Friday, 28 November 2014

Stray Bullets, Volume 2: Somewhere Out West by David Lapham Review


The first Stray Bullets book is a masterpiece – is there anything higher than that? The second volume is a double-masterpiece! I LOVED this book. I might run out of superlatives, this comic is that good, so get your umbrellas out because I’m gonna start gushing! 

It’s 1982 and Orson, the kid we met in the first book who’d just graduated high school, has fallen into a life of crime. With his girlfriend Beth and their friend Nina, they’ve ripped off Harry, stealing a suitcase of blow and heading somewhere out west. They hole up in the strange small desert town of Seaside, which, though landlocked for hundreds of miles in any direction, has residents who believe that when “the earthquake” happens and swallows California, they will be the new coastline! 

We meet a number of new characters in this book, from Nick, the loutish and dim but generally decent chap who’s destined to become the new sheriff, to Leslie and Lemmy, a pair of scummy residents who prey on young girls. But the life they left behind is eating away at Orson, Beth and Nina, and Nina’s mind begins to unravel, helped on by copious amounts of drugs. With Harry’s boys, Spanish Scott and Monster, on their trail, will our young protagonists get away with their score or pay the price?

The first Stray Bullets book was a brilliant collection of loosely-connected short stories spanning some twenty years with a strong crime vibe that made me think of Tarantino’s films. With this second book, David Lapham has shrugged off any such comparisons to make this series its own standalone work. It’s also much less crime-focused, though it still retains a number of those elements, particularly noir. This second volume is still structured like it’s a collection of shorts though they are much more cohesive and form a more-or-less linear narrative set within a year with the same cast. 

The exception is the Amy Racecar story, or Chapter 3, which is set in the 41st century! The Amy Racecar stories (there was one in the first book too) are a puzzle to me. Are they actually set in the 41st century? Are they flights of fancy from David Lapham? We meet a character who kind of looks like a teenage version of Amy, who calls herself “Amy”, in 1982 – is she “Amy Racecar” and are these 41st century stories her fantasies? Either way, these asides are really fun and, like the other chapters in this book, her story is tied to the town of Seaside. 

Reading Stray Bullets doesn’t feel like reading a comic – it’s more like watching a movie; a really, really, really excellent movie that totally immerses you. The storytelling is so fluid, well-paced, and succinctly measured, that reading it is an effortless joy. I’m not sure what I liked more, the stories or the characters, but I do know that Lapham creates characters so perfectly realised, I can’t think of an immediate comparison. Will Eisner perhaps? 

Nina, Orson and Beth’s friend, is the most haunting character portrait in the book. We never see the score that these three pull off, just the aftermath, but we know that someone died, Nina feels responsible and is irreparably scarred from it and is slowly descending into total darkness. Lapham jumps from character to character so we see all viewpoints at the right moments in the story, and so we see Nina through Orson’s eyes, then through Beth’s, other residents of Seaside, and, just once, from Nina herself, catching a glimpse of her nightmarish memories that are slowly killing her.

I can’t stress how memorable and disturbing seeing Nina’s deterioration was – it’s one of the most harrowing and powerful characterisations I’ve ever experienced in a comic. It’s a bit like Jennifer Connelly’s transformation in Requiem for a Dream. She goes from being a broken but still-real person, to complete train wreck horrorshow. 

Watching the first time she rebuffed the sleazy approaches of Leslie and Lemmy, two characters I don’t think I’ve hated more in a comic – because Lapham writes them so well as villains, not because they’re incompetently created – before joining them in all sorts of horrifying ways, was shocking. The way she just gave up her dignity was palpable, and yet she retained a sliver of her old self in some scenes later on – incredible. 

But I loved the other character portraits too. Orson and Beth have their moments and are one of the most real comics couples I’ve come across – a bit over the top in places, to me anyway, but just because I don’t know people like that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. And the way their arc completes by the end is thrilling, you can’t predict what’ll happen next. 

Nick is another great character. When we first see him he comes across – like so many of the Seaside residents – as a low life, bumming around a dead-end town, feeding his sybaritic desires. Then Lapham develops him so he comes a more complex character – a hero, a saviour, and a real person. 

The art of Somewhere Out West is extraordinary. I’m not just talking about the visuals, though Lapham’s expressive characters are amazing, and it’s stunning what he can do with an 8 panel grid (the format of most of the book). But the art of everything from the visuals to the writing, to the storytelling and the layouts – it all comes together in such an inspired way. 

Stray Bullets is a grown-up book in every sense of the word so I hugely recommend it to everyone “of age” (though it’s fine for later teens). Stray Bullets is both high art and the best entertainment – full marks to David Lapham on every aspect of this book. There’s so much good stuff here to talk about that I know I haven’t done justice to in this review which is why I feel it’s inadequate to say, but I’ll leave it here: this is a special comic.

Stray Bullets, Volume 2: Somewhere Out West

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