June 1st, 2000 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Bill Baker, Contributing Writer

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I first met Brian Azzarello several years ago, and have even had the pleasure of sharing a beer with him and his editor at DC-Vertigo, Axel Alonso. Axel first introduced us at Wizard World in Chicago, Brian's stomping grounds, after telling me that Brian was one of the talents I should keep an eye on.

I can safely say that truer words have rarely been uttered.

In the intervening time since that short meeting, I've watched Brian's work catch more and more of the critical, fan and media attention it so richly deserves. He's not interested in shiny costumes, or astounding super powers, or any amount of grim and gritty angst-ridden vigilantes. No, his territory is and subject matter is much more mundane, and earthy, his focus is on things that are simultaneously much more intriguing -- and frightening -- than super heroes and their adventures.

He concerns himself mainly with the ugly, terrible and often stupid things that every man, woman and child does just make it through the day. He works in the shadows cast by the horrible secrets that people keep hidden from each other, from their closest friends and loved ones, and often even from themselves. However, this doesn't mean his characters and their stories aren't engrossing, or without worth. It doesn't mean that they are beneath our notice as readers simply because they have faults, or live shitty little lives that seem pointless even to themselves. Quite the opposite, in fact.

They're interesting, and worthy our attention because of the simple fact that they're profoundly human, and real.

And also because of the simple, chilling fact that, "There but for the grace of God ..."

Talking with Brian is just like reading the man's work. He's acerbic and witty, straightforward and real, and basically funny as all hell breaking loose. In other words, he's got play, and gives great interview.

[NOTE: Strong Language in the following.]

BILL BAKER: How are things going today, Brian?

BRIAN AZZARELLO: Things are going well.

BB: Yeah?

BA: Yeah. I'm smoking a cigar, drinking some whiskey. Things are going well.

BB: About the only thing missing from that picture is the image of you putting your feet up in front of the fire ...

BA: No fireplace here.

[100 Bullets]BB: Well, why don't we start by discussing 100 BULLETS. You've mentioned in past interviews how the idea for the series sprang from a simple question, "Could you REALLY kill somebody?" and then it branched out from there. How you'd come up with the rest of the book's framework: the conspiracies, the untraceable gun, Agent Graves, etc.?

BA: Well, that's just shit that fills out the story, ya know? The question's the first thing. Then you start answering the question, and then there's more questions. And that's how it developed.

Graves is a key guy, and that's going to play out more during upcoming issues. I'm sure a lot of people think that this is almost an anthology sort of book, but that's not the case. There's a bigger story that's going on. And that's what you've got to stick around for.

BB: Actually, that leads into the next question. It's a very episodic ... by nature it's episodic, but there's DEFINITELY something going on behind the scenes. Will we ever get ALL the answers to this?

BA: [Laughter] Of course, by the end of it. If we get [to go] that long. Which we will-- DC's firmly behind this book.

BB: That IS good to hear. I thought that'd be the case; a good sign was the fact that they put out the first trade well before the first year of stories were in the can.

BA: Yeah, and they put it out cheap, man. Which I totally fuckin' dug.

BB: Yeah, get it in as many people's hands as possible.

BA: Yeah, give 'em a taste for not much money.

BB: That does kind of highlight one of the problems with today's market, doesn't it? I mean, you basically have to charge three bucks a month to put out a book and still make some money, but it almost automatically limits the size of your audience.

BA: Yeah. Yeah, I think so. I think there's a few books that are coming out right now that are really asking people [to invest a lot of time and money for little return]. I think it's ripping people off.

And I hope with 100 BULLETS ... There's a LOT of shit that goes on.

BB: Hell, the WINTER'S EDGE story, it was, what, twelve pages? And there's a LOT of shit that happens in there!

BA: It's EIGHT pages, man! [General laughter]

BB: Did you set up the series the way you did to create a storytelling vehicle? The episodic nature of the book allows you to deal with a lot of different kinds of stories, doesn't it?

BA: Oh, yeah. That's exactly why I set it up the way that I did. I wasn't too keen on doing one protagonist for a number of issues, because some of that stuff kinda bores me. And I say that, and now I'm doing HELLBLAZER, so I'm a fucking liar. [General laughter] But, no, that's exactly the reason I set it up [that way]. There's a lot of ...

