The return of David Lapham’s Stray Bullets gets the fanfare it deserves

The return of David Lapham’s Stray Bullets gets the fanfare it deserves

Each week, Big Issues focuses on newly released comic-book issues of significance. This week, they are Stray Bullets #41 and Stray Bullets: Killers #1. Written and drawn by David Lapham (The Strain, Juice Squeezers), these two issues are part of an ambitious publishing initiative bringing the classic crime noir series to a wider audience for its return after nine years off the racks.

Nearly a decade ago, teenager Virginia “Ginny” Applejack cut herself free and escaped the shed behind Kevin Leeds’ house where she was held captive, taking with her the cocaine that Kevin’s father was stashing for a local crime boss. It’s a brutal cliffhanger to leave dangling for nine years, but this week, David Lapham finally returns to his creator-owned crime noir masterwork Stray Bullets to resolve it, telling the final chapter of his “Hijinks And Derring-Do” storyline with the same unflinching brutality he exhibited in the 40 preceding issues.

Stray Bullets #41 alone is a momentous event, but Image Comics has turned the release into a massive celebration of Lapham’s work, publishing the first issue of a new Stray Bullets story and a huge collection of the original run’s 40 issues on the same day. This is after Image put all the Stray Bullets back issues on Comixology at the end of last year, offering the first four chapters for free so that new readers have no excuse not to try them out. (Assuming they are adults. This is most definitely not an all-ages series, although teenage readers could benefit from its stark depiction of violence and the way it impacts individuals and larger society.)

Offering 1,200 pages for $60, Stray Bullets: The Über Alles Edition is the type of book that could be used as a weapon in one of Lapham’s stories, or perhaps to block actual stray bullets in real life. It’s a heavy book, both in size and story, and the bleak black-and-white contents may not seem like binge-reading material, but it doesn’t take long to fall under the spell of Lapham’s storytelling. Presenting tense, character-driven crime stories with an art style that balances detailed naturalism and cartoonish expression, each chapter pulls the reader into an immersive environment populated by people that are recognizable and relatable.

Perhaps the best thing about Stray Bullets is that each issue is new reader friendly, telling a complete story that is often, but not always, part of a larger narrative. As the last issue in a 10-part arc, #41 isn’t the perfect entry point, but Lapham still makes sure the story is fully accessible by providing all necessary exposition in the opening scene. In an interview with Comic Book Resources, Lapham outlines his philosophy for making each issue of Stray Bullets an appropriate first issue for newcomers:

I’ve designed Stray Bullets for the kind of reader that I am. I don’t go into comic-book shops regularly, so when I go in, I don’t want to pick up stuff that I’m going to be confused by when I’m reading. If I get stuck with my life and come back to something three months later, I want to come back to a series and just pick up the story. One of the elements about Stray Bullets is that every issue is new-reader friendly. When you start getting up into 30, 40 issues, people see the number and feel alienated, like they have to go back and read the previous stuff. I think people could jump in on Killers #4, but seeing the #1 makes it easy for new readers to jump in.

That’s essentially the reasoning behind the new #1s that have become so popular with Marvel and DC, but those companies would do well to take a cue from Lapham and make every issue function as a first issue. It takes some extra work on the part of the writer, but it’s not that difficult to find ways to incorporate necessary exposition into a story without it being a chore. In #41, it just takes one conversation between Mr. Leeds, his son, and Kevin’s unhinged friend Huss, a confrontation scene that breaks down the events thus far while raising the stakes for everyone involved. In Killers #1, accessibility means telling a multi-layered, self-contained story that is rewarding for a wide audience, offering a glimpse of Lapham’s world through the eyes of a new character but telling a story that explores one of the book’s central figures.

