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Stray Bullets

April 13th, 2018

Back in 1995, David Lapham (working with his wife Maria Lapham) released the first issue of his independently-published, black-and-white comic book series, Stray Bullets.  I wish I could remember why I bought it.  I believe it was because I was familiar with Mr. Lapham’s work on the early Valiant universe comic books, produced in collaboration with Jim Shooter.  That first issue BLEW ME AWAY.  It was a shockingly grim story about two guys in a car with a dead body in the trunk.  Mr. Lapham’s black-and-white art was incredible, but it was the writing that grabbed me by the guts and didn’t let go.  In just 27 pages, Mr. Lapham brilliantly developed the characters, and crafted an intense noir crime story of unravelling mayhem.  I was immediately hooked.

That first issue was amazing, but it was the second issue that was even more mind-blowing.  I thought that first issue was grim, but I was not prepared for issue #2’s story of young Virginia Applejack and a Halloween evening gone horribly wrong.  I had thought that issue #2 would continue issue #1’s story, but Mr. Lapham set the tone for the series by shifting to tell an unconnected (well, actually, it would eventually be shown to be connected, but more on that in a moment) story with entirely new characters.  The way Mr. Lapham was able to develop these characters in each one-issue short story, to allow us to care so deeply about them so quickly, was amazing.  And these stories — wow.  So shattering emotionally.  Mr. Lapham’s stories expressed a dark worldview that was horrifying, but immediately gripping.

I have been following Stray Bullets ever since.

The series was published (somewhat sporadically), from 1995 through issue #40 in 2005.  Then, tragically, and with only one issue left in the current storyline, the series disappeared.  In interviews over the years I would read about Mr. Lapham’s hopes to return to the series, but as the years went by I began to lose hope.

Then, in 2014, a miracle.  Mr. Lapham relaunched the series through Image Comics.  He released the long-awaited issue #41, and started a new Stray Bullets mini-series called “The Killers.”  That ran eight issues, and was immediately followed up by “Sunshine and Roses,” a “mini-series” that has run a staggering 33 issues so far and shows no sign of stopping.  Despite the long hiatus, Mr. Lapham has not missed a beat.  His art style has changed somewhat (fewer heavy blacks on the page), but it’s still amazing, and his writing is as incredible as ever.  Mr. Lapham has picked right back up with all of the characters we loved and feared, and begun introducing a number of fantastic new characters as well.  The series is as strong as it has ever been.

One of the aspects of Stray Bullets that, right from the beginning, made it so unique was Mr. Lapham’s approach to story-telling.  While most comic book series tell a continuing story following the same characters from issue to issue, Mr. Lapham prefers to jump around, and so with each new issue you never knew where you’d be and what characters you’d be following.  Issue #1 was set in 1997, issue #2 was set in 1977, and every subsequent issue has bounced around to different locations and years within that twenty-year span.

But what’s so much fun and rewarding about Stray Bullets is that while, at first, his single-issue short stories seem to have nothing to do with one another, it became clear after only a few issues that these different stories and characters WERE, in fact, connected.  The series is a delightful puzzle, using a fractured narrative that bounces around in time and location to gradually peel back the lives and stories of all of these different characters, showing us how they connect and intersect in often surprising ways.  It is genius.

Mr. Lapham is the master of the done-in-one one-issue short story.  This is harder than it might seem, to be able to tell a completely satisfying story in one single issue.  But Mr. Lapham does this better than any other comic book author I can think of.  Even when he gives us a run of issues that do tell a story that continues from issue-to-issue, each single issue remains a complete short story on its own.  This is extraordinary.

I cannot recommend this comic book series highly enough.  Start with the reprinting of the first seven issues, “Innocence of Nihilism,” and prepare to have your world rocked.

I recently decided to reread the series from the beginning and it was an incredible experience.  Mr. Lapham’s patience in slowly unfolding the different pieces of this story over more than twenty years, and how perfectly everything fits together, is unbelievable.

Innocence of Nihilism (issues #1-7) — In these first seven issues, all of the key elements of Stray Bullets are immediately in place.  These seven short stories are incredible, extraordinarily dark and heartbreaking tales of lives gone off the rails.  The first three issues are, I think, the three very best issues of the entire series and among the greatest single issues of a comic book series that I have ever read.  These first seven issues introduce most of the series’ major characters: Joey, Virginia, Beth, Nina, Orson, Spanish Scott, Rose, Monster, Amy Racecar.  These issues perfectly set the scene and tone for this series.  It’s astounding how perfect this series was right out of the gate.

 

 

 

Somewhere Out West (issues #8-14) — In these seven issues, Mr. Lapham told his first extended story in which each issue (with the exception of one of the series’ regular Amy Racecar interludes) unfolded in chronological order, in the same location and with the same characters.  Beth, Nina, and Orson have stolen a lot of cocaine from Harry (the never-yet-seen criminal) and fled to a small town out west, but these rambunctious big-city kids’ attempt to “lay low” quickly goes awry.  When I first read these issues, I found I missed the jumping-around-each-issue style set up in the first seven issues, but now this is one of my favorite storylines of the whole run of the series.  I love the way Mr. Lapham was able to incorporate a surprising amount of comedy into the series at this point.  I love all the new characters introduced in the lazy town of Seaside.  (I miss these characters and continue to hope that Mr. Lapham will some day revisit them.  I have been wondering for twenty years what happened to Nick — was he left crippled or dead by the events of issue #14???). Bringing Virginia into the circle of Beth/Nina/Orson was incredibly satisfying.  And the way all the different storylines and characters come together in the violent, dread-filled issue #14 was amazing.

