100 Blanks: On 100 Bullets

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.

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Issue 1

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.

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issue-94-page-20These 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.issue-20-page-20issue-15-page-12

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.issue-32-page-2

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.

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Agent Graves and Dizzy Cordova

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.

Further reading: 1, 2.

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Mystique Was Right – (On All-New Wolverine # 1 & 2)

Mystique WolverinesWolverine is one of the oldest X-Men institutions. He has his own rogue’s gallery, his own X-Men teams, and his own onomatopoeic sound effect. He has had more mini-series than some entire X-Men titles have had issues and has appeared in every single live-action X-Men movie, often as the main character. Even after his canonical death in the comic, two full series were dedicated to just his legacy. He’s that important.

One of these series, Wolverines, did the tortuous work of fleshing out the villains, clones, children, and friends that have orbited Wolverine, proving, amazingly, that despite their healing factors, claws, rage, and willingness to kill that they were more than just pale derivatives. Even better, the series was propelled by a lesbian love story.

All-New Wolverine, a relaunch of the Wolverine character, cements his death but preserves the institution. In the first issue, X-23, a clone of Wolverine, descends upon Paris in search of a man being targeted for assassination by an unknown group. Rushing through rain in a bulky overcoat, she finds him near the Eiffel Tower, saving him mere seconds before sniper fire rains down upon them both. The man escapes, but X-23 takes a bullet to the brain, momentarily killing her.

All-New Wolverine X-23 Laura Kinney

As her healing factor brings her back from the dead she unconsciously recalls an exchange with the original Wolverine where he encourages her to resist her programming, to be Laura Kinney and not X-23, the programmed assassin. They both wear their X-Force uniforms, grim gray costumes with black stripes and splashes of red: they are killers. Wolverine regrets X-23’s inheritance of his burden, but he praises her reluctance to kill. She holds promise, he believes.

This scene is the crux of the comic and the subtle justification for the new series. Laura is not Logan: she is someone and something different.

Potentially. When X-23 recovers from the kill shot, setting her sights on the person who fired it, she throws off her overcoat, revealing the iconic blue and yellow costume of her genetic father. Enraged, she storms the Eiffel Tower. Bolting up the tower, she sniffs out the sniper then confronts her, beating her into submission. The fight scene emphasizes X-23’s reluctance to kill. She begins the fight by slicing through the sniper’s gun. For the rest of the fight her claws are retracted: her weapons of choice are fists and finesse. This is a subtle move, establishing this Wolverine’s desire to be ethical, to be better. 

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Panels from Issue #1

In the moment it works. When the defeated villain summons a drone and then jumps from the tower, killing herself, X-23 screams “No!” and it feels sincere. Death was precisely how she didn’t want this encounter to end.

This disinclination toward violence continues in issue 2, where the villain from issue 1 (who turned out to be a clone of Laura, sigh) is revealed to be one of many clones. In a sequence that is similar to the confrontation in issue 1, Laura pops her claws just to disarm her opponents and then pleads for the encounter to not end in death.

X-23 All-New Wolverine

Panels from Issue #2

Again, in the moment this works. But in the context of the institution of Wolverine, this fear of being an instrument of death is stale. Since at least 2000 Logan has had this exact relationship to death: the mini-series “The Twelve” had him literally become a character named Death; Uncanny X-Force explores the absurd circularity of his wanton killings; Uncanny Avengers explores the direct consequences of his killings; Wolverine and The X-Men explores the tension of trying to teach others to respect life when you’re a known killer; Wolverine (vols. 5 & 6) features him without his healing factor, rendering him vulnerable to death both literally and psychologically.

If the point of this comic is to establish Laura as a different Wolverine, to saddle her with the same enemy, the same fears, the same burden that the character has dealt with for ages, is grossly lazy at best and deeply sexist at worst. Is being a literal clone not torture enough?  Is constantly screaming “No!” the extent of her character?

Even her supporting cast is stale. In the first issue, the X-Man Angel, who has been established as her love interest, helps her take down the drone and attempts to comfort her as she recovers.  In the second issue he flies her to her apartment and they flirt in mid-air. There almost seems to be some weak joke at work. The original Wolverine and Angel were notoriously at odds. Angel regularly accused Wolverine of savagery, once even leaving the X-Men because he couldn’t stand Wolverine’s presence (Uncanny X-Men 148). The relationship might not be a callback to that old tension, but even if it isn’t, why is the so-called all-new Wolverine already being tethered to a character who is [literally] from the 1960s? (through a goofy time-travel plot that is now canon – i.e., the series All-New X-Men vol. 1 – the 5 original X-Men have returned to the present.)

Wolverines ended with a rejection of the need for Wolverine. Although the series was framed as a quest for Mystique to resurrect Destiny, her dead lover, the final issue revealed that Mystique had been tricked (by Destiny) into resurrecting Wolverine because, in Destiny’s words, “The world needs a Wolverine.” Deeply outraged, Mystique disagreed, choosing to leave them both dead. Although All-New Wolverine #1-2 has flashes of promise, as long as X-23 is fundamentally the same character, Mystique was right. Wolverine – whether Logan or Laura – is better off dead.

