Most people who pursue comics as a vocation notched serious time in the geek trenches during their grammar-school days. But Brian Azzarello has a confession: “I was not really a collector or anything like that.”
“I didn’t really like superheroes,” explains the A-list author of comic books and graphic novels. “I liked monsters and war comics.” Which explains why he became an ace at crime fiction instead of the flashier tights-and-capes genre. It also makes him a surprising choice to shepherd the new adventures of Wonder Woman, forging a 21st-century path for the iconic Amazon.
Along with artists Cliff Chiang and Tony Akins, Azzarello, an Andersonville resident, has been crafting her exploits (earning significantly increased sales) since DC Comics’ “New 52” reboot of all its superhero titles, which started anew with all No. 1 issues last fall. It’s part of the biggest year yet in Azzarello’s already acclaimed career: The hardcover of his hard-boiled sci-fi tale, Spaceman, hits stores this week. Meanwhile, he’s also writing Before Watchmen: Rorschach and Before Watchmen: Comedian, new miniseries featuring the two most twisted characters from Watchmen.
An Ohio native, Azzarello moved to Chicago in 1989 after studying painting and printmaking at the Cleveland Institute of Art. He took odd jobs, restoring antique furniture and the like, until two fateful events in the ’90s. He married artist Jill Thompson (who’d already drawn two high-profile DC titles: Wonder Woman and Neil Gaiman’s career-launching Sandman), and was introduced to an editor who worked for the company’s mature-readers imprint, Vertigo.
Azzarello ended up writing a few short stories for anthology comics before teaming up with the man who has become his most noted collaborator, Argentine artist Eduardo Risso. They hit it big in 1999 with an original monthly series, 100 Bullets. As the pulpy title suggests, the Eisner-winning saga is a crime drama—about a mysterious agent who offers people a gun with 100 untraceable bullets, essentially giving them the option to exact consequence-free revenge.
In the aughts, Azzarello began two other career-defining collaborations: the first with artist Lee Bermejo, who illustrated Luthor and Joker (and is now drawing Rorschach); the other with Chiang. But he always intended to continue working with Risso. Their latest long-form work, Spaceman, pushes Azzarello’s knack for dialogue to new realms, given the book’s future setting: a dystopian Earth, half underwater, with a populace still smitten by celebrity and addicted to TV.
“I really like language—and slang in particular, and just the shorthand we use when we communicate with people,” he says. “To come up with something futuristic that would still make sense, it was a really good time.”
So how did a guy known for down-to-earth tales of murder, kidnapping and the like come to write about the world’s most famous bustier-clad hero? He went out to dinner with Dan DiDio, one of DC Comics’ top executives, who was plotting new approaches for the New 52 era. Azzarello was “appalled” when he heard about the plans for Wonder Woman. “I came up with something different right there at dinner. I thought the direction was going to be a mistake for that character, right at her core. And I knew nothing about her!” By the end of dinner, he had the gig.
Azzarello went back to her Greek-mythology roots and tweaked the character’s origin. Previously, Diana was molded out of clay by Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons, and granted life by the goddesses, but Azzarello imagined she was conceived after her mother’s tryst with the ever-amorous Zeus.
The surprising alteration naturally offended comic-book purists. Some fansaccused Azzarello of insulting the ideal of feminism, to which he wryly responds: “I have never met a feminist who didn’t have a father.”
What’s next for Wonder Woman? Even as she continues to deal with the fallout from learning her true parentage, an alien visitor arrives: Orion, one of the New Gods created by legendary comics artist Jack Kirby. Traditionally, Orion is the son of evil god Darkseid, though he rebels and fights for good. Might Azzarello be messing around with his parentage too? “He’s [still] a New God. I’m not going to fuck with Kirby!”
Spaceman is in bookstores now. The next issue of Wonder Woman arrives in comics shops Wednesday 21. Click here to read a sneak peek of the comic, along with the prologue to Spacemen and additional conversation from our interview with Azzarello.