Crime Story (

By:Russell Lissau
Date: Monday, July 16, 2001

Would you kill someone if you knew absolutely knew you'd get away with it? What if the victim in question was no victim at all, but a mobster, a rapist or another lowlife who had done you or your loved ones great harm? Could you seek revenge? Could you pull the trigger?

Brian Azzarello thinks he knows the answer.

"We've all had murder in our hearts at one time or another," says Azzarello, the writer behind DC Comics' monthly crime-noir masterpiece, 100 BULLETS. "It's something everybody can relate to."

The critically acclaimed series, which is vividly drawn by Argentinian illustrator Eduardo Risso, is published by DC's mature audiences imprint, Vertigo. For the uninitiated, here's 100 BULLETS in a nutshell: At the beginning of each story arc, an enigmatic, briefcase-toting gentleman named Agent Graves no first name has ever been provided appears at the door of someone whose life has recently been ruined. Inside the attaché, Graves explains, is irrefutable evidence that reveals whoever ruined the person's life. The case also holds a handgun and 100 rounds of ammunition that can be used to exact revenge without any legal repercussions. "Whatever you choose to do, you'll be acting above the law," Graves whispers. "No law enforcement agency can touch you. You'll get away with it." But Graves' offer is non-negotiable. Use the piece for anything but it's intended purpose whether to rob a bank or plink a row of cans and you'll go down. Hard. Not everyone uses the gun, but most do and to a variety of staggering conclusions.

A Dave Gibbons pin-up featured in 100 BULLETS #26

"Given similar circumstances, people react in different ways," Azzarello says. "That's part of human diversity, I suppose. If I got the case, I might walk right over to the person's house and blow them away. You might want to know why this person did this to you. I might not even care. The answer for me is killing him. The answer for you might be understanding. There's a hundred different ways people will react."

Despite the action-packed premise, 100 BULLETS is far more than just another heavily armed, DEATH WISH-style revenge fantasy. Like the conspiracy that permeates THE X-FILES, every issue is a piece in a much greater puzzle. Who is Agent Graves? Why does he help these people? How does he operate above the law? Is the just-as-secretive Mr. Shepherd working for or against Graves? And what exactly is the Trust, the Mafia-like organization that wants Graves dead? Azzarello drops clues here and there, but he's actually revealed very little about the series' backstory which just leaves readers begging for more.

"I know it all," Azzarello says of the story that connects the various arcs. "I just have to decide how much of it to dole out. Some of the stories have nothing to do with it, but every once in a while I'll throw you a nugget to keep you coming back. But that's part of the joy of a mystery trying to figure out what's going on."

The recent twenty-sixth issue of 100 BULLETS is a perfect jumping-on point for new readers. Beginning with a framing sequence drawn by Risso, the comic summarizes the entire story so far and reveals new information about the Trust, Agent Graves and the rest of the series' cast of characters. The special issue also features artwork by some of the industry's biggest guns, including Frank Miller, Jim Lee, Dave Gibbons and J.G. Jones. DC even overshipped the book to comics shops for free so retailers could introduce the series to new readers.

Joe Jusko offers up a seductive pin-up in 100 BULLETS #26

Although it definitely is a modern morality tale, BULLETS is also something of a throwback to the crime comics of the 1950s, as well as the detective novels of the same era. "I really like the old pulp crime books from the '50s and '60s, guys like Jim Thompson and David Goodis," he says. "If anything, 100 BULLETS is me playing in their yard. We all seem to deal with the disenfranchised, people who can't seem to catch a break. And when they do, they tend to f*** it up."

A native of Cleveland who moved to Chicago more than a decade ago, Azzarello doesn't have to look far for inspiration for BULLETS. All he has to do is open the local newspaper for a seemingly endless supply of stories about murder, mayhem and corruption in the Windy City. "You want inspiration, it's in there," Azzarello says. "You read this stuff and it's beyond belief. Real life is more shocking than anything anybody can write. This is a great crime town. Before the Bulls, what was Chicago identified with? When you go to Europe and you tell people where you from, they say 'Al Capone! Bang, bang!'"

Azzarello isn't the only creator working on 100 BULLETS, of course. His partner-in-crime is the ever-talented Risso, an artist who complements Azzarello's realistic stories with a gritty, almost cinematic style. What makes their teamwork even more amazing is the fact that Risso doesn't speak English and Azzarello knows only a little Spanish, so Risso needs an interpreter to translate Azzarello's scripts. Despite the communication obstacles between the two men, Azzarello believes BULLETS wouldn't be the same without Risso. "Eduardo is just as important to this book as I am," Azzarello says. "Just look at it he's got such extraordinary skill at telling a story. He amazes me sometimes with his different camera angles. It's a real pleasure to work with him. I'm very lucky."

As much as comics fans dig 100 BULLETS, so do many of Azzarello's peers in the industry. They love that the book and its characters including violent gang-bangers, sad waitresses and inveterate gamblers are firmly based in our world. "100 BULLETS is one of the few books that touches a nerve and is constantly current with what's actually happening outside our doors," says Marvel Comics Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada. "Brian's characters are living, breathing, sweating things. They're real in every sense of the word. You know these people, you see them every day on your way to work, on your walk to get a paper, and sometimes in your worst nightmares."

Azzarello appreciates the compliment. "Good fiction takes you places that you normally wouldn't be going," he says. "You want to take a reader someplace where he hasn't been and show him something about these people that he can relate to. We've all screwed people. And everyone has something in their life they regret."

BULLETS isn't the only comic book on Azzarello's plate. He also writes HELLBLAZER for Vertigo, and earlier this year he resurrected the old DC western character El Diablo for a spooky Vertigo mini-series of the same name. He's also writing a new four-issue Incredible Hulk mini-series called STARTLING STORIES: BANNER for Marvel and is set to helm a Luke Cage mini-series for Marvel's mature audiences line, MAX. Azzarello will even take over THE AUTHORITY in 2002 for DC/Wildstorm.

The second trade paperback collection of 100 BULLETS, SPLIT SECOND CHANCE

As a young comics fan, Azzarello actually preferred Sgt. Rock's war stories over the exploits of Superman or other costumed heroes. Although most American comics feature do-gooders in tights and capes, that aspect of the medium didn't hold much interest for Azzarello, nor does it today which explains his reluctance to write traditional superhero tales. "For the kind of stuff I want to do (the field) is pretty wide open," Azzarello says. "It's nice to inject something different into a medium that's superhero-oriented. It should be diversified, like it is in Europe or Japan. And it's nice to be able to play a part in that."

So far, DC has published two softcover BULLETS collections, one titled FIRST SHOT, LAST CALL and the other titledSPLIT SECOND CHANCE. A third is expected to hit stores this fall. Traditional bookstores across the country stock the trade paperbacks, as have many online booksellers. That may give the series a chance to cross over to a mainstream audience, just as people who weren't comic-book fans have picked up collections such as MAUS and PEDRO AND ME.

"It appeals more to a mainstream audience than standard superhero stuff," Azzarello says. "Some people just dismiss superheroes as being for kids. If you boil it down, superheroes are adolescent fantasy not that there's anything wrong with that. But 100 BULLETS is not like that. These are adult stories."