Reviews of trade paperbacks of comic books (mostly Marvel), along with a few other semi-relevant comments / reviews.

10 August 2006

100 Bullets v. 9: Strychnine Lives

Collects: 100 Bullets #59-67 (2005-6)

Released: April 2006 (DC / Vertigo)

Format: 224 pages / color / $14.99 / ISBN: 1401209289

100 Bullets is a series by Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso that is filled with sex and violence and desperation and violence and subterfuge and very, very violent violence.

The series was originally about a gun and 100 bullets handed out by the mysterious Agent Graves, who gave a wronged party evidence of who was responsible for their heartache or ruination and told that they wouldn’t be punished for whatever they did with the gun and bullets. Since then, the story has moved on to Graves, the shadowy, world-controlling Trust he used to work for, and the cadre of elite killers he used command, the Minutemen.

But it’s the sex and violence that dominate. Is it gratuitous? Well, it depends. When the story is about the Trust, Graves, and the Minutemen, the answer is no. With control of the world at stake, no one’s going to scruple about a few dozen bodies scattered around the world. But when it comes to the background stories of misery, of people whose lives were destroyed in their quests for sex, money, or drugs, the mayhem seems much less necessary.

In Strychnine Lives, for instance, Spain, a felon, and his dog and lawyer get mixed up with bellboy named Tito. By the time their story is over, not only are they all dead (except for the lawyer, who is arrested for doing something vile while high on PCP), but a drug gang is also wiped out. The events have only a tangential relationship with the other stories in Strychnine Lives. The stories happening at the same time have great meaning for the overall plot but are talky; it’s as if Azzarello thinks the readers will get bored unless there’s constant blood and gunfire.

The real meat of Strychnine Lives is the story of three factions: the Trust, focused on the House of Medici, which is headed by Augustus and his son Benito; the resurrected Minutemen, who are under the control of Graves; and a third faction, led by violent renegade Minuteman Lono. Graves and Lono both parley with Augustus; each are involved with double and triple crosses. It’s impossible to tell what Graves’s plan is or if Lono is as blood simple as he appears.

It’s these stories that are the most fascinating part of 100 Bullets, changing the relationships between factions and characters while revealing a past that makes the reader reexamine what he thought he knew. Key players get removed from the board, and new ones step up from obscurity.

Azzarello creates a fascinating world with a secret history, bloodsoaked and dangerous, even if he goes overboard with offing his background characters. On the other hand, sometimes those stories work, if they’re integrated into the plot: the first story in Strychnine Lives has a Minuteman being drawn into the plot, and he walks out of the love triangle he had been the middle of, with tragic results for the other two vertices. On the other hand, a character he created in the first arc of 100 Bullets, Dizzy, entrances and draws men to her to an almost ridiculous degree. In the final story, three key players in the 100 Bullets follow her to Mexico, not deterred by bullets or the presence of the other two. Her allure doesn’t ring true — she’s no seductress, she’s a former gangbanger who barely notices the men who get swept up behind her — but I hope Azzarello can justify his fascination with the character.

Risso’s art in 100 Bullets has to be mentioned. An excellent noir artist, all his women are femme fatales and all his men are dirty, to some extent or another, even when they’re decked out in custom-made suits. His world is filled with stark, all-encompassing shadows, silhouettes, and red, red blood. There is little shading or subtlety about it. Without that art, the world of 100 Bullets would be a vastly different — and probably lesser — place.

Strychnine Lives is not an introduction to 100 Bullets; it is an engrossing part of the story already begun. When it is good, it’s very good, but its excesses drag it down a little.

Rating: (4 of 5)

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