100 Bullets by Brian Azzarello (writer) & Eduardo Risso (artist)
100 Bullets by Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso is one of the first lengthy comic book series I read (along with Y: The Last Man and Sandman), and it remains one of my favorites, competing in its writing and art with the best that Sandman has to offer. Which one of the two series is your favorite will probably depend on what kind of genre you like best. Sandman appeals to lovers of fantasy, horror, and mythology; 100 Bullets will appeal to the noir fan. If you love Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Ross MacDonald, and Robert B. Parker, then you will want to read this work immediately. It’s gritty and doesn’t shy away from those mean streets Chandler talked about. In fact, the mean streets in 100 Bullets are so downright mean and dirty, they make Chandler’s streets look like Downtown Disney. So, if hardcore violence, explicit sex, and the roughest language you can imagine bother you at all, you won’t have a stomach for 100 Bullets. So why am I writing about such a potentially shocking comic? I’m writing about it because the art is of the highest quality, both textually and visually: If it weren’t as good at doing what it does, I’d throw it out with the trash for just being plain offensive. But Azzarello and Risso know what they are doing. 100 Bullets is a work of genius.
I’ve wanted to review 100 Bullets ever since I started writing these columns for our blog here. There are several reasons I’ve hesitated to write about this great work. Basically, 100 Bullets is such a large, sprawling, but ultimately organic whole, that it’s overwhelming enough to read, much less try to overview in a single review. Like Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, it has multiple arcs that come together in one great epic story; however, unlike Sandman, you must start reading with issue one. Sandman has some great stories right in the middle of the series that can be read as stand-alone arcs, but you can’t jump into the middle of 100 Bullets. Once you’ve read all 100 issues, you can certainly return to your favorite stories, but only once you have the entire picture.
This large picture is fuzzy at first. There seem to be all these unrelated and mysterious characters with unusual motives and tenuous connections. But the basic plot hook is just plain brilliant: A stranger, a man named Graves, approaches someone’s whose life is a wreck. And he hands them a briefcase. Imagine, for example, if it were you. Let’s say you’ve had a rough life because of one specific, traumatic event. You might know who is to blame. You might not. You might not even know anything was even done to you. All you know is that your life is a train wreck. A man introduces himself to you and says he has a briefcase for you. In the briefcase, he tells you, is irrefutable proof supporting the story he tells you about the identity of the person who wronged you and the manner in which you were wronged. Also in the briefcase are an untraceable gun and 100 untraceable bullets. You have carte blanche. You are above the law. You can do anything you want to with that gun and those bullets, and nothing will happen to you. Your case will be dropped; in fact, you won’t even be arrested. Any crimes you commit in seeking revenge will be invisible. What would you do?
If that plot hook doesn’t get you, I can’t imagine what would. It’s such a great idea, and because he’s writing fiction, Azzarello can set up an endless series of ethical dilemmas. He doesn’t fall into any routine answer or pattern. Each person faces a very real dilemma, many of which are faced by people you know. Some of them are completely outlandish, but some touch on drug dependency and child abuse in very real and hard-hitting ways. I simply love this idea of Azzarello’s, and I started reading this book initially because I was told about this basic set-up. I couldn’t resist reading it.
However, it doesn’t fall into a simple plot device repeated the way it might be in a mediocre comic or in a television show. He makes it original and interesting not just by varying the situations, but by building up a larger set of connections, which is why you can’t just pick up a story arc in the middle of the series. Azzarello’s story is really a conspiracy tale that builds and builds and builds until your head is spinning with the connections. I really don’t know how readers followed this series waiting a month between issues. I had to read it all straight through to keep all the connections fresh in my mind. So, I’d suggest starting it when you have time to read them all. Unless, of course, you’ve got a much better memory than mine.
The first character we meet is a young woman — and previous gang-banger — named Dizzy. She’s in prison in the opening and just about to be released. She meets Graves and is handed the briefcase as soon as she is freed. The first story arc involves her returning to her harsh home life and the life of the streets to uncover the full truth behind the death of her baby and her husband who were shot while out for a stroll on the streets. The truth in these stories rarely sets people free, but it does get the action moving. And there is a lot of action. The second story is about a bartender; the third, about a gambler, his best friend, and a drunken-driving accident. Each of these stories last multiple issues.
In the fourth story arc, the series gets even more interesting as the second layer gains more attention: We are just as surprised as the ice-cream man is when he finds out his larger connection to this growing cast of characters in the conspiracy tale, which is what 100 Bullets is ultimately about. Then we are off to France to meet Mr. Branch, a reporter who tells us what he did when Graves gave him the briefcase. He regrets his actions, because reporters, as we all know, sometimes ask too many questions for their own good. The story builds and the cast of characters increases, from the major players and the pawns they use to the lucky innocents to the clueless unlucky who cross the puppet masters. It’s a hell of a story, and I couldn’t stop until I finished issue 100. I don’t see how anyone could stop reading.
While the story and Azzarello’s writing are top-notch, the art is of equal if not even higher quality, another similarity this series shares with Sandman. Gaiman wrote with a variety of artists, often scripting his stories in unique ways for those specific artists. In this manner, he achieved greatness the way Miles Davis did in playing and recording with equally genius, but different musicians from John Coltrane to Wayne Shorter, from Bill Evans to Herbie Hancock. But Brian Azzarello worked with only one artist throughout the 100 issues (other than some guest artwork here and there). To carry the jazz analogy further, 100 Bullets‘ artist Eduardo Risso was the James Gilmore to Azzarello’s Sun Ra (check out Sun Ra’s album Jazz in Silhoette). Risso and Azzarello are considered one of the best contemporary writer-artist pairings in the world of comics. 100 Bullets is good evidence for that general evaluation of this artistic team.
