In these latter days, given my ever-growing distance from what purports to be modern entertainment, and exacerbated by my current issues with depression, it’s very hard to find new things to be interested in.
This applies especially to my lifelong love of comics, which for some time has left me with only one monthly title, Kurt Busiek’s Astro City, supplemented with the occasional Graphic Novel, and those mostly when they supplant a bunch of the original comics.
But there are certain magic words, the effective of which is to add up to a mathematical formula: Brian Azzarello + Eduardo Risso = Buy.
In the middle of the week, I learned of the forthcoming publication of Moonshine 2, from the much-derided but increasingly influential Image Comics. It’s written by Azarello, and both drawn and coloured by Risso: the 100 Bullets crew back together, and even though I didn’t have a clue what Moonshine is about, and whether it’s an ongoing series or a limited one, and if so, how many issues it’s planned to run, these were matters that didn’t matter. Did we wait to find out who starred in the new Pratchett, what was its theme, how many pages before we bought it? No, we did not. And when Azz and Eduardo get together I ask no such questions, I just buy it and put the series on my pull-list at Forbidden Planet in Manchester.
That was this afternoon, the furthest I’ve been outside in the last couple of weeks: Planet and Pizza Hut and home again.
So what is Moonshine, and is it any good? The two answers are: I’ve no idea yet and of course it fucking is.
Moonshine is set in 1929, and Risso’s art is perfect for the era. The story’s hero appears to be one Lou Pirlo, a tough customer looking to make a name and a position for himself under Joe ‘The Boss’ Masserio, a bootlegger. Masserio has found a supply of illegal hooch being made up in the mountains of West Virginia by a hillbilly named Hiram Holt. It’s good hooch, in fact it’s the best, and Masserio wants it for his organisation.
So Lou is sent out to Spine Ridge to do a deal with Holt. The figures ain’t entirely to Holt’s advantage, but this is Joe Masserio we’re talking about, and this is the bootlegging business. Unfortunately, Holt isn’t interested in playing – Pirlo is shown a still, and three mutilated bodies, three G-Men, hunting down the illicit still in the opening sequence, finding it, and also finding hillbillies with axes: oh yes, this is Azz and Eduardo – and is sent back with a message: Holt doesn’t take to having others mess with his business.
Halfway down the mountain road, Lou’s car pops a tyre. He hears music, follows iit to a negro camp, watches the singing, a girl dancing. When he enters the firelight, they stop to watch him. When one of them asks what he wants, he replies, “A drink.” Looking at the girl, he adds, “For starters.”
And that’s issue 1. Not much going on, mostly passive, mostly a beginning of a set-up. No massive surprises. Yet.
But this is Azzarello and Risso, and they don’t ever lay all their cards on the table, not at once, and sometimes you don’t get to see the hand even after they’ve won it. I just know that the magic words were magic again and I’m in, and I’ll be at the table for as many months as Moonshine lasts.
And if they want to keep this one going as long as 100 Bullets, I’m in. Pass the hooch.
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.
For reasons unknown, issue 7 – “El Inferno Llega del Casa” (The Inferno Comes Home) – was held over through December and only now appears, taking us to the edge. Yet, even with the threads wrapping so tightly, Azzarello and Risso have room yet for more than undiluted story, as Lono patiently undergoes torture, a still centre, not answering questions that are deliberately not asked. For every physical torture there is a mental one, a constant reminder that everything that goes on in that hot little room will be reflected outwards upon others, who will suffer simply because the Dog has come there.
Around, outside, the ants scurry. Maddon pulls out of the deal, because of the mention of the DEA. Cortez calmly listens to Father Manny’s abject pleading, knowing that it puts the good Father entirely in his control, incapable of any future resistance. Sister June goes in pursuit, carrying her gun, driven by the one-armed Paolo: despite his cynical. pragmatic warning, she intends to contact the Sheriff, enlist his aid.
