STRAY BULLETS by David Lapham

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Comics are the greatest storytelling medium ever devised because they represent the most direct mind-to-mind connection between artist and audience. Their marriage of text and image; the presence of a human hand and human mind in their every aspect — this is as as close as you can get to art imitating thought, and to read the work of a truly great cartoonist is to be privileged to a guided tour of a private imaginative world. ¬†And so it was a body blow to this remarkable medium when we lost STRAY BULLETS, David Lapham’s self-published oddball auteurist crime epic. Huge in scope and yet utterly personal, driven by twin engines of hope and avarice, animated by a sprawling cast of outlaws, suckers, and irrepressible lowlives, STRAY BULLETS was a ride-along through a wrecked world still shaded with stupid wonder. It was a tale to get lost in — you wanted to root through these characters’ drawers, raid their drug stashes. And when it abruptly disappeared a decade ago in the middle of a story arc, after forty soulful, disturbing, hilarious issues, the comic shelves were left a diminished place.

Lapham soldiered on as a freelance writer for a slew of books, a job that was surely easier and more financially rewarding than the lonely, punishing slog of life as a self-publishing monthly cartoonist. He was tapped to write books like CROSSED, DEADPOOL and TERROR, INC due to his well-known propensity for Fucked Up Shit, but these dire carnivals of gore and celebrations of violence leave little room for the elements of storytelling that made his earlier work so special — the tenderness and humor which which he illuminates the darkness. Stray Bullets is a book full of doomed people, soul-rotted losers making disastrous decisions, but they have a helpless hopefulness that will break your heart, a queasy familiarity that elevates these stories above voyeurism. You’re not gawking at the freaks and monsters — you’re relating, empathizing, wondering exactly what separates you from them.

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This is the work of a man who should be creating his own stories, not filling up the margins of other people’s properties with what has become a depressing trademark of vileness and desecrations. We got an astonishing window into the ever-more-active underworlds of Lapham’s imagination with 2009’s brilliantly mind-melting short-lived Vertigo series YOUNG LIARS — which made it even more depressing to behold his status as a gun-for-hire, dispensing darkness and assigning grim fates one paycheck at a time. This guy is one of the best storytellers we’ve got, and we need his vision, unadulterated, in the unflashy yet impeccable brushwork of his own hand. And now, as STRAY BULLETS comes roaring back to life with an 1200 page blunt weapon of an omnibus edition and a new continuing series, we have it once again.

STRAY BULLETS foils synopsis because it has no central conceit, not even a particular setting to tie all these intricately interconnected vignettes together. It unfolds from Baltimore to Los Angeles, between 1978 and 1997, but there’s no end game, no huge plot point that this thing slouches towards as it darts from future to past, from east to west, dropping in and out of continuing stories with little regard for the reader’s confusion, each issue somehow a part of this stunningly detailed universe as well as a thoroughly satisfying self-contained story. Lapham tells the parts and pieces that he finds interesting, tossing us into already-unfolding crises and letting the chips fall where they may, suddenly picking up shards and strands of stories that seemed long forgotten.

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Though the characters are knit in an ever-more-complex web of interrelations, of debts and grudges and sexual histories, what really unites these tales are tone, worldview, sensibility — the one-of-a-kind voice of their creator. Though one is a richly woven semi-realist serial crime comic and the other is a television anthology of stand-alone science fiction stories, I believe that STRAY BULLETS closest cousin may be THE TWILIGHT ZONE. Both consist of stylish black & white vignettes in which men and women wriggle in traps of their own devising, in which we watch with horror and sometimes glee as people unravel themselves. Both are characterized by an unflinching sense of irony and just desserts, and both operate on a powerful tension between cruelty and empathy for their characters. They both thrive on seeing the guilty punished for their greed and lust, but they allow us to recognize to those vices, to see that grasping desirousness for what it is: the broken, wishful, all-too-human yearning of damaged people.

