Justin du Coeur (jducoeur) wrote,
Justin du Coeur

Review: 100 Bullets

This month saw the final issue of 100 Bullets, the long-running comic from Vertigo. Time for a wrap-up review.

Summary: you might like it, if you like this sort of thing. (Where "this sort of thing" is hard-boiled, dark, oblique crime fiction.) But it's not for everyone. After 100 issues, I still can't entirely say whether it's for me.

100 Bullets started, as so many good stories do, appearing to be something quite other than what it was -- in this case, it *looked* like an anthology. The setup was straightforward enough. You're a more or less ordinary person who has been through some hard times. A mysterious man -- Agent Graves -- pulls up in a black limo, and hands you a suitcase containing a gun, one hundred bullets, and a dossier. The dossier provides exacting proof of who it was who destroyed your life. The gun and bullets are absolutely, utterly untraceable -- Graves assures you that *anything* you do with them will never come back to you. What do you do?

For the first couple dozen issues, they mostly follow this formula, in little arcs of a few issues each. Some people seek out their revenge, some don't; each learns something in the process. And slowly -- ever so terribly slowly -- you begin to notice the little connections between the stories. They begin tying together, looking less unrelated and coincidental, and something resembling an overall arc starts to appear. Finally, in issue 50, we get told what's really going on here.

Well, no -- even that isn't quite true. You see, this book specializes in being opaque, moreso than anything else I've ever read. Even in issue 50, you only get told the broad history: the hundred-foot view of the backstory. Which is enormously useful -- up to this point, it's been getting increasingly mysterious -- but still gives you relatively little insight into the people in the story, their current motives and what they are up to.

Because the thing is, this tale contains *no* exposition, aside from that bit in the middle. It's a grand experiment in comics storytelling. No only are there no captions anywhere in it -- you have to figure out what's going on strictly from the pictures and the dialog -- but it also *religiously* eschews expository dialog. There are practically no "As you know, Bob" moments anywhere in it. The characters know their own individual corners of what is going on (nobody ever knows the whole picture), and they talk amongst themselves realistically, with no side-trips to recount what everybody already knows.

So reading the book is like piecing together a gigantic, intricate, incredibly bloody jigsaw puzzle. There are a couple dozen major characters (and probably another 50 minor ones), each with their own agenda, style and knowledge, and you have to watch them carefully to understand them. It can be absolutely fascinating, but also among the most frustrating reading experiences I've ever had, trying to remember who this person is that I haven't seen in ten issues, and what they were up to at the time.

Still, it's a bravura story: complex and *big* in scope, while not losing track of being fundamentally about the characters -- everything that happens occurs because specific people are working very hard to make it happen, and the tension between these broken characters drives everything. So it is recommended *if* you want to put a great deal of thought into a story. But expect a hard and sometimes confusing ride, and be prepared for a tale that is long, unrelievedly dark and as bloodily violent as anything you'll find. Or to put it really simply: this is the story that Frank Miller would probably tell, if he was as brilliant as Brian Azzarello has proven to be.

Personally, it's on my "reread from the beginning someday" list. But I suspect I'm going to want to scare up the online annotations (which surely *someone* must have written) before tackling it again. It's been worth the eight years I've invested in it, but next time I want to understand what's going on a little better, and a cheat sheet would sometimes be really useful...
Tags: reviews

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