Reviewing a comic book series that has been around for well over a decade and already been garnered with more awards than your proverbial Oscar ceremony seems like something of a fool’s errand but there is something deeply compelling and addictive about Azzerello/Risso’s sprawling crime series 100 Bullets and, with your humble scribe having re-read it, a look back at the series on these pages was always going to be something of an inevitability.
For the unitiatiated, 100 Bullets first saw the light of day back in the summer of 1999 and ran for 100 issues. Within three years, its brilliance had already been identified with a Harvey and Eisner award (basically, the Oscars and Golden Globes of the comic book industry).
The basic premise of the book was to ask the question of personal motive and whether people would execute an often bloody and violemt revenge if they were given both the means and opportunity (as well as the all important ability to get away with it).
In the comic’s first few issues we meet the enigmatic Agent Graves who meets with protagonists who, in many circumstances, have suffered a terrible wromg or injustice. The shadowy Graves proceeds to provide our victims with a chilling opportunity to exact revenge through an untraceable handgun and 100 untraceable bullets for the aforementioned weapon, together with a portfolio of information around the victims’ assailant and how to take revenge on them. Graves performs a combination of avenging angel and modern day Mephistopholes, facilitating a series of revenge murders for individual satisfaction. So far, so pulp fiction. However, like the very best comic book series, 100 Bullets only really began to reveal its ambitious scope and depth some way into its complex and foul mouthed narrative.
As the series proceeds, you begin to understand that they are merely sub-plots in a wider narrative wherein we learn that Graves is the leader of a secret group known as The Minutemen, an organisation that appears to have been established for protecting and enforcing the wealth and will of prominent European families. This group-The Trust- are revealed to have betrayed the Minutemen and, as we learn, our early protagonists that are offered revenge by Graves have also been deceived by the Trust. So follows a complex narrative of treachery, double crossings, revenge plots and more blood letting than a slaughterhouse festival.
100 Bullets attracted ongoing popular and critical acclaim whilst it ran, being praised for the complexity and nuance of its dark tales of skewed morality as well as its consistent ability with realistic dialogue, slang and atmospherics (see panel above). For once, the hype is entirely justified.
100 Bullets takes the crime fiction tropes and twists them brilliantly. Characters are, like in most crime fiction, deeply and often irredeemably flawed. Personal motivation, justice and right and wrong are played around with constantly; sometimes, it is hard to know who or what to trust.
When it was published, 100 Bullets appeared on DC’s (publisher of Batman and Superman) more mature imprint, Vertigo. It needed to be; this is not a book for all audiences. 100 Bullets is often brutally unflinching in its depiction of the lives of criminals but what sets it apart is its attention to detail and eschewing of the cliches of modern pulp fiction. Azzarello has a particularly acute ability with dialogue that sounds like real people talking, not just hackneyed phrases one would expect to read in a pulp novel. Similarly Azzarrello’s characters are never ciphers and the writer’s ability to twist the plot as well as getting his character’s to make unexpected and often startling choices keeps the reader engaged and believing in their fate, however bloody it often ends.
This being a comic book, it is not just the writing that one must credit. The art of Eduardo Risso is quite brilliant. There is a style and panache to the work that whilst reminiscent of Frank Miller’s Sin City is never hagiographic. Rather, Risso’s art is more reflective of the bleak and haunting circumstances that our characters find themselves in, where Miller’s pencils opted for highly stylised (and effective) black and white. It really shouldn’t be this joyful to look at pages that contain some of the most brutal and violent images to grace the pages of a comic book. It shouldn’t be, but it is.
100 Bullets is not for the faint hearted. It is a violent, foul mouthed book. It has graphic depictions of sex, murder and all manner of terrorising violence. At its heart, however, is a tale of the importance of life love and the choices and challenges we all face. 100 Bullets is really a morality tale. A morality tale covered in a bucket of blood, granted, but a morality tale all the same.