There has been almost as much inked spilled in writing about the Vertigo series 100 Bullets as there has been blood spilled in the story. This is the series that has it all for the mature comic fan. Bullets, sex, violence, spies, betrayal, secret organizations, brutality; did I mention violence?
What started out as a unique and thought-provoking concept of a secret government agent handing out a case filled with a gun and 100 untraceable bullets quickly escalated into one of the most complex and layered stories in comic book history. The series asked the question of the reader, “What would you do if you could kill anyone and be guaranteed to get away with it?” A pretty damn good question right?
The series kicks off on a simple note. Isabelle “Dizzy” Cordova is fresh out of the state pen and headed back home to the hood where she grew up. On the train back home a man in a suit sits beside her and makes the pitch you read about before. Dizzy is told by the man in the suit that her loved ones were gunned down in a drive-by, but not by the gang members she was told who committed the crime, but by two dirty cops.
So Dizzy exits the train with a briefcase that contains one handgun, 100 untraceable bullets, and hard evidence that the cops who were involved were dirty. The man in the suit tells her that if she decides to use “terminal force” (love that term) that there will not be any investigation by any branch of law enforcement. But if she tells anyone about the gun, the bullets, or the deal, then it all goes away and she is on her own.
From here Brian Azzarello takes us deep into Dizzy’s world. It’s a place where hard times and hard people meet. Some call it the hood, some call it low-class, but nobody is calling it the life that they would have chosen. One of the initial elements of this book that caught the attention of comic fans early on was the dialogue. This book is written in common street language; where you more likely to hear the word “fuck” than “thanks”. It was this detail that reeled readers in and also pushed other readers away. Considering that this comic was entering the social awareness at the height of 1990’s hip-hop it caught on with young and old fans alike.
The setting of Chicago rings truer now than when the series was written; as the windy city has become the focus of the nation as gang violence and police brutality have become more of a social issue in recent years. It provides the perfect backdrop to Azzarello’s tale of street justice. Dizzy is fighting to stay out of the life that landed her in prison to begin with, but the old life is pulling her back in with every day that passes, and soon Dizzy has not only returned to her former self, but now thanks the 100 extra reasons she is carrying around with her, the fall from grace has become even darker and more deadly.
By the end of the first arc Dizzy is left with the choice to either follow the man in the suit, or face up to the crimes she has committed in the name of vengeance. It’s not much of a choice. She and the reader choose to take the ride; and for the next 97 issues we are treated to one of the best comic series that the medium has to offer.
I would love to spoil the fun that happens over the full 100 issues of this series. I’d love to delve deep into the minutemen, and Lono, and Graves, and Dizzy. But to explain the storyline of one character only raises the need to address all the characters of the series, that’s just how complex this plot is. Let’s just play it safe and say that you need to read this series if you have ever been a fan of the more mature work that comics can produce.
I will say that this series is not for beginners. It’s long and involved. You need to wait for the payoff and the explanation to some loose storylines. There are threads that are left dangling for a reason and it’s only with the last page in issue one hundred that you feel that you have your answers. This is also a series where it is NEVER safe to assume you know the characters or the plot; the second you have a feeling that you have landed on solid ground, that’s when Azzarello rips the rug from underneath you.
The other large reason that this series was so successful is the mind bending art of Risso. If you are not familiar with Risso’s artwork then you need to stop reading this right now and open the nearest Google image search you can find and type in “Eduardo Risso Art”. You’ll thank me. It’s this seemingly simple, yet overly complex style that boggles the mind and is as synonymous with the series as the 100 bullets themselves. This is a prime example of a genius at work. Every panel and page is a love note to the art form. Even when dealing with the lowest of subjects like rape and death, Risso finds poetry in the images to capture the reader’s imagination.
One of the pleasures of writing these retro reviews is to take a stroll down memory lane and cover storylines and works that have brought me great pleasure over the years. I have read this graphic novel at least 20 times and it never fails to amaze me. My hope in writing this review is that it might spark an interest in another fan; that they might pick up the series and take the ride. All I can say to those that undertake the journey; good luck and enjoy.
Final Score: Perfect 5 out 5 stars. Classic!
Retro Review: 100 Bullets (1999)
Story: Brian Azzarello
Art: Eduardo Risso
Colors: Grant Goleash