Thumbnail: Pacing And Violence In ‘Stray Bullets’
As endemic as violence is to mainstream comics, it's rare when you see a representation of it that inspires an appropriate level of shock. That's to be expected in superhero comics, where the gap between art and reality is wider, but even in books that maintain a closer relationship with the truth there are only a few books that portray violence in an un-stylized, un-sensationalized manner that still conveys how jarring it really is.
There are some great examples, from Scalped to the work of Johnny Craig (still a little sensationalized, but he gets a pass) to almost everything Garth Ennis has ever written. Even among that company, what David Lapham does in Stray Bullets is unique.
The first thing that makes the violence in Stray Bullets so powerful is the broader absence of it. Although somebody could describe the book as being "incredibly violent" and not necessarily be wrong, it's certainly not over-the-top or excessive. If anything, it's probably a little understated, with fewer panels showing violent acts than your average action-based comic.
Those violent moments, though, are so visceral, chaotic, and real that they leave a lasting impression, and their scarcity is big reason why they're so impactful.
One of Lapham's greatest strengths is that he can write criminals and sociopaths with the kinds of voices that remind you of your friends, family, and yourself, lulling you into believing that perhaps these people ain't so bad after all. When you see what they've capable of --- after several pages of getting to like them --- the effect can be legitimately surprising. Characters who were laughing and telling jokes a dozen panels ago are revealed to be cruel sadists capable of cold-blooded murder.Ninety percent of each issue tends to be conversation and character work; interaction between a bunch of lost, damaged, and otherwise messed-up people that rings with an almost creepy authenticity.
It's not only an effective statement on the complexity of human nature, it's a compelling visual tool that imbues Lapham's outbursts of violence with an extra pop.
Hand-in-hand with his storytelling is Lapham's ability to control pace. What he does with the simple eight-panel grid really is remarkable. Besides giving Stray Bullets a kind of visual trademark, it advances the story with a tempo that works perhaps even on a subconscious level. It's like baseball; moving along at a consistent cadence, nothing crazy happening, establishing an expectation for more of the same, eight panels, eight panels, eight panels, bang.
Half-page panels that explode like home runs; diagonal motion cutting across the page.It's tension and release; buildup and eruption.
It goes without saying that Lapham's cartooning and character work are almost always pitch-perfect, capturing his perpetrators and victims in expressions and positions that communicate the savagery, chaos, and helplessness inherent in violent experiences. His page composition and arterial inks make every dangerous moment --- even the bizarre and comedic ones --- an experience in mayhem. Before he even gets there, though, his story and pacing establish a foundation that makes the violence exponentially more shocking.