There’s little room to read between the lines of BRZRKR, John Wick and Matrix actor Keanu Reeves’ first stab at a comic book. Dividing time between the past, where a half-god child is born to a tribe of prehistoric people only to grow into a murderous, unkillable savior, and 80,000 years later in the present, where “B” exists as a contract killer for the U.S. government, the book is a high-impact, blood-soaked character study with graphic ambition. Writer Matt Kindt (MIND MGMT) and artist Ron Garney (Ghost Rider) suggest their Hollywood collaborator threaded B’s story with his own personal history, but what the trio has literally put on the page is viscerally satisfying — if B isn’t ripping people to shreds in a ancient battle zone, he’s stewing in a violent history of his own creation, frustrated by the answers offered by the mortal plane. Reeves, Kindt, and Garney pack in every frame with detail.
BRZRKR struck a chord with discerning comic fans after its February debut earlier this year. After raising $1.5 million on Kickstarter, the book became BOOM! Studios’ biggest title ever, and one of the highest- and fastest-selling comics in years. The rights were quickly snatched up by Netflix, which intends to turn it into both a film and an anime series. One can imagine with two timelines, and 80,000 years of potential story to cover, there’s plenty to mine. And since B was drawn to look like Reeves, casting a live-action take on the character shouldn’t be too difficult either.
With BRZRKR Vol. 1 now on shelves, collecting the first four issues of the monthly (and BRZRKR #5 out now), Polygon spoke to Reeves, Kindt, and Garney over a video call to look back at the initial conception of the book, how a love of Wolverine and uncomfortable questions about violence helped them tell a story fit for comics, and where the story of B is headed in the future.
Keanu, I know BRZRKR came about because BOOM! approached you to do a comic book, but was this an idea you’ve had in your head for a long time?
Keanu Reeves: Yeah, so about three, four years ago I met with BOOM! Studios for a general meeting. They were taking some of their comic book IP and trying to do live action. So I went to meet with them and they were like, “What’s going on?” I said I had this idea of a character, Berserker, that kind of punches through chests, rips arms off, etc. And they were like, “Cool, we like that. Do you want to make a comic? Have you ever thought of doing a comic?” And I said, “No.” And they said, “Would you like to?” And I said, “Yes, that would be neato.” So then they started trying to put a team together to create it. And here we are.
The action is key to the character — B is a killer, and the spectacle of his brutality really weighs on him. How did you come together to choreograph and design the fights in the series?
Reeves: When we’re talking about sequences, we think about them, invent them, create them. Matt writes it, and we kind of hand that over to Mr. Garney. And then his creative genius comes in.
Matt Kindt: A lot of times the violence is dictated by the setting, like where we’re at and what we’re doing. Are there horses? Or is it tanks? Are we in a museum? Are we somewhere else? So a lot of times it’s about context, and then I’ll take a stab at it, but then we’ll go back and forth. Keanu has acted out stuff before, where he’s like “This!” or “That!” He has the physicality part of it down. I just write about it. It’s a good matchup.
Keanu, I’m a big fan of a documentary you directed years ago called Side by Side, which went deep on the cinematic image, and the nuance between film and digital processes. Now you’re making a comic book, so I wonder if you’re thinking about what makes the medium unique when you’re imagining set pieces. Is the team devising scenes that could only be accomplished by a comic?
Kindt: Do you remember the music scene in issue five or six? But it’s like B’s talking about music and why people make it. It’s this whole sequence we talked about for a long time. Where does music come from? And why do people do it and like that, the meaning of it and the purpose of music. But then the way it’s drawn and laid out and like with the words over the top, that’s something that it’s gonna be hard to do in anything but comics.
Reeves: I would push back and say maybe that’s montage, right?
Ron Garney: The piece with the music would be interesting to try to pull off [in a film]. I used the panel borders to put the actual musical score of the Etta James song in there. I could see how you could do something like that and have that running and dissolve in the background or something.
