Sort of a short column this week. I’ve only got time to talk about one funnybook. But it’s a doozy…
Stray Bullets: Sunshine and Roses 12
by David Lapham
The current Stray Bullets arc is shaping up to be one of the best in the series’ history. And if you’re at all familiar with my excitement over this book’s return a couple of years ago (think ALL CAPS ENTHUSIASM, MUTHAFUCKAS!!!)… You know that’s not something I say lightly. But it’s true. Lapham’s creating a Stray Bullets epic here, juggling almost all of his cast, rounding out familiar characters, filling a gap in the series’ history, and still managing to weave a great caper story that can be enjoyed even if you’ve never read the series before. Not bad for a book with 20 years of history behind it.
And history was very much on my mind as I read this issue. Lapham has always jumped around in time on this series. The first issue takes place in 1997, but the second jumps back to 1977, with the rest of the series happening at various points in-between. Recent stories have been set in the mid/late-80s, but Sunshine and Roses takes a bigger leap back than we’ve seen before, jumping to 1981 and the story of how Beth and Orson managed to rescue Nina from the mob.
We’ve got nearly the whole cast on-hand here: the afore-mentioned Beth, Orson and Nina, but also Monster, Spanish Scott, Rose, Joey, and Finger, all of whose lives, in one way or another, revolve around the often-discussed-but-never-seen mob boss, Harry. I know a lot about these characters and their future. I know where they go and what they do. I know what horrible things await them. In some cases, I even know who lives and who dies.
But that only enhances the story for me. It adds levels of tragedy and understanding, and illuminates why some things earlier in the series (but later in the timeline) wind up going the way they go. So this issue, when Orson wrecks Monster’s car and leaves him naked in the trunk…
…it’s not just a great “holy shit” moment where the guy who’s in over his head takes out the scariest psychopath in the book. It’s also an event proving that Monster’s hatred of Orson isn’t just based in jealousy.
Of course, ultimately Orson and Monster are two sides of the same coin. Both of them love Beth, and both of them wind up getting used by her. So when Orson writes a goodbye letter home to his sister, telling her that he’s throwing away his future for love…
…it stings double-hard. If this was the first Beth and Orson story you’d ever read, it would still be poignant. But knowing what I know… well… no spoilers, but Beth doesn’t lead that kid anywhere good.
For all her flaws, though… like her absolute inability to interact with people without ruining their lives in some way… Beth does have positive qualities, and this story fleshes them out more than we’ve seen before. Her devotion to Nina is admirable, for instance, even though it’s increasingly obvious that Nina’s already beyond help. That desire to help her anyway speaks well of Beth, though, and it’s not something she reserves just for Nina. We see her protective nature come out again later when she becomes a surrogate mother/older sister to Ginny Applejack (the only major character not appearing in Sunshine and Roses). It’s a striking contradiction, an especially odd quality for such an utterly manipulative person to have.
Beth’s not the only manipulator here, though. Orson’s learned a few things about using people, too. So when the hapless “fun girl” Rose, who’s been infatuated with Orson since she took his virginity, shows up at his door, ready for action…
…Orson’s not above playing on her feelings to get her to help him.
But Rose is an interesting character in her own right. She was Harry’s girl before Nina, but whereas Nina’s smart enough to be messed up by that, Rose has always been… simpler (read: kinda dumb). She’s an alcoholic and a nymphomaniac, a free spirit who really only cares about having a good time. Which would be fine, except that she’s got a kid (Joey, a mental deficient who I’ve always assumed was Harry’s son). So her life is an endless round of drugs, booze and sex, while her son runs around all but feral. She’s basically sweet-natured for all that, though. So while Orson’s manipulation of her is played for laughs, there’s an edge of sadness in it, too. And a signifier that Orson, nice a guy as he may be, can turn into a really unpleasant person when the chips are down.
Of course, bad as that looks… honestly… I can’t blame the guy so much. His girlfriend’s life is in danger, he’s been assaulted by a psychopath, he’s spent hours fighting off unwanted affections, and he’s convinced that he’s about to die for love. Under that kind of pressure, anyone might snap. And Orson’s more high-strung than most.
So that’s Stray Bullets. Well-constructed character drama woven inextricably into an exciting, funny, and terrifically sleazy crime comic. It’s one of the books I most look forward to every month. Give it shot, if you haven’t. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.