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After the debut of his 1998 Vertigo miniseries Jonny Double, his first team-up with artist Eduardo Risso, Brian Azzarello quickly established himself as one of comics’ most reliable crime writers. The following year, he reteamed with Risso for the revenge epic 100 Bullets, which ran for 100 issues over the next decade. The Eisner Award-winning duo recently reunited for the new sci-fi series Spaceman, which follows a genetically engineered NASA leftover caught in the middle of a celebrity-child kidnapping. Azzarello’s work over the years has not been limited to crime stories and has included a memorable run on Hellblazer, some notable Batman stories, the lengthy Superman tale For Tomorrow, and Loveless, a Western series. He recently returned to superhero comics with Wonder Woman, one of the most acclaimed titles of DC’s recent relaunch, taking the Amazon warrior in a horror-influenced direction that couldn’t be further from the ’70s TV show. The A.V. Club spoke with Azzarello about the development of Spaceman’s futuristic dialogue, how Diana compares to his previous femmes fatale, and his opinions on the DC “Trinity” of Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman.
The A.V. Club: When did you decide you wanted to pursue a career in comics?
Brian Azzarello: [Laughs.] When? When somebody paid me to do it. It’s nothing I was every really looking to do.
AVC: So you just stumbled into it?
BA: Yeah, like a lot of people.
AVC: Were you a comics fan before?
BA: I read ’em. I mean when I was a kid, sure. But in college, too, I was reading them. But mostly Fantagraphics, kinda the underground stuff.
AVC: Where did you learn to write dialogue?
BA: Man, I don’t know. I kinda taught myself by listening. [Laughs.] I guess I learned it in front of a computer. Or I was in a band, and writing dialogue is like writing a song, which I’ve done.
AVC: In terms of action sequences, especially in 100 Bullets, you’ve had some crazy ones. When you’re writing those, how much do you put into your scripts and how much do you let the artist decide?
BA: I explain what’s supposed to happen, like a real big-picture kind of thing, and then I let them pretty much run free. I get way better results that way. We get a better book when everyone’s allowed to do their best work on it. I don’t want to prevent anybody from bringing their ideas to a project.
AVC: Going along with that, how much to you collaborate with your artists before the scripting process?
BA: It depends who it is. Usually before starting a project—both Spaceman and Wonder Woman right now—Eduardo [Risso] and I, Cliff [Chiang] and I, worked pretty closely on getting the designs and the looks of the worlds down.
AVC: I know that your early scripts for 100 Bullets were pretty bare, because they had to be translated.
BA: They still are!
AVC: How does that compare to writing a script for Jim Lee or Cliff Chiang?
BA: It’s the same script. Writing those scripts for 100 Bullets forced me to be economical in my description, and my dialogue for that matter, because this stuff had to be translated and it’s something that works for me. Apparently, it works for artists too.
AVC: You’ve now written the DC “Trinity” of Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman. How do you think those character complement each other? Do you think there’s a reason they’re all together, other than the fact that they’re the most integrated in the pop-culture consciousness?
BA: That’s why. They’re grouped together because they’re the most recognizable. I’d argue that there is no trinity in comics, really. There’s Batman and there’s Superman, and then there’s everybody else. That’s something they put there, a dressing. If this trinity is in fact real, let’s make her an important part of it, or a unique part of it. I think that’s one of the problems with that character [of Wonder Woman]. Even in pop culture, I don’t think people know what Wonder Woman’s origin is. What’s Wonder Woman’s back-story? They’ll say she has bulletproof bracelets, for the most part. She doesn’t have that really defining moment like Superman and Batman do. Yet, anyway. We’re going to give it to her.
AVC: There’s been a lot of press around the fact that you describe Wonder Woman as a horror comic. What does the word “horror” mean to you, specifically?
BA: It’s creepy. It’s creepy and threatening. There’s a real chance that some skin is going to be burst somewhere.
AVC: You’ve written a lot of complex characters in 100 Bullets and Loveless. How do you think Diana compares to your previous female characters?
BA: Oh boy, man. She has a much more identifiable moral code, ’cause a lot of the women I’ve written have been—sure they’re strong, but they’ve also been morally compromised in some way. Ruth in Loveless, she was a murderer. Dizzy [in 100 Bullets] was tortured. Wonder Woman’s not tortured. I think Wonder Woman’s very strong and very confident in who she is, a sort of calmness and a sense of humor that I think has been lacking from that character for a while.
AVC: A lot of your characters, or a lot of your stories, tend to deal with characters who are lost, or the world is changing for them. Do you feel like Diana is in that position?
BA: Definitely. Her world is changing around her. My characters are like that because I think that’s what we’re like.
AVC: You were pretty critical of the Infinite Crisis soft reboot in Dr. 13: Architecture And Mortality. Now you’re a part of this really big relaunch. So was Dr. 13 a little more lighthearted and tongue-in-cheek, or did you have a change of opinion in the last five years?
BA: No, my opinion hasn’t really changed. [Laughs.] Is this the last reboot that’s ever going to happen? Hell no! There’s no way! These things, they happen for a reason. If it’s done right, it’s a very good reason. Characters work really well when they’re reflective of the times that they’re operating in. To keep these characters static—like Superman was invented in the ’30s, Wonder Woman in the ’40s—if they were still operating under those kinds of constraints, they’d die. These pop cultures, just like Greek myths, they have to reflect the time their stories are being told. That’s what makes them relevant.
AVC: How do you feel like Wonder Woman is reflecting this current time period?
BA: [Laughs.] I don’t know if Wonder Woman is, but I can tell you the gods are. I watch those Republican debates and it’s like, “These people are fantastic!”
AVC: You dabbled a little bit with Marvel characters. What is the major difference between the two companies’ casts?
