Recent Dorkiness

STRAY BULLETS, MUTHA– Ahem. Stray Bullets: A Fine Comics Reading Experience

Stray Bullets Über Alles Edition
Stray Bullets 41
Stray Bullets: Killers 1
by David Lapham
So as my... rather enthusiastic... early review of the above books may have indicated, I'm pretty damn excited about the return of Stray Bullets. But it wasn't until Sunday morning that my level of enthusiasm really sank in. I got up, took a shower, pulled on a t-shirt, and then realized that I needed a weather forecast to finish dressing for the day. So I fired up my computer to check on that. The Über Alles was sitting there on the desk, so I started flipping through it while the computer booted up. I noticed a detail from about halfway through that I'd forgotten, and that lead me to skim a bit to remember a name, and that lead me to skim some more because the story was so good, and that lead me to flip back to see if I remembered an earlier story correctly in light of what I'd just read, and the change in how that made me view the overall series blew my mind sufficiently that I jumped ahead to check the date on a later story, and that date lead me to check another date, and that lead to the realization that something I thought I'd understood actually happened earlier than I thought it did, and that lead me to skim-read the entire last story arc, and then... Then I looked up from the book to realize that three hours had passed, and I was still sitting there in front of my computer without any pants on. THIS is the power of great funnybooks. What makes Stray Bullets so great? Primarily, it's that the book works on two or three different levels at once. On the surface, it's a transgressive crime comic in which something outrageous or wrong happens almost every issue. But it differentiates itself from the crime fiction pack by wringing its drama out of small towns and average people.
(Dork, indeed.)

(Dork, indeed.)

And it stands out from the transgressive likes of Crossed or Lapham's own Dan the Unharmable with complex, strongly-written characters.
(Yes, even this guy.)

(Yes, even this guy.)

And to top it all off, it's a fine example of take-no-prisoners storytelling. While it's easily understandable on a single read, you've got to pay attention to get the most out of it.
(Okay, this isn't technically from the comic, but it sums up so many of its themes so well that I can't not share.)

(Okay, this isn't technically from the comic, but it sums up so many of its themes so well that I can't not share.)

Let's start from the top, there: Stray Bullets the transgressive crime comic. This is the glamour, the sizzle, the thing that catches the eye of the prospective reader, and Lapham's been trading in it since issue one, of which this is the final panel: Lapham Stray Bullets 1 End Now, I'm not going to tell you what happens to put all those bodies in that trunk. And backseat. And on the ground outside the car. But, man, is it ever ugly. And funny, in the way that completely horrifying things often are. The really important things to take away from this issue, for our purposes here tonight, are thus: It's set in 1997 (which was the future when the story was published in 1994). And it stars Joey, an inexperienced young criminal bag-man who seems to be something of a simpleton. Joey's fixated on a girl named Janice, and that leads to trouble. Lots of trouble. Trunk-full-of-bodies trouble. The violence starts small and escalates, and the more bodies that pile up, the funnier (and more horrifying) it gets. I remember reading that issue when it came out, and walking away thinking that comics had birthed its own Quentin Tarantino. That's a comparison I still think is pretty accurate. Like Tarantino, Lapham uses genre and outbursts of horrible violence as a hook to grab your attention while he tells you a story that's really about character and theme. He also has a penchant for neat storytelling tricks, and occasionally plays around with knocking time out of joint. That's evident from issue two, which moves the action back to 1977, and introduces us to the series' central character Virginia Applejack (more about her later). Lapham Stray Bullets 2 Things move forward from there, with the odd stop to jump back out of sequence a year or more for the purpose of filling in a gap. And periodic visits with the mysterious Amy Racecar, who exists outside of time (but, again, more about her later). Lapham Amy Racecar

I didn’t pay very close attention to the dates as the series went on, but I became fascinated by them in my weekend session with the Über Alles. Collected all together like that, the dates became more important for me, in part because they gave me a gauge on how much (or, in some cases, how little) time had passed between some of the cast’s appearances. Joey, for example, turns up as a kid throughout the series. But his age always seemed to fluctuate weirdly to me. Well, now I realize that’s because one key Joey issue is actually a flashback. Duhr.

