So it’s going to be kind of an uneven column this week. I’m coming off a long weekend today, after a long busy stretch at my day job (nerd farming is fun, but it don’t pay the bills). And as is my habit on such occasions, I did absolutely nothing, except entertain myself with whatever presented itself at any given moment. All that nothing kept me from getting any writing done (as nothing usually does), but at least the entertainment gives me something to write about now. Unfortunately, I find myself with a dilemma. Do I write about going to see Star Trek II on the big screen? Or do I write about my impromptu re-read of one of my favorite funnybooks, Stray Bullets?
That those things hold equal weight in my mind says something about me, I’m sure. I have no idea what, but something. Anyway. This is a tough decision for me. On the one hand, this is first and foremost a funnybook blog, and I haven’t written that much about funnybooks lately. But on the other hand…
So screw it. I’m doing both.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Hell yeah Star Trek II! Easily the best Star Trek film ever made. It’s got the best villain, the best banter, the most compelling story, the most affecting drama, the most scenery chewed…
I’ve loved this movie ever since I first saw it back in 1982. But what this viewing showed me is how very good it really is. Because, I mean… I remember it being an awful lot of fun. I remember the hysterical war between Ricardo Montalban and William Shatner to see who could go the farthest over the top. I remember the sadness and nobility of Spock’s death.
(Oh! SPOILERS, I guess. But, come on. It was 35 years ago. If you don’t know by now…)
So, yeah. I remember it being a great pulpy ride. But, man… The script for this flick is beautiful. It deals in themes of aging and mortality, with Kirk facing a mid-life crisis as he faces down a foe from his past. And the past is the real enemy here. Not just because Khan returns, but also because of Kirk’s past relationship with scientist Carol Marcus, the son that relationship produced, and the weight of the years he’s spent adventuring in space. He feels those years acutely throughout the film. He’s stepped down as captain of the Enterprise and accepted a promotion to admiral. Spock has taken his place, and the ship has become a training vessel run by raw, untested cadets. Everywhere he turns, he’s reminded of how old he is, how tired he is, how much he can’t escape the past.
And alongside all that lurks the spectre of death. We watch the rest of the Enterprise crew die in the film’s opening scene, the famed Kobayashi Maru test. This is the test in which prospective officers face a no-win situation, a test guaranteed to destroy the ship and wipe out the bridge crew. When Lt. Saavik (Spock’s protege and, in the real world, his planned replacement in the cast) complains that the test is unfair, Kirk tells her that it wasn’t a test of her ability, but of her character. Kirk, of course, is the only cadet to ever pass this test, a feat he accomplished by cheating. Which I suppose does say something about Kirk’s character. Cheating death is just what he does. At least until he can’t.
And that’s the really brilliant part of this script. It foreshadows Spock’s death, more than once. It even spells out the rationale for it. But it does so without telegraphing it. And that’s because, in part, his death in the Kobayashi Maru is played off as a joke. Kirk’s first words to Spock upon seeing him afterwards are, “Aren’t you dead?” He’s kidding around with his friend who has no sense of humor, and since the focus is otherwise so very much on Kirk, you kind of forget about it. I think it would be difficult, on first viewing, to predict that Spock was going to die until he goes off to do so.
And that’s even after a later scene, in which Spock insists that Kirk take command of the Enterprise when their training mission turns into something more important. Kirk doesn’t want to do it, for many reasons, but Spock reminds him that he has no ego to bruise, and that as the senior officer, Kirk should command the ship. He even suggests that Kirk is better-suited for it, in a famous line that serves double duty as further foreshadowing of his demise: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” But there’s an element to the scene where Spock is stepping aside less for purely logical reasons, and more as a favor to a friend who he knows is better off in command of a starship.
And from a storytelling perspective, his death serves a similar purpose. Spock dies saving the ship, correcting a (wisely) unspecified problem with the warp engines. They’re leaking radiation at levels no human being could survive long enough to fix the problem. Spock, not being human, can. But it still kills him once the job’s done. So Kirk finally faces the no-win situation. Thanks to Spock’s sacrifice, he comes to grips with his own flaws, reconciles with his estranged son, and comes out the other side feeling renewed. And, since Spock’s no longer around, he’s also able to regain command of the Enterprise with a clean conscience.
What a script! Everything dovetails together in the end, but not so neatly that it feels artificial or predictable. Shatner gets the lion’s share of the drama, but Nimoy still manages to upstage him in the end, from a purely supporting role. It’s genius.
