STRAY BULLETS by David Lapham

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Comics at their best represent a direct mind-to-mind connection between artist and reader. The presence of a human hand and human mind in every aspect of text and image brings you as close as you can get to art imitating thought. 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 living world, 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, and 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 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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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. Their greed and lust are only the broken, wishful yearning of damaged people.

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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 wreckage and trauma 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, 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 and give us our most intimate look at any character in the book.

We don’t get much interiority from Virginia herself — she’s tougher and more self-possessed than 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, 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 Virginia goes by on the road, 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.

 

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Hope and belief are the double-edged sword of STRAY BULLETS. Re-reading the series from end to end, I’m 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, full of yearning and sincerity. 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.

good this week

secret avengers #2 : issue #1 was terrific and #2 tops it with a great blend of action, humor, and intelligence in ales kot’s script topped off by flawless visual storytelling from michael walsh.

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shutter #1 : a book with the potential for a ton of fun, with some killer art from leila del duca.

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all-new doop #1 : i get it, little guy. i really do. i think we’ve all had a crush on kitty pryde at one time in our lives.

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lumberjanes #1 : fun, funny stuff, with some fine cartooning from brooke allen.

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jonah hex shadows west : it’s good to see some of the fine work tim truman did in the 90’s coming back into print, with the release of the masterful HAWKWORLD last month and now this collection of hex mini series with writer joe lansdale. great hard-edged supernatural horror.

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spongebob #31 : spongey and patrick stay up past their bedtime.

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east of west #11 and east of west volume 2 : volume 2 added all kinds of wickedness while issue #11 lays the groundwork for major confrontation between the nation states. consistently excellent.

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–chris stevens

good this week

starlight #2 : issue #1 was no fluke–this book is flat-out fun, and drop dead gorgeous to look at thanks to goran parlov. this looks like it’s going to be a real fun ride.

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judge dredd mega city two #3 : there’s a spread in here that’s worth the $4 all on its own. sorry, geoff darrow.

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elephantmen #55 : wrapping up a hallucinatory storyline that got us deeper into the proceedings than ever.

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copra #13 : michel fiffe revs up season two. yee haw!

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pretty deadly #5 : wrapping up the first arc, this series has been beautiful, impenetrable, and compelling, often all at once. look out for the upcoming trade, this one’s a keeper.

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batman by doug moench and kelley jones vol. #1 : the current bat team of snyder & capullo gets a lot of praise, and the bat is riding high on the sales charts. hopefully some of those fans will turn on to this incredible collection of one of the finest creative teams ever to work in gotham. doug moench had a long and successful history with the character before kelley jones, coming off the famous ‘season of mists’ SANDMAN storyline, took over art chores. the rest is history. jones’ muscular, shadowy portrayal of batman and his world, ably abetted by inker john beatty, is unforgettable. snarling, snapping, this is a batman where there is no daylight.

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–chris stevens

And I’ve got to add…

She-Hulk #3 : Charles Soule, Javier Pulido, and Muntsa Vicente continue their charming and beautiful take on the lady lawyer — this time bringing in Doc Doom’s wonderfully perfect son Kristoff as client and foil (and potential love interest?). Everything about this book puts a smile on my face, up to and including Kevin Wada’s covers.

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– Andrew Carl

The Locust Moon Top 40: March 2014

40. DESTINO

This is what it looks like when Walt Disney and Salvador Dali sort of collaborate. Sure makes you wonder what could have come of a deeper partnership.

39. BASEWOOD

Another delicious fruit of the Kickstarter era. Never before would a work as personal and idiosyncratic as Alec Longstreth’s BASEWOOD have seen publication in such a beautifully produced oversized edition, a handsomely made book containing a flawlessly cartooned story of loss, survival and connection.

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38. GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL

OK, so none of us have actually gotten around to seeing it yet. But we’re so happy to have more Wes Anderson in the world that we’re listing it anyway.

37. MONSTERS & TITANS – the BATTLING BOY art book

Finally, we can see BATTLING BOY artwork the way it deserves to be seen: BIG.

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36. This Terrifying Short Film

Watch if you’re sick of sleeping, and would prefer never to do it again.

35. New Wu Tang Album

They are pressing one single copy of their new double album, which will be sold to the highest bidder. Something tells me we won’t end up finding this one for $3 in the bargain bin of the Princeton Record Exchange, like we did with 36 Chambers in 1997.

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good this week

saga volume #3 : hearts rejoice as the next collection of this compulsively readable series is on the shelf.

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adventure time #26 : kicking off a 4-part arc drawn by the magnificent jim rugg.

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sex criminals #5 : as purvis mack says, ‘matt fraction is coming along.’

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prophet #43 : a jam issue packed with killer visuals.

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zero #6 : kicking off a new storyline for this engaging, smart spy story.

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noah : a good-looking hardcover based on the upcoming darren aronofsky movie. having niko henrichon on art was a smart call.

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daredevil #1 : whether this relaunch was unnecessary or not it’s just good to have mark waid and chris samnee back in action and taking the man without fear to the west coast.

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thor #20 : esad ribic is a fantastic modern day thor artist. any issue he draws is cause for celebration.

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the white suits #2 : toby cypress continues to wow the heck out us with the best art any crime book has had in a long time.

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nemo the roses of berlin : alan moore and kevin o’neill roll out the latest chapter of THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN.

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sovereign #1 : paul maybury’s art gives this debut fantasy series a gravity that a lot of these kinds of books lack. off to a good start!

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–chris stevens

good this week

stray bullets killers #1 & stray bullets uber alles edition: back with a bang, david lapham’s ‘lost’ masterpiece returns this week with an ‘uber’ edition that collects the original series, an issue that wraps up the original run, and this brand new series. lapham crafts crime stories that read like slice of life tales from the suburbs. he’s a pretty flawless storyteller, and anyone who hasn’t checked out the world he created in STRAY BULLETS is urged to get into it.

