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.