Comic-Con International in San Diego took a trip to Stumptown on Thurdsay evening as panel-goers were treated to a intellectually invigorating conversation with the “Stumptown” creative team of writer Greg Rucka and artist Matthew Southworth at the Road to “Stumptown” panel. Moderated by comics scholar Ben Saunders, the panel delved into the inner workings of the critically acclaimed independent comic published by Oni Press.
The “Stumptown” panel was fortuitously placed directly before the CCI History of the Modern Zombie panel. “A lot of you people are here for zombies,” said Rucka. “Wow, if all these people bought the book, we’d be doing really well!” Rucka and Southworth continued to joke throughout the beginning of the panel about this, making undead references to the delight of the audience.
The panel kicked off with the genesis of the book, to which Southworth began a two-part story as to how he began collaborating with Rucka.
“I grew up with a guy named Joe Casey, who writes comics,” Southworth began. “We made comics together as kids. I was working in Hollywood, writing screenplays, and I hated it. He kind of pushed me to drawing comics.” Casey recommended that Southworth take a look at Greg Rucka’s “Queen & Country” script book. “I did some samples of that which were terrible. I knew they were terrible, but I came to San Diego and Greg was sitting at a table. I asked, ‘Can I show you some samples?’ You were kind of cranky.”
“I get very nervous whenever an artist puts art in front of me at a table,” Rucka chimed in. “I’m not an artist. I have very little value I can offer. Normally, when somebody puts art in front of me, it’s because the next thing they’re asking is, ‘Do you have anything I could draw for you?’ I hide behind editors, and that’s undoubtedly what happened.”
Southworth continued his story, relating to the audience his work with “Gotham Central” inker Stefano Gaudiano, and how that collaboration led into his art duties on “Stumptown.” Greg worked with Stefano on ‘Gotham Central,’ and when they were looking for somebody to do ‘Stumptown’ they called Stefano. Stefano’s the nicest person in the world, and he’s a fantastic over-committer. So he said, ‘Yeah, I can do it if it’s me and my assistant Matt.’ We started to work, and immediately it became clear that he didn’t have any time and they kind of had me still. I mean this in all honesty, I think you ended up stuck with me.”
“Yeah, we kind of did, [but] it worked out very well,” said Rucka. “I went back a while ago and was looking over some of the very first pieces that were sent in. Now I can see where Stefano ends and you start, but at the time and I’ll tell you this right now, if you come up to me on the floor or I’m signing at Oni or something like that, and we have met for every year at this con for the last 19 years, and I have seen you every year, I still will not recognize you. It’s not because I don’t like you, it’s because I go face-blind behind the table. It’s funny you talk about that initial meeting, because I have no memory [of that.]”
Rucka then recalled the conversation he had with Oni editor James Lucas Jones about getting an artist for “Stumptown” similar to the style Michael Lark had for “Gotham Central.” “We wanted somebody like what Michael was doing on ‘Gotham Central’ — that’s what [we wanted it to] feel like,” Rucka remembered. “We kept going around, [asking] ‘Who can we get, who can we get?’ James finally said, ‘Why do we keep saying “somebody like it” when we can get Stefano?’ That led us down the trail. The result, though, of that placement is that the conversations that followed were really, really good. We locked on to each other fairly quickly. It was positive happenstance.”
Rucka and Southworth continued their jokes about the upcoming zombie panel, with the artist even offering, “If you come by my table, I’ll customize the book for you and make everyone look dead and disgusting and spurt.”
“He really will!” agreed Rucka. “You’re going to be sorry you said that.”
Southworth then recalled his first sketches of “Stumptown.” “When we first talked about me working on [the book], I did a couple of sketches, there was one with the crisscrossing bridges in Portland — that and this other thing were drawn on Post-It notes,” he said. “At that point I didn’t even know that the private investigator was a woman.”
