By Jarrod Jones. It’s been two months since American Monster#1 reached my hands, and I still can’t shake it from my mind. It’s brutal, it’s unnerving, and in places, it’s really, really funny. Brian Azzarello and Juan Doe’s first-ever AfterShock endeavor is essential comics, the kind you read and hold onto long after you’ve filed your issues away. I look into the eyes of the author of 100 Bullets and Hellblazer and tell him precisely that. And guess what? He just laughs.
“We’re just getting started,” Mr. Azzarello tells me, as I shift uncomfortably in my seat. “What we’re establishing with these characters is that violence is definitely a normal part of their life. This is day-to-day stuff. So I have to mix it up a little bit. It has to get worse.” Can’t wait. *gulp*
Brian Azzarello sat down with me on a Saturday afternoon to discuss the future of American Monster, his freedom to write nasty people again, and what we can expect with DKIII: The Master Race.
DoomRocket: I’m just going to cut right to the meat of ‘American Monster’; you mentioned before to CBR back in December that Theo Montclare was analogous to the Frankenstein Monster. I’ve been reading this character, and he’s kind of a Sphinx right now. He has an agenda, though I don’t know what that is. Is there a chance we’re going to find some nobility from him at some point?
Brian Azzarello: I’m writing it, so there’s probably very little chance that you’re going to see any nobility. When I get to do my own stuff, I leave the nobility for the work-for-hire. [Laughs]
DR: Are you looking to exercise some catharsis here? I mean, this is your first creator-owned series since… ‘Spaceman’?
BA: Yeah, it is. And it’s been great getting back to telling these kind of stories. It’s good to write nasty people again.
DR: Theo can sit amongst the hallowed, blood-spattered halls of your most sinister creations…
BA: I think there are a some other characters in this book that could have a spot in that hallway as well.
DR: I find it interesting, because I’m looking at the cover to issue #2, and I can only assume that that’s meant to be Theo sitting on a teeter-totter with Snow.
BA: No, that’s See-Saw Man!
DR: That’s right! But I interpret it that way because Mr. Juan Doe leaves these whited-out open spaces where the reader can fill in the gaps as to who or what these images are supposed to be. Speaking of Snow, she probably has more to offer this story than we can anticipate at this point, doesn’t she?
BA: I mean… I think that whenever I’m writing a book that features a main character, I make sure that all the characters have a fleshed-out voice. I mean, Wonder Woman — sure, Wonder Woman had her name on the cover, but that was an ensemble book. That was a team book with all these different characters in it. So you have to give everybody air time. Snow is definitely one of the main characters.
DR: And her father…
BA: Felix. Him too.
DR: … we notice that he has at least superficial ties to Theo. We’ve seen the tattoos…
BA: That’s not superficial. That’s skin deep. [Laughs]
DR: Brian, I’ve been reading your work for a long, long time. You write these shocking sequences of violence. They startle me as a reader, it gets under my skin and I love it. I liken you to Sam Peckinpah —
BA: Oh, wow. [Chuckles] Thank you.
DR: I mean, these stories hit a visceral nerve! So when I’m thinking about some of these sequences, like say, in ‘Joker’ or definitely in ‘Monster’…
BA: Yeah, that was a pretty interesting way to open a book, wasn’t it?
DR: Yeah, a little bit.
DR: I was talking to MJ the other day [Molly Jane Kremer, associate editor of DoomRocket] and I said to her, “Brian must have either a frighteningly vivid imagination, or he has undertaken some seriously morbid research.” Where are these things coming from?
BA: The newspaper, man. You don’t have to dig too deep. Just read the newspaper. Y’know? I mean, didn’t some guy — I think I read a story this week — didn’t some guy feed his girlfriend’s baby to a dog? A pit bull? I mean, wow, if I put that in a comic, people would be like, “Wow, what a vivid imagination you have.”
DR: [Laughs] We live in Chicago. And it feels like every week when I look at a newspaper I see an article about some police officer involved in some malfeasance, some botched investigation, or worse, violence.
DR: What does the relationship between our working class and the police force do to inform some of your stories?