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beasts of burden hunters & gatherers : this book is an instant smile whenever it comes out. evan dorkin’s wit and characterizations perfectly inform the watercolor world of animal paranormals that jill thompson paints. down to the distinctive lettering of jason arthur, all the details are in place to immerse you into this charming, sometimes scary world tailor-made for anyone who loves animals or hellboy.

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secret avengers #1 : this reads and looks like an outtake from HAWKEYE & FRIENDS. that’s a good thing. bang-up job establishing the team and tone here by ales kot and michael walsh.

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the fox #5 : haspiel & company go out with a bang, wrapping up the initial arc with all the whimsy, winks, and cartoony punch the series promised. lots of good character beats here that make me look fondly toward the next, just-announced run.

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cannon by wallace wood : the master does comic strips like no one else before or after. a pristine collection of wood’s military journal strips produced as entertainment for those soldiers overseas during the height of the cold war. so, so good.

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east of west #10 : onwards with one of the best monthly series in years.

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manifest destiny #5 : continually entertaining. a nice change of pace book.

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ff volume 2 tpb : wrapping up matt fraction & mike allred’s run on one of the best things to come out of MARVEL NOW.

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–chris stevens

The LOCUST MOON TOP 40: February 2014

40. UNDERTOW

With an intriguing premise from Steve Orlando and moody, expressive artwork from Artyom Trakhanov, we can’t wait to see where this new Image title takes us.

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39. SUPERIOR FOES OF SPIDER-MAN

Following Hawkeye’s mix of humor, character-driven realism, and gleeful formal experimentation, SUPERIOR FOES OF SPIDER-MAN has quietly become one of Marvel’s very best books. Don’t let the secret out, but it almost seems like somebody over at the House of Ideas got it in their head that superhero comics are supposed to be fun…

38. This Shirt

Yeah, what if??

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37. THE BUS

We detect some of the spirit of Winsor McCay in Paul Kirchner’s quietly masterful surrealist comic strip.

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36. B + F

We were pleased to play host to Greg Benton and his huge, beautiful nightmare of a graphic novel. Greg is one of our favorite cartoonists and one of comics’ most righteous dudes, and we can’t wait to see what he does next.

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35. INSECT BATH

True to its title, this new alt-zine style anthology series feels like a submersion in the creepy, underfoot world.

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34. SPRING TRAINING

Baseball beckons, and with it a world made new.

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good this week

deadly class #2 : a strong issue that cements my hopes for this series. we get into the whole school aspect of things, and it’s a lot of fun meeting the various cliques. wes craig kills every aspect of the art–design, character, layout.

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hawkeye #15 : it feels like things are coming to a head for clint and his building. any time david aja drops in to draw an issue it elevates an already good book. this run is going to be an evergreen.

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batman/superman #9 : JAE LEE.

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elephantmen #54 : a killer cliffhanger for one of the very best serial reads there is.

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black science #4 : after a couple of issues that, while still excellent, felt like they were racing to keep up with the explosive debut issue, this feels like it’s leading us out of the fire and into the frying pan.

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sock monkey treasury : a gorgeous new collection of one of the more idiosyncratic cartoonist’s most accessible work.

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wolverine and the x-men #42 : jason aaron, nick bradshaw, chris bachalo and company wrap up their run on what has been one of the most fun books of the last few years. and they do it in style, with a touching, chuckling read that feels just right.

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miracleman #3 : you can argue with the way marvel has rolled this out, but you can’t argue with the material. this issue leads us into the truly masterful work alan moore does the rest of the way.

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–chris stevens

good this week

the white suits #1 : this is a down and dirty crime book, with an intriguing high concept, and that’s all well & good. what sets this book apart though is the work of toby cypress. his hyperkinetic lines flow like muhammad ali punches in his prime.

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we’re pleased as punch to have toby at the shop, come get in on this runaway train of a book.

https://www.facebook.com/events/508391562607039/

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zero volume #1 : ales kot’s CHANGES, the first work i read from him, was a hot mess, and i wouldn’t have guessed the same writer would turn around in under a year and produce this lean, mean, absolutely tight & intelligent spyworld masterpiece. here’s to being surprised.

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alex + ada #4 : this issue gets us to the beginning of what i imagine will be the meat of the story. if you haven’t checked this book out you’re missing a surprisingly sweet and sophisticated love story.

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and that’s it this week, folks. UPS delivered the goods way late and i only had time to read a handful of books. these are the ones that stood out. my apologies to anyone i might have missed.

–chris stevens

good this week

the mercenary sea #1 : this throwback adventure book is all high seas and searches for lost islands. toss in a nod to king kong and some animation cel style art that makes great use of blacks and i’m on-board for the next issue.

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she-hulk #1 : this book surprised me. it has a kinda HAWKEYE feel, and that’s a good thing. if they can keep it up we’ve got a good book here.

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the fuse #1 : a cop show set in space, this book sets up its two main characters in a way that makes the veteran/rookie pairing that’s a staple of this kind of thing feel fresh. let’s see where it goes.

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prophet volume #3 : brandon graham and company continue their trippy journey through the prophetverse, and this volume is all decked out in a brand new cover from farel dalrymple.

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invisibles deluxe edition volume #1 : one of the all time great series gets the hardcover treatment. grant morrison’s wildly imaginative counterculture spy saga drips with blood, intelligence, and heart. highly recommended.

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spongebob comics #29 : sandy the squirrel takes center stage. spongebob and squirrels. yee haw!

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–chris stevens