Wednesday, October 29, 2014

100 Bullets Reread, Vol 4: A Foregone Tomorrow

            Vol. 4...

Issue #20 “The Mimic”

            At this point in the series, we’ve seen plenty of Agent Graves, but his counterpart Mr. Shepherd remains elusive. Something that changes with this issue, another patented “two characters talking about important things (i.e., the Trust) while another, smaller crime story plays out in the foreground which oddly mirrors the larger conspiracy” story, as Shepherd meets with new character Benito to discuss current events. It’s a formula that Azzarello and Risso are starting to fall into time and time again, but it remains as well-tuned as ever, and Azzarello still manages to hold onto the steady flow of information in his ongoing mystery - revealing just enough with each new development to keep us hungry for more. For instance, we learn that unlike the estranged Graves, Shepherd is still in the employ of the Trust; another twist of the plot-turning knife, and one that calls Shepherd’s true allegiances into question, since we’ve already seen him working behind the scenes with Graves. This issue also acts as something of a table-setter for the upcoming “Red Prince Blues” arc, which will provide us with our best look yet at the Trust and everything that, until now, has only been implied.   

Issues #21-22 “Sellfish & Out to Sea”

            It was bound to happen, as it happens to most things in life: 100 Bullets has finally produced a bad arc. Or maybe bad isn’t the right word; maybe “disappointing” is more appropriate. And, in a way, that’s what the story has to be. Much like the focus of these two issues, Jack Daw, this particular story can’t end in anything other than disappointment. Jack’s a loser, plain and simple: a junkie moocher who can’t hold down a job or a relationship to save his life. This being 100 Bullets, he is of course approached by a mysterious man with a briefcase and a picture of the person responsible for ruining his life. The reveal of just who it is in that picture - and what Jack has been doing with those hundred rounds of untraceable ammunition - definitely comes as a shock, and I can admire what Azzarello was trying to do with this almost horror movie ending, but when we get to the big reveal at the end, it can’t help but come with a “That’s it?” The character work is again superb throughout, but the story feels undercooked, especially considering what we’ve come to expect from this series so far.

              Still, this isn’t the last we’ll see of Jack Daw, a character who is infinitely more fascinating than his debut story might suggest.  

Issues #23-25 “Red Prince Blues”

            “Through the Looking Glass.” “The Erlenmeyer Flask.” Episode 16 of Twin Peaks… All key moments in works that relied upon a central mystery running throughout; episodes that pulled back the curtain just enough so that the audience could finally get a glimpse of just where the story was going. “Red Prince Blues” is that for 100 Bullets, a major arc that both reveals much of the central mystery and sets up even more stories to be played out on down the pike. We finally discover what the Trust is: thirteen powerful families who operate in secret and virtually run America behind the scenes. We find out who exactly the Minutemen are: a sort of checks-and-balances team of agents in charge of protecting/punishing any of the Trust who step out of line. And we learn that whatever it was that went down in Atlantic City that causes Graves’ estrangement has led to the Minutemen being cut out of the picture entirely, leaving Trust member Augustus Medici * free to reorganize the families howsoever he sees fit. Augustus is the father of Benito, the burn-out prettyboy we met in issue #20 who has some serious heir-to-the-throne issues, and who is largely the focus of the both main story here and the smaller, side-story of the man who loses to him at a high stakes game of poker, and comes back looking for a little revenge… although not, it should be noted, provided by Graves and his attaché. The briefcase and its titular 100 untraceable rounds of ammunition will still feature, but with this storyarc, 100 Bullets takes its first step into becoming a different series than what we’re so far used to.

            Being a major event, most of the recurring characters we’ve seen before make a return appearance, including Megan Dietrich, who we find out is a newly-elected member of the Trust due to her father’s untimely passing. Megan continues to grow into a fascinating character; a rich, daddy’s-little-girl type who proves to be not nearly as shallow as that description would lead you to believe, and who has found herself having to grow up and take responsibility in a rather big hurry. Of course, just because there’s more going on beneath the beautiful, bordering on pervy renditions that artist Risso gives her doesn’t make her any more trustworthy (as Lee Dolan could attest from all those issues ago), but Megan remains a wonderfully complex character.

