Off The Grid Reads: "Stray Bullets: Uber Alles Edition" By David Lapham
So you've finally had it. You're sick of the grind: the job, email, Facebook, Twitter, text messages, television constantly trying to sell you shit you don't need. When you were first starting out, you never pictured your life turning out the way it has. You always thought you'd live close to the land, maybe farm and hunt your food, build your house with your own hands, fall in love with a woman who had the same ideals. But, nope, nothing of the sort has happened. After college you networked hard with your dorm-mate from Juarez and started a highly profitable "import/export" business. You married a gold-digging whore with a great rack, bleach blonde hair and zero activity going on between the ears. The two of you popped out three of the dumbest, most spoiled brats North America has ever seen, and for a few years, well, you forgot about living off the land. At least until your former roommate and business partner was found in a San Antonio landfill minus his head, and suddenly your dreams of living in the wild were reborn.
You ditched the gold digger, the brats, and your McMansion in Dallas. You hire a guy who can hide you indefinitely and provide you with the simple life you've always wanted for a mere fifty-thousand-dollars a month, which is a small price to pay considering the feeling of security and well being your new middle of nowhere Montana environs is providing you. The only thing you miss is your library. You spent a lifetime building the damn thing up, and now it's probably nothing more than a pile of ash. What makes you even more sad is your little middle of nowhere cabin contains zero books. Plenty of shitty DVD's, but no reading material. For an extra five grand, your savior agrees to bring you a book a month. You make up a short list, provide him with your first pick, a massive tome you've wanted to crack open, but haven't found the time to read, and your first pick is…
Stray Bullets: Uber Alles Edition by David Lapham
Over the last twenty or so years, crime comic books have been more or less dominated by three creators: Frank Miller, Brian Azzarello, and Ed Brubaker (I could also throw Jason Aaron in there for his gritty masterpiece, Scalped, but for the moment, I'll digress). The three have created lightening fast, hyper-stylized storylines which the comic book reading public has lapped up and begged for more. Miller's Sin City is a cultural lexicon thanks to Robert Rodriguez's mediocre, but beloved films (Okay, maybe A Dame to Kill For isn't all that beloved). Azzarello's 100 Bullets more or less falls in line with Miller's vision and influence of over-the-top, slightly stereotypical characters, but only "duskier" (dusky is Hollywood/publishing industry code for Mexican or black), and Brubaker and Sean Phillips Criminal and Fatale vibes like early, slightly more vicious James Ellroy.
Now don't get me wrong, I'm not bitching about any of these creators, their contributions to a much underutilized sub-genre of comic publishing has been essential and highly entertaining. But much like many crime novels, all of the aforementioned titles lean heavily on well-worn crime fiction tropes and the fact is, after a while, the storylines begin to blend and lose what attracted you to them in the first place. So If you're that type of reader and you need a little more depth to your crime funny books, there are basically two other creators you can try out. In fact, I flat out insist you search them out: Jason Aaron and David Lapham.
Again, I'm not going to get into talking about Aaron's masterpiece Scalped (If you like The Wire and The Sopranos you'll love the series), because that's a whole column in and of itself, and I'm here to talk about David Lapham and his groundbreaking indie comic, the iconic Stray Bullets.
So let's talk about the history of Stray Bullets a bit. David Lapham started self-publishing the series in 1995 under the banner of El Capitan Books. Lapham wrote and drew the series and his wife, Maria, edited. Lapham drew the series in gritty black and white, giving each page the feel of a Sam Fuller film. Lapham published the series erratically through 2005, abruptly putting the series on hold without resolving several ongoing plotlines. Lapham explained his decision in a 2007 interview with Newsarama (quoted via Wikipedia):
It kills me to put Stray Bullets on hold like it's been. Maria and I both put a lot of years and a lot of hard work into the company and the book. And I still have one issue left in the current arc, left dangling. But the reality the last few years has been that it's faster and pays more to work freelance right now. The reality is I have a family and I can't just say stop everything and let's do Stray Bullets for love. I do love Bullets and know I will complete it, and the sooner the better, but I just can't commit to anything firm.
Fortunately, in March of 2014, Image Comics helped Lapham end Stray Bullets's hiatus by publishing the final issue of the current story arc and began publishing a new ongoing series, Stray Bullets: Killers. But most importantly, they published the omnibus in question.
But what makes Stray Bullets: Über Alles Edition an off the grid read? First off, the book is mammoth, clocking in at a massive 1194 pages, so, yeah, it's going to take awhile for you to carve through it. Secondly, Lapham's approach to writing is very different from most comic creators. With most comic writers, they work in traditional story arcs, with storylines being brought to a close within three-to-twelve issues and then moving on. Lapham is novelistic in his approach to writing, and follows the continuous arc of several characters, daring the reader to go along for the ride. The true Stray Bullets saga begins in 1977 Baltimore (the debut issue is a very gritty, compelling read, but is a standalone story with no bearing to the ongoing storyline) and a boyfriend and girlfriend going to see Star Wars.
The couple is accompanied by the girl's adorable little sister, Ginny Applejack. As the three exit the theater, the young couple are so wrapped up in one another, they fail to notice two men standing across the street from the theater. The two men are local hardmen Manny and "Spanish" Scott and they're waiting for a young kid named Georgie. Ginny is reenacting Star Wars on the sidewalk and she sees Manny and Scott walk Georgie into an alleyway. There, she witnesses Manny beat Georgie to death, and then watches Spanish Scott cut Manny's throat over an affair Manny is having with their boss's girlfriend. Spanish Scott emerges from the alley, spots Ginny and puts a finger to his mouth and whispers, "Ssshhh".
