[15 November 2011]
PopMatters Comics Editor
It’s that warm Santa Claus chuckle that just draws me in. And why not? Brian Azzarello is Santa Claus-y, in a kind of way. Sure the beard’s not a full beard. And physically he could do a little more to look the part, fuller belly, dressing in red. But right down at the bottom of it, Brian Azzarello is my kind of Santa. There’s that belly-laugh of a chuckle that fills the room and sets the tone for the entire interview. And the fact that, and there’s no getting around this, there’s always a surprise gift. Whether it’s collaborating with Eduardo Risso on the phenomenal 100 Bullets, or Jim Lee on Superman: For Tomorrow, or now, monthly, on Wonder Woman.
Now sure, the gifts aren’t of the saccharine-sweet faux variety. They’re more often than not a dark medley of sinister motivation and unique frustration. Take Wylie Times, perhaps one of the creations in modern noir literature. An assassin for the mysterious Trust, Wylie’s real frustration, we discover after an 8-issue sojourn in New Orleans, was not being ordered to kill his girlfriend. It was realizing that he wouldn’t have wanted anyone else doing the killing. And it was this unresolved frustration that ran rampant, forcing him into an 8-issue long teetering-on-the-edge of killing his mentor, Mr. Shepard. With the name Brian Azzarello appearing on the cover of a book, you’ll find a rich contemplative complexity. But on the other side of that complexity is often the raw simplicity of easily-understood human emotion.
But there’s that chuckle at the opening of our conversation, mine and Brian’s. It comes from that warm place of certainty and humor and it comes as a response to probably the most basic question about writing Wonder Woman. “What’s it like writing a woman”, I ask almost haplessly falling into the question. Then there’s that warm laughter. And it’s the night before Christmas. I’m sneaking down the stairs and I know, whatever response comes next, it’s going to be a good one.
“It’s challenging”, Brian confesses, “Just like dating one”. And then a round of laughter from both of us. And then I get to open the present. “I’ve written women before”, Brian continues, “There’s Dizzy for example”. Dizzy is Isabel “Dizzy” Cordova from 100 Bullets. She was the first foil to Bullets’ formidable Agent Graves, the first to get the seductive briefcase that gave you both 100 rounds of ammunition and immunity from the prosecution. She’s exactly that complex mix of motivation and frustration, an assassin (eventually) who yearns towards a better world.
“Dizzy was dealing with a lot of conflict in her life”, Brian continues. “But there’s not a lot of conflict with Diana. Diana knows what she’s doing”.
And she does. Princess Diana’s Wonder Woman is incredibly well-carved. Like the original persona from ancient Greek tragedies. The persona was literally the wooden mask actors would carve for themselves, and would allow audiences to realize actors were private citizens who might at any moment return to their private lives.
If anything, Brian has harnessed this sense of hidden wonder. The idea that very little separates the ordinary from the fantastical. His view of characters from classical mythology is breathtaking; “Take away the ‘classical’ and they’re not so sanitized, so safe or predictable”. Greek gods with human motivations, again, the raw simplicity of human motivations on the over side of inordinate character complexity.
And there’s every sense that Wonder Woman’s only just building steam, already two issues in. It’s been this surprisingly grounded book thus far. Strangely down to earth. Apollo’s exactly like every Wall Street tech investor you’ve imagined meeting. And Zola, the human girl pregnant with Zeus’ child, currently defended by Diana, is the kind of uniquely human person you’d hope to meet.
In a magnificent scene between Zola and messenger-god Hermes, Zola speaks about the form that Zeus took when he approached her. Her response is witty, quirky, grounded and above all, unapologetic of her desire. One exchange, and I’m drawn back to the angst-dramas like Felicity or One Tree Hill or Dawson’s Creek that once littered television. I’m drawn back in but suddenly these dramas make a kind of sense they never have before. It is a splendid statement about the high quality of characterization and narrative that Brian is presenting readers with.
And of course, this third issue is where things really kick off. Strife, sister to Ares’ God of War, has now stepped onto the island of Paradise Island. She’s bewildered the Amazons into attacking each other. And she’s confronted Diana with the world-shattering; that Diana is not an immaculate conception, but the child of Zeus herself. This third issue sees Diana meeting getting ready to meet the family, her real family on Olympus.
It’s hard to frame the myriad ways in which writer and artist (Brian and his Doctor Thirteen collaborator Cliff Chiang) have woven this vision of Wonder Woman into the fabric of the everyday. Not because mythology and ancient Greek culture is so very distant, but because it is so much a part of our everyday world it’s almost invisible. This is the book that tackles structures. And it’s worth every bit immersing yourself in the kind of gift that goes on giving. This is the real Christmas, the real Secret Santa. A book that offers not only the joy of a great story, but a deep and incisive meditation on the nature of the social institutions that both limit and liberate us. Sometimes in the tiniest of ways.