Brian Azzarello, writer of Vertigo‘s 100 Bullets and Loveless, has built his strong readership through riveting narrative that challenges his collaborators as much as his readers, to the benefit of all. He recently shared with SBC’s Matthew McLean how mistakes drive the engines of his stories and characters in both series. Azzarello also maps out where both series share common ground and elements as well as aspects where their respective paths vastly diverge. As you read through this interview, enjoy a new way to “learn” from Azzarello’s “mistakes”.
Matthew McLean (MM): I just picked up the latest issue of 100 Bullets yesterday.
Brian Azzarello (BA): Which one is that?
MM: That would be #85.
BA: What happens in it?
MM: It’s the one where the Hawaiian dick [Lono] gets his comeuppance for raping the girl [Sophie]. It was a good issue. I enjoyed it immensely. Although the sexiness of the cover provided a certain dichotomy to the contents of the book that I found to be a little strange.
BA: I think covers should be evocative. A lot of people want their covers to be illustrative of a scene that takes place inside the book. I look at these things more like paperback covers: Evoke what’s inside the book, don’t illustrate it. I think Dave does a good of that.
MM: It [the cover to #85] certainly evokes power and sex.
BA: Exactly. Those are themes within the story.
MM: Without a doubt. But to talk about Loveless too for a moment: Blackwater, the town in Loveless, has been characterized as a nasty place filled with nasty people doing nasty things to one another. 100 Bullets also has some tough customers. What fascinates you about brutal characters, protagonists in particular?
BA: I think I’m more fascinated by the mistakes people make. Brutality? I think brutality is a byproduct of mistakes. Which is such a weird thing to say … [laughter]
MM: I can understand it, though. Particularly if you are in a business that uses violence as a tool, whether you’re a sheriff or a mob enforcer.
MM: I would certainly agree.
BA: It’s like 100 Bullets but I distilled it. It’s moonshine.
MM: So to focus the question more, then, what is it about peoples’ mistakes that you find more interesting than what they do right?
BA: Oh God, that’s where the stories are, you know? Our stories are in our mistakes. I’m sure you’ve had this experience, we all have: A friend of yours goes on a trip, or you go on a trip and when you get back, rather than talk about what a great time you had your best story is about something that went wrong. Your flight was delayed and you had to stay over night or whatever. Your luggage got lost. Your pocket got picked. That’s what you tend to focus on. Our focus lies in mistakes. Our storytelling does as well.
MM: Another common theme in Loveless is how one’s place of origin pretty much ends up shaping who we are.
BA: Yeah. Absolutely.
MM: How did your upbringing in Ohio shape your writing? What’s the most direct reference you could make for that?
BA: Jesus Christ, you know … that’s a good question. I’ve never really considered it before. I would have to say, though, I grew up in Cleveland. And Cleveland is a depressed city, when I was growing up it was the butt of jokes. I guess I grew up with a real underdog, chip on my shoulder kind of mentality. Because that city couldn’t catch a break. I guess that neither could I.
MM: How do you feel that mentality translated into your writing? Is that the reason you like to focus on people’s mistakes?
BA: Maybe it is, yeah. I’m drawn to that. I’m drawn to people that are fighting against the odds. And against themselves.
MM: Both of those are certainly apparent in the writing. Which makes for some very entertaining conflicts, even if they aren’t particularly entertaining for the people that are involved in them.
BA: Well, they’re fictional characters, so don’t worry about that.
MM: Well, that’s always a sign of good writing when … it’s the classic suspension of disbelief: Sure they’re not real people, but you still worry about them, you still care about them. I’ve been waiting for [Sophie] to get her revenge since the beginning of the series.
BA: We haven’t seen her since … I think it was issue 19. It’s been awhile.
MM: I’ve been looking forward to seeing her get even since then. But she’s completely fictional. Why would I waste time with putting that in my mental space unless I actually cared about her on some level?
BA: Well, I try to make you care about these people. Not … I was gonna say unsavory bastards, but Sophie certainly isn’t one of them. But there are other characters … I’ve said it before, I’ve touched on it in other interviews – it’s amazing to me how popular Lono is. Because I can’t think of one redeeming value of his. Maybe that makes him popular.
MM: Well, he’s pretty much an animal. Maybe that is the appeal.
But I’m spouting off my opinions when I’m here to talk about you.
BA: That’s what makes this a conversation. That’s good. You’re taking a good direction.
