The location of my conversation with comics writer Brian Azzarello couldn't have been more appropriate for our subject matter: We met at Andersonville's Hopleaf—one of the best beer bars in the world—to discuss the forthcoming release of one of his current projects, the collected edition of Alpha King, an ongoing Image Comic series featuring characters based on Three Floyds beers. Azzarello writes the series with Three Floyds head brewer and cofounder Nick Floyd; it's illustrated by Simon Bisley. Hopleaf also happens to be where, back in 2002, a bartender first poured Azzarello a glass of Three Floyds' Alpha King pale ale and told him, "You need to try this."
By the time we finished chatting about the story behind this weird comic and the rest of Azzarello's long career, I'd found myself in an impromptu tasting session with Azzarello, Hopleaf owner Michael Roper, and some dude from Toppling Goliath Brewery in Decorah, Iowa. The rest was a drunken blur, but it was crystal clear why Azzarello, who every Hopleaf employee seemed to know by name, ended up writing a comic book about beer.
With names like Lazersnake, Arctic Panzer Wolf, Robert the Bruce, Gumballhead, Dark Lord, and of course Alpha King, Three Floyds' beers suggest wild characters straight out of an issue of Conan the Barbarian. When the Three Floyds brewers decided they would actually do a comic, they turned to Azzarello, who had become a friend of Floyd and Barnaby Struve, another Three Floyds brewer, thanks to their shared interests in beer, comics, and role-playing games.
Azzarello seemed a natural choice: now 55, he's made plenty of comics over his long career, including the now-classic noir series 100 Bullets , the Hulk story "Banner," and a run of Wonder Woman that had a strong influence on last summer's movie version with Gal Gadot. The conversation with Struve, however, didn't go the way you'd think. "It wasn't even me who was gonna do it originally," Azzarello says. "Barnaby didn't come to me saying, 'Let's do it.' It was, 'Do you know anybody who would want to do it?' Yeah, me. I know your beers. I can write about your beers."
The result is a rollicking adventure, full of gore and humor, in which a mild-mannered Indiana brewer in transported to another reality where he discovers his true identity as the Alpha King—a muscular warrior in a barbaric world of sword-and-sorcery mayhem. Heads are lopped off, blood is spilled, and war is waged against the Rice King—a symbol of tasteless macro beers such as Budweiser. The humor is both smart and silly, and the visuals are visceral and bold and occasionally disgusting, thanks to Bisley, a British illustrator whose work is so metal it should be on the periodic table.
There are already plans under way for a second arc of the comic, which will feature a different artist. The title suggests it will continue down the path of beer-soaked anarchy: Space Station Middle Finger, named for another of Three Floyds' pale ales.
Alpha King isn't the only project Azzarello's currently working on. He's been busy with Moonshine, an ongoing series, also published by Image Comics. "It's crazy, right?" he says. "I'm writing two books that are alcohol fueled." The series returned from a yearlong hiatus in February, and a collected edition of its first six issues will appear next month.
"It takes place in Prohibition," Azzarello explains. "A New York gangster is sent to the Appalachians to convince this moonshining family to make product for them. There's some resistance, and there happens to be werewolves in it too. And the lead character, this gangster, even during Prohibition, is an alcoholic and he's prone to blackouts. So is he the werewolf?"
The series explores this question and others in Azzarello's naturalistic, no-BS, noir style that shines through in his other works such as Joker and Spaceman. It's drawn by one of his long-term creative partners, Argentine artist Eduardo Risso. "I think he's the best storyteller living right now," says Azzarello. "His graphic storytelling is incredible, and I'm not just saying that because I work with him."
Risso relishes the chance to tell the story visually, Azzarello explains: "He doesn't want me to write splash pages [panels that take up an entire page or two] and that kind of stuff, because he likes to tell the story on a page. He wants to lead the eye." Their partnership is so comfortable that Azzarello doesn't need to spell out every little visual in his scripts.
Azzarello is working with another longtime creative partner, artist Lee Bermejo, on Batman: Damned, a series for DC's new Black Label line. Azzarello describes the adult-focused line as "HBO for superheroes." In this line, creators will get a chance to write self-contained stories that don't tie into the oppressive, byzantine continuity of weekly comics, and they won't have to play to 12-year-olds. That's been a proven recipe for the best DC comics since the 80s with The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen.
Azzarello loves the collaborative nature of comics, whether with Bermejo, Risso, or his buddies at Three Floyds. "I've been at this for such a long time," he says. "Now what I work on is less important to me than who I'm working with. It's the collaboration: that's what gets me off. Not like, hey, I'm the Batman writer. I could give a shit."
As I excused myself from Hopleaf, buzzed to the gills, Azzarello seemed poised to continue drinking with Roper and his other buddies for the foreseeable future.
Visitors to this year's Dark Lord Day on May 19—the one day a year Dark Lord Imperial Stout is sold at Three Floyds Brewing Company in Munster, Indiana—will be able to buy a hardcover special edition of the Alpha King comic. That could make those long lines waiting to buy Dark Lord go a lot faster.