The Cheese Stands Alone is a semi-regular column featuring examinations of single issues that can be understood and appreciated on their own, without reading any of the preceding or following issues of the series.
Cole Burns will always be my favorite Minuteman. I'm sure it's partially because he's the first one we meet, and maybe somewhat because he has the coolest codename ("The Wolf") but mostly Cole just won me over with his understated swagger and love of fine tequila. So in a series with numerous successful standalone stories, I choose 100 Bullets #38 at least in part because it is a Cole-centric issue. And a hell of a fine one, too.
Titled "Cole Burns Slow Hand," 100 Bullets #38 actually tells two complete stories that are largely self-contained, only tying together through the titular character in the final six pages. Each of the two tales is pretty straightforward and familiar---a man rejected by his former lover and an armed robbery at a bar---but they're told so tightly and laced with such humanity and humor that they hit the reader hard and remain memorable long afterward.
The robbery portion of the narrative has an interesting shape to it. What at first seems like a pair of hardened criminals pulling an easy, small-time caper slowly reveals itself to in fact be two total amateurs losing all control over a simple crime. As Joe and Ronnie's complete lack of preparation and skill becomes more and more apparent, the tension in the room gradually builds. The hostages don't know what to expect from these half-cocked masked men, and the crooks themselves fall victim to infighting, steadily exacerbating an already tenuous situation. It's very well-scripted, but the real star of these scenes is artist Eduardo Risso. The perfectly menacing-yet-comical animal masks worn by the robbers, the goofy-but-sincerely-terrified bartender, the dirty looks passed between Ronnie and Joe, Cole's face when they open the door and point a gun at him---all of these purely visual details enrich and enliven what could've been an overly dark or ridiculous story in the hands of a less capable artist. That's not to say writer Brian Azzarello doesn't shine in the bar scenes, too, but where his script really pops off is in the other half of the issue, the conversation between Cole and his lost love Sasha.
All it takes is two lines, one from each character, and the relationship between Cole and Sasha is fully explained to the reader. He lobs a bit of sexual innuendo her way, and not only does she dodge it entirely, she immediately goes on the offensive, trying to get him out of her apartment since he no longer has a place in her heart. From there what we get is Azzarello writing some of his best, most human dialogue. Cole tries every tactic he can think of to talk Sasha back into loving him, and Sasha steadfastly refuses, explaining to Cole that after the damage he did the first time out and the amount of time that's passed since then, his shot at a second chance is long dead and buried. Their back-and-forth is so quick, so casual, so full of quips and jabs and things unsaid or half-said, it is immediately clear how well these two knew each other once, and also how strained things are between them now. We don't get all the details of their past romance because we don't need them, and because this issue isn't really about their history. If anything, it is about their futures, their ability to get over each other and move on. Sasha, through what was clearly great effort, has already brought herself to a place where that's possible, and so she never buckles to Cole, always ready with an answer to his various pleas. And as their conversation develops, we get to watch Cole himself arrive at a similar place. He may not be happy about it, but in the end he truly and fully accepts that he lost Sasha forever, and when he does leave, the long-term finality of the exit is clear.
And then he wanders over to the bar, and we get one of the most satisfying conclusions of all time. Everybody gets just what they deserve in the end: Joe and Ronnie die, Sasha is free of Cole for good, and Cole...well, Cole goes right back to being the cold and efficient killer he was trained to be. If there is any way in which 100 Bullets #38 doesn't work on its own, independently from the rest of the series, it's that the end of the issue might be a tad confusing if you weren't familiar with Cole as a character beforehand. How, exactly, did this random guy manage to take down two armed felons who had the drop on him? But I would argue that, really, the final scene could just as easily clarify who Cole is as cloud the issue. It makes us all the more relieved that Sasha didn't take him back when we see him in the role of a merciless, callous, talented murderer. At the same time, because Cole's killing was not only in self-defense but also in defense of everyone else in the bar, and because Ronnie and Joe are such irredeemable characters, having Cole take them down in the end casts him, ultimately, as a hero. Well, hero of the robbery story, anyway.
And therein lies the true genius of "Cole Burns Slow Hand." The main character gets to be the bad guy in one of its narratives and the good guy in the other. We are most certainly not upset to watch Cole leave Sasha's place, but we are equally pleased to see him arrive at the bar. Like many people, he's not particularly likable or despicable. He's human, as are all of Azzarello's characters, and that means he brings the good with the bad like the rest of us.
There's a lot more I could discuss in this issue, because it really is brilliantly crafted. Like how deliciously paced the whole things is, never spending more than two or three pages at either location until the very end when the two tales collide. Or the awesome transitions Risso throws in, like when a smack or a fist clench or outstretched arms carry over from one story to the other. Or how when Sasha first enters her apartment, we hear Joe off-panel saying, "...and nobody gets hurt," so we know right away that Sasha is going to get hurt before the issue concludes. From the very beginning to the incredible closing line, 100 Bullets #38 is a fun, well-paced, thoroughly enjoyable read. But you don't have to take my word for it, because you can read and fully appreciate every page of it yourself right now.
100 Bullets #38 was published by Vertigo comics and is dated October 2002.