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100 Bullets

September 14th, 2009
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One of the greatest comic books that I know of took its final bow recently: Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso’s masterpiece, 100 Bullets.

The centerpiece of the series has been, since the very first issue, the mysterious Agent Graves.  Graves brings the powerless and the beaten-down a chance at vengeance: an attache case filled with irrefutable evidence about the person or persons who destroyed their life, as well as a gun and 100 rounds of untraceable ammunition.  Somehow, Graves has arranged so that no law enforcement agency on the globe can touch the user of that gun and those 100 bullets.

When the series began, its structure was that of short stories (some one issue long, most spanning several issues), each featuring a different protagonist — from a former gang-banger from Chicago to an ice-cream truck man in Brooklyn to a bartender in California to gas-station attendant in Texas, and many others — each faced with tough choices as to how to respond to Graves’ “gift.”

But the beauty of 100 Bullets is the way that an even more complex and fascinating larger story began to emerge, slowly, as the series progressed.  Characters from one story would re-appear in later tales in unexpected ways.  Events seen in the background of panels in one issue would, many issues later, become the focus of another story.  Slowly it came to light that the people Graves was visiting might not be as totally unconnected and random as they had at first appeared.  Eventually we readers began to discover a larger story, about the thirteen families who had long-ago divided up control of America, and the secret war that was now tearing them apart.  As great as the tough, pull-no-punches stand-alone crime stories were that the series began with, I found myself even more engaged with this epic story-line that came to dominate the series over the course of the second half of its run.

I’m not even sure where to begin in terms of singing the praises of the series’ creators.  Azzarello’s stories are both painfully, brutally intimate and also astonishingly epic.  Over the 100 issues of the series (collected in 13 volumes — and that number isn’t random, as attentive readers of the series surely know), Azzarello wove a head-poundingly intricate web of increasingly inter-connected events and characters.  I have re-read the early volumes of the series many times now, and each time I read them I discover amazing new connections — the way a major player late in the series’ run was there all along in the background of an earlier tale, or the way an off-hand comment made by one character early on the series would illuminate the motivations behind an angry confrontation many issues later.

Also astounding is Azzarello’s ability to capture the distinct  feel of every one of the series’ many different locations.  Every few issues, the story would shift to a new setting.  Over the course of the 100 issues, we spent time with characters at all levels of society, from the highest to the lowest and everywhere in between, and all across the United States.  Yet no matter the location, and no matter the character, Azzarello’s ear for dialect was astounding.  No two of his characters ever spoke in quite the same way.  The attention to detail — in terms of accent, slang, etc. — is mind-boggling, and added a powerful reality to the stories being told.  The only thing I can compare this to is the magnificent TV show The Wire, which so engagingly created fully-realized characters from every societal strata of Baltimore — from the politicians to the cops to the drug-dealing kids on the corners.  Imagine if, every few episodes, The Wire had shifted its setting to an entirely new city, and you’ll have some idea of Mr. Azzarello’s achievement here.

And as for Mr. Risso’s art — simply astounding.  From the very first panel to the very last, my jaw remained on the floor in worshipful awe of his skills.  Just as Azzarello’s words crafted unique and distinct characters in each and every issue, so too did Risso’s pen design a magnificent array of different people of all shapes and sizes.  Despite the enormous cast of characters that Risso had to create and illustrate over the course of the series, there was never any iota of confusion as to who was who.  Risso’s style is a miraculous combination of slightly cartoony exaggeration with incredible attention to detail.  His work here is one of the greatest achievements in comic book illustration in recent memory.  I am in awe.

Periodically I write about great comic books that I’m enjoying, either current story-lines in long-running series, or smaller stand-alone tales.  100 Bullets isn’t short, that’s for sure — 13 volumes is quite a lengthy saga.  But if you’re looking to sample one of the finest comic book stories to come down the pike in recent memory, an adult story (and one not for the faint of heart), then don’t miss 100 Bullets.  Give the first volume (First Shot, Last Call) a try.  I think you’ll be hooked.

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