Wednesday, December 3, 2014

100 Bullets Reread, Vol. 9: Strychnine Lives

            Vol 9…

Issues #59 “The Calm”

            This issue sees the new dynamic duo of Loop and Lono finally released from prison, with Lono a bit more subdued than we’re used to. “The Dog” is still working over Mr. Shepherd’s last words, where the dying man asked Lono to be his replacement as the Trust’s warlord. Armed with that information, Lono and Loop go and look up Lono’s old co-worker, one Mr. Victor Ray, who’s shacked up with a married woman in Chicago and is laying low while waiting to hear back from Graves. The two of them manage to trick Victor into thinking that they were sent to pick him up on behalf of Graves, and the two-some becomes a three-man show.

            As the title of the issue would lead you to believe, this one’s all set-up for the storm that is to follow, so not much of note transpires. As far as the characters go, Loop remains a tad simple: we don’t really get much insight into why the younger Hughes has decided to shack up with the man who killed his cousin and raped said cousin’s girlfriend, other than perhaps just sheer convenience. Loop doesn’t really have anywhere else to go, but it would still be nice to get a little more into his head and see his inner turmoil (if he has any, that is). We do get to see that Loop isn’t afraid of Lono, at least, as he stops the Dog from getting up to his old tricks when they’re left alone with Victor’s girl - something that should serve as a quick and brutal reminder that, even though we’re seeing a more complex and possibly sympathetic beast than originally presented, Lono is still a right son-of-a-bitch, and just as liable to bite you as he will bark.

            In addition to all of this, we get the story of Christine, Victor’s girlfriend, and her husband Wally, who’s worked up the nerve to arm himself and go after Victor, as well. I’ve mentioned it before in this reread, but it bears repeating. That’s the whole of what 100 Bullets boils down to: the ants that trample about, and the boot that crushes them underfoot. In a way the series is a study of said boot, looking at the motives behind just where it decides to stomp next. Sometimes, though, the reasons aren’t nearly as complex as they may seem, as we learn here when Victor Ray winds up incidentally destroying two lives for no reason other than he was bored and horny.

Issues #60-63 “Staring at the Sun”

            “Phil.” That’s Agent Graves’ first name, a reveal in this arc that both humanizes and demystifies 100 Bullets’ guardian angel; it’s such an ordinary name, reminding us that, for all of Graves’ mystique, he’s just as human as anyone else.

            The complicated storyline Azzarello and Risso have been building for sixty-plus issues here becomes even more complicated, as this arc traces three different strands happening simultaneously in Miami: Megan Dietrich accepting a dinner invitation from the Medicis, Mr. Branch finding himself in America once more, and the misadventures of hotel concierge Tino and visiting New York dealer Spain. You might remember a drug dealer by the name of Spain being mentioned all the way back in issue #20, proving once again that even the most minor of details can come back into play within this series. Spain’s story here is the most successful of the three; another “small picture” affair that acts as a sort of pitch-black comedy of errors that has nothing to do with the other stories, but is still thematically resonant.

            The other two strands consist largely of once-again elliptical conversations, while the major players of the series sit around and talk around the issues at hand. It’s all incredibly vague, and the shifting motivations and allegiances seem to exist now just to keep the ever-complicating ball in motion. It was understandable why Azzarello kept his cards close to the chest early on, but at well past the halfway point, these types of Lost-ian conversations of talking around the series’ mysteries are beginning to grow tiresome. All of this might have been an easier pill to swallow had the arc been shorter, but at four issues long, having the characters basically sit around and talk (except for the Spain portion of the story, notably) is a bit much. Azzarello’s talents for clever wordplay are still evident throughout, but this arc is all build with no real payoff, leaving it feeling like the series spinning its wheels until it can get to the good stuff.  

Issue #64 “The Dive”

            We catch up with Jack Daw for this one-off, where “The Monster,” now scratching out a living as a bare-knuckle brawler, gets another visit from Graves and tries to return his former boss’ “gift.”

            It’s with this issue (and the previous arc) where the decision to have the series run for 100 issues starts to feel like more of a gimmick rather than the natural length the story requires; a story that could have probably been done in the standard Vertigo series length of 70 or 75 issues, but is instead padded out to meet the titular triple-digit figure. There’s nothing wrong with the story on its own, and Risso certainly draws the hell out of it, but all the issue seems to accomplish is to once again remind us that Jack’s a loser, and that he still hasn’t learned the lesson Graves tried to impart when he gave him that attaché. Which is all fine and dandy, but that means the issue is essentially giving us information we’ve already gotten elsewhere. Essentially, when it comes to the character of Jack Daw, it’s time for the creators to shit or get off the pot.  

Issues #65-66 “New Tricks”

            After five issues of wheel-spinning, we finally get some forward momentum with the main story, as we catch up once again with Lono, Loop and Victor as the Dog makes his plea to Augustus Medici for the position of Shepherd’s old job. It turns out the hit placed on Augustus that almost got his son Benito instead was an act carried out by coalition of families within the Trust, and Lono does what he does best as a sort of job interview for the position.

            This arc turns the violence up considerably, as we see a man strung up and tortured, a finger used as a cigar and a severed testicle stomped on and literally popped. It’s violence that’s edging into Grand Guignol territory, and certainly marks a changing of the mood for the series as a whole. The stakes just keep growing as Augustus keeps trying to claim total control over the Trust, while Graves and other forces conspire to stop that from happening. The characterization of Lono, Loop and Victor continues to be spot on, as Azzarello gets a lot of mileage in seeing how these particular characters bounce off of each other. We also get to see another side of Lono: he’s every bit as vicious and deplorable here as he’s been throughout the series thus far, but we also get to see that - without his leash - he proves to be quite the strategist on his own. Does Lono really want the position as the Trust’s warlord? His actions throughout these two issues seem to point in that direction, but a last minute twist shows us that Lono’s true allegiance is to nothing but himself.     

Issue #67 “Love Let Her”

            100 Bullets is a series that likes to take its sweet time, but the payoff is almost always worth it. I say “almost,” because - as much as the series soars with its complexity and deft characterizations - it seems to falter every so often due to the nature of the game the series is playing. We’ve seen it happen time and time again with other such stories such as Lost or The X-Files; you can only play that card of overarching mystery for so long. I’m glad to say that 100 Bullets doesn’t fall into that trap that those two series fell prey to (without spoiling anything, I can assure you the finale more than lives up to whatever hype you may be building up in your head as you read through the series) Azzarello and Risso are not without their stumbles as they approach their final lap, and it’s here in the ninth volume where the cracks are really starting to show.

            I say this because it’s here we finally catch up with Dizzy, nine issues after the shocking death of Mr. Shepherd. It was the series’ first death of a major player, and in a way has set up much the activity (or inactivity, in some instances) that’s fueled this particular volume. We get to see some of the turmoil surrounding Dizzy after shooting her mentor, but most of this issue revolves around the three men who are drawn to her with this issue’s conclusion: Wylie, Branch and Benito. In many ways, Dizzy is the main protagonist in this ensemble. Although Graves is a presence in nearly every page of 100 Bullets, it’s Dizzy who’s in the very first panel and the very last. But this issue - meant to highlight Dizzy’s importance to the overall story - still keeps us at arm’s length. We get yet another affirmation that Dizzy is important, that both Graves and Shepherd saw something special in her - but we still have yet to see what role Dizzy will play in the coming storm. Azzarello has set the board up rather magnificently, but it’s time to put those pieces in motion.


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