With the latest Suicide Squad film debuting this week, fans everywhere are extra hyped. So, what better way to seize on that momentum than with a new comic book featuring everyone’s favorite team of supervillains-turned-unlikely-heroes. And what better creative team to tackle the Squad than writer Brian Azzarello and artist Alex Maleev? Oh, and did we mention it’s published via the wild west that is DC’s Black Label? ‘Cause it is.
Suicide Squad: Get Joker! is a Prestige Format, three-issue series that takes the permanent impermanence of the Squad’s rotating lineup and runs with it. While the book introduces new characters like Meow Meow, and taps Jason Todd as the main protagonist, it also places Joker in a position that somehow suits a more modern world. The end result is a dark and wild tale that should fit the sensibilities of Squad fans both new and old. Plus, if nothing else, there’s still heroes implanted with bombs and a hard-as-nails Amanda Waller.
I was lucky enough to chat with both Azzarello and Maleev about the book, their approach to Joker, the politics in the series, the freedom of an R-rated comic book, and much more.
These are edited excerpts from the larger conversation.
Brian Azzarello: Well, that was one of the reasons to do it, you know, pretty much my only marching orders was Harley had to be in it. You know? So she’s in it. To actually give her a really good reason and some tension, and her permission is to go after Joker. There was characters no one’s used for like, years. Wild Dog and Firefly. Some of these guys just like nobody’s done anything with them for years.
AIPT: Does the upcoming Suicide Squad film have any impact on this work, or is that factored into any of your decision-making about the team or this story?
BA: I didn’t want to use any of the characters in that team. For one thing. Tonally, I would say it’s, pretty similar. Again, I mean, this book’s rated R, which is different for a lot of DC characters property-wise. Tonally, it’s going to be similar. I wanted to use characters that hadn’t been around a while, that I could actually do something with. If you throw some characters that you’re more familiar with into the story, I think there’s no tension there because you know, they’re not going to die. And the point of this book is that they could die.
AIPT: What is it like writing a rated R DC Black Label like this? Does it feel like the training wheels are off in any way?
BA: No, I did Batman Damned. I think the training wheels are back on. There’s a lot more leeway. Yeah.
AIPT: What was the origin story of this book? What editorial saying, “Do you want to do this?” Or did you say, “Here’s what it is”?
BA: The origin of this book, I was going to do Suicide Squad for the regular DCU a few years ago. The mission was going to eventually get to where we are in this book going after Joker. It was a very different lineup of characters. There was a lot of editorial input for the regular DCU, but there’s been like none other than–no one told me to put Harley in it–you got to put a Harley in it. I didn’t want to answer the question, “Why isn’t Harley in it?” They’ve been pretty cool. I mean, there’s been some time some of this stuff has been, there’s been some rawness that we had to kind of cook a little. But other than that it’s been okay.
AIPT: How important was it to add political elements into the book? I’m referring, of course, to the Capitol insurrection bit of dialogue. But also the fact that there are Russians involved.
BA: I like to keep things sort of contemporary. These books don’t have to be complete fantasy, I mean, so it’s tricky. Put it in the real world. Make the world believable and then you can do all sorts of fantasy things. As long as the world’s believable, so yeah, I wanted to comment somewhat on the insurrection, that just sort of happened, that line went in a little bit later, that character was always going to be the way that he is. That line is good shorthand for how this character thinks. That’s all. And the Russians. They’re not going away, it seems.
AIPT: For a lot of this first issue, the Joker is either a decoy or he’s in a Clockwork Orange costume. What can you tell us about the new Joker design? And what were the conversations like getting them to the right place?
BA: I think it’s always important for Joker to look dangerous. Not funny. What you’ve come up with Alex. I think he looks really oily and nasty.
Alex Maleev: Nasty. Yes. Nasty is a good way of describing him.
BA: He’s he looks like he can just go off at any second. He’s like a stiletto or switchblade if I were to pick a weapon, it’s just this he’s got this look to him that he’s very sharp and angular
AM: There’s an element of craziness in him that can go off at any moment. He’s not as much evil but he can really lose control. This is the way I see him. The unpredictable nature is what makes him scary, I think. And that craziness is what I’m going for when I draw him.
AIPT: What did you want to get across when writing Jason Todd?
BA: There’s a lot of holes in Jason’s story. He’s very sardonic in this sort of, like, accepting fate, but then, like, not understanding fate, and just like fate kind of sucks, right? I mean, we’re all around the joke about like, what’s going on. Who’s pulling the strings? We don’t know and is there really anybody pulling the strings? No idea. I think the way I approached him, all his backstory, all this terrible stuff made him what he is, you know? I do that because yeah, of course, I did that.
AIPT: Were there any series or particular arcs that you looked to from previous comics, or inspiration, or for that matter, anything you really wanted to stray away from or revisit in a different light?
BA: No, sorry, one, your one-word answer. No, there’s not. I’m not here to redo anything. So let’s do something new and fresh with these characters. A little bit about, you know, if Jason’s not entirely angry, he’s still pissed off. He’s not high blood pressure angry, but he’s pissed at the world. So it’s just a different sort of, coming at these things from a different angle, kind of thing.
AIPT: Where did the new characters come from in your mind? And what can you tell us about them going forward if anything?