But Ian is probably a better example. Ian is this guy who meets Beth (more on her later, too) in issue 11, which is set in 1983. He shows back up in issue 24, set in 1985. Now, enough real-world time had passed in-between those two stories that I had completely forgotten his existence. I thought he was a new character. But, no. In issue 11, he represents a lost opportunity (maybe the last opportunity) for Beth to escape the cycle of criminal violence that engulfs the lives of everyone in the series. When he shows back up in issue 24, it’s far too late to save her. But Beth’s clinging to the hope Ian represented before everything went wrong, and that’s an element to the end of Beth’s story that I missed completely on first reading.

Of course, Ian, poor bastard, has no idea what a poisonous bitch he’s getting involved with…

Lapham Stray Bullets Beth

…which, I suppose, means that it’s time to start talking about Beth. Much of the original run is taken up with her story, and she really is kind of a magnificent creation. She’s moody, deceitful, manipulative, and violent. She uses people to shore up the fear of her own shortcomings. Bad news, top to bottom. But she’s also brave and inventive, and even loyal to those she counts as friends. And she likes taking care of people, playing mother hen to a collection of losers and hopeless cases without whom she might have gone far. Lapham develops her slowly over time, revealing new facets to her with each storyline, chronicling her inevitable decline and downfall as she loses her flock one by one and starts giving in to her worst qualities. I don’t know that we’ve seen the last of her, but if we have… her ending is appropriately horrifying.

But it’s also redemptive. Because by that time, Beth has taken Virginia Applejack under her wing, and in the end makes a great sacrifice to save her. As I said earlier, Ginny is the real main character of Stray Bullets. When we’re introduced to the very young Ginny in 1977, she sees hitman Spanish Scott kill a guy in an alley, and then…

Lapham Stray Bullets Spanish Scott

She’s never quite the same after that, developing some anger management issues that lead her to stab a kid with a pencil because (among other things) he licked her cupcake. But because Lapham’s doing something a little better than your average genre comic here, she doesn’t turn out to be a one-note psycho. We watch her grow up over the course of the series, always seeking freedom, and developing a keen (and decidedly dangerous) sense of fairness. She runs away from home more than once, and eventually winds up with Beth, who amazingly turns out not to be the worst mother in the history of everything. Not that she’s ideal; she mostly ignores Ginny. But at least she’s less abusive than Ginny’s own mother, and the girl learns a lot from watching her.

That’s not entirely a good thing, of course. Ginny admires Beth for “not taking any shit,” but she doesn’t understand where that lands Beth in the end. And she picks up Beth’s talent for manipulation frighteningly well. But rather than using it for evil, as Beth does far too often, Ginny uses it in service to that keen sense of fairness I mentioned. The final story arc in the original run is essentially a high school version of Yojimbo, with Ginny taking the lead role.

This doesn’t make Ginny a nice person, mind you. At one point, she engineers the kidnapping of a cheerleader to further ignite the war she’s fomenting between the jocks and the stoners. Which is horrible, especially considering that the victim’s done nothing wrong. But, as she says, she knows the stoners aren’t going to hurt the girl, and it ignites the violence she wants between two groups of assholes who’ve spent their lives preying on the weak.

By the end of that storyline (published in last week’s Stray Bullets 41)…

Lapham Virginia Applejack

…you realize the line between Ginny and Amy Racecar is starting to thin. Which, of course, brings us back to… Amy Racecar. Periodically, without explanation, Lapham will devote an issue to the (increasingly preposterous) adventures of a fickle, remorseless, gun-toting anti-heroine. A fickle, remorseless, gun-toting anti-heroine who looks… suspiciously like Virginia Applejack.

