It has been fifteen years since the groundbreaking Vertigo series 100 Bullets first launched, and with the latest iteration of the spin-off series, Brother Lono, released in trade paperback this week, I thought it would be an opportune time to go through the back catalogue to see if it has withstood the test of time and give an updated assessment of this famed comic book.
For those who don’t know, 100 Bullets is built on an irresistible premise that has, at least in some variation, probably entered nearly everyone’s thoughts at one time or another: A mysterious man approaches people who have been the victim of an egregious injustice and offers them the opportunity to exact revenge by killing the person who wronged them. They are given an untraceable gun, 100 bullets, and the assurance that there will be no consequences arising from their actions. Some people take him up on the offer. Others don’t. Some try and fail. Some succeed. This premise—more prominently played out in the initial issues of the book—gives the immensely talented Brian Azzarello, the opportunity to explore human nature and the myriad of choices people would make and reactions they would have when thrust into that situation.
Suffice it to say, it rarely ends well and never ends happily. And that is, unsurprisingly, Azzarello’s, point; that ‘revenge is unfulfilling’ is a timeless theme throughout world history and across all genres of literature. Azzarello elevates the concept to a fantastical extreme and yet still draws the same conclusion. Revenge isn’t worth it—even consequent-free revenge—and pursuing it, even when it is just and even when a social good is being performed, strips the victim of whatever high ground and dignity he or she may have had.
In a world where someone has the ability to grant people a chance to kill and get way with it, Azzarello also had to create a power structure that enables it. This is where the book is at its weakest. He constructs a secret society called the Trust that we’re told essentially controls and has controlled everything, including the American Revolution and the Kennedy assassination. The Trust’s foot soldiers are led by a steely-eyed, menacing-looking elderly man who goes simply by Agent Graves. It is Graves who makes the offers of a 100 bullets to people who have had their lives destroyed. But as the series progresses, we’re made to believe this revenge game he plays is not merely a hobby or a recruiting tool, but also an attempt to achieve balance in a world so lopsided in favor of powerful, entrenched interests. Or as one character, Mr. Branch, a grizzled journalist puts it: Graves’ game is “one man’s vision of right and wrong in a society that was lawless at heart.”
As the series goes on, the more complicated and muddled it gets. Other weak points are the seemingly endless parade of two-dimensional characters, mostly tough guy criminals and vacuous blonde floozies, the over-the-top and forced slang riddled throughout, and the borderline offensive ethnic stereotypes that make up Azzarello’s underworld. Still, for all its faults, the original hook and the book’s namesake is one of the most fascinating and compelling you’ll find in a modern comic books. Azzarello cannot resist portraying modern America as an unforgiving and violent place. A place where justice can only be done with the help of a god-like figure and his untraceable bullets, where wrongs are righted not by a fair legal system and decent people, but by vigilantism, often carried out by the lowest of the low in society.
I often hear people suggest that 100 Bullets would make for a perfect television adaptation. I’m not so sure. I don’t know if a TV audience would warm to a series that episode after episode hammers people with stories of the foulest parts of human nature with few (if any) characters with any redeeming values and with no happy endings. But for a subset of jaded comic book readers, despite the book’s other flaws, these themes are perfect.
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