David Lapham Spins a Masterful Web of Crime Fiction in Stray Bullets: Sunshine & Roses
August 27, 2018
A Family Business
You could call David Lapham’s Stray Bullets crime fiction, and you wouldn’t be wrong. Crime is certainly the milieu in which many of the series characters marinate. Some of them have spun vice into a career, others are relative innocents drawn into a branching underworld, and still others fall somewhere between. But genre aside, the comic is sheerly a master class in narrative, with unexpected twists and turns that manage to be completely organic and devastatingly shocking. Lapham offers plenty of formal deftness, with the cartoonist’s distinct black-and-white style maintaining a consistent look ever since the series debuted in 1995. And given the book’s tendency to showcase stories featuring altered variations of its central characters, there’s also an improvisational sense of play in the series—even as most of its characters are (literally) dead serious.
The sprawling story’s latest mega-arc, Stray Bullets: Sunshine & Roses, is set during a gap in the original run of the series and follows a trio of characters—Orson, Beth, and Nina—on the road after ripping off a local gangster in Baltimore, their paths crossing with both criminals on their trail and a host of eccentric figures along the way. But that description is antiseptically simple: Lapham injects plenty of room for absurdist humor (a fake mustache plays a significant role in the series) and for bold plotting decisions—often, the narrative will leap backwards in time, introducing a previously unseen character and then meticulously reveal how they relate to the story so far. The comic is a fantastic lesson in trusting readers, and it’s led to a host of stunning revelations over the course of the book.
“The format of Stray Bullets—where each issue was a complete story, the stories can be about different characters and have different moods, and then they all fit together into a larger whole—was specifically designed to accommodate almost any type of story we want to tell,” Lapham explains. “Throw in the surreal, screwball sci-fi of Amy Racecar [a fanciful reinterpretation of the often devastating events of the book, relayed by Beth], and it's a pretty broad range.”
This winding approach may help explain why the book still feels vital two decades after it began. “I don't think the types of stories have changed,” he says, “but it's allowed us the freedom to keep coming up with new, fresh, and different ideas.”
Lapham’s own work as an artist and writer spans a host of styles: he’s written characters like Deadpool and Daredevil for Marvel, has ventured into horror with books like Caligula and Ferals for Avatar, and channeled rock history and bizarre conspiracies in Young Liars at Vertigo. His crime fiction also includes some standalone graphic novels, including 2007’s Silverfish and 2001’s Murder Me Dead, the latter rereleased by Image in 2014. After pausing Stray Bullets in 2005, he returned to it in 2014—first with the miniseries Killers, and now with Sunshine & Roses.
The cumulative experience, Lapham recalls, brought him back to continue work on his breakthrough opus. “Doing a lot of freelance writing and drawing was great in terms of learning to be versatile. There were some tremendous artists I got to work with, and some great books,” he says. “Ultimately, I learned that the best work was always the projects that came with more creative control, if not creator owned, and that the very best and most meaningful work by many miles was the work Maria [Lapham, the book’s editor and co-creator] and I do together.”
For Lapham, the break in the initial Stray Bullets run was also for a very solid reason. “We had paused that work for a lot of years for something far more important, which was having our family. Stray Bullets never really went away, though, because it comes from our lives. It was always very present,” he says. “When things aligned and we partnered with Image to come back, we were so excited, recharged, and ready to show off. We get to show our kids that this is what mom and dad do, and we're pretty good at it… and maybe one day we'll let you read it.”
Coming Up Roses
While Sunshine & Roses fits neatly into the earlier run of the series, it also stands on its own perfectly well. For a series that’s already covered a lot of temporal space, that can offer some challenges. “There can be a lot of rereading at times,” Lapham notes. “Maria and I discuss ideas and then will go back through the issues if there are overlapping timelines to make sure it's all straight.”
Ultimately, he says, the experience of having worked on the series so far has carved a roadmap for the book. “Mostly, though, the universe we've created is very clear to us,” Lapham says. “The characters are crystal clear. As far as knowing what we're going to put in when we leave a gap? In most cases, when we leave a gap, there's no specific intention of filling it in at all.”
