Fair warning, this is a review of the book’s contents, so it will contain any number of spoilers. Any poor sap waiting for the trade might want to turn away now, bookmark this page, and come back in, oh, say, Fall 2009, most likely. See you then.
Ten years and 99 issues ago, “100 Bullets” began with ex-convict Dizzy Cordova, looking up at the gun pointed at her head. Now, in the book’s overwhelming final issue, the series ends with Dizzy pointing a gun at someone else. In neither instance do we ever see the trigger pulled. The same can’t be said about the story in between.
“100 Bullets” has always been about violence. About America’s history of it, about Americans’ attitudes toward it, about the morality of it. At no point, however, did it ever offer easy answers or solutions or even causes. Every protagonist ever featured in the series (nearly all of whom end up dead by the final page) has a history of it. And at the center of it is Agent Graves. When we were introduced to him, he was a mysterious figure offering people the chance to rectify their shattered lives with a gun and 100 untraceable bullets. As the series went on, it was clear that the people he offered these chances to were no more who they appeared to be than he was. We were introduced to criminal syndicate called the Trust, one so old and powerful that it was responsible for the theft and control of the United States itself. As Graves went from city to city, activating his ex-soldiers, The Minutemen, the Trust’s enforcers, we saw snapshots of un- or barely-connected lives. Tied up in their own small stories of murder and vengeance and tragedy. It was an incredible balancing act that hardly ever faltered or lost its core direction. Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso, it can now be assured, have crafted an unparalleled and distinctly American saga about violence, its consequences, and our responsibilities concerning both.
Whereas the rest of series focused on dozens of characters — both critical and fleeting — in dozens of locales, the final issue zeroes in on the most important ones, all converging on August Medici’s heavily guarded mansion. Issues and decades of planning all come together in ways probably too byzantine to properly explain all at once, although in one particular monologue, Agent Graves does his best.
For 100 issues, one creative team has had total control over the book (except for a handful of pin-ups integrated into the storytelling of one issue), and in this final one, all of them are at their best. Patricia Mulvihill’s colors are deceptively intricate and critical to the tone. On the most cursory flip-through, one might dismiss it as an easy gig, just adjusting the shaders on one particular tone of red, which is the overarching color in this chapter. But Mulvihill achieves so much depth in such a limited palate that the color starts to personify that inexorable doom that eventually swallows all but the luckiest characters whole. And Clem Robins’ letters should also be noted, as they perfectly personify Azzarello’s air-tight dialogue. The second-to-last line of the series, spoken by a frail and damaged Dizzy Cordova, is clearly and delicately handwritten, and its impact, both in tone and content, carries the enormous weight it needs to.
Azzarello’s most critical partner in this enterprise, however, is Eduardo Risso. Over the course of 38 pages that feel and read just as extravagantly as that page count might imply, Risso tells a story that breathes much more, and speaks on a much wider stage, than probably ever before in the series — which is appropriate, as this is its last chance. In the penultimate sequence, completely dialogue free, Risso alone shows tragedies intertwining as plans intersect with dumb luck. The fates of Augustus Medici, Cole Burns, and Megan Dietrich all slowly unfold over the course of four silent pages, and the pacing and staging and performances of every character and storytelling moment are all pitch perfect. Risso also adds a bit more detail to his linework than he usually does, clearly putting everything he ever might have wanted to say about this story on the final pages. And the very last page, a breathtaking reversal of the apocryphal sculpture La Pieta, may not be his best moment (there are too many of those to count, both big and small) but it is the perfect encapsulation of the series, a stunning and heartbreaking finish.
A finish that was, of course, orchestrated by writer Brian Azzarello. He stated recently that he conceived of the final page in 1999, presumably around the same time the series started, and now that we’ve seen it, it’s hard not to believe him. This was a story of Agent Graves’ machinations, what they cost him, and the life he pulled into those schemes, Dizzy Cordova, and how that one was destroyed as well. Throughout the series, and in its final scene, Graves, who has passed his role of Agent onto Dizzy; intimating that it is another, possibly the ultimate, attache case of untracable bullets; expresses true and genuine concern for Dizzy. The fact that intertwining her into his plans costs her so greatly is the tragedy that everyone else saw coming, but that he never did. His plan was to atone for his lifetime of murder, first by giving innocents the chance for revenge, and then by destroying the syndicate that gave him the opportunity. Dizzy had always been set up to take his place and then take his life, closing the circle. Like any classic tragedy (and “100 Bullets” is most certainly one of those), though, Dizzy never had a chance of coming out the other side. This, also, should come as no surprise. There’s a tremendous and delicate moment in this issue (one of many) where Dizzy has simultaneously discovered the man she loved, Benito Medici, has been murdered, and has herself been made the new Agent and head of the Minutemen. Tears well up in her eyes, but don’t fall, hovering over the two teardrop tattoos she wears to commemorate the two lives she’s taken. She’s always carried the scars of her past with her, and in the end, like Graves, she too is consumed by them.
In the closing moments of the book, as Medici’s mansion crumples in flames over his dead body, Dizzy — seemingly paralyzed after being thrown over a railing in the explosion that killed Cole Burns and Megan Dietrich — tells Graves, “I can’t feel…I don’t feel.” It’s a sentiment echoed by Loop, earlier, when he decides to give up his life as a Minuteman. The desensitization that all the killers Graves has folded into his grand plan is a constant in nearly every life he’s affected. But another constant has been choice and responsibility. Graves only ever gave the attache case’s recipient the means to take their revenge. Whether or not they did was always their responsibility. The great lie and irony in that, one that Graves is faced with in the series’ final pages, is that you can never separate the means and the responsibility. It was a lie Graves always told himself, yet constantly planned in knowledge of the truth. The final sequence turns on that lie, and the last thing he does is lie to himself before Dizzy corrects him, and in the final page, he acknowledges it, as if he knew all along.
It’s difficult to imagine a more perfectly executed finish to this long form narrative. While some plot strands and specifics might remain a mystery, the overarching themes and character arcs are perfectly summated. Cole Burns, literally. Agent Graves insures the deaths of two agents. Dizzy Cordova’s vertiginous spiral at the behest of forces that she never controlled finally ends when she takes that control for herself. At the end, every trace of the syndicate has been eradicated. While a few lucky characters make it out alive (and the reprehensible Lono just might have limped away as well), there is no one left with the wherewithal or the resources to rebuild the Trust or the Minutemen. It’s fitting then, that so many of the stories that had been told in “100 Bullets” never had anything to do with those forces. The “tiny lives” we saw that intersected through this story, one of which began the final storyline, serve as a kind of coda. While Graves and Medici, and all those who came before them, orchestrated so much violence and built such a vast network of crime, there were always those that never needed their help to commit the same basic acts. Graves’ attache was often a link to those lives, but as we see in the finish, it was the cause of his own destruction. Most likely, that was his intention all along. Another great irony and tragedy is that, as we’ve seen in nearly ever issue, it probably won’t ever make a difference.
“100 Bullets” is an incredible and important work. Its final issue relies on the weight of the 99 issues that have come before it, and it should. If I can fault it for anything, it is that it signals the end of such an effective story, one that always straddled the fine line between drama and moral commentary. There have never been easy answers in the series, or easily encapsulated motives for its characters. It is a story as deeply rewarding as it has been complicated. What started as the perfect elevator pitch, “What would you do if you could commit murder and never be punished?” became a massive tapestry of violence and its consequences in America.
The only thing wrong with this final issue of “100 Bullets” is that it means there will never be another one like it.