BA: The major difference I think is the time when the characters were born, and the way those characters reflect the times. DC characters are from a different era than Marvel characters. But it’s something we’re addressing right now with the relaunch.
AVC: Are there going to be any other DC characters showing up in Wonder Woman, or is it going to be a fringe book?
BA: Not right now. Definitely not in the first year. I think it’s really important we establish her corner of the universe, and the players that are going to be part of that universe for her. There’s no room for crossovers yet. I don’t want to go there.
AVC: Location-wise, how do you feel that Paradise Island compares to Gotham or Metropolis?
BA: I forget who it was, it might have been Denny O’Neil who said, “Metropolis is New York City during the day, and Gotham is New York City during the night,” which I think is a pretty apt description. Although lately, Gotham City is looking a lot like Detroit. Paradise Island? I don’t know. It’s out of a Corona commercial. [Laughs.]
AVC: Spaceman isn’t steeped in American history and there’s not any superhero continuity to it. You’re creating that world from the ground up. How did you approach that?
BA: It started with a conversation I had with a friend of mine who’s a bioengineering professor at Northwestern, and it was around the time the U.S. and the Russians announced a joint plan to get to Mars. We were talking about it and he was like, “That’s never going to happen, not right now.” “Why?” “Because the human skeletal system can’t make that long a trip without losing too much bone density. They’d have the equivalent of chicken bones when they stepped on Mars.”
This was news to me. I had never heard anything like that. He’s telling me this from his angle as a bioengineer, and I come at the same thing from a story angle: “Well, can’t NASA genetically create some children with bigger bones that could make the trip? Is that possible?” He’s like, “Yeah, sure, they could do that.” That’s where this whole story sprang from. Once I got that, the main character, then it was the world. What’s the world gonna be like? Well, there’s plenty of scientists and they’re saying what the world’s gonna be like. I took the most dire predictions and fed them into this world. Once you have the environment, then you can create what the society is going to be like, what the economy is going to be. It was really fun to do.
AVC: How long did you spend on research?
BA: Oh, man. A couple of years, maybe. I’ve done a lot of research for this.
AVC: For 100 Bullets and Loveless, was it the same? Did you spend a lot of time researching?
BA: Not so much 100 Bullets. 100 Bullets was about the “real world,” so a lot of that was just reading the Metro section in a lot of different newspapers, finding crimes, that sort of thing. Loveless, yeah, there was definitely research. I had to do a lot of research for that. Mostly, I wanted to get the language right, how people spoke back then. I really wanted to be true to that, but doing the research I quickly discovered like, “Wait a minute, you can’t be true to it because nobody’s gonna understand what you’re writing.” I had to kind of bastardize things.
AVC: How did you develop the future slang for Spaceman?
BA: A lot of it is texting, that shortening of words. And not just texting, but also Twitter. You’ve got to get your point across really quickly. The more technologically advanced we get, we’re truncating our words a lot more. Also, playing with slang and hip-hop, that kind of stuff, just the way that some of these words just burrow their way into the lexicon. So I’m trying to create this lexicon. That’s really fun.
AVC: Are we going to see more of the class difference in Spaceman as it goes on?
BA: Damn right you will.
AVC: Do you approach your story the same way whether it’s sci-fi or horror or crime, or do you go in with the same mindset?
BA: I go in with the same mindset. I approach it from the character more so then the genre the character’s working in. Civil War, now, 100 years in the future—the things that motivate human beings, they don’t change, emotionally.
AVC: You’ve said that you had the overarching story of 100 Bullets since the beginning and the smaller stories within were developed along the way. What was part of the series when you first pitched it, and then what developed along the way?
BA: The original pitch was pretty much revenge-of-the-month stories. There wasn’t the connective tissue that the Trust and the Minutemen and the sleeper agents and all these various characters came to be. I looked at this like, “This really is just revenge-of-the-month stories. I need something to have people coming back, over and over and over again.” That was where the overarching story came in. That was all set and done prior to me beginning the books. All those characters were written, designed, all that stuff. And I knew where they were going to play out. I had an outline, there was room to improvise if I needed to. Like the eighth trade, “Wylie Runs The Voodoo Down,” that story went an issue longer then I had originally planned it to because these characters were interesting, it was really fun to write, and I wanted these scenes to have room to breath.
AVC: Were there any elements of the story that you wanted to tell but you couldn’t because you had committed to a specific length?
BA: No. When we were getting ready to wrap it up, DC offered, you know, “If you want to keep going, please do.” They wanted it to keep going. But Eduardo and I mulled that over and we both decided, “We said we were going to do 100, let’s do 100. Then, let’s go do something else.”
AVC: Were there any historic vignettes, like the Monroe/DiMaggio/Kennedy issue, that you considered telling but you never did?
BA: We did talk about some. It happened with Preacher and I think Fables has done it too, where they told miniseries outside of the main story. We discussed that a little bit, but I didn’t want to do it. God, I’ve got 100 issues to work on on my own, that’s plenty. If we can’t fit the entire story in this book, there’s something wrong with it. Also, I didn’t want to work with anybody else other than Eduardo, and there’s no way he could do the main series and the miniseries at the same time. We discussed that, doing some Minutemen/Trust interacting throughout American history, but we decided against it.
AVC: Over the course of 100 Bullets, America was changing a lot. Did that shifting political climate have any effect on the story?
BA: Of course it did, but not too much. When we started 100 Bullets, which was in 1998, who would have thought that there were families that controlled the U.S.? Who would have thought that? A few years later, “Guess what, there are families that control all the money in the United States.”
AVC: Have you ever considered working on a project with [wife and cartoonist] Jill Thompson, or is that too close to home?
BA: Too close to home? That’s right in the home! No, I don’t think so. No. The situation’s good right now, I don’t want to. [Laughs.]