100 BULLETS by Brian Azzarello & Edurado Risso (Vertigo/DC Comics/collected)
I got a lot of love for noir and crime fiction, and one of the best of both in the comics medium this generation has been Vertigo’s 100 Bullets. Vertigo (a branch of DC Comics) was known in 1999 for its more mature supernatural and fantastic titles like Hellblazer, Swamp Thing, and The Sandman, but not for long term crime comics. So when writer Brian Azzarello and artist Edurado Risso came out with the pitch of 100 Bullets, which was pretty complex and yet based on a simple premise, a flat out crime comic was a rarity, even as Frank Miller’s Sin City was starting to make waves. But, the premise was enough to get a lot of attention, and as the series progressed, even more critical and fan acclaim.
The opening arc sets up the ethical dilemma pretty well: a man known as Mr. Graves, offers people an opportunity to avenge wrongs that have been done to them. He gives them evidence of who’s responsible for their ill will, all in a briefcase which also has a gun with a 100 bullets. The gun and bullets are untraceable, and the authorities will be unable to prosecute that person for taking out their vengeance. The question that comes up is: if given such carte blanche to right the wrongs against you, would you?
In the story arcs of the series, that question comes to some interesting answers for several characters, among them Izzy Cordova, a former gangbanger; Cole Burns, a working man with secrets of his own; and many others who drift through each others’ stories as the series goes on. As cool and as somewhat limiting as the idea of 100 Bullets seems to be from the start, it peels away more layers as the series progressed, revealing the true nature of Graves’ attaché case. All of it is a lead in to a larger crime epic, one involving a crime empire and a group of enforcers known as the Minutemen, of who Graves was formerly in charge of. With further stories in the series, the details behind Graves’ plans, the end of the Minutemen, and the true purpose of Graves’ offer becomes more complex and deadly to its players.
Writer Brian Azzarello has a lot of big plot points and history in the air throughout the series’ 100 issue run, and considering how much the cast grows (and shrinks) with each arc, its a testament for keeping the micro stories of characters like Izzy interesting while expanding, explaining, and exploring the universe this series creates. There’s a lot of backstory going into the series that is unveiled slowly, but just enough that a reader will be trying to piece together how all of it fits. Like many tales of crime noir, there’s betrayal, revenge, and unexpected consequences, and with each installment, those consequences become far more reaching than just the parties involved. Its the first crime comic epic ever made.
The artwork of Eduardo Risso is certainly enough to differentiate the multitude of characters in 100 Bullets, but also is a rarity in comics: 100 issues with the same artist at the helm. With that, the style of Risso’s art evolves and becomes more complex, playing with shadow, light, and inventive panel work in a way that draws you into the pages. And considering some of the graphic violence committed throughout the series, the artwork is effective but not too hard to look at. Another note is the book’s cover artist Dave Johnson, whose striking cover work (sampled in the picture above) is among some of the medium’s best in this generation.
If you’re interested in reading the series, besides finding them digitally on DC Comics’ website for $2 each issue, the best bet is to look for the trade paperbacks (there’s 13 of them, all with numerical puns in their titles). Also, if you are a fan and haven’t any of the collections, Vertigo has started to release the series in hardcover form (the first two hardcovers, comprising the first 36 issues, are already available). If you’re a fan of crime comics, this is a big one to start on, but once you start, you may have a harder time putting it down.
NEXT ISSUE: Find out what happens when time travel and religion collide in Jonathan Hickman’s visually ambitious epic PAX ROMANA! Until then, feel free to comment on this post and even offer up your own suggestions for future installments.