David Lapham – “Stray Bullets” #41
In order to get my arms around the massive David Lapham’s “Stray Bullets”, I break it down into four major pieces: 1. “Around Balitmore”, 2. “Seaside”, 3. “Los Angeles”, and 4. “Virginia’s High School”. The issues that took place with Virginia living with Beth in Los Angelese (#3 in my list) wrapped up with issue #30, and it felt like a legit climax to the story. Virginia escapes after weeks of torture straight into the hands of Monster who uses her as a bargaining chip for Beth’s hand in marriage. Rereading this I realize how little of this is actually a crime comic. It mostly reads as a horror story where terrible calamity after calamity is piled on top of Virginia’s head. I think when people say David Lapham is “very good on the consequences of violence” this is one of the things they are responding to.
In the fourth story arc, Virginia is now back home living with her mother and has started high school. The violence at the high school is jacked up to completely unrealistic levels. Knives are pulled in the lunch room and students get off with limp warnings from the principle when they smack fellow students in the head with baseball bats. This story takes the social dynamics of traditional high school cliques (jocks vs burnouts) and use that as the settings for what is not really a high school story at all. It reminds me of that movie “Brick” except instead of a Dashell Hammet detective story it’s a western or samurai gang warfare type story, with Virginia as the lone gunman who blows into town and plays one side off the other, protecting the innocent. Issue #41 takes a bit of a narrative shortcut though, wrapping the whole thing up by pulling the move where all the characters are thrown together into the same place for a giant violent climax.
Like the entire run of “Stray Bullets”, every man in this fourth arc is a psycho-path or an ineffectual weenie. The women are given a little more depth and strength of character, but good people are rare and usually end up with horrific shit coming down on top of them. Virginia actually is able to affect more change around her than she ever has before, she sets the rival cliques against each other, breaks up her mom and her new boyfriend, and actually even kisses (possibly makes love to) the boy she is protecting this time around.
Despite the fact that Virginia finally has some agency in this story, that doesn’t prevent her from being raped in issue #40. And although it has been implied before, this is the first time it’s been shown:
But rather than being very good at dealing with the consquences of this violence it is explained away in the next issue:
I found that disturbing. Not because I needed narrative certainty but because it seems as if Virginia’s rape is being dismissed by the author – whether she was raped or not its just one more misfortune thrown at her.
And that brings me to my reaction to not just issue #41, but my impression from re-reading the original series for the first time since it’s original run. I remember the meat of the story being Spanish Scotty and Monster and all the other characters spiraling out from them. But I must have been projecting my desires. The heart of the story is Virginia Applejack, aka Amy Racecar and the horror that befalls her time after time. She just never catches a break, and it’s too much for me. I remember reading a a review of “Babel” by David Denby in 2006 where he talked about how the filmmakers just offered up sheer dread rather than dramatic tension, which ended up being nothing except magnificent looking misery. And it was a watershed moment for me. Magnificent looking misery does not a good story make. It’s not illuminating or insightful and it’s not fun. Taking in small spurts it seems like one thing, but when taken in one large gulp it feels like something else entirely.
I don’t think Lapham is guilty of all this, you would have to be out of your mind to say there was no dramatic tension in “Stray Bullets”. But I need a break from Virginia Applegate, and I think she needs a break too.