Today, Patrick and Drew are discussing 100 Bullets: Brother Lono 1, originally released June 19th, 2013. Check out Drew’s interview with Brian Azzarello here!
Patrick: Revenge narratives are tough — in order to properly motivate a hero to undertake an immoral quest, the character needs to be severely wronged. We place so much moral capital on someone’s ability to turn the other cheek, that even when the protagonist is pushed to their limits, it feels a little icky to see the bad guy get what’s coming to ’em. I mean, they have to maintain the high ground somehow, right? But no matter how masterfully crafted, these stories are always ugly, always petty, and even in their moments of triumph, always revolting. Brian Azzarello and Eduaro Risso built a compelling story engine on the framework of revenge in 100 Bullets, and their new mini-series may have dropped many of the central conceits of the original, but that intensely repulsive element remains. I cannot wait to see the bad guys get what’s coming to ’em in this series.
The issue centers around the impending arrival of two strangers — two strangers that may turn out to be the same stranger: a nun and a D.E.A. agent. Brother Lono, who appeared to be sleeping off a bender in the local jail, is contacted by the town’s sheriff to pick up the nun from the bus station. There’s another party interested in this same bus: it’s a drug cartel run by a pair of brothers known as Las Torres Gemelas. (That translates to “The Twin Towers,” by the way — make of that what you will.) The cartel is… well, they’re a drug cartel, so they take what they want, and they use extreme violence to do so. We’re treated to not one, but two different scenes of absolutely horrifying torture at the hands of these cartel guys. But even for all of their intelligence gathering, the cartel has to pull away from the bus station without making the D.E.A. agent. Lono, 1 – Cartel, 0.
It’s unclear exactly what role Lono’s going to be playing, but one thing’s for sure: he is not the villain here. Azzarello and Risso go to great lengths to make the cartel as terrible as humanly possible — to the point where it’s almost hard to get through it. That first torture scene is brutal: a man’s been held captive and beaten for months. Months. He’s missing teeth, there are burns and open wounds all over his body, and it sure looks like he’s had an eye gauged out. That’s his condition when the hard-to-read scene starts. THAT’S WHERE IT STARTS. Then they bring his wife and infant child into the mix and violently rob them all of any hope or dignity. I’m chosing my language carefully because there’s nothing quite like reading that scene: if you have already, you know what I’m talking about, and if you haven’t — but don’t want those images in your head — I don’t blame you. It is hyper-violence; the kind of shit that makes you stand up and DEMAND JUSTICE.
Oh and in the second, less traumatizing, torture scene, they chop a man’s fingers off and let them fall into some kind of fast food bucket.
Now, I’m an adult American man, exposed to countless hours of intensely graphic violence, but this shit is effective violence. It’s manipulative and exploitative to a Machiavellian degree — a master class in making the reader feel like shit.
Ugh. Let’s shake that off and talk about the rest of the book.
So, Lono’s been hanging out in a mission town in Mexico — judging by the landscape, the criminal element and access to the city by bus, I’d say it’s northern Mexico, possibly a border town. Azzarello doesn’t give us any time or location banners to orient the reader. The actual name of this Mexican town might not be important, but the scene that opens the issue is Lono digging a grave (or possibly, several graves) before cutting away to something else. Next time we see Lono, he’s in jail. Okay, so what happened between them? Is the opening sequence actually a flashforward? Or does it take place well before the events of this story? Maybe immediately before? The issue never says, and ultimately, it doesn’t matter: it’s a moment for Lono to muse on the very idea that gives the issue it’s name — “¡El Hombre Respira!” or “The Man Breathes.” He says:
Is that why we live? To die? I’m not going to say I know the answer, but I will tell you one thing. We all die as we were born… gasping for air.
That idea of birth and death subtly plays throughout the issue. That first torture victim’s infant son is handed off to the mission after Las Torres murder his father. Further, the Twins are said to be orphans themselves, but the only action we see them taking in this issue is torture and murder. There’s a weird symbiotic relationship between the Cartel (representing death) and the Mission (representing life), and I sincerely hope that they’re both looking out for the same woman — there are a few other candidates who could be the D.E.A. agent, but… well, here’s the panel where the informant points out the agent.
