Review by Ben Kooyman
Let me see. I got shot 5 times and I’m a fictional character in a dumb video game. That makes me pretty much goddamned invulnerable…
At the end of my earlier review of Bullet Gal issues 1-6, I noted that issue 6 took a turn towards the meta, establishing that the fictional universe of Heropa where the action transpires was, in fact, a fictional universe. Issues 7 through 12 dive deeper into this metaphorical, meta-fictional rabbit hole, much of this in the titular character’s absence.
Mitzi, aka Bullet Gal, is missing in action for issues 7 through 10, out of commission following a shooting incident (interestingly, Trista in Bergen’s current series Trista & Holt sustains a similar blow at a similar narrative juncture). This opens up these four issues to side stories and experimental digressions. Issue 7 travels back in time to chronicle the construction of the Heropa computer program from the bits and shards of its creator’s cultural upbringing, while issue 8 follows an investigation into Mitzi’s shooting. Issue 9 gets the silent treatment, jettisoning text and telling the story entirely through images, and issue 10 follows a miniaturised superhero on a mission in the Atom/Ant Man tradition. If you were wondering what the upcoming Ant Man film would look like as a black & white Warhol art film, here’s your answer. Mitzi’s back in issues 11 and 12, which conclude the series and re-set the status quo of Heropa.
As noted in my earlier review, Bullet Gal is told using photographic mosaic, combining Bergen’s own photographs with pictures extracted from popular culture artefacts. Bergen notes in his outro to the trade paperback that this process was inspired by Dadaism, William S. Burroughs, and Terry Gilliam, and the approach gives his visuals a tactile, homemade quality despite their digital assemblage. Imagery is often striking, albeit occasionally difficult to decipher. In light of the revelation that Heropa is the construct of one person’s cultural DNA, the appearance of recognisable faces throughout – including Spencer Tracy, Karl Malden, Elvis Presley, James Dean, Steve McQueen, Humphrey Bogart, Hugh Laurie, and Chris Evans’ Captain America, to name a few – takes on a new meaning in the story’s second half. Sometimes these images are used playfully, setting up expectations and then paying them off in contradictory ways, such as Bergen’s use of the iconic staircase/milk scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion. On a side note, given the creator of Heropa’s obsession with Japan (as emphasised in issue 7) the fact that Japanese icons like, say, Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, or Sonny Chiba do not crop up in the series alongside American icons seems a missed opportunity.
Spoiler warning: while the second half of Bullet Gal is a fun ride, I must confess to initially finding the final issue frustrating and anti-climactic. In issue 12, the Heropa computer program has been re-set, a new superhero status quo has been established with Mitzi now a cape (i.e. a standard issue superhero), and threats such as Brigit, her would-be assassin, have been ameliorated. Essentially the final issue plateaus rather than crescendos, and initially I was taken aback, expecting a more traditional confrontation or a more explosive overthrow of the status quo ala V for Vendetta, i.e. something more immediately gratifying. Having not read the novel that Bullet Gal serves as prequel to, Who is Killing the Great Capes of Heropa?, I felt it possible that I was missing key contextual information that would have made the conclusion more satisfying, while also feeling that Bullet Gal, like most prequels of recent vintage, had become straightjacketed into the same dead end that most prequels end up in (see Prometheus, 2011’s The Thing, The Hobbit series) of being forced into a narrative corner. In retrospect, however, I’ve warmed up to the ending as a rejection of traditional shape and closure (and my own default yearning for those things), and find it consistent with the notion of a program being rebooted. End spoilers.
Developed, according to the author, “page by page, on the fly, with no end game in sight”, Bullet Gal combines the ambitious sweep of a grand epic with the conversational, rambling (in a good way) fluidity of form of improvised campfire storytelling. The final issues discussed above along with the preceding six are currently available in trade paperback form, clocking in at a whopping 364 pages (alongside portraits from guest artists, a short Bullet Gal vignette from separate series Tales to Admonish, and other contextual materials). Whatever your ultimate verdict of Bullet Gal – and for some readers it will be an acquired taste, as it’s a series that does not make concessions – there’s no denying it’s quite an accomplishment.
Bullet Gal by Andrez Bergen, IF? Commix/Under Belly Comics.
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