Tomorrow, the final issue of 100 Bullets hits the stores. TFO thought it would be pleasant to spend the evening prior taking a look at the other stories that Brian Azzarello has brought to the table. Below, you should be able to find some sort of coverage for every single comic book or graphic novel that Azzarello has ever written, with only the exception of his impressive run with Eduardo Risso, Agent Graves, The Trust and Lono, who will be better served another time. You'll also find links to multiple interviews and editorials about and with Brian. It's a whole lot of stuff, and god knows who will be interested in reading it, but hey: there it is anyway. All titles are arranged in a roughly chronological format based on when they were released, with most of the Vertigo and Wildstorm work collected under the titles the trade collections were published under.
Brian is listed as being the "line editor" for various other titles published by the Andrew Rev version of Comico--barely anything came out of the line that anyone remembers, except for a Frank Quitely drawn Elementals Sex Special, which everybody talks about all the time. Rumor has it that some of those comics are worth tracking down just to read Azzarello talk about wrestling in various letter columns: you make the call. Either way, this thing: Primer # 1: Featuring Lady Bathory. That's the first thing we could find for him with a full writing credit. Saying "you could do worse" is a pretty apt description here. This is bad news/bad girl comics, with an outfit that would probably upset Jeanna Fine, and no, it's not an entertaining take on exploitation or a satirical look at the 90's world of tits and guns, it's just plain old irredeemable trash. Full of sub-erotic cheesecake, focused on a descendent of Countess Elizabeth Bathory (the dead Hungarian lady who used to bath in the blood of children to "keep herself young," and wasn't that interesting in 1996 and is even less so now following Hostel 2) who serves as a member of the "Assassin Deck" which has, yes, why not, of course!, fifty-two assassins because, as she of the fully exposed crack puts it "Fifty-two is a perfect number." If the introduction is to be believed--and it's a late 90's comic about a scantily clad assassin, so who knows--then the character of Lady Bathory was "created" by Aldrin Aw, a comic book artist who works under the nom de plume of "Buzz." The plan--again, according to the breathless introduction that refers to the Primer series as a "sexy new jam"--was for the character's adventures to continue in a Lady Bathory ongoing series. Luckily for Brian, that didn't come to pass. When an early work by a comic creator is as bad as this one, the only enjoyment possible would be to look around to see whether any similarities or future seeds of skill might rest underneath this chuckle-free freakshow of stilted porno. Unfortunately, there's no indication whatsoever that the writer of this comic would go on to do anything, except possibly write more comics as bad as this one. Chalk it up to the character, the company, youth, intoxication, but Primer # 1 is just another terrible comic book from the 90's, complete with a cover blurb that refers to it as the "1st Sexy Collector's Issue!" It's Azzarello's first documented work, if you're relying on the Internet, which also blames my wife's people for 9/11. Who fucking knows. His name is on it.
"Feverishly, we then began to visualize [Red Dragon] in concept after concept sketch. Filtering all the best bits through his own dynamic vision, artist extraordinare (sic) Tony Akins really tore it up. Solidifying the look and sealing his fate, Tony demanded to draw the book, after just one sketch! Line Editor Brian Azzarello, a remarkable comic book writer, more than fleshed out the Dragon's profile, creating a hyperreal world full of hot chicks, ultra-violence, black humor, and one hell of a rogue's gallery."
-From the inside cover of Red Dragon # 1
"Hot chicks" must refer to future "hot chicks" that appeared in later stories featuring Red Dragon, none of which seem to exist--either way, whatever "hot chicks" were created by Brian Azzarello never saw print, as this was the only issue of Red Dragon he wrote. There are a few full-page advertisements for the Elementals Swimsuit Special and the Elemental Sex Special which probably could be used for wanking material. "Ultra-violence" doesn't really appear either, unless you count the bloodless death of someone getting hit in the head with a domino, or a cartoonish punch-out near the end. "Black humor" is a nice way to put it, as that implies the jokes are either cynical or gross--they are neither, also, they aren't funny. Finally, while it's certainly possible a future "hell of a rogue's gallery" exists, the only bad guy here is a Miami Vice villain who looks more than a little bit like Peter Milligan's Skreemer character. Scratch that, he looks exactly like the Skreemer character.
Like Lady Bathory, there isn't much to say about this. It doesn't read anything like Azzarello's work--one has to assume he pretty much just filled in on dialog, because this is one of those art-heavy crap books, like a bad Youngblood spin-off. Tony Akins has a extraordinarily generic style, one that's notable only in the weird moments where he draws a few panels with that Ninja High School style manga reactions, where characters eyes bug out into saucers and the dialog comes out in symbols. That's it, really. It's a bad story about a super-hero/mercenary type creation that fights some stupid terrorists that turn out to be in the employ of Red Dragon's creator-types. One assumes the story would eventually involve the Dragon character uncovering his bosses duplicity and going on the run, probably with a cute scientist. Problematically, the Dragon does seem to be a complete fucking moron, so it would've taken a year or so. The nicest thing that can be said about Brian Azzarello and these comics is that it's sort of refreshing that he didn't go the Kubrick/Ware direction and spend any of his "success" money tracking them down and shredding the copies. That always seemed a bit ridiculous, even more so because both Fear and Desire and Floyd Farland are better works than Lady Bathory: My Tits Are Made Of Angel Vomit.
"I just really like the way people speak. Slang is great. I love slang. I love hearing stuff I've never heard before."
An only intermittently interesting story that's vaguely connected to the concept of whatever Weird War Tales was supposed to be--Weird Wars, apparently--Azzarello's (apparently first?) story for Vertigo is striking mostly because it's absolutely nothing at all like his two previous scripts for Comico--it's almost like he's a completly different writer. (Thank God!) In a way, he probably was: both Lady Bathory and Red Dragon were clearly art-first projects in the model of Image and late-McFarlane Marvel. Azzarello's involvement has to be assumed to have been an enlisted wordsmith, given a drawing and told a concept. Here, paired with James Romberger--an artist whose output was intermittent and mostly confined to the "Big Book of..." series published by DC's Paradox Press imprint--it's clear that he had a stronger hand. Tonally, the story is very similar to later work in both the Flinch anthologies as well as some of the street-level gang drama in various 100 Bullets stories--even some of the dialog shows up again later. "Sixty tray, all day." That's not completely Azzarello's construction--it's straight out of hip-hop and gang lingo--but it's used effectively, and it's the first of many experiences where the guy shows off the thing that he does that many comics writers, particularly the ones who try to do street-level dialog, can't. Effective usage of spoken lingo to describe character. Rare, that. Still, this particular story doesn't really work: what's being told is a grounded in pulpy realism gang story, and then--I guess because it's Weird War Tales--Ares, the Martian God Of War, I know that's not true, shows up in a hallucinatory scene looking like a gloomy carnival's big top animal trainer. Of course, it's only Ares if you can read the graffiti inspired title, none of the story's characters grasp who he is. All in all, it's a pretty bland stuff, despite having a great final line, delivered as the main character bleeds out, breathing his last, looking up at "Blond bitches on flying horses." Hell, what do you want? It's a start.
"I say all of this [dialog] out loud. That is a really good thing for writers, especially comic book writers, to do. Not enough writers will say their dialog aloud to hear what it sounds like. When you're saying what you've written and it sounds like exposition you just know that it's crap and needs to be redone."
On his second story for Vertigo Comics, Brian Azzarello got the chance to open the four issue crime anthology Gangland. The first line is "So, this nigger, see, he's standin' in this caddy lot, rubbin' his big black chin, looking at the cars." That's telling--it would be a while before DC trusted this guy to do anything with their more corporate characters, and by they time they did, it would be after 100 Bullets had secured itself as a profitable enough enterprise for him to be allowed to screw with Time Warner's bigger corporate playthings. It's not to say that dropping racial slurs is courageous on Azzarello's part--if anything, the weird ease at which Vertigo has always treated language stands in stark contrast to their apparent unwillingness to deal with any type of sexual issues. Courage is too strong a word. But it's gutsy at least, to see that sort of choice made by someone who was just writing a eight page story and had little on his resume beyond an affiliation with Comico--you'd think he would have wanted to send in something guaranteed not to raise any white flags. This is, after all, the same company that got scared away from Garth Ennis and The Boys just a few years ago, and 1998 isn't exactly considered a banner year for artistic freedom in the DC empire. (In Vertigo's defense, if they deserve one, Rachel Pollack's attempts to explore human sexuality, transgender identites and all different kinds of amorous proclivities in Doom Patrol had been published just a few years before this issue of Gangland--and while there wasn't really "controversy" over it, her run did end up driving the once successful title into cancellation. Nasty language and violence still worked though.)
