From "Stumptown" to San Diego with Southworth

Greg Rucka and Matthew Southworth's eagerly awaited new Oni Press series, "Stumptown," begins this fall. In anticipation of that release, the creators have prepared a special preview story available this weekend at Comic-Con International in San Diego. CBR News spoke with artist Matthew Southworth about the preview story, the ongoing series, and his roundabout way into comics.

"Stumptown" is Southworth's first major comics work, after inking the recent "Infinity Inc." for DC Comics. Characterized by Rucka as the project he's presently most excited about, "Stumptown" revolves around Dex, a private investigator living and working in Portland, Oregon, itself a major "character" in the book. "Portland still has the sense of modesty, a little more bruised romantic alcoholism about it," Southworth told CBR News. "It's a physically beautiful city, and it's smart and liberal but not smug.  There's a great feeling of working-class art about it."

Dex is "the kind of woman you either want to be or want to be with. Untl you find yourself being with her," said the artist. "She's smart, she's charming, she's good-hearted and she's gorgeous. But she's over-complicated and she gets in her own way and she's obsessive and when she makes a mess, she makes it big."

The "Stumptown" series itself will appear in thirty-page, full-color installments. The publishing schedule is unorthodox. After the first four-issue story concludes, the series will take a four-month break, resuming with another four-issue story. "Rinse. Repeat," as Southworth puts it. "The thought behind the schedule is to give me and Greg enough time to do the work without having to pump it out.  It also creates a reliable schedule that readers and retailers can count on.

"When I was a kid going to comic stores," Southworth continued, "I'd get really excited because it was the third Thursday of the month, and that's when 'Dr Strange' came out, or 'X-Men' or whatever.  And it was reliable, and I'd read the issue with more relish because I'd been thinking about it all week.  So I really want to keep on schedule."

Available at CCI is an eight-page preview story named "Mustang Ranch." It will be in black and white, but Southworth says it comes in "a very special package, and you'll have to come to the Oni booth or track me or Greg down in person to see what I mean." The plot concerns Dex's car, a "1964 1/2 Ford Mustang, creme yellow--and money." Or, rather, the care acting up as Mustangs often do. "You know that feeling in the pit of your stomach when you're on the freeway and you suddenly hear a strange clanking in your engine or your car smells funny?" Southworth remarked. 

Besides introducing Dex and her Mustang, the Comic-Con preview will also feature Mitch the mechanic. "He's got mouths to feed, and Dex can't do her job if she doesn't have a car," said Southworth of the dynamic between them.

When the "Stumptown" title begins in the fall, many more characters will introduced. "In the first issue, there were something like twelve characters to design, most of whom we'll see repeatedly," he explained.

In preparing for the series, Southworth dug down into research materials. "Research is how I studiously procrastinate," he joked. "Dex's home is a Craftsman. I know what Craftsman homes look like, but I want to know why they look like that. So I've now bought about ten books (go Dover!) on Stickley and Craftsman homes. I've bought books on wrought-iron architecture in Portland, restoring old homes, etc. This resulted in my building a 3D model of Dex's entire house.

"There's a scene in a casino, and I visited a casino and got the stickperson to show me how craps is played. He even let me take pictures, to my shock. I've driven to Portland several times and learned about the St. John's Bridge.  This is all just for the first issue."

Southworth found himself working with auspicious writers like Greg Rucka by way of an unusually circuitous route. Growing up in Nashville with writer Joe Casey, Southworth drew comics as a kid and as a teenager. But like so many teenagers, the future comic book artist found other pursuits. "As I started playing guitar in bands, some of the drawing drifted away. I nearly went to the Memphis College of Art, but wound up going to theatre school in Kentucky instead, where I studied acting. That led me to Actors Theatre of Louisville, where I did a little writing and wound up being invited to attend grad school at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh despite not having finished my undergrad work."

After finishing both degrees �" simultaneously �" Southworth came to Los Angeles and worked at Tom Cruise's production company. "While there, I wrote and directed an independent film that I nearly, NEARLY finished and had a little miniature nervous breakdown," Southworth continued. "I started writing songs to get out of my own head a little and formed a band, the Capillaries." After living in Los Angeles for five years, Southworth escaped to Seattle. "By [this point] Joe was a very successful writer, and he encouraged me to do some comics.  And so I started re-learning how to draw, and I'm still re-learning (for the first time)."

Beyond the copious research, both Southworth and Rucka's other commitments presented a challenge in getting "Stumptown" up and running. However, Southworth praises Rucka's abilities to juggle several projects. "Greg is a black-belt multitasker," said the artist. "Anyone that writes that many comics, rewrites movies, writes a novel, raises kids and stays happily married is a role model.

"Working with Greg is an absolute delight. He's very collaborative and open to suggestion and change, much more so than I would have expected of anyone, particularly someone with such strong opinions. He has repeatedly said to me 'this is OUR thing' and assured me that we are truly partners, not just separate technicians, and not boss/employee."

The working relationship with Rucka has inspired an extra level of dedication in Southworth. "I want it to be everything we both want it to be. Greg has said that he's more excited about 'Stumptown' than anything he's worked on in a while, and I want his face to light up when he sees the pages," he said. "Because that's what comics are supposed to be about, right?  Getting excited about something.  On a reliable schedule."

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