I got hooked on David Lapham’s crime noir series Stray Bullets the first time I picked up one of the original trade paperback collections. I kept picking them up periodically, but it was a long time before I got to read Vol. 1, and I never found a copy of Vol. 7. The original trades ended with Vol. 8 (at issue #32), which left issues #33-40 uncollected. Not only that, but issue #41, which ended the original run of the series, was delayed when the entire series went on hiatus.
The Über Alles Edition, which collects all of the issues from #1 – 41, fills in all the gaps. I was about to read the issues I missed, but realized that I had read some of the earlier collections out of order–and it had been a long time since I read the last one. So I started from the beginning, and thought it might be interesting to record my impressions as I went in a discussion over at the Captain Comics discussion board. Since the Wiki linked to below includes full summaries of the individual issues as well as a timeline, I’ve focused on a few key summaries here, along with observations about the series.
Issue #1: The Look Of Love Summer 1997, Baltimore
An unbelievably brutal–and random–series opener. It’s almost as if Lapham was challenging the reader: “can you handle this? It’s going to be a rough ride.” Two small-time hoods (apparently gophers for real hoodlums) are supposed to be disposing of a body. But they have a flat on the way to the lake, and things go downhill from there, in accelerating fashion. The pair keeps picking up witnesses, and since they can’t afford to leave any witnesses, more and more people get killed, many of them completely innocent bystanders. One of them is pretty unstable, and he’s fallen in love with the murdered woman they were transporting (hence the title)–so calling him unstable and unpredictable would be generous. There was no way things were going to end well.
No need to create a series timeline, because someone has already created one:
The entire timeline actually starts with Issue #2.
Issue #2: Victimology Summer 1977, Baltimore
More than one story line in this issue. The opening scene introduces Spanish Scott, the killer who recurs throughout the series. He casually murders another hoodlum, which is witnessed by young Virginia Applejack, another recurring character. Ginny is an outsider at school. When she stabs a fellow student who was teasing her with a pencil, she sets a revenge plan into motion. While out trick-or-treating on Halloween night–in the ghost costume that has become one of the defining images of the series–she is ambushed by the boy and a group of her friends. They beat her severely and cut her face, leaving her dead or unconscious in the final panel.
One thing I had forgotten about the stories: they’re long by contemporary standards. Most are around 30 pages long; Lapham allowed himself some leeway on page count. The individual issues included letter columns–not included in any of the collections–and some visual material, which was in earlier collections, but not in this omnibus. There was a photograph used for reference in drawing the ghost costume.
I consider the climax of the original series to be Virginia’s abduction, in these issues:
Stray Bullets #25: “Compulsion” June 14th 1985, Los Angeles
A cop visits Virginia & Beth’s apartment asking about Virginia’s school attendance (she is apparently still going by “Amy”). She runs off, and since Beth is away she finds herself locked out. She meets a guy named Ron at the record store and spends a night at his place. The next day he takes her and her friend Bobby to see his apartment, and things take a dark turn. He “accidentally” shows Bobby a picture of a naked man and when Virginia and Bobby try to leave a fight ensues. Ron takes them both prisoner, and tells them they’re never going home.
Stray Bullets #26: “Wild Strawberries Can’t Be Broken or Don’t Blame God Your Dog’s Dead”
An Amy Racecar story, centering around Amy in therapy. Her mom appears (even though Amy claims to have killed her) threatens Amy, and tries to seduce the therapist. But there are also a number of references made to Virginia and Bobby’s kidnapping, making this the first Amy Racecar story with a direct connection to the events of the series just before.
Stray Bullets #27: “Broken” October 1983 / August 1984 / February / June / July 1985, mostly Los Angeles
A recap of Beth & Virginia’s history together, ending with Virginia missing and Beth blaming herself. It’s the most emotional Beth has been in the series: she really has come to think of Virginia as her daughter. Beth and her friend Ian manage to learn something about the kidnapping, but it is Monster (who Beth had called to help) who concluded that Ron was the kidnapper. They go to Ron’s house and find him dead. Bobby is there, but Virginia is nowhere to be found.
