Stumptown V2: Washing Away the Glitzy Veneer

stumptown v2

Written by Charles Meier

Despite what the media might lead to you believe, Portland isn’t all locally sourced restaurants and handcrafted courier bags.  As with anyplace else, this city has its dark side.  The difference is that Portland–and the state of Oregon as a whole, for that matter–hides it a bit better than normal.  I’m tempted to blame the massive out-of-towner population (which includes myself), but Los Angeles never seems to have this problem–three-quarters, at an absolute minimum, of the L.A. stories I’ve heard have been all about the darkness and corruption lurking beneath the glitzy veneer.  Maybe that’s what it is; a city where it rains nine months out of the year can hardly be said to have a “glitzy veneer”, no matter how many homeless people the Portland Business Alliance secretly murders.  Round about late November, people are preoccupied trying to convince themselves there are colors other than gray; no one wants to think about stuff like the onetime-thriving shanghaiing industry, the caffeinated seas, or all that child sex-trafficking.

Leave it to Greg Rucka, then, to remind us all how messed-up Portland can be.  Stumptown, his private-eye series from Oni Press, gives us a tour of the city from the long-timer’s perspective.  Stumptown reminds us of the pre-hipster days, when the City of Roses was just another nigh-unknown stud in the Rust Belt.  The glory days, when pinball was the biggest mob racket in town and the only twentysomethings who moved here were in it for the black-tar heroin.  I’m more than a bit sorry I missed those days, actually (the occasional childhood vacation notwithstanding), back when it was still cheap and before we turned into a goddamn cartoon.  Stumptown’s second volume, The Case Of The Baby In The Velvet Case (rolls off the tongue, don’t it), joins this week’s Wednesday crowd.

And this case looks to be an intriguing one indeed.  As with any good mystery, the first act of this four-part miniseries is all about setup–what needs to be solved, what are the stakes and all that.  The stakes turn out to be quite a bit higher than they first seem, elevating Stumptown above the “hipster mystery squad” pap the uninitiated may expect.  What initially seems a simple hunt for a missing guitar turns out to be anything but, once the boxcutter-wielding skinheads and the trigger-happy DEA agent gets involved.  It’s nice to see Dex is still prone to making poor decisions–the way she handles the skinheads should, by all rights, have gotten her killed to bits.  I suppose getting beaten up so often it’s practically a running gag does funny things to one’s fight-or-flight response.

If I sound flippant, I don’t mean to–a Rucka comic is seldom a bad thing, and this is no Punisher #11.  Certainly the art is far better–Stumptown wears its PDX credentials on its sleeve far more explicitly than Bucko, and Matthew Southworth delivers at a surprising level of competency.  To read Stumptown is to see the Portland I see, to marvel at the crumbling brickwork, to read the bus schedule by the rain-bloomed aura of a lovingly-restored vintage neon sign, to admire the Gothic sublimity of the St. Johns Bridge while at the same time hoping today isn’t the day that earthquake hits and sends it crashing into the Willamette.  I find my feet wandering from side to side, slaloming around imaginary puddles of hobo puke.  I will say that seldom does the overcast sky look quite so much like the world’s most depressing finger painting project, but this is a minor detail at best.

Stumptown evokes nostalgia of the best sort, that which isn’t in any way overt and is in no way rose-colored.  There’s no indication the series takes place in anything other than the present day, but one can’t help but be reminded of more obscure past decades.  The effect is akin to digging one’s fingers into the thick layer of handbills insulating any given Hawthorne District utility pole, braving the rusty-staple quills to peel back the layer of years, to reveal an imperfectly preserved but still legible flyer  for a concert at the original Satyricon, circa 1993.  This series carries the same vibe as that show most likely did, an aura of menace draped over unmistakable reward.

Stumptown V2 #1 comes out September 12.

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