Greg Rucka Brings the Private Eye to Portland in ‘Stumptown’
Greg Rucka is no stranger to detective stories. He launched his writing career not in comics but in novels with the “Atticus Kodiak” private investigator series, and is currently in the middle of a critically-acclaimed run on “Detective Comics” as a solo book for Batwoman, with a backup feature for Renee Montoya — a character he made a star in the police procedural “Gotham Central.”
It’s no surprise, then, that his newest book, “Stumptown,” returns to the world of the private detective with a lady P.I. named Dex practicing her trade in Portland, Oregon. With the long-delayed book finally out this October from Oni Press, Rucka talked to ComicsAlliance about his deep love of the private eye genre, “The Rockford Files,” and the city of Portland — and how he became a man who writes some of the strongest and most believable female characters in comics.
ComicsAlliance: “Stumptown” has been a long time coming, but for readers who are new to the party, how would you describe it?
Greg Rucka: “Stumptown” is — I suppose the bluntest way to put it is, if “Queen and Country” was me using a childhood love of espionage and things like “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” and James Bond and Ian Mackintosh’s “Sandbaggers,” then “Stumptown” comes out of the childhood love of “The Hardy Boys” and “The Rockford Files,” “Simon and Simon” and “Magnum, P.I.” That’s what this is. When I was in third grade, I would run home — literally run home from school — and if I could make it in time I could get home and the put the TV on in time to catch the answering machine message at the start of “The Rockford Files.” And I lived for that. When I started out as a novelist, I thought I was going to be a private eye writer. That was my intent, and that’s what I studied, I mean, scholarly. My college senior thesis was going to be on the American private investigator.
CA: In fiction?
GR: Yeah, as a means of social commentary. I was going to basically track [Raymond] Chandler. It was going to go from [Philip] Marlowe to Spenser and discuss how the form has always been a uniquely American form. Even when we get [Edgar Allan] Poe writing [C. Auguste] Dupin, while Dupin is French, Poe is still an American writer. I’ve always had an affection for that. So [Oni Press Editor-in-Chief] James Lucas Jones and I had talked and talked and talked about doing this; I had a character [Dex] who had been ricocheting around in my head for about ten years in various other projects and I realized that she was going to be the detective for this. It’s also less noir… This isn’t “Double Indemnity.” This is more “Rockford Files.” We’re going to do four issue arcs, and each four issues is a case, and the case is as much about the mystery as it is about the detective and the people around her and her life. It’s “Stumptown.”
CA: What is it about private eyes that appeals to you so much?
GR: I love liminal characters. I love these characters that are outside and enter and consequently are perpetually outsiders, and who hold themselves to a higher standard. Dex’s code is Dex’s code, and she will do what she feels she has to do. And I love those characters. And I love their flaws. I think Sherlock Holmes survives not solely because [Arthur Conan] Doyle wrote a brilliant detective and brilliant stories, but because Holmes is horribly flawed. He’s a broken guy. He’s drug-addicted. He’s a misogynist. He’s antisocial. And at the same time, even in those Doyle stories, Doyle’s sense of social conscience is so acute, and the morality of his stories is very strong. He will act for the justice he feels needs to be done. He wants the truth, but if the truth is going to cause more harm than good, he will withhold it.
CA: That’s the interesting thing about private eyes. They don’t work for an institution, so they’re not bound to these rules about how, “Well, the law says…”
GR: Exactly. And that’s one of the fun things, and that’s one of the fun conflicts, because then you have the law. And of course there’s a police lieutenant that hates her, and we find out why very early on. There’s a scene in the second issue where she’s in the squad room with Tracy Hoffman, who’s another character from “Fistful of Rain” — what in the genre we would refer to as her “pet cop.” And there in the squad room, she’s looking at faces and the lieutenant sees her and says, “What’s she doing here?” And Dex stands up for herself and doesn’t let herself to be pushed around, but she says the absolutely wrong thing in a room for a cops. And in the description as written you can see the ice form. And she thinks, “Oh, my foot’s all the way in my mouth.”
