A Return to Innocence & Nihilism in David Lapham's Stray Bullets: Sunshine & Roses Part 1 "Kretchmeyer"

David and Maria Lapham have built a career of creating comics that make crime cool. Crime is fun and sexy and exhilarating. It’s a little scary but it gives you the thrill that lets you know that you’re really alive. One person’s terror is another person’s Adrenalin. That’s what Stray Bullets is; a shot of Adrenalin that keeps you riding high until it wears off and you come crashing back down to reality and see the terror for what it is. The Lapham’s Stray Bullets: Sunshine & Roses Part 1: “Kretchmeyer” seduces the reader just as almost all of the characters in it are seduced by something or someone. There are a longing and desire on nearly every page, portrayed in every set of eyes that has to look out into this world that David Lapham has drawn.

This book goes back to the beginnings of Stray Bullets before Beth, Nina, and Orson are on the run from Harry and his network of criminals and killers. This is practically Stray Bullets: Year One even though the book covers a couple of year span. There’s a degree of “filling in the details” in this book but it feels like so much more than just a supplement to the Laphams’ previous crime epic. Sunshine & Roses (as opposed to “Innocence and Nihilism,” the first volume of the original series) is a fresh start for these characters where we get to see them face all of the same mistakes again and maybe hope that they'll make different choices. Stray Bullets explores those choices that these characters make, the decisions between right and wrong where “wrong” is always the choice that’s made.

Sunshine & Roses Part 1 shows what life was like before everything went to hell for Beth and the other characters as chronicled in the earlier series. Taking place in Baltimore between 1979 and 1981, David Lapham creates a sense of community in this book. While so much of the story (and half of the whole Stray Bullets whole story) centers around Beth, the girl that isn’t good for anyone but everyone ends up falling in love with her anyway, Lapham builds this dysfunctional support community that’s made up of killers, drug addicts, criminals, hangers-on, and the unfortunate innocents children and dupes that get pulled into their orbit.

By focusing on this community, Lapham is in some ways transforming Stray Bullets into a romance comic. Well, maybe it’s not a transformation as much as it’s an infusion of romantic entanglements. In the past stories of Beth, Orson, Nina, and the on the run Virginia Applejack, the kidnapped and missing girl that was the other half of the original Stray Bullets epic (and focus of the last miniseries,) we’ve seen these characters desperation and fight for survival. In Sunshine & Roses, we see these characters in a simpler time. It’s a no-less-dangerous time but most of the characters are a bit more innocent and idealistic in their desires and motives.

David Lapham’s unwavering artistic lens never shies away from the violence that these characters still live with. This is still a world with stone-cold killers like Scott, Monster, Dez, and Kretchmeyer. For as much innocence there may be in some of the other characters, these men live to kill and Lapham builds their terror in Hitchcockian ways. Stray Bullets is a violent comic and Lapham is a master of that violence but his way of portraying it is never about the act itself but about the reaction to it. Through the violence, he shows the ways that people freak out or the ways that they use the violence to their own advantage. Through his crisp and clean storytelling, his violence becomes character building.

That violence exists in a world without morals. There’s no good-versus-bad conflict in Stray Bullets because good doesn’t exist in these characters’ lives. That’s why this book isn’t so much a crime story because crime implies that there’s some kind of law in place to define the crime. The law in Stray Bullets: Sunshine & Roses is nowhere to be seen. Instead of laws or rules, these characters live by codes. If anything, you could say that there’s honor among thieves in Lapham's books as the worst thing that anyone can do is to break a trust or confidence, no matter how amoral that trust may be.

That’s where Stray Bullets: Sunshine & Roses examines the choices that people make. Who you decide to love, to betray, to screw, or to give your true secrets to-- these choices chart your course and chances for survival in this Baltimore. It’s almost funny to watch everyone fall in love with Beth because ultimately her choices will come down to either they survive or she survives and there are not too many people in this world that she’s going to sacrifice herself for. And even when that’s completely obvious, everyone still falls for her. That girl is trouble.

Speaking of trouble, this volume includes one Amy Racecar chapter. Amy is a science-fiction cross between Beth and the unseen Virginia Applejack. In older issues, Lapham has used Amy Racecar as everything from diversion to commentary. In this chapter of the not-so-continuous Amy Racecar saga, they use Amy and her familiar looking cohorts as a way to focus the main story. Amy’s story is Beth’s story encapsulated and on speed even if the names have been changed to protect the innocent and not-so-innocent. It’s an odd sidetrack in the middle of the book but that’s part of the Stray Bullets tradition as Lapham uses these non sequitur stories almost like a traditional Greek chorus.

If someone asked “what is Stray Bullets about?”, a plausible answer would be its stories about kids who have their whole lives in front of them but who see only death, destruction and crime in their future. Stray Bullets: Sunshine & Roses Part 1 “Kretchmeyer” shows these kids in a slightly more innocent time. Maybe all they’re seeing at this point is the crime and they’re ignoring the death and destruction that’s going to be part of these lives. So of course, they’re going to fall in love in this world where love is a precious commodity; it’s only a normal part of growing up when everything and everyone else has let you down.

Stray Bullets Sunshine & Roses Part 1 "Kretchmeyer"
Written & Drawn by David Lapham
Produced & Edited by Maria Lapham
Published by Image Comics