52 weeks. 52 different writers. 2 trade paperbacks or hardcovers a week. Each week I’ll take a look at a different writer and read two different collected editions from within that person’s repertoire to help in the examination of their work.
Brian Azzarello first truly gained prominence in the comic industry through his work on his creator owned title “100 Bullets”. Drawn beautifully by Eduardo Risso, the sprawling crime epic gained critical and fan acclaim for much of its run, with Azzarello and Risso winning an Eisner award in 2001 for Best Serialized Story for the storyline “Hang Up On The Hang Low”. On top of that Eisner award, Azzarello and Risso would also win Eisner Awards in 2002 and 2003 for their work on the series, winning the awards for Best Writer, Best Artist, and Best Continuing Series. Azzarello and Risso wrapped up the series after just under a decade of working on it, producing 100 issues and crafting one of the greatest crime stories to ever grace the medium of comics.
What would you do if you could kill someone who had wronged you without any form of consequence? That’s a question 100 Bullets seeks to answer, placing plenty of characters into hard position and forcing them to make the ultimate choice: to take a life. Agent Graves is an old man in a sharply tailored suit who appears, offering men and women their chance at revenge. Graves carries around an attaché that houses a pistol, one hundred rounds of ammunition, and all the necessary documents to prove that the person you have the option to kill did in fact wrong you or ruin your life in some way. But like anything in life, nothing can be so simple. Each person given the attaché is told the rules under which they must operate to ensure they aren’t arrested for the crime that they are about to potentially commit. Things become more complex when characters begin to realize and reveal that they aren’t who they say they are, adding more questions than answers to an intriguing series.
Brian Azzarello crafts one of the best pieces of crime fiction I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading with this first volume of 100 Bullets. 100 Bullets follows dozens of interconnected characters, all woven together by an offer made from the same mysterious character. Agent Graves, a shady man who used to work for an enigmatic organization called “The Trust”, offers strangers a literal shot a revenge as he gives seemingly random people a briefcase with a gun, one hundred rounds of ammunition and documents that detail facts about a particular person who has done something to wrong them. Graves warns these strangers about telling other people about the case, urging against it as things won’t turn out well for them if they do. All these characters that Graves decides to approach seem as though they are all randomly selected but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The deeper you delve into the brilliant story Azzarello has built, the more you realize that everything is connected. There are so many layers and levels to this story, diving into plenty of unpredictable areas and directions that will surely surprise you and have you coming back for more every time.
In trying to talk about the characters that Azzarello uses and introduces, I almost become overwhelmed. Not because there is something terribly wrong about these characters or story but because of the sheer complexity that seems to be at play. There are so many characters that get introduced in this collection, which houses twenty issues and multiple arcs, that it is easy for you to lose track. As a reader it feels like that should be a negative stroke against a writer, feeding almost too much information to process, but with Azzarello’s 100 Bullets this is absolutely the perfect way for things to be.
Combining multiple characters, both of major and minor status, together allows for the characters that Azzarello wants to be the central focus stand out even more as he hooks you into the drama of these characters’ lives and makes them more interesting by giving you lesser characters that you feel as though you don’t necessarily need to care about. It’s a brilliant “trick” on Azzarello’s part, as it makes things that happen to primary characters even more emotional because he goads you into investing in these characters. To an even further point it makes the minor characters even more interesting, as a character who you see as minor and easily written off can do one action to completely shift the story and suddenly they are a major player as well. I found most of the character work Azzarello did in this first volume to be some of the best character work I’ve read in comics, as I was fully invested in characters I knew for less than twenty pages. Each character introduced has some form of character arc to undertake, whether they are there for half an issue or a healthy arc. It’s the growth of these characters, whether it be a rapid change or a slow burning development, that help to push a simple but awesome premise to brilliant heights.
As I’ve pointed out multiple times, in 100 Bullets everything is connected. Even the most infinitesimal of details can nurture some sort of development down the road if you’re paying attention. 100 Bullets is a massive, sweeping crime epic unlike anything else I’ve ever read, with this first volume seeming to be rather well plotted. We’re introduced to a multitude of characters, a simple idea, a shadowy organization, and ten different questions for every answer we’re given. What Brian Azzarello seems to do so well during this first volume, and much of the praise could again be a result of his character work, is take the idea of the series and continually work it in a new way that never becomes dull.
Just off the top of my head I can think of at least five different characters in this volume who are offered the briefcase from Graves. A bare minimum of five instances where characters are given a weapon and information to track down a person who has wronged them. All of these characters given the same rules, the same options, but all of the stories end in dramatically different ways. It would be easy for Azzarello to just write a story where the character is given the briefcase, goes through emotional turmoil, and then proceeds to kill their “target”. But Azzarello does something better, making you understand who these characters are and weighing the philosophical aspects of taking a life as well as the potential ripple affect it will create. Just because you take a life doesn’t mean it won’t affect other people around you and that’s something Azzarello explores at length. In some instances, the lead character finds it all too easy to pull the trigger. In other moments, the character who wields the gun couldn’t have a heavier heart. Azzarello does adhere to the law of “Chekhov’s Gun” though, a writing principle wherein all dramatic elements in a plot (like a weapon) are important and should be used at some point, while everything that doesn’t add to the dramatic nature should be thrown to the way side. As Anton Chekhov, the famous writer, states “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there”. Rest assured that before the end of every story, the pistol Graves gives to each character inevitably goes off, paying off the promise he bestows upon the reader by introducing the weapon in the first place.
Collects: 100 Bullets #1-20
Best Character: Dizzy Cordova
Best Line Of Dialogue/Caption: “Who is the man who gave me this opportunity?” – Mr. Branch
Best Scene/Moment: Cole remembers everything – “A Right Ear, Left In The Cold”
Best Issue: “Hang Up On The Hang Low Part 2” (Issue 16). I don’t want to go too far into detail on this one as it would just be spoiler central. The character of Loop is presented with a shot to get revenge against someone who hurt him in a manner of speaking. There is some fantastic character work done in this story and it’s highlighted by this issue in particular. Just trust me, this issue is phenomenal. At the same time, it was incredibly difficult to pick just one issue as nearly every issue in this collection is immediately enjoyable and memorable.
Why You Should Read It: This is a thoroughly satisfying piece of crime fiction. Read this for the intricate and interweaving narrative. Or for the multitude of excellent characters. Or because, all around, this first collection in the series is amazing. There are so many stories in this one volume alone with great character beats and a plot that will keep you engaged all the way until the end that you’ll be running out to buy volume two once you finish it. There’s no padding this section up with lengthy sentences to convince you this book is worth your money. Just go buy it because that’s exactly what I did after reading it for the first time and I can’t wait to read the rest of the series from here.