And that’s one of the things I love about Marlowe, that most people don’t get because they only know Marlowe through film. Marlowe’s a smart ass. Marlowe’s biggest problem is that he doesn’t know when to shut up. Half of the beatings easily that Chandler hands out to Philip Marlowe are beatings that come from him saying one smartass comment too many, and some guy saying, “Hey, that’s it! Bam!” And that’s a trademark that I love. They have a sense of humor that comes from their self-imposed objectivity. They can look around and see everyone’s foibles, which often means they’re very aware of their own.
CA: But they still can’t stop themselves from making one more comment.
GR: No, they can’t. They’re all gluttons for punishment. It’s the same thing watching “Rockford.” And we’ve had the smoother ones, like in “Magnum P.I.” Magnum didn’t take beatings. Magnum gave beatings. And I loved those stories, but he wasn’t the detective for me. I also watched some “Simon and Simon” recently. [My wife] Jen got me a boxed set, and I hadn’t seen the show since I was fourteen.
CA: How does it hold up?
GR: It doesn’t. But I still remember the episode where AJ was playing racquetball with a guy, and you know how racquetball courts are. They’re a box. They’re a white box. And someone comes up along the gallery with a sub-machine gun and opens fire and kills the guy who’s with AJ. And there’s no place for AJ to go. All he can do is huddle in the corner. And I remember seeing this and being struck by that horror and by that sense of impotence. And the story is about AJ struggling with that fear and his anger and his outrage at having been rendered absolutely powerless and it becomes a vengeance story. What’s he going to do when he gets the guy who did it? But those sorts of emotional things — I looked at it and thought, “Wow, there’s more there.” But the “Ivan, did you see the sunrise?” line from Magnum which gave me chills when I first saw it — I’m sure if I watched the episode again
today, I’d be like, “Oh, a little clumsy.”
CA: Sometimes it’s best not to go back and watch these things.
GR: But the flipside also is you’ve got to remember the era. Our sophistication as an audience across the board –cinema, television and comics in particular — has just skyrocketed. We’re far more sophisticated now. But in television and in film, we’re also not taking the same risks we were willing to take back in the seventies. We’re far more conservative in what we’re willing to do, and far more moral. [Robert B.] Parker writes an early Spenser novel where he not only sleeps with the wife of the client, he then sleeps with the daughter of the client in the same book. And you could do that in the seventies and there was less of a moral judgment on that. We look at that today and we think, “Skanky skanky skanky!” But at the same time, I can’t show you a ten minute car chase on a TV show unless it’s an outstanding car chase. It’s got to have jump cuts and synced to music and so on. So, we’ve evolved in form, but the stuff that still sings for me in memories is the stuff that was emotionally resonant. And that’s always been my mantra in writing is that it’s got to be emotionally resonant and it’s got to be true. If it’s true then I can make the story about an intelligent sock puppet, but if the emotion is honest then you’ll believe in the sock puppet.
CA: You’ve written a lot of female characters as main characters before, and in “Stumptown” you’ve chosen another female protagonist with Dex.
GR: I like writing female characters. And I like writing female protagonists in particular if I’m going to be working in a genre that’s traditionally male-dominated. You get immediate dramatic dividends because you change point-of-view slightly, because it’s a woman in a traditionally male role. And I like women. But every time I answer this question I feel like I’m going to dig myself in a hole, that someone’s going to read this and say “Oh, he likes women!”
CA: I think it’s a big issue in mainstream comics, which is also traditionally male-dominated — the lack of creators who can convincingly write female protagonists.
GR: See, I don’t know. I can’t speak for it. All I know is that I wrote the “[Atticus] Kodiak” series, which was my first take at writing a P.I., and that was a male protagonist. But in the middle of it, in “Shooting at Midnight,” I wrote the first person point-of-view from Bridgett Logan’s point of view, instead of from Atticus’s point of view. That was the first time I sat down and said, “What’s it going to take to convincingly write a female point of view?” And that was real effort. I didn’t want to cheat it. I didn’t want to write a guy with tits, for lack of a better phrase.
For me good writing is emotionally honest writing, and emotionally honest writing has to come out of the character. And gender is an element of character in the same way that religion, sexual preference, education, a family, all those things affect who a person is. So when I wrote “Shooting at Midnight,” I really worked very hard at being able to give Bridgett a distinct voice that was as believably a female voice as I could do at the time as a white, male Jew in Eugene, Oregon. And I think I was successful. And once I did that, I realized, hey, there’s more room here. There’s more stuff to do. But I think at the end of the day it goes back to the fact that I like women. I know guys. I am a guy. But for the most part I prefer the company of women.
