Written by Brian Azzarello
Art by Eduardo Risso, Colours by Patricia Mulvihill, Letters by Clem Robins and Covers by Dave Johnson
I didn’t get into Vertigo when it first came out as a line within Detective Comics Comics. Instead, I started with Preacher and Transmetropolitan which were long-running Vertigo series which had a beginning, middle and end. As someone who mostly reads cape comics which are an eternal soap opera, there’s something quite satisfying when I stray from that genre when a series actually ends.
100 Bullets was a crime comic I bounced off initially, despite the great concept. I’ll admit it’s mainly because of the art. Again, I was used to cape comics and there was a stylistic flourish which I found a bit ugly. Still, I peservered and despite not caring for it at first, Risso’s art really grew on me.
It’s a crime comic I was getting into a little after I’d started watching shows like The Wire and Oz, so it goes in that kind of bucket in my head. It has some fascinating morality plays, although reading it again in 2022 makes me wonder whether there was research by Azzarello, whether he spoke to people of other cultures when writing extremely stereotypical sounding dialogue for them. It comes across more potentially cringey than racist but then I’m a Southern English fop, so I’m probably not the person to judge it for appropriateness.
100 Bullets is primarily a question of morality, shown in different ways. The main one is a question easily pitched to the audience themselves.
An old man appears one day with a briefcase. He explains to you that there was a point in your life where things went wrong. Your life was ruined in some way, and it’s all attributable to one person. The briefcase has a photo of them, proof, a gun and one hundred bullets. They’re not traceable, if you’re caught with them then the police will throw you back out on the street.
The man, Graves, doesn’t tell you to kill the person who did this, but the implication is there. The temptation.
For the first half of the story, it’s mostly contained in vignettes of one to five issues, so you normally get a couple per volume. Graves’ game has been going on for a while, but we first see him deliver the case to Dizzy Cordova, fresh out of prison and armed with the knowledge of the two policemen who were the murderers of her husband and child.
Dizzy doesn’t just dive into things; instead she goes to the police, she sees old friends, she really goes over it before finally fighting both the officers and a surprise culprit.
The story moves on, although Dizzy returns later. We see people given this information who dive right into their murder, who fail incredibly, or are in the background while other plots are going on. Graves keeps at this game, even while there are other people like Agent Shepherd, who seems to be following him.
Even when you get a one-off story of a person being armed, there seems to be some kind of connective tissue behind it all. To quote Lester Freamon from The Wire, “All the pieces matter.”
The Real Plot… spoilers
100 Bullets is a story about a criminal organisation. No, THE criminal organisation. The Trust are an ancient order of thirteen families who carved up America between them. They were policed by a group called The Minutemen, who were the biggest, baddest murderers, activated when a house made moves against another. Traitors would be dealt with swiftly, brutally.
Agent Graves acted as the leader of the Minutemen who have charming names like The Monster, The Saint, The Bastard and so on. The Trust waged a war on the Minutemen who responded in kind, then went to ground. Hypnotic triggers were put in most of them and they were sent out to live their lives until they see or hear the word, “Croatoa”, apparently a victim of ancient Minutemen.
The word wakes them up and a bloodbath often ensues. Sometimes it works in their favour, sometimes it doesn’t. Most of these characters are sent on their path by Graves, hoping that his game will have a way to reactivate them, even though not everyone will survive them. He even has a couple of new potential Minutemen like Dizzy and Loop, the son of an old Minuteman.
The game’s not the only thing on the table though. Some houses in The Trust are using the lack of policing to close ranks, killing and absorbing other houses. Agent Shepherd has mercurial interests, seeming to be helping both The Trust and Graves. Lono, a former Minuteman who wasn’t there during one of their massive moves against The Trust which solidified the war between them is a beast of a man. He’s an evil Wolverine, a Lu Bu, a voracious and compelling monster who seems near invincible, making his encounters with the far too mortal Minutemen terrifying.
The volumes I bought were of various sizes, collecting specific story arcs up until the final four volumes which are all neatly of similar length as it’s all one story by that point. The games are over and no one’s making it out alive.
Is it any good?
Yes, although that is with an a couple of criticisms.
It can get a little busy, story-wise when it’s still playing keep-away with what Graves and Shepherd are up to, and their loyalties. The obfuscation can make things a bit tricky to keep track of, but that’s a problem that sorts itself out as time goes on and the cast get whittled down.
The other point of confusion is the nicknames the cast have. That most of them are amoral stubbly white guys of roughly the same build and the nicknames are kind of generic doesn’t help. It feels a bit like a Three Jokers problem, as most of them could be, “The Bastard” or “The Point Man”. Again, between body count and the fact the nicknames are more historical aspects of the characters means that it’s a problem that sorts itself out.
My final issue is the dialogue. It might be that Brian Azzarello did a lot of research and hopefully he did. I know he’s been praised for his dialogue and the specificity. He uses a Tarantinoian amount of the N word and goes all over the place with crudeness. It just made me cringe a bit and ponder the level of research Azzarello did while I was reading the series.
This is a horrible, seedy world where pretty much everyone’s up to no good. The background characters are as likely to be up to something as our protagonists. Risso draws a vibrant, lively world which is as colourful as it is shady. Some standout moments include Lono’s introduction in the background of an early story as he fights a helicopter on a clear blue day, all while our protagonist and antagonist don’t notice, or the sight of a tiger which feels almost supernatural compared to the street level everything else has here.
Am I keeping it?
Yes, and I’m keeping these volumes. I know there are thicker ‘complete’ versions which turn the thirteen volumes into five, but I think I prefer them this way, contained in the different arcs and mostly given a name referential to the number of the volume. While I’m likely to read the whole run, these specific break points are all great for the flow of the story.
At first I thought the series was going to be short stories only linked by Agent Graves, but then the conspiracy was introduced. Sometimes long-running conspiracies become too convoluted, so we shall see…