In the next few months, DC Comics will launch its new prestige imprint DC Black Label. The publisher is going to be kicking it off in grand fashion with Batman: Damned, which reunites the iconoclastic team of writer Brian Azzarello and artist Lee Bermejo, the same creatives behind 2009's arresting Joker graphic novel.
Part of DC Black Label's mandate is to free up top-level creators to execute boldly imagined stories without the baggage of continuity. At this year's Comic-Con International in San Diego, Azzarello and Bermejo sat down to talk with Kotaku about re-imagining characters in this new project and how hip-hop influences their take on a beloved Jack Kirby character.
Kotaku: Both of you have worked on Batman so much. What made you want to reunite for a new project?
Azzarello: I don't know.
Kotaku: I mean, you've written Batman — excluding the non-comics stuff — three or four times at this point?
Azzarello: More than that.
Kotaku: But I feel you've made a definitive statement every time. So...
Azzarello: Well, that's good... otherwise, why read it?
Kotaku: So what do you feel you're trying to illuminate about the mythos...
Azzarello: This time... he's not in charge. OK? Because it's a supernatural story. It's a horror story and he doesn't know anything about that stuff. He needs John Constantine. And it bugs the shit out of him.
Kotaku: How do you approach magic in the framework of this story?
Azzarello: In this? It's creepy. It's more 1970s horror.
Lee Bermejo: It's not an effects-driven movie.
Kotaku: Something more like the original Suspiria, then?
Azzarello: Exactly. It's more Dario Argento.
Bermejo: To get back to what you were talking about before, I feel like every time we work together it's almost like the snowball rolls down the mountain and just keeps getting bigger. Every time we do a project, that project leads us to the next project we're going to do together. Even if we don't know it right away. So, this project came from Joker. Other stuff, too. But this project is a result of Joker.
Kotaku: That's interesting, because you're adding Constantine to the mix. He's the kind of character who's usually a portal for superhero-types getting into creepy horror shit. But Bruce, while he's a man of the world and he knows this stuff exists, tends to have a learning curve. Is it fun to basically fuck with his head in a project like this?
Azzarello: Yes. Really fun to fuck up his head.
Bermejo: We're doing it visually, too. Some of the stuff is from Batman's point of view. Stuff starts to get weird.
Azzarello: Psychologically, he's losing it.
Kotaku: Does a man with Joker's psychological make-up do better in a world of horror and mystical shit?
Azzarello: Yeah. Just more to make fun of. Reality is not concrete to that character.
Kotaku: Who else are we going to see from Batman's cast of characters?
Azzarello: From Batman's? Gordon. Harley Quinn. Then there's a ton of other characters: Spectre, Etrigan, Deadman, Zatanna, Swamp Thing.
Kotaku: So this will be a whole magical DCU type deal.
Kotaku: It's not bound by continuity. How did that impact writing the story?
Azzarello: Everybody else would say "this is freeing" — but this is the way we've always worked.
Kotaku: So do you feel you have to turn it up to 11? Because you're the flagship book of a new imprint?
Azzarello: I think Joker did that and we're a little higher than that this time.
Kotaku: Lee, on the one hand, I think you've been doing what you've been doing visually long enough that people know what you do. How can you surprise people at this point?
Bermejo: I'm colouring it myself. So, it's different-looking, visually. It'll still look like my stuff, but that's the next stage I'm pushing you. The art is going into the colour. And it's more colourful than I think people will expect it to be.
Azzarello: It's very cinematic. The format is bigger.
Kotaku: Brian, I wanted to ask you about Lee's work as a writer because I loved We Are Robin. Do you read that stuff at all? I mean, you rarely mess with that aspect of the Batman mythos. Your stories have been Bruce-centric. How did you receive that work?
Azzarello: Oh, I thought it was great. I thought it was a great idea, too. That's a really new take on this.
Kotaku: Crowdsourcing a new iteration of an established heroic identity I thought was really, really smart. And I know you didn't come up with Duke, but —
Bermejo: Yeah, he was a favourite character of mine right off the bat. I really thought there was potential with him to do something different. Because, originally, that story was going to be Dick Grayson. But that was years ago. I pitched it a long time ago as a Robin: Year One story. The idea was still similar, but it was a Dick Grayson story and basically, he finds out that he's not the only kid on the street that Batman has kind of cultivated. You know what I mean?
And then when they were doing the Bat-Gordon stuff, that's when Mark Doyle said, "You remember that idea you had? What do you think about switching it up?" I actually think that Duke works better for that, because it makes it new. It makes it a new thing. Whereas if I'd done it with Dick Grayson, it would be like re-writing history that's already been...so, he was the perfect character for it. Scott [Snyder] and Greg [Capullo] gave me the basic sculpture and I liked adding pieces to that.
Kotaku: What do you change about Constantine when you're writing him in this story as opposed to a Vertigo series?
Azzarello: I'm not really changing anything. I'm bringing it back to Vertigo. Where he belongs!
Bermejo: There's no lightning coming out of him, or any of that shit. There's no tattoos...not anything like that
Kotaku: Hey, I liked the movie...
Azzarello: The movie was fine and Tilda Swinton was great.
Bermejo: Visually, it was great.
Kotaku: Back to Constantine, how do you make him work in Batman's world?
Azzarello: How do we make him work? I don't know. I hope we're making him work. There's a mutual knowledge that they have. I don't want to get into, like, "Who are you?" That kind of shit. It's just like, "I know who you are", "Yeah, I know who you are, too".
Bermejo: In this story, he's the perfect sidekick for Batman. Sidekick is the wrong word, but you know what I mean. Companion.
Kotaku: Of the magical characters you listed, who was really fun to write?
Azzarello: Deadman's really fun to write. We've kind of changed his abilities a little; he can't stay in a body very long and the body rejects him. So he jumps around from body to body to body. John refers to him as a "pest". He's a junkie.
Bermejo: He lives for the high of possessing bodies. But then it's short-lived. So he's got to get to another one.
Azzarello: Etrigan, we're playing with him, too...
Bermejo: He might be my favourite.
Azzarello: Getting rid of the iambic pentameter. We're replacing it with more of a hip-hop [thing].
Kotaku: Yeah? Whose rhymes were you listening to when you were trying to figure out Etrigan?
Azzarello: That's funny you should ask.
Azzarello: That's not who I was listening to.
Kotaku: Who did you listen to back in the day? If you want to put out an Etrigan who's about freestyling, who do you put on?
Bermejo: Kool Keith, man.
Kotaku: There's an excellent Black Thought freestyle that went viral last year. He went for nine minutes. It's ridiculous.
Azzarello: So we found your follow-up article, clearly.
Bermejo: I just rediscovered the first Camp Lo album. I remember when that came out...
Kotaku: I had just thought those guys were doing a Good Times, 1970s schtick but then I listened to the album and realised "Hey, they can rhyme!" Sorry, you got me talking hip-hop and I'm completely derailing. Who do you put on to get into the head of Etrigan? You mentioned Nas?
Azzarello: Nah. Nas is too old. Run the Jewels.
Kotaku: Does Hell have a nice, comfy space waiting for Bruce?
Azzarello: Read the book.
Batman: Damned will launch DC's Black Label along with Wonder Woman Historia: The Amazons by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Phil Jimenez, Superman: Year One from Frank Miller and John Romita Jr. and more.