The characters in 100 Bullets are all noir stereotypes turned up to eleven in the most outrageous ways. Every woman is both unbelievably beautiful and unthinkably manipulative, weaving sexual traps for men to fall into. The men are two-fisted brutes or wise-cracking sureshots who can make a quip and follow it up with a smile bathed in shadow; all people of color are gangbangers of some persuasion, be that small-time crime or the mob-style hustle. The good people are really bad and the bad people are so rotten than you immediately wish them dead.
And it is tiring.
There’s an illuminating interview from 2009 where Brian Azzarello, the writer of 100 Bullets, is asked about noir. The interviewer asks “is noir becoming a crutch?” Azzarello responds “only if you’re lame.” The groan you just let out, probably for a variety of reasons that range from your unhappiness with the pun to your displeasure at a joke that only works at the expense of the disabled, is one that I let out when I finished reading the series recently.
It was my second time. The first was half a decade ago, when the issues were coming fresh and hot and the speculation about the series was white hot. There was Agent Graves, a man who would give you a case with an untraceable gun, one hundred bullets, and irrefutable evidence that helped point that gun toward someone who had wronged you. The first few story arcs were about how people chose to use that gun, that information, those bullets, but somewhere around halfway through the series things went sideways.
It wasn’t about the guns and the case anymore. Instead, it was about Graves, and the Trust, and waking up Minutemen who would go from slightly-crap noirmen to terrible, violent humans who only got worse as their number increased.
It changed from a story about small-scale revenge into a story about large-scale power plays where shadowy characters killed off other shadowy characters.
It is very hard to tell the characters in 100 Bullets apart from one another. Unless they are hulking, muscular men or buxom women, they mostly blend into one another. This character is Cole because he has a goatee; this character is Remi because he has stitches in his face. One could chalk this up to a fundamental argument of the series: there are only seven stories in the world, and the Minutemen are gathered because they embody those stories. Their existence is mostly generic.
Or you could say that the art and coloring is rushed, leaning into “noir” shadows and highlights to give us figures instead of characters.
In another interview a couple years later, Azzarello says that 100 Bullets is about “the real world,” which is to say that it is contained in a world like ours but also one where squads of hitmen could roam around the nation killing one another as byproducts of a giant conspiracy machine.
There were a few times when I was reading the series that I wondered “where does this come from?” Strong men betraying one another and always failing (or being betrayed by) the women who love them litter the book. What’s the mind, the culture, that comes up with this baroque machinery that sees people and systems not as a byproduct of people themselves but as a given in the state of things?
Dark City always seemed to have the best explanation of noir to me. The world is quite literally a machine to keep you underneath its heel. The shadows, the women, the gangsters–they betray our fallen heroic men because they are destined to. It is a cycle.
There are moments where 100 Bullets wants to make an argument about the circulation of themes. Dizzy Cordova goes back to Chicago and sees her girlfriends pregnant and living their lives the same way they always have: supporting young men who end up dead in street violence. Or there’s a moment where Agent Graves returns to New York and sees Hell’s Kitchen turned into a place where African-American nannies walk white babies around the block in expensive strollers.
These scenes, so few and far between, seem like they want to comment on how these cycles keep repeating. Things change, but behind it all there’s still the same tired power struggles of powerful white men. Those fights leak down and create the structures that cause the street fights, the young men in prison, the gentrification of those streets.
Mostly it feels like a paternalistic talking to by someone who sort of understands how poverty is systematized and how it expresses itself but can’t be bothered to do much research.
There’s an interview where Azzarello says that 100 Bullets came out of his desire to kill someone in traffic.
100 Bullets is the strangest series. It’s a slog because there are a hundred issues, and they don’t run together well. There are moments where Azzarello seems to be treading water and waiting for something that never quite comes. There are deaths that come out of nowhere, and reprieves that make no sense to an audience who has been primed for death. We watch characters change, bend, and break for no reason other than an artist or a writer seems to be flexing a particular kind of muscle.
These thoughts that I’ve written here haven’t touched on anything significant on 100 Bullets, but that feels oddly appropriate. It is a sprawling series that fails to cohere into anything meaningful, and the meaning that it manages to cobble together is of the hokey “one’s personal values are very important” variety, which is not exciting or outrageous.