As he explained to fans at last weekend's WonderCon in San Francisco, "100 Bullets" writer Brian Azzarello attributes the birth of the long-running crime book from Vertigo to a road rage incident. "Somebody cut me off in traffic. I got pissed off and said I want to kill the guy. The person in the car with me said, 'Say you could get away with it. Would you do it?'"
From that incident, the idea for a story grew. "I owe my whole career to some asshole who cut me off in traffic," Azzarello said, jokingly adding, "Who is now dead!"
In a panel moderated by John Cunningham, Vice President of Marketing for DC Comics, Azzarello and "100 Bullets" cover artist Dave Johnson spent an hour talking about the series, which wraps up its 100-issue run in April.
Cunningham suggested the book is "the closest thing to the great American novel we have right now," listing some of the elements you'd expect to find in such a book: power, violence, conspiracy, revenge, wealth, poverty, sex, history and America's destiny.
But it didn't start out that way. After the initial road rage incident that bore the concept, Azzarello said he needed a character who would be "giddy at this opportunity" of getting away with murder. He said he pulled up to a red light, and there was an older man standing there with a black suit and a briefcase. From there, Agent Graves was born.
Azzarello said the idea needed "connecting tissue," though - something more than just a guy with a briefcase who gives a variety of characters a chance at revenge. "I realized at that point I was writing something too episodic - this is the revenge story of the month," he said. That's where The Trust, the shadowy organization Graves used to work for, and the background secrets that evolved throughout the book's run, came from.
Azzarello said he pitched the book to then Vertigo editor Axel Alonso. At the time, Azzarello said, Vertigo was "a rather insular place," with a set stable of writers they worked with telling a certain type of story. Azzarello said Alonso was "really fighting against that kind of thing." Having worked with Alonso on some short stories for Vertigo's anthologies, the editor asked Azzarello to pitch two existing DC properties, "Jonny Double" and "Human Target." Azzarello said Alonso loved the "100 Bullets" idea, but said there was no way they could get that approved.
Azzarello eventually wrote a four-issue "Jonny Double" miniseries for the imprint, which is where he first met "100 Bullets" artist Eduardo Risso. When it was time to pick an artist for "Johnny Double," Azzarello said Alonso faxed him samples from three different artists. "Honest to God, I don't know who the other two guys were," he said. "Eduardo's pages were the first thing to come through the fax machine." Azzarello picked up the samples from the machine and said, "This is the guy."
After the duo proved themselves on "Johnny Double," Alonso took "100 Bullets" to Vertigo Executive Editor Karen Berger, who approved it.
Dave Johnson said he was recruited to produce the covers by painter and DC artistic director Mark Chiarello, who created the covers for "Johnny Double." Chiarello didn't have time to commit to "100 Bullets," so he recommended Johnson to Alonso.
"I'm surprised they picked me, by the way," Johnson said. "I hadn't really done a whole lot of that kind of style." Johnson said he was more of a "meat and bones" superhero artist before "100 Bullets." "Chiarello knew I was capable of something a little bit more. I told him I wanted to do something other than superheroes."
Johnson said when he started the job, he had access to Risso's fully colored pages from which to draw inspiration for covers. Eventually, he started getting pages without color, without inks and without pencils, until eventually he had to "call and beg Brian to see what he was going to write." "Some of the cooler covers came from having no idea what he was going to write," Johnson said. "It's a weird way to work. Really weird."
Cunningham asked Azzarello about the regionalism in the book and how the writer captures the speaking patterns of different areas so well. Azzarello said he likes to travel to a city where he's setting the book and listen to how people talk. "Last thing I wanted to do was write dialogue that didn't ring true," Azzarello said. "There's a poetry to the way people talk, and I'm very, very aware of it."
The writer mentioned traveling to New Orleans for research, and Cunningham said he pictured Azzarello going to bars like the ones featured in the book. Later, Azzarello joked that chose the settings based on where he wanted to travel - which was why the character Dizzy went to Paris.
When asked about the final issue and how it felt to be done, Azzarello said it hadn't really sunk in yet, but probably would when it came time to write the next issue.
Johnson said he still has one more cover to make for the last trade paperback, and that there is the possibility of an Absolute Edition, which could mean more work for him on the book.
As far as the last issue goes, Azzarello said, "There is a finality" without going into any specifics.
Johnson joked, "Something about a nuclear bomb going off?"
So what's next for the duo of Brian Azzarello and Dave Johnson? The artist said he's illustrating covers for Vertigo's "Unknown Soldier" starting with issue #7. He's also working on covers for Marvel's "Punisher" and DC's "The Mighty."
Azzarello said he and Risso are talking about doing another Vertigo series together, but fans probably won't see it until next year. "It won't be 100 issues, trust me," he said.
At the end of the panel, a fan asked if Azzarello and Risso would ever return to "Batman." "Yes, yes," he said. "Look for something 'Batman' from Eduardo and I this summer."