Hitting the target: David Lapham on ‘Stray Bullets,’ ‘Murder Me Dead’

July 22, 2014 | 12:00 p.m.

“Comics isn’t like being a doctor, where you need to have all this schooling and technical knowledge,” David Lapham says. “You just have to put in the work.”

The creator of the acclaimed crime series “Stray Bullets,” Lapham has certainly logged the hours, getting his start drawing comics for the first incarnation of Valiant Comics before beginning his seminal independent series in 1995. A comic-book fan from an early age, Lapham devoted a year to sharpening his craft and sending out samples to publishers, a strategy that put him on Valiant’s radar. He received a major comics education at the publisher, where he was immediately put to work drawing such comics as “Ultimate Warrior’s Ultimate Workout.”

“When I left that day, they didn’t think I was going to come back,” Lapham says regarding his first day at Valiant. “Everyone was really busy so they didn’t get to spend a lot of time, it was just me sitting all day doing this thing while nobody’s giving me any sort of pointers. Of course I did come back the next day. From my perspective, it was the greatest thing. Besides the fact of getting the opportunity, I grew up on Marvel Comics in the ’70s and the early ’80s, and being in a comic book company that has Jim Shooter, and Bob Layton was there, and Barry Windsor-Smith would come in. These were all people that I read, so it was just great.”

stray bullets 1 Hitting the target: David Lapham on Stray Bullets, Murder Me DeadLapham started to write his own stories toward the end of Valiant’s first run, giving him the confidence to start a creator-owned series after meeting self-publishing cartoonists like Jeff Smith at conventions. On the flight back from San Diego’s Comic-Con International in 1994, Lapham wrote the story that would become the first issue of “Stray Bullets.” After a decade of his hard-boiled “domestic noir” stories, Lapham put the series on hiatus to return to freelance work, writing titles for Marvel, DC and Dark Horse over the last nine years to support a growing family with his wife, creative partner and editor Maria Lapham.

“It was pretty amazing because it was just the right time at the right place,” Lapham says of the success of “Stray Bullets.” “I knew I could do a good book, but it really took off right from the beginning. Maria promoted the hell out of it and the response was terrific. That was what we did for a decade, and then we started a family and it was harder to do ‘Stray Bullets’ because for a decade it was just Maria and I 24/7. Your life and your work are just merged into one. And when we started having our children, that became a priority. We just couldn’t do it the right way without making compromises.”

Nine years after “Stray Bullets” No. 40 hit stands, Lapham is back on the book that he made his name on, publishing the exceptional “Stray Bullets: Killers” series through Image Comics. Last week saw the release of “Stray Bullets: Killers” No. 5, and this week, Image is publishing Lapham’s out-of-print graphic novel “Murder Me Dead,” his tribute to classic film noir.

Hero Complex readers can see images from “Stray Bullets: Killers” and “Murder Me Dead” in the gallery above or in larger versions via the links below.

“Stray Bullets:” Page 1 | Page 2 | Page 3 | Page 4 | Page 5 | Page 6

“Murder Me Dead:” Cover | Panel close-up | Page 1 | Page 2 | Page 3 |

In a recent phone interview, Lapham discussed his reasons for taking his creator-owned work to Image, the inspiration behind “Stray Bullets” and “Murder Me Dead” and his approach to writing and drawing.

Hero Complex: What attracted you to Image Comics for the return of “Stray Bullets”?

David Lapham: Maria and I started talking to Image about bringing “Stray Bullets” back, and that just turned into a dream because it was so close to what we did when we were totally, 100% independent. They just take off enough of the overwhelming amount of everything coming at you. We could finally see doing the book exactly the way that we wanted it to be done and still have the time to raise a family. We’re sort of total control freaks, so we still try and do everything, and Maria knows everything about books and printing. Image is very cool with it, and they want people who are as independent as they want to be, but they’re there to help you with the parts you don’t want to deal with.

The opposite side of that is that they’re a company and we can do stuff like print the “Uber Alles” [a collection of the first 41 issues of "Stray Bullets"], which would be very difficult to do independently. To front all that money to print a book like that. They love the book and they’ve been really supportive. Unlike some of the other companies we talked to, they wanted us to do ["Stray Bullets"] like we did it before, like we wanted to do it. They wouldn’t put us in a box of giving us 20 or 22 pages with ads in it. It didn’t have to be in color. It’s an El Capitan production from front to back, which is awesome.straybulletskillers 05 Hitting the target: David Lapham on Stray Bullets, Murder Me Dead

HC: It seems like it would be impossible to independently do the kind of rollout that Image had for “Stray Bullets,” releasing two new issues on the same week as well a massive collection.