I mean, the high concept of 100 BULLETS is something that can work for a number of different protagonists, and that's sort of what I wanted to do, and what I've been doing. But that's gonna change.

"...the high concept of 100 BULLETS is something that can work for a number of different protagonists, and that's sort of what I wanted to do, and what I've been doing."
- Brian Azzarello

Issue eight sorta opens things up for people. Things are gonna lead in the direction established in eight for a while, and then it's gonna go back to the episodic nature.

BB: I think that a lot of the skeleton, that basic narrative line, is starting to show through, though. So, you already know exactly how the series is gonna end, then?

BA: Oh, yeah.

BB: How do you approach writing the individual arcs? In other words, did you sit down and rough out about 100 issues, deciding to use these certain types of characters and to cover these issues or topics, all while slowly telling the hidden bigger story, or have you left yourself a lot of room to just play?

BA: Oh, yeah, there's tons of space for me to play. I know the big story. I know how that's paced out. The smaller stories, no. Those just sort of happen.

BB: So you just turn to the news, or something you see on the street, for inspiration?

BA: Yeah, I use anything. ANYTHING.

BB: Any examples you'd care to give?

BA: What d'you mean?

BB: How'd the first arc come about? It struck me as a really interesting way to start the series.

BA: The first arc? Man, the first arc comes from where I LIVE.

BB: So that's literally looking out your door and seeing what's happening out there?

BA: Yeah, yeah. Inspiration ...

BB: What comes first for you, then: the plot, the characters, or is it a mixed bag for you?

BA: The plot comes first. I mean, this is the kind of story I want to tell, and the characters sort of fill themselves into it.

BB: What's your approach to writing? Do you just sit down and start, or do you outline it first?

BA: I do heavy outlining.

BB: Beat by beat?

BA: Oh, yeah man. When I sit down to script, it's done. The story's done.

BB: What kind of scripts are you providing Eduardo?

BA: Full. Totally full.

BB: With character description and type of shot info?

BA: Sure, but very loose. He knows he's got liberties.

BB: Yeah, well, when you see the results ...

BA: My contribution to the book is the dialogue, and the stories. And Eduardo does the art. And he takes things in a direction that is extraordinary to me. I am BLESSED to be working with him.

BB: Was it Axel [Alonso, editor of 100 BULLETS and HELLBLAZER] who hooked you two up?

BA: Yeah, with Jonny Double.

BB: Yeah, I'd have to agree with you about Eduardo. As I've said when I was talking with Jill [Thompson, of SCARY GODMOTHER fame] last year, if he reminds me of anyone, it's Eisner. In the way he works, it's rock-solid storytelling.

BA: When I read that, it'd never dawned on me before, but god damn it, you nailed it. Eduardo's - to my mind - the best guy working in comics right now.

BB: About how long does it take you to write a typical script? I'm thinking from concept to finished script. Is it about a week, or ...?

BA: For 100 BULLETS?

BB: Yeah.

BA: No, it's longer than that. It takes me longer than that. I put a lot of time into these things. Hopefully, it shows. Maybe eighty hours, say two weeks.

BB: Per script?

BA: Yeah. It used to be, like ... I used to sweat over these things for four weeks.

BB: Yeah, that deadline changes a few things, doesn't it?

BA: Goddamn right it does!

BB: What's your approach to creating and filling out characters? Obviously, there's a lot of first hand observation involved, but how much is instinct, and how much is conscious planning, and borrowing traits from different people you've seen?

BA: I'm not sure I understand your question.

BB: Well, does the function of the character determine, more or less, their nature when you're creating them? In other words, you've got Agent Graves, who's got that cold, manipulative, motherfucker attitude down, and then you've got someone like ... his name escapes me, the bartender from "Two Shots, Back" ...

BA: Lee. I had a hard time killing him, ya know?

BB: But it made perfect sense. It was like getting a hammer right between the eyes.

BA: Lee was a character ... I came up with the story before I came up with Lee. And then, when I'm writing him, it was like, "Goddamn, I DON'T want to kill this guy. I REALLY like him, I like the way he talks. I like his idiosyncrasies, and ... and he's dead." That was a really tough job.

