Manuel Ramos Interviews Brian Azzarello: Flashback From Issue 9

Originally ran in Crimespree issue 9, November 2005

Brian Azzarello interviewed by Manuel Ramos

Manuel Ramos: You were fishing over the weekend. Is that right? What kind of fishing?

Brian Azzarello: Bass.

MR: Up in Wisconsin?

BA: Northern Wisconsin. About forty-five minutes from the Canadian border.

MR: You a big fisherman?

BA: No, no such thing as a big fisherman.

MR: I used to fish here in Colorado with my dad, years ago, when you could actually get to a lake and be the only ones there. Doesn’t happen too much anymore.

BA: Not unless you own the lake.

MR: Yes, that’s right there are some folks who can do it, I’m not part of that group. I’ve got a pile of your books here – I just finished Hard Way and your publisher also sent me Loveless, so I looked at that, too. I guess I’ll start early on. What did you read as a kid, to get you inspired? Is this the kind of stuff you were reading?

BA: [chuckles] As a kid?

MR: Yeah, as a kid.

BA: The Outsiders.[laughs]

MR: Any comic books, super heroes?

BA: No, no. When I was a kid I didn’t read super hero comics at all. I read DC’s war comics and Marvel’s monster comics. The super heroes had nothing for me.

MR: I remember reading Sgt. Rock.

BA: Oh yeah.

MR: I know you’ve done that, too. I’ve got a copy of that (Sgt. Rock) here. How about crime fiction? Were you reading any of that in paperbacks, checking stuff out from the library?

BA: I think before I was reading crime fiction as a kid, I was reading true crime. Because, I guess, you kind of make the connection from seeing something on TV. Like Helter-Skelter. I think I saw Helter-Skelter on TV before I read it. And then, Joseph Wambaugh – I started reading all of his stuff.

MR: Onion Field ?

BA: Yeah, that’s probably my favorite one. That’s just such a screwed-up story.

MR: How about the movie?

BA: Yeah, the movie’s pretty good, too.

MR: I think that was James Woods’ breakthrough?

BA: Uh-huh.

MR: The idea of writing for such a visual format, where do you think you got that?

BA: I don’t know. I fell into it. It’s not anything that I really wanted to do. I went to school, I got a degree in fine art. I’m trained as a painter and a print maker. It’s a visual medium, that helps me definitely in working with my artists. But, you graduate from school with a painting degree, somebody puts a roller in your hand and points you toward a wall, as far as your job opportunities go.

MR: When did you start writing?

BA: I’d been out of school, say six – seven years, I started writing comics.

MR: Was that the first thing you tried your hand at?

BA: I wrote some videos. Like industrial videos, which were real dry. That was because a friend of mine was in the business. When I got out of school, I was living hand-to-mouth, and he said, listen, these scripts are pretty simple to write. So he hired me to do some and I wrote some of those for a while.

MR: Was that in the Midwest?

BA: Yeah, in Cleveland.

MR: And where are you now?

BA: I’m in Chicago.

MR: You did that, and then obviously you talked to somebody about writing for comics, graphic novels. It just sort of happened?

BA: Yeah, it did. It really just sort of happened. [laughs] Its funny, because this industry, it seems like everybody who’s in it, really, really wanted to be in it. And a lot of the people that support it, are people who want to get in it. If you go to a convention, the line of guys to get their book signed, that’s the same line that’s calling your editor for your job.

MR: They all have ambitions to be the next one, to have their name on the cover?

BA: Yeah.

MR: And was it always this kind of stuff when you started doing it?

BA: Yeah, yeah. 100 Bullets is my second long form – actually it’s my first. The first thing I did was Jonny Double, which was a four issue mini-series, also for Vertigo, and that was the first time I worked with Eduardo (Risso), too. In the middle of that series, neither of us were signed to do anything else, and I think that the people in charge at DC were like, “we can’t let them go, we got to give them something.” And the editor who had done Jonny Double was Axel Alonso. At the same time that I pitched Jonny Double to Axel, which is a DC-owned character, I also pitched 100 Bullets. He (Alonso) had that on his desk and we were able to push it through.

MR: The 100 Bullets line, you’ve committed to do a hundred issues of that?

BA: Right.

MR: So you are about half-way through, at least in the trades?

BA: Yeah, I think I just finished writing issue 70. I think issue 64 is out right now.

MR: I got to issue 50 in #8 (The Hard Way) and I started learning a lot more about the background of the Trust, and it kind of took off in a more detailed direction. Is that right?

BA: Yeah, I’d say so. I had to give a big glob of information out at some point. It’s like leaving crumbs for people.

MR: Keeps them coming back.

BA: Yeah.

MR: Do you have the entire story?

BA: I have an outline.

MR: Up to number 100?

BA: Up to number 100.

MR: You know where you are going with it?

BA: Absolutely. I know the last line in the book.

MR: Really? Want to give it away?

BA: No. [laughs]

MR: And does Risso know that, too? Is he aware of where you are going with this?

BA: Yeah.

MR: How do you two guys work together?

BA: Email. He’s in Argentina. We get together probably once a year.

MR: But most of what you do is by email back and forth, you send him the stories, and he collaborates with you about what he is thinking of doing with the art?

BA: We don’t even do that much. I send him the script and he just sits down and does it. He’s completely free to add and subtract different elements, too. We have a good working relationship.

MR: I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but you guys really rock together, it just fits.

BA: Howard Chaykin paid us the highest compliment. He said it looks like the work of one guy.

MR: I know it blew me away. I’ve been hooked ever since I picked up the first one of 100 Bullets. I think I heard about it on this Internet group that deals with noir and hard-boiled crime fiction called Rara-Avis, and they started talking about you, so I picked them up and been at it ever since. You’ve worked with other artists on different books. Is that the same kind of process with these other guys?