But things are already too late. The Sheriff is dead, strung up from an underpass where his car is parked, and Sister June faces an ambush, from which she is saved by Paolo, driving the truck to kill the three gunman. But Paolo dies.
And Manny looks into a private cupboard and sees something, an abomination, that changes everything. We don’t see for ourselves, but it is enough for Cortez to string him up, in the desert, above the wolves. For what Manny has seen is Cortez’s twin: an explanation in part for that strange, twisted, pickled baby we saw earlier in the series.
And, as I intuited in response to issue 2, together, Cortez and his ‘twin’ are Los Torres Gemales, who control the drug-trade.
Finally, Lono moves. His torturer has ripped off a fingenail, has rubbed a cut chili into his eye, and jabbed directly into his chest a Police badge which tells Lono what has been going on without, but when he produces a burner, set to assault Lono with fire, then the Dog reacts. And Hell comes home.
“La Cancion de los Torturados“. The Song of the Tortured.
It’s been slow in coming, as Azzarello assembled his pieces, shuffling them quietly, moving the cards between hands, allowing only certain ones to be seen. As with the best of 100 Bullets‘ stories, we have come upon this place by strange journeys, though none more strange than that of the man who did the one thing he hated most in his life, and has been doing constanty, ever since.
When Lono left Miami, the night the Trust fell, the Minutemen fell, the death of America began, he was running away from someone. Now, the man he couldn’t escape has caught up with him at last. The burn has been slow, oh so slow, but the fire is caught and the blaze will envelop everyone. Because Lono is back.
Where we left things last month, Lono had stepped forward to stop Craneo from taking the orphanage’s girl-children. But Pico, who used to be Paulo, was creeping up behind him with Sister June’s gun in his hand. Craneo smirks this month, but only for as long as it takes for Pico to fire two shots: neither into the back of Lono’s head, but into the windshield of Craneo’s 4×4. It is as good as a suicide note: Craneo makes it plain.
Secrets start to tumble out as he drives away: the true owner of the gun, the fact that the DEA are down on this place, that Pico/Paulo has condemned himself, that ‘Sister’ June is not a Sister, and neither is she June. But Craneo is back, almost immediately, not only with men, but with the electricity severed, the mobile phone tower overturned. The first thing that is needed is for Pico to offer himself to be killed: Father Manny as good as sends him to his death, for the children, but when Pico shoulders his fate with an impeccable dignity, it is Manny who tries to stop Craneo from acting, blurting out that the DEA are here, that it’s over for Craneo and his organisation.
With June shooting from hiding, creating a temporary impasse, the situation is suddenly rendered chaotic when Lono attacks Craneo’s men, steals a truck, draws them away, to chase the DEA man. And though he is still washed clean of what he’s tried to escape, still dressed in white and not Hawaiian, it is Lono. The Dog is backed.
And he is captured and sent for torture. A torture that will not save anyone here, for their deaths and dismemberments will be used as part of that long, slow, killing process. They will all die: Pico/Paulo, ‘Sister June’, Father Manny, and it is that which terrifies him into racing away on a scooter, hoping to intercede, to prevent this in some manner. Because he knows Lono, truly knows him. He took Lono’s Confession. He knows that the Dog will sit and wait, bear any amount of pain, to learn what he can of you. To know how to strike back.
Azzarello began at the end, as he so often has. We know it ends with graves. We knew, whether we admitted it to ourselves or not, whose graves they will be.
And now we see the threads beginning to be drawn together, and in a dream, a daydream, we see where I and no doubt many others have expected this story to go since that intial scene, four long months ago.
And as the story turns to ride downhill, towards its ultimate destination, it grows simpler, its scenes flowing from one to another, each scene bringing the four main protagonists towards its centre: Cortez and Craneo, Sister Rose and Brother Lono.