Sunshine & Roses heightens the stories of its central trio, giving a deeper sense of Beth’s childhood and family besides her role as a subtle manipulator with an equally subtle conscience, while revealing another side of Orson, a middle-class prude who slowly descends into a crime mire through Beth. He also dons a fake mustache, making for a number of bizarrely funny interactions as the series progresses. “There came a point in the story where the characters had to be ‘in disguise’—wig, glasses, fake mustache. That's a standard issue disguise,” Lapham explains. “So we envisioned Orson as being like a '70s porn star… something completely anti-Orson.”
As with many characters’ best-laid plans in the world of Stray Bullets, the trio’s scheme takes a turn for the strange, marking Lapham’s penchant for shifting the story where the reader least expects it to pivot. “Orson takes to it too well, probably fueled by some substances he'd been consuming, and so he becomes ‘Derek,’” says Lapham. “Actually, it starts out working pretty well for him… in a somewhat unappetizing sort of way. When some of the other affectations went away, the mustache evolved into the symbol for ‘Derek.’ We're not quite done with the 'stache either.”
One of Sunshine & Roses’ most significant additions to the Stray Bullets universe is that of the Kretchmeyer, a sociopathic climber whose story weaves in and out of the issues. While the book’s cast features numerous memorable killers—including the charming Spanish Scott and the terrifying man known as Monster, Kretchmeyer occupies a more complex space (often filled with documentaries, Asian takeout, and torture executed without a hint of conscience) and is arguably more unsettling than either, but also more damaged.
“Kretchmeyer is particularly fun to write,” Lapham says. “He started out as a mysterious name in Killers issue seven. He's really broad in emotion, bending from very likable and even charming to completely twisted and repulsive. From human to inhuman.”
Among the myriad subplots in Sunshine & Roses, Lapham charts the goon’s gradual progression—or regression, depending on perspective. “One of the challenges we had is realizing that this character was going to start out as being a very good and loyal friend to Beth, and that she was going to basically be responsible for unraveling him,” Lapham says. “We did initially think that aspect would be challenging to evolve, but as it turns out, it's happening naturally over the course of the books.”
The uncanny dynamism of Kretchmeyer also makes for another dramatic engine within the larger series. “Whatever Kretchmeyer's basic flaws are, they do not mix well with whatever Beth's basic flaws are,” Lapham explains. “The characters ultimately drive the stories. In Kretchmeyer's case, he is a fly in the ointment. He won't go away and literally touches, and alters, the lives of every single character in Stray Bullets.”
Virtually all of Stray Bullets is relayed via an eight-panel layout. It’s one of the series’ trademarks, and its efficiency in conveying information can’t be underrated. “As Maria constantly describes it, ‘the art of comics is that space between the panels.’” Lapham says. “That panel-to-panel-to-panel reading experience draws the reader in and focuses them on the story and filling in those spaces. It's hypnotic. I don't see any benefit in what we do, to playing too much with panel shapes. It would definitely be a distraction rather than an addition. Scene work is paramount.”
Lapham’s clean black-and-white linework is another trademark of the book, making the handful of shifts away from it another bold storytelling choice. In one outlying issue of Sunshine & Roses, with Beth becoming increasingly unnerved due to an upcoming heist, a number of panels evoke an old-school television on the fritz—an effect not dissimilar to one that had cropped up in the book’s original run.
“It was a hell of a time getting that distortion right,” Lapham says. “Back in the day when we did it in issue five, Maria and I went down to the office store and played around with putting the art on a photocopy machine and dragging it in various ways across the glass plane while it took the copy. You'd get these great blurred and rough distortions.”
Initially for Sunshine & Roses, the plan was for something similar. “But the damn machines now are all digital and precise. Everything is too clear,” he says. “When you drag the art, it just looks like crisp, clean art being stretched! So frustrating. Sometimes you want to hear the crackle of the grooves on the record player. Anyway, we mushed about in Photoshop until we got the effect we wanted.”
That blend of analog and digital craft is a good metaphor for the unexpected power of Stray Bullets. It’s a book where each single issue stands on its own remarkably well, yet each collection also has its own narrative power. Factor in the sprawling narrative of the series as a whole, which encompasses moments alternately hilarious and harrowing, and you’ve got a sense of the possibilities inherent in Stray Bullets—and the limitless places it could still go.
Stray Bullets: Sunshine & Roses Vol. 2 releases in comic stores on August 28, 2018.