Crime comics, genre, anxieties about, that’s stuff you should leave at the door. I want to talk about a dead girl and a tragic young man.

The opening panel to Stray Bullets number 1

Stray Bullets #1 is that rarest of beasts in the dark woods of serialized fiction, a first issue that’s on a par with the best of the run. David Lapham doesn’t need to find his stride, he hits the ground running, in fact his biggest problem as the series progresses is sustaining the quality, and perhaps the purity, of the early issues. I’d argue he’s largely succeeded, but that’s a topic for another post.

Here be spoilers…

A car speeding into the night, a lonely county road, as an establishing shot it’s hardly setting a precedent. But the first panel in SB #1 transcends its over familiarity by actually saying something meaningful about the book and all that follows it. This is a story that will make good on the panel’s familiar metaphorical properties. What we need to keep in mind here is that this road is black, to see anything we’re going to need a torch, and that things probably lurk in those woods. For that matter, things probably lurk in that car – what’s it doing out there in the dark, anyway? The world of Stray Bullets is a dangerous place, and the road travels on until you die.

We should also consider the notion that Lapham doesn’t want to simply transcend cliché, that he’s keen to set-up certain expectations in the reader. So later, when the tires on the car blow out and that familiar scene with the cop and the dead body in the trunk rears it’s head, we shouldn’t be surprised at the lack of novelty on offer. What’s interesting about all these little genre ticks is that, by issue 2, you could be forgiven for forgetting you were reading a crime comic in the first place, and that’s a recurring pattern throughout the series. The effect being that just when you think you know where you are Lapham pulls something entirely unexpected out of the hat, and suddenly definitions like ‘crime fiction’ start to feel inadequate or in serious needs of revision. If I was hunting around for words to describe Stray Bullets #1 I’d eschew genre definitions and settle on adjectives like macabre and gothic.

It’s about a boy called Joey who’s crime-lord boss, Harry, permits him to rape a girl before she’s executed, and how he’s left to dispose of the body with the help of his partner Frank. That’s about as black a premise as I can think of, made all the more grotesque by Frank’s frequent, and cheerful references to Joey’s “Freebie”. The sequence above, however, is where the plot begins to coagulate. It begs the question, why does Joey drag the body into the woods when Frank is changing their punctured tire, why not just leave it in the boot? The scene sets up three possible answers in quick succession, each functioning to raise the levels of tension: that Joey is frightened the body will be discovered – a concern borne out when the cop pulls over; that Joey is, in Frank’s words, getting another freebie.

Panels from Stray Bullets #1
Panels from Stray Bullets #1

However, the third and most worrying possibility, is that Joey has started to feel emotionally attached to the dead girl. So when he bursts out of the woods and riddles the cop with bullets, his scream of “DON’T LOOK” makes sense as the cry of a fiercely protective boyfriend, rather than a scared criminal or necrophiliac. His clumsy and gory attempts to haul the body out of the car and into the safety of darkness can consequently be read as the awkward, frantic fumblings of an inexperienced lover.

From here things head rapidly downhill. It quickly becomes apparent that Joey is losing his mind. The consequences of this breakdown are horrific in the extreme. Lost in a paranoid fantasy fueled by guilt, terror and a desperate desire to carve meaning from hideous violence, the body count steadily begins to rise, culminating in a massacre at a roadside diner.

The scene packs a punch not merely because Lapham has previously established the space’s everyday mundanity, but because Frank, no stranger to violent acts, starts to feel out of his depth. Killing people he can handle, slaughtering strangers to protect the honor of your dead fantasy girlfriend’s a trickier proposition. What we should bear in mind here is that Frank is the closest this story has to a bridge character. His stock gangster persona is familiar and as such somehow safe, even normal. If anyone’s going to be able to clean up this mess its a guy like Frank. He’ll know what to do.

But of course he doesn’t

Frank’s lost and so are we. This ain’t your daddy’s crime fiction, this is uncharted territory. Joey’s disturbing claims that “Janice” was going to have his baby; Frank’s desperate attempts to retain control while chugging back beer after beer and blathering about serial killers, sin and absolution; and the blood soaked pile of dead bodies on the backseat, suggest the kind of doom laden narrative more commonly found in horror fiction than crime drama. By the final few pages we know exactly where this is going, and it’s nowhere good. Joey’s insistence that he must confront the mysterious and monstrous Harry – the source of all this senseless slaughter – is like an invocation of death. A short while later Frank is dead, killed by Joey for insulting his one true love, and Joey is left alone with a car full of corpses.

The word bleak was invented with scenes like this in mind: Joey describing the measure of his love to a dead girl wrapped in a tarpaulin, and thereby feeding the black fiction that has demanded the sacrifice of so many lives. What Lapham has conjured here is fascinating and hideous in it’s complexity. Joey’s pathological fantasies are an attempt to create a scenario in which his role in Janice’s death is profoundly subverted – he becomes her lover rather than her rapist – and where he is given the chance to be a hero. This set-up should of course be familiar to anyone who’s watched David Lynch‘s Lost Highway or Mulholland Drive, except here the POV isn’t interiorised. Here fiction isn’t cracked by terrifying glimpses of things as they really are, instead we get to watch a man drown in the blood bath his fantasy induces. His gasps for air found in the hammering of bullets into flesh, his tears as he blows chunks out of the half dead waitress in the diner, and in a pile of stinking corpses. We are never under the illusion that Joey has it in him to be a hero in the way that we are (for a short time at least) sold on the notion that Mullholland Drive’s Betty Elms has it in her to be a movie star (rather than a killer), because we are never given the security of inhabiting his delusions. So in that final scene, when Joey claws at the earth and protests that he and Janice could have had so much, our pity is suffused with dread. His willful insistence on the possibility of making amends can only lead to more horror and death, because things cannot be set right with the dead.

David Lapham likes to insist that each issue of Stray Bullets can function on its own as a self-contained story. Whether he pulls it off all the time is certainly debatable, but I feel he achieves his ends here. When Lapham points Joey into, rather than out of the frame in that second to last panel, the possibility of escape, of change is shut down. This story’s destination has already been reached, only more death and horror can follow, as illustrated by the parting shot of a car heaving with rotting cadavers. Sure, by leading us into the frame, Lapham is beckoning us into the series proper, but even at this early stage one is haunted by the possibility that he’s opted to begin the story at the end. A pretty brave move, afterall he must have been aware that this degree of fatalism this early on could destroy the comic. But of course we want to know more about Joey, and the enigmatic Harry, and just who it is that lies hidden beneath that tarp, and how they got there. And we hold on to the hope that all this death will start to make some kind of sense, all the while knowing that it won’t.

If Stray Bullets #1 sets the agenda for the series, then the implication is that it’s not about crime, it’s about violence and death, how they come for us whether we deserve it or not. As Joey’s story demonstrates, the forces they unleash are impossible to control no matter how hard we try to force order upon them, no matter what stories we tell, no matter how we frame things (crime, horror, romance). So when Amy Racecar saves the world, and Orson looks over at Beth, and Spanish Scott pulls his knife, we know how things are going to go, and all the suitcases full of drugs, crime lords and small town soap operas in the world aren’t going to change that. But, like all the best con men, Lapham manages to keep us praying for a nice, safe genre ending.

I think I know who’s under that tarp, but you should go read the series and work that one out for yourself.

We’ll be having another look at SB further down the line.

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