Page 45 Review by Stephen
"Trust me. You are not going to raise this girl up. She'll drag you down."
That's to Orson, from his sister, about Beth.
And to be fair, on the very first night that he met Beth, naive, clean-living Orson attempted to rob a liquor store at gunpoint (he failed) after being slipped two aspirin (they weren't) and ended up catching crabs (not the shellfish) (and not from Beth).
Orson's subsequent attempts to recall that evening, persuade others to elaborate on it and discover from whom he caught pubic lice are mercilessly funny. One can forget that, as well as being one of the most mesmerising and brutal crime comics on the shelves, STRAY BULLETS is run through with a rich seam of verbal and visual comedy. Here it's more fecund than ever before.
One of the title's other strengths - and in this it is incomparable - is its improbably complex, cat's-cradle structure. By this I mean that Lapham has already crafted the most extraordinarily tight timeline, anchoring almost every single episode, its constituent scenes and so their individual protagonists in very specific places on very specific days during the late 1900s. In the original series, Lapham would dart back and forth, filling in gaps, creating brand-new connections and demonstrating cause and effect, action and repercussion, however far in the future or way back in the past.
That Lapham has found space within that cat's cradle to dovetail all this in too is remarkable, but I promise that new readers need have read nothing before, because David knows what he's doing. In fact, if were new to STRAY BULLETS I would start here.
For a start, SUNSHINE & ROSES is much more linear, beginning in Baltimore on May 15th 1979 then careening at breakneck speed before its second chapter fast-forwards to the fall-out two years later. But... early on Lapham pulls back to the pivotal party in between those years, which we originally witnessed a thousand pages earlier way back in STRAY BULLETS VOL 1. He does so because it played the single most influential part on where Beth's best friend Nina is now in 1981: under virtual home arrest to her sugar daddy Harry. Harry rules Baltimore's crime scene via the services of handsome, long-haired, Hawaiian-shirt-loving Spanish Scott who makes most of the actual play from The Cock's Crow strip club, with the assistance of the massive, bespectacled enforcer they call Monster.
Monster is both impassive and implacable, but has doted on Beth since childhood, which gives her just a little leeway and wiggle room when she needs it the most. It's not that Beth is a blunderer - she has quite the reputation for capability and cojones - it's that she lives half within these crime circles and half without, owes money to the wrong people like Dez 'Finger', plus her friendship with cocaine-addict Nina, whom she's no longer allowed to even see, will bring out her decidedly non-compliant streak. It will catalyse so much of what comes next.
KRETCHMEYER kicks off with a masterful opening page, striking in its structural departure and its initial meeting of minds between the two chief protagonists: STRAY BULLETS mainstay Beth and newcomer (both to town and to us), the ever-cautious, ever-suspicious, always observant Kretch. The scenario will be answered, in no uncertain fashion, in the volume's final few pages.
STRAY BULLETS is traditionally told in crystal-clear variations built around a 4-tier, 8-panel grid, but here we are presented with three equal tiers, each devoted to a single wide panel which together create a symmetry of sorts. At the top and the bottom we're treated to close-ups of Beth then Kretch, while in the middle we're shown their actual interaction plus an onlooker evidently in awe: "Holy shit. That's Beth." Beth has form, you immediately infer, and indeed she seems fearless. Here's the full exchange minus the onlooker:
"I saw you pretending not to stare at me from across the room.... I'm Beth, by the way. And your name is...?"
Each facial close-up is on the one hand a character study, on the other a projection or mask, for both will prove consummate actors while each is attempting to read the other and so size them up. Beth is all self-confidence, making the first move with a radiant, smile and seductively sparkling eyes. She'll often twirl her blonde hair through her fingers like this to create an air of idle lack of guile at the precise point when she's going to be at her most manipulative.
But Kretch is unflustered by the playful remonstration, by his companion's quietly voiced concern and indeed by Beth's proactive challenge. Look at that face! It's insouciant but beguiling with soft skin, soft mouth (which might or might not be a smile) and soft, hooded eyes: soft, knowing, hooded eyes. He has been patiently waiting for Beth to introduce herself for quite some time...
Boom! Page 2, and Kretchmeyer is suddenly clambering up a staircase, out of breath, some twelve days on. Panting, he pauses to retrieve the rifle with telescopic sights which he'd weeks earlier stashed away. Brushing back the sweat streaming down his eyes, he takes aim at the three men exiting Bobby's Donuts and pulls the trigger. A man called Lonnie's head explodes.
With this unauthorised assassination, Kretch has surreptitiously kick-started a turf war. Two pages and two nights later, he's found his way "in" by seducing Beth.
I wouldn't underestimate anyone here, if I were you. Not Beth, not Kretchmeyer, nor even young, loyal and fast-thinking Orson who's hopelessly fallen for Beth and so tries his best to keep up with her drinking and pull her fat out of a fire which he is completely unfamiliar with but not necessarily ill-equipped to deal with. She may drag him down with her, but he'll love almost every second of it.
Certainly never underestimate Spanish Scott or Monster. Beth loves to believe that she can manipulate Monster, her childhood knight in shining armour, but it's his clear, cold-logic simplicity that allows him to see through to the truth. I love that his apartment is as clean, uncluttered and austere as his mind is. Monster in some ways (and out of everyone) has the truest moral compass even if it points to Magnetic South, for he boasts a direct sincerity which others apart from Orson don't.
How you estimate Spanish Scott's sister Rose or 'Roses' with her delinquent son Joey is entirely up to you. Possibly the: worst mother ever and tireless nymphomaniac, it is she who gave an off-his-face Orson the crabs (very funny scene between Orson and his sister, on discovery) and she won't stop pursuing him. Beth:
"What do you have to offer besides sloppy seconds?"
"I got a lot to offer!"
"Diseases don't count, Roses."
Lapham's eyes and mouths are amongst the most expressive in the business: besotted, disdainful, malicious, dismissive, defiant, charming, flirtatious, cantankerous, conspiratorial, determined, drunk-as-a-skunk and angry as hell. Even the eyelashes set the cast apart: Beth's are more natural and therefore tinier than Nina's or Rose's makeup-enhanced whoppers, doomed as they are to drip kohl, while the men evidence none except Kretch whose upper eyelids come with a sensual, sybaritic flourish which is immensely attractive to both women and men... as he knows full well.
Lapham's also in complete control of his periods too: even the flashbacks to Beth and Monster's shared childhood come with the 1970s t-shirts of their time.
His use of spot-blacks is up there with Los Bros Hernandez'seses (I'm not sure where to finish that possession), with shadow on walls used to highlight what's in front of them, like a car. That instance minded me of EXIT's and THE DROWNERS' Nabiel Kanan who kindly supplied our website's original line art. But it's softer in both instances: take any single page I've gleaned for you here and drink in how much more malleable humanity there is in evidence than, say, Frank Miller's brutish SIN CITY.
But don't presume there isn't a cruel streak to STRAY BULLETS or even David himself. Every single chapter he writes comes with "The End" and a couple here conclude idyllically in a happy-ever-after-fashion for our favourite characters.
Wonderful! They've earned it! We've earned it too!
But it isn't.
Far from it, as you shall see.