Join us here each Wednesday as I review Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso’s graphic masterpiece…
Issues #1-3 “100 Bullets”
For all the complexity Azzarello and Risso’s 100 Bullets would later evolve into, it’s quite a shock to go back to the beginning and see it all start with a rather simple crime story. In the first arc of their 100 issue-long series, Azzarello and Risso barely set the stage for the story to come, but the overall tone and mood remains the same until the very last page of the very last issue. The world of 100 Bullets has very few happy characters, and even fewer happy endings - if anyone lives through Agent Graves‘ “game“, it’s with scars both seen and hidden, and hands just as dirty as the perpetrator who wronged them in the first place.
It’s an idea so simple it’s kind of hard to believe no one else had thought of it before: a mysterious man approaches you with a briefcase containing a gun and 100 untraceable bullets, along with irrefutable evidence of someone who’s ruined your life. Basically, a free pass to get away with murder. That mysterious man is Agent Graves, who here in the first arc presents his case to Dizzy Cordova, a young Hispanic gangbanger who’s just gotten out of prison and is still feeling guilty for the death of her husband and son. Dizzy has sworn off the criminal life and is trying to live the straight and narrow, but Graves’ offer proves a hard one to pass up - especially once she comes face-to-face with those responsible for her family’s death.
One unmistakable facet (and what would soon become the hallmark of the writer and series) of the writing is the dialogue - Azzarello writes like people talk. It’s a little jarring at first, and indeed can sometimes read as an old white dude trying to imitate street slang, but once you get into the rhythm, the world seems to come alive on the page. Dialogue can be a tricky beast, especially in comics - there’s a huge difference in dialogue that’s meant to be read and dialogue meant to be spoken, but Azzarello finds just the right middle ground between the two. This is language that could be read aloud and still sound rather natural, while still Azzarello plays word games that only work when read on the page. It’s an astonishing feat, and something the writer will continue to build upon as the series goes on.
As great as the writing is, it’s not a comic without the art, and it’s hard to imagine 100 Bullets drawn by anyone except the incomparable Eduardo Risso. Combining the chiaroscuro techniques of a Frank Miller with the storytelling ingenuity of a Will Eisner, Risso’s work from the first issue to the last is nothing short of exemplary. The man can literally do no wrong: the “acting” of his characters - from their expressive faces to the exaggerated body language - is pitch-perfect, and the way he lays out a page at once recalls cinematic techniques while still providing visual storytelling that can only be accomplished on a comic page. During this reread, I may not mention Risso as much as I should, but that’s only because there’s only so much you can say about excellence.
The story starts small, but the pieces are set in motion for the epic tale that is to come. Dizzy will return, the mysterious Mr. Shepherd will return, and you can bet your ass Agent Graves and his attaché of consequence- (but not necessarily guilt-) free retribution will return.
Issues #4-5 “Shot, Water Back”
At first glance, the second arc of 100 Bullets would appear to be another small-time crime tale, but these two issues set up an awful lot to come, if only peripherally, and introduces a few characters that will go on to be incredibly important as the series goes on.
A list that sadly doesn’t contain this particular story’s protagonist, Lee Dolan. Dolan’s a sad-sack bartender at a shitty dive-bar when we first meet him, who doesn’t have much to live for outside of cleaning the men’s room and regular appointments with his favorite exotic dancer. It wasn’t always like that for Dolan, however: he used to have a wife, a family and a respectable job. All of which went straight down the toilet the day some asshole placed kiddie porn on his computer, ruining his life and alienating him from his family. But Dolan’s about to catch a break, as everyone’s favorite stone-faced mystery shows up with his attaché and an offer that Dolan just can’t refuse: the person who ruined his life, a wealthy young socialite named Megan Dietrich, who just so happens to be celebrating her birthday and plans to stop by Dolan’s bar that very night…
Lee Dolan winds up not being an important character to the series overall, but Megan Dietrich most certainly is. Megan goes on to become a fantastic character - beautiful as an angel, but deadly as a black mamba, it’s through Megan here that we get our first glimpse at the larger mythology Azzarello is building in this world. It’s all little more than small glimpses here, but from those brief moments we glean that there is a larger conspiracy at play; one involving Agent Graves and this mysterious “game” he plays all across the country.
One of the hallmarks of the series is the small picture framed against the larger one. Something that Azzarello and Risso accomplish throughout the series by layering their panels as they go: it’s not uncommon for an issue of 100 Bullets to feature two characters talking in the background while something completely different and seemingly unrelated plays out in the foreground (and vice versa), but as you’ll find out as the series goes on, it’s all related. It’s a rather ingenious device that the creators have built into the narrative framework, letting the reader know that this is a layered, complicated story that requires you to pay attention to every detail. So - upon your first read of this story - you might be confused by the cutaways to the man in the Hawaiian shirt who blows up a helicopter with an Uzi while Lee and Megan have their confrontation, but just be patient. Azzarello and Risso like to take their sweet time, but all will be revealed in due course.
The volume ends with the short story "Silencer Night" that first appeared in one of those Vertigo “Edge” anthologies the imprint used to put out from time to time (and sadly don’t anymore). It’s a nice, eight-page teaser that plays around with the world Azzarello’s built, featuring a old woman who goes to the police station to confess a murder she got away with when she was younger. She of course received Graves’ attaché - something that lets us know Graves has been doing this for awhile. It’s a good taste of the series to come, but hardly inconsequential - eagle-eyed readers will note this little short will be touched on again much later in the series, once more a testament to the complex tapestry and Azzarello and Risso will weave as 100 Bullets plows on.