Star-Bulletin Features

Sunday, January 13, 2002

graphic arts as literature


‘100 Bullets’ is great
writing, dazzling art

By Gary C.W. Chun

You're the victim of a horrible crime. Loved ones have been murdered. Your heart is so black with thoughts of revenge that you're willing to take matters into your own hands. And there's this mysterious gentleman more than willing to help you. He gives you an attaché case. In it is a photo of the culprit and sheaves of irrefutable evidence that justify your bloodlust.

There's also a gun. And 100 rounds of ammunition. The man, Agent Graves, tells you that the bullets are untraceable. You now have the ability to kill.

That's the basic setup for the adult crime and conspiracy comic "100 Bullets" (DC/Vertigo), co-created by American writer Brian Azzarello and Argentine artist Eduardo Risso. For three years it's built a steadily growing fan base and near-unanimous critical acclaim for its hard-boiled writing and dazzling artistry.

It's a project that Azzarello and Risso are committed to for the long run, a rarity in today's competitive comic book industry. Remarkably, the two have never met face to face. They communicate strictly through the scripts Azzarello sends to Risso's home in South America.

Three trade paperbacks that collect the main story arcs are available: "First Shot, Last Call," "Split Second Chance" and "Hang Up on the Hang Low." That last collection won the industry's prestigious Eisner Award for Best Serialized Story last year.

The great thing I find about "100 Bullets" is, it works foremost as a crime comic, with an underlying conspiracy story line in the form of Agent Graves and the shadowy Minutemen group he represents. (What motivates this man to offer this kind of service, beyond getting his kicks out of manipulating the lives of victim and offender? And what's the history behind the Minutemen?)

In "Hang Up on the Hang Low," a young thug has "some mad hate" for his father, who left him and his mother to fend on their own. Agent Graves offers him the "opportunity" to give his pops the big payback. But when the kid, armed and ready, finally confronts his father, they both realize that their common background in street crime could help forge a bond between the two, bridging the generation gap. The father, an enforcer for an old-school Italian don, always gives the people he shakes down for "insurance" money a second chance to make good. For his son, it'd be easier to cap someone without further discussion.

Azzarello has a great ear for dialogue -- both for the slang-laden rhythm of contemporary black street-speak and the harsh directives of the criminal underworld -- and a masterful grasp of storytelling that reveals more of the conspiracy with each successive issue. Combined with Risso's expressive line drawing and his bold panel layout, "100 Bullets" makes for an engrossing if sometimes brutal read.

"My initial contract (for '100 Bullets') was for 12 issues," Azzarello said in the summer 2001 issue of Comicology. "I didn't get into an extensive story until ... 'Hang Up on the Hang Low.' I wanted to structure this thing so that it had a lot of jumping-on points for people: 'Let's get in, grab people by the throats as many times as we can and hopefully build an audience that way.'

"DC's pretty committed right now. If I want to do the (planned run of a) hundred issues, we're doing it. Who knows if it'll really go that long? The trade sales are very good. They usually print trades (to sell out over) three years, and our first (paperback) sold out in nine months."

If, after reading one or all of the paperback collections, you're inspired enough to buy "100 Bullets" on a regular basis in its issue form, start with No. 26. It was done with newer readers in mind, giving a good overview of the story's plot and main characters, with the added attraction of single-page splash panels illustrated by excellent guest artists like Paul Pope, Joe Jusko, Mark Chiarello, Jim Lee, Tim Bradstreet, Frank Miller and J.G. Jones.

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