April 11th, 2008
Man, no-one writes assholes and losers like David Lapham. His merciless dissection of Middle America’s underbelly easily matches Dan Clowes or Chris Ware. Plus he has tonnes more fights and dancing. In fact fighting and dancing is a nice way to sum up Young Liars his new ongoing from Vertigo, seeing as how the first issue begins with a band about to start a riotous gig before cutting immediately to a girl’s fist smashing into a bouncer’s nose.
The comic tries hard to live up to it’s title – ‘At A Thousand Miles and Hour’ – rushing headfirst into a sweaty, violent, cum-stained urban world of teens gone wild. Although purportedly set now, there’s a distinctly 80’s feel to the proceedings (right down to the cassette logo that frames the issue’s title) that I would imagine reflects Lapham’s own teenage worldview. But rather than making the comic seem anachronistic, it lends it a certain authority and honesty, giving a pulsating synth punk soundtrack to proceedings. Indeed issue 2 is ‘sound tracked’ by that quintessential synth-punk outfit Suicide, and the portrayal of Danny Noonan’s pathetic existence eerily echoed that duo’s monstrous classic ‘Frankie Teardrop’.
We’re firmly in teen rebellion territory here; if Stray Bullets was a hard-assed crime comic infused with nostalgia and grimy period detailing, then Young Liars is a twisted romance comic bursting with contemporary energy. We have a classic doomed central romance (we know it’s doomed – it’s a Lapham comic) between Sadie and Danny that’s as lopsided and twisted as any of Stray Bullets’ gonzo pairings. And in Sadie, Lapham strives to create another beautifully crazy femme fatale in the Amy Racecar mode. Unlike Amy, Sadie very much exists in the real world, although the bullet lodged in her brain means she may not see it that way. Plus that strange thing about her being bulletproof. Is she bulletproof? And if so, why?
Lapham establishes Sadie’s rock hard schizoid credentials from the outset showing her beating the fuck out of two bouncers before biting one’s nose off. Rather sweetly she’s doing it to protect a friend, following a lecture from Danny on the importance of loyalty. Less sweetly she’s also doing it because she likes hurting people. And dancing. She loves dancing, as Lapham shows with a series of energetic bustling panels, showing the gig in full sway. It’s a hard thing to pull off artistically, so hats off to Lapham for doing such a nice job.
I guess you could level accusations of Sadie being some twisted wank fantasy, but I personally feel Lapham is one of the few male creators working in mainstream comics capable of creating enduring 3-dimensional female protagonists. To my mind Beth and Ginny from Stray Bullets are still two of the greatestm, gutsiest characters to have come out of comics in the last 15 or so years. Plus I like comics about girls who bite the noses of people.
Then there’s Danny, the comic’s (possibly unreliable) narrator. Danny’s clearly pencilled as the ‘gee-shucks’ nice guy, gamely picking up the pieces after his destructive dream girl, yet there are hints of something more sinister in their relationship. Sadie is after all mentally damaged, seemingly unaware of the consequences of her, or other people’s actions. In fact when they first meet (in issue 2’s flashback narrative) she’s spannered on ecstasy and oblivious to what’s going on her around her. When she whispers in Danny’s ear “I love you, whatever your name is”, we’re not sure she means it, but we know Danny believes it. So there’s a sinister edge to their ‘love’, and while it’s obvious Danny adores his “amazing, beautiful, exciting, smart, funny, gorgeous, smokin’ hot, kick-ass, cool” girlfriend, he’s also something of a puppet master to this mentally challenged time bomb of a girl. No-one’s innocent or clean in the Lapham-verse; friends fuck each other over for drugs, money and sex, mothers and fathers lie to their kids, and boyfriends will do anything to keep the girl of their dreams.
One of the things I love about Young Liars, and Stray Bullets is the quality of Lapham’s writing. There’s a real authorial voice at work, and a palpable intensity to the dialogue. Jason Aaron’s Scalped has a similar quality, as does Brubaker’s Criminall. Grant Morrison at his best can lay claim to real writerly quality in his mad and brilliant work. Good writing should be enjoyable, not just functional. More importantly it’s not just a series of writer’s tics and tricks a la Bendis and Millar, there’s an actual attempt to create a world and not to deviate from that commitment for the sake of crowd pleasing in-jokes and tiresome post-modernity. Young Liars has a movie script feel, and the energy of a great rock song, but it is firmly and unapologetically a comic. A great, sweat-drenched, sleazy, thrilling and funny pulp adventure in the truest sense.
It’s got some terrific scenery chewing characters, from Danny and Sadie’s oddball friends, who could all inhabit some low-rent Studio 54, to Sadie’s drug-addled carnie-shagging maniac of a Father. There’s also the suggestion of some truly evil bad-asses tracking the young lovers, in the model of Stray Bullets’ endlessly terrifying in-house psychopath, Monster.
Like I said it’s a pulp romance comic at heart and despite the title being driven by the enduring power of pure infatuation, we know things will end badly for our gang of losers; love is for idiots, but it’ll be a hell of a ride.