BA: Depends. Different artists need more information, they like to be talked through things more than Eduardo does. For the most part, I think it’s really important for a writer in this field to trust his artist. Not to tell him what to do but to ask him, suggest, and also realize that this is a collaborative medium, and he is just as important, if not more so, than I am to it. Because it is so visual.

MR: Is that the way you see the stories, when you are putting them together?

BA: By now, I pretty much get what I’m seeing in my head. Which is eerie sometimes.

MR: Exactly what you were thinking of shows up on the page?

BA: Yeah, and I use like maybe a sentence to describe what it is supposed to look like. One sentence, no commas, and I get this detailed thing. It’s like, “Oh God, it’s weird.” It’s like we’re married. [laughs]

MR: Which is a good thing.

BA: Yeah, it is.

MR: In The Hard Way, you’ve gone to New Orleans, you’ve done something, I don’t want to give too much of it away, but, of course, by the time folks read this it will be another couple of months. But Dizzy and Shepherd, that whole ending… Were we prepared for that? I don’t think I was.

BA: I don’t think you were either. But, you should have seen it coming. [laughs]

MR: I should have, huh?

BA: Yeah, that was totally, that was just a fake-out, after the whole story with Wylie, Shepherd tied up in a chair, where it looks like Shepherd is going to die, and he gets untied, and then … I remember when people finished Wylie’s story, on one of the 100 Bullets boards online, they were just complaining, what a letdown. I’m not going to tell you what happens in the next issue, and you won’t have seen it coming, or you will be completely pointed in a different direction.

MR: Which is what we want.

BA: I think so

MR: As readers, we certainly do.

BA: The worst, the worst things you can read are things you don’t have to read, because you know what’s going to happen already.

MR: You’ve got it outlined, you’ve got it mapped out, but I suppose you still surprise yourself when you finally start getting into a particular issue?

BA: Yeah, absolutely. It’s funny, I guess you being a writer, you asked the question the way I think it should be asked. I’ve been interviewed by other people who say, “Do the characters ever surprise you?” No, they don’t. I do, I surprise me. Sometimes, you come up with a line of dialog that completely switches a direction that you thought this character was going to go in. You got to trust yourself.

MR: Sure, you are in the middle of it, it’s going on, it’s really happening, in your head at least, and then it’s just there, and you do it, and you put it down.

BA: Yeah, and you look back and you think, I didn’t think I wanted to go in that direction, but I like the direction I went in.

MR: Jason Starr in his introduction to #8 really dropped some names around you: Hammett, James Cain and David Goodis, even Chandler. He uses the term neo-noir when talking about the literary elements of your work, which I totally agree with. How does that grab you? How do you react to that?

BA: Humbly. When you get put in that kind of group, you go whoa. I certainly don’t believe that I belong there, but I’m not going to argue with the guy. [laughs] It’s not anything that I tried to force into the work at all.

MR: I’m assuming you don’t sit there and say, all right, on this next page I got to do this because this is noir, after all.

BA: Yeah. Maybe in the fifth trade, the Counterfifth Detective. That was such a tip of the hat and the influences were right out in the open, where they were supposed to be. I’m not trying to hide anything that influences me. It’s like, here, everybody, this is the kind of stuff I like. But that was the only time it was consciously part of it.

MR: Yeah, that’s what you were trying to do so that’s how you did it. The other work is just the story and the characters and how they all fit together. And now you’ve gone into a western with Loveless. Coming out later (October 26), your publicity person sent me a few questions with the book.

BA: Doing your work for you, eh?

MR: Yeah – so is there a renaissance of the western genre?

BA: I hope so. [laughs] I’d hate to think I’m doing this for nothing.

MR: Well, Deadwood was such a huge hit.

BA: I’d been working on getting this thing off the ground probably two years before Deadwood premiered. Deadwood comes out and suddenly it gets approved. [laughs]

MR: Funny how that works.

BA: Yeah. I understand things take time but …

MR: How long do you think this one will last?

BA: It’s a western, who knows? I’m hoping four years. It looks like a western but it’s much more of a noir. What are some blanket western themes? The frontier, the wide-open expanses, the opportunity that those things present, and the ability for a character to re-invent himself. That’s the western. Well, I am trying to bring in this claustrophobic, society has doomed you, you’re going to make that mistake, and you’re going to end up in a worse place than you started off. Avant-noir.

MR: I noticed right off, and maybe it’s just me, you’ve got the whole notion of Wes Cutter returning, and there is an order, the Yankees have taken over, they are Law And Order, yet, here he is, he’s got his own sense of justice, of course, and immediately he’s an outlaw.

BA: Why waste time? [laughs]

MR: A couple of pages in, there’s a shooting.

BA: Yeah, that’s why people are buying it anyway. They want guns blazing.

MR: It looked good to me – I’m certainly looking forward to it. You’ve got other projects in the works?

BA: We’re working on getting a series of three graphic novels off the ground. Rather than being published, for lack of a better word, as chapters monthly, kind of like 100 Bullets, I’d rather do these stories as complete, self-contained, single publications. One character, a detective. A trilogy.

MR: We shouldn’t expect it soon?

BA: I wouldn’t expect it for another year or more. Just because, if it does go the way I want it to go, which is published all at once, it’s going to be one hundred and sixty pages that the artist is going to have to do, instead of the twenty-two, so it’s going to take him a while.

MR: You’re working on that, you’re working on the western, and on 100 Bullets. You’re a busy guy.

BA: Yeah.

MR: That’s cool. I have to wrap it up, Brian.

BA: Thanks a lot, Manuel.

MR: Thank you, Brian.

Thanks to Erik Troe of Denver radio station KUVO for helping out with the recording and other technical aspects of the interview.