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100 Bullets. 1 Gun. No Consequences. - The Book of the Celestial Cow

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February 4th, 2009


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01:27 am - 100 Bullets. 1 Gun. No Consequences.
A mysterious man walks up to you and hands you an attaché. Inside, you find a picture of a person along with irrefutable evidence that said person is responsible for ruining your life, is the very reason your life is shit. The briefcase also includes a gun and one hundred rounds of ammunition that are completely untraceable. They give you complete legal immunity; if one of these bullets is discovered at a crime scene, the investigation will cease immediately. You have carte blanche to use this weapon and this information how you see fit. The old man does not tell you to kill the person. He doesn't tell you not to, however. He does not tell you what to do at all. The choice is yours.

This is the intriguing premise of 100 Bullets, the Harvey- and Eisner-winning epic crime saga/conspiracy thriller/comic noir/pulp comic written by Brian Azzarello and drawn by Eduardo Risso. It combines the slick, cool criminality of Reservoir Dogs; the complexity, mindgames, and shifting character loyalties of Lost and Alias; the whodunit and whydunit of L.A. Confidential; the humanized underbelly of The Wire; and the who-killed-the-chauffeurness of The Big Sleep. Except Azzarello would know who killed the chauffeur.

As you may guess from the above description, 100 Bullets is much more than a collection of moral dilemmas in the form of revenge stories. There are a fair number of those throughout the series, but Agent Graves's game is merely an entryway into the true story of the series, which I will do my best to only hint at. Because the slow reveal of the major players in the first couple dozen issues is very fun. It becomes apparent that Graves isn't only giving his attachés to random people with a score to settle; he has a Plan. This Plan involves a secret organization known as the Trust. And a group of people connected to the Trust, the Minutemen. And something that happened in Atlantic City, but we don't know what. I'm giving too much away already; I'll stop.

With 100 Bullets, Azzarello has meticulously crafted a wildly labyrinthine tale of revenge, betrayal, identity, love, loss, money, sex, and power. Issue #100 is due to close out the series after nearly ten years any day now, and not once in the 99 issues preceding have I felt that Azzarello didn't know what he was doing from Day One. There is a line in the first dozen issues that doesn't make sense until over forty issues later. (This happens frequently, actually. Characters often speak in code or dance around the subject of the conversation, and it's only until later that you understand what they were talking about.) There is a recurring flashback shown in which most of the characters are initially presented in shadow; when the identities of those characters are revealed, they match the silhouettes in the very first issue we see the flashback. A background character in one scene turns up as a supporting player a half-dozen issues later. You never know what "minor" character will pop up again in a major role.

The characters, as you might expect in a noir-y, pulp-y crime comic, are mostly a bunch of righ' bastards. Mostly men, but there are a few major female characters as well; in fact, there are quite a few women in positions of power. They all have their own agendas and loyalties, often conflicting, and throughout the series, they shift alliances, sometimes even making deals with their ostensible foes. None of it ever feels out of character, however; the actions of each particular character make sense according to what we know about them. And what we know about them comes from what they do; characters are defined by their actions. The major characters are all pretty distinct, which is quite a feat given how little direct characterization we get. Sometimes I judged them on their general attitude, the sense I got from them. A couple of my favorite characters are an ice cream man and a gas station attendant.

100 Bullets is not a comic you can just breeze through; it requires paying careful attention to detail, both in the dialogue and in the art. You're constantly flipping back to old pages, old issues, old trades to make sure you understand what's going on and to make sense of things that happened before. Azzarello often skips over scenes and lets the reader piece together what happened based on the aftermath. There are few SHOCKING REVEALS! because Azzarello expects you to be reading between the lines enough that you figure things out before a character actually confirms it. This is not to say that the series isn't full of surprises, far from it. Why do you think I'm being so vague about everything? Azzarello is confident enough in his storytelling ability and your imagination that he knows just how to whap you. In many issues, he deftly weaves together multiple storylines, often not directly identifying who's speaking but making it clear enough from the context; while I praise Azzarello's craft in planning the overall series, he also creates some masterful single issues.

And the wordplay. JESUS GOD THE WORDPLAY. One of my very favorite things about the series is the naming system for the trade paperbacks. Volume 1 is called First Shot, Last Call. Volume 2 is Split Second Chance. Volume 4 is A Foregone Tomorrow. Volume 5 is The Counterfifth Detective. Are you seeing it? He gets even more oblique later on, naming Volume 7 Samurai and Volume 12 Dirty. Storylines are often titled with telling puns ("Parlez Kung Vous," "Idol Chatter," "Prey for Reign"). But it's the wordplay in the dialogue that impresses me the most. Azzarello's dialogue is both very naturalistic and very stylized; double meanings are scattered everywhere. This is a noir-y, pulp-y world; characters are always speaking in metaphors. Azzarello can connect the plights of two unrelated characters with an ironic turn of phrase.

