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Published on May 8th, 2014 | by Michael

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The List of Shame – 100 Bullets

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A mysterious man approaches complete strangers, people who have been wronged in one way or another. He hands them a briefcase which contains irrefutable proof of who wronged them, a handgun and 100 completely untraceable bullets.

Out of this simply brilliant concept springs Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso’s sprawling crime epic, 100 Bullets. In early issues our mysterious man, Agent Graves, hands the titular bullets out to people who seems to share no connection. They are under no compunction to act; Graves gives no instructions, only means and motivation. Most of the people he contacts are hardly saints themselves and it’s easy to feel like a voyeur as the book focuses on their inner turmoil about whether they should exact their bloody revenge.

Having come up with his conceptual hook, the briefcase with the bullets, writer Azzarello does not rest on his laurels. Slowly, as Graves makes his way around America and plays what he calls his ‘game’, pieces start to fit together and the reader becomes aware of a huge conspiracy at the centre of everything. Subtly, the focus shifts from our victims (and their victims) to this conspiracy, ‘The Trust’ and its foot soldiers, past and present. This is by no means a plot device that helps the story hang together, it is the story and, though we didn’t know it, it has been all along. Without wishing to give away too many details, the story concerns Graves visiting the seven Minutemen of the Trust : The Wolf, The Dog, The Rain, The Saint, The Bastard, The Monster and their leader, The Point Man, as well as attempting to recruit two new members, The Boy and The Girl. As you might expect though with seven hired killers and their ruthless taskmasters, you can never know who you can rely on. In fact, despite the awesome might of The Trust you get the impression that the left hand never truly knows what the right is doing. The single, mysterious word ‘Croatoan’ is at the centre of the mystery, which links nicely with the real world enigma of Roanoke Island and appears in other, unrelated comics, such as Grant Morrison’s Klarion The Witch Boy.

I used the word ‘sprawling’ earlier, a description I don’t evoke lazily. The story reads like a novel by Hammett or Chandler but allowed to expand unchecked in every direction. Over its 100 (naturally) issues, released over the course of a decade and now collected in five deluxe volumes, a myriad of characters are introduced and bumped off, hints are teased and vignettes are woven into the main narrative with supreme skill. In certain stories, such as the arc Day, Hour, Minute…Man while the main story is being told a second, wordless story takes place in the readers cares to notice the background characters.  Such detail adds a real richness to Azzarello and Risso’s world. You could read a single story arc and feel you’ve experienced a whole tale but they all fit together seamlessly, eventually.

It’s not just in these details that the book excels, though. 100 Bullets is in many ways a love letter to the noir and pulp era. The dialogue, like the violence, is highly stylised and evocative of Bogie and Bacall: The Bastard, for instance, is essentially an evil Philip Marlowe. Unfortunately the hugely expansive nature of the plot means that the story is unsuited to be adapted to the medium it apes so well, at least in a recognisable form. While it couldn’t be made into a film, it could, in truth, make an excellent HBO type show, though I am sure it never will. As well as the dense, metaphor-heavy language and frequent violence, there are very few characters one can root for, most inhabiting a world of grey, a few out-and-out evil (and yet still taking the role of protagonist). Lono, The Dog, for instance is in some ways the breakout character of the series (and star of his own recently concluded spin-off, Brother Lono) but he’s a vicious, unrepentant killer and rapist. Further to the lack of heroes, characters dip in and out all the time as the plot demands. In any hypothetical TV series, it wouldn’t be long before there was no single character that had made it into every episode. Still, as the Chicago Sun-Tribune writes in the quote proudly emblazoned onto each deluxe volume, 100 Bullets is ‘one of the greatest works of crime fiction in any medium’. With that in mind, why bother trying to film it? By way of warning, a proposed computer game was cancelled and an attempt by Showtime to get a TV series off the ground was halted at the 11th hour. Perhaps it is best left alone. Lono At five big volumes, the series represents and big commitment both in terms of time and money. The reader can rest assured though that, like any good novel, the story draws inexorably to a close (aforementioned spin-offs not withstanding) and doesn’t sacrifice narrative for the sake of eking out a few more issues. This is no superhero comic, with preposterous plot developments at every turn and the re-treading of old stories as inspiration runs dry. Further to that, there need not be a rush to the end of the story; it can be devoured at leisure with the individual arcs and one-off stories proving hugely enjoyable in their own right.

The story may be finished but I look forward to returning to the world of the Minutemen with the Brother Lono spin-off which I will review shortly. In the meantime, give 100 Bullets a shot. You won’t regret it.

Michael

Michael comes from the middle ground between light and shadow, between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge. He will write on comics, TV and film, plus anything else that might occur to him.

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