This past weekend at Chicago's C2E2 comic convention, Brian Azzarello was somewhat of a hometown hero.
Not only did the Chicago-based writer just turn Wonder Woman into a Top 20 title again after years of mediocre sales, but he's a key player in this summer's highly anticipated Before Watchmen event. Add that to his reunion with 100 Bullets collaborator Eduardo Risso in the current mini-series Spaceman, and Azzarello is having one of the more high-profile years of his career.
Of course, that high profile is coming with plenty of vocal reaction from long-time fans, who don't always respond positively to a writer like Azzarello who likes to do the "unexpected." This year, Azz made some big changes to Wonder Woman's iconic mythology, and he's not even hesitating to tackle two prequels to Watchmen, despite some fans believing those characters shouldn't be touched.
But having your work at the center of conversation among hoards of fanboys and fangirls isn't necessarily a bad thing. When Before Watchmen kicks off in June with a series of weekly comics by several different creative teams, Azzarello will surely get more people talking with his collaboration with J.G. Jones on Comedian and Lee Bermejo on Rorschach.
We caught up with Azzarello during C2E2, and in this first installment of a two-part interview, Newsarama talked to him about his work on Before Watchmen and the reasons behind his decision to work on the event.
Newsarama: Brian, I know this is a little weird. But I'm going to do a Before Watchmen interview without talking about the so-called "controversy," because I think we've covered that pretty well, don't you?
Brain Azzarello: Yeah, and you know, everyone talked about this controversy, but there really hasn't been much of one. I mean, I don't read everything that people are saying.
Nrama: Obviously, the project's moving forward no matter where the discussion goes. So let's talk about the project instead. And to start, let me admit that I'm one of those people who read Watchmen years after it was published. A newcomer, I suppose.
Azzarello: I read it when it originally came out.
Nrama: Yeah, and a lot of comic fans did. But to be honest, by the time I got to the comic, while it was obviously brilliant and moving, it did feel somewhat dated.It was definitely a story of its time, you know?
Azzarello: Oh, yeah.
Nrama: Is part of the challenge for Before Watchmen to update this world and write these characters for a more modern audience?
Azzarello: Well, sure. I mean the lens that we look through now is different than it was 30 years ago. You know? The concerns that we have globally are different. I mean, one of the big conceits of the original series was saving humanity from itself, which in essence is nuclear war. But in the world today, nuclear war is no longer part of the landscape the way it was then. That threat has been replaced by terrorism.
Nrama: So from a storytelling standpoint, to be true to the world Alan Moore created, can you still portray that world faithfully, yet in a way that is going to have the same kind of resonance with today's audience?
Azzarello: Well, that's the challenge, isn't it? And I can't answer that now. Really, that's not even for me to answer. That's for readers to answer when the books are out, you know?
Nrama: But you've clearly thought about it. You're the one who admitted the lens has completely changed since the Cold War.
Azzarello: Well, yeah, that's one of the reasons I'm doing it, is because it's a challenge. And it's like, what is the approach to take on these characters now? We're telling stories that happened in the past, but you don't want those stories to seem too dated.
There's 30 years of cultural change that I'm looking at bringing to these two books that I'm doing.
Just like Watchmen is a product of the time it was written, these are going to be the same. I hope.
Again, the approach I'm taking, whether or not I succeed or fail, that's not for me to say.
Nrama: Have you guys sat down and talked about this challenge and discussed what approach you're taking in these various mini-series?
Azzarello: We did sit down and talk about this. Back in October, I believe it was, we had a meeting. And it went surprisingly smooth. It was a meeting that was scheduled for two days. We didn't meet all two days to hash out these ideas.
We came with pretty solid takes on these characters, with really strong arguments to why they should be approached in a certain way.
Nrama: That's interesting, because I would imagine some differences of mind. Do you think that's because the original had such a clear idea of where these characters came from and what the world was like?
Azzarello: Yeah, I think so, but there are all kinds of different places you can go within that framework.
Len [Wein]'s take, for example, on Ozymandias is not the take that I would have had on that character, however it's really strong. And I can totally agree with what he's doing and the approach he's taking.
I mean, I don't think the original Watchmen book itself dictates too strongly how these characters can be handled if you're kind of pulling them out of that story and creating something else for them to operate in.
Nrama: There are years and years to cover in their history. How did you narrow down where you wanted to pick up the story of each character?
Azzarello: The Comedian is set in the '60s, and Rorshach's in the '70s.I think the strongest aspect of those characters are echoed in the decade that I'm putting them in. Rorschach in late '70s New York just works for me. New York back then was a very different place than it is now.
The Comedian in the '60s, I mean, what a tumultuous decade that was for America. It just makes sense to me to explore that particular time with that character, and how affected it, or was affected by it.
Nrama: Vietnam defined him somewhat, didn't it?
Azzarello: Vietnam definitely — I don't know if it defined him, but it underlines him.
Nrama: So he was already there, in a way?
Azzarello: Well, yeah, I think he was already there.
Nrama: You were originally offered Rorschach first, right? Only that one at first?
Nrama: You know, when I was thinking about your decision to work on this comic, I remembered something you told me about Wonder Woman. You said that DC was originally talking to you about their approach to Diana, and you decided to write the comic because you thought you could come up with something better. Am I remembering that right?