BA: Well, first of all, I don’t think the cops and the problems they’re having have anything to do with the working class. It has to do with the non-working class, the poor class. The people who have just been neglected by this city. I mean, where do most of the cops work? They work in working class neighborhoods, or better than working class neighborhoods. The Far West side, the South side, they’re not served by the police very well, and that’s why these things happen. And now, look — the State’s Attorney went down, the top cop went down… is Rahm gonna go down too? He might! He can’t plead ignorance on this. There’s no way.
DR: Obviously, you voted?
BA: I voted, yeah.
DR: So we’re aware of this swell of public servants who have betrayed the public trust, almost like it’s a hobby —
DR: — there’s definitely some pathology in there. I noticed that in issue #2, we have Sheriff Virdi, who’s older, a bit paunchier [than Gary, the deputy of the series]. He’s almost aloof in his duties. For instance, he sees a shot pit bull on the side of the road and he doesn’t figure it’s worth an investigation…
BA: He doesn’t want any crime!
DR: Right, but he also knows whose dog this is.
BA: Yeah, but he’s like, “it’s a problem, man, I don’t want a problem!” I don’t think the sheriff is a bad guy… he’s a lazy guy. [Laughs]
DR: So he’s not inherently evil, he’s lethargic.
BA: Yeah. “I don’t want to do it, I don’t want to do my job!” I mean, Gary’s still young. Gary’s still got a bit of idealism left to him. [With Virdi] Those edges are worn off by now.
DR: As it is in life, altruism so often erodes from us over time. In your stories, in the myths that you are making, you have heroes — they exist, I’ve seen them. But they’re usually a little more wary of the world around them. Is that deliberate?
BA: [Chuckles] Yeah, probably. Unlike Gary — you were asking about honor earlier? There’s honor in Gary. And you can be damn sure things are not going to end well for poor Gary.
DR: But he’s got his poor mother at home!
BA: And everybody makes fun of him too! Gary’s sort of like — he’s the deputy. [Laughs]
DR: I wanted to talk about Juan Doe. He’s kind of an enigma to me, as he is for many others. How did you come to Juan, or did he come to you?
BA: Mike Marts, the editor, brought Juan to me. He was giving me suggestions of different artists. And a lot of them were… there’s nothing wrong with them, they’re all talented guys, but they were real old school. I wanted somebody new. I wanted someone young, someone I had never worked with before. Then Mike threw Juan my way, and I’m like, “Yeah. Definitely.”
Then I guess he went to Juan, and… Juan was getting out of comics, I think. And he got back in, I’m sorry to say. For him. [Laughs]
DR: I think it worked out alright. I was looking at the artwork, trying to imagine ‘American Monster’ illustrated by anyone else, like maybe an industry stalwart like Steve Dillon. How he’d interpret your work. Then I look at Juan Doe’s work, and it almost blunts the impact. Is that by design?
BA: I don’t think “blunt” is the right word. I think maybe it makes it more palatable. Because a lot of this stuff is harshly violent, if you had somebody drawing it that had a more realistic bent, it would hurt more. Marcelo Frusin, who I worked with on Hellblazer, we had some violence there that… it looked like it hurt all the time. And I think that the violence in American Monster is more heightened, so it’s better to have somebody who’s creating a whole world, and you look at it and you know you can take it.
Like that scene, that first scene in issue #1. If Steve had drawn that, it’d be like, “what the fuck?” I mean, it still was the way that Juan did it, but it’s more palatable because it’s more… cartoony. [Laughs]
DR: ‘American Monster’ is pitch-black. But Juan’s artwork makes it feel as though you can engage with it more.
BA: Juan makes it more inviting.
DR: I was thinking the other day. I had two stacks of comics in front of me: the first two issues of ‘American Monster’ and the first two issues of Ed Brisson’s ‘The Violent’. Have you checked that out yet?
DR: So, Brisson and artist Adam Gorham are telling this story that’s similar in a way to ‘Monster’, though they don’t have a bogeyman like Theo. The bogeyman is just a regular Joe hard on his luck. But Gorham’s art — if you took that, and put it in ‘Monster’, for that opening sequence in issue #1, that would have made people drop the book on the floor. [Laughs] How much do we need to brace ourselves for issue #3, #4, #5…
BA: Oh, we’re just getting started. [Laughs] What we’re establishing with these characters is that violence is definitely a normal part of their life. This is day-to-day stuff. So I have to mix it up a little bit. It has to get worse.