By itself, "Clean House" is a pretty solid little crime tale, although it's more an illustrated bar story than it is an official "comic book"--a former mob enforcer gone state's witness comes home to discover his entire family, as well as the dog, is dead on the floor while the Federal Agent in charge of their security stands on the stairs. Short, mean and coarse, it's a story that works fine as an installment, but the main charm is a taste of what Azzarello likes to do--edited narration, where sentences conclude mid thought, so that the reader can fill in context, all mixed with a casual reference to thematics through coarse humor and violent observation. Most of what becomes his signature plot style is here as well, interestingly, it's pretty well formed--negotiations of power between men with guns, cruel, dehumanized violence, the relish at which murder gives way to nasty jokes. Well illustrated by Tim Bradstreet, one of those photorealist types who usually does covers, it's not a flashy comic, but a solid, intricate one, marred only by the classic Vertigo mistake of coloring everything in rusty brown or rusty orange which, as it always does, fails to bring anything distinctive to the story, except for flat-out ruining the final panel's blood splatter. (Red on rusty brown? Who doesn't know that always looks like shit?) Still, Bradstreet's line-work is impressive enough, and the final joke--a silent one, doled out when the characters look outside at a moving van--is clever enough. He'll do stuff like this again, but that's to be expected: everybody knows that you can't do noir and crime anymore without mentioning the widely-accepted ideal that violence, like herpes, can't really die. It just starts up again in a different location.
"Axel and I were sitting around, smoking Cubans and drinking Bourbon Whiskey, talking about Jonny Double, a character he kicked my way a few months prior. He had sent some Human Target issues, saying chances were slim of me getting to do it, but he also included the Showcase where Double appeared, thinking I might be interested in him, and guess what, he was right. We had finished discussing Double when I pitched 100 Bullets to him; a few hours later he suggested we run with that instead. Now, I'm thinking, I got a much better chance of having a four issue mini-series approved than an ongoing, y'know? Up till that point I'd only had a few stories in the anthologies, right? And I'd been down the rejected proposal route before, and didn't feel like going again. So I says we go with Double first--I knew I could tell that story, get something out there I can build on. He was hip to it."
Unfairly dismissed as a sort of 100 Bullets dry-run, wherein Azzarello and Risso prepare the ground for the partnership that would eventually spawn their successful run on that title, Jonny Double is a pretty simple story--it's a detective, he takes a case, ends up getting tricked by a girl, and money and murder takes over all motive. While it reads more than a little as a derivative on some of Azzarello's favorite writers (Jim Thompson for one) it's status as a lessor work is more attributable to the fact that A) it's short and B) Risso's art hadn't yet hit the highs it would eventually achieve a few years later. Line-wise, the characters are still distinctive and attractive, but the coloring is muted, rarely doing anything more than looking like the contrast has been turned way down, to the point where most pages look like a film that's been shot through a hazy filter. Blues and reds that should pop instead become pastel, and the story suffers for it--because if there's one thing that you can't do with this sort of noir, it's to look at it through a Vaselined lens. But Azzarello's script is strong, and while many of the characters--notably the gang of young wanna-bes that Double ends up becoming the mascot of--are only distinguishable by appearance, Double himself is an interesting variation on the hard-luck private investigator. Azzarello has mentioned before an interest in returning to the character, claiming to have already come up with "the next story", but you wouldn't guess that from Double's climax, where the protagonist ends up in the classic detective's dream retirement home: a beachfront bar, where everybody wants to hear his story, and nobody tells him to shave more often. When cast against Ed Brubaker's Sleeper, which has a similar ending only to twist the knife and reveal the beach to be a lie planted in the brain of the comatose lead, Azzarello's is simply that: a happy ending. As the years of his comics rolled on, that makes it weird enough.
Moving more towards subtlety and allowing the artist to finish the story, "The Other Side of Town" has more in common with what will later become one of Azzarello's most well-known (while not exactly most well-loved) traits--the story can seem mildly confusing if you read it with the same level of dedication you have to give to The Mighty Avengers, meaning not that fucking much attention at all. But if you pay attention, and this one is worth it, you'll get stuck with questions nonetheless. (They just won't be stupid ones.) What is it the police officer Flint sees in that footprint on the floor? Is his motion to unbuckle his holster due to experience or actual fear that Loretta--a woman he has a crush on, but who he is beginning to suspect of double murder--will come for him next? Does Loretta actually care for him, or does his comment "Thinking of dessert" imply that she will have to pretend, like him or no, if she wishes to remain free? In some of the interviews that Azzarello did around this time period, he mentioned that length was unimportant, the goal with his work was "to tell good stories"--"Other Side" is that, sure, but if it could very easily have not had been. Not having the script as a resource, one can only imagine how it read, but it seems safe to assume that Azzarello trusted Tim Bradstreet--an artist he's a vocal fan of--to flesh out the skeletal dialog. With only one exception--when Flint holds Loretta's hands and asks her if she's been watching Marshall Dillon, because her "hands smell like gunsmoke"--the entire story is delivered in the art's reveal. There's talking, sure--a standard reminiscence on something a father would pass down that a child would interpret as biblical truth--but the meat of the story, the climactic reveal--none of it is said, only shown. Pointedly, this sort of choice is something most of the Vertigo anthologies were rife with--stories by people like Danijel Zezelj, Peter Kuper, Dave Gibbons--comics that didn't play it stupid, that asked the reader to pay attention. Still, Azzarello's experience at this point was minor in comparison to those he's surrounded by--both Gangland and Flinch featured established talents like Bill Sienkiewicz, Dean Motter, Joe Lansdale, and while Azzarello isn't notably less talented then those who surrounded him, his work experience was far more limited. Making the decision here to have faith in partners, this early in his "mainstream" career can, and for my money, should, be treated as a definitive proof of courage. One can easily imagine how less skilled artists would have failed to pull off what Bradstreet does in "Other Side" with such finesse.
That isn't to say that "The Other Side of Town" is some kind of Lost Scroll of Comics Perfection. The terrible Vertigo color palate is still a problem--not so much at the stories open, where a dusky highway looks appropriately brown, the later kitchen sequence less so--and the story is another chapter in a writer's love for the Jim Thompson kitchen wars of Pop. 1281 and The Killer Inside Me. It is, however, a damn fine story--no amount of spot-the-reference could ruin that.
By itself, "Food Chain" is pretty much...well, it's impossible to tell. You'd have to find somebody who'd never read any of 100 Bullets, and it would help if they hadn't read "Clean House" or Azzarello's Hellblazer run as well. More than anything in Azzarello's early catalog, "Food Chain" is a straight ahead mash-up throwdown, a story that's less stand-alone and more lodestone: it's about a guy who springs a solution--one involving murder--on an unsuspecting man in a room. Handguns are drawn, evidence (an old porno magazine) is pulled from an attache case, Secrets Are Spoken Aloud. The guy offering the Faustian bargain is an Agent--not Graves, as he'll be known in 100 Bullets, which began only a month later--but Turro, as in the same name (and probably the same character) who had screwed over an out-of-date Mafia informant a year earlier in Gangland # 1. [See above] Turro is also the name of the agent who dangles information in front of John Constantine during the cat-and-mouse backstory that runs throughout Azzarello's entire Hellblazer run. They don't seem to be the exact same person, although it's altogether possible, but it still makes for a weird little story to read after having taken in so much of the guy's writing. It's a nice little story, suffering only once again from the Vertigo decision to color everything in a diarrea browns and sickening oranges, leading one to wonder if there was once some rule laid in place for the line that said "All noir stories take place in Stephen Soderbergh's version of Raising Arizona." Otherwise, it's a story that could have been told in 100 Bullets, and enjoyment of it is now completely under the purview of "look how similar this is to other, longer comics." It's good comics, but it feels more trial run than anything else.
"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."
-Brian Azzarello, On Strange Adventures
Out of all the anthology contributions that Azzarello turned into Vertigo before his time was taken over by 100 Bullets and Hellblazer, "Native Tongue" is arguably the "best" one, if not the least getreadyfor100bullets one. Another moody tale with the sort of elliptical ending that sends the reader back to the first page to catch all the little nuances, "Tongue" follows a tabloid reporter inspecting cattle mutilations (and eventually dead people as well), looking for cover stories while denying the local tipsters the chance at a pricey reward for proof of alien existence. While similar in delivery to one of those done-in-one X-Files (and probably to the original Kolchak: The Night Stalker) as well, the language and conclusion are all his. Essad Ribic's art is the sort of moody photorealism that works, as opposed to most of the time, when it looks like somebody is cloning Alex Maleev (or worse, Alex Ross) and instead producing uniformly shit work. While the story's ending may be somewhat predictable if you've spent any time reading Azzarello's other comics, it's still an excellent little shocker, and the final panel--a grotesque interpretation of the story's title--is one that stands alongside Eduardo Risso's work as a fine example of what to expect when Azzarello's script is in sync with whomever draws it.
The first time Azzarello is partnered with Danijel Zezelj, who would go on to illustrate portions of the underrated (albeit somewhat unwieldy) Loveless series, was another short anthology piece for Vertigo's unsung horror anthology classic Flinch, this one focused on a phone call, murder, and the reasons why graffiti is best ignored. "Last Call" is sort of what you'd expect if a movie like Phone Booth or Cellular was retold, only a lot quicker, better, and more like an urban legend. "Did you hear the one about the guy who heard the dude kill his wife? My cousin is a cop in Chicago, it's totally true." Zezelj's art is, as usual, expressive, distinct and still a little weird in what it chooses to emphasize--the most emotionally resonant cast member of this story isn't the protagonist, who spends his entire run of the short story on the phone ticking off feelings like a checklist (I love my wife, i'm going to sort of fantasize about cheating on her, I want to fuck that lady, oh shit she's dead), instead, Zezelj gives the entire story in one panel, when a bar employee looks directly at the man-on-phone with a grimace of disappointment that speaks volumes. As a story, it's little more than a new version of alligators in the sewer. But as an art piece, and a chance to see the first of what beget several excellent collaborations between the two men, it's exceptional work.
