Listening to the SILENCE! boys discussing the return of David Lapham’s Stray Bullets with Brother Bobsy the other day, I found myself marvelling at how the series has carried narrative strategies from 90s American across the barriers between mediums and decades.
The name David Lynch was mentioned during the course of the SILENCE! discussion, and while pondering Lynch’s influence on Stray Bullets, I found myself (re)collecting various snippets from this David Foster Wallace article on Lynch’s Lost Highway that outlined the man’s influence on a generation of filmmakers in way that seems directly relevant to this other product of mid-90s popular culture.
Here’s Wallace, outlining how it seemed to him at the time:
The Band-Aid on the neck of Pulp Fiction’s Marcellus Wallace-unexplained, visually incongruous, and featured prominently in three separate setups-is textbook Lynch. As are the long, self-consciously mundane dialogues on foot massages, pork bellies, TV pilots, etc. that punctuate Pulp Fiction’s violence, a violence whose creepy-comic stylization is also Lynchian. The peculiar narrative tone of Tarantino’s films-the thing that makes them seem at once strident and obscure, not-quite-clear in a haunting way-is Lynch’s; Lynch invented this tone. It seems to me fair to say that the commercial Hollywood phenomenon that is Mr. Quentin Tarantino would not exist without David Lynch as a touchstone, a set of allusive codes and contexts in the viewers midbrain. In a way, what Tarantino has done with the French New Wave and with Lynch is what Pat Boone did with rhythm and blues: He’s found (ingeniously) a way to take what is ragged and distinctive and menacing about their work and homogenize it, churn it until it’s smooth and cool and hygienic enough for mass consumption. Reservoir Dogs, for example, with its comically banal lunch chatter, creepily otiose code names, and intrusive soundtrack of campy pop from decades past, is a Lynch movie made commercial, i.e., fast, linear, and with what was idiosyncratically surreal now made fashionably (i.e., “hiply”) surreal.
The two new issues released this year show that Stray Bullets still stands strong in 2014, but this aesthetic strength notwithstanding, it’s still every bit as much a peoduct of its time as the idea of writing articles about Pulp Fiction and Lost Highway. You can practically play a game of cinematic bingo with the comic, should you feel the need: Stray Bullets’ narrative is composed of discrete, non-chronological fragments that nevertheless seem to be part of the same story, which gives it the feeling of a Quentin Tarantino movie with an indefinite runtime; the sense that these stories play out in a universe that is almost overdetermined in its lack of meaning and justice recalls the lonely, bewildered outlook of the Coen Brothers at their best; the Star Wars references that are quick to leave the lips of the series’ hitmen is pure Pulp Fiction; as if to compound this impression, the first issue included a couple of Tarantino-esque trunk shots, while the words “LIVE MUSIC” haunted issue #26 (‘Wild Strawberries Can’t Be Broken’) with a tenacity that matches the various motifs that run through Pulp Fiction, Blue Velvet or Miller’s Crossing.
It’s the collision of the mundane and the horrific, so clearly expressed and underlined in both Stray Bullets #41 and Stray Bullets: Killers #1, that really gives Lapham’s work here its Lynchian feel. Back at Mindless HQ, as on the podcast, The Beast Must Die expressed a preference for this sort of crime fiction over the sort of work that has had the life hardboiled out of it.
I share these preferences, but I also felt the need to explore whether or not this aspect of the series might be another type of prison – is Stray Bullets‘ “Lynchian” component analogous to the influence of Chandler and Hammett on [your crime writer of choice]? I don’t think so, because whereas there are certain plots, characters and situations that recur in modern noir, the influence of Lynch is less easily quantified, despite the bingo call sheet provided above. Here’s Wallace again, striving for a definition of the form:
AN ACADEMIC DEFINITION of Lynchian might be that the term “refers to a particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former’s perpetual containment within the latter.” But like postmodern or pornographic, Lynchian is one of those Porter Stewart-type words that’s ultimately definable only ostensibly-i.e., we know it when we see it.