There’s no immediate follow-up on either of last months revelations: indeed the episode begins with a dream, Lono’s dream of a conversation with Christ, who seeks his aid. Yet it is not the aid Lono provides, which is to pull out the nails and help him down from the cross: Lono’s role is to kill Christ. In what sense that would be is lost: Paolo picks up the fallen bottle that has inspired Lono’s dreaming, but the Dog still barks loudly enough to jump him by instinct.
Enter Sister Rose, whom Paolo rejects with anger, knowing she is not what she pretends to be. His reaction to her is so extreme that Lono is at first mystified. But then Sister Rose says something to open his eyes, and the fact that his eyes were not open of their own accord is something that troubles Lono, and brings him back to the Orphanage at night, rather than commit himself to Cesar’s cells. It looks as if that will be a fateful decision.
We see Carneo with his daughter and her baby-mother, we see Cortez talking to the strange, pickled baby in its tank, making explicit what we have understood for so long, that Las Torres support the Orphanage, that it is in some unquantifiable way, sacrosanct, but that it will thrive and grow that much better if they, not the Church, directly control it. Meanwhile, his guest Maddon demands via his pohone that ‘things’ are done his way.
Despite his hostility to all those there, Paolo has remained at the Orphanage. He daydreams of destroying it, of killing Father Manny and Sister Rose, and Brother Lono, a vision that Lono reads too easily in his eyes, having seen it in a mirror (though Lono’s version reserves an alternative fate for the good Nun). He’s watching her now: into town to shop, and back. He laments to Father Manny that he can no longer tell when a lie is being spoken: that, the Father says, is because he has learned to trust. Whilst they talk, Paolo searches Sister Rose’s room and finds what should not be there: a gun.
And it is well that Brother Lono is on hand for Craneo arrives out of the night, offering money to the orphans to do jobs for Cortez. The money tempts, and though Father Manny says no, some boys say yes. But it is not they who are wanted on this occasion: Craneo is hear for girls, for some of the older girls. Sister Rose too says no, emphatically. Craneo goes over her head to the girls, challenging them to decide for themselves.
Which is when Lono steps forward. He tells Craneo to leave: he will leave alone. Craneo disputes this, he revs her car up, brings it in front of Lono. He will not leave alone. Behind the white-clad Lono, his right arm in its sling, a shadowed Paolo raises his left hand. He is holding Sister Rose’s gun.
El Monstre del Norte! (“The Monster of/from(?) the North”) takes us to the midway point, and this is very much a midway issue, still stirring the pot but making sure that the gumbo remains thick and formless. The story inches forward, slowly, and there’s an intriguing last page reveal that adds another, unexpected element to what is developing, but we are still a long way from resolutionns, or even a tipping of the hand.
I have so missed Azzarello.
There’s no direct follow-up to last issue’s closing scenario. In typical fashion, Azzarello switches scene to introduce a rider, an American on a motor bike (from the north…) stopping at an isolated gas station to refuel, and buy a ‘dog’ – actually an iguana. He’s on his way to Durango to meet Cortez, to discuss product, and moving even more of it. It sets a ball rolling, in a direction that’s mightily unwelcome, towards the Church, and Father Manny.
Last issue’s confrontation between Father Manny and Pico, in which Lono intervened to compoundedly break the latter’s arm, spins off in two separate directions. First there is Lono, setting and repairing Pico’s arm, talking with, and to some extent at the angry thug, whose bitterness is directed at the Church and Father Manny for “letting” the child Paolo leave the orphanage, to ‘die’ and become Pico. Lono reacts to the picture in two ways, latterly by talking about himself and his ‘conversion’ from a smoter, whose motto was a Head for an Eye, but before that there is a stunning interpolation, a page out of the blue, in which the old Lono, the Dog, reacts with anger, and the biting off – and swallowing – of Pico’s finger.
Yet Lono still adheres to what he has become but we know, as certainly as we knew, before we opened the pages of issue 1, that the day is coming when he reverts to being the Dog: we saw the shirt in issue 1, the Hawaiian shirt.