Azzarello: Yeah, but that came about because I thought what they were going to do was so wrong.
Nrama: Yeah, you wanted to kind of protect the character. Or is that too strong of a word? Protect?
Azzarello: I guess I was trying to protect her. Oh. [Laughs.]
Nrama: I can't help wondering, when you were offered Rorschach, was the idea of protecting the character involved in your decision? Or would you call it selfish, wanting the character for yourself?
Azzarello: Well, I don't think I'd call it selfish. But you know, I haven't thought about it as being "protective" either.
But now that you mention it, Lee and I were discussing it — whether or not we were going to take on Rorschach — and the discussion went along the lines of, "You know they're going to do it anyway, whether you say yes or no."
And then it went to, "Well, then we'd better do it, because at least if we do it, we know it's going to be good."So yeah, there is some ego in it, I suppose. There's definitely an element of ego in it.
And I guess I was being protective. Lee and I just figured, it was like, "We'll kill on this project!"
Nrama: I think most fans would agree. I mean, you obviously do more than just grim and gritty stuff nowadays, as evidenced by your work on Wonder Woman and Spaceman. But if we challenged fans to put together a short list of people to write Rorschach, I bet your name would be there, probably even at the top.
Azzarello: [Laughs.] What's that say about me?
Nrama: I don't know. You fit the Comedian too, so maybe it's that they have more of a dark, gritty edge to them.
Azzarello: Yeah, probably.
Nrama: It sounds like you were already talking to Lee Bermejo about this project before you even accepted it. Did you always have him in mind for Rorschach? And why did you think he was the right person?
Azzarello: He's the right person. Yeah, he popped to mind immediately, after I hung up with Dan [DiDio], after he offered the character — actually, I think even prior to that. When he just said "Rorschach," I'm thinking, "OK, if I do this, who would I do... — Lee." It was that fast. It was just there. Done.
Nrama: Lee's got a lot of realism in his art.
Azzarello: Yeah, and sometimes the stuff he does is difficult to look at. You know?
Nrama: Yeah. It's got the ugly details.
Azzarello: Yeah, he can do warts and the whole nine yards.
Nrama: So I take it this world you guys are exploring in New York of the '70s is not pretty.
Azzarello: No, it's not. It's why they had to clean up that city, I guess.
Nrama: Will you explore the ramifications of the Keane Act? Because that happened in the '70s, right?
Azzarello: Right, Rorschach takes place after the Keane Act.
Nrama: Is this is a formative story for him, or for the world of Watchmen?
Azzarello: I don't want to get too much into the details. Let's just say it's a Rorschach story. It's not world-breaking or world-affecting or anything like that. It's Rorschach doing what Rorschach does.
Nrama: Was he the same guy at that point that we knew from the original story?
Azzarello: Yeah, he's the same guy.
Nrama: I didn't know if you were showing him a little different, as if he evolved since then.
Azzarello: No. It's the Rorschach people want to see. Do you want to read about Rorschach before he went crazy? I don't think so.
Nrama: And you don't want to write him?
Azzarello: Well, that's not what makes the character compelling. Certainly, there are elements to his past that are interesting. And I'll touch on that kind of stuff. But I put him in the late '70s because he belongs there.
Rorschach is a product of his environment. And his environment is not pretty.
Nrama: When you talk about touching on his past, does that mean you're going to include a retelling of what made him the way he is?
Azzarello: No, I don't think we need to do that. That was done in the first book. We know what made Rorschach what he is. He's probably the most fully formed character in the original series. People who have read that book know who Rorschach is, where he came from, what his past is, and why he's the way he is.
Nrama: Let's talk about J.G. Jones. I know that you guys wanted to work together for awhile, right?
Azzarello: Yeah, we wanted to work together, and this project just seemed to be the right one. And DC wanted J.G. involved in this. So it just fit. The dominoes fell into place.
Nrama: J.G. can do all kinds of things, so without having seen the art, it's hard to know what this is going to look like. Can you give any indication of what you're seeing and how he's interpreted the world of Comedian?
Azzarello: It's great. And it's been great working with him. He's nailing the '60s, I'll tell you that. It's got a great vibe. He brings, like, a real — there's this masculine realism, I think, in J.G.'s artwork. And that's exactly what the Comedian needs.
Nrama: Yeah, masculine is a good adjective for Comedian.
Azzarello: Yeah. [Laughs.] He's a man's man.
Nrama: You mentioned that Rorschach's origin was covered in Watchmen. But is this written for people who have already read that book? Or are you writing it more from the perspective that people start with this and then read Watchmen?
Azzarello: I'm writing to make a cohesive story on its own. If you're read Watchmen, great. If you haven't, you should. And I don't really think that anybody's going to come to these books that aren't familiar with Watchmen, you know? But we'll see. As usual, I'm sure I'll be proven wrong. I'll probably have someone come up to me and say, "You got me into Watchmen." And that's fine. But the only way I'm going to accomplish anything like that is to write a solid story about these characters and make them compelling, and make people want to read more about that character.
Check back soon with Newsarama when we talk to Azzarello about his work on Wonder Woman and Spaceman.
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