Thursday, August 28, 2014

100 Bullets


          As many of you may have guessed, I'm a huge fan of crime epics. Most of my consumption is in the form of TV-- I'm a huge fan of The Wire due to its tight writing and its handling of characters, for example, and Boardwalk Empire for the same reason-- but I like the books and comics that deal with the form as well. A good, gritty crime story with a lot of characters and conflicting motivations slamming together at high speeds over a longer period of time than usual and I am hooked. Similarly, a good mystery with a slight edge that could be weirder than normal is another thing I'm a sucker for. 

             And a crime epic, as a form, is a much different animal than its mythological cousin. Where a mythological epic follows a group of people or a single faction in the overall events, a crime epic is a lot more overarching. The characters involved can be criminals, police officers, independent operators, or just about anywhere on the spectrum. Similarly, the crime epic's events don't always have to be as closely related. The idea in a crime epic is to show that everything has ripples and effects that move outward from the central premise, a series of wide-ranging and often tiny events that have huge consequences later on. While it can sometimes follow a central group, it prefers to examine all the elements of crime in various ways until it leads to a climax that, more often than not, is a question rather than a conclusive answer. 

            100 Bullets is, in this mode, fairly by-the-numbers. It examines criminals, cops, the upper class, the lower class, and everywhere in between. But the book's brilliant execution, bizarre underground-comics art style, and tight-as-a-drum writing push it above and beyond the usual crime books, a slowly-unfolding and sometimes grisly story of power and responsibility that is so markedly American and darkly, scathingly funny at points that it's well worth a read, and even a re-read. It's a story of what happens when power corrupts, and it deserves your attention*.

          "America is an evil place."
-Mr. Branch 

            100 Bullets starts with a simple choice. A black-suited man named Agent Graves gives someone a briefcase and a choice to make. In the briefcase are a gun, one hundred untraceable bullets, and irrefutable proof that someone is responsible for the miserable state of their life. If caught by the police with the gun and the bullets, the investigation immediately stops with no questions asked and the briefcase holder goes free. No catches, no strings attached, and absolutely nothing standing between you and your revenge, should you wish to take it. As Agent Graves himself says, carte blanche. If you wish to walk away, then that's also your choice, and no one will stop you. The only rules in the game are that you're only allowed to use the gun, and that investigating the nature of the game and the people behind it is guaranteed not to end well for anyone involved.

            But there isn't any such thing as a deal without a catch, and as many people find out, revenge isn't always what it's cracked up to be. And slowly, a story begins to emerge. Why these people in particular? Who is Mr. Shepherd, the dark-haired man who seems to view Graves and his briefcases with something approaching respectful disdain? And what does everyone keep talking about when they mention "The first great crime"? 

              What follows begins as a crime thriller, then somewhere along the way veers into an alternate-history conspiracy involving the secret history of America and an organization known only as "The Minutemen". It also features towns of murderous rednecks, the entitled daughter of a secret organization that really rules America, a street gangster inexplicably skilled in Hapkido, a stumpy reporter, and a cast of equally-colorful characters, all centered around Agent Graves and the simple choice that he calls "a game". But a game like Graves's has consequences, and those consequences are as far reaching and varied as any. It all comes down to a consequence. And remember, not choosing anything is still a choice someone can make. 

            What pairs 100 Bullets so well with the other epics I reviewed this month is the theme of agency. Agent Graves gives everyone a lot of leeway with their choices, and seems to want to know which way they'll jump. He's more interested in watching what other people will do than any of the numerous possible gambits involving untraceable guns. 

                  As the story moves along, it's clear that Graves is trying to prove something to himself and other people, something I won't completely spoil here, except to say that it has a lot to do with the concept of autonomy and showing a group of people that they aren't needed any more. In fact, there's a certain amount of time spent on questioning the old systems. One of the minor yet more important players is Branch, a journalist who spends his time following the conspiracy and doing proper journalistic dilligence. The comic makes it clear that Branch has fallen out of the world more or less, and he perhaps isn't as useful as he believes, but time is divided equally into Branch being part of the overall truth, and Branch being unnecessary to the grand scheme of things.  The Minutemen, one of the factions put into play over the course of the book, is said to have "outlived their usefulness" and been disbanded, though the weight this claim has is one of the many things being investigated over the course of the story. The Trust, one of the other major players and the nominal (okay, no one in 100 Bullets is exactly good, but the Trust** can be said to be the villains of the story, more or less) villains of the piece are a faction who has been in power for countless years, but has become calcified and locked into petty power struggles. 

