Your life is shit. You scramble through each day but tomorrow is the same and it will never get better.
One day you meet a man who names himself Agent Graves. You don’t know him but he knows you. Who you are, where you’re from, what you think. And who did it.
Your life is shit is because somebody did something that put you in this place from which you will never escape. Graves knows who.
He gives you an attaché case, containing three things. Irrefutable proof that what he’s told you is true. A gun. And 100 Bullets.
The gun and its accompanying bullets are clean. More than clean: should you choose to use them, to respond to this revelation, the moment any of them are recovered, no law enforcement agency will touch you. Indeed, any ‘crime’ that you may commit with these things will vanish completely. It never existed.
Justice. Revenge. Redress. Restoration of a balance. Whatever motivates you, you have now been placed above the Law. You can act without consequence.
What will you do?
The facts are thus: 100 Bullets was originally published in 100 issues between 1999 and 2009, by DC Comics’ adult imprint, Vertigo. It has been collected in a series of thirteen Graphic Novels.
DC have now reprinted the series again, this time in Deluxe Editions, available in hardback in a series of five collections, giving the new reader the considerable luxury of reading something like twenty issues in a sitting. Though perhaps that’s not the best approach to this story.
What, though, is the story? “A revenge-of-the-month anthology” was how creator Brian Azarello once described it, jokingly. There was a wider story to it, hinted at in oblique references and unexplained events, a wider story that, if an audience was prepared to absorb it, or let themselves become absorbed, would grow to dominate a series that, if it did not succeed, would still be a series of tales of ordinary people given extraordinary licence to answer the destruction of their lives: a wider story that, when seen in full, would reflect its basic theme in its final stages.
Success it was, in the hands of a creative team that underwent only two changes in its whole 100 issue run: an extraordinary feat. Original editor, Axel Alonso, gave way to Will Dennis after issue 19, colourist Grant Goleash replaced by Trish Mulvihill from issue 15. But letterer Clem Robbins and cover artist Dave Johnson ran the gauntlet from beginning to end, as did the man who was the other half of Azzarello’s brain, artist Eduardo Risso, who drew all but a handful of pages (in issue 27).
And given that Azzarello comes from Chicago and Risso from Buenos Aires, and that neither man speaks the other’s language, the seamlessness of their collaboration is more than a vehicle for some of the best comics ever produced, something akin to a miracle.
There’s another fact to absorb: 100 Bullets is a bloody difficult series to review, for the fear of giving away information as to what you will find as you read: that Azzarello is a master of misdirection, constantly setting up a scene that the reader expects to play out a certain way, only to add a small, but essential piece of information that turns everything upon its head.
This is always an issue for reviewers of stories of suspense: how much of that suspense dare you blow? Perhaps an elaborate metaphor may explain: reading 100 Bullets is like doing a 5,000 piece jigsaw when every month for one hundred months you are given forty pieces. Each set of forty makes up a picture,or part of one. But you don’t have the box lid, and each month you try to fit these pictures together. Sometimes it’s obvious. But sometimes that obviousness is destroyed by a picture that breaks up the connection and sends scenes to opposite corners.
And, sooner or later, you add it up: 100 sets of 40 pieces totals 4,000 pieces. One fifth of the puzzle doesn’t even exist, and you will have to dream into being the pictures on the missing pieces, and where they fit into the puzzle.
All of which might suggest that the only appeal 100 Bullets has is on a first reading. Far from it: there are layers to discover, inferences to dissect, connections to trace. What the hell did he mean by that? Just who was at the other end of the phone? You might come to a different conclusion than I. Each of us is reading a subtly different story.
As a mark of respect, let me describe the first year of issues – a taster that will, I hope, intrigue without spoiling.
It begins in the rain, at night, in a deserted industrial area. On the wall a shadow holds a gun to the head of a kneeling shadow. From off panel to the left someone says “Bang. You’re dead.” 100 Bullets – in red – runs across the middle of the page, supported by a line of credits that separates the first image from the second, an inset against the cobbles underfoot. A Latino woman, with a tear tattooed below her left eye, both eyes closed against the increasing rain, awaits… whatever will follow… from the equally wet hand holding the gun to her head. The first speaker asks a question – again off-panel, this time to the right, where in a moment the page will turn – “What’s it feel like to be a Ghost, Dizzy?”