Meanwhile, Sister June, the newcomer, the ‘innocent’, cannot understand why Father Manny hasn’t gone to the Sheriff over Pico’s attack, the Sheriff who we find watching Cernao, and Madden (El Monstre del Norte) at night, Father Manny refuses to go to the law: he feels responsible for Pico/Paolo, responsible for all the children he has failed by letting them go, children who are dead: but Pico is alive.
Last issue Father Manny complained, in genuine anger, to Cortez about the bodies buried on church ground. Now Cortez has a proposition: that Las Torres take over more of the Church’s land, establish a presence, a known presence that will ensure no reptition. And the devil seduces with bright promises, of money for schools and books, real schools, for all the Durango children, not merely those who fall, by ‘chance’ into the Orphanage’s net.
It’s a tempting offer, a progressive offer, an offer that can do good, but it’s the devil’s offer, the offer that requires a long spoon with which to sup. It’s an offer that will keep more children. But it is an offer that draws the Church ever more under the dominion of Las Torres. And it is an offer that cannot be refused, for the devil will not allow it.
And at the moment, Sister June, overhearing from the shadows, dials a number, talks on the phone. No, her cover is holding (except with Pico who, in turn, overhears). Yes, it does appear that the Church is part of the drug trade.
So we enter the downhill side, the slide to a conclusion that we already know brings death in its wake. I believe that the graves Lono dug in his Hawaiian shirt at the very beginning are the graves of Father Manny, of Sister June, of orphans, The Dog awaits, growling in its sleep. How many will it bite? And will it, in its turn, be bitten, savagely?
¡El Amor de los Muertos!(‘The Love of the Dead’, which I was able to work out for myself, this time) rolls the story further forward towards that ending I am foreseeing from those pages at the bgeinning of issue 1.
This is not an issue that tells us much. It begins with another murder, vicious and brutal, in the name of Las Torres Gemelas, but a murder that sets of a chain of, not consequences, for we are far too early in this tale for these, but effects: effects that, like dominos, are felt in a series of stages, leading everything back to where it began. And to the mini-series’ first ‘cliff-hanger’ of an ending.
A man who has cheated Las Torres Gemelas is killed by Cráneo, who leaves the body to be disposed of by his lieutenant, Pico. The body is found buried on Orphanage soil, by the children, gardening under the supervision of a more conventionally-dressed Sister Rose. Father Manny complains to Cortez, who takes it out on Cráneo, aggressively, who takes it out on Pico, aggressively, who, drunk and pissed off, comes onto the Orphanage land after dark, swinging a machete. On long stalks, to begin with, but he is prepared to complete the cycle by using it on Father Manny.
Until Brother Lono intervenes, breaking Pico’s arm, so badly that the bone protrudes through the flesh. He hands the machete to Father Manny whilst he checks for others, but all he finds is Sister Rose, who has heard the scream, and ventured out only to see an unwelcome tableau…
But a 100 Bullets story is never about one thing at a time. The Policeman, Cesar, runs Lono back to the Orphanage, questioning him about his past, a past that Lono ‘do(es)n’t remember’ in a way that Cesar recognises as professional. His theory is that Lono sometimes sleeps in his jail because the big Hawaiian doesn’t trust himself. Lono corrects him: it is beause he knows himself. Cesar expresses another theory, that Lono may have turned to religion, but he does not trust God either. This Lono does not comment upon.
Later though, that night, the night that Pico will interrupt with his machete, drawing forth the first manifestation of the Hawaiian we knew, Lono lights a cigar in the dark, thinking about that past, thinking about bodies, and blood, on his hands. A hallucination of the rotting, decaying dead, climbs out of the ground to cling to him. Some we remember: Milo Garrett, with the shreds of the re-affixed bandages, and Joe Dirtz from the Penitentiary, and Wiley Times and Cole Burns, an unexpected pair for it was not at Lono’s hands that the Point Man and the Wolf met their ends. But they haunt him.
