Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Stray bullets - an analysis

I've always wanted to have a place to regularly write about the things I like, and have finally managed to sit down and just get on with it.

Continuing on in the same spirit, for the first post I'll use an essay on "Stray bullet" I wrote and published on various websites. This time, I hope it finds the proper audience, along with my other forthcoming reviews and commentaries.

David Lapham’s Stray bullets is characterized by realistically depicting the continuing impact violence has on shaping the lives of a group of characters in the 1980s. It is told in a non-linear way, with differing points of view. Each issue is self-contained, in spite of it’s overall place in the book’s story, exemplified by the numbering counting every page as if there are no breaks in the story, not paying the attention to the format it’s serialized in. Unfortunate delays in publishing coupled with issues’ usual 30-odd pages of story betray it’s beginnings, that of a black and white independent comic.

In the place of the book’s de-facto main character is Virginia Applejack, a coming-of-age runaway that grows with each scar life cuts her, changing towns and false names. To break away from the sometimes somber town of the book, the author segues into colorful zany adventures of Amy Racecar, tying into the story as Virginia’s fantasy life, mostly as a surreal parallel to her unpleasant surroundings and the particular trouble she is currently experiencing in the larger story.

The first issue is particularly misleading as it tells of Joey’s nervous breakdown, employing a much more visceral and disturbing tone than the rest of the series. It’s also notable in that it takes place considerably later than the rest of the series, perhaps showing us the story’s end point. Henceforth, Joey is seen in passing, as a damaged child, victimized by his mother’s ties to the local criminal element. The rest of the series’ first story-arc “Innocence of nihilism” consists of mostly thematically related short-stories, taking place in Baltimore, and spotlighting the upcoming recurring characters, though leaving them mostly in the background. Virginia is the exception, emerging spontaneously into more space as the story goes on. Taking an age-old cue, Lapham plays around showing the mob boss Harry’s face, instead spotlighting his cronies Spanish Scott and Monster, that are more in touch with the day-to-day life the author centers his attention on.

At the time unknown to the reader, one of those stories is central to the plot of the next story-arc, “Somewhere out west”, in which Lapham peaks as a creator. In a somewhat lighter touch, the author relocates the story to Seaside, whereupon he proceeds to bend together some of the previously introduced characters, albeit never having shown the exact central event that led to their current situation. Despite the character work and humorous aspects of the scenario, the drug-related darker elements are visible, and eventually bring on the payoff with the masterful finale which ties up most of the loose ends.

It’s difficult to judge “Other people”, Lapham’s next story-arc, considering that the spotlight moves to Los Angeles, where the familiar faces once again try to find a way to make a living, if only for a short while. This time around, the drama that takes place is much more subdued, relegated to the complicated issues of marriage and infidelity, mostly filtered through the new characters that form a local social scene. Indeed, perhaps it’s best that the author opted to continue on in the same setting in the next storyline, “Dark days” which really shakes back the lives of the two runways, force to play the role of a surrogate family when they are both centers of weird affection by men. The story’s ties to organized crime are acknowledged by the new role of one of the previously emotionless suitors, eventually forced to oppose a kidnapper, as the story explores child molestation. Due to his increased presence in mainstream comics, David Lapham has yet to pencil the last issue of the book’s fifth storyline by the name of ”Hijinks and Derring-do”.

Lapham’s stories are expertly paced, his art-style being realistic just that much so as to depict real people in a tragic and believable way, as well as easily being able to bend into comedy as the hysteria strikes the other way. In the title that is only pessimistic on the surface, the author keeps exploring the themes of women in peril and the insecure men they manipulate to help them through complicated situations. The characters are spared the one-dimensional characterizations, ensuring they remain real people ignorant of the stereotypical “the psychopaths versus the innocents” approach.

Lapham forgoes the stylized dialogue for the realistic take, with characters fond of exclaiming the retro phrase “Cool beans”. The author utilizes the popular culture references sparsely, usually to establish the atmosphere by recalling the original Star Wars movies. He doesn’t escape the frequent trap of mature-readers comics, and digs at the superhero industry that marginalizes his and other comics tailor-made for more of mainstream success. Thus, a shy rich kid is depicted as a Marvel comics fan, going so far to pencil his own work, in a much warmer and personal touch by the author.

The overall message is concise and strong, teaching that empowerment, maturation and a semblance of regular life are not to be sought through getting in touch with the criminal element.

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