The young woman gives no answer, but her words take over in a narration box, as if in response: It’s a long story. Two-fold in meaning: the second page turns the story back to its proximate beginning, to unwind until, 54 pages later, Isabel “Dizzy” Cordova steps out of a car into the rain, has the gun taken from the waistband of her jeans by an unknown person who, over a repeat of the panel of Dizzy kneeling in the rain, speaks the opening words.
But Azzarello has only begun this first part of Dizzy’s story at its proximate end. She is one of two characters who appear on the final page of the final issue of the whole 100 issue story. How long a story is she referring too?
In between we learn Dizzy’s story: a former girl gang-banger who fell in love, married, had a child; was thrown into jail for 16 years as the last one standing when an innocent lift from homies who were carrying out a drive-by dragged her down; was widowed and lost her child whilst inside when Hector and Baby Santiago were themselves gunned down in a drive-by, in retaliation; is paroled three years into her term, because of prison overcrowding but who, in her own mind, will always be guilty, always be inside, because she was responsible for getting her family killed in revenge.
And on the Elevated Railway, under the Chicago sun, going home to the barrio she comes from, an old man – sixties, maybe even seventies, lined face, cropped hair, immaculate suit, you’d think twice about him, no matter how old he is – gives her a photo of two white guys at a barbecue.
These are the men who killed her family. But it was a drive-by shooting, she protests. That’s right: he drove and he did the shooting. Then Agent Graves hands her an attaché case.
In swift, deft strokes, strokes of sharp, tangy and very real dialogue, in the lines and compositions of Risso, under whose hands there are no stock faces or body-shapes, the world Dizzy has come from, and the world it has become in the three years she’s been away, are drawn. Morgan and Swirski – two Police detectives – roust Dizzy and find the gun, but when they call it in, to put her straight back in the joint, they are told to let her go, and give her back the gun.
Dizzy’s mother hasn’t an ounce of mothering in her. Her homegirls are in different stages of sass and struggle. The O.Gs (Original Gangstas) still run things, frustrating up-and-coming players like Dizzy’s little brother Emilio. Her friends at least are glad to see her.
Then the O.G.s get dead. Dizzy accuses Morgan and Swirski, gets shipped off to jail, but is still outside: bail, instead of the wagon back to the hole. Another Anglo enters the picture, a trench-coated man called Mr Shepherd, who knows about the gun. He’s an… associate of Graves, there to push her to whatever decision she makes.
Which Morgan and Swirski make for her, picking her up from the church, taking her to the yard. They talk as if she already knows: oh yes, they killed Hector, though the baby was a shame, but Hector had still been dirty, a druglord who made the mistake of treating two bent cops offering him Heroin from the Evidence Room as just players.
But the cops have a player on their side too, who fingered Hector for the shooting. Dizzy knows him, she’s already in his confidence, that’s how she knows what she evidently knows. Their partner is waiting in the yard. He takes Dizzy’s gun, playfully holds it to his sister’s head, says “Bang. You’re Dead.”
But Morgan and Swirski down Emilio with shots to the knee. Dizzy didn’t know after all, she just kept quiet and let them talk. So now the cops gonna be heroes, breaking a major drug ring, run by this brother/sister pair that fell out and shot each other.
Except that, as Dizzy cradles Emilio in her arms, behind his back is her gun, her ‘magic gun’. Which she turns on Morgan and Swirski, first downing them then, as they try to do a deal with her, executing them. But Dizzy won’t use the gun on Emilio: she hasn’t the right. But she can still tear open the heroin sacks, pour the drugs over her baby brother and call it in, leaving him to be found…
Dizzy has nowhere to go. Mr Shepherd arrives in a limousine. For want of anything better, she gets into the car.