"Judged by the stark, sure-footed portrait in Hard Time, Brian Azzarello and Richard Corben clearly have John Constantine down, cold and to the life. Azzarello's grasp of pacing, character and situation resonates through every scene with a black crystal clarity that's short of masterful, while Corben contributes what is, perhaps, one of the most darkly expressive pieces in a long, already-legendary career."
Well, you can't get much bigger credit then that, now can you? Not
only is it from the creator of John Constantine, Mr. I believe in magic
but not the Criss Angel kind, Alan Moore, but it's from an Alan Moore
who had to know that his mortal enemy, DC Comics, would plaster that
little bit of purple praise onto the collected Hard Time trade. Which,
of course, they did--front cover and back, just in case the prospective buyers didn't get the message. The message being: Alan Moore likes this. You think you know better?
"I want to make him a bastard again."
Some of the regular complaints leveled at Brian Azzarello began here, with his first five issue arc for Vertigo's (by dent of length) flagship title. A prison drama that plays like an episode of HBO's now-canceled Oz, Hard Time was, even for a comic like Hellblazer that prides itself on doing whatever it likes, pretty distinct. Besides grabbing one of horror's best artist, and then not giving him a single monster to draw, the explanation for why John has been locked up doesn't arrive until the end of the story, and when it does, it introduces an entire plot that won't be concluded for another 24 issues. (Meaning Azzarello got a narrative plot started that asked readers to wait two years for an "ending.") It's just a cold open on one of the classic prison "bitches" that television and afterschool specials have introduced to the cultural lexicon, and then John Constantine shows up in the new arrivals line. Azzarello's decision to start his run--a run that would come to encompass 28 issues of the title--with a brutal immersion was certainly a ballsy one, and one that few readers probably saw coming. After all, few of them would've known who this Azzarello guy was at that point. On top of that, Azzarello had to deal with the fact that Warren Ellis, the previous writer in charge, had left the book in something of a spectacle following DC's decision not to publish a school shooting story he'd turned in for the title. Taking on the book, it can be imagined, would certainly have been intimidating. And while the remainder of Azzarello's run played more like what Hellblazer had become at this point--violent stories laced in sarcasm--his first shots here were very much unlike what had become the general expectation of regular readers. In Hard Time, John willingly brings about the death (or fates-worse-than) to anyone who deigns to threaten him, and the climax of the story is not one where he shows any regret at the carnage that results. There's a mild excuse at the end, when he claims he allowed himself to be "railroaded" into a 35 year sentence because he "felt that maybe this time the piper should be paid," but it's a bullshit lie. From the moment he walks into the prison, he's geared up for a fight, and when the opportunities begin to present themselves, there's no indication whatsoever that he's not hurting people for any reason other than liking it.
The last of the crime anthology short stories, but not the last of the short stories, The Shaft is another one of those "oh I get it" kind where the title foreshadows the climax. A bit cursory and thrown off, it's interesting, but nothing special. Some kids chase a cat they're torturing into a construction site and end up meeting a couple of guys who are a hell of a lot further down the asshole ladder than they have. Depending on your sense of humor, the two kids accidently falling down on open elevator shaft--get it?--is actually pretty funny. Of course, now I've spoiled it, so hey: never mind!
A brief story more notable for Dave Taylor's excellent art--as well as some brilliant hand-lettering--"The First Time" is the story of John's first cigarette, which is handed off to him by a mysterious little boy named Nergal, who some Hellblazer readers will recognize as being the demon who went on to cause some measure of havoc in the grown-up "adventures" of John Constantine depicted in the early years of the title. It's the same sort of diversionary tale found in any of the randomly published "Secret Files" comics DC and Vertigo throw out every once in a while, and while there isn't much that the issue itself contains that could top Phil Hale's iconic cover, Azzarello's simple little tale is far better than the meandering text piece supplied by former Constantine steward Jamie Delano that opens the comic book. All the same: it's a short story about a kid smoking his first cigarette that has some really pretty art. There's only so much you can say about that.
"Am I a Constantine fan? I don't know...I'm a fan of baseball, but John Constantine? That's a tough call. He ain't an easy guy to like."
Containing what, for this reader, is one of the best action sequences of any Vertigo comic, Good Intentions is a story that struggles against a bit of cloying stereotype and mythology building but ends up being ultimately successful on its own merits. When contrasted against the later Highwater story, which contains a similar variation on Americana--there, the small-town grunts with facial hair are neo-Nazi criminals--Good Intentions can suffer a bit. It's the actual depiction of what is clearly a side-run story, a John Constantine tale by way of The Fugitive: John comes to town with a mission involving his dark past, gets involved in local problems, hijinks ensue, end story. Still, it's a comic that works incredibly well, and since Patricia Mulvihill was still a few issues away from joining the 100 Bullets team and reimagining the way in which Eduardo Risso's art should be colored, this ends up being one of the more attractive and most cohesive piece of actual comics at this point in Azzarello's career. As good as Hard Time looked, it was still a comic where the language and art didn't flow together throughout, with multiple moments left more confusingly laid out than they should have been. Here, that's not a problem, and the opening sequence of the volume--where John hitchhikes and cons a couple of murderers into killing themselves in 1970's road movie fashion--is impeccable work that's as smooth as glass.
Of course, the thing that most jumps out in this volume, the pages which would have and should have sold the book to more than just people interested in Hellblazer aren't until much letter--saved all the way for the climax of the story, roughly introduced in a two-page sequence that closes the second-to-last issue, wherein John murders a man with nothing more than a snap of his fingers and a massive wild animal. That cruelty leads into the final issue, containing a slap-dang war of silence and bloodshed, with the ultimate battle taking place between a dog, a pig, and a knife. It's exciting and brilliantly planned, and Azzarello's decision to build a story by slowly taking away the one most important weapon of John's --his lying, manipulative voice--until the entire bloodly finish is initiated with nothing more than a snap and a whistle--is one of the most bravura sequences he's constructed. As it is, it's surrounded by a story that doesn't totally make sense, built on the somewhat silly premise that an entire town has built an economy on gonzo pornography involving bestiality and the town's willing female population--but those sequences alone sell the title. It's a weird enough comic, this one--Marcelo Frusin and Azzarello's collaborations continued from here, in more Hellblazer and the eventually aborted Western comic Loveless, where they are listed as co-creators--and that seamless partnership of script and art first seen here is only rivaled by the 100 Bullets partnership. For all its minor flaws, Good Intentions is still pretty fantastic genre stuff, and it contains one of the best non-Bullets action sequences of his career thus far.
A short story detailing a conversation between Batman and Zsasz in a room full of dead people--gangbangers, from their central casting appearance--that Batman has arrived to late to save, this short back-up piece is one of those sorts of stories (like the rarely mentioned Batman: Absolution) that it's best for most Batman "fans" to ignore when it comes time to refer to him as heroic. Like an All Star Batman story sans humor, the character here describes saving a life as the ultimate form of intimacy, because it is in that moment, when "you meet their eyes" that a person realizes "they owe you." While Batman's ideology is certainly more palatable than Zsasz', who places the utmost importance on gutting human beings like he works at a Chinatown fish market, neither of them sound that honorable. At the same time, it's that sort of brutal frankness, that weird idea to treat the character like the ultimate sociopath--checking off his obsession with justice like a lunatic accountant who looks at a finished list of work as a necessary emotional task--that makes Azzarello's rare forays into standard super-hero work attractive. Little of what he does here would work for years of Batman stories, but when thrown alongside the teeming masses of the other thousand, it stands in stark enough contrast to be worth examining. You couldn't make a movie about a Batman who openly shows joy in forcing those he rescues into an emotionally demeaning master/servant relationship, but that doesn't mean it isn't an odd little road to go down for a few pages in a back-up to the 400th appearance of Hugo Strange. While that also means it has the tendency to read as being "good" just because it's "different", it's a Batman back-up story. You pretty much have to praise them if they can just make it to the level of being memorable.
"The fucker's a ghost, man. It's not about him."
-Brian Azzarello, about El Diablo
There's probably not a lot of DC published comics out there that use the title character of a comic as a feint designed to trick the reader until the final pages of a story into believing that what they're getting it is some kind of ultimate version of what they've read before, only to reveal that no, this comic was never really about El Diablo the character, but about El Diablo the idea. Of course, there isn't really "El Diablo" as an idea to play with anyway--it's not like the character had a unifying theme in the 80's to it beyond "Hispanic Batman, bolo tie." But you can't fault Azzarello for having to jack one of DC's dormant properties for the purposes of getting work out, and since it's a spaghetti western with Danijel Zezelj, really: who cares how they got here? What starts off as a variation on the Western ghost story, a sort of proto Ghost Rider character who wreaks vengeance and the cowboy assualt team inspired to hunt it down eventually leads to a finale that has less to do with where one needs to go and more where one has already been--even if it wasn't really you in the first place. Sorry for the word games: but the climax of this story is one of those that's so subtle, so clever, that it's one that seems wrong to spoil. Safe words only: you'll see what's coming before it hits--but you'll never guess the direction. Hopefully we can look to a future where more comics take the tactic of dumping their titular leads into cameo appearances--how great would Hal Jordan comics be then?