DL: Maria and I had talked about how do we come back, because obviously we left one issue hanging, which is awkward, but at the same time, you don’t want to have a release that is the end of something because it doesn’t include new readers. Before we even talked to Image, Maria and I [decided] what we needed to do was make it exciting, rip off the Band-Aid and move forward. Everything at the same time. When we told that to Eric [Stephenson] and Image—a lot of companies would have put the brakes on that, and they were just like, “Let’s do it.”

HC: What was your inspiration for starting “Stray Bullets”? And what about the inspiration for each individual issue? Where do you start with each story?

DL: Going back to the very first story, it was just an idea I had and I just wrote it. I’m not even quite sure where it came from, but it’s things I like, crime and other things. But when we wanted to turn it into a series, we really had to think about what the book was and what we want it to be. The fact that it’s the crime genre, that’s the stuff that I like and what I’m good at creating. Some of the stories are more crime and some are more drama, but even the drama tends to have the noirish feel. That’s the tone, but the inspiration for the stories honestly comes from both Maria’s life and my life and our life together. Obviously not literally—there’s a lot of literal within it—but it comes from that and the stories are usually born out of our conversations and just talking about life and our histories and how we feel about the world. Then we translate that into the stories.

HC: Who are some of your major influences when it comes to writing and drawing your own work?

DL: You can say that anything you like is an inspiration, and then there are certain things that stand out more than others to you. Growing up, I was a huge Frank Miller fan. I was obsessed with his “Daredevil” and “Ronin” and different things he did. It’s probably my major comic-book influence, just because that was tops above everything else when I was kid. Another thing is a lot of old movies, which I see a lot in my work, especially ’30s and ’40s movies. I like all the old noir movies, but the thing I’m most a fan of is the old screwball comedies: [Frank] Capra and [Howard] Hawks and a lot of other people. I see that all over my work, and I think that’s where that comes from. I’m a huge [Akira] Kurosawa fan. I put that in my work, I don’t know how to say he’s a direct influence, but I do think it’s a big part of myself creatively. I’m a huge Kurt Vonnegut fan, and I think that’s a big influence on me. I’m sure I could name a lot of things, but those are some of the major ones.

HC: “Stray Bullets” has some of the most distinct covers on the stands. How do you pick the cover images and color schemes?

DL: That was something that we came up with very early when we were designing how “Stray Bullets” would look. …We have the big field at the top with the logo and the number, and a little field at the bottom for the artwork, and it changed the approach to the cover from trying to create this big splashy image to creating an image that would be evocative or scary or have questions around it. It was a little more panel-like, and that changed the mentality of how to approach each cover. You can have the cover of issue No. 3 where it’s just an ashtray, a hand and a gun on the table, and it has a mood to it. I don’t think if it was a full page, you would ever pick an image like that.It all goes back to emotions. The interest of most stories is trying to evoke emotion, get you to feel what the characters are feeling, and with covers it’s the same thing. The image is going to evoke that feeling the story has.

As far as the colors at the top, that’s kind of a nightmare. Maria and I will sit—you’d think we’ve got this cover, we’ve got the artwork, we’ve got the artwork colored, we’ve got all the elements, we’re all set to go, all we have left to do is pick the color of the logo and the field. And… it all comes to grinding halt and we sit there for an hour or two hours trying different colors. “Does this look good? Have we done this before? Oh, we did that before.” Black looks good, but black is always going to work. We would look at different things, we would look at other books and DVDs and think, “Hey, that looks good,” and then you put it on yours and it doesn’t look so good. We just go until we hit on it, and then we usually know when we hit it. That’s always an interesting composition, doing the color field, but it’s fun.

"Stray Bullets Killers" Page 2 (Image Comics)

“Stray Bullets: Killers” Page 2. (Image Comics)

HC: Why did you choose to use an eight-panel grid for “Stray Bullets”?

DL: I came up learning from the old Marvel guys, and looking at Kirby and a six-panel grid. Just learning storytelling that way, being more concerned about what’s in the panels than how you overlap the panels to make a funky layout. I think there’s more of an opportunity to have a hot mess with that kind of overlapping panels, but there are some guys that are brilliant at it. But that was never my instinct, to sit down and try to figure that out. I always just wondered, “What’s in this panel, what’s in the next panel,” that’s what my brain thought. And also I wanted to make a comic that was the most accessible to people who don’t normally read comics, or to people who casually read comics, and the most accessible is always reading left to right, up to down. You don’t have to worry about what panel to read next.

I knew for the stories I wanted to tell, I wanted to do a lot of film-like stuff, because I always saw my stories in my head and I’m just pulling the pictures out. They would move. And the six-panel grid that I would use for superheroes wasn’t enough panels if you wanted to do a panel where you have somebody’s eyes move with some subtlety. The eight-panel [layout] was manageable, readable and gave me enough panels to do what I wanted to do. I found that, and just decided to do eight panels. It’s great, it’s stress-free. I don’t have to worry about what the next layout’s going to be. All I have to do is worry about what my story is and how far I want to break it down. So that was just perfect for me, and in my observation, my theories and thoughts on it, to do a grid is the most immersive reading experience. When people read in a grid, they almost instantly stop noticing that they’re reading a grid and they just start reading and get involved in the story and forget about all that other stuff.