Mystique Wolverines X-Men

 

Mutants, Meillassoux and Contingency*

Over the past year, I have read hundreds of X-Men comics. It has been a strange journey and even now I’m neither sure why I began this journey nor why I continued it, but it happened, and the weird adventures of Marvel’s mutants are permanently etched into my mind.

There is a great deal of fluff in this extensive archive, even during the much-celebrated Claremont era, and especially during the 90s, which had comics that I can’t even look at because the drawing disgusts me (If you like that artwork, it’s fine, but the artwork coincided with a narrative departure from the civic issues, identity issues and overall science fiction coolness that make X-men interesting to me, so it is hard for me to parse the two). But despite the fluff, there are many rich moments, in terms of storytelling and character building, and in terms of concepts.

One concept that has really stuck with me is the idea of contingency. Contingency is at the heart of genetic mutation and arguably at the heart of the series: the central motif of X-Men is how do people live with abilities that they have no previous understanding of or that can change without notice even when they do understand them (due to secondary mutation, stress, experimentation, fear, the government etc.).  I think that the best iteration of this theme came during the Avengers vs X-Men crossover series of 2012.

In that limited series, members of the X-Men and members of the Avengers take sides on the issue of the coming of Phoenix. The Phoenix is a cosmic force that perennially crosses the universe, doing whatever it wants, usually destroying planets and civilizations. The series starts when the two teams learn that it is coming to Earth. The X-Men anticipate the return of the Phoenix because they think it will save mutants, which are on the brink of extinction; the Avengers dread the return of the Phoenix because they think it will destroy the planet.

When the Phoenix arrives, the Avengers intervene and instead of taking one red-headed host, as it usually does, it takes five hosts, all members of the X-Men (and notably all without red hair!). Wielding this newly-acquired omnipotent power, the Phoenix Five do good deeds across the world. But after being persistently opposed by the Avengers, they decide to hunt for the Avengers and other perceived threats.

One of these threats is Mr. Sinister. Mr. Sinister is a mutant, geneticist and longtime enemy of the X-Men. Sinister has a history of horrific experiments on mutants and horrific actions against them, and when the Phoenix Five arrive, he lures them into giving him control of the Phoenix. Things look bleak until the Phoenix simply decides that it itself doesn’t want to be controlled by him, electing to return to the Phoenix Five.

Avengers vs X-Men Marvel Phoenix Mr. Sinister

Up until this point in the series and in X-Men history, the Phoenix has just been a plot device. It comes, it shakes things up, somebody dies (usually someone with red hair) and then the world is saved. In all of those previous instances, the Phoenix had a determined function, in the narrative and as an entity. In this story, the Phoenix is completely indeterminate, in form, in function and in potential. It is contingency incarnate.

In his book After Finitude, Quentin Meillassoux has a chapter where he distinguishes between contingency and probability. Probability is the potential for change under constant, established conditions, like a dice roll. Contingency is is the potential for both the variables and the conditions to change, like a dice roll in which the the dice grow another face and become seven-sided and then explode into butterflies. In regular practice we do not expect dice to do such unexpected things because the world seems to work according to fixed, predictable rules, allowing us to make decisions based on what will probably happen. In a contingent world, there are no fixed rules. Anything can happen at anytime. Dice can turn into butterflies and grown men can eject metal claws from their knuckles.

Mr. Sinister Uncanny X-Men Avengers

The ultimate point of that chapter of the book is that though we cannot fathom raw contingency because our world is relatively stable, contingency itself is contingent, so we actually do experience this raw contingency, but only because contingently, contingency holds the world together. In other words, the seemingly absurd world in which butterflies are born from dice and men have metal claws is actually the world we live in. We just don’t see these things because the potential for these things is also contingent.

A lot of science fiction, including the X-Men, makes a few things contingent and then watches how these strategic tweaks play out, but my point here is that none of this was fully realized contingency. As anticlimactic as it is in terms of narrative, the Phoenix’s decision to simply not be controlled despite Mr. Sinister winning his battle with the X-Men is an example of raw contingency. Mr. Sinister didn’t plan for it because he couldn’t. There’s no such thing as a contingency plan when you are dealing with actual contingency. That is horrifying.

Unfortunately, the Phoenix does not make any more radically contingent decisions as the Avengers vs X-Men goes on, so this is just a brief glimpse into what radical contingency can look like. Marvel’s What If series toys with this kind of contingency all the time, but none of it is canonical, so the horror of raw contingency is dialed back because it is purely speculative. Still, it happened once and if the right mind makes the effort, perhaps an entire story about the horror of raw contingency could happen someday.

*I wasn’t very thorough with citations in this post, but Uncanny X-Men Volume 2 #15-17 are the comics I summarized and took the screenshots from. The chapter in After Finitude is chapter 4.