Some people might find such a definition too tautological to be of any use, but as Wallace’s subsequent attempts to define what would and wouldn’t constitute a Lynchian scene demonstrate, we’re dealing more with a sensibility here than a strict set of signifiers, easily decoded and replicated. The various tropes shared by Lynch’s successors are symptoms of his influence, but you can learn to spot them without understanding anything of the disease. Hence why the filmographies of the various directors mentioned in that DFW piece share little in common beyond a few tricks of surface, a certain cinematic-awareness and a taste for violence that tends towards the surreal (Wallace disparages these auteurs in his article and I wouldn’t entirely agree with his take on them but that’s an argument for another time). As I’ve already argued, it’s the collision of grotesque violence and suburban banality that runs through Stray Bullets that is most likely to attract comparisons to Lynch, but I’d suggest that it’s actually the unsettling mix of voyeurism and horror that occurs within this context that aligns Lapham’s work with Blue Velvet and the like.
One more quote from Wallace, then, to help define this aspect of both Lynch and Lapham’s work for us:
…there’s way more general ickiness in Wild at Heart than there is in Blue Velvet, and yet Blue Velvet is a far creepier/sicker film, simply because Jeffrey Beaumont is a sufficiently 3-D character for us to feet about/for/with. Since the really disturbing stuff in Blue Velvet isn’t about Frank Booth or anything Jeffrey discovers about Lumberton, but about the fact that a part of Jeffrey gets off on voyeurism and primal violence and degeneracy, and since Lynch carefully sets up his film both so that we feet a/f/w Jeffrey and so that we find some parts of the sadism and degeneracy he witnesses compelling and somehow erotic, it’s little wonder that we (I?) find Blue Velvet “sick”-nothing sickens me like seeing onscreen some of the very parts of myself I’ve gone to the good old movies to try to forget about.
There’s plenty of sickness on display in both of the new issues of Stray Bullets. In issue #41 it comes in an outburst of unnervingly cathartic, ground level violence that is thankfully complicated by its place in the overarching structure of Stray Bullets. Lapham is very good on the consequences of violence – his fragmented storytelling technique means that you never know who you’re going to return to or what state they’ll be in when you do. And lest we forget, the first issue of this series’ initial run allowed us to “watch a man drown in the blood bath his fantasy induces.”
It’s Killers #1 that most calls back to the sickness of Lynch and Blue Velvet most explicitly though, to the extent that it starts with a question that’s posed more directly to the reader than it is to our protagonist, who’s too busy hiding to get involved with the scene:
If the fact that the comic provides an answer seems too presumptuous for you, well hey – maybe you don’t come to these comics in the expectation of seeing something bad happen, but if so then you certainly can’t blame the man for questioning your motives.
Lapham’s definitely implicating the viewer in his protagonist’s gaze in a way that recalls Lynch here, but not to the extent that it reduces his work to a workable template – here as always, Lapham is intensely focussed on the facial expressions of his characters above all else.
So, for the majority of its 30 pages, Killers #1 is focussed on the reactions of its increasingly exposed voyeur:
Lapham’s faith in the steady rhythm on the eight panel grid pays off here as we watch this kid’s sweaty excitement at the adult world he’s bumbled into blossom into outright fantasy that just won’t stop curdling on him:
Is it our fantasy too? We’d like to think not, but like I said, this comic is called “Stray Bullets“, and this story is called ”Killers“, so let’s not pretend that anyone read it totally innocent of its potential content.
David Foster Wallace’s piece makes a good argument for David Lynch’s filmography being an intensely personal, atypical body of work. While Stray Bullets might inhabit the space Lynch made in American popular culture, and operate on a similar level of involving spectacle, I’d argue that it’s every bit as distinct and challenging in its own idiosyncratic way.
The ever-expanding scope of the story is the thing, I’m glad to have Lapham’s gaze back on me as I work my way through his comics, hoping that the horror never ends…