Lapham Amy Racecar Wanted

This is, of course, because Ginny’s writing the Amy Racecar stories as a thinly-veiled power fantasy. The Amy stories are huge, violent, anarchic fun, often working on kid-logic as Ginny tries to make sense of the things she’s seen. It’s kind of like what Axe Cop would be if Malachi Nicolle had witnessed a murder in first grade and had no other outlet to deal with the emotional fallout. And, I suppose, if he had been raised in the America that gave us Death Wish rather than the America that gave us Ben Ten

Where was I? Ah, yes. The Amy Racecar stories are just a bit of fun for the most part, but they do tell us some interesting things about Ginny and how she sees the world. For one thing, her male role models (first Spanish Scott and later Beth’s boyfriend Orson) show up in the stories not as the heroes, but as Amy’s sidekicks. Which… Hell, do I really need to explain what that says about Ginny and how she sees her place in the world?

As Ginny grows up, in fact, I’m starting to wonder where all this is headed. Stray Bullets is too carefully-constructed for that first issue’s setting to be haphazard. It’s a book running on a 20-year clock, from Ginny witnessing Spanish Scott at work in 1977 to Joey filling a trunk with bodies in 1997 and then going off to… Well, here:

Lapham Stray Bullets Joey

Hmm. Make Harry pay… We didn’t know it at the time, but that’s a really interesting thing for little Joey to be saying. Because Harry is really the keystone to the entire series. We’ve never actually seen him on-camera, but he’s the criminal hub the Stray Bullets wheel revolves around. Spanish Scott works for him, as does Joey in the first issue. Beth steals a briefcase full of Harry’s cocaine when she goes on the run with her friend Nina, who is “Harry’s girl.” Joey’s mom Rosie is also “Harry’s girl,” and Spanish Scott’s sister. Nina’s boyfriend Led is trying to get a job with Harry, and winds up dead over Nina. Which sends Nina down a long spiral of drug addiction that leads to her death, which in turn sends Beth into her own downward spiral. Beth and Scott both shape Ginny Applejack into whatever she’s becoming, and Scott’s also responsible for Joey’s obsession with Janice, who we eventually find out was Joey’s babysitter until she screwed Scott in front of Joey and got her head blown off by a rival gang mid-hump. That happened in 1980, and Joey’s still obsessing over her 17 years later. Obsessing over her to the point that he decides to go off and make Harry pay for something he was only indirectly responsible for 20 years after this whole thing started.

That’s a lotta bullets bouncing around, and I’ve got to think that eventually some of them are going to find their way back to Harry himself. We already know Joey’s gunning for him, and I can’t help but think that Lapham’s sending Ginny on a collision course with him, as well. We’ve still got a ways to go before we get there, though; Killers picks the story up in 1986, which means we’re not quite halfway done. And, as the cover to that book shows us…

Lapham Stray Bullets Killers 1

…Spanish Scott’s up to his old tricks once again, shushing yet another kid that he recklessly draws into Harry’s gravitational pull:

Lapham Killers Business

So that’s Stray Bullets. Whether you read it for the shocking violence…

Lapham Stray Bullets Fight 1

…the disgusting displays of human depravity…

Lapham Stray Bullets Nina

…the gripping character writing…

Lapham Stray Bullets Beth Orson

…or the fine, sometimes-Eisneresque artwork…

Lapham Stray Bullets Eisneresque

…you won’t find a funnybook much better. I’d rank it among the best comics of all time, and it’s shameful that the comics market let it die eight years ago. So let’s try to do better by it this time around. We wouldn’t want Joey coming after us, after all…

Lapham Stray Bullets 1

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About Mark Brett (431 Articles)
Shaved Yeti. Alien. Writer of stuff. Read my fiction at http://reportsfromthefieldblog.wordpress.com/. Read my thoughts on comic books and other dork culture ephemera at https://dorkforty.wordpress.com/.

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  1. Star Treks and Stray Bullets: The Joys of Damn Fine Pulp Writing – Dork Forty!

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