I sat down with award-winning comic book writer Brain Azzarello of 100 Bullets fame. We ate our Thai noodles and talked comics, art, and bullets for Hollywood.
"It's become really clear to me that I don't like super heroes because they're dull. So I don't mind screwing with them."
R: 1999 was the year DC took a gamble on an unknown writer?
R: Your own series rocked the comic world - is the thrill gone?
A: No, not at all. Neither is the pressure to perform. You know? I'm still very aware the rug could be pulled out from under me at anytime. But with the way sales are going with the book it seems unlikely. It could still happen, you know? I'm as good as my last issue.
R: Still like to run out though? See it, get it when it's printed, hits the stands?
A: That thrill is gone. When I do the finale run-through of the script, when everything's all pasted-up, that's pretty much when the book's done for me. I'll get it, I'll get it, I'll page through it to see the colors because I never get a chance to see that until it's printed.
R: Do you pen it like a regular script?
R: Television, film?
A: Yeah, right. But since it's comics, it has to be done panel to panel. There's art direction for every panel. But my art direction is very, very sparse. I really trust my artist.
R: So in the same way a writer might pack lots of camera direction into a screenplay…?
A: That's right. I don't do that. I trust Eduardo.
R: Eduardo Risso?
A: The artist, that's right. Eduardo's like a cinematographer, he paints with light. He's got so much freedom for his vision-I think that's the way it should be. I don't wanna treat an artist like he's a "hand". He showed as much input as I do. It just makes it more interesting for him too.
R: Now, you're in totally different locations?
A: Yeah, he's in Argentina.
R: So you communicate…how?
R: And you've met, how many times?
R: Yet it's like you're connected?
A: That's what people say. Other creator's in this industry can not believe the synergy that we have. It looks like the work of one person.
R: He gets inside your head?
R: I think that's part of the success.
A: It's funny, but I'm trying to get to the point with him…
(We're interrupted for some Thai food.)
…thanks...we're…I'm going to know what it looks like. He still surprises me…a lot! It's funny, he sez I surprise him. You know? The way these stories are going? Something's coming out of left field…he's as intimate with this thing as I am…and I'll be like Oh-mi-god, I can't believe he did that…(he) fooled me. We had a long talk in San Diego about where this thing was going next: twenty to thirty issues, he just wanted to know. It's time for you to tell me. (laughs) You're the only one that knows, so he sat me down-he's happy with it.
R: So DC leaves you alone?
A: They kinda want to know six months in advance what's happening. Again-they're trusting Eduardo and I, at this point.
R: Hellblazer? How did that come about?
A: (laughs) Warren Ellis quit the book. They needed a replacement real fast and I got the call. Axel was the editor at the time, and said this is the direction I want to take him in. I said, all right, let me think about that. He wanted to do a lot of globe hopping, and I thought about that and I said that's not something that interests me. I said, let's drop him somewhere he can't get out of: prison. And as soon as I said that he said, you got the job. Let's keep him in America, a sorta Herschell Gordon Lewis movie (laughs). But I'm done with Hellblazer now.
R: the buzz on that was, the series Oz was tapping into your head, and visa versa, as far as prison reality goes?
A: Well, it's funny, the first reaction was like, I was riffin on Oz: the Black gang the Arian gang-hey, that's not riffin' on Oz…
Both: (laughing) That's prison.
We both take a break and eat our spicy Thai. Azzarello honestly looks like Spider Jerusalem from the DC comic masterpiece Transmetropolitan, so it's hard not to think I'm sitting on the pages of some comic book, paneled, inked, and colored.
R: Marvel and Richard Corben…fun diversion?
A: Yeah. It's been, you know, a real good time. I love working with Richard and we will work together again.
R: But strictly DC?
A: Yeah, but we'll create our own thing, which is pretty much where I'm going. I mean, we did the Hulk thing, The Cage…
R: Which was great.
A: thanks. And it's become really clear to me that I don't like super heroes because they're dull. So I don't mind screwing with them. I mean, a lot of the Marvel characters are flawed, but their flaws are so insignificant that they're still dull. Working on the company owned stuff, you don't have a lot of freedom. You can tell a story, sure. But you can't do anything radical to the character, you gotta leave him were he was, you gotta just pick him up, dust him off a bit…the Hulk was different, we were aloud to do pretty much what we wanted because we were out of the whole Hulk continuity. That led to Cage, which we just finished.
R: When do we get to see the trades?
A: I think November.
R: 100 Bullets is often compared to Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep? Cool? Pain-in-the-ass? What?
A: I don't really pay attention. People are always trying to find ways to categorize things. It's a way to describe what I do…well, it's like this…it's like The Big Sleep, whatever.
R: The Minute Men, are we going deeper into their past, a biography?
A: You'll know what happened in Atlantic City.
R: What's up with Atlantic City?
A: I have a soft spot in my heart for Atlantic City. I love that place. The desperation is so palatable (laugh). They haven't shined the place up, like Vegas, which is terrible, it's Disney World.
R: The characters Shepard and Graves…they know so much because they have friends in high places?
R: how high does it go?
A: Pretty high (laughs).
Outside an ambulance rips by, there's honking and some cursing too. Everything's crazy, out of balance for a few and then instantly settles down to doldrums. Nobody notices the commotion outside, nobody looks up, pulls away from their conversations.
R: Instead of all over the map, you like intimate settings for your characters?
A: A location is only as interesting as the characters that are in it. Their story is more important then where they're at. Although where they're at shapes who they are sometimes.
R: Would you say you're work is more character driven?
A: Well, yeah, people's stories are great. I love to listen to people talk.
R: Do you get your ideas from real people?
A: Oh yeah. I'll ride the bus, eavesdrop on the conversation. Kids have the best ones. A lot of people say my dialogue is dead on, that's because I listen. That's all.
R: What do you read?
A: I don't read a lot of comics. I just read a true story, corporate man, middle aged, commits murder, goes to prison. It's his memoirs on what's that like.
R: You like prison stories?
A: I like the politics (laughs). You go to prison and you're stripped of all you are, and then you struggle to regain yourself in usually severe and brutal ways.
R: What's the future hold…Hollywood?
A: I kinda don't want anything to do with that. It seems there's a lot of lying and ass-kissing going on (laughs). And I don't have time for that, you know? So I'm moving more towards novels. Rather than Hollywood. But a friend of mine, who is in comics, said that's a mistake. You write a script, it pays better per word. (laughs)
R: Graves would have a real field day in Hollywood?
A: they haven't made enough bullets for Hollywood. (Laughs)
With that he pushes his seat back and stands. He smiles as he puts his cap on, zips his jacket, shakes my hand before heading through the tiny wood-paneled restaurant. He pushes the glass door open. The sunlight swallows him whole and in an instant he is gone.