Monday, June 28, 2010
Word Balloon: Stray Bullets
I ALMOST forgot about this month's edition of the Word Balloon. I thought we would take a look at one of my favorite writer/artist's David Lapham. I previewed his Vertigo book Young Liars last year as being one of my favorite books at the time. Sadly that book was canceled at the end of last year and he has been moving onto numerous other freelance projects for several publishers, including Avatar, Marvel, DC/Wildstorm and Marvel. For this edition though I thought we would look back to the book he is most known for, Stray Bullets, his self published comic series that he first launched in the 1995.
Lapham broke out as a penciler working for the now defunct Valiant Comics in 1990. He worked on several of their books and helped make the publisher a real threat in the industry in comics hey day during the speculator boom in the early 90's. At the time people believed that buying comics and saving them for years would equal a huge windfall in years to come as the books grew in value. This led to gross over publishing of books and piles of low quality work being produced. It also led to numerous smaller publishers and independent creators having more opportunities to make comics. As the market fell out of comics in 1995 and 1996, Lapham decided to publish his own comics to tell the kinds of stories that he wanted to tell. Heavily influenced by crime and pulp novels, he forsook super heroes of all kinds and drove into a crime noir series call Stray Bullets under his own publishing label, El Capitan.
Stray Bullets was a huge sprawling story, set over the course of a 20 year period telling the story of a group of people, interconnected in ways they were unaware of. Each issue would spotlight a different character in a different time period, not always chronologically. Where Lapham excels though is in his ability to make characters so different. His people are flawed and not heroic, often victims of circumstance and bad choices. He may be one of the best writers of characterization working in the business right now.
The first volume of his series is called The Innocence of Nihilism. the first trade collects the first seven issues and while there is not a readily apparent pattern in the wide range of stories told, Lapham is introducing you to the cast of characters you will get to know more about as the series unfolds. The series is set from a period of time ranging from the mid to late 70's to the mid 90's, very much echoing the formative years of the creator. It sets up the series regulars, Virginia Applejack, a young girl who is brutally shown the horrors of real life. Orson, a young introvert who learns just how far to far is when he falls in love with a needy older woman. Frank and Joey, two small time hoods who realize the value of life just as the shouldn't. Beth and Maria, two young girls entering into a world far over their heads. Oh, and Amy Racecar, the worlds biggest and greatest gangster, and possibly the purveyor of the end of the world.
It also sets up other characters who will have bigger roles as the series unfolds, the brutal mobster Monster, the enigmatic Spanish Scott, the gangster boss Harry, among others. It's a hugely sprawling story that can't be neatly summed up in a few blurbs. It's a comic one part Pulp Fiction, one part film noir, with a dash of inter connectivity like Lost. Each issue is a stand alone tale, you don't need to read one to enjoy the next because read apart from each other, they act as a stand alone tale. When read together though they weave a pattern that sheds even bigger moments of characterization, highlighting what are perceived to be ancillary characters in the tale you're reading, and showing deeper moments of characterization from tales you have already read.
There are several beats in the series that I thought were just brilliantly tragic. Issue 2, Victomology, unfolds the story of young Virginia (Ginny) Applejack. The ending of that issues is like a punch to the gut, where a series of events beyond her control shapes her life tragically and brutally. The ending of issue two is the moment the series bought me hook, line, and sinker. This one event even leads to the series most popular character's creation, Amy Racecar. The epitome of childhood fantasy gone unchecked, the story is ultimately one of illusion and mis-direction when you realize just why and how Amy is the way she is, and how, and even more importantly why, she connects to young Ginny.
The regular series itself lasted 39 issues before Lapham put the series on hold to take on more freelance work. It was easier on his to produce work on the freelance level and more financially lucrative, though not as personally rewarding. This became a more increasing concern as he grew his family and took on bigger responsibilities as a provider. On the one hand I enjoy that he is writing more work regularly, but on the other I miss his hand behind the pencil. Especially after the cancellation of Young Liars, which was a far more fantastical take on the elements and themes he touched on in Stray Bullets, though grounded less in crime and more in conspiracy.
The art of Stray Bullets is fabulous as well. Lapham is great at expressions and his use of the 8 panel grid system really lets the story unfold as you are reading it. Breaking down each moment really sells the opening and closing pages where he expounds on the action in bigger panels. It's story telling structure at a very rigid level but it forces the story to move and unfold in such a way as to increase the tension each panel. Lapham is also a master of expression, from fury to sadness to joy, each character tells so much story through their body language and expression. I think he may be the best artist working today in conveying the grief on a persons face. You can seen the dynamic growth and maturation he develops over the course of the series, becoming a better storyteller as the book unfolds. Remember this was his first real writing gig. Still, even in these early issues you see the natural talent he has in breaking a story down elementally.
Stray Bullets isn't a comic that can be summed up with a neat little bow. It's complex and deeply wrought. It's the essence of independent comics. It's even more impressive knowing that when this book came out, storytelling wasn't what sold books, the art did. Most books from he late 1990's don't hold up well. This is one of the series I found during that time that helped me rediscover my joy in collecting comics. Books like Stray Bullets, Bone, Preacher, and Kabuki showed me how great and varied the medium could be. For a long time I didn't read too much mainstream Marvel or DC because they were not telling the stories that these creators were. Stray Bullets is one of my favorite comics series of all times and I hope that David Lapham gets around to returning to his creator owned roots at some point. Until then, I will always have the great run he left behind. Stray Bullets: The Innocence of Nihilism, Volume 1 by David Lapham. Just a really great graphic novel that challenges the role that comics can play. Read it.
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