Brian Azzarello: Shake-up artist

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Brian Azzarello

Comic book writer Brian Azzarello. (Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune / August 8, 2012)

In the spring I sat with Azzarello at the Chicago Comics and Entertainment Expo at McCormick Place and watched him sign comics for a while. We sat alongside artist Lee Bermejo, with whom Azzarello has worked frequently on "Luthor," a sympathetic morality tale starring Superman nemesis Lex Luthor, and on "Joker," an acclaimed graphic novel about Batman's most famous villain as seen through the eyes of a Joker lackey. Azzarello and Bermejo were there to promote their "Before Watchmen" comics featuring Rorschach, a homicidal antihero whose costume is composed of a trench coat and ink-blot mask; the first issue arrives next week.

Said Will Dennis, Azzarello's editor: "In preliminary talks about the book, we kept hearing (the staff) go 'Rorschach is misunderstood,' and Brian kept saying, 'You don't explain a rabid dog.'"

That's signature Azzarello.

A fan in a Blackhawks jersey approached with an armful of Azzarello comics, dropping the stack in front of the writer. "I am liking your 'Wonder Woman' a lot," the man said. "Just lean and mean and real mythology."

"Yeah," Azzarello said.

Another approached: "Loved 'Joker,' loved 'Luthor,' more than anything I've read in years," he said.

"OK," Azzarello said.

The line stretched around ropes and corners and did not abate for an hour. Fans were limited to five autographed books. Most brought five: Lovingly cared-for hardcovers of "Luthor" and "Joker," issues of "Wonder Woman" and his surreal oddity "Spaceman," compendiums of his Batman comics.

And almost everyone in line carried at least one compilation of "100 Bullets," his crime opus, the comic that made him a brand name. Set partly in Chicago and centered around a mysterious organization that offers revenge (and untraceable bullets), it ran for 100 issues from 1999 to 2009, starting as a noir, ending as a conspiracy epic. Published by Vertigo, DC's then-fledgling, edgier, fantasy-heavy imprint, "it changed the way people thought about Vertigo and DC," Dennis said. It made a compelling case for hard-boiled, relatively realistic crime comics, a genre that Azzarello had grown up with but, Frank Miller's"Sin City"aside, had largely vanished.

Another fan approached.

"Loving 'Wonder Woman,'" the guy said. "Not saying it's Vertigo good, but it's edgier than anything else."

"OK," Azzarello said.

And another fan: "I have nothing to sign. I just wanted to say thanks for '100 Bullets.' Sincerely."

Azzarello blew air and nodded and looked away, embarrassed by the compliment. Later, Bermejo told me: "Brian's characters are thinkers. They think about what they say, so it's often perfect. But they don't say a lot. And that's Brian. He might take offense at this, but there's a sweet earnestness behind the way he is."

A woman approached the table and slid a stack of his books to him.

"Your name?" Azzarello asked, pen poised to sign.

"Not for me," she said. "For my husband. He's a police officer. He couldn't come. You're his favorite writer."

"A Chicago cop," Azzarello said. "Yeah, OK."

Azzarello turns 50 Saturday. He's married to comic book artist Jill Thompson, herself something of a brand name, having illustrated "Swamp Thing," "Scary Godmother" and Neil Gaiman's "Sandman" series. She said when he sends direction to the artists he's working with, "it's as succinct as he is as a person. It's hilarious. Take Brian's most popular comic book location, a bar. Most writers would send (an artist) something like, 'We have a medium to overhead shot, looking down on a bar with a walnut finish, peanuts in a bowl, burns in the bar where someone did flaming shots, and here's a woman with acid-washed mom jeans.' Brian'll send them: 'Dive bar. Also there's a tourist standing at the bar.' And that's it."

She also said he's the last person to acknowledge he has a following, telling me a story about howSamuel L. Jackson, a huge fan who was pointedly reading "100 Bullets" during a scene in "Snakes on a Plane," once accosted the Chicago writer at San Diego's annualComic-Con. "But Brian will never tell you that."

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