BB: Yeah, it really added a lot of impact. I literally thought, "Brian's putting people on notice, here. He's not taking any prisoners." It was nice to see, cause you don't see that kind of thing in many ongoing series these days.

BA: Yeah, well, I'm sorry Lee's dead. I apologize to everyone. Mostly to myself, because I could have written him all day long.

BB: Does the language just come to you, their voices is it almost like transcribing it? Or do you have to work a bit harder at it?

BA: Yeah, the language is easy for me.

BB: It just happens, then.

BA: Yeah, I know these people. I'm ONE of these people. [Laughter]

BB: Do you ever do any traditional research, or ...?

BA: What do you mean, traditional?

BB: In other words, sit down and read a little bit about, say, the structure of gangs, to supplement what you already know.

BA: Sure. Nothing beats first hand experience, though. You write what you know, not what you read.

BB: Has Eduardo ever made any suggestions or had any influence on the book, aside from being an incredible artist and designer?

BA: I write to his strengths. That is a big influence that's he's had.

BB: OK. It's just that partners will sometimes make a suggestion when they talk, and ...

BA: We don't talk.

BB: Yeah, I had heard that; so you've got a great working relationship, right?

BA: Yeah, exactly.

BB: You two haven't met, have you?

BA: No.

BB: Are you a little nervous about that?

BA: Meeting him? Naw. When it happens, it'll happen. What the fuck? Right now, we have a beautiful professional relationship.

BB: Yeah, it shows in the book, man.

BA: Yeah.

BB: And it comes out when it's supposed to.

BA: Yeah, and the finished product can stand on it's own. That's why I don't crow about the goddamn book, ya know? I don't think I have a NEED to do that. In fact, I'm nervous about doing that.

BB: Setting yourself up for a fall, in a sense.

BA: Yeah. The book's gonna speak for itself. If people like it, they like it. If they don't, they don't. That ain't my call. Ya know, it's like playing hoops, man. You go out there and start screamin' about how you got game ...

BB: It's about that point where you end up eating a ball or two, right?

BA: Yeah, exactly, man. You either GOT it, or you DON'T. If you got it, they KNOW you got game. I think Eduardo and I have game.

BB: Besides, that's what PR people are for, right?

BA:They prefer to be called marketing. [General laughter]

[Jonny Double]BB: You mentioned Jonny Double a little earlier; are we ever gonna get to see a prequel or sequel to that book?

BA: Yeah, you'll see a Jonny Double sequel in probably the next three years.

BB: You've already got ideas for that, obviously.

BA: Oh, yeah.

BB: Will that ever turn into an ongoing project for you?

BA: Not for me. No. I can't do it with HELLBLAZER and 100 BULLETS. One of them gets canceled, then, sure. I'm right there. Ready to rock.

BB: It seems that's another project you had a lot of fun with.

BA: Jonny Double?

BB: Yeah.

BA: LOVED it. I LOVED it. I can't wait to do the sequel. I know EXACTLY what's gonna happen. That thing's written in my head.

BB: Want to give us any teases?

BA: NO.

BB: Smart man.

BA: Fuck your "teases!" [General laughter]

BB: Why don't we move on to HELLBLAZER, then?

BA: Sure.

BB: Well, why don't we start with the artist who's currently working with you on the book, Richard Corben. How'd that come about, anyway; did you have to plead and beg?

BA: I didn't do anything. Honestly. All I did was come up with the story.

BB: Is he drawing more than the first arc, or ...

BA: Yeah, just the first arc.

BB: Do you know who's taking over after that?

BA: Yeah, Marcello Frusin.

BB: The name's familiar, but I can't quite place it ...

BA: He did one issue of HELLBLAZER, he did Warren's [Ellis, the previous writer] last issue. The guy's TOTALLY fuckin' talented.

BB: Yeah, I'd agree.

BA: He's another guy who speaks Spanish. That's why I got the tapes ["Learn to speak Spanish"] right now, man, cause I got to talk to my artists. These are the guys I'm gonna be workin' with.

BB: Still providing full scripts for both guys on HELLBLAZER, right?

BA: Yep.

BB: Your first arc, I think it's five issues, that's the whole prison saga, right?

BA: Up through #150, yeah.

BB: What about after that? I've heard that you plan on having Constantine travel a bit.