BA: I’ve tried to give all these characters a very specific personality. New characters and using minor characters create tension within the team that everybody can die. Being able to create new characters, and then maybe kill them is… I did that for 10 years with 100 bullets. I’m pretty well-versed in it.
AIPT: What can you reveal about my new favorite DC character, Larry.
BA: Larry has a very big role in this book. He is almost a lynchpin for where the story goes.
AIPT: Because you can mess around with continuity, knowing that, you know, you’re not going to mess up someone else’s book, too.
BA: Right. And sometimes I think continuity really gets in the way of storytelling. Sometimes things get so dense that I want to stay away from them. There’s a lot of people that’s what they love, love about comics, you know? Yeah.
AIPT: Maybe too much.
BA: Yeah. And it does, it makes it harder. Everyone’s constantly harping on, we need new readers. Continuity, in some aspects, keeps new readers away. This series is like, if you see the film, and it’s like, “Wow, that’s cool.” I like that Suicide Squad. That’s what this is for.
AIPT: What’s it like working with Alex Maleev?
BA: It’s been years, we’ve been kidding around that we’re gonna work together. This finally came along. And both of our schedules worked out that way. I’ve been really happy to look at art and see what he’s doing with it. He’s a really strong storyteller. I’ve been really fortunate that I get to work with strong storytellers for the most part. You know, silence conveying a story. Alex is great at but I’ve been doing that for years with Eduardo Risso. It’s nice to be able to just like hand something off and then pretty much like you’re gonna get it. I mean, there were some hiccups at the beginning but there always are.
AIPT: With Meow Meow, how much control did you have over the character design for her? Was that mostly Alex, were you just writing the concept?
BA: I described her That’s it. But as far as what he came up with that was pretty good. He did a good job. I said, she’s one of those Tokyo street kids. Punk, fashion kind of anime-influenced that kind of stuff. And give her a mask.
AM: Oh this is cool, don’t kill her yet, please Brian. I like her a lot and again this is off Brian’s description. He gave me all the details that were actually his idea for me just to put it together. It was a matter of looking into some references on like a Tokyo goth city girls and I put together whatever I saw online and it just did the clothing the look the hair. And most of that is just stuff that actually exists.
AIPT: Speaking of art, did you have a favorite moment?
BA: My favorite bit is maybe when Jason and Harley first meet. Jason doesn’t trust her and then she kind of gives Waller the business and then Jason’s like “when do we leave?” It’s like, “Oh, okay, I like her.”
AIPT: Was there anything you drew in the book that got you excited?
AM: Do I get excited? I would get excited if I get like a really elaborate Gotham City spread. That will get me excited. Did you hear that Brian?
AIPT: This is coming out the same week as an R-rated Suicide Squad movie that people are very excited for. And now you have this mature reader’s comic, do you see that appetite growing and maybe doing sequels to this down the line?
BA: Let’s finish the first one. I’ll say it’s not it’s not an area of DC that I wouldn’t mind returning to. I think there’s there’s some meat left on the bones when we’re done. And that meats name is Larry.
AIPT: What visual influences did you pull from for the look of this book?
AM: I used myself as the Joker sometimes because I can make those funny faces. I don’t look like the Joker. But I post for him. Most of the female characters are based on my wife. This is since the Daredevil days so any female character kind of resembles themselves. I do have assembled many photographs over the years that I sometimes use and I just play with the faces.
AIPT: Since this is an R-rated DC Black Label book, is there any artistry that goes into how gory you can make something knowing it won’t get rejected like it would in a mainline DC or Marvel book?
AM: I used to push the boundaries and see how far I can take it. Now I know that if I did this, it will come back with notes no matter what label this is. It’s not gonna fly. That and any kind of suggestive sexuality. With the suggested sexuality stuff. I did draw this the way I wanted it to be done. Absolutely prepared me for the email back saying no. I didn’t get the email. I did what had to be done for it to pass that judgment.
BA: We have both been at this long enough where we know what the boundaries are.
AM: Well, you try, you stick a little toe in and you see, maybe it’ll get jammed. But it does get jammed. So yes, I did try to push it just a little. I think we had an issue with what we showed in issue one. And this was the hardest one to fix. I wanted to show more and DC wanted to show less. So because I did this on layers, and I work digitally on this book. We could make changes easily. So I can move images around in layers where I can block off things that could not be shown. How gory it could be. I went for the kill and HR went for the kill as well. And I lost.
AIPT: What’s the thing that you’re most excited for readers to discover as the series goes on? Or that you two are most proud of having put together?
BA: Well, I think you’re gonna like the characters. And you’re not gonna want to see them die. I’m proud of that.
AM: I didn’t want to see them die.
AIPT: We’re coming up on almost 35 years of the modern Suicide Squad concept as we know it. Apart from the obvious, you know, supervillains are used as cannon fodder to pull off dangerous missions. What for you makes a good Suicide Squad comic?
AM: I wish we could have updated some of the designs of the original characters. And I’m not gonna tell you who’s in a Squad because I don’t want to spoil anything. But I wish we had time to redesign some of these characters because I think they’re outdated.
BA: I pulled the original conceit and sort of have updated it. That’s basically what I wanted to do is update this stuff a little bit. Make, make these characters not so much cannon fodder, but make them human. Give them all a really distinct voice beforehand. Some of them you aren’t gonna like, which is great, but I think every one of them is compelling.
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