100 Bullets: Six Feet Under the Gun
The hit comic book 100 Bullets gives us slang with a capital S--slang that announces its motherfucking self. You can almost see writer Brian Azzarello mechanically plopping "kid," "man," "homes," and "ese" into the speech balloons of his Latino gangster characters in 1999's premiere issue. Azzarello has grown more at ease in his street-speak since then (the recent Cage series contains some of the only persuasive black
slang in comics). But for a writer widely celebrated for researching the way real people talk, he still hasn't mastered the creativity or idiosyncrasy of American vernacular, at least not enough to make me laugh.
Humor isn't what readers love about Azzarello and his creative partner, artist Eduardo Risso. Together, they've pumped out six "trades" (i.e. bound, paperback collections) of 100 Bullets in the past five years, and this month they take on another DC series you may have heard of, Batman. Their genre is comics noir, but what Azzarello borrows from Raymond Chandler or Elmore Leonard isn't naturalism, but an abiding love of breakneck storytelling--getting characters across quickly, setting them into violent and sexual motion, and keeping their narrative integrity. To Azzarello's credit, the hook of 100 Bullets is strong enough to pull you through countless shifts in dialect: The mysterious "Agent Graves" finds people in different cities who have been wronged, offers them proof of who's responsible, and gives them the "opportunity" for revenge in the form of an untraceable gun and 100 rounds of ammunition. Azzarello hasn't brought Twain or Tarantino to comics so much as the simple wisdom that suspense sells and backstory always goes better with a blowjob.
At first, the victims Graves approaches appear to have nothing in common. In Chicago, a former gang member, Dizzy, learns to blame someone besides herself for the drive-by deaths of her husband and son. In Philadelphia, given the chance to kill the father who abandoned him, another youth, Loop, decides to learn a few things from the old man, who turns out to be working as a collector for a loan shark. By fleshing out the comic's central fantasy--what would you do if you could act above the law?--Azzarello shows how hollow revenge can be, even for those who get away clean.
It's not long before we learn that Graves has no claim to his "agent" title beyond his cold demeanor and trench coat. In fact, he's playing these people like chess pieces in a larger game. Turns out he's part of a 13-family cartel that owns America, "the Trust," and their ironically named band of enforcers, "the Minutemen," who have gone renegade. The Trust is the kind of omniscient cabal that decides to assassinate a nameless jogger somewhere in the U.S. because he "has some ideas" that "potentially could be problems." The Minutemen are the kind of killers who, if they wanted you dead (as the saying goes), you'd already be dead.
Pulp hokum along these lines reaches a fever pitch in 100 Bullets when, at one shadowy meeting, the Trust confronts Graves, who has revived the Minutemen against his superiors' wishes. The showdown precipitates the following exchange:
"First, we'd like you to know, Graves, the Trust's decision terminate the Minutemen? Wasn't personal."
"Was to me."
"Well, we want to make it up to you."
"That would take some doing."
"Good thing we're in the business of doing, then."
And so on, until somebody turns up dead. (In retrospect, I can see why Azzarello sold DC Comics on the revenge idea before pitching the conspiracy.)
I've taken up more than half this piece to get to the real appeal of 100 Bullets, which should be immediately apparent from the picture above: the way these scenes are drawn. Azzarello creates so many characters, weaving them together in so many ways, that he'd lose us if each person weren't immediately identifiable. Eduardo Risso consistently makes people look like themselves, no matter how bloodied or bathed in shadow. This ability allows him the freedom to play with angles--he loves showing us characters through eyeglasses, in reflections, from the sky. When a car speeds away, we see it in an upside-down frame, clinging to the bottom of the earth. When a man takes a bullet, we see the gunwoman through the hole in his head.
Risso's way with the human form isn't naturalism any more than Azzarello's dialogue is. But he likes variety just as much. Where the comic-book eros of artists like Milo Manara or Erich Von Gotha (or their Japanese counterparts) more closely recalls the anatomy of real women, the repetition of form suggests how much each body has been based on a single nude ideal. By contrast, Risso's various femmes fatales and musclemen carry their fat and gristle in different ways. And characters slap flesh differently every time--though I do notice the artist has a thing for ice cream and Popsicle drool.
In the team's first issue of Batman, Azzarello and Risso make plain how their talents can enliven a playboy vigilante already reinvented within an inch of his life. Issue 620 finds the dark knight looking more like a strong guy in a cape. He makes dick jokes in front of a blonde nearly falling out of her nightie, interrogating her in a bedroom. His utility belt is charmingly bulky, while the cape looks skin-thin and realistically slack, with Risso's abundant use of chiaroscuro and silhouette always expressing a sense of the man's weight and balance. Where Batman creator Bob Kane never tired of showing us the contents of barrels or cans, Risso loves to empty bodies of their fluids.
"A heavyweight like Croc tipped in at three-sixty--before I left him spitting three quarters of a pound of porcelain out on the pavement," Batman says, a hardboiled poet, after liberating a villain of his dentures. "But the quarter pound that treads water behind his sunken eyes was right for a change."
That's the 100 Bullets approach in a nutshell: Punch 'em in the face, but keep the brain in mind.