Perhaps I’m making an awkward and unnecessary analogy in talking about Miles Davis and Sun Ra, but doing so seems perfectly suited to the mood of this neo-noir comic book series. I feel as if a classic jazz CD should come as part of the package when you buy the trade collections — you’ll certainly want to put on some jazz when you read these books. The sound of the books is the sound of jazz; the mood is neo-noir. If you’ve heard people use the word “neo-noir” before and wanted to know what it looks like, flip open a copy of 100 Bullets. The look of this comic creates a better, more consistent mood than any other comic I’ve ever read. Risso’s art is marked by careful detailing of facial features and setting with one exception: those details are often lost in shadow. For example, half of an otherwise detailed page will be fully dark except, perhaps, for the evil grin of a violent man. So light and dark mix both visually and thematically in this book and are captured most beautifully in the combination of light and shadow or in the smoke of cigarettes which almost every character seems to smoke, just like in the noir films of old. As much as a cigarette in real life makes me cringe, a cigarette displayed artistically by Risso in 100 Bullets leaves me in awe.
Another signature style of Risso’s is his incredibly varied points of view — what would be camera angles in film. Risso thinks up some fantastical ones that would be almost impossible in cinema. But nothing is off-limits to the comic book artist. In fact, seeing Risso’s art in 100 Bullets was the first time I realized how creative comic book art could be. I still remember this image, for example: The angle places us at the bottom of an ashtray. Basically we are the ashtray, having cigarettes snubbed out on our field of view as we look up at disheveled man about to lose at a high-stakes game of cards, betting his last bills in hopes of getting enough money to pay for the medical procedures his wife needs to live, because as he tells the doctor in explanation of their not having health insurance, “I always thought it was a loser’s bet.” And all of this man’s pain is caught in this one image as we look up at him from the ashes to which his life has been reduced.
A final characteristic of Risso’s that deserves mention is that most of the visuals are captured in very small panels of widely varying sizes. He manages to create miniature masterpieces with 6, 8, sometimes 12 panels per page. A quick glance suggests that the average is probably about eight panels per page, with the panels often scattered and layered across the page as if they were crime photos thrown quickly on top of a police detective’s desk. At times Risso will use a basic grid or a pattern will emerge showing some sense of balance based on the breakdown of the page, but more often than not, there seems to be no pattern. The randomness of the art seems to be a chaotic portrayal of the chaos of life, with all its broken dreams, flash-in-the-pan love affairs, and explosions of violence.
The art of 100 Bullets is not only what draws one in, it’s also what most often shows off the brilliance of the series. More than any other comic title I’ve ever read, I slow down and stare at the images, often forgetting the words. When reading other comics, it’s almost always the other way around for me: I spend so much time focusing on the words, I hardly see the images as I flip quickly through a comic. But not with 100 Bullets. No other comic book slows me down panel by panel the way this one does.
In fact, though I own all thirteen trade collections (now available as five larger trade collections*), I purchased the entire 100 issues of 100 Bullets on Comixology when they went on sale one day. Of all the comics that I own on Comixology, this is my favorite because, though there are some pages that have a single image on them, most of Risso’s art in this series, as I said before, is done on a much smaller level. In fact, I would recommend buying this series on Comixology and not as a trade (and certainly not digitally as a trade through the Kindle Store on Amazon).
I’ve never recommended Comixology this strongly before, particularly since most artists have more of a balance than does Risso between single- and multi-image pages. For example, J. H. Williams III, one of my all-time favorite artists, uses the full page in such an interesting and complex way that a digital display of the smaller portions of the page often destroys the effect of the art compared to seeing it as a single, full page. I almost never buy books drawn by him on Comixology.
Amazon’s digital offering is a complete disaster on small tablets (like Amazon’s seven-inch Kindle Fire). Even if you use a Kindle Fire, please read your digital comics on it through the Comixology app and NOT through the Kindle book store — you can download for free a sample of 100 Bullets in the Kindle store to see for yourself what I’m describing and why I don’t like it. Then download the first issue on Comixology (and view it on a Kindle Fire, IPad, or other tablet). The difference will be clear.
What the Comixology app offers on smaller tablets, or even on a good size phone, is focus on each small panel of Risso’s. Each little masterpiece — if you are reading with Comixology’s guided view technology — will take up the entire screen in front of you, allowing you to study the art in close detail. I also recommend strongly setting the preferences to show the full page on entrance and on exit so that you get a sense of the page’s layout. Finally, the color is much better digitally than it is in even a new trade collection — and in a few years those images are going to fade even more. That’s no big deal if you don’t plan on rereading a comic. But you’ll return to this comic.
100 Bullets won the major comic book awards in a number of areas, so I’m not alone in thinking it’s one of the recent masterpieces in the medium of comics. With 100 Bullets, Azzarello earned himself a place in the elite ranks of contemporary noir writers in the fields of comics: Ed Brubaker, Brian Michael Bendis, Greg Rucka, and Frank Miller. And to me, an Azzarello/Risso team-up on any future neo-noir comic will always give competition to that other great neo-noir team: Brubaker and Phillips. As is clear from this review, I can’t praise 100 Bullets and its artists enough. If you are a fan of crime fiction and comics, 100 Bullets is the series for you.
*If you buy these books, be careful not to confuse Volumes and Books. From what I can tell, there are thirteen VOLUMES and five BOOKS, but read the fine print carefully so you don’t buy BOOK ONE, which includes at least VOLUMES one and two, and maybe even part of VOLUME three.