By Michael Moreci
Every so often, a work of art comes along that transcends its own form. The work is innovative yet inspired, familiar but also groundbreaking. In comics, one of those awe-inspiring creations has been Brian Azzarello’s masterful “100 Bullets,” which will end its decade-long run after just seven more issues. Since its inception, the stars have aligned to enable Azzarello’s labyrinthine revenge/noir series to evolve into one of the most memorable comics in recent years.
Yet it was almost an endeavor that never was; after all, pitching such a complex story that would take 100 issues to tell isn’t an easy sell. Like all publishing industries, comic editors like to be hooked on the story within two sentences. The trick for Azzarello came in a simple device: a briefcase.
It’s a device the series finds its combustion in. A mysterious man in a black suit, Agent Graves, approaches various people and offers them a chance for revenge—no strings attached. Graves hands over a briefcase stocked with a handgun, 100 bullets and irrefutable evidence that the target of revenge is, in fact, guilty.
“Pitching that idea from the get-go was suicide,” Azzarello says. “I had to simplify the whole thing to the briefcase, to these revenge/morality stories.”
It’s that tragic morality at work—Azzarello’s “everyman” personifications presented with the opportunity to kill without impunity—that gives “100 Bullets” an added literary weight. Reading “100 Bullets,” one can feel the influential sources pulsing on each page, from Jim Thompson’s pulp novels to Frank Miller’s “Sin City.” Yet “100 Bullets” remains a work of singular excellence and originality, not only due to Azzarello’s thrilling, Byzantine story and pitch-perfect dialogue, but also because of its accompanying artwork.
The artistry of Eduardo Risso is a stunning reminder of the visual brilliance comic storytelling can achieve. Azzarello recognized the great talent at once—when it came time to find an artist for his first major series, “Johnny Double,” Vertigo lined up three possible artists for Azzarello to work with. Azzarello was sent each of the artist’s samples via fax; the first came from Risso. Azzarello never even looked at the other two.
“To this day, I have no idea who the other two people were.”
Azzarello and Risso share a unique relationship, especially because one lives in Chicago, and the other in Argentina. In the beginning of the series—way back in the dark ages of 1999 when the Internet was still dial-up—Azzarello would have to mail photos of the city to Risso.
“If I wanted the Green Mill in the book, I had to go there and take pictures,” Azzarello says. “Now, you go to their Web site, they’ve got their own pictures.”
Even though the series is coming to a close, the dynamic union between Azzarello and Risso is set to continue. They have another series in the works, though Azzarello is mum about the details. But while that partnership is continuing, Azzarello’s relationship with his characters is not. And for most of those who populate his “100 Bullets” universe, the end isn’t going to be without a lot of bloodshed. This is still tragic noir, after all.
Bill Savage, a senior lecturer at Northwestern University who teaches “100 Bullets” in his class on American crime narratives, believes the ending will only heighten the series’ place in the pantheon of great American literature.
“This is an epic American morality play,” Savage says, “a story about what really runs this country—money—and how that rule is maintained—violence.”
Next up for Azzarello is a Batman series focusing on the Joker (written before the release of the “The Dark Knight”). The story will revolve around the infamous villain as seen through the eyes of one of his henchmen. Azzarello promises a bloody, disturbing romp. What readers and fans of Azzarello should also expect is a meditation on the gray areas of free will and morality—of how power and altruism rarely go hand-in-hand. It’s those explorations that has helped make “100 Bullets”—which, when it finishes, will be a 2,000-page epic saga—not only a great comic series, but also the perfect series for America’s morally ambiguous times.