MM: [Laughter] Excellent. I’m glad you’re enjoying it. Let’s get back to Loveless for a second. I’ve got a couple of questions about that I’m just intrigued about. It definitely has a spaghetti western feel to it. Many spaghetti westerns play with the facts of the Old West, changing things to suit the story. Do you feel that Loveless has done this or that you’ve stayed mostly true to the facts?
BA: No, I’m playing a little loose with them. While there was carpetbagging happening in Missouri, the majority of the extreme racially motivated violence wasn’t taking place there. But at the same time, it was going on in other states. So I’m kind of truncating some of that stuff. Maybe the location was different, but I didn’t want to set the story in the deep South. I wanted to touch on some of these themes, but I didn’t want to put the story in the deep South.
MM: So you distilled some of the problems that were going on in the South into Missouri itself?
MM: Well one thing that definitely did happen in Missouri and Kansas was that both of the states dealt with “Bloody Bill” Quantrill.
MM: Wes Cutter rode with him, one of the most infamous leaders of the Civil War. This group bred some of the Old West’s mos
t famous outlaws, including the James brothers. How much, if any, of this served to inspire Loveless?
BA: A lot. Depending on whose history book you’re reading Bloody Bill was either a hero or a monster. He was either a complete sociopath or circumstances drove him to do what he was doing. Reasonable circumstance. The truth is, of course, that it’s somewhere in the middle. One of the things in Loveless, like you mentioned earlier, is how are background shapes who we are. It’s the same thing – Jesse James and Frank James, of course they were shaped by riding with Bloody Bill.
MM: Out of curiosity how much of a participant was Wes in Bill’s atrocities and how did it affect him as a character? Certainly just witnessing such events would affect a person, but how deeply was he involved?
MM: OK. We’ll let that go then. It’s pretty apparent how it has affected him through his actions in the book.
BA: It’s certainly hinted at that it’s had a very profound affect on him.
MM: Speaking of regret, in 100 Bullets it seems that often characters carry a burden of regret for mistakes they’ve made. However, in Loveless that element seems to be missing. Would you agree with that statement and, if so, how did that evolve for you as a difference between the stories?
BA: I’d say, yes, that that statement is more fact than fiction. I’d also say in 100 Bullets there’s the opportunity for redemption there. I guess that redemption and regrets go hand in hand. I don’t see any redemption in Loveless. I think Loveless is a much, much more cynical story, and at the same time it’s a romance. But it’s also a tragedy.
MM: The difference between the two stories, is that something you wanted to do from the onset or something that began to evolve as you chewed on the idea of Loveless?
BA: Oh boy … you know, it came out of it pretty early. When I was constructing the outline of what I wanted to do, what kind of story I wanted it to be I decided I wanted to do a spaghetti noir. OK, what elements of these two genres am I going to pull? In noir’s redemption is something that’s really not there. People are kind of doomed from the get go. And it’s about mistakes. But at the same time in westerns, the characters – there are regrets in some,, and most of them act quickly and there’s an element of playing around with archetypes. When I was constructing my story for Loveless I wanted to put these larger-than-life kinds of savage people into a smaller scale environment. God, that’s so dry …
MM: So are you saying that the actual town of Blackwater is doomed?
BA: Oh yeah. It’s doomed.
MM: Well, I’m sure that will be violent, at the very least. In 100 Bullets much of the violence happens off stage or just off panel. Whereas in Loveless is often incredibly direct in its depictions of violence. Was that a choice you made for the two projects or a difference of artists’ style?
BA: Little of both, I think. Eduardo prefers to draw it off panel, which is a really odd thing to say, but that’s exactly what he’s doing.
MM: Immediately the first thing that comes to mind, I don’t remember what issue it was, but there’s a fight [in 100 Bullets]. When someone gets his, rather than a picture of a fist crushing into someone’s face, there’s a panel of a bloody tooth flying off. So in the case of 100 Bullets that’s just his artistic flair?
BA: Yeah, but that’s something at this point … we’ve worked together for so long that when I write violence, I write it that way now for that book. Loveless, though, was very consciously, “Let’s see everything. Let’s show the brutality.” Loveless is a book that in the artwork, I want you to see that it hurts.
BA: Yes, it’s all on camera.
MM: What, along those lines, was visually gained by bringing Werther Dell’Edera on board Loveless?
BA: I don’t think we lost anything. It was time for a break with Marcelo. I think Werther’s a bit more of an economic storyteller than Marcelo. They both have their strengths. Do you like what he’s doing?
MM: The art? Absolutely.