"Brian has made John more of a manipulator again, back to the twinkle in the eye, the more unpredictable nature. He's not as dark as, say, during Warren [Ellis]'s run. He's cheekier, but still very much the bastard. Brian's take is definitely closer to Alan Moore's vision of the character.
-Karen Berger, "Straight To Hell, Constantine's Past and Present Writers"
Whether Karen Berger is right about Azzarello's Constantine being "closer" to Alan Moore's vision of the character seems debatable to me, but since it's Karen Berger saying it, it definitely merits some consideration prior to dismissal. It's hard to know what she was getting at--personality wise, it hasn't been difficult for all of the writers of Hellblazer to stick to some of Alan Moore's "vision" of the character--they made him a sarcastic prick. But rarely has John been involved in the sort of grand scheme of things machinations that spoke to a proactive desire to save the world, or at least part of it, the way that he did when Alan Moore finally dropped the penny near the close of his run. John did a lot of selfish, pricky things in Swamp Thing, the only time when Alan Moore actually wrote him, but he also did a good bit of those things in the service of manipulating the Swamp-ed One into doing some positive shit, for all the good of mankind, trees, spirits. The John that Azzarello runs with--a meaner, ruthless character who instigates the deaths of some people for no real purpose beyond satisfaction of his rage--has a larger goal in mind as well, that being the eventual crippling and destruction of a man who has pushed his way too forcefully into John's life, a man who makes his first apperance in the two Guy Davis issues presented in the Freezes Over trade, but that private war isn't the focus of Azzarello's run, really. Even when the stories touch around it--like in the one-shot also collected in Freezes Over illustrated by classic Hellblazer artist Steve Dillon--it's in a glancing way, a reminder that the writer has other goals in mind for this, his John Constantine road trip to figure out where and what a liar can do.
After all, that's what Azzarello's Hellblazer run was, more so than even when Garth Ennis experimented with inserting John into New York City. (Not the first time that had happened in the series itself, it's the same place that Jamie Delano put him at first, and his Swamp Thing adventures prior were all based around American locations. It's the rest of Delano stories, as well as the time spent by Garth Ennis, that cemented London as the be-all-end-all Hellblazer setting.) But no one but Azzarello was willing to push into the heart of America as far as he did, even Alan Moore kept John relegated to places that could be mixed and matched, as long as a forest was near. Freezes Over--the four part story that gives this chapter its title--is case and point. It's a thoroughly Americana story, set in the type of trucker's diner that livened up Twin Peaks, complete with Asian bride and local legend, a somewhere west of decent weather location, with a crazy ass foreigner showing up out of the frozen wastelands to be met by gun-toting criminals and icicle murders.
Freezes Over is probably one of the more popular stories in Azzarello's run, part of which might be due to it being the last time for almost 100 issues that Vertigo allowed anybody to color a Constantine comic blue, but mostly because it's such a simple, effective horror story-as-potboiler, the kind Warren Ellis would probably have done if he'd stayed on the title. (Some of Ellis' single issues were out-and-out fantastic horror flicks in minature, but he bailed before he could pull off something good that lasted beyond the one-and-done. His one six parter was...meager, at best.) Freezes is a meat grinder story--take a bunch of characters, throw them in a locked room, watch them slam into each other, and then twist up the ending. It's like Agatha Christie, but kewler. But the Azzarello credit is somewhat of a misnomer, in the same way that handing credit for 100 Bullets to him alone is a gross inaccuracy. See, Freezes Over could only work if the artist involved is at least as talented at Marcelo Frusin, who depicts all of the characters (well, not the little kids) as if they've always got something going on beyond what they're saying. Azzarello's dialog can, on occasion, be a bit more obscure than is necessary, a little too stilted in favor of making the characters seem to "know" something that the reader doesn't. When it's true, it makes the story clever, when it's just stilted barking to tell a toneless joke, the reverse occurs. Frusin pulls off giving everybody the type of sneer and wide-eyed fear that makes it last until the end, and when it ends, and "all is revealed", it's a nice sucker punch.
Superhero comics are guys beating up each other and nobody gets killed. That's high school.
This is one of those stories that comics throw out all the time when they have a character like Wolverine (in this case Zealot, from the WildC.A.T.S. series of comics) who has such an extended backstory that a writer can do a story where the basic theme is "look, they have been doing this forever", like when Wolverine compares the death of one Japanese girlfriend to the time when another Japanese girlfriend died or made him a sandwich. Usually, they're that blunt as is this one. (Whenever Zealot tries to eat an apple, she is usually interrupted by a group of men who want to kill her with blades. See it happen, both past and present!) Yet there's something likable here--it's one of those silent stories, a tactic that Azzarello uses a lot in 100 Bullets, although it's rare for him to use it for this length. The art attempts to cross-over with Zen styled brush painting, with a bit of the old Europa Lars Von Trier thing in that the only thing in color is the apple and some blood, and while it's not altogether successful in merging the two, it's not a bad concept. Still, the idea behind it is a lot more fun to think about than the actual time spent reading it. (And jesus, what an awful title. "Apple Read"? This had to be boat money work.)
What do you do with the Hulk? The Hulk is a monster, so you do a monster story. It was fun to do.
I couldn't tell you if he did it first, and since its super-hero comics, he probably didn't, but Brian Azzarello and Richard Corben's version of the military dropping Bruce Banner out of a plane and using him as a weapon of mass destruction does predate the Mark Millar version, and it is also far more effective. It's less jokey, but thanks to Corben's art, Banner isn't some "serious" story either. You can make the mistake of thinking that it is--with its moody dialog, its crying Bruce--but just take one look at Doc Samson. He's a fucking goon straight off the streets of Los Angeles, one of those guys David Cross used to refer to as slowly going crazy as they hold up a posterboard screaming "Put me in the movies!" Azzarello's Hulk story--his first Marvel story, and one of the very few he's done for that company--is one of the funniest comics he's done. Not realizing that the Hulk would eventually be retconned into a monstrous brute who never actually hurt anyone during all those rampages where he tears down buildings and throws fighter jets into mountain ranges, the character here is a dark, angry beast who hates Bruce Banner even more than he hates regular people. But even though Azzarello gets his quirky dialog licks in, Banner is almost purely the Richard Corben show, and his excitement at getting a chance to draw a Hulk who, quite simply, doesn't give a fuck whether a pilot survives a plane crash, is exhilarating. This isn't a masterpiece of great comics lit, but in the pantheon of incredibly boring and repititious stories featuring the Incredible Hulk doing the same fucking King Kong scene over and over again, it's one of the best Hulk stories that Marvel's published. They wouldn't have made them like this when Stan Lee was writing it--but then again, they wouldn't have had Richard Corben to draw it anyway. Fair trade.
Azzarello's desire to conclude his run on Hellblazer with the sort of epic story that calls back to when Garth Ennis and Jamie Delano would put Constantine through multiple issues of problematic circumstances is an understandable one--after all, the vogue of having some kind of "definitive story" is a trap many writers fall for. The sad thing is that it really didn't have to be this way--sure, each of Azzarello's stories have led to the moment when he would confront Stanley Manor, a sort of Keyser Soze type creation of evil, a crimelord with a lust for depravity that wouldn't be out of place in Nero's Rome, or Azzarello's Trust from 100 Bullets. And the Manor confrontation, played out with a sort of eye on a reader's possible demand for the type of "magic" so absent from most of Azzarello's con-man take on John Constantine, is an entertaining sequence, played across flashbacks and a baker's dozen of shell-shocked characters, all under a version of Azzarello's dialog that seems to have taken steroids, so devoid of sense it is on the first read. The thing is that Ashes & Dust, the climactic story that opens with the "death" of John Constatanite, is cast alongside Highwater, Azzarello's John versus Neo-Nazis story, another story that stands alongside Freezes Over and Good Intentions as one of the most engaging of Azzarello's work on the title. It's still another Fugitive/Hulk style drama, where Constantine's strides towards Stanley Manor lead him through a town where an injustice must be repaired, blood and cruelty style--but it's a furious piece of writing, with the grotesque racists of the story being treated as human beings instead of the boring place-filler men-to-be-killed that they so often are whenever lazy writers need a bad guy to point guns at. There's a sequence in Highwater that's reminiscent of the pages from Darwyn Cooke's New Frontier where the little blond girl looks upon a near-crippled John Henry Irons only to shout "The nigger's over here", only this time the cherubic girl's dismissal is to her own grandfather, following his decision to allow Stanley Manor to cum in his mouth. No matter that it's to save her the same treatment, or that her bigotry was engrained wholly by his nurturing hand. "Homosexuality is a sin in the eyes of the lord" she snarls, her lips pursed in pre-teen contempt as she spits on him and runs away. It's not that what comes after Highwater is bad--but that after Highwater, there really isn't any more questions left for John that needed answering. As he leaves the scene off to a bingo game and a final showdown, it's with a faint air of obligation that doesn't track. For Azzarello's John, obligation is commitment, and as he puts it in Highwater's final line, "Hate you? Thas' a lot of trouble, takes committment. Perhaps I should. But you jus' ain't worth me effort". Going to see Stanley Manor wasn't something that still needed doing--and besides that, it's the exact sort of thing that everybody had wanted him to do in the first place. If there was one thing that Brian Azzarello never wrote Constantine as caring about, it's what anybody else wanted. It was always, to the bloody end, about him.
