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The Hi-Jinks of Nihilistic Innocence: Why Stray Bullets is the Best Comic You Have Never Read
by Colin O’Neill

 

 

Picture this: A group of coked-out tweakers hiding out in the desert in California. The living space is a crowded trailer that probably reeks of stale beer, transgressive sex, and bad habits. They have a checkered past, and are hiding off the highway, evading heat from a massive swindle that went off in the previous months. Then suddenly, without warning, the small highway-town’s beloved five-legged cow is killed by a freak accident due to our rag-tag group of criminals, and the entire town is furious. Welcome to the hilariously bleak world of David Lapham’s Stray Bullets.

Stray Bullets is a crime anthology comic series that began in the mid-90s written and drawn by David Lapham and edited by Maria Lapham, self-published together under their company El Capítan Books. It was a series that, to this day, whenever discussed is given nothing but strict reverence, but in hushed tones. Almost as if to signal, “Hey, this book is fucking amazing. Don’t tell anyone about it.” Which, someone didn’t really get that memo because Stray Bullets has gone on to be an influence. While Nic Pizzolatto’s one-hit wonder True Detective may have been found to have taken inspiration from other comics, such as Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell’s From Hell and Grant Morrison & Co.’s The Invisibles, you can totally see the influence from Lapham’s magnum opus in style and structure (granted, without the series’ trademark dark humour). Authors such as Ed Brubaker and Jason Aaron have both sung the series’ praises and cited it as an influence. Even noted Mexican filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro gushed about the series, and provided a blurb on the back of the compendium collection. That, and it won two Eisner awards. So, one begs the question: Why isn’t this series mentioned a whole lot? There are two theories I have, so I’ll dive in.

I think, for me anyway, the most prevalent theory as to the shortcomings of Stray Bullets (and Lapham’s proficiency as a cartoonist, for that matter) in the popular lexicon of comics is that Stray Bullets was too ahead of its time, especially given the climate of comics in the 1990’s. Oh yes, the dream of the 90’s was well and alive in the four- coloured funnies. With giant shoulder-pads, cyborgs everywhere, women with cleavage with humorously oversized (and often phallic) guns, the comics industry during that time was kind of a glut. On top of that, you had Marvel Comics filing for bankruptcy and the speculator boom starting to die off. So, it goes to show that a self-published, B&W anthology crime comic would have a pretty hard time finding shelf life in a healthy and productive economy, let alone in an industry that’s dying. While there were comics in the 90’s that didn’t fit the archetype of what we think of today whenever that era of comics is discussed, respectively (Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, Eightball by Dan Clowes, etc.) it still put the series at a grave disadvantage that it was a sprawling crime series that spanned across the late 70’s and early 80’s set in Maryland and California.

Another important thing to note was that self-publishing at this point (and arguably still today) was incredibly oversaturated and vapid. For context, again to history: In the early 1980’s two young cartoonists embroiled with love by their two favorite cartoonists, Jack Kirby and Frank Miller, created a parody comic that took the tone of Miller’s run on the popular superhero Daredevil, and Kirby’s iconoclastic art style and cosmic impermanence. The creators: Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman. The comic: The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. TMNT was an unprecedented success because it was not only a far-fetched concept, but because of the fact that it was self-published through Laird and Eastman’s Mirage Studios and it was a black and white comic (due to the fact that it would be too expensive to bring on a color artist, respectively). When cartoonists saw gold in them there hills, everyone and their mother started up a small publisher creating B&W indie books done by themselves, and sometimes seemingly for themselves. This is not a condemnation of small-press and self-publishing, but rather a sad reality in that self-published, smaller scale publications are ones that often don’t get noticed. There are of course other success stories (Jeff Smith of BONE fame, Dave Sim’s Cerebus the Aardvark, Terry Moore’s Strangers in Paradise, etc.), and the digital revolution with webcomics has helped considerably with independent creators getting their work out to a much wider audience. However, this is now, and Stray Bullets didn’t start at the dawn of social media. It started, as aforementioned, in a dying industry being published outside of the two largest publishers that tend to get the most attention- and not even to the alternative competitors in Image (the series’ current home) or Dark Horse, respectively.

 

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With all this hypothesizing of how the book didn’t attract the audience it deserved and still deserves you may be wondering, dear reader “Why in the ever-loving fuck should I care?” Well, I’ll tell you why: The series is probably one of the greatest examples of long-form, syndicated storytelling ever conceived. In Stray Bullets, Lapham conceives a world full of fucked up, misguided people. Like titular bullets shot off chaotically, they are all lead astray and nobody gets out unscathed- some even pay with their lives. It’s pretty well a modernization of the crime comics of the 1950’s (Crime Does Not Pay, Crime SuspenStories, etc.) where they had very gory and over-the- top morality tales about why you shouldn’t rob a bank, shoot a gun, and not be a stinking commie pinko (ok, maybe not that last part… Maybe). These stories fell out of grace after Frederick Wertham’s witch-hunt on comics and the Comics Code Authority nearly destroyed the medium by censoring the industry. Decades later, here you have Lapham use this formula but turn it on its head for a generation brought up on Tarantino and Michael Mann.

In Stray Bullets you not only have the violence, but that violence is impactful. The second issue of the series we meet one of the main characters, a young pre-pubescent girl named Virginia Applejack who is seeing Star Wars at a theatre in Baltimore in 1977. The issue deals with her witnessing a man getting brutally murdered by a local gangster named Spanish Scott (another series mainstay) and the psychological effects that it has on her. As I said, she becomes a series mainstay and she’s the closest thing to a protagonist Stray Bullets has as she’s been in every story arc (save for the current one, which is  flashback) since. It’s also quite refreshing to see a female role in such a male-dominated genre like crime/noir be so fascinating and not relegated to a femme fatale trope. Virginia is traumatized, she’s seen shit, and she’s a survivor. And the survival she fights for every day isn’t pretty, yet it is utterly intriguing nonetheless.

 

Virginia 1

 

Virginia 2

 

And of course, it would be remiss not to mention Lapham’s artwork. Lapham’s style is evocative of Steve Ditko in that his characters have pretty unique, ugly features and scaly figures. That, and he also sticks to a mostly 8-panel grid system (Dtiko noted to have pioneered the usage of the 9-panel system) that, while rigid, adds to the series’ claustrophobia and anxiety. Lapham is what I’d like to call a cartoonist’s cartoonist. He isn’t interested in reinventing the wheel, but working with the one already invented and using what works about it. Case-in- point: He wants to tell a story the simplest, no-bullshit way possible and that results in a streamlined and sometimes visceral experience.

All in all, Stray Bullets is a book that continues to this day but deserves way more love than what it receives. It is a dense series with multilayered characters that are sometimes funny and also sociopathic. There are six story arcs (Innocence of Nihilism, Somewhere Out West, Other People, Dark Days, Hi-Jinks and Derring-Do, and Killers) with a seventh currently on-going (Sunshine and Roses). They’re available from Image Comics in trade paper back, and if you want there is a compendium edition called “The Über Alles Edition” which contains all the arcs up until Killers. I highly urge everyone and anyone to read it. The series never fails to miss its mark.

 

HeadshotPhoto Credit: Nathan Boone

 

Colin O’Neill lives on a tiny island in Canada that you’ve never heard of. When not thinking about comics, he’s trying different kinds of craft beer or attending open mic shows. He studied political science in university, and drinks to forget the perils of neo-liberal globalization. He was also voted most clumsy in high school, but wasn’t present to accept the award.