100 Bullets is a noir comic with massive scope and breadth of plot. Traditional noir story-lines stick to a handful of characters within the confines of a single city, whereas 100 Bullets is an international noir thriller. Boasting an incredibly original and complex plot, this comic from the creative team Brian Azzarello and Eduaro Risso is non-stop heavy-hitting crime fiction. While the series is massive, with a daunting list of characters and settings, this review covers issues 1-19 (which are collected in Book One of the 100 Bullets Deluxe Edition).
What begins with a gimmicky plot hook, ends with scathing, soul raking noir, buoyed up by Azzarello’s deft wit and Risso’s attention to detail. Isabelle “Dizzy” Cordova is out on parole when she meets a strange suit calling himself “Agent Graves.” He hands her a briefcase and explains that within it are 100 bullets of ammunition, a 9 mm handgun, and irrefutable proof that her husband and child were murdered by two crooked cops. He further explains that if these bullets are recovered at a crime scene, all investigations will cease; she won’t be pursued or prosecuted. Dizzy must then decide how she’ll proceed, with revenge or disbelief.
The first several issues follow a similar formula; Troubled individuals who’ve been wronged are approached by Agent Graves and given an identical attache to Dizzy’s, with similar promises of answers, revenge, or retribution. Initially, I felt that the gimmick of the briefcase (albeit an interesting plot device) would quickly lose it’s originality and drown the comic in a repetitious flood of bland cliche. But I stand corrected. Azzarello is brilliant in his treatment of each individual’s reaction to the briefcase. You’d think that they would find the ‘get-out-of-jail-free-card’ an enticing means of avenging their loved ones or correcting the errors fate made for them, but each character treats it like the moral dilemma that is it (this made me love the characters SO much more). As a reader, I cared about the characters because they reacted how I would: They were believable.
You can find plot reviews and synopses for 100 Bullets issues 1-19 all over the internet, but you can’t find a noir definition round up, so lets do that:
1) The Seedy Underworld
The setting of 100 Bullets is not shackled to a particular city; it’s a thriving world of clandestine international corporations and secret organizations. Eduardo Risso is wonderful at portraying each city with as much character and detail as the last; You’ll never be lost in Paris or Miami, you’ll only be lost in the story.
2) The Anti Hero
Many anti-heroes exist in the plot of 100 Bullets. Both those who chose to act on Agent Graves invitation (like Dizzy) and those who did not have their failings, but because of their struggles we ultimately love them and pray for their success. The best anti-heroes are the ones that you care about, and it’s hard not to care for the cast that Azzarello and Risso have created.
3) The Femme Fatale
Megan Dietrich is the absolute femme fatale force of the 100 Bullets series. She’s young, powerful, sexy, and ruthless. We’re introduced to her in a story arc called “Shot, Water Back” (issues 4 and 5), where a former restaurateur named Lee Dolan is given the attache and a reason to kill her. When Lee confronts Ms. Dietrich in the penthouse office of a posh skyscraper, we watch her seductive intellect turn her would-be killer into bumbling idiot. An idiot she quickly kills. It’s a beautiful femme fatale scene because it’s as sexy as it is frightening.
Very little typical noir misogyny exists in this comic. I would say that the only offenders are the male-defined character designs, which simultaneously titillate and demean. Also,the main female characters are very empowered, but all the minor supporting roles played by women are stereotypical regurgitations (I didn’t feel like this took away from the comic at all, it was just a bit predictable). Example, Chucky’s girlfriend in “Short Con, Long Odds” (issues 6 and 7) or a couple of the ladies in “Hang Up on the Hang Low” (issues 15-18).
Redemption is a central theme (as it is in most crime fiction), but the slant of this plot is quite unique. Instead of intellectual redemption that comes as a result of solving a crime, individuals are presented with a solved but un-avenged crime. These jaded and often miserable characters are then given the opportunity to deliver their own brand of justice… if they have the stomach for it. It seems that most exercise the option as a means of redemption, but are seldom satisfied with the result. Noir endings are bereft of peace.
The comic has several scenes that are erotic in nature, but they aren’t extreme. It seems that the comic is mature because of the profanity and violence and not for nudity (which is rare throughout). Risso is skilled at withholding the right amount of skin in a tasteful way.
7) Loss of Innocence
Lono is a frightening manifestation of violence in 100 Bullets. He’s sadistic in its truest form, as he experiences great pleasure while inflicting pain in others. He has no conscience (at least, not that we’re privy to), and he appears to be entirely self serving. A horrifying loss of innocence is experienced in “Epilogue for a Road Dog” (issue 19), where Lono inflicts his brand of vengeance on a man and woman who had stolen a great deal of money from him. It was… hard to read.
8 ) Smoke
Of course 100 Bullets has cigarette smoke. It’s an international noir epic with a beautiful sense of style. Smoke is not lost on Azzarello and Risso.
There are two characters from these first issues that become truly immasculated. The first is the gambler, Chucky, who stumbles from one pitiful situation to another, eventually losing his best friend and his girlfriend (who find each other). The second is Curtis, the retired “Minuteman” who teaches his son how to survive in the world of crime, only to be undone by the relationship he’s trying to foster. Oddly, these two characters were my favorites in these early issues. Perhaps I loved them out of pity?
The story arcs in 100 Bullets are fast paced, devious, and convoluted, and through Brian Azzarello’s voice they are high-class contemporary noir. I loved each issue as it unfolded, and can’t wait to read more of this critically acclaimed noir comic series.