April 14, 2014

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Stray Victims-- thoughts on Stray Bullets: Über Alles Edition

The idea of a stray bullet is almost so ridiculous that it’s meaningless. There are no "stray" bullets. Maybe you could argue that there are misdirected bullets, misaimed bullets or, at the most innocently stated, misfired bullets but bullets don't stray. Traveling hundreds of miles per hour, they don't suddenly change course and go off in some other direction. Even though he named his comic series "Stray Bullets," David Lapham is only interested in the bullets insofar as to see the damage they do. There aren't stray bullets but there are stray victims, the lives that the bullets impact and damage. Lapham works the crimes, the fights and the scandals but he lingers on the victims, those left in the wakes of the bullets who have lives that crumble and need to be put back together. The bullets do all of the damage, with little regard for the destroyed lives they cut through.

 It would be easy to view Stray Bullets as some post modern cynical view of the world. You could almost take away from the book that you're fucked and then you die (see the new Stray Bullets: Killers #1 for an example of this very story.) The first impression could be that Lapham is on some kind of Quentin Tarantino kick. Stray Bullets #1 came out in 1995, a year after Pulp Fiction, when it seemed like everyone was caught up in the surface style of Tarantino's storytelling without really looking at the stories that he was telling. Stray Bullets even follows the fractured timeline story that made Pulp Fiction a trippy puzzle. Other than the first chapter of the book which takes place in 1997, Stray Bullets is focused from 1977 to 1986, approximately the childhood of Lapham's main character Ginny Applejack, a young girl who witnesses a brutal killing after being thrilled by the original Star Wars at the movie theater. Whether as Ginny, Amy Racecar or any of the other names this girl is known as, Stray Bullets is her story as we follow the path of violence through her life.

Over the course of Stray Bullets: Über Alles Edition, the massive collection of the first 41 issues of Lapham’s series, you watch Lapham’s artwork change. From the very first tightly controlled first issue to the 41st issue (published as a single issue concurrently with this omnibus,) Lapham is never content to let his black and white artwork grow stagnant as the world around Ginny becomes an increasingly horrible place. If anything, Lapham forces us to look at our world without any adornment. The violence isn’t hidden or softened but Lapham also takes care never to glamorize it. As a storyteller, that’s how he differs from Tarantino and also Frank Miller. Along with Stray Bullets, Frank Miller’s Sin City was the other great independent crime comic of the 1990s. But Miller romanticized the crime and violence as he embraced the sin. Miller thrilled us with his artwork; Lapham brings us back down to earth and twists our stomachs with his visual approach.

The End of Innocence
Both Miller and Lapham are playing in a genre that once belonged to EC Comics. From Johnny Craig to Graham Ingels to Harvey Kurtzman, you can see the influence of those old horror, crime and humor comics in Miller and Lapham, just to different degrees. Miller goes for the expressionism and exaggeration of Ingels while Lapham looks more like a Johnny Craig man. Lapham’s naturalism is what makes Stray Bullets a gut punch. The adults in this book look like your parents and your family. The kids look like everyone who was ever in school with you. The streets and the houses look like the streets and houses you grew up in. When Lapham takes you into these dark places, you have no doubt about the existence of them. Stray Bullets is one hundred times scarier because these are people and places that you believe and that you know from your own life.

The first part of Stray Bullets is titled “Innocence of Nihilism.” That’s the struggle in this book; innocence versus nihilism. It’s easy to get lost in the abyss of nihilism (again see the recently released Stray Bullets: Killers #1 which is all about nihilism) and Lapham leads us down into that abyss where we readily follow. With Ginny, a character whose life we weave in and out of throughout the book, we get to see and follow up on the damage done to this character. We witness the worst that happens to her even as we see the strength and resilience of this young girl. The Amy Racecar stories (Ginny’s alter ego in the stories she writes) display the strength and will to live that she has. Even as Lapham pulls us deeper and deeper into the wickedness that humanity can inflict on itself, he gives us this girl to hint at a promise of grace. Ginny is a survivor as she leads us through the worst that this world has to offer and gives us the strength and resolve to not get lost in it.

Through powerful, simple storytelling, Lapham explores the darkness of humanity while trying to find the light of it. Lapham leads us into and out of Ginny’s life just like he brings her parents, her classmates, her protectors, her friends and her tormentors in and out of her story. The way we witness everything that happens Stray Bullets: Über Alles Edition does not come close to damaging you the way it does Ginny and the other victims in this book but it does leave you haunted by these black souls we fire those bullets without a thought of the true consequences of them. It leaves you haunted by the lives left behind, mere fragments of what they should have bee. Lapham doesn’t revel in the violence or get lost in it; he exposes it to remind us that the world may not be the way we want it to be and that we’ve got to have the strength like Ginny to survive.