Which is not to say that it’s high art. This is still super-pulpy bullshit, and the cheese factor is high. Ricardo Montalban chews the scenery like a champ as a megalomaniacal genius whose fatal flaw is his overweening pride. And poor Paul Winfield’s magnificent death scene, when Khan’s order to kill Kirk goes so far against his will that he turns the phaser on himself instead! And the great combination of old-timey sea battle and submarine warfare they pull off in the ship-to-ship combat! Then there’s those weird mind control worm things Khan puts in Chekhov’s ear!
So, yeah. It’s plenty cheesy. But it’s fine, aged cheese, with subtleties of flavor and an exquisite bite. It’s the height you want all pulp adventure writing to achieve, but which so little of it does. It’s not perfect, but it’s fun, it’s funny, it’s heartbreaking… You really can’t ask for much more.
But, moving right along…
by David Lapham
But this is a book that really rewards periodic re-reads. You can read and enjoy it month-to-month (as I’ve been doing since 1994), but its structure is pretty complex. Events unfold across a span of 20-plus years, with pieces of the story told less in chronological order than in the order that best-develops the cast. The book starts in 1997, jumps back to 1977, moves forward, and circles back around itself as the cast’s lives intertwine with increasing complication. When the series was relaunched three years ago (after an eight-year hiatus), the story picked up in 1987 for eight issues. Then it jumped back to 1981 to fill in a gap we didn’t even know was there, and it’s been doing so for 27 issues and counting.
Which, you know, not to make it sound difficult, because it’s not. But it is complicated, and that gives great re-read value to your back issues. Or trades. Or Uber Alles omnibus edition…
…which is my preferred method of revisiting things. I’ll often pull it off the shelf to verify a date or a plot point, and then get sucked into its undertow. If I crack open the Uber Alles, I’m going to be there for at least an hour. A joyous hour, mind you. But an hour nonetheless.
The big take-away from my most recent re-read is that Kretchmeyer…
…a character I had thought was introduced in the current 1981 storyline (Sunshine and Roses), was actually referenced in the 1987 storyline (Killers), as an unseen gang lord in competition with Dez the Finger…
…for control over Baltimore organized crime. I had even forgotten about that turf war, to be honest, and that shocked me. Because last I remembered, Harry controlled Baltimore, and I’m not sure when or how he was taken down. In-story, the last time we got reference to Harry was August of 1986, when his enforcer Monster…
…attempted to blackmail a college professor into interpreting an encoded ledger. But something happened in the interim, and we don’t know what. And last we saw Our Hero Virginia Applejack…
…it was 1987 and she was running from shadowy figures I assumed worked for Kretchmeyer as she hid out in Dez’s beach house. So I can only assume that the current storyline is a lot more the story of Kretchmeyer than I realized. I thought Lapham was just revisiting Beth, Orson and Nina (two of whom he killed off back in the second year of the original series). But, no. I think he’s also working hard to establish a figure who will become a major force the next time he moves the timeline forward. Of course, since Harry also seemed to be charge in 1997 (which was way back in issue one, if you’re keeping track)… All of that may come to naught.
Which, holy crap, is a lot more complicated than I thought.
Keep in mind, I’ve been loving the series right along, and following it just fine. Each issue is somewhat self-contained. There’s a satisfying thematic / plot arc every time, at any rate. But each of those small stories works with and relies on the others to tell a bigger story along the way. I’m following the plot and character development at that level closely, and rather avidly.
But the big stories, I’m reminded every time I look back, work the same way. They mostly stand alone, too, but they tell an even bigger overall story, the story of the series as a whole, and it pays to refresh your memory on that every so often. To pull back and get a bird’s eye view of the map. That’s when the big connections really come out, and make the whole thing that much more impressive. You start to see things characters did in previous arcs in a new light, based on new information. And things they do in current arcs are also illuminated by looking back and reminding yourself of what you already know about them.
It’s a hell of a way to tell a story, and the fact that it all makes sense along the way, rather than collapsing into a chaotic mess, is quite a testament to David Lapham’s talents as a writer. He takes that Wrath of Khan level of pulp storytelling craftsmanship and ups the ante significantly. His work is very dark and extremely violent (the stray bullets of the title always leave a mess). But it’s also quite funny, and most of all very, very human. I’ll grant you that it may not be to everyone’s taste. I’m disturbed by it as often as I’m touched or amused by it, and I don’t disturb easily. But as I’ve said before, and as I’m sure I’ll say again in the future…
Stray Bullets has to rank as one of the best comics of all time. If you’re missing it, you’re missing out on something great.