“Inside this attache case is irrefutable evidence that what I’m telling you is true. Also in the attache, a gun and 100 rounds of ammunition. All untraceable, all yours. Do with it as you see fit. If you act on this information, you will have carte blache.”
—Agent Graves to Dizzy Cordova, 100 Bullets #1.
The crime comic is fast becoming the hip & edgy alternative in the universe of mainstream American comics. Frank Miller’s Sin City, David Lapham’s Stray Bullets, Brian Michael Bendis’ Jinx and Goldfish, and Greg Rucka’s Whiteout have dazzled the critics with gritty depictions of the criminal underbelly and hard-boiled studies of the human condition. 100 Bullets, Vertigo Comics’ latest cult success (after Sandman and Preacher) is now into its third year of publication and drawing praise from many quarters.
Created by writer Brian Azzarello and artist Edward Risso, 100 Bullets’ core premise, as revealed in the First Shot, Last Call trade paperback, concerns the book’s main protagonist, one Agent Graves. In each tale, Graves approaches victims of a horrible crime and provides them an attaché case with irrefutable evidence against the guilty party of that crime, a pistol, and a box of 100 untraceable bullets hence the title. The victim may act above the law and kill without consequence.
Let’s pause for a moment: Without even considering its plausibility, one can only imagine the influence that a crime has on an individual in choosing to act upon, let alone accept, the veracity of such an offer. In First Shot, Last Call, we have a young Latina girl, Dizzy Cordova, a former gangbanger whose husband and son are killed by two corrupt cops while she is in jail. We also have Dolan, a man whose reputation had been smeared by a mysterious woman (Megan Dietrich) at his corporation. Dietrich had planted child porn on Dolan’s computer, causing him to lose both his business and his family. Both Dizzy and Dolan take Graves at his word, with differing conclusions.
Split Second Chance surprises the reader by revealing that there may be more to 100 Bullets than a Tales of the Crypt-styled revenge anthology. There appears to be a conspiracy angle to the series, rather like X-Files sans aliens. Dizzy goes to Paris to investigate the truth about Graves and discovers more than she bargained for. What we soon discover is that the conspiracy involves a highly secretive group of vengeance-seekers, the Minutemen, who operate outside the law. They specialize in providing victims of criminal wrongdoing with hard evidence of who did them wrong, along with a tasty firearm and one hundred untraceable bullets. Which explains why Graves has an “agent” tag. The Minutemen are obviously in conflict with another clandestine group, although by the close of the second trade paperback, its identity is still not made clear.
The remainder of Split Second Chance follows the formula as more victims (a gambler, a waitress, and an ice cream man) are given the 100 Bullets treatment. So, is 100 Bullets’ excellent reputation amongst critics well deserved? Or, is it really just a competently written comic, distinguished by its lack of super-heroes?
Writer Azzarello has a good grasp of people, whether in characterisation or dialogue. His tales are populated with intriguing human beings. Dizzy is a distinctively modern woman, with her independent spirit and emotional intelligence; her continued presence in the series is a big plus. Agent Graves is the lynchpin of the title, his wry humour and determined manner form the backbone of 100 Bullets. The “little folk” also matter whether it is the unfortunate heartbroken waitress (Lily Roach) caught in a terrible tangled web of familial conflict and betrayal or the degenerate gambler (Chucky Spinks), unable to jump off the debilitating roller-coaster ride of addiction and deceit. The stories themselves, however, are a little hard to swallow, especially when Azzarello moves into the realm of the Minutemen conspiracy. For a writer that obviously prides himself on “realism,” this jaunt into X-Files territory colors the entire premise somewhat unfavorably. I almost expect some spandex costumes to start turning up!
And then there is the art of Edward Risso. Risso’s drafting skill is indisputable; he draws people beautifully. Unfortunately, it also appears that he only draws beautiful people. Dizzy Cordova is a prime example she is too impossibly sexy and glamourous to live the life that Azzarello has mapped out for her. I understand that, like anyone else, comic readers look for eye candy, but are the criminal element truly as alluring as Risso depicts? This is not to denigrate Risso’s ability, mind you, but surely his work on this title is severely misplaced.
Which makes 100 Bullets a mixed bag. It is certainly not the second coming of crime comics, but it does contain many qualities that most of mainstream American comics are lacking. This will certainly do for now, at least.