Despair At Its Finest: David Lapham’s ‘Murder Me Dead’ [Review]
When discussing the oeuvre of David Lapham, the comic that comes up again and again is obviously Stray Bullets. As great as Stray Bullets is, though, it tends to overshadow the rest of Lapham's body of work rather unfairly in some cases. Despite the several very good comics that Lapham has produced besides his most famous title – including the incomplete Young Liars, the raucous Juice Squeezers, and of course WWF Battlemania – none can match the near-mythic level of quality and reputation of Stray Bullets, and tend to just get left out of the conversation.
The new trade paperback collection of Murder Me Dead, available now from Image Comics, could help change that trend. A dark, stirring, and emotionally manipulative noir about self-destruction, lies, and guilt, it may be the best “other” Lapham comic in his catalog.
I've written at great length about my love for David Lapham’s Stray Bullets, and the unbridled glee its rebirth at Image Comics has brought into my life. I even went so far as to proclaim it the best crime comic of all time, because my opinion carries so much goddamn weight. Since then, the new series, Stray Bullets: Killers has proven me absolutely correct, and initiated new readers to the mania and mayhem exclusive to its pages alone.
But in the decade or so that Lapham ran the El Capitan label with his wife Maria, Stray Bullets wasn't the only great comic that he produced. In the early 2000s, he took a sabbatical from his primary work to make Murder Me Dead, a nine-issue black & white crime series that, like Stray Bullets, dripped with seediness and misery and sociopathy. Despite all the common elements with Stray Bullets, though, Murder Me Dead is completely different from Lapham’s most famous creation.
If Stray Bullets is a shot of whiskey, Murder Me Dead is a slow-sipping tumbler of aged scotch. Where Stray Bullets is short and intense, mostly single-issue stories that swell with tension and explode in savagery, Murder Me Dead is slow-building and contemplative, like your favorite single malt -- and with a similar ability to inspire thoughts of existential despair.
An ode to classic noir from the decades in and surrounding WWII, Murder Me Dead is a measured and magnetic tale of tainted love, betrayal, guilt and murder. With cool settings and a cast of damaged characters, Murder Me Dead honors the style and tradition of the genre while updating it and making it Lapham’s own.
When jazz pianist/club owner Steven Russell discovers his wife dangling from the ceiling fan, he doesn't blink an eye. His lack of emotion and history of marital troubles leads his wife's wealthy family, the Krofts, to hire a seedy private detective, the perfectly named Sam Fred, to follow Steven. A little too coincidentally, an old friend, a loud-mouthed louse named Tony, shows up and reminds Steven of his high school crush, the alluring Tara Torres. When Steven and Tara reconnect and fall deeply in love, things quickly go from bad to worse, lies unravel, and a twisted trail of dead bodies and broken lives follows the pair from Los Angeles to New York.
Like the books of Raymond Chandler, Murder Me Dead is not so concerned with plot. There are several twists and turns to keep the reader guessing, but it’s a very loose structure that allows the more important elements of the book to shine: the atmosphere and the characters.
Although the story is set in the late 1990s, Lapham’s cool settings and light anachronistic touches infuse the world with the tenor of classic noir: Steven and his wife live in an opulent 50s-style bungalow; all the characters dress just they've stepped out of Howard Hawks film; and as we follow Steven into his descent into the pitiful depths of obsession and sucker-dom, we traipse through Tiki bars, jazz clubs, island resorts, and even make a quick stop at the Chateau Marmont. Except for the modern cars and telephones, everything about the environs implies mid-century American noir with a cool intelligence.
But Murder Me Dead isn't just an exercise, an experiment to meet the formulaic criteria of the genre, empty of anything new. While so many creators seem to think that noir means the lead character has to have an ongoing inner monologue saturated with purple prose, Lapham avoids Steven’s inner thoughts entirely. There are no captions in the book, no long monologues, no self-narration, no mood-setting text pieces attempting 1940s prose styles.
The images and dialogue tell you everything you need to know, and everything unnecessary is excised. Rather than tell you how moody and seedy and noir and awesome everything is with exposition, Lapham relies on his ability to convey all of that visually; he doesn't need to tell you how desperate and broken and empty Steven and Tara are, because his authentic dialogue and confident character skills can show you.
Where Stray Bullets is high-intensity and fast-paced, Murder Me Dead is tempered and sedate. That’s not to say the book is without action, or the violence that Lapham is almost shockingly good at – Murder Me Dead contains some of the best fight scenes Lapham has ever drawn, and that’s saying something. But Stray Bullets is so frenetic and violent because it’s about violence, and Murder Me Dead is about guilt and obsession; it has a completely different pace, structure, and energy.
Stray Bullets famously employs the eight-panel grid, giving the unconscious effect of a 4/4 beat in rock and roll – a steady, up-tempo pace that races you through the story. Murder Me Dead adheres to no panel grid: it speeds down and slows up where it sees fit, lingering on character interaction and emotional notes, occasionally accelerating into sudden bursts of intensity. It doesn't have a time signature; it’s what jazz musicians call free time.
Combining the leisurely structure of the story with the bewildering atmosphere and believably broken characters, Lapham unravels the knot tying Steven and Tara together in a shocking, bitter ending that will have you reaching for that tumbler of single malt one more time. A laconic stroll through the darkness and desperation of guilt, lust, and mad love, Murder Me Dead is a modern noir classic, a quiet and suspenseful story that draws you into its world like a tense chord teasing resolve. Pick up the reissue, grab a bottle of single malt, put on some Chet Baker, and sink in.