BA: OK, cool. [Laughter]
MM: I enjoy the differences in the artistic styles as well as the similarities between the two books.
Speaking of cross-references between the books, 100 Bullets is renowned for its attention to dialogue, particularly in the cultural differences between characters. But obviously, you couldn’t go sit down on a street corner somewhere and build a vernacular for Loveless. How did you go about building the speech patterns for the characters?
BA: By reading a lot of letters that were written at that time. And then, there’s a few slang dictionaries out there from that particular time. I mean, it’s tough, you’re right. Constructing a speech pattern? Did people back then talk the way they wrote? I don’t think so. So I have to loosen it up a little. And another thing – the way sentences were structured back then, they were just a little clunky to someone’s ear today. So I kind of had to play around with it, made up my own sort of language structure. But then, again, like 100 Bullets – different characters are from different places and they speak differently.
MM: Where did your fascination of that level of detail when it comes to dialogue come from?
BA: Oh god, I don’t know. I guess poetry? Geez … people are gonna …
BA: Uh, yeah. I dig poetry. From poetry, probably plays … that kind of stuff. I just really like the way people speak. Slang is great. I love slang. I love hearing stuff that I’ve never heard before.
MM: Do you intentionally go out and find things that are new or let it come to you?
BA: I let it come to me. I think if I were out searching for stuff it might come across a bit contrived or forced. At the end of the day you’ve got to understand what these characters are saying. If it’s so new that on one understands it then it doesn’t do the story any good.
MM: The opposite of that’s probably why people look back on old shows or old comic books and simply shake their heads. It’s not always because of the production quality or because of the FX, but because they can’t believe that people actually talked like that.
BA: Yeah. [Laughter]
BA: Very soon. Like in the next couple of months.
MM: I’ve got to ask; is there going to be a Blackwater standing when they leave?
BA: I’m not gonna answer that.
MM: Can’t blame me for trying.
The common conception of the Westerns in the comic book market is that they don’t sell. How were you able to get Vertigo to see past that in order to pick up Loveless?
BA: I had some help. [Laughter] There was this show on HBO called Deadwood. It really helped get the proof. I had been pitching this thing for a year.
MM: To the same people or different groups?
BA: Just to Vertigo. Just trying to get it off the ground.
MM: So the buzz that was created by Deadwood …
BA: I wouldn’t say it was just created by Deadwood but that didn’t hurt.
MM: Did that come up in the conversation when the pitch was finally accepted?
BA: Of course it did!
MM: So the editor that you’ve been pitching this idea to for a year says, “Oh yeah, I’ve seen this Deadwood story … ”?
BA: No, no! I used it myself! Anything to get it off the ground is fair game in my book. And you are absolutely correct– the common perception is westerns don’t sell. I had been feeling since 9/11 that it had created this new sort of Western zeitgeist. It was in the air, I was feeling it, seeing things around the edges. Our culture is looking for this getting back to something … the West – the expansiveness, the ability to recreate yourself, righteous man against the bad guys. Here it is, it’s right here again in this weird way and we are going in that direction.
MM: That kind of ‘wanted dead or alive’ mentality.
BA: Yeah. And then a few films start popping up … what was that? Open Range. Which is like one of Kevin Costner’s best movies. And then Deadwood gets announced for HBO and I thought, boom, it’s there, everybody – the Westerns coming back and we’ve got to be apart of that. And that’s how it happen. It wasn’t too difficult once I had all of these touchstones to reference.
MM: There you go. The next two, three questions are completely off the beaten path. I’m just curious about them. A few years back you collaborated with industry great Joe Kubert on Sgt. Rock: Between Hell and a Hard Place. What lessons, if any, did you take away from that unique experience?
BA: It reinforced something that I’ve always kind of held true, which is ‘trust your artists’. Let them tell the story that you’re trying to tell, don’t tell them everything that they’ve got to draw.
Joe and I met before we started working on it. What he really wanted to do with these characters, or what he wanted me to focus on was creating personalities for these guys. When [Robert] Kanigher was writing them, in the original format the stories were so short there really wasn’t a lot of time or space to develop a personality for each character. And that’s what we set out to do. It was great working with him. Really, really great.
MM: That’s all of the prepared questions I had for you today. Is there anything you’d like to touch on?
BA: No. I think that’s everything.
MM: OK. Hopefully people will be keeping an eye out for Loveless here in the near future. I certainly appreciate you taking the time.
Be sure to visit Matthew McLean’s website here.