Crime fiction remains an underrepresented genre in comics, but of the few crime comics produced, one series stands head and shoulders above the rest. Ninth Art takes a bullet.
24 October 2003

Writer/Artist: David Lapham
Collecting STRAY BULLETS #1-7
Price: $34.95
Publisher: El Capitan
ISBN: 0965328031

If you pay attention to the never-ending debates on the betterment of the comics industry, there's a pretty good chance you're hearing the phrase "better genre comics" over and over. Despite the spate of dissenting opinions on ways to improve the currently moribund art form, this is one topic most can agree on: the comic industry is severely lacking in good genre comics outside the superhero realm right now - be they war, detective, romance, or crime - and somebody needs to be doing something about it.

No arguments here. But for those spending too much energy talking and not enough reading, David Lapham has been covering the crime genre with the skilful eye of a true original for years now, in the often overlooked STRAY BULLETS. It's the 800-pound gorilla of crime comics.

Let's get things straight: there are detective stories, and then there are crime stories, and in STRAY BULLETS: INNOCENCE OF NIHILISM there are no gumshoes, no dramatic cliffhangers, and no telltale hearts. If you're searching for a line of suspects and a trail of evidence, look elsewhere. (Indeed, for that kind of story, I highly recommend DC's ongoing GOTHAM CENTRAL series.)

What we have in STRAY BULLETS is the character of the perpetrator and the anatomy of the act, in fluttering Scorsese tracking shots and short, concussive close-ups. In this first collection of the multi-volume series, Lapham floats through a series of four loosely connected tales with a grace and ease uncommon in comics these days. Lapham's relaxed sense of storytelling and understanding of rhythm allow the stories and characters to unfold naturally in front of the reader, with each twist and cliffhanger appearing genuinely surprising, but not artificial.

Its with this relative ease that Lapham ties his shorter stories into a longer one, connecting his characters through time and space, through relationships both familial and work-related. Crazy Joey from "The Look of Love", a twentysomething with several obsessive, violent tendencies, appears in "The Party" as an adolescent bearing witness to a few things that, yes, could lead to several obsessive, violent tendencies as an adult. Spanish Scott was also there at "The Party," getting shitfaced on cervecas and scaring old ladies. Three years earlier, in "Victimology," he made a dramatic impression on young Virginia Applejack that would change her life forever. Are we sensing a theme here?

Lapham isn't interested so much in the perpetrators, the victims, or the crime itself. What he's after is the effect. The beginnings of derangement, the philosophic tendencies of the criminals that have led them to, and keep them in this world. The sheer goddamn joy of being apathetic and dangerous, and the strange likeability that a mindset like that provides.

Because we do come to identify with the humanity of these people who talk in inhumane terms about "killing spics" like they're picking up dry cleaning. We can't help it. We're unable to fully judge them because Lapham himself hasn't judged them. They are what they are: often reasonably intelligent people, often reasonably funny people, who just happen to rob or kill in order to make their living. Lapham paints a picture without focusing on the dark or the light, but instead providing us with the balance between them.

When it comes to Lapham's linework, many comparisons could be made to artists of many different schools - those broad Mazzucchelli brushstrokes, the subtle cartooning of Seth, perhaps, and the uncanny ability to switch gears from low-key conversational scenes to sensationalistic action scenes and make it all as interesting as Kirby did.

All of these valid comparisons could be made without taking away from Lapham's style and originality, his masterful manipulation of black and white, and the unique approach he brings to his own layouts, suffusing each page with an undiminished energy and inimitable line.

STRAY BULLETS is a comic everyone should refer to when discussing the rare jewels of the industry. It's the comic people should be shoved toward when they complain about the lack of great crime stories in today's depleted market. In a few more months, Lapham will be writing BATMAN for a short run, dictating the movements of Bill Sienkiewicz's schizophrenic pen, and hopefully a handful of regular BATMAN readers will wonder who this guy is and where they can get his stuff. INNOCENCE OF NIHILISM is where they need to start.

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