            Graves also makes his return, after being absent for the last few issues; although the character can never truly be absent, for even when he’s not on the page, his presence is felt. Agent Graves is the guardian angel of death for this series, hanging over each panel and manipulating events to suit his no-longer-quite-so-mysterious ways. Graves is not happy with the direction that Medici and the others are taking the Trust, and has set his sights to staging an epic war against quite possibly the most powerful people on the entire planet - the opening salvo of which is fired on the last page of this very arc.

            Because Graves is ultimately playing a gamble, you see, just like the dope who loses at cards to Benito. And although he’s a master manipulator and meticulous planner, so much of his machinations will still boil down to however the dice will fall.

            Which is another way of saying: shit’s about to get real. Buckle up, kids...

Issue #26 “Mr. Branch and the Family Tree”

            After the major events going down in the last arc, it’s understandable that the story needs to take something of a breather, which this issue featuring the return of Mr. Branch accomplishes. The issue is basically a monologue from Branch as he’s receiving the services of a French prostitute, and serves as basically a catch-up of the story so far. Although we get added insight to the proceedings, nothing terribly new is learned along the way, and - considering a good portion of this issue is in French - it would be very easy to toss this one off as largely inconsequential (unless you happen to speak French, of course).

            But skipping it means you’d miss out on the various pin-ups of the main characters from artists such as Paul Pope, Jim Lee and Frank Miller. 100 Bullets is a carefully-designed series, and Risso and Azzarello are so in sync with each other it would be unthinkable to imagine anyone else tackling the art chores, but it still is a good bit of fun seeing other artists’ interpretations of the characters, and with this issue, the creators have found the perfect way to allow that without breaking their overall flow.

Issue #27 “Idol Chatter”

            Any series mired in conspiracies has to touch on it eventually, and 100 Bullets is no different. The big one, the granddaddy of all conspiracy theories: JFK. Out of all the crazy theories purported throughout the years, the absolute craziest has to be that it was Joe DiMaggio seeking revenge for his ex-wife Marilyn Monroe, who was supposedly killed by Kennedy to keep their affair quiet. It’s a completely ridiculous theory, but as a story, it’s rife with potential - potential that Azzarello and Risso exploit to its fullest.

            Because it turns out that Joltin’ Joe was not only responsible for the “magic bullet” that day on November 22, 1963, but that it was one that came from an attaché along with 99 others given to him by none other than a young Agent Graves. This issue is a perfect example of the creators using their series concept to fantastic effect, as Graves bumps into an aging, remorseful DiMaggio at a retirement home after dropping off another attaché, wondering if it really was his bullet that killed the president that day and thus changed the world. It’s a fun little side story to the series’ larger mythology, but as it often is with 100 Bullets, still tied rather intrinsically to the overall themes. Namely, that all of this big picture conspiracy stuff ultimately boils down to very human terms: desire, jealousy, revenge. That’s 100 Bullets in a nutshell; the small picture framed against the large.

            Also pay close attention to that bandaged man who gets the attaché this issue: we’ll be seeing much more of his story coming up very soon.

Issues #28-30 Contrabandolero

            100 Bullets isn’t a series that often wears its influences on its sleeve, but from time to time Azzarello does an arc that seems meant to clearly evoke a classic crime writer - such as this arc, a fairly light/ humorous (at least for 100 Bullets) tale that feels akin with the type of fast-talking, screwball crime stories as written by Elmore Leonard and Donald Westlake.

            One thing that’s becoming apparent throughout the series is how plot isn’t nearly as compelling for Azzarello as character. The plot of these three issues is just about as light as a feather, and serves primarily to introduce us to new character Wylie Times, a lackadaisical gas station attendant who spends his days off drinking beer in a folding chair. Shepherd and Dizzy roll into town looking for him, and we learn by the arc’s end that Wylie must be another Minuteman in hiding, although Shepherd doesn’t know the codeword to unlock Wylie’s memory like Graves did previously for Cole Burns. Much like “Sellfish & Out to Sea,” this is another case of introducing a character that goes on to be much more fascinating than their debut story, although here I could at least appreciate the Leonard/Westlake pastiche.  
            * A character who gets probably one of the best introductions in this or any other series, what with his amazing, writer-jealousy-inducing line, “Work? No. I am the power company.”

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