After a prompting by the moderator, Rucka shed some light on why “Stumptown” is set in Portland, which branched into a number of other influences including his love for the great TV investigators. “When I was a wee young writer before I actually made money at it, what I wanted to write was private-eye novels,” he admitted. “I suppose that’s kind of rare. I’m not sure how many kids turn to their parents and say, ‘I want to write a private-eye novel!’ I went to college, and that’s what I was reading and that’s what I was trying to write. I grew up in the heyday of the great TV private investigator. I had ‘Rockford’ first, and I had ‘Magnum,’ ‘Columbo.’
“That was grade-school stuff for me,” he continued. “I would run home and — I was in second or third grade — I figured out that if I sprinted home from school, if I ran flat out, I could get through the front door and get the TV on in time to catch the [cold open] answering machine message at the beginning of ‘The Rockford Files.’ I loved those. That, to me, is the show in a nutshell. Those messages, they’re brilliant!”
As an homage to “The Rockford Files,” there is a number readers can call in the back of “Stumptown” that sends them to Dex Perio’ voicemail. “We’ll be changing the voicemail when the next arc runs,” said Rucka.
The writer also referenced a number of influences he had in college, such as Dashell Hammet and Raymond Chandler, and gave details on the process for his first novels. “When I started writing my novels, my first novel’s main character was a bodyguard, and the reason he was a bodyguard was that there were too many private eyes,” he said. “The problem is that if you’re writing about a bodyguard, you’re writing an entirely different novel. A bodyguard novel is a suspense-thriller. It has to be. Because the guard is protecting a body from a threat, otherwise there’s no story. Which means that the story engine is the threat. A private eye story can have elements of threat, but it’s the story that drives it.
“The private eye is an American form,” Rucka continued. “It is one of the only purely American literary forms. The first private investigator by all accounts is actually Auguste Dupin, and although he sounds French and he lives in Paris, he’s actually by Edgar Allan Poe. This is a form that very early on is a form that talks about our nation and talks about our nation in a very specific way. The detective is the outsider in any community they go into.”
Rucka continued to describe the detective story as part of the American experience, saying that the P.I.is the melting pot of literary characters. This led him to the protagonist of “Stumptown,” Dex Perios, and how he came up with her full name, Dexedrine Perios.
“For those of you that don’t know, Dexedrine is a form of speed,” said Rucka.
“I thought you were going to ask about the name of ‘Stumptown’ which sounds like a zombie book,” joked Southworth, as the audience laughed.
Rucka continued, “Her full name is Dexedrine Callisto Perios. The name is her character. If your parents named you Speed Callisto Perios, that says legions about your parents. I mean, really. She’s got a younger brother who’s in the book, his name is Ansel Achilles Perios and she’s got a younger sister who we haven’t met yet named Fuji Cassandra. Her brother and sister got off easy because their first names are photograph-related. Ansel is named after Ansel Adams, and Fuji is named because Mom looked and saw the canister of Fujifilm. Dex got named speed, because what did Mom see?”
Rucka’s explanation of Dex’s family tree continued with a brief history of her parents, which had not yet shown up in the book. “I had notes from this character from another project that sort of morphed into Dex, and basically the result is this: Her mom was in the Peace Corps,” he said. “She went into the Peace Corps because her dad is a colonel in the Army, so when she decided to rebel, she rebelled. She met and fell in love with a gentleman who was a photojournalist, a Greek photojournalist. This is how you get ‘Perios’ and this is also how you get these odd combinations of names. Eventually [her] mom and dad will come to visit, and you will see they are the least responsible people in the world.
“This is why Dex is at home taking care of her brother. The irony in the series is that everyone in the series looks at Dex and says, ‘Man, when are you going to make something of yourself?’ And Dex is the one person in her family besides Ansel who has this sense of personal responsibility. Fuji’s a nightmare.”
After Rucka’s detailed description of Dex’s family, there was an audible pause, after which Southworth leaned into the microphone and said, “I didn’t know any of that.”
Over the audience’s laughter, Rucka replied, “I thought I told you all of this!”
