Those of you who’ve been reading this blog regularly know that I’ve been waiting for this first volume for a while. “Sunshine & Roses” debuted back in February of 2015 and, contrary to just about every other published series on the market, waited until the series was over thirty issues in to issue its first collected edition. It was getting to the point where I was expecting that creator David Lapham would be issuing the whole series as a kind of “Uber Alles” edition that the original run got when it moved to Image. Now that it’s here, the question becomes (as it so often does) “Was it worth the wait?”
Of course it was. This is “Stray Bullets.” Lapham’s track record is with comics that are not his signature series may be a little uneven, but he Never Disappoints with this one.
A little backstory to why “Sunshine & Roses” exists in the first place: In the first volume of “Stray Bullets,” “Innocence of Nihilism,” we were introduced to several of the series’ main players who also play key roles here. There’s fun-loving but street-smart Beth, her best friend Nina, dorky yet loveable suitor Orson, the coolest mob enforcer around in Spanish Scott and Monster -- whose name says it all. That first volume showed how they, and several other colorful characters, spent their time hanging out, partying, and maybe engaging in a little criminal activity in Baltimore circa the late 70’s.
It was all great fun and you’d expect vol. 2 to continue on in the same vein. That’s not what happened as “Somewhere Out West” picked up a few years later with Beth, Orson, and Nina hiding somewhere out west after having ripped off one of Baltimore’s biggest crimelords. What exactly did they do and how did they pull it off? That’s the story “Sunshine & Roses” is here to tell and it starts by introducing a new character, Kretchmeyer, to the series.
We first see Kretch meeting Beth at a party on the first page. On the second, which takes place over a week later, we see him running up several flights of stairs to the roof of an apartment building, taking out a rifle, and shooting a guy coming out of a donut shop. Said guy was Lonnie, a key figure in the city’s underworld and his death is going to set off a gang war unless Spanish Scott and Monster can lock things down first. Meanwhile, Beth gets to know Kretch well enough to realize that she likes having him around even if she doesn’t want a serious relationship with the man. As for whether or not she’ll still feel the same way after she finds out that he’s killed Lonnie, well… Beth is the kind of person who will always stick up for her friends. Even when Spanish Scott comes calling.
That’s all in the first issue. Subsequent issues show us the almost-as-disastrous follow-up to when Orson met Beth at the party way back in the first volume and how this once straight-arrow preppie slowly but enthusiastically found his way to a life of crime. In fact, Orson is pretty instrumental in forming the plan that will eventually have him, Beth, and Nina fleeing somewhere out west as he brings the Sunshine Gang to town. We also get issues spotlighting other characters like poor, tragic, horny Rose who just wants Orson to love her but will just have to settle for being roped into his plan, and Monster whose history with and soft side for Beth reveal themselves as his only real weakness.
Then there’s the title character himself who, like a lot of characters in “Stray Bullets,” seems like a pretty friendly guy even though he’s a killer. Even though one of the first things we see him do is snipe a mobster, Kretch still comes off a pretty friendly through his interactions with Beth. He’s perfectly fine being friends with her, to the point where he’ll show up at her place with food to talk about things like “The Prisoner” TV series, and even has no problem giving Orson a leg up on establishing his own relationship with the woman.
Yet he’s perpetually drawn as a calm, even-keeled person by Lapham each time we see him. Kretch’s calm, however, always comes off as the sinister kind that suggests there’s something ugly lurking beneath his carefully maintained surface. It isn’t until we get to the very end of the volume that we find out just what’s lurking underneath and whether or not Orson, Beth, and Nina have anything to fear from it.
That final issue really brings the tension as you wait for Lapham to answer that question. In fact, the entire volume shows that he hasn’t lost a step when it comes to delivering the kind of thrills that come when everyday people find themselves in criminal situations. Either by accident, or as more often the case here by choice. Sometimes there’s actually a plan behind the action, like when Orson and Beth find a way to keep Rose in line, but things usually happen when people start acting dumb, scared, or both. As is the case when Nina tries to make a getaway from her mob boss lover and people wind up dying as a result.
So while this first volume of “Sunshine & Roses” very much has that “Stray Bullets” feel to it, there’s just one reason to be concerned about it. That would be the fact that issue #38 of the series was just solicited for September -- three more and it’ll have equalled the run of the original series. Lapham does a good job reintroducing the cast and setting up the start of how the heist is going to play out, but is he really planning on stretching it out for that long? It’s possible he could, but I fear that the suspense will give out long before the plot does if that’s his plan.
Oh, and there’s also an “Amy Racecar” story in this volume as well. It wouldn’t be “Stray Bullets” without one even though they’re much more of an acquired taste compared to the series as a whole. These stories allow Lapham to offer up a different slant on the story at hand while allowing him to go gonzo in a sci-fi adventure that casts a one-eyed Orson as Amy’s partner William Holden, and kid versions of Beth and Monster as people who want his help rescuing her friend who cries gold nuggets from the boss of the planet of Murder Three. It’s certainly a… different take on the events and characters of this volume. My problem is that I don’t have much time for gonzo Lapham after his Vertigo series in a similar vein, “Young Liars,” looked like it was going somewhere interesting with its first volume and then spiraled right off the rails immediately afterward. A one-issue diversion like this is fine, but it still comes across as more self-indulgent than anything else.
“Amy Racecar” story aside, “Kretchmeyer” is still a bang-up start to the “Sunshine & Roses” series. There’s always the danger that when a creator comes back to characters that they haven’t touched in many years that something will be lost. Lapham shows that his grip on these familiar characters is as rock-solid as ever, to the point where he can introduce a key new player like Kretch to the cast and have him fit right in like he has always belonged there. My concerns for the series’ future shouldn’t hang too heavily over the fact that this volume right here and now is pretty damn great.