Friday, 20 March 2015

Stray Bullets, Volume 4: Dark Days by David Lapham Review

Stray Bullets, Volume 4: Dark Days lives up its title. Wow. This is an extremely dark, twisted story of two children who’re abducted by a madman, held captive for a few weeks, raped and tortured, and finally escape. On the face of it, that kind of story would make me hesitate to pick it up, but David Lapham’s Stray Bullets has been so incredibly good, I knew he would not only present this in a tasteful way but also in a gripping narrative – which he does on both counts!

The kids (who most certainly are not alright) are Amy and Bobby. There’s a whole backstory to this pair that regular readers of the series will know – Amy’s alter ego is Amy Racecar who stars in her own fantastical side stories written by Amy and drawn by Bobby as comics that appear in the books – who met in the last volume, Other People, after Amy decided school wasn’t for her and hid out in Bobby’s parents’ basement. 

But, like all of the Stray Bullets books, you can pick up any volume, read it as a standalone story, and still completely understand what’s happening. It’s just that fans who’ve been following since the start will see recurring characters develop richly as their backgrounds become more textured with their experiences. It’s a little extra flavour to know what’s gone before and seeing what happens next and I think if you read this first, you’re definitely going to want to go back and read the others too. 

Amy meeting Ron (the abductor/paedo-psycho), Amy and Bobby getting taken, their horrific stay in Ron’s home in the Hollywood hills, their eventual escape, and the other stories surrounding it, are told with enormous skill and imagination by Lapham. His approach is to tell the scenes out of chronological sequence and from the perspectives of different characters which is ingenious – we get Amy’s perspective up until Ron tells her and Bobby they can’t leave, then, to keep up the tension, we switch to Amy’s pretend sister Beth, who’s drinking herself stupid because she’s worried for Amy. Beth enlists the help of mob enforcer Monster, who has his own designs on Amy, then we get the first-hand experience of Amy and Bobby’s ordeal in Ron’s house via Roger, the cop we met in the last book who’s also connected to Beth in this book when...

I’ll stop there because it’s too insanely, perfectly intertwined a story and I don’t want to spoil the reading experience. But know that Lapham is at the top of his game with Stray Bullets – you know exactly what you need to, at the right time, in the most memorable way. This is his masterpiece and it’s breathtaking to see a comic like this when its creator is telling a story this compelling and doing so in wonderfully creative and inspired ways. Black and white, eight panel grid pages: the most basic approach to comics and look at the quality of work! 

I read Dark Days in one go without blinking (alright, that’s not true but it was a riveting book) and I’m stunned once again to see how few people have actually read Stray Bullets. This series deserves to be as widely-read as Frank Miller’s Sin City, another title by a creator who was firing on all cylinders when he was making it. There’s an energy below the surface of this book that builds in such a powerful way, you can’t stop reading until it’s carried you all the way to the end. 

No part of the book feels weak, unnecessary, or boring - it’s as lean as it needs to be and as sleek a story as possible. Even though the Amy/Bobby/Ron storyline is the core, the other stories, from Spanish Scott and his disturbed nephew Joey’s unfortunate day out, to another strange but brilliant Amy Racecar strip, and Beth’s continued, totally unpredictable arc from drunk to saviour to something else entirely - all of it is an absolute treat to read. In the same way that the Marvel/DC Universes are populated with recurring characters, so too is the Stray Bullets Universe, and it’s just as exciting to see a familiar face pop up out of nowhere even without a costume or superpowers. 

The subject matter is grim but its telling is exuberant. Light or dark, tone doesn’t matter so long as a story is told well, and Dark Days is definitely that. It’s another first class addition to the truly remarkable Stray Bullets series. Somehow it keeps getting better. Bravo, David Lapham!

Stray Bullets, Volume 4: Dark Days

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