I recently picked up the hardcover of Spaceman, a Vertigo sci-fi comic written by the phenomenal team of Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso. These two have been working together for a long time. They first came together with a nifty little crime series called Johnny Double back in 1998. After that, they created 100 Bullets, an 100-issue magnum opus that includes depictions of just about every illegal activity, endless intrigue and fantastic examples of violence. They did some Batman work — Batman: Broken City and some Batman thing for the Flashpoint event. After that, they did Spaceman and they’re currently working on Brother Lono, an 100 Bullets spin-off.
Risso’s art is unparalleled. There’s no denying that his fluid, stylized figures, excellent acting and backgrounds — minimalist or detailed depending on the scene– are the work of a master. He gets much deserved praise from everyone who sees his work. Azzarello’s writing is a different story.
When Spaceman first came up, I eagerly listened to the various reviews. They praised the interesting, washed-out future setting, the unique story (a hulking, caveman-like genetically engineered Spaceman becoming embroiled in a celebrity/reality TV’s star’s adopted daughter’s kidnapping), and the fantastic covers by Dave Johnson. But Azzarello’s writing caused most critics some consternation. They said that his story was difficult to follow, his character motivations unclear and his dialogue — which received the most complaints — was impenetrable. See, Azzarello had chosen to fill his dialogue with a kooky sort of futuristic slang. Words are shortened and combined. Profanity is mixed in and stirred with generous portions of acronyms and rhyming words. Overall, it could be extremely confusing — particularly in issue form where you only get one chapter of the story every month.
This claim — that of undue confusion — has been leveled against Azzarello time and time again. And truthfully, it’s a legitimate complaint. Even Azzarello’s stories that aren’t set in a nearly post-apocalyptic future feature heavy doses of slang and stylization in their dialogue. The prison arc of 100 Bullets required me to have Urban Dictionary open on my computer to decipher the slang terms that constantly peppered the dialogue. And it’s true that his plots, with multiple factions, hidden motivations and lots of intrigue-fueled betrayals are very convoluted. I’m still not entirely sure that what happens at the end of Batman: Broken City. Even Spaceman’s last page had me flipping back to make sure that I didn’t miss anything.
But you know what? I didn’t care. The stylized dialogue may take some time to decipher, but the rhythm of it — the flow and patter between conversationalists and the imagery, such as a weary, accepting “fuck me” muttered by the main character in the dingy opening sequence — makes up for it. The meaning — or maybe not the meaning, but the mood — comes across. That mood, I feel, is the main goal of an Azzarello and Risso story. In 100 Bullets, it’s a Noir sort of mood about the inevitability of the crushing influence of fate and the impossibility of walking away from revenge. In Spaceman, it’s the mood of dreams about the future failing to come true.
Those moods are powerful. The characters, the narrative and even the dialogue informs the mood and works with it. And I sort of like that. I like the stylization and the flow of dialogue, even if I’m not sure what every word means. I like the way that the action informs a mood, even if the individual beats in the story confuse me. I can see why others don’t particularly care for it, but I think that the effect is hard to argue with. It’s a little odd too, because clarity is something I strive for in my own writing. If an action scene or a character’s motivation is unclear, I feel that I’m not doing my job — but I’m willing to give Azzarello the benefit of the doubt every time, which I don’t give to myself. Of course, I can simply look at his work and easily understand why.
Azzarello and Risso’s work is extremely good at what it does. It sets out to create a mood and then creates that mood. Plenty of conventional, easy-to-follow stories don’t do that and Azzarello and Risso’s works have those stories beaten every time. Spaceman’s not quite as good as 100 Bullets (if it had 13 volumes to work with, it probably could be), but it’s definitely another excellent feather in the caps of two artists who are going to go down as some the best that the comics world has ever seen. Pick it up. Read it one go, make your way through the slang-heavy dialogue and you’ll see why.