We are still in the middle of the story, still putting together the pieces that go round the edge of the jigsaw. We do not have the box with the picture on the lid. In the world of 100 Bullets, we never get to see the lid. We draw that picture for ourselves. I am doodling a shape myself.
One thing I forgot to mention last month is that, just as this story is set in Mexico, so is it all in Spanish, or rather translated Spanish. The translations to not apply to the chapter titles or credits. So this episode is entitled ¡Tu Pasado Te Matara! which my favoured internet translator tells me means “Your Past will Kill You!”.
For the moment, the story is simply moving forward. Azzarello picks up from within a short time of issue 1’s ending, as Brother Lono escorts Sister Rose to the Church/Orphanages, filling her in on what to expect in Durango. It’s clear that he’s aware of her attractiveness: hell, with shorts that short, and Risso’s ability to draw endless varieties of attractive women, it would be entirely impossible to believe in a Lono who wasn’t aware. But just as this is a Lono who neither swears nor drinks, this is a Lono who no longer fucks. Though the vow of chastity is, he admits, the hardest.
At the orphanage, Sister Rose – or June, when she’s being as informal as Father Manny – is unpacking and settling in. Father and Sister assess each other, and their vocation, but it is Lono’s vocation that the lady is interested in. Because she’s attracted in turn? We’ll wait on that one. But she is intrigued by a Brother who has clearly come from a vastly different past.
So are we, as avid devourers of that past, and Father Manny unrolls the first stage of that story for her and us. Almost three years ago, whilst administering confession to the children, Lono came to the church. He confessed, was absolved, laughed and said something (unrevealed) that had Father Manny prepared to beat him.
But this was Lono as we last saw him, as the walls of the Trust fell inwards and the roof collapsed on (almost) everyone, wounded through the face, wounded by Dizzy Cordova, shot, scarred, mauled and bitten and near to death: Father Manny kept him alive.
There will, I trust, be more, including some sort of explanation of how Lono got from Miami to Mexico when the two are not contiguous,but this is Azz as we know him of old, parceling out information in mean amounts, rigidly avoiding anything that is an “As You Know…”, allowing, no, forcing us to use our own imaginations, to hunt for the clues that will open up the path of what is to come.
As for those many other elements that were flung into our faces first time out, again there is a less jumbled approach, fewer strands to follow, a more linear development. Senor Butler has the meeting with Cortez for which he has traveled. He is the West Coast Connection for Los Torres Gemelas (that The Twin Towers are absent on other business immediately draws from me the thought that they do not exist, that Cortez is the head and they are an invisible shield, all the more deadly for not being real). Butler is here to propose an extension of their franchise into the Midwest.
Los Torres Gemelas approves of the idea, but there is to be an increase in the cost price of almost 25% – Cortez is pedantically precise when he specifies it as 22.3%. There is to be no negotiation, not that this halts Butler from suggesting that Los Torres are not the only organisation in town. This is not a wise thing to say, especially not on Los Torres’ turf: by the issue’s end, he hangs, gagged, from a scaffold outside the compound: wild dogs rip and tear the meat from his naked, living legs.
Los Torres Gemelas are the only ones with whom Butler’s organisation can deal. Unfortunately for him,his organisation is not the only ones with whom Los Torres can deal.
But Lono? Lono has gone into town because red paint is needed. The shops which sell red paint are closed, but he has gone into town. He sits in a bar, debating his own nature, and his denial of it, within himself. He’s also looking at half-naked girls, and the macho boyfriends calls him on it, wants to start a fight. But Lono won’t fight. He apologises, he tries to make things smooth. Even when the idiot pulls a gun, he doesn’t respond,won’t fight. Admittedly, he does that very disturbing trick of crushing the glass in his hand, splintering shards into his hand, and the guy backs down, humouring the loco gringo.
But he won’t fight. He won’t take what he wants because he can, the way he’s always done. Lono is still holding out against himself.
Rather than trek back to the Orphanage, he sleeps in the jail cell: it’s a habit, allowed by the Police, who are investigating another drug-murder, the one we saw last month,the guy forced out of the jail.