CA: Well, I don’t know that it’s just that you like women, because liking women and understanding them well enough to write them are different things. It’s very easy to say, “I want to include women” and end up making them objects rather than subjects. That’s not always a bad thing, but when it’s consistently the only perspective someone offers, it’s not very well-rounded.
GR: And we’re talking about art. And art should create new articulations. On some level, of course, everything I write is something about me. I’m exploring something. I’ve got a question I’m trying to get answered, and that’s part and parcel of it. But in “Stumptown,” Dex isn’t as horribly flawed as [Tara] Chase is. Chase is damaged and in many ways, very broken. She’s not healthy. But part of Chase’s problem is also her job. A lot of what wrote “Queen and Country” for me was asking, “What is the price that we ask the people who do this kind of work?”
And with “Stumptown,” Dex is flawed, but Dex is flawed in a very Chandler mode. I’m very traditional when i look at the P.I. genre. I look back into Chandler’s essay “The Simple Art of Murder.” And in it Chandler talks about, this is what the private eye story has to be, who the protagonist has to be. And he does say “has to be”. And I think on some level you either have to confirm or refute. And, he’s writing at a time when the concept of a female P.I. is just absurd, so his language is severely gendered, but there’s a famous couple of sentences in the essay where he says that the hero in these stories must be the best man in his world, and a good enough man for every world. He would not defile a virgin, but he might seduce the duchess. I make mincemeat of the quote, but I always go back to it.
And this is the essay where you get, “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean but is neither tarnished nor afraid.” Keen words there! “Not tarnished nor afraid.” And that was Jim Rockford. That was Philip Marlowe. And Parker with Spenser — especially very early Spenser, after “The Godwulf Manuscript” which is pretty much him writing a Marlowe story — when he starts to develop Spenser as his own character, you see that Spencer becomes a product of his era. And that’s what we wanted.This is 2008, and we have female P.I.s and Dex is a product of her era. Her sensibilities are our modern sensibilities and her life is very much our modern life, but at the end of that, she is neither tarnished nor afraid.
And she is willing to — there’s another great Chandler line where I think it’s a district attorney is asking Marlowe, “What are you doing?” and Marlowe says, “What else am I supposed to do? I’m selling what I have to sell. I’ve got what brains I’ve got, and a willingness to get pushed around on behalf of a client.” And that’s Dex! She’s a knight errant in that traditional sense. But I also wanted that element of Rockford that was very fun. My brother once described Rockford as cat.He always lands on his feet, but he never comes out ahead. He barely breaks even on everything. And that too is Dex… Almost everyone she meets thinks, “God, this girl could really be something if she just got her stuff together!” But her stuff is together. She’s doing what she wants to do.
And after the second arc we’ll start seeing more of her family, her extended family. You discover that her family kind of looks at her as a waste, but of the course the irony is she’s the most responsible member of her family. She’s the one with the strongest sense of self and the strongest sense of who she is and what she should do. Her full name is Dexedrine Callisto, her brother’s name is Ansel Achilles, and she’s got a sister named Fuji Cassandra. And that should tell you a whole lot about the family right there. So how she ended up as a P.I. is one of the questions. We did this little eight-page story [for Comic-Con 2008] that’s really just an int
roduction to the character. And then the first arc, which we’re calling “The Girl Who Left Her Shampoo” is a missing persons case. She’s sort of hired to find a young woman who has disappeared. And of course it gets more complicated than that.
CA: So it’s a modern day story, set in Portland, Oregon?
GR: Stumptown is one of the nicknames for Portland, so that’s why we called it “Stumptown.” I love the city. I’ve wanted to write more about it, and it seemed to me that I could write about where I live and use that, because another thing that makes the private eye novel for me is sense of place. So that was the title, and we’re using real locations with the exception of one place. In long-standing tradition going back to Chandler and “Rockford” there’s a city on the coast that we’ve created called Coast City. And Coast City is modeled loosely, very loosely, on a real place in Oregon, Lincoln City. But Coast City is the corruption on the coast, because you have to have the corrupt place. You have to have the place where you get your illegal gambling and whorehouses and you don’t want to be arrested by the cops there. So we thought we’d better change names here in case anybody gets the wrong idea. I’ve been to Lincoln City many times but I’ve never had any trouble there.