BA: Oh, yeah, he's gonna to travel. He's gonna find out why he was stuck in jail in the first place. It's gonna last about two years. We'll see. Who knows?

BB: What's your overall agenda on the book, what are you trying to do with the character?

BA: With John?

BB: Yeah.

BA: Hmm ... My over-arcing agenda is, I want to make him a bastard again.

BB: Are we talking something similar to what Garth [Ennis], or Jamie [Delano] did with him?

BA: I'm thinking more Alan Moore. Ya know, Alan Moore did him as just a manipulative son of a bitch, man. And that's what I want to do with him.

BB: Right, it fits in with your idea that you've mentioned elsewhere that you see him as more than a little bit of a con man.

BA: That's his whole gig, man; he's a con man. And that's what I want to do -- throw him into situations where he has a hard time dealing with his cons.

BB: Yeah, that's an interesting tack to take with the character, cause he is one of those characters who does like to crow about himself, to brag about how he's 'got game', and use his reputation to his advantage.

BA: Yeah. Right. Throw him into a situation where his reputation means NOTHING, and that's ... then you can get some cool shit going on with that character.

And I am going to be playing down the magical stuff that's going on, or that has gone on, in the book. And I know that some people will be upset with that, but that doesn't mean the horror's going to be left out of it. There's so much shit you can deal with, with that guy, where's he's thrown into situations where HE'S horrified. That's what I want to do.

BB: You're right, there are so many levels of horror that you can deal with. I mean, here's a guy who's already been deep into it, and couldn't handle it; I mean, he's already been in the loony bin at least once. And for good reason.

BA: Right.

BB: So, your basic take on him is that he's a better con man than he is a magician.

BA: Can't be one without being the other.

BB: So, what's your take on magic in general, then; does it exist?

BA: Well, magic IS a big con game. You can't prove it. It's like a religion. It's another con.

BB: Right, it's like negative proof; all you can do is DIS-prove it.

[Hellblazer]BA: Right. That's the same thing I'm going to be dealing with in HELLBLAZER. We're gonna be getting into some really dirty ass shit American crap.

BB: Right, I suspected a lot of the traveling and stories would be over here.

BA: It's ALL going to be over here. I DON'T know London. I don't PRETEND I know London. I'm not gonna WORK in London. I'm sure there's a lot of people who are gonna be PO'd about that, but get over it. The majority of readers of that book are American, anyway.

BB: I know that you and your editor, Axel Alonso, have a rock-solid relationship. Bearing that in mind, have you run into any situations like the one that lead to Warren's leaving the book? In other words, have you run into any problems with censorship?

BA: In HELLBLAZER?

"[Hellblazer's] going to be over here. I DON'T know London. I don't PRETEND I know London ... I'm sure there's a lot of people who are gonna be PO'd about that, but get over it."
- Brian Azzarello

BB: In any of your dealings with Vertigo.

BA: I had something in 100 BULLETS, happen.

Something happened in the story [I'd just written], and when something else - IN REALITY - happened, I just said, "Fuck, I'm not gonna be able to do that story!"

I'm not publishing my own book. You know what I'm saying? I understand [what] their reservations are about things [like that], and I live within those boundaries.

BB: So, you just wrote around it, changed the story, or ...?

BA: No, the story was trashed. It MAY happen, next year.

I understand why they can't publish something like that [a story that deals with a current 'hot' or emotionally charged topic], ya know? And why even deal with the flack? Because then the story becomes secondary to the flack, and that's something I NEVER want to happen.

BB: What about EL DIABLO? When we've spoken in the past, you've talked about really wanting to do something with that title. Is it going to happen, or is it still on hold?

BA: No, it's going on: the first issue's done.

BB: Sweet! Who's doing the art?

BA: Daniel Zajel

BB: So, is this the Western character, or the modern version?

BA: Western.

BB: Towards the end of the era, or ...?

BA: About 1880.

BB: You want to give us your take on the title character?

BA: The fucker's a ghost, man. But it's not about him.

BB: Want to talk about the basic plot?

BA: No, I don't. It's a noir spaghetti western. Let's leave it at that.

BB: OK. It's a mini-series, right?

BA: Yeah. Four issues.

BB: You think it's gonna hit by this summer, or ...?

BA: I think it's gonna be fall. I'm not sure.