Other People (issues #15-22) — This felt like a transition point in the series, as Mr. Lapham continued to tell the stories of Beth and Virginia following their escape from Seaside, while returning to the format of individual but connected one-issue stories.  We meet a number of new characters (Amelia, Kathy, Ricky Fish, the cop Roger, etc.) who are great additions to the Stray Bullets roster of characters.  These characters haven’t been much involved in the series since the Image relaunch, which makes this storyline feel a little less essential than some others, but these stories are all great and I do hope Mr. Lapham returns to some of these characters at some point.  (I still want to know what the deal is with the “mathematical formula” that Monster needed a professor to read for Harry in issue #20, set in 1986.)  We also got two Amy Racecar color specials during this period, which were a hoot!

 

Dark Days (issues #23-30) — The series roars back into prime form with this story-line, which focuses on the mess of trouble that Beth and Virginia get into circa 1985.  Virginia is a fantastic character, and watching her get into more and more trouble as she and Beth live on the run is horrifying and gripping.  I liked that Roger and Amelia’s stories interconnected with Beth and Virginia’s stories, here.  Issue #23 is a critical issue, set in 1980, in which we see young Joey get into a hugely messed-up situation with Spanish Scott that leads to Joey’s being locked in the trunk of a car with a dead body — thus laying critical groundwork for the 1997-set very first issue of the series.

 

 

 

 Hi-jinks and Derring-do (issues #31-41) — The series’ longest story-line, at that point, once again tells a number of interconnected short stories, but focuses on what happens to Virginia after she is returned to the home she had run away from years earlier, and attempts to return to a “normal” life of living at home and going to high school.  Of course, this is Virginia Applejack and Stray Bullets, so Virginia’s attempts to be “normal” go off the rails pretty quickly in a spectacularly horrifying and bloody way.  It feels wrong to describe Stray Bullets as ever being fun, but I must say, it was fun seeing Virginia placed into a “normal” high school setting — that was a genius idea.  Issue #32 introduces another one of Harry’s scary enforcers, Dez “The Finger.”  For a while #32 felt like a classic Stray Bullets one-and-done short story, and of course it is, though it’s neat to see how important “The Finger” has become in the last few years of stories.  The decade-long wait for this story-line’s conclusion in issue #41 was brutal, but I am so happy that we finally got to see what happened, and the way things wrapped up did not disappoint.  It was sweet to see Virginia actually have a sort-of happy moment at the end, there!

 The Killers (issues #1-8) — With the Image relaunch in 2014, Mr. Lapham switched to releasing individual story-arcs as mini-series, beginning with the eight-issue “The Killers.”  (At least, that’s what the plan seemed to be, but the second “mini-series” has run for thirty-three issues and doesn’t look to be stopping any time soon!)  Any fear that Mr. Lapham had lost something off his fastball during the series’ long hiatus were immediately brushed away, as these eight issues rank among the series’ best.  As usual, we jump all over the place in time during these eight issues, but for the most part this story, to my delight, continues to follow Virginia after she, once again, left home at the end of issue #41.  I loved the story of Virginia’s first real romantic relationship as depicted here, which was of course sweet and disturbing in the classic Stray Bullets fashion.  And, of course, everything ends in a bloody tragedy in issue #8.  But these issues gripped me as hard as the series ever had.  I’ve been loving “Sunshine and Roses,” but I am desperate to get back to Virginia’s story to see what happened to her after the events of issue #8!!

 Sunshine and Roses (issues #1-33 and still ongoing) — In a huge surprise to me, with this story-line Mr. Lapham took his story back in time to show us what happened between the events of the original run’s issue #3 and the “Somewhere Out West” story-line from issues #8-14.  What a delight it is to see Beth and Orson and Nina again, along with Spanish Scott and Monster and newer characters like Kretchmeyer and Blue Eddie and The Finger.  I never would have thought there would be much of interest that we could learn about what happened before the events of “Somewhere Out West,” and holy cow, I never would have dreamed that Mr. Lapham would be able to mine thirty-plus issues out of this!!!  This is the longest run in which the series has basically stayed in one “place.”  It gives a different feel to Stray Bullets, but I have been quite enjoying it.  Still, there is still so much story to cover to build up to the events of 1997 as depicted in the series’ very first issue, that I do hope that the series will soon move us forward in time past the 1986 events of “The Killers”….

My re-read of this series has only cemented my belief that David Lapham’s Stray Bullets is one of the greatest comic book series ever made.  This violent and disturbing series is not for everyone, but personally I find it to be one of the most gripping, emotionally wrenching series I have ever read.  The depth of the characters and complexity of the storylines is extraordinary.  I am so happy that this series has been back to a regular publication schedule for the past several years, after so long away, and I hope it continues for a long, long time to come.

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