100 Bullets starts with an intriguing premise and a fascinating cast, opens out beyond that into something far larger, and rapidly joins the relatively slim pantheon of the greatest English language crime graphic novels ever produced. Yes, it’s that good, and astonishingly, it’s that good from the very start.

The hook that Brian Azzarello employs to sucker the reader in is the premise of someone who’s been wronged being presented with an attaché case containing evidence of who’s responsible along with a gun and 100 bullets. This gift comes with a guarantee that both weapon and ammunition are a free pass. They won’t be traced.

Dizzy Corodova, the first recipient, has just been released from jail. She’s told who murdered her husband and child, but is too streetwise to take anyone at their word until she accidentally discovers it’s the truth. Like many others we meet over the course of this book, she’s down on her luck, although more capable than some, and the moral quandry that unites them also divides them. More than not choose to use the gift they’ve been given.

The man handing out the case calls himself Agent Graves, his life on his face as characterised by artist Eduardo Risso, for whom that’s something of a characteristic. As the book progresses we learn Graves has allies, some of whom don’t remember this, and targets. Hints are dropped as to his past, and that of many others we meet here, but these are elliptical and abstruse. There’s a bigger picture, but we’re not getting all of it.

This is played out within superbly constructed crime dramas. Azzarello emphasises an underworld hierarchy and one of the rules of the crime drama, what’s largely responsible for the emotional pull, is that the loser rarely gets to win. Chuck the gambler, Loop the homeboy, L’il Moe the loudmouth, Lee the barkeeper… we’ve seen them all before. They belong to a world we only visit when turning pages or staring at a screen, yet to them it’s as real as that itch in their pants.

Although he’d drawn a few stories here and there for the American market, before 100 Bullets Argentinian artist Risso was largely unknown to those only reading their graphic novels in English, this despite NBM releasing several of his European works with Carlos Trillo (Cain, Boy Vampire). To those who’d not seen his detailed settings, his strong action sequences and mastery of light and shade, he was a revelation. You’ll ask yourself if there’s anything this man can’t draw well and stylishly. The answer is probably a resounding “No!” Best of all is that his cast is utterly distinctive, consistent and believable. His designs appear complex, but look at Dizzy or Loop from any angle, and they’re recognisable. His affinity for a distinctive cast extends to the bit players with whom he populates his panels.

Many DC hardback editions are packed with extra features, but that isn’t the case here. There are some character design sketches from Risso, but many of them had already seen print in the three volumes this collects: First Shot, Last Call, Split Second Chance and the Eisner Award winning Hang Up on the Hang Low.

The decision then becomes whether it’s worth the extra money to have one of the finest post-millennium series in a hardbound and slightly oversize format.