The next two issues told the story of Lee Dolan in LA. Once an up and coming restaurateur, with a beautiful wife, great kids and money in the Bank, Lee now serves bar at a downtown shitty little hole, his sex-life consisting of watching an exotic dancer in a booth. Graves offers Dolan an attaché case, and details of the woman who put the hardcore child pornography that the Police found onto his laptop in the first place.
Megan Dietrich is young, sexy, rich, and far too good a talker for Dolan in the end. As she negotiates her life out of his hands, a black-haired guy in a loud Hawaiian shirt commits a flamboyant robbery in an unrelated skyscraper office. And Megan rings an unknown party in Miami to give him some unwelcome news: Graves isn’t dead.
Chucky Spinks is a crap-shooter, running to keep up, to pay debts whilst the big games are closed off to him after seven years inside for vehicular manslaughter when drunk. It’s even worse when his lifelong friend Pony, who used that seven years to become a bookmaker, not a gambler, buys up Chucky’s debts and forgives them. But there’s Graves who wants to tell Chucky a story. About a guy who drove when drunk and killed two kids, and then put his even drunker friend behind the wheel. The friend who can’t get into the big games because this guy, Pony, is spreading the word that he’s a cheat.
The next issue broke the mould. There were cases involved, two of them, but neither of them attachés, and neither contained guns or bullets. Graves delivered one to a Jamaican drugs baron in an industrial complex, took another away and delivered it in a beachfront café in Miami. One contained an experimental nicotine-marijuana hybrid, stolen to order for the Jamaican (though once the transaction was complete, Graves authorised the Police to go in with all guns blazing).
The other case contained $2,000,000.00. In cash. Which Graves handed over to the black-haired man in another loud Hawaiian shirt. The Hawaiian’s name is Lono. He and Graves have worked together before although, like someone else in Miami, he had thought Graves to be dead, after Atlantic City. Does Graves know why the Trust did it? And are he and Graves really the last of the Minutemen?
The ending is… intriguing. Lono isn’t coming back to work for Graves again, and leaves. Entirely out of nothing, Graves tells the waitress what Lono is carrying in that suitcase. She tells her boyfriend. There is a microphone attached to the base of the table that Graves selected. As Lono walks down the road, a car with three young men follows him. Sitting inside, out of the sun, Mr Shepherd listens in at the other end of the wire.
Atlantic City. The Trust. The Minutemen. Who? What? Why? And WTF?
Because this was the heart of what Azzarello would do throughout the whole series. When Lono raised Atlantic City, Graves knew what he was talking about. When Graves mentioned the Trust, Lono knew who he meant. The audience knew the significance of neither, nor were they given any hints to help them along. Neither man started explaining to the other about the Minutemen, and that’s the way it would be. No-one would ever tell anyone what they already knew so as to clue the reader in. The reader was just going to have to work it out for themselves as they went along.
That first year still isn’t over. We were next introduced to Cole Burns, in New York, driving an ice cream truck that also sold cigarettes. Working for racketeer Goldy Petrovic, Cole was hemmed in. He had Sasha: she loved him, he loved her, but there wasn’t the money to marry, and Cole was prickly enough in his pride. And quick to look for an angle too: an old man left him an attaché, claimed Goldy was behind a nursing home fire last year in which 40 old folk were burned to death. Cole’s grandmother was one of them.
Cole thought Petrovic would pay to know someone wanted him dead, but the Cossack wasn’t concerned. There were men in that room who wanted him dead, yet there he stood. Fuck them. But Goldy did burn the nursing home down: the Government wouldn’t let him turn it into Condos, he wasn’t getting any money off his own building. His men draw guns on Cole. A hippy whose left hand has been power-sanded for not paying his debts uses a word, a word of some significance to those who know something of American history and its mysteries: Croatoa. Cole, who is about to die, is frozen at the word.
Yet, at the start of the second episode, he isn’t dead. Wounded, lightly, in one shoulder, yes, but not dead. Everyone else is, though. And things are coming back to him, things he doesn’t know. That he knows the sandy-haired trench-coated man in the bar, who orders Cuervo Gold and limes for him. That the man with the attaché case is named Graves.
