I used to believe in evil when I was a kid. Thanks to a Catholic upbringing, and a secret supply of 80’s slasher movies, I believed in the idea that some people were just put here by whatever to enact selfish deeds that could result in genocide in some cases and stolen lunches in others. A while ago, I gave up on that notion once I realized that people who hurt others were most often hurt themselves or unwell in a psychological or emotional way. David Lapham seems to believe this as well, and this most recent issue of Stray Bullets: Sunshine and Roses gives readers a glimpse into the pain that’s driven Kretchmeyer to become a merciless killer—a surprise best left for readers to find on their own—while also giving us a peek of the violence that’s about to ensue as a result of a betrayal by the only people Kretch still cares about. If you haven’t yet read Stray Bullets, this would be the one to get a taste of just how unsettling the series can get. After easily the strangest issue (one I didn’t review because I just couldn’t make the words come to describe the exhilaration it provided aka READ IT), this one grounds us back in Beth and Orson’s plot to rob Harry and skip town along with Nina, Harry’s prisoner lover and Beth’s bestie. In an opening scene that sees Orson make himself sick paddling a boat, Beth finally fills Kretchmeyer in on their plan with one major lie. Rather than tell Kretch about their plans to ditch town, Beth tells him that she plans to take over the Baltimore drug scene once they’re rid of Harry, Spanish Scott and their lackies. Kretchmeyer expresses some violent skepticism about what Beth has told him while mulling over their conversation at a bathroom urinal. The rest of the issue follows Kretch as he tries to determine whether or not he ought to continue trusting Beth, the action cutting back and forth between a conversation Kretch is having with an unknown person on September 1st, and the events that led up to the conversation.
Anytime Kretchmeyer is the focus of Stray Bullets, the tension of the comic rockets to Murder Planet thanks to the guy’s knack for ultra violence in spite of his typically cool demeanor. In most scenes, David Lapham illustrates Kretchmeyer with an intentionally neutral expression, preventing his feelings about any situation from coming to the surface. It’s rarely apparent what decision he’ll make next, and his unpredictability makes each page a surprise as we see him get involved with Nina in a bid to gather any information Beth or Orson haven’t revealed to him. Without concern to Nina’s debilitating cocaine addiction, Kretch plies her with the stuff as well as sex to get what he wants from her, later describing any such sexual activity as just friction in the absence of love. And even though he inevitably discovers Beth’s lie, his slowly escalating manipulations and violent acts made me hope there’d be some last minute save. Course, Lapham wouldn’t let his characters off that easy, and what follows the discovery will most definitely result in bad things for Beth, Orson and Nina.
One of my favorite things about Stray Bullets is that Lapham allows transformative scenes to play out with no dialogue, building tension over several panels. In this issue, Lapham does a great job of showing us Kretchmeyer as he cool demeanor fades and his more psychopathic tendencies take over late in the issue, and it’s all done without a change in Kretch’s facial expression. We’re shown his car, then Kretch opening the door, and then he enters and stares blankly. He remains still for the next panel with no alteration from the previous one. The next panel shows only a small bit of pool collecting at his forehead. We then cut into a close up of Kretch’s face before the last panel zooms in once more into his right eye. And with that sequence of panels we understand that Kretch has been shaken out of his equilibrium. There are no screams of betrayal, or dramatic bodily gestures. Lapham uses comics’ time lapse to do the subtle work of showing him in the midst of a briefly contained nervous breakdown. It’s an elegantly constructed page in a comic whose characters only know elegance when it comes to knife play and lies.
Stray Bullets: Sunshine and Roses features no zombies, aliens, or demons, and yet it’s easily one of the most terrifying and unnerving comics I dare myself to read each month. There is no evil in this book, just betrayed people hurting others where it’ll make the most impact. I am in love with the mayhem, and scared for what’s about to happen.
Stray Bullets: Sunshine and Roses #8 Writer/Artist/Creator: David Lapham Publisher: Image Comics/El Capitan Price: $3.50 Release Date: 9/30/15 Distribution: Mini-Series; Print/Digital