Two down, a quarter of the story. Knowing Azz, knowing 100 Bullets, I see a shape forming. The graves of issue 1, page 1, dug by a sweltering man in a loud, Hawaiian shirt, are those of Father Manny, Sister Rose, and the Orphans, and the Lono who digs them seeks revenge on Los Torres Gemelas, who are responsible.
I see a shape forming. But then I only ever once beat Azz to the punch he had hidden in all of 100 Bullets, so I’m not betting on things, not yet.
I didn’t expect I’d ever be doing this again. When 100 Bullets reached its 100th and final issue, in ruination, death and destruction, Azzarello swore it was the end. All that was to be said had been said: it was complete. Yet four years on, I hold in my hands again a 100 Bullets comic. And the gang’s all here again, the whole damned crew who stuck it out together: Azz and Risso, and Trish and Clem and the Reverend Dave, and Will Dennis riding shotgun like before. Like nothing’s changed, though everything’s changed. Everybody’s favourite big-dick Hawaiian took a bullet to the chest and crashed out a window, but that last panel that showed bloody fooprints and no body was no tease. Lono is back, and the hell of it is that there are only seven more of these left to me.
Brother Lono 1 is an extended first issue of an eight-part mini-series set an unspecified time after the end of 100 Bullets and focussing on the amoral, violent, OTT Lono: The Dog, Medici’s Warlord, survivor. Where is he, what’s he doing, is he still the world’s greatest Fuck? (we are not talking sex here). What’s going on?
This is an archetypal Azzarello first issue. It begins from the end, with a man digging graves, dozens of graves whilst an unknown narrator tells us that this is a tale of a man who believed he had nothing to lose. By the second page, we can see that that man is Lono. Like Dizzy’s first arc, Milo Garret’s, Wylie Times’s, we see the outcome before the why and the what.
And what we see, as the pages begin to turn, are scenes and snapshots: people we don’t know doing things that make sense to them but not yet to us, though we quickly begin to guess. Firstly, we are in Mexico: though the words are in English, they are translated. A man named Ernesto, undergoing bloody torture, pleading that he has told everything he knows. Yet a threat to his baby, the sight of his wife forced into prostitution, and his tongue is loosened yet further.
A man who watches and listens to this torture attends Mass, talks to a Father Manny, hands over blood money from an organisation calling itself Las Torres Gemelas, or “The Twin Towers”. The Father would refuse the money if he could, but he dare not. Instead, he finds Ernesto’s baby on his doorstep.
Then we meet Lono, as we would expect to meet him: in jail, snoring, locked up. There’s something wrong though, that we don’t immediately register, something different… the white shirt. In the ending we have already been shown, Lono has on his traditional loud Hawaiian shirt, but here he’s dressed in white, all white. And there are no obscenities in his speech.
Lono’s getting out, his boss has a job for him, meet the bus, collect a nun, bring her to the church. The other guy in the little jail is getting out too. That’s not supposed to happen: he had a deal, he’d be deported back to the States. But his bail has been paid, and they’re waiting for him outside. ‘They’ are interested in the bus too, the bus from which two women has just disembarked: one grey-haired, fiftyish, a tough old broad who knows the score, the other in her twenties, tall, slim, red-haired, sweet, in the shortest of frayed shorts.
The guy who was in jail has to identify which person on the bus is the DEA: to stop them cutting any more fingers off, he identifies a man, but it’s bullshit: this is Senor Butler, and he’s with ‘them’. Lono misidentifies someone too, assuming Beatrice, the tough old broad, is Sister June: she’s not, it’s the sweet young girl. She’s a nun. She assumes Lono is a priest, calls him Father, but he hastily corrects her. He’s not the Father. But he is Brother Lono… The title of this story isn’t just for show.
Oh, happy day. There’s a lot to learn. Things are not as they once were and there are reasons for this. But things are moving, and things will not be as they are for very long.