CA: How much of it do you have mapped out in your mind?
GR: I’ve got the first eight issues pretty tightly mapped and actually the second arc is going to tie into a novel I wrote called “Fistful of Rain.” Mim, who is the protagonist of “Fistful,” is a character in “Stumptown.” She’s actually the client in the second arc.
CA: So they operate in the same universe?
GR: Yeah, which for people who are REAL Rucka geeks, means, that yes it’s possible that Atticus could walk through at some point, because there’s a very tenuous connection between “Fistful of Rain” and the Kodiak novels.
CA: Stephen King has woven some of that interconnection into his novels particularly in the “Dark Tower” series, and that’s been a lot of fun for the serious fans.
GR: Yeah, I think that people who spot it will get a kick out of it. and people who liked “Fistful” will get to see Mim again and will get to see Mim a couple years on from the end of “Fistful.” One of the things we’re trying to do, we still haven’t figured this out, but we’re talking about how you watch Rockford, and there would be ten minute long car chases. And you can’t do a car chase in a comic because there’s not a sense of motion, but Matt and I have been trying to figure out how we’d do it. Is there away to do a car chase? And we’re going to try to figure it out, because I really want to do it. I want to do an issue, say 24 pages, where of those 24 maybe 6 pages are outside of the car, and for the rest of the issue they’re in a car being chased by another car.
CA: So it’ll be like “All Star Batman and Robin,” then, where they stay in the Batmobile for three issues?
GR: That’s not where I would have gone. [laughs] But I’m trying to figure out how to play it and make it work and also give it that sense of “Bullet” meets “French Connection”/”Rockford” car chase. And then of course the great thing about Portland is drawbridges, which means we could have a drawbridge jump. That was the moment where I said we have to do it because there are at least three bridges we can try to jump, and we’ve got to do it. So, I’m genuinely happy to be doing it.
CA: The art for “Stumptown” is going to be in color, rather than black in white, which surprised me a little. I thought you might have gone for the more noir feel of black and white.
GR: But that’s part of it. It’s not noir, although it touches noir. There will be elements of noir, but this isn’t dark alleyways and rainslicked streets and people getting punched in the shadows. There’s plenty of sunlight in it. And, in point of fact, one of the things is funny, because we were going over one of this issues and Matthew sent me this note saying, “I think it should be raining.” And I said, “I don’t want it to rain yet. It’s Portland. It will be raining plenty. This time, this story, it’s summer. It’s sunny. And I want that sense.” and he wrote, “Yeah, I know. I’d forgotten that.” There’ll be a fall story where all it is is rain, and a winter story where we get our 80 days of gray. You know, I love and have loved for years and years now, since I was a kid, the private eye. So I get to do that.
CA: What is your collaboration with artist Matt Southworth like?
GR: He’s in Seattle, but we talk really frequently. I’ll write a full script, he gets the script, and then the rule with the script is, “Here’s the story. Tell me what you want to do with it.” The art is part of the story, They’ve got to work in concert. I’ve never been a fan of pretty pictures in a comic just for the sake of having pretty pictures. I don’t like it. It’s one of the reasons I rarely do splash pages and double pages in what I write. I think it’s a waste of real estate. You’ve got to have a moment that justifies me giving up two pages for a single image. That’s got to be a hell of an image. Especially for someone like me who can’t draw to save his life, this is collaborative. Matthew and I are doing this together, and I want it to stay that way. This is us every step of the way, because what he brings to it is as important as anything I do.
And it’s funny, we did this eight-pager and the turnaround on it was real tight because we wanted it done for the show. He didn’t actually have a chance to show us anything — me or James — and James was in hives, because he was like, “There could be typos or misspellings!” But he nailed it. And the choices he made, deviations from the script, all good choices. All choices that serviced the story better than what I had written. Really good decisions. You can’t ask for more than that out of a collaboration.
CA: Someone who improves your writing?
GR: The ideal collaboration creates something that is more than the sum of its parts. And that’s a hard thing to accomplish in comics. I’ve very rarely actually touched that moment where I’ve put the script in and the result is something that is really far better than I could have ever done. But that’s what you work for. I’m going to keep pursuing that.