About 100 Bullets

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“Crafted by writer Brian Azzarello and artist Eduardo Risso, 100 BULLETS is arguably the finest collaborative comic book this medium has produced in decades, weaving such themes as fatherhood, baseball and organized crime into a series of poignant tales as dark in their humor as they are gut-wrenching in their pathos. They are the stories of haunted, marginalized people who slip through life on sheer inertia, until their destinies are irrevocably changed by a man known only as Agent Graves. A cross between the archangel Gabriel and an old-fashioned G-man, the ghostlike Graves comes into their lives with a powerful handgun and 100 untraceable bullets. His offer? Opportunity. The opportunity to exact vengeance – or the opportunity to make amends. It is the dichotomy between these two choices which makes 100 BULLETS so engaging. While the untraceable bullets offer immunity from the law, the characters find that they cannot shield themselves from the moral consequences of their actions.”

- Jim Lee, 2001
from his introduction to 100 Bullets Volume 3: Hang Up On The Hang Low

In 1993, DC Comics made a decision to create an imprint which would feature all of their ‘Mature Reader’ titles under one banner, and launched Vertigo, the comic book home for non-super powered, dysfunctional characters. As with all experiments, some titles worked well, but others didn’t. Success stories included The Sandman, Shade the Changing Man, Hellblazer, The Invisibles, Lucifer, Preacher, Animal Man, Doom Patrol, and a wide range of mini-series and excellent one-off stories. Many series were finite, planned to run for a set amount of issues. A percentage bit the dust early, because they were too odd, too experimental, or so limited in their potential market they simply didn’t sell, bringing an early end to titles such as The Minx. Others fell apart when the creative team changed, look at Swamp Thing after Rick Vietch, although it picked up for a while later on, it was essentually doomed in every atempt to revive it. Animal Man and Doom Patrol went from bad to worse with successive writers after Grant Morrison moved on. The fickle nature of the market killed many inventive titles before they reached their full potential, the cancellation of the excellent Human Target being a prime example. Other were killed by DC Editorial, getting twitchy that titles were going too far, and stepping in with a heavy hand instead of nurturing the creative freedom the imprint was supposed to celebrate.

Titles came and went. Along the way, writer Brian Azzarello took on Hellblazer and gave new life to John Constantine, where once the title had struggled. He also wrote Jonny Double, a four-issues series on which he collaborated with Argentine artist Eduardo Risso. Azzarello and Risso also produced a ‘Batman – Black and White’ short story together, which was very well received.

In 1999, the duo’s next collaboration, 100 Bullets, was unleashed on the comic-reading public. It was very dark, disturbingly graphic and  extremely compelling. A modern noir, to apply an overused adage. The critics loved it, but such was the general state of the comic book market, it didn’t sell as well as it deserved. The profile of 100 Bullets was raised in 2003 when Azzarello and Risso took on the main Batman book. Unfortunately the knock-on effect of this commitment meant 100 Bullets appearing only four times in twelve months. In June 2004, the landmark issue 50 hit the shelves, a few secrets were revealed and a monthly schedule was resumed. 100 Bullets was back on course, and accelerating towards its climax. The title wrapped in April 2009, its 100 issue schedule complete. It ended in a way many were not expecting. The multi-faceted, multi-layered narrative left many questions unanswered, and loose threads hanging which are sure to be debated for years to come.

Much good has been said of 100 Bullets, crime fiction, espionage thriller, conspiracy theory and of course, modern noir. It  was always dark, and often mysterious. Dark because that’s how it was drawn, mysterious because, although there was a big picture, we didn’t see it all straight away, though there were ever increasing glimpses. All stories need a premise, and the basis of 100 Bullets was excellent. The wider picture became evident as the series developed. Besuited but gnarly old bastard Agent Graves approached ordinary citizens whose lives had hit rock bottom, offering them an opportunity to exact revenge on the person, or persons, that  ruined them. He gave his clients an attaché case containing irrefutable proof of the deed that was their downfall, a gun, and 100 rounds of ammunition. These bullets could never be traced; he guaranteed his clients carte blanche for all  their actions, including murder. Any investigation would be dropped once the bullets were recovered. This in itself posed a few questions. Who was Agent Graves?  Of what was he an agent? A government? The Secret Service? The FBI? We didn’t know at first, but eventually found that he was never a part of any recognised government agency. Why did he pick these seemingly random people, give them a gun and the chance to even the score? Some cases seemed to be presented to clients with a higher purpose in mind, whilst others appeared almost meaningless in their distribution. Each receipient was merely informed of the opportunity afforded them, but no judgement was made as to how each one’s actions conformed to Graves’ moral and ethical code.

As time passed, we learned about Graves, his counterpart Mr. Shepherd, the mysterious Minutemen and the all powerful Trust. We saw the beginnings of a significant incident in Atlantic City, but didn’t know who it involved, why it happened, or its significance for a number of years. Seemingly worthless characters hung around the periphery of the story, awaiting their moment with the attaché case. Former allies of Graves and Shepard were introduced, and occasionally got themselves killed before their moment came. The relationship between Graves and Shepherd was never transparent, and had a fatal twist in its tail. The Trust, a syndicate of thirteen powerful European families, created the Minutemen to police their actions, and then decided to dispose of them when they felt that they were no longer useful. Graves, as head of the Minutemen, wanted retribution for this, a violation of his code and of the symbiosis between the Minutemen and the Trust which streched back hundreds of years. Shepherd, a former Minuteman, was outwardly an agent of the Trust and therefore easy to regard as an enemy, but was also the reason Graves and his men had survived their planned and supposedly completed assassination. The Minutemen lead hidden lives of exquisitely dull normality, left as sleeper agents awaiting a post-hypnotic keyword to wake them from their mundane inactivity. Mystery, double-crosses, danger, betrayal and death followed the main protagonists, each a fractured character with as many reasons to be hated as to be liked. Through it all, the attaché case, Agent Graves’ game of moral cause and effect, remained the only constant, and even with his strict code, you had to question his motivation.