“I honestly don’t think I knew a single thing of that,” Southworth shrugged. “I honestly don’t think I knew Ansel’s middle name was Achilles, and I’m really attached to Ansel. So that’s funny. It’s like finding out your friend’s middle name is Norton.”
The floor opened up for questions, and Rucka and Southworth immediately answered when the next “Stumptown” arc would drop. “We’ve had scheduling trouble really locking down the next arc,” said Rucka. “We are not soliciting the next arc until four of the five [issues] are in the can. We are working on the third of those five right now.”
Southworth expected to finish with the third by the beginning of August. “If all is good, that means we will have [issue] #8 completed by September,” said Rucka, as he went on to predict that new issues should be soliciting around December or January. “When that happens, the issues will be monthly,” he said, pounding his fist on the table for emphasis. The writer also mentioned that the plan was to do two arcs a year.
“I hope this won’t sound defensive, but a lot of people don’t realize how little indie comics pay,” added Southworth. “They pay almost nothing. It becomes a case of even if you work all the time on it, you have to do something to make a living at the same time.” The artist reflected for a bit on his previous job as an apartment manager, which also took up the bulk of his time. “I was able to quit that and do comics full time. I’ve done some stuff like ‘Spider-Man’ and ‘Spider-Girl’ which pays real well, but it doesn’t mean as much as this girl taking care of handicapped brother who I get choked up when I talk about it.”
It seems as though Rucka and Southworth’s efforts succeeded, at least partially, as one panel-goer, who had entered the room for the next panel, said that he was interested enough after hearing the creative team speak to pick up a copy of the book on the show floor.
More details came to light during the Q&A session, including Southworth’s other creative talents of writing screenplays and songs. “I have the good fortune to be able do a lot of things artistically,” he said. “I’m a songwriter, I’m a guitar player, I write plays. The downside to that is that every time you’re fully focused on one of those, if you do five things, it means four of them you’re not doing and you feel guilty as hell.” While he went through a number of creative outlets, Southworth landed in comics because he loves stories. “I”m a major movie-o-holic. Comics are like the cheapest movies you can make, and you don’t have to haul a bunch of shit up a hill. I made a movie, too, and it almost killed me.”
There were a few other questions answered in the panel, including Rucka’s idea for a science-fiction P.I. novel (“I call it ‘Witch Noir.’ It’s more like ‘The Wire’ crossed with ‘The Craft'”) and the writer’s favorite “Rockford Files” phone message (“There are two. One is, ‘Mr. Rockford. We see that you are using our device. Now how about paying for it?’ That one’s really good, and the other one I’m quite fond of is, ‘Jim, this is Janet over at Sal’s Plumbing. We’re backed up, so you’re going to have to use the bathroom at the restaurant another night.'”)
The final question was one of the most interesting: “Is it difficult for you to kill a character?”
“If you do it right, yes,” Rucka answered. “If you kill somebody off, you didn’t care about it and it was easy to do, then the death has no meaning. The ones where you agonize over it are the ones that matter. I just finished a novel where I spent the whole novel thinking I was going to kill this one character. I was sure this character was walking around in a red shirt with a target, and I got to the point and I realized I couldn’t do it. It wasn’t emotional, it didn’t work. The story had changed. All of a sudden the red shirt and target hopped over to another character. I tend to call my literary agent when I’m writing stuff like that, and he had to talk me off a cliff!”
“And that, in a capsule is why indie comics are more interesting than major, big-budget corporate comics,” said Southworth. “Because you can’t all of a sudden kill Jimmy Olsen. You can’t. They won’t let you. Even if it would make an awesome story.”
“My mom read the first issue of ‘Stumptown,’ and she came to me and said, ‘You gonna kill Ansel?'” said Rucka. “And you guys have never met my mom, but trust me when I say ‘Are you gonna kill Ansel?’ the answer is ‘No, Mom!’ Never mind that I wasn’t going to; now I definitely never will.”