DR: I’ve noticed that Theo is a war vet. From either a term served in Afghanistan, or Iraq…
DR: Do you know many veterans in life?
DR: We look at the system, when soldiers come home after their service, and how too often that system fails them. Does that inform some of Theo’s arc for ‘American Monster’?
BA: Well, yeah. That’s the Frankenstein question, there. In very broad strokes, the story of Frankenstein is the monster confronting his creator and saying, “Take responsibility for me. What you made.” That’s Theo’s story.
DR: War created Theo. What he is today. And he’s obviously not in town to eat a meatloaf sandwich…
BA: Dry meatloaf.
DR: Yeah. “Motherfucker said WHAT.” [Laughs] So he’s here with an agenda, with vengeance on his mind. Something… more happened to him besides being burnt.
BA: We’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg.
DR: I’d like to go back to the concept of veterans failed by their government. I look at the prison system, and the shocking number of inmates that had once served in our military. Is Theo a statement, or a polemic on our society’s failure to take care of these people?
BA: No, he’s just a character. I don’t write that way.
DR: You have said that you’ve gone “literary” in ‘American Monster’. And now that you have this creative freedom that you don’t have over at DC. So where DO you want to go with this story? What itch are you trying to scratch, then?
BA: My dark itch. [Laughs] We’re going to my dark places. [Pauses] It’s not an overtly political book, but some of that will definitely bubble up come issue #3 or #4.
DR: Do you plan of having this story contained within a finite arc? Are we going in for the long haul, or does ‘Monster’ have a sell-by date?
BA: We have a… there’s an ending. We have an ending. I’m not gonna tell you where.
DR: Of course not! I don’t want to know, either. [Laughs] After you wrap this up, do you plan on continuing to work with AfterShock?
BA: Yeah, so far it’s been great!
DR: I wanted to shift gears to your other boss, DC Comics. You’re working with Frank Miller right now on ‘The Master Race’. Five issues have yet to see print. How are you feeling right now? Are you feeling… historic?
BA: No. I’m not feeling “historic.” I’m — there’s so much work left to be done, still. I haven’t had a chance to step back.
DR: So you haven’t put the final period on it yet.
BA: No, not yet.
DR: I have to say, the ending of Book Two, with the reveal of Kandor… I did not see that coming at all. And when you have a shocking reveal like that, when you’re working in a universe that has been established before, do you find it difficult to work with what Frank has laid out?
BA: No, because we’re doing it together! All the big, major ideas are all his, y’know.
DR: I remember your ‘DKIII’ announcement last year, and you referred to Frank as “sensei”.
BA: I still call him that.
DR: So the relationship is, on some level, a kindred one. You’ve both written some of comics’ most lauded crime stories, and it appears that the harmony between you two is working very well. Is it a daunting thing to be working with Mr. Miller?
BA: No, not at all. It’s easy. He’s a friend of mine, and this is what we wanted to do. And, y’know, we’ll take shots at each other when we’re working… some of the emails get a little… well, not “heated”, but it can get like, “Hey, if you don’t like it, you can draw it yourself.” That kind of thing. [Laughs] And he’ll say that to me. [Laughs]
DR: We have the one-shot illustrated by John Romita, Jr. on the way. This is a prequel to ‘DKIII’, so are we going to be revisiting certain sequences from ‘The Dark Knight Returns’, or is this taking place prior to —
DR: Where you’ll be dealing with the Joker. A character you know a thing or two about.
BA: And Frank does too.
DR: So I’m thinking of ‘Joker’ written by Brian Azzarello and illustrated by Lee Bermejo, and all the horrible things the Joker did in ‘Returns’… what can we expect in this one-shot?
BA: The unexpected. I think that this is gonna blow people away. I’ve seen the pages, and it looks amazing. It’s a knockout.
Read the DoomRocket review of ‘American Monster’ #1 here.