Over here at Trash Talk! we’re going to take a look at pop-culture through an artistic lens, more specifically exploring the dichotomy between high-art and low-art in movies, TV, comics, and video games. What’s fine cinema, and what’s trash? Sometimes the line may be thinner than you think.
I love comic books. This is no real secret, but it hasn’t always been the case. I really enjoyed them when I was young, fueled by classic animated series like Bruce Timm’s Batman and the popular X-men cartoon. Then, around middle school and high school, I ditched comics in a failed attempt to rebrand myself. It wasn’t until college when I decided to revisit the medium thanks to the promise of Grant Morrison’s Batman R.I.P. and then the graphic novel Joker by Brian Azzarello based on the praise that surrounded it. Both of these series (but Joker more immediately) revealed to me an incredible truth. Comics weren’t just for mindless spectacle, or adolescent nostalgia, they could be art. Joker was a horrifically beautiful mix of images and prose that created an enthralling underworld saga. This led me to explore Azzarello’s backlog, and his opus, 100 Bullets. I had heard about this series back in high school, but again, I was trying to make a more marketable me. Now that I had seen what an incredible writer Azzarello was, I had to check it out. Low and behold, a new breakthrough. Comics aren’t just about superheroes. In fact many of the best comics aren’t. Again this was something I thought I understood, but hadn’t explored, yet. With 100 Bullets I dived into a dense crime saga unlike anything I had experienced before.
100 Bullets is part of a rich heritage of hard-boiled fiction shepherded by greats like Donald Westlake, Dashiell Hammett, and Elmore Leonard. The cast is filled with richly flawed characters, the dialogue is quick-witted and intricate, and the world is brutally cynical. However, the story is right at home in the comic book medium. One thing that comics do better than almost any other medium is big, bold ideas, and 100 Bullets is noir projected on a large canvas, though the saga begins with a simple question. What would you do if you were allowed to kill indiscriminately?
Many of 100 Bullets stories begin with a mysterious man, Agent Graves, handing someone an attaché case. In the case? A gun, one hundred untraceable bullets, and the photo of an individual that wronged the person receiving the case. The deal? You can kill that person with those bullets, and the second that one of the bullets is picked up by authorities the investigation will completely dropped, no questions asked. Would you do it?
As the series expands, its stories intermingle, and its broader scope comes into focus. 100 Bullets is about the United States. The promise that America is supposedly founded on, and the ugly truths that can be found just below the surface. It explores thorny issues that fuel many hard-boiled crime tales, wealth (or lack thereof), power, sex, and most importantly, violence. American media has an obsession with violence, and while 100 Bullets has plenty of it, it’s more focused on the ramifications of that violence. Many a bullet hits its mark, but Azzarello is more interested in the decisions that led to the gun being fired, and the chaos (both short term and long lasting) that said act causes.
The art of the book is inseparable from the writing. If you pick up any of the trades (which you absolutely should) many of the forwards acknowledge that if two different creators weren’t listed at the beginning of the issue, then it’d be easy to assume that the person writing and the person drawing are one and the same. Eduardo Risso has a smooth cartooning style filled with moody shadows, and detail that perfectly captures the world, while providing a lightness to it that makes its unrelenting brutality bearable. He is truly one of the greats of the industry, and in this age of art duties switching hands at the drop of the hat and lengthy delays, the fact that his pencils can be found in every one of this series’ hundred issues (and that they came out at a steady pace upon being first published) is something to be cherished.
The truth is I could write a whole series of articles on this immaculate series. I’m hard pressed to find a work that has influenced me more. If you love the early work of Quentin Tarantino, the series Justified, stylized crime fiction, or just well crafted stories in general, then you owe it to yourself to read 100 Bullets. If a hundred issue saga is a little daunting for you to crack just yet, you are in luck. The entire creative team, Azzarello, Risso, Dave Johnson (on covers), with Trish Mulvihill and Clem Robbins on colors and letters respectively, is back with new 8-issue mini-series set in the same world of 100 Bullets after the events of the main series. It’s titled Brother Lono, and it’s first issue hits the stands June 19th. It should be a great chance for you to get a taste of this rich work of crime literature. That’s right, 100 Bullets isn’t just some comic, it’s literature, and if you don’t believe that I’ve got about one hundred reasons in this case over here that should convince you otherwise.
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