We know it’s not Lono, and the dude in the hat works for the Cartel. That just leaves Sister June or this older woman. Or the guy was talking about his ass and Las Torres Gemelas are right to chop of the rest of his fingers.
I know he gets a lot of praise for his unflinching ugliness with 100 Bullets, but Risso art it tough for me to swallow. Sister June is dressed up like she’s nothing but eye-candy and there are two different panels where you can perceive her nipples through her shirt. Plus, Risso does this thing where he applies a pattern to a three dimensional object as though it’s a flat image on the page – you see it mostly on shirts and jackets. I voiced my distaste for it in Before Watchmen: Moloch, and I’m re-voicing it here.
So, Drew, what do you see in this series when you push past all the ugly? I’m sure we’ve got a thrilling ride ahead of us — just need to power on through the really rough stuff.Drew: I’m glad you brought up revenge narratives — while I’m not convinced Brother Lono will be about revenge, it clearly has more in common with Kill Bill or 100 Bullets than it does the gory torture porn of Saw. While those torture scenes are brutal, what really makes them tough to read is the psychology of the situation. Indeed, that first torture scene actually falls between acts of violence. As Patrick mentioned, much of the damage is done upon the start of the scene (and, Patrick, I believe his eye is just swollen shut — he still has both eyes when we see his corpse later), and we cut away just before the scene gets gory again. Still, it’s one of the most effective, most demoralizing torture scenes I’ve seen in any medium. They haven’t just destroyed this man’s body — they’ve destroyed his life. We may be desensitized to blood and guts, but that scene manages something much more profoundly disgusting be (mostly) eschewing the gore.
In that way, I actually feel like Risso’s work here is beautifully restrained. Throughout that scene, the victim is mostly shown in silhouette — the classic comic move for avoiding actual gore. The latter torture scene is a bit more explicit, but Risso mostly restrains himself to reaction shots and that repeated shot looking into the bucket. As far as Sister June is concerned, I don’t think the way she’s depicted is just an artistic tic on his part — I think her sexuality is meant to be put front and center. He’s explicit because he’s trying to be explicit: Sister June doesn’t fit our stereotype for “nun.”
So, is she the D.E.A. agent the Twins are looking for? I’m less convinced than Patrick. Sure, she was on the bus, is American, and is suspiciously protective of her backpack, but she also seems pretty clueless — both about getting around Mexico, and the type of violence the drug cartels are capable of.
Sure, that could all be a cover, but “sexy nun” is such a weird cover story — especially when “young tourist” seems just as plausible. No, I think it’s the old woman. She can clearly handle herself, and even mentions that she’s been here before. “Old woman” also just feels like a better cover.
Of course, I’m not sure we can rule out Lono. Sure, it seems damn unlikely that Lono, of all people, could work for the D.E.A., but we really don’t know what he’s been up to in the past four years. When the Sheriff rouses him from his cell, he mentions that Lono’s “boss” called. That could be the preist at the mission — who Lono is doing the favor for — but that isn’t entirely explicit. In fact, the way the Sheriff also releases the other prisoner — more or less directly into the torturing hands of Las Torres Gemelas — suggests that he, like the priest, might be under the cartel’s control. In that way, the Twins may not turn out to be Lono’s adversaries. Perhaps the D.E.A. poses more of a threat to everyone’s way of life than the Twins do. 100 Bullets had its share of unlikely (and perhaps morally dubious) alliances, and I wouldn’t be surprised if all of the characters we’ve met so far end up uniting against a common enemy. Sure, the most likely scenario is that Lono will be recruited as muscle against the Twins, but my point is: it’s still early — anything can happen.
Patrick is absolutely right that the ugliness here might turn some folks off. This kind of murky black crime story is an acquired taste, but — like most acquired tastes — is incredibly rewarding. Push past the ugliness, and there’s a complexity that can capture your imagination for days. The real question is: do you want it to? For me, it’s an emphatic “yes” — I plan on relishing every ugly minute of this series.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to DC’s website and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?