Exploring the Joker - Brian Azzarello Talks

Brian Azzarello on Joker

In October, DC Comics will be releasing Joker, a 128 page hardcover original graphic novel which reunites Brian Azzarello with Lee Bermejo—the team behind Lex Luthor: Man of Steel. This new tale promises to show a darker, more disturbing side to Gotham City’s most notorious villain as he escapes from Arkham Asylum to find that his vast criminal holdings have been split up amongst a number of other notoriously noteworthy villains: The Penguin, The Riddler, and Two Face. With all these villains around—can Batman be far behind?

Newsarama contacted Brian Azzarello to talk about Joker and what it is about this character that gives evil looking clowns such a bad rap.

Newsarama: How did the Joker project develop? Is this a Batman companion piece to Lex Luthor: Man of Steel?

Brian Azzarello: It developed out of Lex Luthor: Man of Steel, yeah. I guess it was two years ago—something like that—Lee [Bermejo] and I were just finished with Lex Luthor and we were having dinner in San Diego; we were sitting at the bar and we were talking about how we didn’t want to work with each other ever again. (laughs)

It was a good time and all but by the end of the project we were both like, “I’m sick of you…I’m sick of you too...” but then, for some reason, we started talking about doing Joker—and Lee’s wife, she’s Italian, kind of rolled her eyes and said, “You two will always be together.”

The next day, I went and talked to Dan DiDio and said, “Hey, how about letting me and Lee do the Joker the way we just did Lex?” and he said, “Yes—but what about Sinestro…what about Wonder woman’s nemesis…” (laughs)

NRAMA: (laughs) Yeah—that was my next question; could there be permutations for Green Lantern, the Flash, Wonder Woman—so on and so forth?

BA: I don’t know. I’m not going to say ‘no’—as of right now? Probably not—but you never know; if an idea strikes me, that’s all it takes.

NRAMA: What’s the premise of Joker: The Dark Knight?

BA: Well—it’s just called ‘Joker’…

NRAMA: Oh okay—I don’t know where I got this Joker: The Dark Knight bit…

BA: Yeah, it was originally called Joker: The Dark Knight but this whole ‘The Dark Knight’ movie came along and we kind of got out voted. (laughs)

NRAMA: Ah, sure, I see.

BA: But that’s okay—I actually like calling it just Joker. In the story, he gets released from Arkham Asylum—he’s obviously been in for a while and any sort of holdings he had in Gotham City have been divvied up and he wants to get them back.

NRAMA: In Lex Luthor: Man of Steel, your focus on the character’s humanity created this distinctive sympathy and rationale for his role as an antithesis to Superman; in your mind, how does the Joker fall into his role as an antithetical character opposite Batman?

BA: Well, one of the major differences in Joker is that I’m not telling the story from his point-of-view like I did in Lex. Lex isn’t insane so you can give him a world view that I think is relatable. I firmly believe that trying to write from the Joker’s perspective would be taking power away from that character; part of the power of that character is his unpredictability. Nobody knows what he is going to do next; so, if you’re in his head, you totally take away the unpredictable nature of the character. Rather than tell it from his perspective, I chose to tell it from the point-of-view of a tough guy who joins his gang—so it’s someone close to Joker; someone who wants to be like Joker who doesn’t really understand what being like the Joker is actually all about.

Let’s just say he finds out. (laughs)

NRAMA: (laughs) I’m sure that’s a very scary experience.

BA: It’s a brutal book. I have a reputation for writing all kinds of hardcore, violent things. This is the most violent thing I’ve ever written.

NRAMA: Is there a trick to writing a good bad guy in your opinion? Do you find a way to personally connect to these characters or can you relate to them at all?

BA: Oh, sure you can. What’s the trick to writing a good bad guy? Well, for me, it’s always been the idea that you pit yourself against authority, you know? I think that’s what it takes—and then you can write villainous characters.

NRAMA: You had mentioned earlier that you and Lee had become tired of each other. What’s the working rapport like between the two of you? How closely do the two of you usually work together on these types of projects?

BA: We’re really close. I love working with him. We’ll work together again, I’m sure. We’ve got a great partnership that we’ve developed.

NRAMA: When you’re working with an artist, how closely do you want them to adhere to your vision as the writer? Some guys tend to lead the show whereas other guys say, “Go crazy—play with it.” Where do you tend to fall in that spectrum? Do you ever just say “These two guys fight for four whole pages—go.”

