Monday, May 23, 2005

Stray Bullets Volume 2: Somewhere Out West

David Lapham continues releasing Stray Bullets in trade collections that are smartly organized and value-priced – veering dramatically from his previous trade program in both regards – with Stray Bullets Volume 2: Somewhere Out West, which contains the second seven-issue story arc in this brilliant crime series.

This arc is easily the most outlandish of the four-and-a-half that have been published thus far, centered (as the title suggests) somewhere out west. Four characters – Virginia Applejack, Beth, Orson and Nina – have fled from Baltimore, where the last arc took place, and experience their new life on a skewed, surreal level, in a desert town where the populace expect the coast of California to sink into the ocean ANY DAY NOW and leave them soaking in the luxury of beachfront property. The artwork begins to take on a more impressionistic style (though only when appropriate) and a number of new, cartoonish characters appear to balance the relative normalcy our heroes bring along with them.

Lapham begins a number of important developments in the series with this arc, beginning with the real introduction of his second-most-important character, Beth. We first met Beth very briefly in the first arc, as she barged into the life of young Orson, a buttoned-down mama’s boy who had just started to learn what the violent world of Stray Bullets had in store for him. We got the vague impression then, and it’s developed at length here, that Beth is savvy to something the rest of us are not; she’s a flawed character, to be sure – arrogant and selfish and addicted to danger and adrenaline – but there’s also a fierce confidence that suggests she’s seen some unbelievable situations in her time and that she's learned how to handle herself under fire. What’s most impressive (and effective) about this is that nothing is explicitly spelled out. There are a few odd references to the past, vague allusions to her past relationships with characters and rough situations she’s obviously survived, but for the most part this impression is made entirely through her response to the here-and-now of the story. It’s incredibly layered storytelling that manages to not only develop the character and add an explosive, exciting ingredient to the story being told, but it creates a sense of history that always draws me into a story. I’m always completely sucked in by stories that clearly exist in a world bigger than themselves, that leave cracked-open doors to legends and wide expansive futures. Stray Bullets began doing this with its first issue, but Lapham’s grip on his craft had grown so much by the time he got to these stories that the reader doesn’t see him at work anymore, and it feels seamlessly built into the stories’ present.

As I said, Beth will prove to be the series’ second most important character, an adult foil to its very most important – young Virginia Applejack. Virginia’s influence in these seven issues is relatively small, and she disappears almost entirely in the third arc, but her role here is an important if unobtrusive one. For now, she’s here to observe. While the story told in this arc is self-contained and exciting and crazy, it will also serve later in the series as a premise, an element of Virginia’s past that not only lets us know what’s going on with her character, but will also give us a vague idea of what Beth’s past was like; we’ll use the experience we’ve seen Virginia go through to estimate what Beth has been through, and the mistakes Beth makes as an adult become a sort of ominous prophecy for Virginia. We suspect, though, that Virginia has some greater reservoir of intelligence than Beth, and that’s the central tension of the series – will Virginia live the same destructive, doomed life as Beth? Is that her in the trunk in the series’ first issue?

We’re driven to truly care because we can see how the world of Stray Bullets tests its characters; Beth, bold and strong though she is, is clearly a product of her environment, a changed person for all she’s been through, living more by trying to outfox the rules that have been set for her than by her own rules. Virginia’s on the other end of the spectrum for now, watching everything unfold through her child’s eyes and calling foul where she sees it, unaware of any real need on her part to change. Stuck between these two is Orson.

As I said above, we last met Orson as he was completely freaking out. He’d just started to really see the uncontrollably violent world in which he lives, and he was scared out of his mind and angry. When we meet him again in this arc, we see a good boy trying to be a bad man; he’s in love with Beth and, for now, Beth only cares about herself and her fun. Again, we get vague reference to history – Orson, in an amazing night of drunken bravery, has somehow pulled one over on the series’ ubervillain-in-absentia, Harry. They’re on the run now, and Orson has sobered up, and must wrestle with his fearful desire to maintain a low profile on the run from Harry and the certain death he represents, while Beth barks at him about being a real man, complaining (as does everybody who knows him, it seems) that he’s a boring dork. With his life on the line, but the woman he loves pushing him, what choice can he make? Orson’s story is the real tragedy of this arc, because he’s so clearly out of his element, and he has a much more grounded, pedestrian moral compass than any other character. He’s completely unequipped to deal with the dangers of the life he believes he’s chosen, though he’s obviously been pushed into it by forces both more powerful and more adult than he is.

After a number of more surreal (and often silly) adventures in this western hideout, with Orson shuddering at every loud noise for fear that they’ll be caught by the evil forces they’ve run from, he and Beth are finally called to answer for what they’ve done in an explosive 48-page closing issue. This is a climax as they should always be done, full of uncertainty and terror, action and blood, defining character moments and permanent consequences. The action takes us all around this new world they’ve built for themselves, crossing paths with all the new characters and doling out cruel fates with heartbreaking levity. When it’s finished, we realize the silliness of this arc had an intangible thread of gravity running all through it, and the consequences echo throughout the rest of the series.

It’s an exciting and powerful conclusion to the arc and reminds us that Stray Bullets serves dual purposes – to entertain and to engage, to make us think and feel while we’re shouting “Holy shit!” at every amazing turn of events – and caps off Exhibit B in my ongoing argument that this is the best series currently in publication.

Reference: my review of Stray Bullets Volume 1: Innocence of Nihilism

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