She Has No Head! - Was Stumptown Worth The Wait?

Stumptown #1 - 4.  Greg Rucka (writer).  Matthew Southworth (art).  Lee Loughridge, Rico Renzi, and Matthew Southworth (colors).  Oni.  Full Color.  $3.99.

Let's just get it out of the way - yes.  Yes, it was great - one of the best comics I've read in months.  But I had to go back and read the first three over again to remember what happened 17 weeks ago in issue #3.   Are all fans - even those that loved the story thus far - devoted enough to wait, to dig out books for re-reads, and perhaps as I had to do - hunt down new issues with such an irregular shipping schedule?

Comics are sometimes hard work - it's not like figuring out what movie you want to go see - which essentially entails having previews and trailers and posters thrust at you everywhere you might possibly go.  The hardest part about figuring out what movie to see is maybe looking online to find a showtime.  With comics, especially comics like Stumptown, you have to be diligent.  I go to small shop that's great, but they don't always get everything, and sometimes things get missed and I have to track them down.  When there's a four-month gap between books, that's when a book tends to get missed, even if it's on my pull.  And because of that I have had to be unwavering in my attention to "when will Stumptown #4 come out" and I had to do this for #3 before it.  But if I wasn't writing this column would I be so careful?  Are other people going to be so careful?  I just don't know.

The fact that Stumptown #1 was my first piece for She Has No Head! and yet 43 weeks later we're only on issue #4 seems like cause for concern about Stumptown's future.

And I'm not trying to take Matthew Southworth to task here - I feel for him - and relate more than I can reasonably get into here about his "testimonial" in the back of issue #4 about getting this issue into our hands.  But feeling for him doesn't keep me from worrying about the book.  And my worry about the book is mostly selfish.  It's exceptionally difficult for me to discover a comic book I like as much as Stumptown - and even more difficult to discover a comic book that I like this much that also has a great female lead - so I just don't want to lose that - but as Greg said last week, it's hard to imagine the title made a dime (though the first issue did get a second printing - which is encouraging).

So in the interest of selfishly getting Stumptown as much publicity as possible - and keeping it on the shelves - let's talk about what's great about it.

I think the most important thing to discuss when talking about Stumptown is simply to talk about what a wonderful thing Rucka has done in giving us another exceptional female comic book character in Dex.  I know some have complained that Dex is just like all his other "tough female heroines" - I don't happen to agree - but even if I did - is there anything so wrong with that?  It's not like the market is over saturated with great female characters - does it really hurt us to have another - even if she does hit some of the same notes?

That said, I don't really agree that she's the same.  I think Dex is plenty different than other "Rucka tough females" that came before her.  Dex is clumsy and unlucky where Tara Chace is precise and almost charmed; Dex is flirty and bold where Carrie Stetko is private and reserved; Dex is practical and understated where Kate Kane is fearless and theatrical.  In fact, I'd say the only trait that all of the "Rucka women" absolutely share is their believability.  And part of that is I think a respect for women and for getting them right, which comes across on the page; and part of that is a respect for writing and getting context right - i.e. there is a context in which it is perfectly acceptable and even likely that all of these women might dress suggestively - but it's not a way in which they behave every day, because it is not who they are, it does not reflect their character and would be disingenuous to suggest so.

I think what especially works for me about Dex is that she's the time honored classic noir P.I. - very near the bottom of the barrel, broke, unlucky, and with some unsavory bad habits, but nevertheless honorable.  She's also clever, determined, and constantly being underestimated.  She's not chatty, unless she's being chatty on purpose and she uses the fact that she's constantly underestimated to her advantage - as any clever person would, and as a proud and arrogant person never would.  She never looks like she's even thinking one step ahead, let alone two, but most of the time she is.  Except for when she screws up - which she does from time to time - because she's not a perfect untouchable (unrealistic) type but just painfully human.  It makes her wonderfully relatable.  She should have the imperviousness of a character starring in her own (new) book, but in Rucka's deft hands you're never quite sure if she's going to make it out alive.  She comes across as painfully unlucky, but considering the situations she's frequently in, she's either the luckiest sonofabitch around or even more clever than we realize.  I suspect the latter.

For the uninitiated, Stumptown follows Portland (Oregon, not Maine) P.I. Dexedrine Callisto Parios (aka Dex) as she solves cases, cares for her younger brother, flirts with doctors, and gambles herself into oblivion.  This first arc, titled The Case Of The Girl Who Took Her Shampoo But Left Her Mini, follows Dex as she tries to find the granddaughter of a casino owner - her payment will be removal of her debts (some nearly 18,000 dollars).  Along the way Dex encounters two different sets of thugs (one set a little more polished than the other), a pair of scheming siblings, the seventh wealthiest man in Oregon, and a whole lot of other trouble.

