Note: This was originally published on Berkeleyplaceblog.com, June 30, 2013. It is reprinted here for posterity.
Okay, I like making lists, but I’m not always qualified to do a “top 10 of all time.” I think that’s the case here, with Brian Azzarello, since I’ve never finished 100 Bullets and I don’t like Hellblazer.
But this is the internet. Lack of qualifications never stopped anyone here.
The top 9 BA comics appear below.
First, why nine favorites?
Because I’m pretty sure 100 Bullets would be up on this list, but I’m not sure where. It’s a massive book, and I just haven’t had the inclination to devote the hours it would take to finish it.
Second, why Azzarello?
Because he’s interesting. His work tends not to be “important” in the event/DCU sense of the word; rather, he leans to the artistic more than the commercial. And that’s a rare thing for a commercial writer. For a brief time in 2003, Azzarello was the writer of both Superman and Batman—making him the key architect for DC. It didn’t last a long time, though, in spite of th fact that (or maybe because of the fact that) he did some really great, innovative work that wasn’t laden down with continuity and events.
And although I didn’t put it on my top 9, his Vertigo book “Filthy Rich” was used to launch Vertigo’s “crime” line of books, which produced several award-winning graphic novels.
So, that’s why, and this is the list:
THE TOP 9 BRIAN AZZARELLO COMICS
ACCORDING TO BERKELEY PLACE
9. STARTLING STORIES: BANNER
A four issue miniseries with a cute title (spoofing “Astonishing Tales”) about the relationship between Bruce Banner and his bigger, meaner, greener alter ego. Lots of people have written this kind of story, but what made this take so great was that it focuses on aftermath. Hulk destroyed a city, and Doc Samson is brought in to handle the political and personal ramifications of the devastation. Banner is doing his usual hand-wringing over what he’s done, but the relationships between him, Samson, and General Ross (Hulk’s main pursuer) are handled with depth and maturity here. This isn’t about Banner figuring out how to make Hulk safe, it’s about regret and fear. Plus, the art is by horror great Richard Corben, which only increases the suspense and intensity of this book. Last time I tried to get it, it was out of print, but I found a used trade on Amazon for pretty cheap. It’s a great read.
8. SGT ROCK: BETWEEN HELL AND HARD PLACE
I don’t read war comics. I can count on two fingers the ones I like enough to consider placing on a top ten list, I think. Vertigo’s Unknown Soldier series, and this one.
And it doesn’t hurt that it marked a return in 2003 of Joe Kubert to drawing the character who he made famous decades earlier: Sgt. Rock.
The story is fairly simple: It details a 1944 mission in which Easy Company has to deal with an American solider who has murdered several prisoners of war. It’s part mystery, part war story, and part morality play, and I don’t see enough comic critics talking about it.
7. LEX LUTHOR: MAN OF STEEL
One of several Azzarello/Lee Bermejo team-ups, this 2005 comic is told from the perspective that Lex Luthor is here to protect us from Superman. There are ties between this story and the frequently-told Batman stories that show the caped crusader planning for what to do if Superman ever goes bad.
We also get to see quite a bit of corporate wheeling and dealing, including Luthor giving Bruce Wayne a kryptonite sample in an effort to get Wayne’s support. This gets Superman mad, of course, but Superman’s attempts to get the kryptonite back only drives Batman closer to Luthor. This is just one piece of this rich, 5-issue miniseries.
6. BATMAN: BROKEN CITY
Once again working with Eduardo Risso, Azzarello’s run on Batman (#620-625) was a great crime story. In fact, it would have been better suited for the pages of Detective Comics, which tend to focus on grittier, street-level Batman cases. It’s written in a noir style, and focuses on a manhunt for a killer, but gradually reveals layer after layer of intrigue and conspiracy, drawing in Bat-villains like Killer Croc, Penguin, and Scarface. The killer appears to have gunned down a family (I’m not spoiling the details), which makes this an intensely personal case for Batman.
It’s a complex story—some have argued confusing—but it’s a rewarding read if you can suspend the need for instant gratification and let the story unfold gradually.
5. DEATHBLOW #1-9
I’ve already paid tribute to a surprising number of entries on this list. I loved this mindbending revival of the old Wildstorm character, and you can read why here
The Batman/Deathblow miniseries that preceded it was also a very good read.
When you think of Joker graphic novels, everyone talks about Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke. And that is a great comic. But it’s a mistake to overlook Azzarello and Lee Bermejo’s graphic novel, which in some ways is just as good—or better. It takes place over the course of one evening in which Joker has been freed from Arkham and tries to retake the underworld. It’s a brutally violent, hardcore tale made more interesting by its point of view: The story is told by Jonny Frost, a Joker henchman who is trying to please his boss and survive the night. I suppose one reason why it is so overshadowed by The Killing Joke is that it’s not canon. But then again, in this post-52 era, what really is canon anymore?
This was a controversial book for Vertigo in that it had specialized dialect and slang that made it difficult to follow unless you were a patient, careful reader. Kind of like Anthony Burgess’ Clockwork Orange novel. Which I also loved. So, being that I have patience for a project like this, I loved it. Spaceman explored the connection between modern, post apocalyptic desolation and the high-tech space adventures that often bring about such devastation. RIYL Blade Runner, Planet of the Apes, or A Clockwork Orange. You can read more about my opinion on it here
2. WONDER WOMAN
Along with great art by Cliff Chiang and Tony Akins, Azzarello did two amazing things in 2011: (1) He launched a New 52 book that was actually very good, and improved on everything written about Wonder Woman in the old 52. (2) He made a good Wonder Woman comic that didn’t rely on gimmicks or, in fact, anything in the DCU. The new 52 Wonder Woman avoided crossovers and was, in many ways, almost like a new comic about a new character. It had a strong indie feel. Rather than rehash or tweak pre-52 stories, this book offers genuine surprises and innovations. Sadly, it seems to be petering out a bit in its second year. I’m hanging with it because I believe it can come back to being great again, but the last half-dozen issues or so have gotten pretty slow.
1. SUPERMAN: FOR TOMORROW
I did an extensive, panel-a-day review of this book; click here
for all the posts on it. It’s easily one of my top 10 Superman books of all time. Plus, it’s got art by Jim Lee—which is never a bad thing.