Kindt: There’s another sequence where we’re showing the different relationships he’s had with women, different people, and then the timelines are all side by side. And then some of them stop and some of them keep going on.
Reeves: I would say that it actually doesn’t become an image issue. It becomes a storytelling aspect. With comic books, you can hold more balls in the air at the same time. You can play with different perspectives in a way that in film can be disorienting or become an art piece in a museum and not a popular piece of work.
Kindt: What’s cool about comics is that you can see it all at once. And you can see the spatial relationships between different images, where in movies, it’s one line continuing forward. This lets the readers sort of explore it and look around.
Garney: Ang Lee tried to experiment with that in Hulk, and it was pretty successful.
The gore in BRZRKR is excessive and striking. How do you walk the line to keep it artful?
Reeves: It’s impressionistic. But yeah, we just kind of set the table and Ron Garney goes and creates a meal.
Garney: That seems to be the one thing that jumps out at everybody: they’re all sort of blown away by the violence. I’m a little surprised, I guess, considering the uber-violent climate in movies and video games and things like that. But I think the difference, which kind of points back to what we were just saying about the difference between video games and film, is that in a comic book is that you have to pause on [the violence], it’s there. You just sit and it settles in. Whereas when you’re watching it happen in John Wick, for instance, it’s just very fast moving, and so you don’t have your mind doesn’t settle on the image for an extended period of time.
Reeves: So when we were working on it, I would say the impulse or the ground of it is the context and the emotion that’s going on there. And at the same time, it’s a commentary.
Kindt: People aren’t used to seeing comics with this much and kind of violence. That’s part of what we needed to have because the other part of it is B’s reaction to it, his dealing with this violence. We need readers to feel it, and see it, so we can see him sort of struggling with the same things that we as consumers of violence, we should be feeling too. Why do we love it? I love violent movies, but…
Garney: What you guys did, which was really good, was a moment where he gives into it himself. He walks out of the village, after his mom. But then you break down the fourth wall, and he just looks right out at us. He just lets it happen to him and it’s so immensely sad. It’s a great sort of balance to all the violence that we’ve witnessed with him. The sadness is so equal to that.
I couldn’t help but think a lot about Wolverine, who’s basically unkillable but capable of dealing so much violence. B has as much going on, and having been around for thousands of years, his struggle is even more dense. Keanu, were you considering the Wolverine character at all when conceiving BRZRKR?
Reeves: I mean, for me, it’s one of my favorite characters. It has a strong influence on me — it’s impacted me. But we’re also stepping into werewolves and vampires, so it’s trying to embrace some other legacy and traditional fables myths characters that we have, and do its own spin on it. We’re spending a lot of time with this character and trying to let people in on how he’s thinking and feeling and what’s happened to him in a detailed way that we don’t often get to experience except for some novelizations, but even then the monster is always kind of on the side.
I’m only thinking now you would have made a good Wolverine.
Reeves: Oh man, I would have loved to played Wolverine.
What was behind the decision to make B look like you?
Reeves: [Laughs] I can’t say I’m innocent of any ego there. It was a discussion — how much do you want it to look like you? Or do you want it to? And I said, “I do, yeah.”
Kindt: What’s funny is that, yes, there’s a superficial part where it looks like you, but there’s a lot of you in this book that I don’t think people know. There’s more of you in this than I’ve seen in anything else.
Garney: I made that very comment to Keanu recently. I told him, “Look I’m doing this thing 12 hours a day, so I have Keanu on the brain 12 hours a day.” And it’s been revealing itself to me as being a metaphor for his whole life actually.
Keanu, is BRZRKR a metaphor for your whole life?
Reeves: No, man, it’s a work of art!
The first BRZRKR collection are the issues that set the stage for the premise. So what’s next?
Reeves: So the first arc is an origin story of the past and the origin story of the present. And in the second arc, we’re going to look more to the present, but also look kind of more what’s inside the character — talking about love and grief, but then also get into exploring some of the new aspects of the character. Maybe go into some of the god world.