[Mild Spoilers]

Rucka's story has all the necessary twists and turns for a detective noir tale, though some (like the expertly handled first issue which worked backwards) are more effective than others.  Though overall I loved the issues individually and as an arc, I do feel that Rucka made one fairly significant mistake at the end of issue #3 and for a few page in issue #4, in that he allowed us readers, suddenly, with no other precedent, access to scenes that Dex was not privy to.  It undermined the mystery, and our ability to stay with Dex as we puzzled things out.  The book works best when we only know what Dex knows - when we have to hope we're as smart as Dex (we never are - or at least, I'm not) rather than getting critical chunks of information that Dex will never receive.  By far the weakest section of issue #4 (and of the entire series) are the four pages in which readers alone see Mr. Marenco having an argument with his children Isabel and Oscar - because Dex is absent it comes across as naked exposition and it doesn't work the way the rest of the books do.  Rucka is certainly a strong enough writer to have found a way around this and it would have strengthened this last chapter tremendously if he had.  Regardless, it's still an exceptional comic - and well above most of the stories it's competing against - so with Rucka out of the mainstream game, I hope we'll see much more of Stumptown.  And though I still worry for mainstream comics when a talent like Rucka doesn't want in - getting a taste of Stumptown reminds me how enjoyable his departure can be for me in other ways.

Excerpt from Stumptown #4:

Matthew Southworth's art, though a little loose and gritty for some tastes, to me is an excellent fit for Stumptown.  He well captures the mood, the characters, and the location - all quite key in setting the stage for a strong detective tale.  I was sorry to read his palpable frustration in his "artist's note" in the back of issue #4 and I feel for him as I said before, I really do, but at the end of the day, I just don't know the ultimate fate of the book if he can't speed up.  Is Rucka's name (and obvious passion for the project) enough to keep it going when more than four months drop between issues?  Or when we have to wait 6 months to a year (I'm just guessing here) for the next arc (i.e. issue #5)?

I just don't know.  I have a real passion for books that can keep the same creative team on - allowing them to create an exceptional and cohesive vision for a book long term - but here I find myself wondering if, in order to get more Stumptown, and to build a bigger following (which it totally deserves) if it might be worth considering alternating artist for different arcs.  So that while Rucka and Southworth are finishing up an arc we're reading, Rucka and artist #2 can be producing the next arc, and vice versa.  Alternatively, maybe Stumptown should be released as a series of graphic novels instead?

This is all just me being greedy by the way.  Me looking at my pile of comics and saying "This shit is better than almost anything else I'm reading...how can I get more of it?"

Of course it's not lost on me that it's better in part BECAUSE it takes longer.  But I know how cut throat this industry is about book survival (less so at smaller presses of course) but I don't know the viability of a four month drag time between books.

Anyway, back to what Southworth actually did here.  The art is consistently gritty and to good effect, and has an excellent sense of place - you feel without doubt where you are - where Dex is - at all times.  In issue #4 Southworth's art feels much the same as the first three issues - except in the climactic "final" scene in which he takes a gamble that totally pays off.  Drawing and coloring a dark outdoor night scene (with Rico Renzi) with only pops of bright yellow to reflect the beam of a flashlight.  It's incredibly effective and moody, not to mention cool.  It truly heightens the tension in that scene to almost horror-story like proportions.  So hats off to both Southworth and Renzi for an execution that really adds to an already impressive climax, and a powerful ending to this first arc.

Lee Loughridge did colors for the first two issues and Rico Renzi did colors for the last two (with an assist from Southworth on #4).  Beyond saying that it's excellent moody work with a perfectly chosen palette I'd say that they did a particularly exceptional job in making the switch between artists almost unseen.  I'm not sure I would have noticed the differences without noticing the name changes on the cover - and that does wonders for the cohesiveness of the book overall.

All in all it's an all-star team creating one of the most exceptional comics I've had the pleasure of reading in recent years.

I just hope they can get the schedule under control so that I don't have to say goodbye to yet another great book killed before its time.  It's happened too frequently and I don't want to see it happen here.

Stumptown #4 released on September 1st, 2010 and is available in comic book stores everywhere.  If you missed out on previous issues and cannot find them in stores you can easily buy them directly from Oni Press here.  Hopefully Stumptown will also be released in trade - but if you like great comics (with badass female leads) and you've got a few extra bucks, I'd suggest picking up the original issues from Oni.  Only $16 for 125 pages of comics excellence.

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