Back in 2005, I interviewed Brian Azzarello for Issue 9 of Crimespree Magazine, and he followed up with an invite to write an introduction to a compilation of his blockbuster crime fiction series, 100 Bullets. 100 Bullets was one of those rare phenomenons: extremely popular and universally praised by critics. Everyone from the New York Times Book Review to The Onion, as well as fellow comic book artists and writers, heaped praised on the series. For example: "100 Bullets is to crime comics as The Wire is to cop shows" - Chicago Sun-Times. "For our money, the best current ongoing series" - Playboy. "For a noir junkie like myself, who is always looking for the new spin on the old school, I feel like I've died and gone to Chandler-Heaven. It honestly does not get much better than this" - Greg Rucka. The series won the 2002 Harvey Awards for Best Writer, Best Artist and Best Continuing Series, and the 2003 Harvey Award for Best Artist, as well as the 2001 Eisner Award for Best Serialized Story, and the 2002 and 2004 Eisner Award for Best Continuing Series. In sum, it was a hit, a milestone, a classic.
So getting asked to do an intro to one of the compilations was a big deal for me. What I came up with appeared in compilation #9, Strychnine Lives (Vertigo), which collected issues 59-67 and was published in 2006. Eventually, there were 100 individual issues and 13 compilations. The series ran from 1999-2009; ten years of top-quality writing and excellent graphic artistry that set a new standard and influenced and changed the world of graphic novels and comic books.
Here's my introduction.
Brian Azzarello once said, “The worst things you can read are things you don’t have to read because you know what’s going to happen already.” Well, dear reader, no fear of that with 100 Bullets. It is safe to say that the Brian Azzarello/Eduardo Risso combo has not produced one of the “worst things you can read.” Those of us who are fans of this series do not know what to expect next, and we like it. We need to read these grim tales of tormented men and women trying to survive, to overcome, to win.
100 Bullets gives us shifting, translucent character motivations, double- and triple- crosses, and people who have dropped over the edge. This toxic mix is served up as a double shot of revenge with a sex and violence back. When the periodic explosions of greed, corruption and betrayal smash across the page I shrink back, shudder, look over my shoulder and say, “What the hell ...?” Then I think about it, and force a smile. If I had only paid attention to that hint, that suggestion, that clue (of all things) about a dozen issues back.
I called myself a fan. That is how I am writing this. Not as a critical deconstructor of this literature, not as another writer of crime fiction, certainly not as someone who can call up the minutiae and trivia of comic book -- excuse me -- graphic novel history (I cannot). Just a guy who stumbled late onto this unsettling, uneasy read with outrageous art and who, when he finished that first story about Dizzy Cordova and her conflicted need for retaliation, realized he would have to read all one hundred issues.
What is the attraction? Could be the dialogue, tough and colloquial with a rhythm and sensibility that in a more sensitive mood I might call poetic; or the women, strong, sassy and conniving, too dangerous for the men; or the sly references to weak links in the societal chains we all wear. Then there is the absolutely magnificent artwork, inside and out, that matches the words and action, teardrop for teardrop, splatter for splatter. Yes, I acknowledge that the intricate plot and complicated characters have expanded the definition of escapist art. However, what I relish over everything else is that I simply am entertained by these stories. I won’t say that 100 Bullets is “a fun read” but I suspect that a good time is had by all.
Did I mention the violence?
The series started with the hook of the double-edged gift of the special gun and a hundred bullets -- untraceable and to be used for one of life’s ultimate highs, sweet revenge with no consequences, except for guilt of course. Who can’t relate to that? Now, two-thirds of the way into the complete story, that gun and those bullets are almost an afterthought. Azzarello/Risso have moved far from that beginning and their series just gets better with each new issue.
Back to the violence. There is an extended scene in New Tricks, a story in this collection, that features one of the all-time really bad dudes, Lono. Not for the squeamish, as they say. Maybe a tad too graphic for the occasional graphic novel reader. And yet, one issue later, mad-dog Lono carries on about forgiveness, about playing by the rules, about responsibility. The warped concept trifles with my head, squirms in my guts. Is this a hint of redemption, a dim ray of humanity’s light breaking free of the black hole in Lono’s heart?
Or another Azzarello set-up?
The 100 Bullets world in numbers 59 through 67 presents a mirror of a reality I recognize but need to deny - a world that must exist only in the lovingly illustrated panels and stylistic, gritty language created by Azzarello and Risso. I want to accept that. Nevertheless, I have to admit that there is something about Dizzy that rings so true it makes me wince. If I do not believe in the existence of an actual Agent Graves, I certainly understand what Graves is doing to his world and - because I am the addicted voyeur watching the cruel dynamic play itself out - Graves is doing something to my world, too. I may be too jaded for conspiracy theories; but on the other hand I’ve been down a few dark alleys, and even a somewhat burned-out Chicano survivor of the cultural wars has learned that what we don’t know can hurt us.
Nowhere is that more true than in this collection. The bottom feeders take the calculated gamble, risk it all for the big payoff. In the end, they never had a chance. From pathetic Christine and Wally, doomed by the truth of their sour lives, to the wannabe Tino and his misguided heroics, to the overreaching and, thus, condemned Fulvio Carlito, these folks do not see the dots that they cannot connect, they neglect to grasp the essential nature of their failure. Not their fault, for sure. It is the way of the ebb and flow, of life and death on the Azzarello/Risso streets.
The high and mighty suffer no less. Observe Megan: she thought she had all the answers. Turns out she is just another small part of a big puzzle that I struggle to put together but which I cannot quite complete, not yet. I am catching on to the ultimate power-struggle bit, and I have to wonder what is more imperative to these characters: revenge or control, taking a stand or buying into the game?
Here is how reading this stuff affects me. I dig out my battered Let It Bleed LP, crank up the turntable and wait for Gimme Shelter. Merry Clayton’s solo grabs my speakers, and the voice of the inner city pierces through the rock and roll. I hear the cry of someone who could be lost in the pages of an Azzarello story. Ah, yes, it’s just a shot away. I get the urge for a tumbler full of good but not snooty scotch. I remember that bar I used to frequent, with the old hippie bartender and the just-coming-out-of-rehab waitress. I vow not to accept a gun from a stranger, no matter how good the deal sounds.
Brian Azzarello has it laid out in his head, we believe and hope, mapped in bloody detail, and we trust that he is ready with the final sentence for the final story in the final issue, and when that happens Eduardo Risso will translate that vision precisely, authentically. That faith carries us forward, to the next story and the next batch of surprises.
A while back I remarked to Brian that I was not prepared for a particular and rather spectacular twist in the plot and he told me that most likely I wasn’t prepared but that I “should have seen it coming.” And then he laughed.
I get it now.Manuel Ramos