By Robert Tutton
Writers have long been known to find their inspiration at the bottom of a bottle, with humanity’s history of fermenting grains stretching back nearly twice as far as the written word.
So beer has, quite literally, always been there for writers in need of a little mental lubrication. Legendary scribe Brian Azzarello falls directly in that legacy of scribes honing their craft with a pint glass. Fittingly, his two most recent projects for Image—the prohibition-era monster/mobster mash-up Moonshine, and the over-the-top beer fantasy Alpha King—are both prominently booze driven.
But beer has always had a place in Azzarello’s creative process. He’s been known to accomplish a great deal of his work in the dim barrooms of Chicago and is well versed in the minute intricacies of the beverage. He’s always found that writing at a bar, with a few pints, has helped him focus. And for a guy making his living writing dialogue, bars as workspaces have the added benefit of immersing him in conversations, absorbing the way people talk; he’s even jumped on the bus now and then just to pick up new slang. Whatever he’d write at night over a few beers, he wouldn’t look at again until the next morning over coffee, which is when he’d add the art directions—his least favorite part of the process. These notes would include details like who’s sitting where or who’s hitting whom. These bits, he says, slow him down. He likes to focus on the more human components first. The conversations.
Azzarello’s beer hobby has deep roots—technically deeper than his comics hobby. “There’s a picture of me drinking a beer before I read a comic,” he says. “Like three years old, drinking my grandfather’s beer. You look at that and think, ‘God damn, look how happy I was then. I haven’t been that happy since then!’” Azzarello got into the craft beer scene in the early ’90s, when now-commonplace brews like Sierra Nevada and Liberty Ale were still novel. The craft beer world has exploded since then; thousands of breweries produce countless beers. Keeping up is nigh impossible, and Azzarello (smartly) doesn’t try. “That’s the thing about craft beer,” he says dryly. “It made alcoholism hip.”
Among Azzarello’s favorite breweries is 3 Floyds, whose flagship beer is Alpha King—the very same Alpha King now gracing a comic book of the same name. The green-skinned brute rampaging his way through the lands of the Rice King started as a character in 3 Floyds’ beer lineup, as did some of the comic’s other characters, including Arctic Panzer Wolf, Gumballhead, and the Dark Lord Imperial Stout, whose namesake beer—boasting an ungodly 15 percent abv—is available just once a year at an event that draws thousands of fans to the Indiana brewpub. Azzarello even remembers where he was the first time he drank an Alpha King. It was a winter evening in Chicago, about 5 p.m., at a bar called Hopleaf. “I went in and the bartender’s like, ‘I’ve got something you gotta try,’ and he walked the length of the bar. I always sat at the back, but the beer was at the front tap handles,” he recalls. “The bitterness units were so much higher than other beers, but it had this really nice malty backbone. The flavor was like nothing else I’d had.”
Azzarello partnered with Nick Floyd, co-founder of 3 Floyds, to develop the five-issue Alpha King miniseries alongside artist Simon Bisley, whose illustrations present a legacy of testosterone-doused violence. The match was natural: Azzarello, a comics guy with a history writing some of the most brutal, tense action scenes and a deep love of beer, and Floyd, a beer guy who loves comics (and D&D). “It was great to go down and sit in the 3 Floyds pub and work on this,” Azzarello says, “with this crazy metal music blasting constantly and kung fu movies on the TVs. This is the exact sort of environment where this book should be created.” The resulting story is like taking a muscles-and-guns ’80s flick, bludgeoning it mercilessly with a stack of classic Heavy Metal magazines, and letting it stew for a while in Mordor. Oh, and pepper in a bunch of beer-culture allusions, like how the book’s main villain, the Rice King, is a jab at certain mega-breweries that use rice instead of barley.
Naturally, Azzarello drank a bunch of beer while writing his beer comic. (The process raises the question of what he drank while writing his ongoing Moonshine, a comic about Appalachian spirits and werewolves, illustrated by Eduardo Risso). Still: beer, he says, always beer. “If I go liquor, I ain’t writing nothing,” he laughs.
But Moonshine deals in deeper themes than bottom-shelf revelry. Its main character is doubly cursed, both as a blackout drunk and someone who transforms into a feral beast in the Appalachian backcountry. Lou Pirlo is a big-city mobster sent to sweet talk a Dixie distiller into supplying their racket with premium hooch. Things don’t go smoothly for old Lou; page after page, Lou follows his whiskey jones deeper into mayhem. That’s where the idea began—a modernized take on the classic movie monsters. The perfect title came next. Werewolves, bootlegging… Moonshine.
Lou demonstrates a complexity that often stops the reader from solidifying an opinion of him. From hangover pangs to the ghosts that haunt him, his psychology isn’t always clear. The lingering question of what drives Lou—is he troubled because he drinks, or does he drink because he’s troubled—elevates the book from a solid spooky premise to something more thought provoking. That may be because Azzarello himself hasn’t quite nailed it down either. “I’m working through it with him right now,” he said. “I know every character I write. I’m in there—what am I trying to say about myself right now?”
From waving his beer-freak flag in Alpha King, to the darker subtext of Moonshine’s slick-talking, alcoholic werewolf, it’s a very public way to learn about oneself. But that may be just as well for a writer who draws much of his creative energy from working in public bars. “I’m a very private person. If you ask anybody that knows me, I don’t talk about myself much,” Azzarello says. “I think it might have something to do with that I talk about myself in the writing.”
3 Floyds: Alpha King TP and Moonshine #9 both release on April 18