Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Stray Bullets volume 1: Innocence of Nihilism

I’ve been a fanatical Stray Bullets fan for years now, and today creator David Lapham is launching a new line of collections in honor of the series’ tenth anniversary. The new format collects each seven- or eight-issue “arc” into affordable softcovers; until now, you had to buy the series in trades that collected just 4 issues each or throw down $35 for the oversized hardcover collections. While I haven’t seen the new format yet, I do own all the hardcovers and so can provide a review of the stories collected therein. I’ll be back later with my thoughts on the actual production and any extras Lapham may have included.

For now, though, just the stories – the first seven issues of Stray Bullets give a really good idea of what the series will be like, introducing and developing several characters across seven self-contained crime stories that build a thematic arc and also cross into each other in spots, a lot like how the characters in Frank Miller’s Sin City series weave in and out of each others’ worlds.

While they’re both crime-genre books and both explore the “shared universe” style of storytelling, though, the two series couldn’t be more different. Lapham uses a very naturalistic, unaffected style in both his writing and his artwork (with one glaring exception, which I’ll explain later), using the latter to play with the ways facial expressions and body language can communicate in comics. Where Miller uses crime to explore exaggerated themes of heroism and fantasy and legends of dark worlds and broken empires and ultimate evil, Lapham uses crime to study real people and how violence affects them, how everyone grows their own strengths and vulnerabilities, developing in a world where the random intrusion of violent tragedy – the stray bullet, you see – is a trial almost everyone must face at least once. This raises complex character issues of control, anger, self-preservation and resilience, and each of these concepts is explored in a different way by every character.

There is no judgment made on any of the cast – there are no flawless heroes, no irredeemable villains – largely because the ideas of heroism and villainy are irrelevant to the main characters. Those themes don’t often apply in the real world, where we’re so often more concerned with what’s right in front of us – our jobs, the people we know, the events of our day. The characters in Stray Bullets aren’t really different from us; their world isn’t any more wildly uncontrollable than ours is. They just experience events of a more dramatic, electric scale than most of us usually do. What’s fascinating is to watch them respond to those events in a way that believably reflects what we, and those around us, might do in the same situation.

The centerpiece of the collection, for me, is the second story, which introduces Virginia Applejack, a 13-year-old girl growing up in Baltimore in 1977. This was given out for Free Comic Book Day three years ago, and I’ve been hooked ever since. It opens with Virginia witnessing an incident of brutal violence, then takes us through the next several weeks of her life, portraying her response with compelling show-don’t-tell panache and even a little humor.

The closing sequence of the issue is devastating and shocking – I’m amazed this didn’t draw more controversy when it was first released – but Lapham uses this shock to wake us up, to disturb us and make us think. No immediate solution is given, no after-school special wrap-up where we learn the lesson of the day, and this lack of hand-holding may be read by some as shallow, or mean-spirited; some may think Lapham doesn’t care, and is only interested in selling the spectacle of violence. I couldn’t disagree more; to me, Lapham is showing the utmost respect for his audience, allowing us not only to draw our own conclusions based on what we’ve seen, but suggesting that maybe there are no conclusions to draw – that some patience is called for, that no trauma is ever “finished,” no story ever complete. As Virginia herself narrates in a story from the second arc, “A happy ending is knowing where to put these two words: THE END. If you keep going, all stories end tragically. They end in death – usually preceded by some horrible painful ailment – so if you want some smiles, you’d better THE END your way out while the gettin’s good!”

One thing that amazes me is Lapham’s convincing portrayal of the slippery slope his characters find themselves in, how believably he brings his characters to make ludicrous decisions that always leave the survivors and spectators wondering, “What the hell were they thinking?” Much like novelist Hubert Selby. Jr., Lapham wants us to treat that as an actual question and not as a rhetorical judgment; he wants us to understand the confusion and desperation that can take over our minds in dangerous or stressful situations, and he brings us to that point by following his characters through moments of normalcy, where we can connect to them by their humor or their manner of speech, into the sudden disruption that seems to close off their options and push them to make decisions immediately – those stray bullets going off again, and nobody thinks when they hear those suckers firing. We act. We duck, or run, or look around. Often we do the wrong thing, and just as often we don’t realize it. Are we always likeable? Absolutely not, and neither are Lapham’s characters.

And while the violence in this book can be intense and viscerally frightening – something I’ve rarely seen achieved in comics – that only drives home the seriousness of its impact. There are characters here who don’t understand violence, and it’s important to remember that they don’t necessarily represent the author; some of these characters shiver nervously in the corner when faced with danger, and some of them laugh and poke it with a stick. The consequences are not always what is morally expected – the bad guys don’t always die (though they often do) and the good guys aren’t always brave (or very “good”). This is realism.

With one huge exception. The sixth chapter, “How I Spent My Summer Vacation,” will throw many readers for a loop. The central character of this story is named Amy Racecar, and the style and content abruptly shift gears into an absurdist adventure story. The nature of Amy Racecar is not explicitly explained for a long time in the series, but there are hints even in her first appearance here; I don’t want to give anything away, because figuring it out on your own is really a lot of fun. I’ll just give you a hint – look for the character who skews the realism of the series most. There’s a connection between them.

I loved the stories collected in this volume, and I thought the series only got better from here. This book might not be for everyone – it’s hostile to any formal sense of morality, and some readers prefer to follow one story instead of jumping around with every issue – but for me it’s easily the best thing on the stands today. This gets the highest possible recommendation I can give. Please do yourself a solid and at least read through the first couple issues. If you’re anything like me, you’ll be hooked for life.

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