It has been seven years since the last issue of Stray Bullets and since David Lapham has released a single new issue. Not counting the ten-page story here and there in a Dark Horse anthology. But this Wednesday marks the return of the cult favorite noir series in the form of two new books. One wraps up what could be the longest dangling thread in the history of comic book story arcs, the other starts a brand-new story starring a familiar face.
Stray Bullets: Killers starts with a gratuitous opening that feels like Lapham directly addressing the fans who have waited so long for this book. “Like what you see?” asks a pasty-covered stripper. “Yeah. I like,” replies a sleazy patron. Once we zoom out we see that a very clever young boy named Eli has found a way to catch a free show, hidden from the watchful eyes of club security. Our lead character has risked his safety to sneak into this club to see and the tales of boobs and all of their glory astound his friends. The fact that Eli can also draw them to life-like detail only solidifies his place within his social circle. He’s a legend. That is until his father shows up who Eli knows to be a dedicated supporter of the best adult entertainment venue in town. He thinks he is slick, telling his son that he has a sales appointment, but, little does he know that these lies only help Eli get to and from the club.
I should mention that there is a baby in this story. It seems strange to just throw that out there like that, but, the book does that exact thing. There is one genuinely innocent character in this seedy little tale and the poor little thing is completely neglected in the name of seeing boobs or getting a private dance, depending on which character we’re talking about. Nevertheless, we are back at the strip club and once we get a proper dose of creepy daytime patrons and what can only be a disgusting, strip club quality lunch, Eli’s dad vanishes to the private dance room for some face time with a mole-laden day-shift dancer. Here we finally see a face that dedicated fans of the series will be sure to recognize: Spanish Scottie. I’ll save you the back story, but just know Scottie has a reputation. I wouldn’t ask about it if I were you. It turns out that Scottie is very friendly with Caroline and Eli knows this girl. From where? We do not know. But she is soon batted away by Scottie’s boss at the club, who gives him an earful about staying on his game. They have business rivals who are on the streets, gunning for their hides and there is no time for hitting on strippers.
Caroline, not one to stand idle, gets to work and offers Eli’s dad a private dance, to which he obliges. That is, until he makes eye contact with her and realizes that he knows Caroline, too: she’s the sister of Andy, Eli’s close friend. Now, clearly this man isn’t a good poker player, as he jumps out of his seat in horror and runs out of the club, leaving Eli to have to scramble and find a way to get back to his house before his father realizes he left his baby sister home alone. In a panic, he rushes into the parking lot, in the hope that he can somehow sneak into the back of his father’s car. But it is far too late for that. From out of nowhere, another familiar face appears. Ronnie. Ron Ron. Big, tall, half-witted Ronnie. He wants to help Eli, but, what he does is more than a little scary. If Scottie never shows up, would Ron Ron have smothered him? How many times has that particular scenario played out before? Either way, the big lug is just too strong for his own good and luckily Scottie is there to keep him in check; that way he can still be useful. This scene isn’t very subtle in establishing that the duo of Scottie and Ronnie might be bad guys. But, how bad?
Being the calm, cool guy that Spanish Scottie is, he quickly gets a read on the situation and offers Eli a ride home. He chides Eli for sneaking into the club but also admires the kid’s initiative. They bond over their love of Star Wars and things seem to be going good. Eli wants to tell Scottie that they also share a bond in them both knowing Caroline but timing and fate doesn’t allow for that. On their ride to Eli’s house, Scottie spots the men who want his boss out of business and he decides to take the initiative. In full view of a child he is driving home and God knows who else, Scottie kills his boss’s rivals, right there in the street. This is quite the take on two birds with one stone. What is most fascinating about this sequence is, despite all of this, Eli takes a shine to Scottie. He does cower when Scottie pulls a gun. He ducks and covers, but he clearly admires Scottie in the way only an adolescent teen can admire a blatant criminal. His father is a loser and his mother is never home. To Eli, Scottie is better than having parents. He is the danger his parents try to keep him from, like the coolest, most scary, distant big brother you could possibly have.