Batman/Deathblow: After The Fire
Art by Lee Bermejo, Tim Bradstreet, Mick Gray, Richard Friend, Peter Guzman, Jose Villarrubia & Grant Goleash
Originally Serialized in Batman/Deathblow #1-3
Published by Wildstorm/DC Comics, 2002
"Well, I think that most people out there I have these fond memories of [Deathblow] in my youth. You know, crawling up in the blankets as a child and reading the latest Deathblow book."
The first of the so-far three collobarations between Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo, Batman/Deathblow is one of those kind of absurd ideas that only makes sense when you stop thinking about DC Comics as a place where artistic concerns or necessity are anywhere near the top five reasons to publish a comic book. Just do the easy math: Batman's popular. Deathblow was sort of popular at one point, and he's one of the few Wildstorm characters that can make that claim, and the previous attempt to grab some interest in the character--in the ridiculously named "Deathblow: Byblows" (REAL TITLE!), hadn't worked, so fuck it, hook him up with Batman and do one of those old school prestige format style mini-series. If I'm remembering the series correctly, it took longer to come out than it was supposed to and led to some kind of rumored mutterings that the two involved didn't have the most fun working on it. Which, true or not? It does kind of read like that. Scattered ramblings, a clever conceit that never really pays off as much as it should (Deathblow's portions of the story take place ten years prior to the present day Batman stuff, making it a cross-time team-up between one of the biggest super-hero characters in the world and a dead guy only a small portion of comic book readers could recognize), and art that is--well, it's Lee Bermejo, so everybody has 90 degree lines drawn on their faces as if wrinkles and veins were layered on them in a late night game of art-by-Tron. It's not completely horrible--Azzarello and Bermejo have some fun with Bruce Wayne as a character, but Batman doesn't seem extraordinarily competent, and the climax--where he dons Michael Cray's old Deathblow clothing and gear--comes across like watching William The Refrigerator Perry showing up at the local park to humiliate a Pop Warner team.
America's Pastime is a short two-page story collected in the second volume of DC's less-crass-than-Marvel's-picture-mag, still-kind-of-crass tribute to 9/11, which carried (albeit in small print) the delightful tagline "The World's Finest Comic Book Writers & Artists Tell Stories To Remember". All proceeds went to 9/11 charities, so there's a certain level at which you can't really be too mean to the whole thing, although whomever came up with the chapter headings, of which "America's Pastime" is listed under the term "Unity", should probably get punched in the face. Here, Azzarello & Risso deliver another version of an urban legend/overheard bar tale set in a Boston pub where 'Tommy' explains to 'Jimmy' that rooting for the Yankees out of some misguided notion of patriotism is the quickest route to a smile on an al-Qaeda face. It's a bit too tone-deaf to be touching, but it is contained behind an Alex Ross cover that depicts Superman--and his fucking dog--marveling "wow" at a rainbow coalition of angry looking firefighters, police officers, doctors and--what is that, an angry stockbroker? (To push things even further into the "oh jesus really" realm, Ross' cover in itself is a homage to 1945 collection containing Justice Society stories.) Azzarello's contribution to the volume couldn't repair that--hell, nothing could--but for the two pages it lasts, it's a refreshing breather from the stories in the volume that consist of Superman wishing he were real, so he could have stopped the planes. Single. Tear.
Thank god for Walter Hill. See, up until Walter Hill went and made Last Man Standing, every time somebody had made a 'version' of Dashiell Hammet's Red Harvest the bar for what followed went up--first Akira Kurosawa trumped the original with Toshiro Mifune in the lead role of the random drifter who plays both sides of crime against each other, usually with himself as the meat in the middle, only for Sergio Leone to show up and out-Kurosawa Kurosawa with his Fistful of Dollars, which itself spawned two excellent sequels, one that's arguably superior to all of those films put together. That's not the kind of track record that a writer would want to follow. Of course, then Hill decided that Bruce Willis could pull off a role popularized by Eastwood and Mifune, and figured that nobody cared who the bad guys were, so why not grab that idiot from The Crow. Whatever, it'll work. Two guns!
Is Cage, Azzarello's second Marvel story as good as it's kin? Probably not, but it also doesn't have to play by the same rules as those do--the films were built around a character introduced at the start for the first time, whereas both Azzarello and Hammet got to play with something people already knew, something people already loved. (And Sergio didn't have Richard Corben to call upon.) Of course, this is comics, so when Azzarello decided to play Luke Cage less like a silk shirt wearing idiot and went for an extreme hip-hop caricature, he got the "racist" card thrown at him as quickly as he did the raped-my-childhood one. The Red Harvest thing got ignored, and the obvious blaxploitation aspect did as well. In the late 70's, when something like Cage is exactly what Marvel should have been publishing, Corben and Azzarello would have been praised as visionaries for something like this. But when it hit a school that believed that anything that wasn't a safe pussy who said "Sweet Christmas" in Siegfried and Roy's cast-offs was somehow dishonoring made-up legacies, it got shuffled off and dismissed. It's hard not to stop at just defending Cage before you get to the point of revering it too highly--it was just a street story about a guy who fucks over some gangs, after all. But when met with such a cogent definition of the inability of an audience to defer their personal bullshit in the face of their own intelligence, it's an easy mistake to make.
"I really wanted to tell a story of where Spider-Man just completely fucked this guy's good intentions."
There's something more than a little special about this tiny little Spider-Man story--a throwaway side job for Marvel that takes the well-trod concept of mythos expansion and turns it into a delightful piece of footnoted art. Simply put, it's the story of Crusher Hogan, the bald wrestler who fought Peter Parker that night he tried to make some money and ended up not giving a shit about the guy who killed his uncle. By itself? It's great stuff, and while Camuncoli's art has a few, completely forgiveable missteps--what's up with those arms on the first few pages?--but when cast against Azzarello's entire catalog, it's something even more special. Even when Azzarello's characters aren't child-killing Minutemen, even when they're super-heroes, they're still somewhat difficult to get behind. A Superman who is too distant, a Batman who would consider eating babies, a Luke Cage who enjoys his Yojimbo style manipulation a bit too much...but Crusher? Nothing of the kind. A genuinely decent man, looking to find a way to save more than just himself, but a struggling industry, a system of ethics, a standard of pride, integrity--he's the hero. Peter Parker? He's just the asshole kid, showing up on the last page to break a family in half.
Similar to the other back up Batman Black & White story, this is one of those brief snippets where the writer focuses on a small aspect of the Batman idea--that one where he operates like an urban legend in a world where there is no Justice League putting him on the cover of a magazine. Showing up to the sounds of gunshots, which, of course, makes him too late to prevent the deaths those shots cause, the brunt of the comic is delivered in a conversation that begins almost in a parody of Azzarello's preferred style of dialog where two characters converse as if they've rehearsed overlapping sentences and ends up being a relatively effective little piece of drama. It's a trifle, but a decent one. (Actually, the most memorable part of the story is the way in which Jim Mahfood draws Batamn reacting to the sound of gunshots, as if he's a sleeping gargoyle awaiting the criminal pulse of Gotham like an alarm clock. It's nice work.)
Some of the following originally appeared at this site in 2008.
The only real problem with a "realistic" Sgt. Rock is that, as much as it tries for believability, the consistent survival of Rock, and his near preternatural ability to find himself in pretty amazingly bad circumstances, drives the the story to strain credibility. Where other war comics (like Two-Fisted Tales and Garth Ennis' War Stories) succeed by embracing the fickle nature of armed conflict by allowing the death to be totally indiscriminate and rarely using characters more than once, Sgt. Rock's adventures always include people who can't seem to die. Is that a petty complaint? Sure. But it's a petty complaint that's true--Sgt. Rock books can't compete in the tension arena against books where everybody might end up losing. If anything, that prospect of failure is what makes war books, if not more well-written, than at least more exciting, then super-hero comics. No matter what, no sniper is ever going to shoot Robin in an issue of Batman--but you can't predict what's going to happen to anyone, even the narrator, when you're dealing with a war comic. Except, of course, if the war comic has Sgt. Rock in it.
Bringing Azzarello on board as writer lends the work some authenticity--if there's one thing Azzarello is impeccably talented for, it's lending a distinctive voice that speaks to the man's research. (Obviously, that's an assumption, as this reader doesn't have first hand experience with World War II. Still, this comic certainly sounds real enough, and Azzarello's vocal excitement at working with Kubert points to him working hard to "make it right.") Having Joe Kubert as artist means it's going to look like a Sgt. Rock comic should look--chock full of dusty faces and snarls. But is it any different than any other Sgt. Rock comic, after one gets past Azzarello's chunky, man-heavy dialog? Not really. It's a beautiful book, it's handled by some talented people, and it still ends up being little more than a pretty standard book--albeit one that's a bit pricey and more than a bit in love with itself.
"No, [working on superheroes] is not what I enjoy, and after working on em, I know why I don't enjoy them! It seems like a lot of the stuff....the whole point is to get to the punch, and that's kind of juvenile. Especially when there's guns around."