BB: You've been placing a lot of short stories in the various anthologies that Vertigo's been putting out in the recent past; do you approach these shorter pieces any different than the full length scripts?

BA: Yeah, I do. Ya know, in some regards I really like writing short stories better, there's an economy about tellin' a story that I think a lot of people working in comics should pay attention to. I mean, you can do things in eight pages more effectively than you can do in 22, or 24, or whatever the fuck they're givin' ya these days.

For example ... the one in STRANGE ADVENTURES, man, that could have been four issues about some jamoke lookin' for who's killin' what. Eight pages, it works a LOT better. You just deal with the form, deal with what they're givin' ya. Come up with a story. Tell it well.

That's the bottom line, man. Just tell a good story. It doesn't matter how many pages it takes.

Did I make any sense, then?

BB: Yeah. And the short story form really does seems to suit your particular gift for language, and using dialogue and language to move the story plot-wise, and character-wise. I mean, the tale in STRANGE ADVENTURES is a great case for that.

BA: Did you like that story?

BB: Yeah! And what REALLY sealed it for me was the last line, "... phrased in the form of a question."

BA: Yeah, that's the punch line.

BB: Yeah, but it's LITERALLY a punch line, and not just in the sense that it's funny. It has a real power to it, a resonance. It just fuckin' HITS you.

BA: Ya know, I was pissed off that was in the fourth issue [of the mini-series]. That shoulda been in the first issue. Nobody saw that in the fourth issue. But what the fuck, man, in most of the anthologies I've been in, I've been in the front end.

BB: Yeah, I was surprised about that.

BA: There was some politics about that thing.

BB: Before you were doing comics, you'd been doing some movie scripting, right?

BA: Videos. Oh, man, I've had many different jobs.

BB: What were some of them?

BA: Fuck, man. I was a janitor. Restoring furniture. Actually, that was one of my favorite jobs. I loved that job. I was actually very good at that. I was restoring 17th century French furniture.

BB: Louis XIVth furniture?

BA: Yeah.

BB: Damn! Was that in the Chicago area?

BA: Yeah. That was a good job, man. I still dream about that job, which is funny.

BB: Literally?

BA: Yeah. I literally dream about working on furniture again.

BB: What about that particular profession appeals to you?

BA: All the stress is on the piece, man, there's no stress on you. You just have to make sure the piece doesn't stress out. That's what appealed to me.

I worked in a restaurant and, goddamn!, I loved that job, too. But I wasn't makin' dick.

BB: Was that as a waiter, or ...?

BA: No, I was in the kitchen. I was cookin', which I LOVE to do.

BB: Yeah, it's interesting that there's a whole group of very talented, creative and kinda high-profile people who just love the different, hands-on trades. The one that springs immediately to my mind is Harrison Ford, who is a very accomplished, perhaps even master-level, cabinet builder. I remember him saying once that he'd go back to it in a minute, with no regrets.

I could talk about these kinds of things for hours, man; it's this kinda stuff that tells you a lot about how someone became who they are today. But, I gotta ask ya: are the rumors I've been hearin' about a 100 BULLETS film true at all?

BA: I don't know. Are they? I have no fuckin' idea.

BB: You have been approached, then?

BA: Yeah.

BB: Is it something that you'd want to write the script for, if possible?

BA: Yeah, probably. I'd like write the script for it. I'm not gonna worry about it, though. And don't worry about 100 BULLETS, man. It's like, if it happens, [it happens]. If it's just a comic ...

Stick around, it's gonna be a good deal. NOBODY knows what's going on in that thing.

BB: Does Agent Graves know exactly what's going on?

BA: Oh, yeah. He knows. I do, too. [Laughter]

BB: Have you let Axel in on the secret?

BA: Yeah, Axel knows. But it's going to be ...

It's a story you haven't heard, but you may be able to guess. Which is beautiful.

BB: Is it something that you can figure out by gathering the clues that are scattered throughout the individual chapters, like in a traditional mystery?

BA: Oh, yeah, yeah. The clues ARE there. It's like Jonny Double, man; the clues were all there for Jonny Double.

BB: Exactly.

BA: I keep droppin', man, and nobody's picking 'em up, in 100 BULLETS. They're all there. There's been clues. I mean I tried to wrap some shit up with issue eight, and advance it. We'll see.