Lapham’s general style could be described as a combination of two famous sets of siblings: the Coen brothers and Love & Rockets’ Los Bros Hernandez. “Cinematic” is a broad word tossed around to describe a lot of comic books, but it certainly applies to Stray Bullets, although it’s a different kind of cinematic than, say, John Cassaday’s work on Planetary. Cassaday’s style aims for widescreen blockbuster spectacle while Lapham is offering a less embellished, more intimate view of the world; Lapham is the Coens while Cassaday is Spielberg. That quality is evident when reading Stray Bullets in guided view on a digital device, which is like scrolling through movie storyboards because of Lapham’s adherence to an 8-panel grid of rectangles. Seeing each panel on its own shows just how well Lapham positions each image to give the reader a sense of the environment, amplify character reactions, and highlight specific moments in a conversation.

Visually, Lapham’s art falls somewhere between Jaime Hernandez and Gilbert Hernandez, blending the clean, animated line of the former with the evocative inking and graphic flourishes of the latter. Like much of Jaime’s contemporary work, Lapham sticks to a panel layout that creates a specific rhythm, and the moments when Lapham deviates from that structure are the instances when he takes a more Gilbert-influenced approach to creating atmosphere. A prime example of this is the chilling half-page shot of Ginny waiting behind the bleachers to confront the men who tied her up and beat her, an image that uses shadows to create suspense and the criss-cross pattern of a chain-link fence to add tension.

The shadows of each fence post guide the eye to the darkened figure waiting ominously in the distance, working like panel gutters to create an illusion of movement within the still image. Adding the black lines on the white ground directs the viewer in a specific direction to mimic the effect of a camera slowly zooming in, and it’s not a surprise that the immediately proceeding panel is from the same angle but much closer to Ginny. Meanwhile, the pattern of the chain-link fences pulsates in the background, creating an unsettling ambiance with a busy graphic element that cuts through the black and white. Later in the scene, Lapham uses the relationship between light and dark to set up a fight between Ginny and Huss, focusing on the shadows of the bleachers to add an undercurrent of hostility to the visuals before the fists start flying. Light shines through the bleachers more at the bottom than at the top, and black and white fight for control in the background just before Huss and Ginny have their bloody brawl.

While #41 is a sterling example of how scary a Stray Bullets story can get at its most intense, Killers #1 offers the type of smaller-scale, deeply personal plot that is more in line with what readers can expect on a monthly basis, looking at a few tragic days in the life of a boy on the cusp of manhood. The year is 1978 and Eli Goldberg is a teenage boy who likes to sneak into the local strip club and draw the breasts he spies while hiding underneath the buffet table, adolescent impulses that lead to disaster when his path intersects with Spanish Scott, the blond hit man in a Hawaiian shirt who brings bloodshed in his wake.

When Eli’s father learns that the daughter of a friend is working in the club, it sets off a chain of events that escalates to deadly levels in typical Stray Bullets fashion, brilliantly using the crime noir genre to tell a story about coming of age, discovering the consequences of one’s actions, and the reality of childhood fantasies. This issue is all about exposing the dark side of what Eli admires; it begins with a close-up image of a breast with a small heart-shaped tassel covering the nipple, a playfully sexual visual to start a story that ends with Eli saying, “I don’t want to see boobs ever again.” Eli’s expectations are continuously upended throughout the issue, and ultimately his big mistake is viewing Spanish Scott as a hero instead of what he really is: a killer.

There are few comics that depict violence with the severity and rawness of Lapham’s work on Stray Bullets, which constantly zooms in on carnage to show the personal impact of the events. Death is never glorified by the visuals, and when Scott has a shootout with Eli in the passenger seat, most of the gunplay is an off-panel barrage of sound effects while the layouts focus on the boy hiding under the dashboard, giving Eli the opportunity to admire the violence because much of it is hidden from him. He’s able to let his imagination create an idea of Scott as a valiant modern-day Conan The Barbarian, but eventually Eli learns the horrible truth in a sequence that makes sure all the action is put front and center in big half-page panels.

When Scott’s gruesome work is done, it’s back to the small rectangles of the usual 8-panel grid, returning to the rhythm of life continuing as normal. That transition is what this series is all about. The moments of violence may be life-altering (or life-ending) for the characters Lapham spotlights, but after they occur, the world keeps on spinning just like it always does. And that violence isn’t rare. It’s a part of the natural rhythm of life, and every person is a target vulnerable to a stray bullet.

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