Needless to say, witnessing the killings traumatizes Ginny, but instead of acting out aggressively, she internalizes and begins reenacting the killings in stories for school. The stories feature a pulp hero, Amy Racecar, and are equal parts SF, noir detective yarns, and balls to the wall adventure stories. Amy Racecar is a defense mechanism for Ginny, and she sinks into writing about the character any time the world becomes too heavy to bare. Lapham also uses Racecar's adventures as one-off stories to break from the main arc of Stray Bullets, and they make for some of the most interesting, surreal reading in the book. A school counselor asks Ginny's parents to come to school for a meeting where he shows them one of her violent stories. Ginny's loving, long haul trucker father takes it with a grain of salt, but her nightmarishly overbearing mother goes ballistic.
The killings also set Ginny apart form her classmates and she becomes the target of a bully named Kevin. Kevin constantly torments Ginny, eventually culminating in a vicious attack where Kevin cuts her across the face with a steak knife, giving her a physical scar to match her emotional ones. After this, Ginny begins to act out more, attempting to run away from home to escape her mother's constant attempts to "normalize" her behavior. The final straw for Ginny is when her doting father is diagnosed with cancer and he dies. As he's being rushed away by an ambulance, Ginny slips away without anyone noticing with a vague plan of heading out west.
Our second set of characters are Beth, Nina, and Orson. Beth and Nina are fairly uncomplicated and can best be described as party girls. Orson is very much their opposite. He's the type of boy the Boy Scouts of America would have on the front page of a recruitment brochure. He's handsome, hard-working, and a dedicated student. Much like Ginny, his mother is overbearing and constantly making sure that he's staying on the straight and narrow. The whole problem is, Orson wants to experience life. He wants to party and get laid, but thanks to the constant guilt trip that's been laid upon his shoulders, he doesn't know how to go about actually living.
But once again, Spanish Scott comes to the rescue and murders a man with his car right in front of Orson. As a crowd gathers, he meets Rose. Rose is, well, a whore, and an incredibly stupid one at that. But Orson being the naive boy that he is, falls for her. Unfortunately, Rose is a mob moll and the kept woman of a Baltimore crime boss named Lonnie (Yes, Spanish Scott works for Lonnie). The issue featuring Rose and Orson's brief, awkward affair, and where he meets Beth, is surreal and at times laugh-out-loud hilarious as Orson bumbles his way through party life, eventually leading to him screwing Rose and breaking free of his former milquetoast life. Now, you're probably asking yourself, where do Beth and Nina fit into this whole equation? Well, Beth and Nina have stolen a briefcase full of dope from Lonnie and his pack of thugs, and Orson agrees to go on the run with them.
The four characters all eventually land and their stories intertwine in the weird Arizona town of Seaside. Seaside was founded on the idea that eventually California is going to be hit by a massive earthquake and will slide into the Pacific ocean, turning Seaside into a beachside community. The town is populated with a weird assortment of David Lynch-esque characters and our foursome fit right in. The meat of Stray Bullets takes place in Seaside with the foursome's stay coming to an end when Spanish Scott and his bloodthirsty partner, Monster, find the four. By the end of the chaotic confrontation, only Ginny and Beth remain and they make tracks to Los Angeles and Amy's world becomes equal parts latchkey kid paradise and literal nightmare when she and a friend are kidnapped by a sadistic pedophile.
After being rescued and returned to Baltimore and the bitter arms of her mother, Ginny assumes the personality of her fictional anti-hero, Amy Racecar, to deal with the trauma of being tortured by the pedophile, eventually coming back to reality and facing the horrors she experienced, only to be dropped into the new horror of a clique-ridden mid-1980's high school and her former tormentor, Kevin. Of course, Ginny is no longer the scared, tormented girl she once was, and now Kevin is as much of a target as she used to be.
What's most striking about Stray Bullets is the simplicity of its characters. These are normal, working class people. There is nothing extraordinary about them, even hardmen like Spanish Scott and Monster are the type of guys you might enjoy having a beer with. Much like Ulysses, we know the more ordinary people are, the more fascinating their lives tend to be. Stray Bullets is epic in scope and ambition, it's grim, gritty storytelling that bursts with life. Yes, Lapham does make some missteps in his overall narrative, there are certain story holes that make you scratch your head and wonder what happened to certain characters, but you understand that if Lapham returned to these characters and their fates, chances are it may have screwed with the overall flow of the narrative, so you forgive him the oversights. For fans of crime fiction, Stray Bullets: Über Alles Edition is as essential as The Friends of Eddie Coyle and Hammet's Red Harvest. For non-crime fiction/non-graphic novel readers, it is a great introduction to the creative potential of crime and graphic formats. But more than anything else, Stray Bullets is epic storytelling at its finest.
Alrighty, gang, that's it for this month. As you can probably already guess, I'm going to make Off The Grid Reads a regular feature, and I'm looking for a little help from you. Now, I already have the next three planned out, but I would like some suggestions from you. Here is criteria I'm looking for: all works must be over 400 pages in length or longer, format doesn't matter much to me, so if you want to suggest graphic novels, anthologies, or single author career spanning collections please do so in the comments. With novels, I prefer that the work be post-1990. Because, hey, I like works such as Ulysses, Pale Fire, and Gravity's Rainbow as much as the next guy, but those books tend to have a built-in audience already.
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