November 6th, 2009
Nope, not that either. Tucker’s got that one covered too. Was a total beaut though. Moar violence and unpleasantness than any right thinking comic fan could hope to gulp down on a comics Thursday without, a short while later, having to swallow the tiniest bit of bitter upchuck
This came out and a millionty one fans finally got to let out some very stale breath, ’cause new Stray Bullets is finally, finally upon us. Alright yeah, there was some other good stuff in there, some talent on display, but really give a fuck. I’ve waited… I dunno… about 5 years for minty fresh Stray Bullets and I’ll be damned if I’m going to be distracted by Brubaker, Motter, Grist and Lemire. They could’ve encrusted their entries in solid gold magic sex flavour and I still would’ve flicked straight to the front of the book, that’s how much I needed my dose of David Lapham’s signature work.
So how was it? Well, about the biggest criticism I can muster is that I can’t bloody remember what bloody happened in the preceding issues. Not that it matters, individual issues of Stray Bullets, while part of a whole, have a stand alone quality, and even those that don’t find themselves part of plot arcs that, again while part of something bigger, feel largely self contained narratively and tonally. This approach had the triple benefit of giving casual readers and hardcore fans alike something substantial to chew on with every issue, of ameliorating the often long wait between issues, and of supplying the dedicated fanbase their much needed over arching plot. Lapham’s way of doing things also serves to underline the fractured existences of his lead characters, and helps to construct a certain sort of existential view. Stray Bullets is a world where love stories don’t reach their emotional climax, instead they end abruptly in death; a place where human beings are misaligned in their relations, and those relations ultimately disjointed and transient; a story littered with itinerant, socially maladjusted characters who constantly fail to find any solid ground beneath their feet; a narrative shattered across time, space and, in the case of Amy Race Car, the imagination. Even the title suggests – along with the random, unpredictable nature of violence that the comic works so hard to articulate – discrete trajectories – emanating from a common source to be sure, but self contained nonetheless. Unsurprisingly there is an atomised quality to the world of Stray Bullets, even if one ultimately suspects the points will add up to something approaching a cohesive whole. Certainly causes have effects, but just as in life and as the title is so keen to point out, what those effects are likely to be is largely unknown, the only constants are violence and death and the fragile humanity, literally and figuratively, of the players.
Despite all the bloodshed and pain, in fact I would argue because of it, there is a very real sense in Stray Bullets that people matter. Lapham isn’t content to hide behind morality, and consequently sketch caricatures, in Stray Bullets even the villains are permitted their slice of humanity. These particular 9 pages carry on the tradition. You don’t need to have read anything else about these characters to get a strong sense of who they are, how they relate to each other and why. Lapham trims all the crap and uses the very limited space available to cut to the heart of these very things. Ostensibly it’s a taught thriller about a girl imprisoned in a box and whether or not she manages to escape gang rape and murder, but really, at its heart it’s a character study of Kevin Leeds, who he is and how he came to be. In 9 short pages Lapham takes a someone (Kevin) who many of us loathe, and makes us feel real if limited sympathy towards him and what we quickly come to think of as his desperately hopeless, pitiful situation. No mean feat when, in addition to what we fans already know about his past, you consider that the story wastes no time in establishing him as a wannabe violent sex offender. Lapham achieves this through a cleverly nuanced plot that runs along two intertwined strands: the story of Ginny’s aforementioned efforts to escape imprisonment, rape and death, and the story of Kevin and Hussy’s attempts to overcome kevin’s anxieties about murder and rape and get down to some seriously unpleasant behaviour. The tension between these two goals sets the stage for a battle of wits between Virginia, Kevin and Hussy, and it’s through that battle that Lapham works hard to open up Kevin’s character as Virginia seeks to cripple Kevin’s resolve and hobble Hussy’s plan.
Thanks to all this attention being lavished on Kevin and Ginny, however, Lapham manages to pull off some lovely slight of hand. Our sympathies naturally lie with Ginny, feelings reinforced by her first person commentary, and as such it’s her story that forces its way to the front of our consciousness. We are constantly asking the question how will she escape? In fact, Will she escape at all? I certainly wouldn’t put gang rape past Lapham, after all he dedicated an entire arc to kidnapping and child abuse (one of the most harrowing story arcs I have ever read, i might add). Cleverly Lapham further distracts by bringing to bear an inconsequential yet undoubtedly fascinating (for fans at least) revelation about the nature of Ginny and Kevin’s dynamic. So what we’re not doing is thinking about that other relationship, the one between between Kevin and Hussy. Where will that go? Lapham gives us the answer on the first page but most of us will be too distracted to notice its climactic import, which is particularly nice when you consider that so many stories in anthologies like this suffer from being all too predictable and as a result have a dirge-like quality. There are those who might consider the pay off contrived or even pat, a cheap way of making a point, but they would be failing to take into account that it is entirely consistent with what we know of Hussy’s character, but more importantly what we know about Kevin. A character who is astonishingly passive, subordinate to the memory of events that happened deep in his childhood, subordinate to the presence of Virginia (as dramatised here and elsewhere), and subordinate to the wishes of Hussy, and that’s what those nasty few panels on the second to last page are designed to hammer home. In those horrid moments of revelation we know exactly who Kevin is and we feel sorry for him.
When the open box finally fills the frame Ginny, having made her escape during all the hullabaloo, is gone, as if to underline the point that this was never Ginny’s story. In the short space allotted Lapham makes it clear that Ginny is tough as a mommy made of nails – she might have gained a few more weapons in her armory but she’s not going to be affected by any of this. The short’s title Open the Goddamn Box, takes on a more figurative dimension in these closing moments, beyond the rather coarse metaphor readily apparent from the second reader discovers what Kev and Huss are up to: The box that is to be prized open is/belongs to Kevin.
It seems to me that the story does make a philosophical point too, one which can only be fully appreciated through the lens of series as a whole but is made apparent by the disclosure of Kevin’s true feelings for Ginny and their juxtaposition with Hussy’s lusts. In Stray Bullets violence has an almost platonic quality, a life of it’s own. It can never be neatly boxed and controlled, it will always find an outlet, and it’s affects follow a fuzzy yet powerful logic. Having Hussy rape Kevin is classic SB in that, if there’s rape in the air rape will out, but not necessarily through the channel that might first appear most likely, and the long term effects (in Stray Bullets there are always long term effects, the book is about violence’s long term effects!) if Lapham gets round to them, will almost certainly manifest in all sorts of unpredictable ways, in much the same way that the violence that is the bedrock of Ginny and Kevin’s relationship has ultimately manifested in Kevin loving a girl that he loathes
What’s in the box always comes as a surprise and it’s often a nasty one.
Kevin and Virginnia sitting in a tree. K.I.S.S…