To describe its plot threads and subject matter is to depict STRAY BULLETS as so much less than it is. The suitcases of stolen cash & coke, the brutal men and fallen women; the upstanding citizens led down paths of corruption — this is the worn-out stuff of lurid crime fiction and rehashed B-movies. It’s the voice that elevates this material above its strip-mined sources. Lapham never affects the world-weary bitterness of the detective novel or the overheated moral fervor of dime-store pulp. Instead he immerses you in his characters’ worlds, in their hard-clung grievances and unmanageable passions, their twitching anxieties and wounded ambition. For all the cartoonish violence, all the avarice duly punished, Lapham never lets you forget that these characters are human, that the roots of their depravity are just standard-issue vices, cancerously ballooned and uncontainable.

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Though Lapham has almost no regard for chronological storytelling, there’s something cyclical at work here. The story begins in Baltimore, and most of the stories concern relative naifs — upright men, women and children who become mixed up with hardened criminals. By the time everything in Baltimore falls apart and we move westward, for a quiet interlude in the sleepy village of Seaside, NV where a number of the characters go to lay low while the heat dies down. (Seaside, in a perfectly STRAY BULLETS touch of lunatic optimism, is a desert town with a three-mile boardwalk built in anticipation of the moment when California falls into the sea and they become oceanfront property.) The lower stakes stories that take place in Seaside, though still filled with crime and drugs and violence, are as quiet and pleasant as anything in this series — these characters have made their way out of the traps set in Baltimore, but they haven’t reached their final destination: Los Angeles, where so much of the cast washes up, having succumbed to everything, their pasts having caught up with them, their addictions taken hold, hanging on by their fingernails to what little they have left. And then finally back to Baltimore, where Amy Racecar returns home, trailing harm and hurt like barnacles and seaweed clinging to her hull.

Which brings us to the greatest character in STRAY BULLETS — the only character who stubbornly refuses to be destroyed, despite all the suffering piled upon her: Virginia Applejack, damaged girl, endangered runaway, unrepentant bad-ass, avenging warrior, gifted writer, and the ragged, resilient, fucked up soul of this series. We dip in and our of Virginia’s story, following her through the death of her beloved father, her escape from her hideous mother, through bizarre exploits from coast to coast, as she maneuvers herself into and out of trouble, bravely facing up to every new nightmare with resistance and guile, helplessly causing trouble with her vengeful, compulsive need to mete out justice to all bullies, as she finds her way into the margins or center of every major conflict in this gloriously rambling story. By the time we reach the end of the collection, this ensemble piece has clearly become Virginia’s story, a chronicle of how badly her experiences have marked her, how irreparably she’s been twisted by violence, yet how tenaciously she clings to her pride and virtue.

And, in the biggest stylistic departure from the fervid comic hyper-realism of the book, we are privileged to see the science-fictional stories with which she compulsively fills her notebooks on the road, the exploits of the world-beating outlaw and interstellar adventurer Amy Racecar, her idealized alter ego. These windows into the explosive imagination of this brilliant unschooled child are some of the most moving and fascinating moments in this saga. They allow Lapham to cut loose with wildly propulsive sci-fi storytelling (with dips into noir and fable) and give us our most intimate look at any character in the book. We don’t get much interiority from Virginia herself — she’s too self-possessed and proud, we see her act boldly in defensive self-interest and compulsive empathy, but she betrays little of her own passions or emotions, unlike the many weaker, more corruptible characters in the series, who tend to overflow with desire and wear their desperation on their sleeves. We watch Virginia move from disaster to disaster, through small respites in between (the book’s warmest relationship is between Virginia and Beth, the good-natured junkie thief who takes her in) her face always impassive, mental machinery working invisibly, planning her next move. But in her fiction we see the wages of her damage, her longing for safety, power and respect, her fears and defiance, her astonishing fabulistic ability to transcend every weakness by sheer force of belief and invention.

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Amy, the protagonist of her stories as well as the name she goes by when she leaves home, is an absurdist caricature, an ice-cold outlaw with a heart of gold, a world-famous thief with a nation of adoring fans, an infinitely rich crime queen with a strict moral code all her own, who brings down governments, confronts evil where she finds it, plunges into danger unafraid, indestructible, smarter, harder, quicker and cooler than everyone else in the multiverse. For all the silliness in her stories, Amy Racecar is a glowing, iconic presence, and as Virginia’s troubles grow worse and worse we begin to realize that Amy is the wishful icon from which she draws her inexhaustible supply of fortitude. She’s constructed a towering, impermeable myth for herself, and like all the best mythologies it proves to be a well-spring of endless strength and a possible road map to redemption.

