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Taking the Fifth

  100 Bullets: The Counterfifth Detective

 

Brian Azzarello, Eduardo Risso

Vertigo/DC, 2003

Rating: 4.0

 

 

Posted: June 29, 2003

By Steve Wallace

Five volumes into its run, and the convoluted saga of 100 Bullets is still no clearer than the air in the seedy, smoke-filled gin joints of the pulp detective novels that inspire the series. "Clear things up a little, then muddy the waters again." That's the game Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso are playing with their opus, and for the most part, it works. A quick recap: In earlier issues, we're introduced to the Trust, a handful of powerful families who run the world behind the scenes. We're also introduced to various members of the Minute Men, black-suited soldiers who for generations had enforced the Trust's edicts and ensured a balance of power, before their betrayal at the hands of the Trust in Atlantic City. In an attempt to eliminate the Minute Men, the Trust scattered them to the four corners of the United States with false names and identities, their memories erased. Much of the series has since focused on the recovering of these assassins by their former leaders, Agents Graves and Shepherd.

But what if these Minute Men prefer the new lives they've been assigned over the ones they previously inhabited? That's the question The Counterfifth Detective poses, and it goes straight the series' hard-core, film-noir roots to find an answer. In an earlier volume, Minute Man Cole gladly left his identity driving an ice cream truck in an inner city neighborhood, and the sexy lover that went with it. "Are you kidding me?" Cole responded when asked if he had any regrets. "I love my job." Milo Garret, the hard-drinking, chain-smoking, over-sexed and hyper-violent star of The Counterfifth Detective however, sees things differently. He's a Los Angeles private detective who's recently been in a hideous auto accident, forced to swath his head in enough bandages to make H.G. Wells' Invisible Man proud. For most of the story, very few people, including Milo, know just who he really is. When he finally glimpses the trigger word that unlocks his hypnotically induced amnesia, he tries to hide behind the bandages, to deny the man he now knows himself to be. But if there's one thing the series' earlier installments have proved, it's that no one can escape from the all-powerful Trust once they're entwined in its machinations. There's a sense of inevitability and impending doom that permeates Counterfifth: If Milo doesn't face up to his past and deal with it, it's a sure bet it's going to run him over like a locomotive.

Azzarello's plotting is convoluted and a bit confusing, even after this installment's conclusion, but that's in keeping with the charm of the genre and the series; Azzarello's demanding of his readers. One only wishes the dialogue were as consistent, however. The characters speak in tough-guy innuendoes and allusions, but often sound more like schoolyard bullies than angst-ridden adults. Risso's artwork is likewise spotty. He masterfully fills his pages with shifting shadows and mysterious lighting, and further proves more than once that he's not afraid to take chances with panel layouts, such as when Milo and a police detective descend the staircase in front of Milo's apartment building over the course of a single frame. But such risks don't always work, as in one confusing sequence that details Milo eating a hot dog (why do we see the food approaching his teeth from inside his mouth?). On the whole, however, 100 Bullets remains more than the sum of its parts, and The Counterfifth Detective leaves one anxiously awaiting the next installment.

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 Ratings Key:
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 4.0-4.9: First-rate
 3.0-3.9: Solid
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