STRAY BULLETS: SUNSHINE AND ROSES VOL. 1 TP is incredibly dark and violent, but surprising poignant, funny, and perfectly paced. The art is jaw dropping to look at even in violent moments. There are few comic creators who draw and illustrate their own comics. Those who do it the most successfully balance the art, lettering, and the story perfectly. David Lapham stands up there with Stan Sakai and Jeff Lemire as a master of all trades.
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Imagine a world that is infested with the most twisted criminals that plague Baltimore’s streets. From writer/artist David Lapham’s crime noir series, STRAY BULLETS, comes STRAY BULLETS: SUNSHINE AND ROSES vol. 1. In this first volume, Lapham tells a tale of two lovers determined to take Baltimore’s underworld by storm. In fact, STRAY BULLETS: SUNSHINE AND ROSES is a prequel to the original STRAY BULLETS series that ran from 1995-2005 before Lapham took a hiatus. Finally, in 2014 Image Comics published the final issue of STRAY BULLETS, a new arc called STRAY BULLETS: KILLERS. All 41 issues of the original STRAY BULLETS can be found in a trade paperback called STRAY BULLETS: ÜBER ALLES EDITION. Suffice to say, Lapham’s Baltimore underworld is in depth, brutal, violent, darkly humorous, and features characters with complex motivations.

In short, if you can stomach THE WALKING DEAD or SAGA’s violence, what awaits is an expertly crafted comic series as only David Lapham tells it. Lapham tackles themes such as revenge, love, and loss. Also, this brand new arc is easily accessible to readers new to the series (such as myself). Lastly, because this series is set a few years before the events of the original STRAY BULLETS, long-time readers will recognize several characters.

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Welcome to Baltimore’s F-ed Up Underworld

STRAY BULLETS: SUNSHINE AND ROSES vol. 1 features many characters across eight issues. However, the two characters central to this volume are Beth, a woman who knows far too many criminals, and Orson, an innocent man who falls hard for Beth. Also central to the story is Kretchmeyer (or Kretch for short), a psychopathic killer who breaks into Baltimore’s underworld thanks to Beth. We first meet Beth at a party as a friend introduces her to Kretch in 1979. However, the plot immediately establishes Kretch as a stone cold killer by way of a flashback.

Once Kretch sleeps with Beth, we learn that trouble follows both characters. Kretch ends up killing two hitmen who are after him. In fact, the man who puts out the hit on Kretch is Spanish Scott, a cool, cold-blooded mobster who wears Hawaiian shirts. Eventually Kretch meets Spanish Scott via a tense standoff with Beth in the middle. However, Kretch ends up working for Spanish Scott because Kretch gives him the whereabouts of a man named Del.

Courtesy of Image Comics

Later, Lapham introduces us to Orson with a hilarious opener. Like Kretch, Orson meets Beth at a party and has a wild night with her. Orson quickly becomes part of Beth’s fast-paced, party-hard lifestyle. Because Orson has a blind devotion to Beth, Beth introduces Orson to robbery, booze, drugs, and her social circle. Beth’s circle includes Kretch, her best friend Nina, and Dez, a loan shark who works for Spanish Scott. Thanks to Beth’s influence, Orson slowly transforms from a simple college boy to a criminal — for better or worse. In fact, Orson is the catalyst who establishes the Sunshine Gang with Beth after they rob a mobster’s house. Indeed, this is how Beth and Orson smash their way into the underworld and it’s one hell of ride.

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Depicting Baltimore’s Most Unsavory Denizens

While violence is central to the story, the characters who commit these acts are compelling. Kretch is a sadistic killer with twisted morals but loves Chinese food, nature documentaries, and likes to meditate. Also, Kretch proves he has a shred of humanity because at one point, he defends a stripper who is being harassed by a patron. All these traits make Kretch fascinating. He has an odd ethos despite the fact Kretch kills people without batting an eye.

Then there’s Monster, one of Beth’s ex-boyfriends who wears glasses and sleeps in a minimal one bedroom apartment with a gun. What makes Monster’s minimalist decor fascinating is that it reflects who Monster is: a machine who needs few things to live with. One can’t help but care about these monsters (pun not intended) because they have fascinating quirks that makes them tick.

Courtesy of Image Comics

Additionally, Lapham manages to prove his characterization prowess by providing interesting female characters as well. In fact, Beth is charismatic and unafraid to punch a guy in the face when push comes to shove. Part of what makes Beth a strong female character is Beth’s willingness to defend the people she loves the most. For example, Beth cares about Orson so much that she confronts the aforementioned Dez after he almost kills Orson in a scuffle. Likewise, Beth’s best friend Nina is in an abusive relationship with a sugar daddy named Harry, but gives Beth information on his dealings. That is to say that Nina and Beth are like sisters who try to make the best of a world that threatens to consume them.


David Lapham depicts scenes of violence with brutal sincerity. For example, in the first issue, Kretch shoots a man named Lonnie in the eye as he comes out of a donut shop. Because Lapham draws the comic in black and white, Lapham depicts blood spatter in black mists that has an eerie beauty to it. Also, in that same scene, Lapham shows the aftermath of Lonnie as an eclair drips cream onto his jacket. While it’s a horrifying sight, Lapham shows a bit of a dark humor with the detail of the eclair. Later, in another scene, Spanish Scott slashes at a man’s arm as small dots of blood sprays onto the page. Lapham ensures that violent scenes have weight and pain, which his characters clearly show.

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Moreover, David Lapham’s black and white art looks like woodblock prints. In fact, Lapham’s art style calls to mind Stan Sakai’s work in USAGI YOJIMBO because Sakai also draws panels that instantly conveys action. Notably, the best thing that Lapham does in STRAY BULLETS: SUNSHINE AND ROSES vol. 1 is his use of silent panels. Indeed Lapham’s mastery of black and white fleshes out the noir feel such characters’ realistic expressions or the close up of a gun. For example, there’s a series of seven silent panels where Monster lies down, looks at Beth’s picture, then watches Beth have sex with Orson from his rooftop. This is just one many great silent panels in the series. All in all, the art on every page is marvelous to look at.

Courtesy of Image Comics

The Bullets Hit the Bull’s Eye

Overall, STRAY BULLETS: SUNSHINE AND ROSES vol. 1 is a must read for fans of crime comics. David Lapham crafts a world that is dark and rife with violence, but there’s something beautiful about it all. Lapham is a creator who isn’t afraid to kill off characters. He kills them for emotional impact, such as the weed dealer, Sonnie, a tragic anti-hero. For a one man written and illustrated series, Lapham is a master storyteller who depicts the violence the news often shies away from showing on TV. Come for the art, stay for the characters, and don’t forget to breathe along the way.

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