My favorite issue of this remarkable series is #26, “WILD STRAWBERRIES CAN’T BE BROKEN or DON’T BLAME GOD YOUR DOG’S DEAD (a psychological thriller).” It’s one of the Amy Racecar digressions, and takes place in the midst of a terrifyingly tense plot about Amy’s abduction, along with her friend Bobby, by a demonic schizophrenic child molester who turns the captive pair into audience and performers in his own private psychosexual drama, into vessels for his rage and self-loathing and viciousness. Amy becomes a helpless voyeur to his hideous nightly display. Over and over, he rapes Bobby and tells Amy it’s her fault, that she made him do it. Amy is a magnet for abuse over the course of this series, but this kind of guilt and psychic torture — she did in fact bring Bobby to this house, so these lunatic ravings ring true in her conscience — is beyond the pale, too much for even our endlessly resilient girl. She could handle being the one raped every night — that sort of horror is something that she’s come to expect — but the idea that she brought this on one of the very few people about whom she gives a damn (her friend and collaborator on the Amy Racecar graphic novel) is more than she can process. She snaps.

So issue #26 is the result of that psychic break. It’s a receptacle for all of her shame & rage as well as a heartbreakingly desperate attempt to maintain some sort of integrity of identity, some sense of who she is, as she’s dismantled piece by piece. In its utterly bizarre & baffling hall of mirrors plot (which offers a sort of preview of the insane what-is-reality psychological gamesmanship of YOUNG LIARS), everything that Amy knows keeps turning out to be a set-up, a long con — and every new “reality” into which she awakens turns out to be another layer, another trap, another gilded cage with a curtain of its own that can be pulled back. We first fall down the rabbit hole when she’s pulled out of what appears to be a ship adrift in deep space by a SWAT team and committed to a mental institution.

The doctors tell her that she isn’t Amy Racecar — her name is Janey Sunshine, and she and her friend William have been through a horrifying nightmare of kidnapping and abuse (almost identical to the one that Virginia and Bobby are going through as she writes this). Her awful mother puts on a show of grief and love while hissing violent smoke-wreathed threats into Amy/Janey’s ear. William, even more damaged, catatonic, despises Amy/Janey for abandoning him to the pleasures of this madman, though her impulse was to escape and find help. Maintaining her Amy Racecar persona, our girl believes that this is all a set-up, that this is a disorienting torture devised to pry secrets loose from her.

She escapes, stealing a gun from her mother and kidnapping the doctor, who leads her back to the site of her abuse, the apartment in the Hollywood hills where she and William were held for months, and we see how her imagined adventures were extrapolated from petty cruelties, how the gaps in her memory are living horrors papered over. And just as Amy appears on the verge of breaking down, admitting that she’s always been little Janey Sunshine, the doctors’ mustache slips — it turns out he was William all along. He set this whole thing into motion to pay her back from abandoning him. They walk out of the sleazy L.A. apartment, and are back in the world of pulp sci-fi, the sky filled with stars and starships.

The plot makes no sense whatsoever — instead of fantasizing about her own self-reliance and heroism, Amy plummeted down a rabbit-hole into her own guilt and fear, frustration and confusion. And when she couldn’t write her way out, she just twisted the plot until it gave way, until the shrinking confines of the damaged world opened up into the vastness of the milky way, and her abandoned friend forgave her, and she was strong and proud and free again. No matter how lost she gets, she won’t let her myth be destroyed — she won’t let reality lock her down.

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Hope and belief are the double-edged sword of STRAY BULLETS. Re-reading the series from end to end, I am reminded of the inscription on the gates of Hell in Clive James’ translation of the Divine Comedy: “Forget your hopes — they are what brought you here.” That covers most of the stories in this series — muddled men and women, led to Hell down wish-lit paths. But these stories are edged with dreams, with yearning and sincerity that can tug at your heart strings. At their core, these cautionary tales are kind and human. Like all the best noir and crime fiction, they contain enough light to show how deep the dark can be.

-Josh O’Neill

Read more of Josh’s in-depth comic reviews here.

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