                It is within those petty power struggles that the story begins to take its epic form, as the Trust, Graves, the Minutemen, and the countless individuals Graves plays his game with form something of a tragic story with wide-ranging implications.  Where Preacher was about the character of America, where Lucifer was about the fight for free will, where Sandman was about what made everyone human, 100 Bullets examines them all in a kind of nihilistic fashion. Where everyone is shown the consequences of those ideas, as well as those ideas. In essence, 100 Bullets is a dark counterpoint to all of them. By the end of the book, it's clear that in all the choices, all the morality, all the talk about how "America is an evil place", while there's a possibility that the more choices people make, the more choices they'll have to give up. There's a huge choice in particular that's alluded to throughout the work that the Minutemen made sometime before the story started, and that choice is what eventually brings about the climax, a choice followed through the entire narrative with various people deciding whether or not it was a good idea or a bad. 

                    There are also the elements of a Greek tragedy to 100 Bullets. The Trust stands in for the gods, of course, a group of detached and decadent rulers who are literally above the law and able to do what they wish without consequence. Of course, this ability to act without consequence makes several of them completely degenerate and sociopaths, but if the gods understood humanity, a lot of Greek tragedies wouldn't happen. The Minutemen act as demigods, a group designed to facilitate things between the gods and humans, or maybe something like the Titans, a group who were cast down by the gods for killing and terrorizing them, constantly plotting revenge. And in the end, it plays out similar to the classic tragedies, though I'm not going to tell how, as that would spoil a lot of the fun of the book. 

                    And what I will tell you is that it all tumbles down gloriously. The thing Azzarello and his team do best is setting up the plot so that it will all release in an explosive moment and will more importantly make sense in context, something that most bleak endings don't manage to do. The story is tightly plotted, but managed to surprise me. I couldn't predict the twists well enough even knowing that the ending was probably going to end on a question to all the people in the book that no one would be able of answering for sure. It ends, rather beautifully, in a single wordless question. One last choice neither party is equipped to make, and mirrors the central questions perfectly. It also says something that the people with the happiest endings are the ones who make a choice no one else considered, the people who go off script, who finally make the choice that they're okay with no choice being a choice, as it's still a choice that matters. In the end, the most important lesson to 100 Bullets is that choosing not to play the game is a choice everyone has, and it's the choice that everyone should probably make. 

                      But I'm not going to lie and say the book is for everyone. There are some truly grisly scenes that take place throughout the story, and the art style can be kind of jarring and unconventional, if not downright impressionistic at times. Furthermore, there's not really anyone to root for, no clear-cut good guys and bad guys. The only thing there is are good and bad choices, made by people who are formed by those good and bad choices. So it can be quite jarring to see a sympathetic character do something incredibly unsympathetic or join with someone who is incredibly unsympathetic. But all these people are just that-- people. They can do good things, they can do bad things, they can do things in between. And the book treats them as such. But I completely understand if all of it's confusing or if the moral ambiguity becomes too much. I've heard similar complaints about other crime epics, and they're valid in a kind of subjective way.

                   In the end, though, I really do think 100 Bullets is a book you should read. And own. If you can get through the weird pacing, strange art style, and morbid fascination with choice that it has, you'll find a sometimes challenging but always rewarding work on what freedom of choice and humanity truly mean. And it's a damn fine crime story, too.

- Noon Month kicks off with Nymphomation by Jeff Noon
- Vurt by Jeff Noon
- Pollen by Jeff Noon

*And a few Absolute editions. Come on, DC, hook us up.
**To my friend who might be reading this: NOW do you see why joining an organization called The Trust might be detrimental?

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