I started reading 100 Bullets last year. The series was recommended to me by a used bookstore owner in Seattle, who briefly described the story as a “gritty morality play.” Those words didn’t mean much to me at the time and they still don’t now, but the price was great, so I bought the first trade, First Shot, Last Call, which contains the first 6 issues of the series.
Here’s the gist of the series: random people who have been wronged are given a suitcase containing evidence that irrefutably incriminates the wrongdoer, and a gun with 100 untraceable bullets. How these people choose to use the content of those suitcases is the substance of the series.
Although I liked this concept and its early execution, I immediately disliked the artwork. Eduardo Risso’s style is meticulous as hell, except for when he’s portraying women and people of color. Cartoonishly engorged lips explode from mouths, tits, forever plump, ejaculate from blouses, thongs snake through perfectly exposed butt-cracks, and gold teeth and chains are as natural as curls. Sometimes the stereotypes were so abundant that searching a single panel for something inoffensive could be like playing Where’s Waldo.
These flaws were mollified by Risso’s fantastic sense of perspective, which is incredibly imaginative and daring (one of my favorite panels is drawn from the inside of a mouth welcoming a hot dog), but Brian Azzarello’s writing was rarely as daring or as whimsical. His dialogue is painstakingly idiomatic, dripping with slang and accents and regionalisms that align with each speaker’s background. The intention is to be realistic, but it often comes across as amateur ethnography, casual observation parading as intimacy. When read in context with Risso’s hyper-stylized artwork, this attempt at realism just appears absurd. Here we are in a contrived world of gratuitous murder and vice, and we’re supposed to be struck by the verisimilitude of the dialects? I want to call this an odd creative choice, but that would be euphemistic. The dialogue is exploitative and duplicitous, maximally jazzed up at the expense of the characters and who they represent. Straight up.
This blend of flat realism and lazy caricature was annoying, but not unbearable, so I continued reading. Although the story truly was the morality play that the bookstore owner had promised, I mostly stuck around because I was intrigued by how redundant the series’s sense of morality was. The same question arose over and over again: is it okay to kill another person? Many characters said yes and some were killed themselves, but I was struck by how even in this fantastically seedy world of cabals and crooks and scoundrels, murder still seemed to be this supreme sin with cosmic consequences.
As the series progresses this tautology is broken to tell the story of the Trust, an Illuminati-like organization, and the Minutemen, the Trust’s personal militia. This subplot-turned-plot works well in terms of world-building. Azzarello does a masterful job of turning a ledger of minute details into a sprawling mystery that obscures as much as it illuminates. The story is plotted beautifully, each plot thread laid out, picked up, or woven with a puppeteer’s precision.
But as the stage expands, the stakes begin to shrivel. Murder, which was previously this critical act that could shift the pillars of existence, becomes as pedestrian as the bloated boobs and exploitative dialogue. Moving away from the random people who populated the earlier issues, the series begins to focus on members of the Trust and the Minutemen, who are all sadistically violent or voraciously power-hungry, sometimes both, but never more. Most of the characters are motivated by revenge or desire, but that’s claimed rather than shown. The Minutemen are all hard-boozing, chain-smoking, womanizing, and tetchy, but they’re bound to these traits by duty more than personal conviction, loyally punching in at Azzarello’s booming factory of noir tropes. Similarly, the members of the Trust are all cunning, Machiavellian, and ruthless, frayed cardboard cutouts from a Puzo novel.
Tropes are perfectly fine, but what’s unsettling about the series is how so many easy shortcuts are taken just to build to an easy cynicism. I’m specifically referring to the long arc of Agent Graves, the leader of the Minutemen who hands out the guns and evidence and who works to dismantle The Trust after they betray him. Graves embodies the ostensible core sentiment of the series, which is that we must make choices. This message is repeated every time Graves issues a suitcase and every time someone acts based on the suitcases’ contents. But as the series progresses, it becomes apparent that choices actually can’t be made.
People who refuse to exact revenge end up dead. People who do exact revenge end up dead, victims of the people who were already in power. In a word, violence is portrayed as both necessary and inevitable. Thus, the mindless carnage of the Minutemen and the Trust (who both seem to have no worldly motivations, by the way; they just are and want to continue being) is just what must be done. The bullets must fly because bullets have always flown.
To sit through 100 issues of racism and sadism and sexism and caricatures just to get this bland nihilism was a real disappointment. It’s especially upsetting considering how the series is praised. In the introduction to the fourth trade, for example, Bill Savage writes, “Risso draws a realistic physical world, one with consequences.” Elsewhere, Kieran Shiach describes the series as “a very real struggle between everyday people and those whose positions of power are so lofty, it never occurs to them who they might be hurting.” Similarly, Azzarello himself told the AV Club “100 Bullets was about the “real world,” so a lot of that was just reading the Metro section in a lot of different newspapers, finding crimes, that sort of thing.” Although I think the series mostly works as a grand, intricate thriller, it really shocks me that so many people could describe this series as realistic.
And that’s why I wrote this, really. Somehow, this deeply fantastical series has become shorthand for realism in comics and that infuriates me because the only way to believe that this series is realistic is to believe that women and people of color are every single thing we imagine them to be, and that’s just preposterous. I can’t say that I’ll never return to this series or that I feel that I wasted my time, but I will say this: comics criticism needs more voices.