Pulp Cult #1 : Stray Bullets

Art & Culture

Until March of this year, David Lapham’s noir masterpiece ‘Stray Bullets’ had spent much of the last decade unfinished, out of print and fading into undeserved obscurity. Lapham had single-handedly written and drawn 40 issues between 1995 and 2005, while his wife Maria ran El Capitan, the publishing house they set up as an outlet for the story. By the mid 00s, the couple finally bowed to financial pressures, putting the comic on what they thought was a permanent hiatus.

They’d won a couple of Eisner Awards- the highest accolade in the industry – along the way; best writer/ artist in ‘96 and best graphic novel reprint in ’97. But ‘Stray Bullets’ has never got Lapham the mainstream attention afforded other comic book auteurs. One obvious reason for this is a fairly uncomfortable one. Whilst someone like Alan Moore is (rightly) feted as a counter culture figure, the works he’s best known for – Watchmen, the first run of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and V For Vendetta – are all property of Warner Brothers, via DC Comics, and as such they have the weight of a huge, all-consuming publicity machine fighting their corner. Much as it may piss Moore off, they never go out of print, they suffer (almost entirely shitty) film tie-ins to give them mainstream visibility, and they make it onto the reading lists of ‘respectable’ critics who wouldn’t normally touch a comic book with yours. It’s a sobering thought that we have our tastes so roundly dictated by corporations, but the fact remains – if ‘Stray Bullets’ had been issued by a mainstream publisher, Lapham would likely be hailed as a genius. As it is, it’s largely unknown outside comic circles.

stray bullets issue 1

Luckily, this year Lapham found a home on Image Comics, one of the few large comic publishers that allows creators to retain rights over their works. In March this year, Image re-released all 40 of the previous issues of ‘Stray Bullets’ both as digital individual issues, and as one bloody (in every sense) massive ‘Uber Alles’ print edition. At the same time, Lapham concluded the story arc that had been left hanging in issue #40, and started a new – potentially final – arc called ‘Stray Bullets: Killers’. This is  currently ongoing, and set to finish in August of this year.  

So what do you get? Broadly, Stray Bullets details the lives of a loosely connected group of losers, strays, junkies, crooks and killers. It’s an epic work, jumping in time from the 1970s to the 90s, with each individual issue working as both a self-contained story, and as part of a greater story arc, with these larger arcs tying into an overarching mosaic. The closest contemporary comparison I can think of is Robert Altman’s cinematic masterpiece ‘Short Cuts’, where the lives of 22 LA residents are shown in separate vignettes, gradually converging, breaking through the walls of one others tale.

Lapham’s art is beautifully inked black and white, rarely deviating from a classic comic book lay out of 8 panels to a page. It’s an aesthetic that pays homage to the crime comics of the 50s, and a red herring of sorts – there is no yin yang of good and evil characters in the America Lapham writes. His protagonists can be smart one minute, ugly the next. They are kind, generous or shitty as the mood takes them. They’re complex emotional creatures who wrong foot you in a second. Expectations are constantly subverted, and this subterfuge is probably the series’ defining quality.

Misdirection lies everywhere.  Even the noir-ish name ‘Stray Bullets’ is a false lead. It implies a hard boiled swagger of a read – and the first issue blood soaked issue only serves to solidify this impression. Once Lapham has got your attention with his Tarantino-esque set up of contract killers, bungled jobs, and shadowy Mister Big’s, he works outwards. Starting from a moment of violence, Stray Bullets spirals, telling the stories of the people caught in the orbit of killers, and then the people caught in the orbit of the people caught in the orbit of killers. Midway through the series you realise that the comic isn’t about violence at all- at its heart it’s concerned with love. Whether it’s the things people will and won’t do for love, the sacrifices they make for it, or the mistakes they repeat, love; grubby, greedy and even sometimes sweet, is the driving force.

At times Lapham devotes whole issues to the failed affairs of minor characters, sketching out vignettes of small triumphs and crashing lows, stories of weak, shallow men who project vulnerability on women with hidden depths. These stories overlap – in issue #16, Hank, the mild mannered salesman, has a near brush with death. He then spends two crazy weeks grasping his life with both hands, before falling back into the insecurities that have plagued his life. Along the way he has sex with his cop friend Bobby’s wife – 5 issues later – with Hank’s story long done and dusted –  Lapham reintroduces Bobby, letting us into his perspective, showing the policeman fantasising insipid soap opera romances – complete with laugh track – where he gets to sleep with his cop partners wife, little suspecting that in the real world his wife has been fucking Hank.

Bobby’s issue is a false narrative, his daytime TV psyche taking over the direction of the story, throwing up increasingly unlikely scenarios where he gets to play the dick swinging hero. As ‘Stray Bullets’ progressed, Lapham experimented with these sort of untrustworthy, embedded narratives until the nature of storytelling itself becomes a recurring theme.

Stray Bullets - Amy Racecar

The most regular trigger for these tales within tales is the character of Virginia Applejack who appears throughout Stray Bullets – many see her as the main character, although I think this does a disservice to the many other fully-fleshed players. Applejack is a teenage runaway; a survivor forced to become a badgirl. She copes with life by writing tales – sometimes as short stories, sometimes as comics drawn by her friend Bobby – where she imagines herself as the indestructible heroine Amy Racecar. At various points in the series, Lapham switches the narrative to an Amy Racecar story, giving whole issues over to a surreal sci-fi-noir world filled with aliens and tommy guns, symbols of the bastards and tribulations Virginia encounters in ‘real’ life. These stories further the plot of the ‘real’ story, with Lapham often building up to tense cliff hangers in the ‘real’ world, only to tell their resolution as an Amy Racecar story. We never get to find out what ‘really’ happened, only how Virginia translated events into her literary fantasies. In effect, Lapham subverts the reader’s omnipotence. We lose God’s all seeing eye, and are instead forced into the confusion, Chinese whispers, and dangling loose ends that make up life.

So in some ways it would have been in keeping with the style of Stray Bullets if Lapham had not finished the series – one final untied plot to infuriate readers – but fans can be immensely satisfied to see him returning to the work. As with that other great 90s indie comic ‘Love & Rockets’, it’s impossible to have read stories of these characters for so many years, to watch them grow up, without starting to care for them like family.

As individual nuggets the comics are intriguing, and addictive, but I’d recommend getting hold of the Uber Alles edition and immersing yourself in the whole lot – read back to back you experience the full culmultive effect of a rumination on love and death, lost souls and hope. It's a remarkable acheivement, and one that may just get it's dues yet.

You can currently get the Uber Alles edition from Forbiddon Planet for an amazingly cheap £30 (that's less than £1 an issue). Do it. You'll thank me. Stray Bullets: Killers is ongoing and available from any decent comic outlet. I'd recommend going to see Gosh! in Soho cos they know what's what.

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