BB: Do you have any thoughts or opinions about the future of comics, in general, and of mature titles, specifically?

BA: Aw, geez, I don't know. I would think that the smart thing ... comic publishers [could do] would be to make all their titles mature, because it seems like the audience is getting older. Kids aren't buying comics any more.

Ya know, I was just in France, and I was shocked. You would be surprised to see the difference [between] the way they treat comics there than we do here. Comics, over there, is something that's part of life. Comic books are hardcover. I mean, you don't find [the thin, monthly] pamphlets we put out [here in America] over there.

"I was just in France, and I was shocked. You would be surprised to see the difference [between] the way they treat comics there than we do here. Comics, over there, is something that's part of life."
- Brian Azzarello

BB: They're books.

BA: They're books.

BB: And basically considered another form of literature.

BA: Well, I don't know about literature, but it's a legitimate form of culture. Pop culture. And that's the way I think things have to go here. If they don't, then they're gonna fuckin' die.

BB: One of the good things that's been happening with SIN CITY, and a lot of other books, including your own, is that the trades are making it into general audience bookstores, like Borders and Barnes and Noble. But the problem there is that they're ALWAYS stuck in a separate section, the humor ghetto, and never racked elsewhere, too. Next to [Andrew] Vachss, in the crime and mystery sections.

BA: And they never will be, either.

Bill, I went to a store in France called Fnac, which was the equivalent of Tower Records, here. There was a whole fuckin' FLOOR for comics, and kids were sitting around reading these things. And it was like, "Man, I have NEVER seen anything like this!" Super crowded. People just sittin' around, reading comics...

BB: I've read that the average adult in Spain reads something like six or eight graphic novels a year. And that's not even touching on Japan, which is a whole 'nother story.

BA: See, now I'm a motherfucker who's in a really good position cause of 100 BULLETS. 100 BULLETS appeals to that kind of shit.

BB: Yeah, I could see it becoming a huge cross cultural hit. The storytelling's certainly there.

BA: And the art, man. I mean I bought a book in France called CHICANOS, it's sittin' right here. Carlos Trilo, Eduardo Risso. It's fuckin' beautiful man, and it's in French. I can't read it. But I get the story. And you know what? That's what makes me love Eduardo so much, man. Because I hope ... No, I KNOW, that people look at 100 BULLETS, if they can't read it, they get the pictures. They can follow the story.

BB: That's why I thought of Eisner when I see his work. I mean, when I saw Jonny Double, I thought, "Holy shit! Look what he's doing here!" A lot of people talk about storytelling and narrative, but very few people do it panel to panel. And his shit just keeps getting better and better, hotter and hotter, from panel to panel. Literally.

Did you read comics when you were a kid?

BA: Yeah.

BB: What appealed to you then?

BA: When I was a kid? Monster comics. And war comics.

I liked Marvel monster comics, like CREATURES ON THE LOOSE, and WHERE MONSTERS DWELL. I loved those things. And DC, I loved the war comics. SGT. ROCK.

BB: You have any tips for somebody who wants to break in as a writer.

BA: Christ, man, it ain't easy ...

Pitch stories to editors whose books you like, I think, would be the smartest thing to do.

BB: What are some of the movies, and books, that have had an influence on your work, or your life?

BA: Movies? Man, I love the first half of NIGHT OF THE IGUANA. That movie like, that fuckin' floors me. Richard Burton's a stud in that movie.

Ah, books. Oh, Boy. This is always the one that gets people in trouble, ya know?

BB: Yeah, you'll have dozens of names and titles to suggest, until someone asks you in an interview. Then ya can't remember a one.

BA: William S. Burroughs. David Goodis. Jim Thompson. Ya know, I start saying these things, man, it's like I'm pinning myself down.

BB: About how much do your work a day?

BA: About six hours.

BB: Then you just chill out after that?

BA: I go down to the bar, when I'm done. We done yet?

BB: Well, we're just about outta tape here, so, is there any particular question you've always wanted to answer that nobody's asked you yet?

BA: Yeah, how big is my dick.

BB: Any last thoughts?

BA: It's big.

BB: On that happy note, I'll say thanks, Brian.

BA: Sure.

 
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