Stray Bullets #28: “The Prize” July 4th 1985, Los Angeles
Opens with Virginia escaping from Ron’s house, pursued by Monster (upon reflection, this strongly implies that Monster murdered Ron). He captures her and hides her in his apartment. Beth has been denied bail. Ian gets her a lawyer, and tells her he loves her. Monster visits Beth and tells her he will return Virginia to her if she marries him. Ian’s PI has found Monster’s address: he breaks in as Virginia is trying to escape, and a huge fight ensues, in which Ian is clearly being severely beaten.
Stray Bullets #29: “The Notebook” July 1985, Los Angeles
Roger and his partner read Ron’s notebook, with the scripts for the plays he made Virginia & Bobby act out while they were kidnapped. They also have Virginia’s diary that she kept in secret, where she details their torture & Bobby’s rape. They find Monster’s apartment: it’s empty, but there’s a lot of blood, matching Ian’s. Beth marries Monster as promised. While he’s eating wedding cake the police get impatient and raid the apartment. In the gunfight Blue Ed gets shot and Monster escapes. Ian’s body is found in Malibu–another meaningless death left in Beth’s wake. Roger finds Rose’s apartment through phone records, and finally rescues Virginia.
Virginia returns to her home in Baltimore, which leads to the series conclusion:
Stray Bullets Vol. 6 – Killers
I read this miniseries before re-reading the original series. These are my observations at the time:
The original run of Stray Bullets ended in 2005. When David Lapham decided to bring it back in 2014 he chose to publish the new issues as a series of titled miniseries–but the collections are numbered consecutively from the beginning. That’s how this new eight-issue miniseries came to be collected as Volume Six. The good news is, Lapham has not lost a step. These stories have all the twisted glory the originals had. This is a unique voice in noir fiction, a dark look into frequently desperate, violent lives. Black and white art has never been more appropriate.
Over time the series developed a group of recurring characters, a few of which reappear here. Seeing Virginia Applejack, Spanish Scott, and Amy Racecar again has a nice resonance for returning fans. But it really is true that this series is completely new-reader friendly. You don’t have to know any of the character’s histories to follow the action.
The first issue is set in 1978 and features Spanish Scott being his usual charming, ruthless self. But it also introduces new character Eli as a boy, and shows how meeting Scott affects his life. The focus of most of the rest of the series is on Eli’s budding relationship with Virginia in 1986. Virginia meets Eli after her time in Baltimore: the gangsters she met there come to dominate the rest of the story.
There is one interlude in the story arc. Issue Five features the return of Amy Racecar. As usual her story has an unreal, hallucinogenic quality. She’s like a real-world superhero, performing superhuman feats. In this story she decides to leave violence behind, but passes her skills along to her lover. And Spanish Scott appears in the role of bounty hunter Jack Rum.
Eli and Virginia fall in love, but the relationship is anything but smooth. Getting in the middle of a gang war would be complicated for any couple. They break up, get back together, break up again…and then survive an attack by professional hit men, but the final status of their relationship is unclear at the end. Knowing Stray Bullets, I’m sure we’ll see them again.
I must have remembered a good bit of the original series when I read this last year, because I only have a few additional observations:
- The first issue takes place just before original series Issue #4; the rest take place just after the final Issue #41 (and Issue #20).
- Nice bit of misdirection in the first issue. We already know Spanish Scott, so it’s natural to focus on his role in it. But it’s really Eli’s “origin story.”
- Virginia (who is 16 at this point) got sexually active pretty quickly, at least in-story. She slept with Leon in the final issue of the series, and has sex with Eli several times in Killers.
- As always the Amy Racecar story shows Virginia coping with things in her life, in this case falling in love for the first time.
- There’s a brief update on Beth, in a conversation between Virginia and Marisol. Beth is still in prison, and is making trouble (as usual), which may hurt her chances for parole.
- Lapham’s notes at the end make it clear how hard it was to get back to his Stray Bullets voice after years of freelance work. None of the initial struggle shows in the final product. He also credits his wife Maria with a much more active creative role than editing would imply. In fact she is credited with “Produced and Edited By,” and shares the copyright.
There’s certainly plenty of room to explore in the series timeline. To begin with, a completely unexplored ten-year gap between the end of Killers and Issue #1 of the original series. Not to mention the gap between 1997 and today–when the series started, 1997 was still two years in the future.