Indeed. Chicago actress Diana Slickman, a close friend of Azzarello's, told me she knew him for a while before she knew "he was a comic book god, a big deal. You bring it up, he pooh-poohs it. I get the impression he doesn't want to be defined as Comic Book Guy. Maybe because he's just a fantastic writer in general."
Azzarello grew up in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. His mother ran a restaurant; his father was a salesman. He was not a superhero fan. He read war and monster comics. He later studied painting and printmaking at the Cleveland Institute of Art, then spent years working odd jobs: as a janitor, in demolition. He painted at night and moved to Chicago in 1989; it was cheaper than New York City.
Around this time he became enamored of Black Lizard Press, which published scores of vintage crime noir from unappreciated authors such as James M. Cain, David Goodis, Lionel White. Also, the work of novelist Jim Thompson, whose books included "The Grifters," "After Dark, My Sweet" and "The Killer Inside Me," was seeing a revival.
After meeting Jill Thompson (no relation to Jim) through friends, he sent her — a fan of movie monsters — a story he had written about a werewolf. She was drawing for Vertigo and introduced him to editor Lou Stathis, who, Thompson said, "pretty much hated what he was working on, always referred to Vertigo as 'fairies and elves and (expletive)' and was, like Brian, a great, grumpy guy who thought comic books should be broader."
They hit it off.
At Vertigo, Azzarello met Axel Alonso, Stathis' then-assistant, who sent Azzarello an old comic featuring an obscure character, Johnny Double, beatnik detective. Azzarello and Alonso also pitched "100 Bullets" but were turned down. When "Johnny Double," drawn by Argentine artist Eduardo Risso, who later collaborated with Azzarello on all 100 issues of "100 Bullets," became a modest success, "100 Bullets" was revisited.
"I really wanted to show the viability of the crime genre," Azzarello said. "Because, and people forget this, but at the time, when you did have a cop in a comic book, the chances were that cop was probably possessed by the devil."
Chiang, who was working on "100 Bullets," then as an assistant editor, said: "Right away, ('100 Bullets') felt fresh. Because Brian's writing, which has this piercing, honed quality, felt new. It was the perfect vehicle for him — these dense little packages of the worst of human nature, all told through this terrific framework. Brian really became this vital counterpoint to the optimism that comic books so often tend to peddle."
When writer Warren Ellis walked off "Hellblazer" — DC refused to publish a story he had written about a school shooting, the Columbine shooting having just happened — Azzarello stepped in on the popular comic. Which led to work on Batman and Superman. He created a Western series named "Loveless." When he came across a list of characters that DC was not using anymore, he and Chiang teamed up for the very meta "Doctor 13," about a band of rejected comic book characters traveling to New York to confront their creators.
"I knew he was successful when he stopped showing me his stories before he sent them out," Thompson said. "He had so many comics spinning at once that he just didn't have time to show them to me anymore."
Indeed, Azzarello — who said he reads his dialogue out loud as he writes, establishing a theatrical rhythm (tellingly, his editors in New York said he talks to them more about Chicago theater than comic books) — became known for brashly stepping on the feet of iconic characters. DC liked the change of pace, but some readers, Azzarello said, "cry bloody murder." Like the time he and Risso gave Batman the heart of a sadistic creep and an internal noirish monologue, treating the cape with the all the gravitas of a cheap trench coat.
Asked if the criticism bothers him, he said, "I like being a cult figure."
Asked why he doesn't branch out and write for Marvel more often, he mentioned that Alonso is Marvel editor-in-chief now and the pair had a falling-out when Alonso left and Azzarello didn't give Marvel a chance to offer a deal. (Alonso didn't respond to requests to talk about Azzarello.) Besides, he's written for Marvel, he said. A decade ago he wrote a Hulk book. In it, Bruce Banner, Hulk's alter ego, tells a story about trying to kill himself, about sticking a gun in his mouth and pulling the trigger, and the Hulk just spitting out the bullet.
Huh, I said, an anecdote just like that made it into the "Avengers" movie. Azzarello grinned and said nothing.
Who else would think of that?
Before I left Azzarello's dining room, which is packed with art from his wife and from him — art stacked against art in every corner, as well as dime store paperbacks, Ian Fleming novels, James Ellroy books and Jim Thompson biographies, and Eisner Awards, the comic industry trade award, won both by Azzarello and his wife, scores of the Daily Planet-shaped trophies everywhere — he told me that following the success of "Luthor," DC wanted him to take on every DC supervillain. But after Luthor and Joker, he lost interest. They are the only real iconic DC villains, he said, the only compelling ones. I said, "But you write villains so —"
He said, "Because I get 'em. Their motivations make sense to me."
I said, "You sound like a psychopath —"
"Luther is altruistic. He wants what's best for humanity. I think I agree with everything that Luthor says."
"And you mean that?"