100 Bullets: the end of a masterwork

And in a burning building stacked with corpses, 100 Bullets ends. Wilt, the thirteenth and final volume in the collected editions, is a terrific ride through graphic storytelling at its best. The answers are here. We know what happened in Atlantic City, who the Man on the Pier was, but this last volume answers the Whys as well as the Whats. The motivations, the moral values, the theme of responsibility for one’s own actions. It’s all here with a bloodstained bow on top.

But it’s a dense, disjointed read, blurring between flashbacks like fast-forward video; no concessions are made if the characters aren’t speaking English, or if you don’t have the assumed knowledge driving their tightly-scripted dialogue. That’s what makes 100 Bullets great: the characters are real people, not actors playing to our camera. They’ve no need to let us know what’s going on – and much of the time they’re unsure themselves. So the books repay multiple readings: all the answers are there, but many of them lurk in unexpected corners, and not everybody wants to make that big an investment in its thousands of pages.

A primer might help. So if you haven’t experienced the world of 100 Bullets yet, or you’re dipping into the stories halfway through, here’s what you need to know. (WARNING: small spoilers ahead.)

Four hundred years ago, thirteen powerful and troublesome families made Europe’s rulers an irresistible offer. We’ll leave forever, they said, on one condition. There’s this land we’ve discovered across the Atlantic….

The Kings accepted, and the families sailed off. Before they left, an artist called Veronese painted a picture of the thirteen patriarchs.

Thirteen powerful families create as much trouble for each other as they do for a monarch. Recognising this themselves, they formed a Trust, a pooled set of assets divided into “Houses” for each family. This Trust moved to the New World, and set about making their wealth greater than ever.

A few years later, the Kings forgot their bargain, and settlers arrived on America’s shores. In a single night, a team of trained killers employed by the Trust massacred every last one, as a message to Europe’s rulers: This Belongs To Us.

For the next few centuries, thirteen families ruled America from the shadows, seating and unseating Presidents at will and running its economy for their own benefit. The role of the trained killers – the Minutemen – kept the families from warring, through fear. Resourced by the Trust, but never working for them, whenever one House moved against another, a Minutemen exacted the penalty.

In the 1960s, a few Heads of Houses resolved to end the Trust arrangement.

The head of the Minutemen was bribed into accepting the change with the right to offer Minutemen-like power to others. Sourcing weapons and evidence from a shadowy government-connected figure in Seattle, he offered attache cases to people who’d been the victim of some great wrong. The attaches contained incontrovertible evidence, a handgun, and 100 untraceable bullets.

Some accepted, some didn’t. There was no compulsion to act. All Graves removed was the legal ramifications of the implied action; the moral consequences remained, and were the recipient’s to bear. The attaches were a great recruitment tool: the kind of person who’d use the anonymous weapon had the stuff to be a Minuteman.

In the early 21st century, the same few Heads of Houses that’d changed the centuries-old contract in the 60s wanted to change it again. There was another new territory ripe for the taking; the Trust wanted to expand beyond America. This time, Agent Graves refused. So the Trust tried to put an end to the Minutemen directly.

The attempt failed.

Before they left Atlantic City, the Minutemen left just the right body on the waterfront.

By now, Graves was more convinced than ever that he’d made the wrong decision back in the 60s. He hid his Minutemen around the country in hypnotic trances that turned them into gas-pumping, ice-cream vending, meat-packing losers and deadbeats.

Say the right word, and they’d wake up.

That’s all you need.

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