Yeah, there isn't much here. A short story about Dr. Midnite, or Blindy Can't See, or whatever this guy is supposed to be. He Batman's up, finds some lady, goes and punches some guys, finds out the lady had read a lot of femme fatale stories, makes a bunch of thought bubble comments about being blind, end. Eduardo Risso's art is nice enough, especially during the fight portions, but there's nothing going on here that seems like it was something anybody was really interested in doing. You can practicaly hear a check being torn out of the DC register. "Thanks for the fill-in! Loving 100 Bullets right now." It does come across as being carved out Golden Awesome when read alongside the trashy main story, which was written by Geoff Johns and David Goyer. By itself though, it's a completely unmemorable excursion with one of the countless JSA characters that jam up DC's rubbish bin after a party everyone wants to leave early from.
"See now, I had a gas grill, and all the guts had to be replaces, so like, in between doing that, I just pulled out a little smoky grill, and I'm using that thing again. I forget how wood makes food taste. Then after a while I got this thing called the Big Green Egg. It's this big, ceramic, wood fire grill, like a kiln. It's all ceramic."
"When [Bruce Wayne] masturbates, it's better than when I have sex."
Would there have been more love for this thing if it had been released as the original graphic novel that it was intended to be? Maybe. But that's comics, you're left with what you have, and no takebacks are allowed. Transistion wise, the moments in this story where each chapter moves into the next are pretty bad in a way that 100 Bullets--another comic that tells stories best served in read in large doses--never is. But here, when Batman finishes his interior monologue (which makes up about 80% of the stories dialog) on one page, ending everything in a dramatic trailling off...he immediately starts it back up again on the next, and the experience, for the reader, isn't always pleasant. It's like hearing somebody's screams recede as they fall off a building, only for the same person to all of a sudden appear behind you, gutturally beginning another "I break jaws, and jaws was a movie, breaking records. Batman. My name." odyssey behind you as he strides towards the edge, ready to jump once more. Now, Azzarello has done better Batman stories before, and there's not much negative to be said about Eduardo Risso's art here--but no, this isn't very good. Somehow, in the desire to bring in an edgier, Year One style vibe and merge it with Azzarello's elliptical dialog style, his mixing of language with word games, everything ends up being a sort of parody of that sequence where Batman grabbed a cop and said "This is an operating table...and I'm the surgeon." It's the literal, on panel depiction of when Rorshach once said that he put 17 people in the hospital, and it's just too open and frank about it's ambitions--to hurt--that it fails to hit the one thing that really great Batman stories have, which is that he's supposed to seem, as petty as it sounds, "cool". It's certainly a more involving circle of villian team-up than what it followed, the ridiculous Jeph Loeb Hush mash-up, where everyone was involved in something no one was involved with, and it's pleasant enough to watch Batman interact with his various rogues in sequences that paint them so effectively: Killer Croc's sarcastic demand for Batman to take off his clothes if he's going to be replacing the stripper who was preparing a lap dance is a choice moment, doing well to cement the in vogue depiction of Croc as a mean gangster struggling against his animalistic tendencies, the Penguin's silly attempts at legitimizing himself, as well as Batman's private pride in his own maintenance of Oswold Cobblepot's unwelcome nickname, and the introduction of the Joker--who convinced three inmates to forcibly rip out their own intestines through their assholes so that Batman would be forced to come speak with him in a garish parody of that throwaway silliness in Silence of the Lambs where Hannibal Lector does the same to a masturbating cellmate--is a brilliant choice. But a bunch of nice sequences and some attractive art can't repair the damage done by the decision to deliver the entire story in monologue, and what one ends up with is a story that cried out for a better editor to have cuffed the reins a bit. Someday, somebody will realize that the reason people liked Sin City so much wasn't because of the language--which is for the most part stupid and irritating--and we'll all be better off. Until then, here's a Batman story that's better than that one where he cries in a wheelchair.
"There aren't white hats and black hats. I think that's a creation of storytellers and it's something I don't agree with...It's boring. If the heroes are flawless there is no story. And if the villains are completely evil then they're boring too."
Some of what follows originally appeared at comiXology.
Jim Lee's epic-selling turn on the Batman comic series Hush is one of those comics that DC would like to find some way to publish fourteen of, every single month. While the story had—well, let's put it nicely and say "not a lot"—going on, Jim Lee's art on it was a definitive example of why he's the current model for super-hero art. That's not to say that he's the best ever, or that he's even the best artist currently working, but it is to say that what Jim Lee does with super-heroes in Hush is what the majority of super-hero artists strive to do, and it's what a large majority of readers are willing to buy. The way he drew Batman…oh, mama, that is "the way" most people want Batman to look. So when he made the decision to follow a year on Batman with a corresponding year on Superman, DC Comics and the people who buy DC Comics couldn't have been happier. But instead of going with one of the standard Superman scribes, DC made what has to be their most outré decision regarding the character since he turned Electric Blue: they hired Brian Azzarello, who had never hid his personal lack of enthusiasm for the super-hero field. When it was all said and done, what they produced was a "gritty" Superman: a tough, cold and cynical take on a Superman who told Batman that he "didn't like him," threatened to dismantle the planet Earth itself if it didn't back off, a Superman who, and this is the one that always got me chuckling, picked a cancer-ridden priest as his confessor because the priest's impending death was more likely to keep the confession safe than, well, the concept of trust. (Or justice, American way, so on.)
It's not to say that what Azzarello and Lee did was a bad comic—in my own personal opinion, its general weirdness and overall gloom makes it far preferable to read than the histrionic nonsense that was the Hush storyline—but what they did was produce a Superman that's probably more of an honest meditation on the character's actual "super-powers" then anything else, and it makes for an uncomfortable book to read. It's a comic that portrays a character who seems completely distant from everything and everyone around him, a man whose incredible abilities has so isolated him from his one-note "peers" that it's impossible for him to even engage in a frank discussion. It's a Superman who creates an entire world in his spare time, and then decides to make himself forget the act on a whim, only so that his carelessness can be exploited by a forgotten villain, with catastrophic results. It's a character that, as Azzarello writes him, has moved and grown beyond whatever "values" and "ideals" might have been inserted in him as a youth and now keeps his own council to the point where his behavior is inscrutable even to those who know him best. In the comic, when Superman finally happens upon his wife, what serves as the most romantic portion of the book is also its most frightening—because as much as Superman seems to love Lois Lane, his behavior is more that of a child with his favorite toy, and he doesn't show any ambition to deal with the consequences of his behavior until he's satisfied his own carnal desires. When you witness Clark's joy at discovering Lois, the next thought is "Man, what would he have done if she were dead?" What For Tomorrow is, more than it is a "Superman" comic, is a story about a creature who looks and sounds human, but has such an inhuman amount of power that one doesn't feel inspired by him, or attracted to him—one feels frightened by him.
It's easy enough to make Batman gritty and dark, just as it's easy enough to make Spider-man a gutless whining nerd. The thing about Superman is that you can't really do anything realistic with him, or he gets…well, wonky. If one starts to mess around with the idea that he's got a human personality, or that he's like you or me but can fly, then one has to address the fact that he isn't like you or me and that it is completely absurd and immature to believe that a few years on a farm in Kansas with a couple of stereotypes and cornfields are going to instill an alien creature with godlike powers with some kind of rock-solid American values that will guide him throughout the rest of his life. Unfortunately, that isn't the comic that Azzarello and Lee made--what they made instead was something that pointed in that direction, but tripped and fell on the follow-through. Of course, considering the direction that For Tomorrow is heading--that's probably for the best.
Okay, no bullshit: this is one of the best Justice League stories ever told. First up, it opens with what must be a couple of civilian women talking about how one of them had just had intercourse with her husband while he slept, only to turn the cover and answer the cover immediately--which is a story about Hal Jordan selling power rings to anyone who has a dollar. While it eventually turns out that he's doing it in hopes of drawing Gorilla Grood into a trap, which is sprung after Gorilla Grood buys a ring while wearing Jackie Onassis' pillbox hat and pink dress, it's got miles to go beyond the set-up. The Fabulous Ms. Grodd can't fit the ring on his gigantic gorilla fingers, and that part is funny, kind of--but the real meat, the real magic is in the finale, where Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman and the Flash ride back to Justice League headquarters in one of those random jets they always have sitting around. While Superman is musing on how much power the rings give Hal Jordan and worrying that he may be stronger than them all, Flash points out that it's not like it makes a big difference--after all, it's Hal Jordan. Whatever he means by that isn't made clear--the implication seems to be that Hal Jordan is a dumb asshole--whatever it is, the League immediately agree and just sit there laughing their ass off. Here's the thing: it still doesn't end there. No, there's another page, where Batman goes on to say that Superman and the Flash would just use the rings to "get the edge" on those races they always run against each other for no fucking reason while Wonder Woman (the italicized emphasis is Batman's, not mine) would treat a power ring like "another piece of jewelry! Like her bracelets!" At this point, Superman is laughing so hard at this egregious sexism that he has fucking tears coming out of his eyes. Even Wonder Woman can't get enough, as if she's sitting there going "It's true! I'm just a dumb chick! I wouldn't know what to do with a Green Lantern power ring!" This comic book was fucking awesome. Like...that's why the phrase "fucking awesome" was invented, no matter what dipshits tell you. So that you can drop it when you read something as "ha ha ha Hal Jordan is a doucebag, even Superman thinks so", you know how to respond.