But no discussion of 100 Bullets is complete without giving props to Eduardo Risso, who lives in Argentina and rarely has any direct contact with Azzarello yet still manages to bring his story to life appropriately. Now, a lot of people call his art "beautiful." I always thought it was ugly as shit, but not in a bad way. I appreciated it more the second time around, though I'm still not a fan of some of the more exaggerated characteristics. The art fits the tone and style of the book well. What's most distinctive is his use of shadow; sometimes all you see of a character are his teeth. And that's enough. That's the kind of visual storytelling Risso's able to pull off. It's also necessary for him to quickly establish setting, as the action spans most of America and even crosses the ocean at some points. He's also good at drawing really hot ladies. I must give a shout-out to Dave Johnson's fabulous covers as well; I love all the different compositions he uses and the way he incorporates the symbol of the Trust into almost every single cover.

Read the first issue for free, but keep in mind that this isn't the kind of series that can be judged from the first issue (or even the first trade) because its awesomeness builds over time and also be aware that the original colorist is soon replaced by Patricia Mulvihill, who provides vibrancy and clarity rather than drab monotones.

This is one of my favorite comics, and it's well regarded by everyone from Ed Brubaker to Tom Fontana, but, as usual, I fear I have not sold it well enough. And it deserves to be sold better than this, especially when it's going out at the top of its game with an incredible twelve-part finale that hasn't had a non-awesome issue so far. 100 Bullets may not be everyone's cup of tea, I'll admit, but if it sounds interesting enough, it's worth giving more than a split-second chance.
Current Mood: hopefulhopeful
Current Music: Metric - Help I'm Alive

(14 memoirs | Describe me as "inscrutable")

Comments:


From:(Anonymous)
Date:February 4th, 2009 10:24 am (UTC)

Excellent review!

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"And the wordplay. JESUS GOD THE WORDPLAY..."
"...sometimes all you see of a character are his teeth. And that's enough."

Thanks for a great piece.

-Robert Knight

theknightreport(at)gmail.com
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From:spectralbovine
Date:February 4th, 2009 03:35 pm (UTC)

Re: Excellent review!

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You're welcome! I'm glad you liked it.
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From:grammarwoman
Date:February 4th, 2009 02:45 pm (UTC)
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You've piqued my interest - sounds fascinating!
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From:spectralbovine
Date:February 4th, 2009 03:35 pm (UTC)
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Let me know what you think of it!
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From:mrbroom
Date:February 4th, 2009 02:52 pm (UTC)
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I've gone to such trouble explaining this series to people, when what I could have done for openers instead was, "I know this guy, Sunil, right. If you talk to him about this, you'll actually read it instead of just nodding and smiling." Hell on toast, but you know what you're doing.

You should do a blog of Reviews for People Who Hate Critics. Of course, you've got so many irons in the fire at any given time that you probably already are and I don't know it.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:February 4th, 2009 03:41 pm (UTC)
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Hee. Thanks, Broomy. I found it really hard to explain what was so awesome about the series without spoiling more than I wanted to. And there were more vagaries I could have thrown in, but it was too long already.

I wonder if reviewsforpeoplewhohatecritics.com is taken.
(Deleted comment)
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From:spectralbovine
Date:February 4th, 2009 03:46 pm (UTC)
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If they don't have it, I have all the trades but the final one, which doesn't come out until the summer. I hope you enjoy it if you check it out! The wordplay is fantastic, and as for the noir, The Counterfifth Detective is essentially a Raymond Chandler homage.

And I know your daughter is bookish, but don't let her read it! It contains Mature Content.
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From:latropita
Date:February 4th, 2009 05:03 pm (UTC)
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Cow! You know what it has taken me an absurdly long time to realize unemployment really means? I can catch up on your recommendations, since my library has a seemingly decent sized manga and graphic novel section.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:February 4th, 2009 05:08 pm (UTC)
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Huzzah for not having a job!!

It is bittersweet. But I look forward to hearing you squee and WTF over this series.
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From:beeker121
Date:February 5th, 2009 02:38 am (UTC)
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I have the first three trades. I bought them a few years ago on someone's recommendation and enjoyed them, but with the series ungoing I let it drop for a while. Now that I know there is an end in sight I may have to start adding a trade a month to my comic order until I'm all caught up. I love Azzarello's stuff in general and will be curious to see where the story goes.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:February 5th, 2009 02:46 am (UTC)
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What other Azzarello have you read? He's going to be at WonderCon! Are you going?

You've only read the first three trades? Aw, man, you haven't even met Wylie! Or a number of other characters. Yes, definitely start collecting the trades; the last one comes out in July. The story goes places you won't expect.
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From:beeker121
Date:February 5th, 2009 03:15 am (UTC)
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I mostly know him from his run on Hellblazer. When is WonderCon - I missed it entirely last year. I might even not be in shows!

Heh - yeah I'll need to catch up. I'll also need to re-read the first trades, it has been years. I've got at least one other thing on my 'now that it's done read it list' (Y-the last man) so I'll have to pace my purchases out.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:February 5th, 2009 03:17 am (UTC)
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WonderCon is the last weekend in February. I'm still waiting for them to release the damn schedule!

And, yes, you will need to re-read the first trades. You'll be glad you did. It reads amazingly in trade because you can really see how much everything is set up.

Read Y!

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