After lying to his father to save his own neck, Eli continues to idolize Scottie by incorporating him in his drawings, instead of the run-of-the-mill boobs he’s been crafting lately. When he meets with his friends, they all agree that his art is indeed pretty awesome. But even in his moment of glory, the poor boy can’t help but run his mouth about the strip club and about Caroline. A flaw that he will soon come to regret. He thinks it’s an innocent remark about how his friend’s sister works at a strip joint and she, in fact, has the best boobs in the entire place. But to Andy, or any young boy with a hot older sister, these are fighting words. For his nonchalance, Eli is handed a beating, humiliation, and the loss of his friends all at once. To make things worse, after running home he catches his father on the phone with Caroline, seemingly propositioning her about keeping her secret safe in exchange for some “private time. This book just keeps getting bleaker and bleaker.
Later that night, it is clear that something has gone very wrong; Eli’s father is crying and trying to get his son to watch sci-fi TV at 1:15 in the morning. Eli knows something is up, but he can’t face it. After school, he finds out that Caroline has died. How she died is never made clear, but suicide out of shame is heavily implied, given the context. Just a few days later, at the funeral service, things are tense. Andy still hates Eli, so he has no one to talk to. That is until his idol, Spanish Scottie, walks in. It turns out that Scottie knew Caroline from years and years ago. Her father always wanted them to get married and the two men are clearly very fond of each other. Once again, poor Eli can not help but run his mouth. All he wants to do is impress Spanish Scottie, but, the kid inadvertently admits to him that not only did he blab about Caroline being a stripper to his friends, he also snitched on his father essentially black-mailing Caroline for sex in the process. This, of course, sends Scottie right out of the door. Ignoring his former friends, Eli rushes past them hoping to reconcile the incident with Scottie. Sadly, what Eli does not understand is: some words simply can not be taken back.
One week later, we see Eli and his father in their garage, getting into their car. In an attempt to talk to his son about what has happened, his father reaches out to him; asking him what’s eating at him? Instead of telling the truth, Eli asks why boys can’t help but look at girls and their mysteriously alluring breasts. As they back out of the driveway, his father can’t help but smile and give the boy a hard time. But Eli solemnly declares, “I don’t want to ever see boobs ever again.” Well, kid, be careful what you wish for. In a chilling closing sequence that has stuck with me for an entire week, what we see next is Scottie doling out his own brand of justice. As the car hits the street, Scottie and Ronnie ram Eli’s vehicle with their own, and then Scottie cuts off the father’s face after the accident. Let me say that again: The end of this book is a man intentionally ramming a car, (I assume) killing a young boy, and then he cuts a man’s face off. It is one extremely dark ending to an already bleak book.
The impact of this story can not be denied. Once I was done reading, I could not stop thinking about just how dark it all was. Hope was fleeting, if it was ever present. What makes it most effective is it being told from the perspective of a hopeful young boy. A kid who only wanted to make friends and impress a man that he knew to be a cold-blooded killer. What he got instead was the hardest kind of lesson about the cruelty, randomness, and unflinching nature of the chaos that we call life.
David Lapham has succeeded in creating a first issue of a mini-series that feels more like a stand-alone story than a starting point for new readers. While there is connective tissue to much of the world these characters inhabit, this story works on it’s own, as much as a piece that serves a larger story. Having said that, this particular story is one that has no mercy. It spares no one and does not, at any point, offer to hold your hand. The comic strip black and white art only adds to that darkness. There is no color in this book, so, as a reader you are forced to pay attention to the expressions on faces, the emotions conveyed, and the action on the page. As always with Stray Bullets, this works to great effect, time and time again. The only things that I can say against this book are that I wish there was at least a little bit of light at the end of this tunnel, and maybe it could have been better served to give new readers a little context to larger world that houses this story. But personally, not knowing what Spanish Scottie is capable of is what gives the ending such a punch. A key point, to me, is that I don’t know if new readers will want to come back, if they weren’t previously familiar with the tone of these stories. Honestly, though, I do not think this will be that much of an issue. But it is something. However, if you are looking for a new crime / pulp book to sink your teeth into, look no further than Stray Bullets: Killers.
“Stray Bullets: Killers #1” earns a sinister 9/10