I have repeatedly professed to never truly understand this comic. However I kept on reading it for a reason that I could not quite put my finger on. It inhabits a particular niche of the comic universe, essentially on its own. The book is set in Baltimore in the early 80’s and features some very unsavoury and unlikeable characters. It is fuelled upon the base vices of any time period: sex, drugs and alcohol. It even dives into fantastical dream sequences recanting ludicrous tales of childhood, potentially driven by the illicit substances seen in the comic. These chapters serve to provide escapism of the grim reality of the world in which the book is set. Every single plotline is embroiled in illegality towards the vain hope that there is some escape from the deluge of hopeless misery of everyone’s lives. I use the word antagonist because I struggle to find any single character to root for, except for perhaps the hopeless dimwit Orson. Otherwise we have an array of gangsters, some strippers and the essentially psychotic Beth.
Issue thirteen is an important culmination of a key event of Sunshine and Roses: the heist of a strip bar. There is no glamour to it, it’s dirty, it’s violent and it’s downright insane. Orson and Beth devise a not so cunning plan to take a back entrance through the blowjob room, slip through the air conditioning to the back office where the money is stashed. It is reminiscent of so many elaborate thievery stories of any media you have experienced before. Except that it isn’t. There is no embellishment here. Its is a simple premise with simple solutions, but the tension is as incredible as anything you may have read before.
The locale is a shack in the middle of nowhere, and Lapham deliberately keeps it unkempt. The use of lighting around the outside of the Cocks Crow is delicate in that the outlines are clear and there is great detail in the surrounding objects including the leaves of the tree. It is a beautiful panel of a terribly ugly place. Beth’s journey through the mud and grime is gloriously lit, and provides great contrast to the bright lights of the strip club. The mood is set through the heavy shades of the back rooms and Lapham wonderfully expresses Beth’s fear and pain. Her worries provide all the more anxiety to the reader because she is normally so assured and confident. These visual cues are emblematic of Lapham’s art as he intimidates as passionately as he scares, classic examples of this will always be the menacing glare of Spanish Scott.
All the heavies of the book are classically muscly, tight clothed and down right dangerously stupid. As you see Orson’s sleight frame traverse atop the ceilings of the club, you fear he will be caught and broken in two. In fact when he falls head first, you are relieved to find that he ends up in the strippers changing room. Anything that could go wrong does go wrong. But the imaginative solutions to the problems are so perfectly apt for the tone of the comic. These include Beth having to scream like a man with purple balls and hiding behind the sex waste bin of a strippers couch. There are multiple amusing moments and sighs of relief throughout this caper, interspersed with moments of pure honesty and realism. The bouncer Ronnie is such a simpleton that he performs his duties without a second thought, but fails to recognise basic anomalies. Examples of this are the stripper who turns up to work after phoning in sick, and how he spills jam onto his shirt whilst eating a donut giving Orson the valuable time to escape. Chandra reveals her classic stripper origin of multiple abusive stepfathers, whilst giving Beth the most wonderfully honest reason why she should have faith in Orson: He averted his gaze from her breasts. No man could avoid staring at them, telling her that Orson is in love with Beth.
These moments are crucial to keeping this comic believable and almost hopeful. The comic reads almost as a movie storyboard because it moves fluidly and provides intense visual perspectives and close ups of facial expressions. Lapham has a very knowledgeable grasp of how to tell the story, moving through events and moments of intimacy and revelation. It is only through reading multiple issues do you appreciate how smooth the books read. And that is the most important aspect of understanding Stray Bullets. There is now glitz or glamour, no superheroes or dastardly villains; there is only the gritty realism of a strip club, in 1981 Baltimore. Remove all technology and super intelligence from a heist story and you are left with good basic storytelling. The fear of Beth is no different from the fear of Steve Rogers when addressing adversity. The danger at the door may need an invisibility spell or a painful orgasm to provide protection. You may not be able to relate to the story of Sunshine and Roses but you would certainly try to imagine Dimension Z. The emotion and mental strain is the same in all these stories, and that is important in recognising the vulnerability and desperation of Beth and Orson. Their end goal may not be the survival of mankind but it is just important for them to stay alive and have a chance at a better life. It is the creative approach to this simple and honest human endeavour that makes David Lapham an exceptional comic artist.