The nice thing about the noir stuff in 100 Bullets is that it plays with the langauge, that it brings it forward instead of using that method they did in that film Brick, where everybody speaks in a dated code while carrying iPods. That can work fine too, probably, somebody could pull it off. But it doesn't last, eventually it just becomes grossly irritating how everybody is acting like they're Dashiell Hammet while looking all mumblecore. "Low Card In The Hole" goes the other way--a pretty standard noir take that points to what Sin City would look and read like if Tim Sale was the artist. It's fine for what it is, but cast against some of Azzarello's better, more involving short pieces, it ends up crossing the line into obscurity with a climax that, despite being incredibly gorgeous to look at, doesn't make a whole lot of sense.
Ah. Yeah, not really sure where to go with this one. It's Jordi Bernet's issue of Solo, which means it's excellent on a "lookie" basis, but this little chapter, a Batman/Poison Ivy story...bit difficult to get around. Is it saying that women are weak, malleable creatures defined by the male oppressor? That Poison Ivy is? That her manipulation of personality is an individual strength? It's not definitively sexist, but due to the standard Azzarello elliptical dialog, it sort of defies an easy explanation for what, exactly, is meant by what is said within it. Usually the sort of stuff that gets assaulted for perceived sexism in super-hero comics would be more properly labled as awful writing and confused exploitation--this isn't that, but it doesn't read as capital-M misogynistic, either. It doesn't particularly help that the climax--Batman punching Poison Ivy so hard she's knocked unconscious, ending up in his arms like a cave-dwellers concussed trophy bride--is so lovingly depicted. It's erotic stuff, and that's to be expected--Solo was a showcase for Jordi Bernet, and that's one of Bernet's greatest strengths. But it might have benefitted from a clearer footing for the reader to stand. Initially, it reads fine--it's when you try to delve a little deeper, to see if it means anything that you begin to wonder if there's a pulse under the art that isn't just static juvenilia. If Azzarello always wrote his female characters with such a contemptous "Look at this whore" tone, it would just be more meat for some list no one looks at, but he's got some pretty solid female characters in his library. This, however? It isn't one of them.
"Writing Lex Luthor was like writing my diary. I agree with everything that I wrote."
One of the first things they teach actors is that the bad guy never thinks of himself as the bad guy. Sure, sometimes a writer doesn't get that, and sometimes you have an actor in a thriller who doesn't realize that his or her actions will be writ large on the screen, and that what he or she thinks is "subtle" is actually 10 feet of obvious, and that's how you end up with people screaming at the screen, "That cop is dirty!" or "Don't trust her, she killed your wife!" It's one of those simple truisms that, when it hits, it'll never leave you: the truth has deep claws. That's part of the reason that so many super-hero comics founder at the starting line--you can't tell a writer shit. Watching villains who have no real design behind their lip-smacking evil, no ambition beyond unadulterated mayhem and carnage--well, that's why they have names like "Carnage". Because really, who gives a fuck? They're just toys to be punched, right? Mama has to buy shoes, and shit, you'll buy anything.
Lex Luthor on the other hand? He doesn't have to be that way, and for as many times as Jeph Loeb got that wrong, guys like Grant Morrison and John "Still an asshole" Byrne didn't, and when it came time for Brian Azzarello's second team-up with Lee Bermejo, neither did he. It's faint praise to call it the "best" of the Azzarello/Bermejo team-ups, since Joker is just dumb and Batman/Deathblow is just silly, and it wouldn't be much better to call it one of the definitive Lex Luthor stories either, because that shelves it alongside some pretty silly shit as well.
Better to just call it a good vacation, a nice trip down a simple road. It's a Lex Luthor versus Superman story with the camera pointed in the other direction, it's one of the best depictions of Bruce Wayne available, and it's an excellent comic, Bermejo's addiction to overdrawing notwithstanding. While the definitive Lex moments of the decade still stand as Busiek's "I hate you" and Morrison's "It's for my own good", Azzarello and Bermejo earned the bronze. Too bad nobody paid it the same attention they did up top.
"I'm a big fan of spaghetti Westerns because they don't put thing's into categories of black and white. I like the gray area and I also like just the over-the-top operatic violence. It was also satire. It's funny to come across people who don't get the humor in Sergio Leone's work.
The first five issues of Loveless can operate sort of like a head fake--by themselves, they serve as a solid introduction to what appears to be the main characters of the series--Wes & Ruth Cutter, Atticus Mann, the local denizens of a Missouri town called Blackwater--as well as a nasty block of violent action. Marcelo Frusin's art is more of the clean lined cruelty that both he and Eduardo Risso bring to their work with Azzarello, where sex is played out in shadowy rooms and red silhouetted women ride their menfolk nude, never giving the bastards a chance to lower their drawers. And while Kin of Homecoming doesn't really carry a hint of the drastic changes that Loveless would eventually take, either by design or necessity, the complaints of "it doesn't make sense" delivered at it couldn't be less true. It's a spaghetti Western, for fuck's sake, and it delivers flashbacks the same way thousands of movies and television shows do--with the characters seeing themselves in frame, reanacting their past joys even as it renders their violent actions that much more horrifying. The opening chapters, which most focuses on the return of Wes and Ruth and their slaughter of Ruth's past rapists, may read like yet another sexploitation horror, where a woman left victim returns a persecutor--but don't ignore Frusin's dead bodies, left out to rot in the Missouri sun. The violence in Loveless leaves stains on the ground, and, justified or no, it's as ugly as Frusin can provide.
Loveless: Thicker Than Blackwater
Art by Marcelo Frusin, Danijel Zezelj, Werther Dell'Edera, Patricia Mulvihill & Martin Breccia
Originally Serialized in Loveless #6-12
Published by Vertigo/DC Comics, 2006
There's a lot about Thicker Than Blackwater that stands as reason to point to its eventual cancellation, apparently due to "low sales". The exchange of Marcelo Frusin for a rotating team of artists, one of whom, Wether Dell'Edera, was incapable of delivering the intensity of the violence that Frusin and Zezelj had in spades, as well as Danijel Zezelj's disdain for forcing some level of cookie cutter discrepancy on his male characters, made for a look that required more investment than most Vertigo comics require. Loveless was a comic that took time to fully grasp--it wasn't that it read like Pynchon, but that the American serialized comics it sat besides engineer a reader who expects characters to have distinctive looks, and when they don't--and when the writer is experimenting with unmarked flashbacks and a cast of men who all share the same basic physical appearance and dress with names not often mentioned--it makes for a comic that seems experimental on a surface level, even when it most definitely is not. In another market, where an audience is more willing to give over to diverse art styles? Where comics aren't filed away as "collector's items" in bags and boards, only to be pulled when widdle babies can't remember some dialog? Maybe it would have found purchase. But in the one that Vertigo existed in then, and the one it remains in now, you'll have a hard time finding a successful comic that doesn't deliver a cast of characters with color-coded appearances, a plot simple enough to be picked up in monthly doses, and an overall sense that "anybody can read this."
Of course, if it had gone that route, it wouldn't have been Loveless at all. Part of the charm, for this reader at least, to the series was its go-for-broke sensibility--it was a western comic in the vein of The Proposition, where the notion that "taming" the west isn't even remotely a priority, not when surviving is already difficult enough. But even more so, it was a comic that embraced the same sort of mentality that had once piloted successful television dramas like ER, Homicide, and eventually, The Wire in that it chose, like those shows did, to expect the audience to keep up. Although ER and Homicide both eventually became parodies of themselves when the initial spike wore off, with only The Wire seeming capable of making it last until the end, the beginning of ER and Homicide served as a sort of call to arms to television writers, telling them that they could shoot for realistic dialog, employ a graphic depiction dosed in a sort of super-muscular "realism", and while the audience en masse might never quite figure out what a "lumbar puncture" was, or what "EKG" stood for, they didn't have to. Words became gloss, a paint to set the scene, as much as any gown or bloodstained cloth--'just keep watching', they said, 'we'll give you characters to chew on, you don't have to understand what they're saying.' Loveless took the same chances--there's almost zero repetition and there's no pretense towards overall comprehension unless you swallow the entire thing whole. It was serialized in comics, sure, but they weren't the kind of stories that could work without collections and re-readings. By the conclusion of the 12th issue, the final pages of which also form the climax of Thicker Than Blackwater, the two main characters, the ones that the reader has spent the majority of the time getting to know, look to be dead. Suprisingly enough, one of them actually was dead, and while later flashbacks and hallucinations guaranteed more apperances, it remained one of the more startling turn of events in Vertigo's output, in that Azzarello had seemingly built the entire framework of plot around the lives of a couple. At this point in the series, the conclusion of its final year, Azzarello's interviews show no sign that he knew that the series was going to be abruptly cut short by DC Comics--meaning this death was something he'd planned all along. Of course, as much as these seven issues put a shock through the series, it was nothing compared to what he had coming next. For whatever reason, Marcelo Frusin--still listed as co-creator, still providing cover work--was not to return.
The last thing I was trying to do was make these characters mine. All I was trying to do was give them a voice, so they could plead their cases before they disappeared forever.
There's a general rule, although it isn't posted on a clubhouse door, and not everybody agrees to it. (Although we all know that those who don't are best left ignored, because they are tots the fool.)
That rule is simple.
Hope you still want to come back when you're done.
I'm drawn to people that are fighting against the odds. And against themselves.
