Sunday, March 27, 2011

Book Review: Stumptown Volume 1

The Portlandia Files

All comics is local. That’s not totally true of course, but it seems that comic stories lend themselves to specific places. Even in the Big 2 universes, each character is given a city to patrol. Superman has Metropolis, Batman has Gotham and in the Marvel Universe most of the superheroes hang out in New York City. Indie comics, which tend toward confessional autobiographies, really claim the mid-sized city as the backdrop for their protagonists’ downbeat stories. Newspaper strips were an integral part of a city’s daily life. In Greg Rucka and Matthew Southworth’s Stumptown, the city of Portland, Oregon becomes a main character. Stumptown Volume 1 has just been released as a hard cover from Oni Press. The hardcover collects the first story arc from the single comic issues. Portland is home to some of the most important cartoonists and comic book writers. It boasts at least three major comic publishers (including Oni), numerous smaller publishers and several top-notch comic shops. In Stumptown, Portland gets its own comic book close up.

Stumptown is a terrific P.I story. Rucka has referred to this as an homage to The Rockford Files and other pulpy 70’s television shows. I too grew up on a steady diet of 70’s cop shows. I can’t remember a single episode of The Rockford Files though it seemed to be on constantly. I do recognize however, the kinds of walk-on characters usually reserved for washed up actors as well as the breezy and resourceful main character. Stumptown tells the story of Dex (short for Dexedrine) Parios. She’s a P.I with a flimsy grasp on her finances and her love life. She lives with her mentally retarded brother. She’s deep in debt from gambling. Dex is given a seemingly simple case that will clear her debts but inevitably becomes murky. Rucka knows how to tell comic stories. Without exposition he gives us glimpses of Dex’s history and character. He deftly balances cheeky dialogue and dangerous intrigue. Stumptown is fun and suspenseful and like those old detective shows, you know that Dex will be back for more cases. It doesn’t take itself too seriously but it doesn’t pander. This is smart entertainment without pretension.

Of course since comics are a form of visual storytelling, half of the narrative chores fall to the artist. Matthew Southworth (from Seattle, we won’t hold that against him, Rucka is from Portland) really captures the feel of the city. Southworth’s panels have a blunt elegance to them. His drawings combine a loose brushiness with tight architectural space. His characters feel fully realized. There are a couple of top-notch sequences. The full page spread when Dex is getting shot under the St. John’s Bridge overlaid with a cascading series of panels depicting a goose or duck flying off is just exquisite. His sequence of Dex trying to run out of a hotel room just after getting bonked on the head is a nice bit of POV. Southworth truly captures Portland. It should also be said that the hardcover greatly improves upon the monthly comic. The issues were printed on glossy paper whereas the new collection is on matte paper. This really shows off Southworth’s artwork and the color by Southworth, Lee Loughridge and Rico Renzi.

On the surface, Portland is a very clean and upright city. One might actually say the City of Roses is a bit of a schoolmarm. That self-righteous, left of center attitude is beautifully spoofed in IFC’s Portlandia. However, this west coast schoolmarm has a naughty nightlife. Portland is home to a lot of heroine, sex clubs and strange crime. Not to mention it has atmosphere. It rains here, a lot. The structure of the city lends itself to a certain kind of storytelling. We have a muddy river that connects the docks and granaries with the Pacific Ocean, a small downtown surrounded by wooded hills with opulent homes. That gives the writers of Portland a quirky but also archetypal canvas on which to work. Many other writers have begun to exploit this. Look at the success of Chelsea Cain’s detective series. In a very different and smaller way my own Green Man of Portland exploits the strangeness and local myths of the city. I hope to see more of Stumptown soon. This isn’t just because it takes place in my hometown, but because Rucka and Southworth are exemplary comic storytellers. I’m a big fan of Rucka’s past work such as Gotham Central and Queen and Country, but Stumptown has something else going for it. It is a story of normal people in seedy situations played out in a strange but very recognizable place. This is a place I would happily spend a lot of time.

Stumptown Vol. 1
by Greg Rucka and Matthew Southworth
available from Oni Press 
Released March 2011

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