In 1995, “Stray Bullets” debuted, and to say it was a surprise to most comics fans was an understatement. At that point in time, creator David Lapham was known for his work at Valiant and Defiant, drawing books like “Harbinger” and “Warriors of Plasm.” But then, with no warning, he gave up his high-profile work with Jim Shooter and switched over to writing and drawing “Stray Bullets,” a self-published crime drama. And quite frankly, it knocked everyone’s socks off with its dark, disturbing stories that over time began to interconnect.
The book quietly came to a halt in late 2005 after 40 issues, with fans left hanging in a storyline that had one more chapter yet to come. Now, almost a full decade later, “Stray Bullets” is back. For long-time fans, “Stray Bullets” #41 hits stories this week, wrapping up the story from the original series. But even more important is “Stray Bullets: Killers” #1, launching a brand-new series. If you’ve never read “Stray Bullets” before, then “Stray Bullets: Killers” #1 is for you. Because, quite frankly, it’s just as exhilarating a gut-punch as the original debut was back in 1995.
There are so many great things about the writing for “Stray Bullets: Killers” #1 that it’s hard to even discuss them all. The book hits the ground running from the first page, which sets the tone with its three stacked panels; the tight focus on the pasty and tassel covering the stripper’s nipple as she talks to her client with the tried-and-true, “Like what you see?” and his affirmative response, the pulling back to reveal the entire strip club with stripper and patrons mixing, and the final panel with Eli crouched in his hiding place taking it all in while whispering, “Yes…” The first two panels are business-as-usual, the third suddenly tilting things askew a little bit as we realize that it is not, in fact, an ordinary day at the gentleman’s club. It’s succinct and to the point, everything readers need to know in just one page.
Just as strong, though, are the two pages that follow, as Eli hangs out with the other neighborhood boys. The boys talking about women’s breasts is a moment that’s got so many different emotions and connotations mixed into it, all at once. There’s the slightly childish naÃ¯vete they possess, even as it’s also clear how much they’re starting to move through puberty as their bodies mature faster than their minds. There’s also a great demonstration of the boys’ pecking order, something that’s never outright stated but becomes perfectly clear in the way that they treat each other. Eli’s position as low man on the totem is never spelled out, but you can also see why they tolerate him as they use him for his drawings. As that scene closes and shifts into the next, the other boys’ response to Eli’s explanation of why he has to watch his baby sister tells us a lot about the Goldburg’s family dynamic, as they roll their eyes and make dismissive tones. This is precise, crisp storytelling; Lapham gives us just the right amount of information about every character even as he plows forward.
One of the things I’ve always loved about “Stray Bullets” is how so many of the awful things that happen in the series are due to horrible decisions made by its characters. That’s not to say that they’re all in that caliber — Lapham isn’t afraid of throwing a sudden nasty twist of fate into the mix — but more often than not, it feels like everything happens for a reason. In “Stray Bullets: Killers” #1, those reasons land squarely on the characters’ own shoulders.
At the same time, though, not all bad decisions are automatically (or even ever) punished. It’s a nasty sword of Damocles hanging over everyone’s heads, and you’re not sure which action will actually cut the string. Will this one scene result in a horrific turn of events, or will this be one of the times that Eli skirts misfortune? With every new moment, things just get more and more awful. By the halfway point, the big question is not, “Will something bad happen?” but rather, “To whom will the bad things happen?” “Stray Bullets: Killers” #1 is an elaborate structure of dominos, and it won’t be until the end that you discover which ones are falling over and which ones are left standing, even as sections that you never thought quite connected suddenly collapse.
The one returning character in “Stray Bullets: Killers” #1 is Spanish Scott, but Lapham is extremely careful in how he’s used here. For those unfamiliar with “Stray Bullets,” don’t worry; you don’t need to know anything about Scott in order to appreciate and love this comic. For old time fans, though, his appearance is a moment where the proverbial sirens go off. By the end of the issue, though, both old and new readers alike will be on the same page as to why his presence in an issue of “Stray Bullets” is cause for alarm. He’s charming and dangerous all at once in this comic, and his relationship with Eli quickly becomes unnerving even as Eli cozies up to him. It’s another strong demonstration of Lapham’s storytelling abilities, to induce such dread in so short a time period.
“Stray Bullets: Killers” #1 is a fantastic, wonderful return for the series. Everything works so well here; the tense writing, the carefully structured page layouts, the wonderful expressions on people’s faces as things go horribly wrong. From Eli’s adoring gaze towards Scott, to the look of terror on Eli’s father’s face when he sees an unexpected person at the club, to the steely-eyed look that Scott gives Eli after Eli witnesses Scott doing business… every page, every panel, they’re all winners. “Stray Bullets” is back, and with a vengeance. You won’t find a better comic released this week.