Zeb Larson reviews Bullet Gal…
Bullet Gal, a comic book series by Australian author Andrez Bergen, is a fascinating series to just fall into. Bullet Gal is a neo-noir science fiction dystopia, set in the fictional city of Heropa. However, the series is meant to be much more than its plot: the really important parts are concerned with deeper questions about the creative process.
Mitzi is a seventeen year-old new arrival to the city of Heropa, a new city founded just after WWII. With her father’s two pistols, she adopts the identity of Bullet Gal, and begins assassinating the city’s criminals. This attracts attention from the city’s heroes, including Lee, a man split into eight identical copies of himself, and the city’s villains, including French femme-fatale Brigit and her gangster boyfriend, Sol Brodsky. Yet there’s something else that’s not quite right about Heropa, and Bullet Gal is trying to figure out just what it is that seems off about the place.
The series is almost like an anti-comic book, in the sense that it tackles and subverts many of the tropes in comics. One of the subverted ideas in this book is the role of influence on the creative process? Is the purpose of the borrowed and heavily inspired artwork meant to be a criticism of other series with transparent character influences and borrowed themes? It certainly comes across that way. We’ve all read books or seen movies with characters that are clearly clones of somebody else (I’m thinking of the sheer number of Joker-inspired bad guys following The Dark Knight). Bullet Gal seems to be mocking that. Instead of a Tony Montana clone or look-alike, we just get a picture of Tony Montana. The self-awareness of the characters, both in terms of popular culture and the genre that they are a part of also comes off as a form of loving parody.
Is the series critical of the possibilities for artistic interpretation? In some sense, but more to the point, it’s honest about what makes movies, comics, and books work. All creators are working with ideas borrowed from other sources, but this particular world is literally made up of art and styles from other places. Without spoiling the ending, the message is deeply critical of meddling in a created world. Purists and fans, as represented by the comic’s villains, want to preserve settings that they love just the way that they originally found them. In doing so, they end up stifling any possibility of creative growth, which you see reflected in some of the characters in this series.
Beyond the meta-criticism of art and the creative process, Bullet Gal is fun to read if you’re in love with noir tropes (like I am). Bergen has a gift for recreating the dialogue of the great writers, like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, and passing it on to a femme-fatale. There are some great inserted images from films from the ‘40s; my favorite in particular was a shot of Spencer Tracy. The science-fiction theme seemed to me to be the more important one, though. For all that Bullet Gal immerses itself in noir themes, dialogue, and imagery, the science-fiction elements of the story are what drive its message about creativity and art.
The plot itself isn’t as coherent as the critique, but I don’t think that Bergen wrote Bullet Gal to be a straightforward read. Lots of Raymond Chandler stories fall apart if you look too closely at the details, but the details were never really the point to begin with. In Chandler’s case, he was interested in creating atmosphere and tone. Bergen wants to do that as well, but there are also statements about art here that are interesting.
Bullet Gal’s artwork is not going to be for everyone. Indeed, from a strictly aesthetic point of view, I wouldn’t say that I initially loved looking at it. It’s designed to be opaque and difficult to fully understand, but it’s also immersive. Because so many of the images are familiar, they draw you into the science fiction and noir setting of Bullet Gal. Our association with those images is already well-established, and Bergen has a good sense for when and how to use them. Matt Kyme’s guest artwork is almost strange to look at because it conventional in comparison to Bergen’s (though wonderfully thematic as well). Furthermore, the persistent darkness and shadow works well with the noir theme at play here.
Spend some time with Bullet Gal and don’t try to rush through the series. This is a story that you need to move through slowly and deliberately, and don’t give up if it all isn’t immediately transparent. This is a smart book. Give it the deliberation it deserves.