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100 Bullets reads so intensely that I mgiht need to create a Volume Two of our Top Ten Favorite Single Issues just to include it. The hook of the series is that Agent Graves shows up one day with a briefcase. It contains a photo of the person responsible for the mess of your life, plus irrefutable proof of this. Also, you get a Smith & Wesson semi-automatic pistol with 100 untraceable .40-caliber bullets that, if found, will end any investigation into the incident. Graves gives you both the full evidence and the knowledge you will act “above the law”.

What you do with it is up to you.

As the series progresses, we learn more about Agent Graves and his shadowy organization, and his true motives. But in the early issues, before the plot thickens and a web of intrigue spins out of control, a few stories focus more on the hook than Azzarello’s unfolding epic.

In issue eleven, for example, Agent Graves tells a grieving mother the final fate of her missing daughter. While the scene relies on exposition, the previous scene establishing her daughter’s absence is told entirely without words. Eduardo Risso uses a stark but tender moment in an empty child’s bedroom to convey the mother’s sadness. The scene in the diner, though, and the matter-of-fact delivery from Graves, suggest that despite horror he relates, Graves has seen many such horrors in his life. What could possibly compel him to present these briefcases, to open these personal wounds, and to offer these opportunities?

This episode of 100 Bullets raises questions about Graves’ motives and morality. On the one hand, he seems cold and cruel, chomping on a piece of pie as he relentlessly relates a tale that touches on just about every nightmare a parent could have for their child. On the other hand, while many of these scenes turn out to be part of the larger plot where Graves gets his old crew back together, this episode has nothing to do with that. Graves gives this poor woman the brutal truth and the means for justice (or revenge, depending on your perspective) with no gain for his organization or larger plan.

This suggests a much deeper moral characterization for Agent Graves. Often accused of simply playing a game, Graves seems to be either a sadist or a firm believer in a kind of higher justice. Moreover, Graves never takes matters into his own hands to right wrongs such as these. He puts that power in the hands of the injured party. He seems driven to pose this moral question to those he confronts. Yet, on the final page of issue eleven, where Graves witnesses the outcome of this woman’s choice, he takes no sadistic glee in the moment. Rather, he appears wordlessly somber, sober, serious. This is no laughing matter for Graves, not something he takes lightly.

Azzarello and Risso never, not in 100 issues, give us any thought bubbles or voice-overs to convey what’s going on inside Graves’ head. They leave us to judge him existentially — by his actions alone — through his dialogue, body language, and facial expressions, which Risso masterfully depicts throughout the series. Graves, therefore, poses the essential moral themes of the story to us, asking the question but never explicitly giving the answer. Just as he does with the briefcase and the bullets, Graves leaves the reader to draw the conclusions on their own.

It’s a great story, and I highly recommend the entire series. What you do with it is up to you.

Collector’s Guide:
– From 100 Bullets #11; DC/Vertigo,.
– Reprinted in the 100 Bullets TPB #2
– Collected in 100 Bullets The Deluxe Edition Book One