In the midst of Loveless and 100 Bullets, Brian Azzarello accepted Jim Lee's offer to join Grant Morrison, Christos Gage, Doug Mahnke, Gene Ha, Gail Simone, Lee himself, and...well, whoever it was who got stuck on Gen13 detail to attempt the a "reboot" of the Wildstorm universe. Following a nine-issue setup series starring Captain Atom, the patron saint of comics no one reads, that consisted of preparing the ground by doing nothing whatsoever until the final pages, and then only leaving it with one of those "this world looks different!" kind of endings, the potential for success seems to have been aborted within the planning stages. What happened next was simple: Simone & Gage struggled, successfully, to put out a regular stream of comics that paid heed to the universe that Wildstorm was attempting to build, Grant Morrison, Lee & Ha released a grand total of three comic books, and Azzarello and Carlos D'Anda told a nine issue story that went pretty much ignored by everyone while failing in every way to help the Wildstorm line "define" itself.
And it was fucking incredible.
Deathblow's probably the only Wildstorm comic that will ever carry an afterword from a Northwestern professor, and while that doesn't mean anything that isn't subjective and elitist, it does point to a comic that had more going on it than it was given credit for at the time. That feeling is absolutely correct. Less in the mold of any super-hero story on the stands, something more akin to David Rees Get Your War On and Kyle Baker's Special Forces, Azzarello's Deathblow was hilarious, irreverent to an almost perverse degree, and packed full of the sort of hyper black criticism mostly relegated to a Youtube video's comment page. There's no punches pulled--when Azzarello tires of paying homage to the Twin Towers by using the stripes down Deathblow's face, he has the character paint a monument to 9/11 with the entrails of children in his apartment, only for a jihadist terrorist from an organization known as The Hidden Extreme Militia--T.H.E.M.--to let him know he doesn't need to feel guilty. After all, those weren't children at all: "Johnny was fifty-two years old. Martha was forty-seven", products of "creepy experiements." It shouldn't go ignored thought that the story relies on a good bit of it's "facts" by placing them in the mouths of actual shaggy dogs--this isn't a comic that tries to hide the gag, it plays with both hands showing. It is, after all, the story of U.S. versus T.H.E.M. Every criticism of post 9/11 America gets a chance to play itself out, and while political theorizing rarely--if ever--makes for a comic book that's even remotely tolerable to read, Deathblow succeeds, in part because it never slows down or tries to educate. It's just nasty hyperbole, crazed metaphor mixed with raw, disgusting violence that never tries to be "realistic." Here are characters that punch torturers so hard their mouth and lips go flying, here are Osama bin Laden cyborgs crossed with dinosaurs, here are lazer eyed sewer rats as cannon fodder, here be monsters, here be America. What's even more delightful at the close is the possible joke that Azzarello plays on the reader-and to some extent, the publisher, who by the final issue had already realized that the Wildstorm revamp had failed: Deathblow, in his final act, sets off the Big One, right in the middle of New York. And all of a sudden, the Wildstorm universe becomes the competition, and Spider-man, The Wasp, & the Thing are walking the streets. Sandman's on the radio. The time of Marvels was upon us. We just needed a soldier to kill an imprint to do it.
"We'll probably run [Loveless] for about 4 to 4.5 years. I'm planning on ending it somewhere in the 40's or 50's, unless of course, it's going strong and I have nothing else going on. Then I'll keep it going."
There's something different about Loveless 13, something that begins popping up for the first time and continues throughout the portions of the comic illustrated by Danijel Zezelj. It's small boxes, telling the reader the date--'June 11, 1870' is the first one, and from there, they serve as the new indication when the story makes it's chronological leaps. They disappear just as abruptly as they arrive when the only extended story contained in the volume, the titular Blackwater Falls six-parter, begins. Why?
Because it's illustrated by Wether Dell'edera. If it seems like I'm being unduly harsh on Dell'edera, that's only because his style clashes almost irrevroacably with Frusin's perfectionist lines and looks amateurish and juvenile when placed alongside Danijel Zezelj. More than anything else, Dell'edera's art looks like a comic book--which is why he was so much better served when he did a Punisher War Journal in 2008. The date boxes, never really explained, don't help much either, as if the editor or whomever placed them looked at Dell'edera's pages and decided that 'anyone can figure this out.'
They're right of course. Then again, Blackwater Falls isn't that difficult to grasp anyways. Whether Azzarello knew that Loveless wasn't going to enjoy the free reign that 100 Bullets allowed, that he wasn't going to be writing the series "for about 4 to 4.5 years", or whether it was planned from the beginning, Blackwater Falls is exactly what the title implies--it's the conclusion to the story that the first twelve issues prepared, with only three cryptic epilogues to follow before the title was finished. Still...it seems somewhat unreal to believe that the title would be so quickly silenced, the way it is in the final pages of Blackwater Falls, all the characters--save for Ruth, a hateful Irish soldier, the boy Jaspar and Abram, the bitter one-armed man that watches his town explode, literally, at Ruth's dynamite--would die, and that the hunt for the traitorous Johnny Cutter, Wes' estranged brother and Ruth's betrayer, would have served for further story arcs. The final three epilogues--one a Cain & Abel story crossed with the Defiant Ones that reaches a bloody conclusion in the cave where Wes had been left to rot, one a Bonnie & Clyde-meets-Jaspar's oldest friend, and, most frightening of all, the final issue that answers the "whatever became of Sergeant Foley"--point to something more exciting than that, the idea that maybe Azzarello planned to sneak a Western/turn of the century based anthology series under the noses of his editors. Either way, issue 24 was the last one to arrive, and the writer has yet to work with Marcelo Frusin or Danijel Zezelj since. (Werther Dell'edera
serves as his partner for an upcoming installment in the Vertigo Crime series--advance reports aren't the best, but the advance reports aren't from somebody anybody ever heard of anyway, so god knows. Well, never mind that, Azzarello's partner is actually not partnered up with Werther. Apologies.)
Too often do those who like unpopular comics cry out words like 'masterpiece'. Loveless wasn't that. The bouncing back and forth between artists, the attention it demanded when it was often saying nothing new beyond "violence begets violence" is probably too much to demand. Still, the notion that it was somehow "obscure" is one that's just asinine--the comic could only be more ABC revenge if it had instituted a scorecard. (Which this final collection pretty much does, in the form of a "who's who" page.) Loveless was, however, an unusual and exciting comic book, and with the climax of 100 Bullets, the entire Vertigo line suffers for their absence. As strong as some of the imprints current line is, few of them have the same bite and savage humor that this one carried--and the only one that comes close looks like it was drawn by a five-year-old. Oh well. We'll always have Missouri.
What else can be said about Joker that hasn't been said already? It was cheap, juvenile work from a guy who can and has done better. It also probably outsold almost all of the comics on this list, although nobody on Earth except for Brian Wood seems to know how much money a Vertigo comic produces. For Azzarello, that's probably not too much of a bad thing--he did, after all, agree to take the job, and he had to know that what he was putting down on paper wasn't as clever as 100 Bullets or as wild as Deathblow. It's always infuriating to comics creators and most comics reviewers when motive and intent get assigned to the creators of bad comics--the complaints that it isn't the "job" of the blogger to make such assumptions ring high from mount get-over-yourself. So fine, whatever. Don't make the easy logical jump here. Brian Azzarello wrote a bunch of good comics, a few great ones, and then he wrote Joker, which is neither. It made a lot of people happy, and the people it made happiest also seem to universally prefer corporate thunderpants comics and crying. No reason to read into that--maybe Joker is just a magical comic that reads as trite wank work to some while reading like "the best comic of 2008" to others. Sure. Maybe Brian Azzarello actually thought it was good too. Or maybe it was a chance to make some cash off putting a comic book out around the same time as a really popular movie, and all it had to do was be mildly satisfactory and completely accessible, and he just didn't care what it read like, which is a cheap and perfunctory that asks the sort of pointless question "What would the Joker REALLY be like" and then proceeds to answer it by illustrating the answers of the freshmen class at "Robert Rodriguez is a genius" film school.
If it seems like we're ending on a sour note, then don't fret: John Constantine and Rafael Grampa are here to save the day. Old Hellblazer writers have returned to the character for one last dig before--Garth Ennis threw out Son of Man like it was a beer coaster, it might have been, and Jamie Delano reminded everybody that he can still outgross the freaks with the cunning use of a monkey. Azzarello, probably because he's a cheeky fuck, wrote a poem that he supposedly heard at the VFW. It's a bit of a slight work, and, like Joker, fails to meet the expectations that Loveless, 100 Bullets, Deathblow & Dr. 13 built (just because I'm dodging argue-with-Abhay doesn't mean I agree with him). But none of that really matters, because, like Richard Corben on Banner and Danijel Zezelj on "Last Call", Brian's work is able to sit back and let Rafael Grampa steal the show--which Grampa, an artist with only a few credits to his name, making his first appearance at a Big Two company with this story, is more than happy to do.
And that's it. As far as I could find, this is Azzarello so far, not counting the line editor work at Comico (which, if Lady Bathory and Red Dragon are any indication, aren't worth counting at all), the script for one portion of the Batman: Gotham Knight animated film, and, of course, 100 Bullets. If there's something glaringly missing, or you just want to point out how fucking awesome Joker was, go right ahead and let me know. Here's hoping that I'll still be kicking around to do another one of these for the guy in 2019. It's been a blast.
-Tucker Stone, 2009