On New Year’s Eve 2016 I was beaten up on the Toronto subway. It was the first ‘fight’ I’d ever been in. A drunk guy was looking for someone to beat up, and being drunk as well, I decided I could take him. I couldn’t. He punched me and slammed me into the doors, then threw me into the seats before some other passengers pulled him off me. As they pushed him out of the car I decided to smile at him. I thought it would show him that I was tough and it hadn’t affected me. He saw it and laughed.
In the following weeks I thought about what I’d do if I got in another fight. Was I just at the age where this would happen? Maybe I should train, or start working out, I thought. I was terrified, but I thought that it was time to man up.
It was around this time that I first encountered Stray Bullets. I was working at a movie theater pretty far from my house, and I would take comics out from the library to read on the Subway trip. I was doing this before New Years, but after my ‘fight’, these books became a necessity, a distraction from something normal that had suddenly become scary. Stray Bullets was one of these distractions, and it was a big one a giant 1,200 page brick of black and white crime comics. I was originally drawn in by the beautiful art, but soon the story got my attention.
That’s kind of an understatement. Stray Bullets straight up entranced me, and though I’m only about a year away from first reading, I can tell I will look back on it as a formative book.
I’ve always been drawn to action films and comics, and while I still watched them after New Years, they started to make me feel bad about myself. The heroes in these stories never lost, and if they did, they went back and fought their enemies again, something I desperately did not want to do. And while I avoided action films for a while, Stray Bullets remained a comfort, and I think that came from how it treated violence.
Violence is rarely a way to solve problems in Bullets, usually it just causes more. Though violence is occasionally cathartic, most of the time it’s random, chaotic, and scary. As the title implies, Stray Bullets is far more interested in the consequences of violence, both intended and unintended.
Beyond it’s subconscious resonance with me, Stray Bullets is just an incredibly well executed crime series. The first 41 issues (contained in the massive volume that I read) were published sporadically between 1995 and 2014, and while that may seem strange, this erratic schedule has a fascinating effect on the story. Author David Lapham alternates Bullets between an anthology and a serialized narrative, meaning most of the stories stand alone, but have some connection to he larger narrative world.
For example, much of the comic is centered on Virgina “Ginny” Applejack, the closest Bullets has to a main character, but even then we will go for long stretches where someone else is the focus. Oftentimes this leaves us with a fantastic standalone noir story like “Shenanigans” (Issue #32) where a little boy makes fun of a man in traffic, and later learns he is a mob hitman. It’s a great story on it’s own, but the introduction of the hitman in question, The Finger, allows him to become a major villain later without having to establish why he is scary.
The comic does a great job with having enough characters to make the story feel sprawling and massive, while stopping just shy of being confusing. Rereading is also intensely rewarding, and it becomes increasingly clear that every seemingly random was made for a reason, even if that reason is to show that the world of Stray Bullets is chaotic and cruel.
Much of that cruelty can be attributed to Harry, a gangster who is never shown in any of the comics, though his presence is certainly felt. Most of Stray Bullet’s memorable cast of villains work for Harry, and use his wants as an excuse to inflict violence. I’ve always interpreted Harry as the Stray Bullets version of God, a being of immense power who hands out luck and tragedy seemingly at random. The killer who appears to be the highest up in his operation, Spanish Scott, even looks a lot like Jesus, and has his own resurrection by virtue of the story being told out of order. But while Jesus may have died for our sins, Scott spends most of his life committing them, and he is very, very good at it.
As you may have guessed from my description, Stray Bullets is a pitch dark R-rated series, and it may seem weird that I’m recommending it on a website for teenagers, but here’s my rationale:
First of all, author and artist David Lapham has always maintained that his wife Maria has a major part in creating the series, and that really shows in the series’ complex female characters. Most action series in, all mediums tend to let the female characters fall to the wayside, or use them as disposable victims of violence in service of being “gritty”. Stray Bullets is gritty as all hell, but it’s female characters are interesting, relateable, and three dimensional.
CW: The next paragraph discusses the portrayal of sexual assault in media.
The comic also never stoops to the level of using sexual violence for cheap shock value. Even “prestige” films like The Revenant do that, and it’s nice to see a comic that goes so dark decide when enough is enough. It’s occasionally alluded to, but always happens off “screen” thought that doesn’t deaden the impact.
Another reason I’d recommend it to teenagers is the aforementioned approach to violence, which sets it apart from action stories in most media.
When I was in my early teens, I went through a stage where I wanted all the stories I read or watched to be dark, because I thought that made them mature. Looking back though, most of them didn’t have much to say about anything, and weren’t mature at all, just nihilistic.
If your going through that stage right now (and trust me, I’ve been there, relatively recently), or if you’re in your later teens and you liked what I showed you, I really recommend checking out Stray Bullets, because it tells us something different than most stories tell young men.
And just to be clear, I don’t think video games will make you violent, and I think Mad Max: Fury Road and John Wick are modern masterpieces, but I can also recognize that they are fantasy. It always weirds me out when people critique action movies for being realistic, because that’s not something I want out of them, but I think Stray Bullets is realistic in it’s view of violence. Rarely necessary, always horrifying, and hard to stop once it’s started.
Stray Bullets, and my experience on New Years, showed me that violence is best avoided. It showed me that some people are fighters, and some people are not, but it’s probably a blessing not to have to be. Violence seems to follow fighters, if they don’t go looking for it, and if they go looking for it things don’t usually end well. It also showed me that even if you think your in the right, it doesn’t mean you’re gonna win, which is something pop culture never tells you. Well, almost never:
(CW for clip: Allusions to sexual violence)
Anyway, I am grateful I found Stray Bullets when I did, and I hope to always love it. I could go on about all the great stuff in it forever, like how bizarrely hopeful it is under the surface, or the incredible character designs, or the beautiful weirdness that is Amy Racecar, but all I’ll say is this:
David and Maria Lapham, thank you for this book, and the comfort it offered me on those long subway rides back home.