‘Stray Bullets': Number One With A Lead Projectile [Opinion]
Google “Best Crime Comics of All Time” and you’ll find a lot of lists, including a couple from ComicsAlliance, filled with many of the usual suspects: Criminal, Sin City, Torso, Scalped, and Darwyn Cooke’s Parker adaptations appear several times, alongside the archetypal series that defined the genre like Crime Does Not Pay, Dick Tracy (before Chester Gould started sending Tracy off to adventures on the Moon), and Crime SuspenStories. These are all undisputed classics in the genre that should be read by everyone, but notably, criminally absent (sorry, couldn’t help it) from every one of the lists that I came across was David Lapham’s Stray Bullets.
Every. Single. One.
Now that the title is returning, with new stories from Image Comics after nearly a decade-long absence, we may be able to rectify these egregious errors. Stray Bullets is the best crime comic of all time. And I will injury-to-the-eye-motif anybody who says different.
Maybe it’s because of the title’s absence, maybe it’s because Stray Bullets never sold like Criminal or Gotham Central or Scalped, maybe the stars aligned to give me a good point from which to start this article. Who can say? But not only should Stray Bullets be included on every list that aims to rank the best crime comics of all time, it should absolutely be at or very near the top in every instance, and any list-maker who neglects to include it is out of their goddamn mind. (Sorry, Sims.)
As the title implies, Stray Bullets tells linear storytelling to go **** itself. The center of the book is Virginia Applejack, a girl from Baltimore whose life — and face — has been irrevocably scarred by violence. But Stray Bullets frequently pulls back and rambles around to the various lowlifes, miscreants, and losers whose stories have impacted Virginia’s own, forming a complex web of violence that spreads across the country and through time.
Taking place mostly in the 1980s — with peeks into the late seventies and the nineties — Stray Bullets features one of the truly unique casts in comics, dozens of men and women tied together by drugs, larceny, crazy sex, and brutality. As they crisscross each other and weave their stories together, each interaction divulges deeper connections, and the startling heights of mayhem each will go to in order to protect what they cherish.
While that may sound a little like Frank Miller’s Sin City, Lapham achieves a level of characterization that Miller couldn’t match in his wildest dreams. (Let’s all be honest with ourselves: Miller quit writing characters in 1988.) Stray Bullets doesn’t adhere to hard-edged noir stereotypes — it deconstructs them, with fully-realized characters with depths and idiosyncracies that confound the genre’s traditions. Even the bottom-feeding wastes of life have someone or something that they care about; unrelenting monsters have fears and insecurities; the most morally-bankrupt scumbag is still the life of the party. These are complete people who refuse to be defined by their worst traits, and even a few who try to re-shape their lives into something approximating normalcy. But try as they might to escape their bloody pasts, they’ve been so stained by violence that it’s the only way they know how to affect change in the world.
Without reveling in it, Lapham portrays that violence to magnificent effect, making the bloodshed in Stray Bullets probably the most realistic in comics. In many books, even in crime comics, writers and artists seem to want to bring action movie-levels of artistry to the action, imbuing fistfights and shootouts with the same kind of visual poetry you might see in John Woo films. That type of choreography is fun to look at, and it definitely has its place in comics, but it sends a sometimes-confusing message, intended or not, that violence is beautiful.
In Lapham’s hands, there’s nothing beautiful about it. It’s bedlam, sudden, and horrific; it sucks in innocents and corrupts them. Fights look like real fights. It’s still blood-quickening and exciting, with Peckinpah-like levels of shock and carnage, but the honesty with which Lapham portrays violence avoids sensationalism and explores the long-term effects of violent acts. Only in the mind of Virginia Applejack – and her stories of her high-flying alter ego Amy Racecar – is bloodshed glamorized, and if you’re looking for a message, there it is: even if violence doesn’t destroy you, it will change you.
As a visual storyteller, Lapham is one the very best. His sense of framing is impeccable, giving just enough information in each panel to set the scene without any extraneous details, wasting no lines, perfectly applying his shadows, and conveying characters’ emotional states with just a few beads of sweat and uncannily expressive eyes. Stylistically, he has a lot in common with Jaime Hernandez and David Mazzuchelli, mixing a cartoony edge with straight realism, and even though there are literally dozens of characters to keep track of over the existing forty issues, each has a distinct look to match their distinct personality.
The entirety of Stray Bullets is built around an eight-panel grid, a simple device that gives the story a tempo, a groove that keeps your eyes locked to the rhythm of the story, and within that grid, Lapham seems able to accomplish anything. Shifting from quiet moments of fear and regret to sequences of bizarre hilarity, punctuated with concussive bursts of action that land like sucker punches to the gut, the story avoids the pitfall that many crime stories seem unable to skirt, when hard-edged voices eventually slip into ridiculousness and border on unintentional self-parody (again, see Miller’s Sin City). Like the characters themselves, Stray Bullets is never just one thing; yes, it’s a dark crime story about the lasting impact of violence on the victims, but it doesn’t ignore humor, real-life minutiae, or the complexity of human emotion.
With its completely unexpected return, David Lapham’s underappreciated classic should climb back to the forefront of every list-maker’s brain and remind them just how incredibly good the series was, for every single issue, every single story full of bad choices and disastrous consequences. An epic, sprawling tale of uncommon criminals, shocking violence, and innocence burned to the ground, Stray Bullets is an American masterpiece, a crime comic of such convincing realism and startling intensity that it stands as the absolute peak of its genre.
So put that in your list and smoke it.