BA: Oh yeah—that’s great. I’m pretty loose actually. I want the artist to have as much room as they need to do their best work. When I’m writing, there are going to be certain beats that I want hit in a script—those are important to me and the artists I work with typically understand that; but as far as the stuff in between, “he’s in a car” doesn’t mean I want or need a specific make and model—unless it’s important to a scene, I could give a rat’s ass. I won’t say “BMW” because someone like Lee may not like drawing BMWs and then I get this crappy rendition of a car. (laughs)

So I typically just say draw whatever car you want unless I need a beater or a late model sedan that serves a specific purpose.

NRAMA: Do you give a lot of feedback during the process—or do you let the artist do his work?

BA: I try to stay out of the way. Actually, with this project, because it’s so big—it’s like a hundred and twenty something pages—I did my best to stay out of the way and Lee do his thing and then look at things when he was all done. I didn’t want to derail it in any way during the process—not that there was anything to derail. It’s a book I’m really happy with. It’s ugly—it’s so ugly. (laughs)

I mean in that in a good way.

NRAMA: Gotcha. It’s over one hundred and twenty pages—how much of an undertaking is that for you when you’re scripting?

BA: Oh, it’s big, you know—but it’s nothing compared to what Lee has to deal with. This was two years of his life. Yeah sure, it was two years of my life too—but I’m a writer; I was sharing it 100 Bullets, Loveless, and the Filthy Rich book for Vertigo’s crime line. I can do all of these things at the same time. Lee could still do his covers but that’s about it; he’s dedicated two years of himself to this project—and it shows. It looks amazing.

NRAMA: How does Harley Quinn figure into Joker?

BA: She’s his lady, man! (laughs)

NRAMA: What is your idea of Harley Quinn?

BA: Well, Harley Quinn doesn’t speak at all in this book. She’s just kind of there. Will that be the way I do Harley Quinn the next time? Probably not. For this book, she’s more or less his bodyguard.

NRAMA: How prominent of a role does Batman play in this project? How comfortable are you with this character?

BA: It seems like every time I do him, I do something different; I try to play up a different aspect of the character. I’m not so wrapped up in the continuity stuff—I don’t get into that too much.

NRAMA: What aspect are you playing up this time around?

BA: He’s there—he’s a part of Gotham; he’s everywhere.

NRAMA: And this is all seen through the eyes of your protagonist?

BA: It’s mentioned. You don’t see Batman but he’s on every page.

NRAMA: Who else can readers expect to see from the Gotham mythos?

BA: Killer Croc plays a pretty big role; the Penguin also. The Riddler and Harvey Dent.

NRAMA: How do these other characters perceive Joker? Are they scared of him? Do they see him as an equal? Is he a leader-type?

BA: Different characters see him in different ways. Are they scared of him? They’re terrified of him! They’re scared of Batman—they’re terrified of Joker. There are differences though; Two Face wants him eliminated; there’s no room in Gotham for the both of them. The Penguin and The Riddler view him as this sort of rabid dog—they don’t understand him. Killer Croc, out of all these characters, plays the biggest role; he’s a part of Joker’s gang. He’s muscle—that’s what Croc does; and he’s entertained by Joker.

NRAMA: Entertained? Do tell…

BA: Most of these other characters are put off by Joker’s brutality and instability. Croc finds it funny. Croc laughs a lot in this story.

NRAMA: How important is it to balance a protagonist hero for there to be an equally bad antagonist counterpart in fiction writing? Is it crucial that they be equals? Can there be a lop-sided nature between two counterparts?

BA: Oh, I don’t think a balance is necessary at all. The only thing that is necessary is that both the characters be interesting. You could write a terrible, murderous psychopath—but as long as he’s interesting…people will read the story. If there’s nothing interesting about a character, people leave because there’s no desire to see what happens.

NRAMA: Historically, do you have a favorite incarnation/version of Joker? Did someone just nail the character for you?

BA: You know, I really love what Frank did; but then, you have to consider what Alan Moore did with Killing Joke. Denny O’Neil did some great things with Joker—I thought Greg Rucka used him really well in Gotham Central. So I guess—no—there isn’t just one. (laughs)

I think that’s part of the power of that character—there hasn’t been a definitive Joker—and that’s what makes some of these characters so strong; coming back to them and there’s always something fresh. Look at the theater—that’s a brand new Joker!

NRAMA: Yeah, that’s definitely a different take on this character.

BA: Well, if you like that character—you’re gonna love our book. They’re very, very eerily similar.

Joker is due in stores on October 22nd, and has a $19.99 cover price.

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