By Chad Nevett
There is no main character in Stray Bullets. Even the word ‘ensemble’ doesn’t quite contain a comic which jumps around locations, time, and casts from arc to arc, often issue to issue. Pick any character who seems like they’re central to the book and then watch as they disappear for an entire arc or volume completely. If you read the initial 41-issue volume and the eight-issue revival series, you might make an argument for runaway Virginia Applejack as the central recurring character… but then she’s absent entirely from the 42-issue Sunshine & Roses series. The only constant in Stray Bullets is David (and Maria) Lapham.
That said, for me, when I think of Stray Bullets, I am invariably drawn to Orson, the straight-laced kid graduating at the top of his class whose life is completely derailed because he falls in love with the wrong (right?) girl and can’t escape the adrenaline-fueled (amongst other substances) life of crime. In the first volume of Stray Bullets, Orson only appears in a handful of issues before making a glorious return later on in Sunshine & Roses where he’s given more space and opportunity to shine. It’s there that we see just how far he falls; how far he goes for Beth; his love of, er, ‘bananas’; and his mustachioed alter-ego Derek. The Orson of that series bears little resemblance to the Orson that we meet in Stray Bullets #5, though we get a slight glimpse of him by the end.
Titled “Backin’ Up the Truck”, issue #5 begins with a carefree Orson walking down the streets of Baltimore, whistling a happy tune. He’s about to turn 18, graduate high school, and head off to Duke. He’s the golden boy of his family, who always does the right thing, and his life is nothing but upside. He is us, the reader. Or more specifically, he is the reader that is friendless, good at school, a bit nerdy, can’t talk to girls, and has never done anything anyone would think is remotely interesting.
He’s the stereotypical fanboy comic book reader point of view character (yes, I am well aware of why I find myself gravitating to him) and Lapham draws him to resemble a more famous point of view character: Peter Parker. His outfit isn’t identical to the one that Parker wears in Amazing Fantasy #15 as Orson leaves his top button undone and leaves the tie at home; otherwise, it’s slacks, a vest, a store-bought haircut, and a collared shirt for both of our boys.
Lapham takes this Peter Parker wannabe and, instead of thrusting him into a story of power and responsibility and spandex, eases Orson into the world of Stray Bullets. At the scene of a hit and run he witnesses, he meets Rose: a woman a decade older than him, quite attractive, and willing to give him some attention. Obviously, he’s smitten right away and, over lunch, proceeds to both act the complete fool and somehow endear himself to her. He’s invited to a party at her place and that prompts the conflict of the issue: the party is on the same night that his grandparents are visiting and he’s told by his parents that he can’t go out. This sort of ‘low stakes’ conflict is often central to Stray Bullets; characters are pulled in directions that seem relatively minor to an outsider and, then, those minor conflicts spiral out of control.
Passion, more than anything else, rules the universe of Stray Bullets. When presented between clear choices where intellect and logic would say to do one thing, the heart and instinct say to do another, these characters invariably choose the latter. And it almost always goes wrong.
Stray Bullets is told through the eight panel grid, two panels across and four down, roughly the dimensions of an old TV set. It offers a flattened pacing to the issue: the story keeps moving forward at a steady rhythm, one event following the next, all on the same level. Lapham’s storytelling is based more on juxtaposition than flow. As he doesn’t rely on shifting layouts to make particular panels stand out, he’s forced to ensure that they all leave their mark on their own. More than any comic that I can think of, Stray Bullets is one where you can take individual panels out of context and they work as pieces of art that stand on their own.
And the panel to panel storytelling is incredibly effective. For example, one of the more jarring sequences is the part set at Rose’s place. Initially slow and lethargic as an inebriated Orson lazes on the couch, it becomes more and more unhinged as the night progresses. Seen through Orson’s altered state and his complete surrender to this world, the realistic art soon becomes a flurry of suggestive images and warped perspectives. Each page becomes less a record of what’s happening and more a hazy memory of what happened. Are we witnessing things as they occur, or is this how Orson will vaguely recall them?
At the party Rose throws, there’s a game of ‘show me yours and I’ll show you mine’, followed by the terrible realisation that he’s surrounded by the same people he saw in the truck speeding away from the hit and run at the start of the issue. These are the killers. They drove right past him to begin the issue and, once again, they will escape justice, because Orson is both too inebriated and too scared to act upon this knowledge. When he awakens, that particular revelation is lost in the haze of what passes for his memory of the previous night. Instead, he sees the reality of Rose’s life: a trashed apartment, some hung over stragglers, and her young son drawing on the wall. Repulsed, he flees quickly, making it clear that he wants nothing to do with Rose.
It’s an uncomfortable moment ruled, again, by passion over intellect. Yes, his brain would be telling him that he does not belong here and to leave; but at the same time his reaction to this side of Rose’s life also shows readers what attracted him to her. She’s not a real person to him: she’s more a collection of attractive body parts. He focuses on this instead of seeing the various clues in their conversation which reveal the real her. Returning to my Peter Parker comparison, his awakening in Rose’s apartment after a debauched party and fleeing should be his ‘the burglar I let get away is the same man who killed Uncle Ben’ moment. That moment of pure disgust and self-loathing that puts him on a righteous path.
And, in many other stories, that would be what happens next… except this is Stray Bullets and there is no return to ‘normal’ in Stray Bullets. There is only the spiral.
Instead of returning home and resolving himself to his former path, he runs into Beth on the street (who he may have met the previous night). But this potential new relationship is unexpectedly interrupted by screeching breaks, a thud, and a scream, as the final page reveals they’re witnesses to a nearby car accident where a woman has hit a pedestrian. The view remains static. In the panel revealing the accident, a crowd watches as the driver freaks out over what she has done, and we see Orson pushing his way through the crowd. In the second panel, Orson has broken through the crowd – and is in the middle of throwing a running punch right into the driver’s face as the already stunned onlookers somehow see something even more surprising.
These final pages where Orson meets Beth and deals out his own form of vigilante justice seal his fate. His misplaced feelings of self-loathing over doing nothing about the people who committed the opening hit and run becomes an act of violence against a random woman.
This is the moment where we realise that his ‘the burglar I let get away is the same man who killed Uncle Ben’ moment was actually at the party the night before. Except he didn’t hit the killers. He didn’t bring them to justice like Spider-Man captured the burglar. He freaked out at this knowledge and cast a similar actor in their role. Orson knows that trying to take down the likes of those criminals would be futile. One of them, called Monster, nearly killed him just for being in a hallway at the wrong time! So, he hits some random lady who got in a car accident instead. He takes that self-loathing and feeling of powerlessness and lashes out at a target. This is what passes for a hero in Stray Bullets – and, honestly, isn’t necessarily far off from what passes for a hero in superhero comics usually.
In another world, he would be Spider-Man, but he’s not even the main character of Stray Bullets. He doesn’t appear again until issue eight and the “Somewhere Out West” arc which is set one year after the final scene of this issue. He’s not the hero – and on some level, the fact he thinks he is the hero is what proves to be his fatal flaw. It’s also what makes me love the character.
Stray Bullets #5 “Backin’ Up The Truck”
by David Lapham
Edited by Maria Lapham
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