HC: The eight-panel grid also works incredibly well for the guided-view digital comics format. The panels are basically like film storyboards and they look great on a tablet screen.

DL: It’s funny, when we had done the first few issues of “Stray Bullets,” I started talking to Scott McCloud, at the time he was at the forefront of digital, and he was like, “You should totally stick with this grid, it’s so perfect for digital. There’s so much you could do, you could stack them, make a line, whatever.” Turns out it does work very well. It’s very versatile for that format.

HC: Who is your favorite “Stray Bullets” character to write and draw? Are there any characters that are a challenge?

DL: I wouldn’t say there are any that are a particular challenge. I probably wouldn’t have come up with them. It’s different when you’re freelancing and you’re given characters that maybe you can’t quite get a bead on. But all the characters come from me or Maria or the two of us together. A lot of them are a lot of fun. I love writing the character Beth. Virginia is sort of the main character, so I love writing her stories or I wouldn’t be writing so many of them. Another character that both Maria and I love is the character of Nick. He’s the lovable loser character from our last storyline. I have a real fondness for that character, even though he hasn’t shown back up. He will someday, but there hasn’t been an opportunity for that to happen. And I love the Amy Racecar stories because you get a breather from reality and just can go nuts.

HC: What was the impetus for “Murder Me Dead”?

'Murder Me Dead' cover (Image Comics)

The cover of “Murder Me Dead.” (Image Comics)

DL: I just wanted to do a straight-up noir story. We were watching some noir films and I love that stuff, and even though “Stray Bullets” is considered a crime noir book, I always call it “domestic noir” because a lot of it is just suburban life filtered through crime drama. I just wanted to do a real old-school noir, and we felt it wasn’t something we could fold in with what we were doing in “Stray Bullets.” ["Murder Me Dead"] came out first as a nine-issue series, but it was always intended to be a graphic novel when we combined it all, and that’s what we’re doing at Image this month.

That was a lot of fun, just a love letter to old-school noir movies. The setting is modern, but it has all the conventions of old noir movies. It was a great package. We spent a lot of time putting together that book, and the softcover version is basically what we’re reproducing exactly for the Image version, where we tinted the paper and have an extra cover, it’s just a real nice book. It’s one of my favorite books that we’ve designed.

HC: The balance of light and dark on the page is always impressive in your work, but even more so in “Murder Me Dead” because of that film noir influence. How aware are you of that balance when you’re drawing a page?

DL: I know it’s black-and-white, and there are some artists that are phenomenal with that, who always know exactly where to place the blacks, and I’m like, “Should I try that?” You can get away with a lot more when you know the book is going to be in color, but you really have to think about what you put down with black-and-white because that’s it. When you draw and you put the brush down, that’s what people are going to see. So you always have to be aware of it.

HC: How much time to do you spend researching settings and costumes? On a book like “Juice Squeezers,” how much time are you spending looking at bugs?

DL: A lot of time, and not nearly as much time as I used to. When I first started, it wasn’t like you could just hop on Google and just dial up anything you wanted. You had to read the script, and then you put together a list of references you needed and then you’d go to the library or take pictures, and then you’d start working. Now you can just keep moving. I try to get most of the reference of what I need to draw while I’m writing. If I’m writing a scene that takes place in a certain type of car and a certain location, I try to look all this stuff up while I’m writing and pull pictures. Sometimes there are things you still can’t find online, but it’s a lot easier now.

HC: In your introduction to “Murder Me Dead,” you mention the things that were kept hidden in old film noir because of the restrictions placed on filmmakers, and how that forced creators to explore different kinds of storytelling. What were the things you wanted to hide in “Murder Me Dead”?

DL: It wasn’t hiding a specific secret, it’s a type of—one of the things when you watch old films, not just noir, but all the old films, they had a lot of censorship on them. Yet a lot of the times, especially the good directors, you’re watching it and you’re like, “Wow, there’s some stuff in here that’s very sophisticated and stuff they don’t do in films today, even though they can show anything.” It was more of a tone of you have something with horror that’s dark and has a lot of emotional depth and emotional terror to it without showing every piece of everything. Finding other ways to say something besides using the first available curse word. Not that I don’t love that and use that all the time, I do, but it’s great to not have censorship and have all the tools and sometimes sit back and say, “Is this the best way?” That was the meaning of all that.

All these old noir movies, they aren’t full of nudity and gore and cussing, and yet a lot of those movies have some of the most horrific and scary and suspenseful scenes. An easy classic example is “Jaws”: the less they show the shark, the scarier he is. You don’t see that now. The more sophisticated special effects get, you can show everything, and it’s not always the best way.

– Oliver Sava | @LATHeroComplex

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