Page 45 Review by Stephen
I've had nightmares like this:
For some inexplicable reason you're back at school. Having escaped its horrors years ago, you've returned to the grounds as a pupil and they're at once all too familiar yet disconcertingly alien. You hardly know anyone anymore and you're not quite sure where everything is and what's changed.
The warring cliques and back-stabbing rat race certainly hasn't.
Virginia Applejack ran away from her horrendous home years ago in STRAY BULLETS and if you'd forgotten why, a single encounter with her malicious mother will remind you instantly. Fortunately her years of freedom - in spite of the atrocities she has witnessed and endured - have given her a sense of distance which will stand her in sanity-saving stead and a capacity for take-no-shit violence which will make anyone standing in her way today rue it something rotten.
But first, one friendly face in the form of Leon, who's just got the crap kicked out of him yet again.
"I'm in the duck-and-cover group. We're like the CIA - we hang together, but if one of us gets caught the others disavow their existence.
"The jocks are probably, like, the biggest assholes, and the most powerful. The burnouts really suck, too. Their leader is Jesse Barret. I wish him dead every Sunday in church."
The jocks and the burnouts have grown complacent. They've begun to imagine themselves invulnerable, immune even to each other's threats. But Virginia Applejack will prove an unexpected, incendiary new ingredient in their midst.
"Hey, kid. Ginny!"
"It's your turn to bat."
It most certainly is.
I can promise you a great deal of catharsis, but also fear in the form of another wild card, Mike Hussey, and this volume includes that chapter. The chapter which had both Mark and myself wide-eyed a decade ago that Lapham would even go there: a consensual sexual experiment between two teenagers with catastrophic results both for their friendship and for anyone encountering Mike Hussey ever again. Whatever you're thinking, David Lapham will up the stakes then and thereafter, leaving you cowering away in the corner, wincing.
Based on an eight-panel grid, the storytelling could not be more accessible to newcomers to comics, and its clarity is matched by his attention to detail. His portraits are extraordinarily vivid and individualistic given his economy of line. A single panel of a crowded party can contain more characterisation than you'd believe possible or is remotely necessary. There's also an intense physicality to the forms. I sat staring at several jaw bones for ages, marvelling at the skull I can could see and almost touch beneath the skin - or rather the contoured line demarking that skin!
Critics harp on about the complexity of Alan Moore's best plot structures - and rightly so - but it is frankly insane how intricately mapped all the confluent elements are in the whole of STRAY BULLETS and even within this single, stand-alone strand. Ha! I've just called a whopping, eleven-chapter chunk "a strand", but that's how epic this project is. All of it is connected, skipping backwards and forwards in time - which is how Lapham manages to mine more from characters with a lot of life left in them even after biting the dust yonks ago - but here it's particularly clear how cleverly cause and effect plays its awful part in every element which builds towards crescendo after crescendo. If there's a life lesson to be learned here it's that you reap what you sow: it's going to come back to bite you in the ass or in the ass of someone you care for.
And that's another thing: after everything she's gone through, Virginia Applejack still cares. So does poor Leon. If nobody cares then nor will you. Everyone else is repugnant.
For far more on Lapham's actual craft, please see my previous reviews, particularly of the STRAY BULLETS: UBER ALLES edition of which this contains the final eleven issues, otherwise it's just me repeating myself.
This collection now fills the one remaining gap in the individual STRAY BULLETS softcovers, meaning you can go straight on to STRAY BULLETS VOL 6: THE KILLERS, which was the first in the new series launched the other year.
This is the only crime I rank as highly as Brubaker's and Phillips'.