And an explosion as a rival driver overturns Cole’s truck sends a big chunk of memory into the air. A deserted pier by a restless sea. Six men in black suits and ties, one of them Cole. The hooded man, dragged out of the boot of a limo. Make him kneel down, pour gasoline over him. One man lights a match for the cigarette in the mouth of Cole, who doesn’t smoke. Then drops it.
Cole Burns knows who he is again, and is happy to come back to work for Graves: Cole Burns is a Minuteman.
Last among these stories, though it only completes eleven, not twelve issues, is the story of Lilly Dale, a fortyish, still attractive waitress in a diner in a small town. Lilly’s married to Phil, a garage owner/mechanic about a decade older than her, whose day ends as she starts her shift. She’s left him dinner to heat up, though he’d rather not bother.
Before she goes to work, Lilly walks into another room, a bedroom, a child’s bedroom, only far too neat and pristine to be the bedroom of any child living there. She spends some time just sitting there before going to work.
At the diner, there’s Lilly and Monica, another attractive woman her generation, and Tomas, a short order cook aged 17. Tomas is going on to College, going to leave his girlfriend behind. He’s a player, flirting with Lilly and Monica, not that either take him seriously. Tomas is about to receive a phone-call and a shock: Jenny, the girl he’s on the point of leaving, is pregnant: Tomas faces a choice.
So too does Lilly. She serves coffee to a new customer, a man in an immaculate black suit, close-cropped grey hair, a lined face. He knows her name. And he knows her daughter. The daughter who, four years ago, ran away from home to New York. Lilly sits and cries as Graves relates a story unsparing in its dispassionate degradation: a pimp, prostitution, drugs, HIV, mutilation, and death in a cinema a week ago, her shoes stolen from her body. Today would have been her sixteenth birthday.
Graves produces an attaché case. Lilly can’t understand why until she sees the photo within. Graves asks for more coffee, disappears whilst she goes to the counter for a refill. Tomas admits his dilemma, but Lilly holds no sympathy for the pregnant Jenny.
She goes home. Phil is sitting up watching TV, hasn’t heated up his food, hasn’t eaten. He’s in a quiet, comfortable mood. His wife is home from her shift, he doesn’t like going to bed alone. She takes the gun from the attaché case and empties it into his chest, screaming at him that his daughter was only twelve, only twelve.
Outside, Graves listens to the sound of the gunshots. Lilly reloads, empties another clip into Phil’s long-dead body. Graves lowers his head and walks away.
The next issue, the end of that year, returned to Dizzy Cordova, took the story outside America, to Paris, an American in Paris, a self-exile from such things as The Trust, Minutemen, and his own gun that could not be traced. And the first signs of light began to shine into hidden corners of which we were not then aware, save that we suspected there was more to things than tales of revenge, of the choices people make when they are freed from consequence.
That’s all you’re getting from me. Read some of 100 Bullets for yourself. The softback collections are still available, with their coded titles that (with one exception) refer to their own number in the series. That’s why they start with First Shot, Last Call and go on to Split-Second Chance, and why the third collection would have been called The Charm if it weren’t for the story arc ‘Hang up on the Hang Low’ winning an Eisner Award and DC/Vertigo deciding to plug it as a book on its own and a direct title.
Read the first, absorb Dizzy and Lee Dolan’s stories, not to mention a short, anthology tale that was the very first intimation of this weird, wonderful, fucked-up tale of power and honour and death and morality. Learn from the books what is meant by the Trust and the Minutemen, discover what happened in Atlantic City, understand the significance of the Vermeer painting.
Complete the jigsaw for yourself, with its 4,000 pieces, and find out just what is contained on your missing pieces.
Be careful, though. No-one’s going to hold your hand. No-one’s going to tell you easy facts. You’ll need eyes and ears and a brain for this. And if someone approaches you, an old man in a sharp suit who carries an attaché case, think very, very hard about what you want to do with your choice. No-one can touch you if you act on what you will learn.