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CSBG Archive

She Has No Head! – The Case of Greg Rucka, Stumptown, and “The Microscope”

Cover StumptownStumptown #1.  Greg Rucka (writer), Matthew Southworth (art), Lee Loughridge (colors).  Oni Press.  $3.99

While trying to write this, my very first CSBG column, I hit a wall.  And as I worked to break through that wall, I realized that it’s pretty easy (for me at least) to rage against the machine in regard to women in comics and all of comics mighty related sins, but when it comes to talking about what is actually WORKING with women in comics, it often seems an insurmountable task.

And I think that’s part of the reason that this column suddenly seemed impossible to write.  These days we view women in comics under an impossible microscope, where every drawing, line of dialogue, plot device, and item of clothing is analyzed ad nauseam.  What can possibly thrive under that kind of scrutiny?  Maybe nothing.  And so by dictating that this column, however broadly, will discuss “women in comics” I invited that same microscopic gaze and felt suddenly crippled by it.

There are so many people – writers, artists, and editors, even in mainstream comics, that are trying to do it right – trying to drag the rest of the industry kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century.  But sadly they remain the minority, and so as long as comics continues to be a place where things like the Marvel Divas cover nightmare happens on a regular basis, I think the microscope is unfortunately something we’ll have to get used to – for good or ill.

So, microscope in hand…Greg Rucka’s Stumptown #1.

Stumptown Page 2I’m a fan of Greg Rucka’s work, though I have certainly not read all of it, what I have read usually hits the mark.  Whiteout was one of my first introductions to a female character that acted like a normal human being and wasn’t constantly wearing a tank top six sizes too small for the absurd double D’s spilling out of it.  And while our heroine Carrie was pretty, she didn’t look like some gorgeous Hollywood starlet that had accidentally fallen into a U.S. Marshal’s uniform and Antarctica (although credit there is of course also due to Steve Lieber).  Whiteout was one of those books that turned me around on comics at a vulnerable point, and I was grateful to Rucka then, but reading Stumptown, I find myself even more grateful that he’s still doing it now.

The look of the book is gritty and real, perfectly fitting to Rucka’s world and characters.  Matthew Southworth’s art is both exquisite and consistent – the latter a quality I’ve come to regard highly in comic artists.  But perhaps most importantly Southworth’s art feels incredibly respectful of and appropriate for Rucka’s story.  Lee Loughridge’s colors are an equally appropriate dark and moody color palette.  And the end result is something delicious that just feels right.

As for the story, Rucka sets up a solid detective yarn and gives us just enough from everyone to keep me interested and invested without slowing things down.  Dexedrine Callisto Parios (fortunately called Dex from here on out) has the beginnings of a great character.  A private investigator with a past, a little gambling problem, and a brother at home to look after.  Dex is clever and cool-headed without falling into the badass barb slinging cliché that so often happens with “tough” female characters.  Dex is oh so very human and flawed, and as such, when she gets into trouble she isn’t able to just magically get herself out of it, though her wits and calm under fire prove to be her best weapons.  When she gets punched in the face, she goes down, like anyone would.  And she gets an ugly shiner like anyone would.  In our comics world of such constant unrealistic violence, I find myself really enjoying a realistic take on the ramifications of something like a single punch.  It’s refreshing and as a result she’s a character I’m anxious to get to know better.

Stumptown 1The story is set in Portland, and it seems to me an inspired choice for a detective pseudo noir story, somehow both unexpected yet fitting.  On the surface it seems like an unusual choice – straying from the more typical New York City, Chicago, and even Los Angeles – settings common to detective noir stories, but it functions as a great canvas with inspiring vistas and dark brooding landscapes, somehow new and predictable at the same time.  The name of the comic, Stumptown, is a common nickname for the city of Portland and in a nice meta tie in, it is also the name for a comics festival – Stumptown Comics Fest – held yearly in Portland.

I’m generally not a fan of jumping back and forth in time unless it’s critical to the story – and while it’s not necessarily critical here – it does work to the story’s advantage and adds to, rather than takes away from the narrative.  Some of the more subtle panels are given more punch by being told out of time as they are, and what would otherwise be a fairly meaningless bit of dialogue or action is imbued with quiet importance.

Overall I think Stumptown is a most excellent start and I will certainly be tuning in for the next issue.  Even under the microscope, Rucka has managed to ‘do no harm’ and simultaneously set up a great mystery to be solved by a character I’m already rooting for.

39 Comments

[…] head on over to CBR’s Comics Should Be Good to read my first CSBG post.  Thanks for the support […]

Great post. I couldn’t agree more. I liked this book and I’ll be checking out the next issue. It seems to me that as the quality of superhero comics wane, crime comics get better. See you next week.

Good, concise review, and great to hear new voices in the industry. I am a fan.

Sorry, Rucka’s cliched heroines are starting to become as boring as the tight-fitted tanktop tropes you rail against. Let’s not even go into his ham-handed “lipstick lesbianism” in Detective Comics right now.

This crippling microscope you posit is more a factor in your own thoughts than it is in the general public or even comic criticism specifically. Sadly, critical thinking as regards female characters is still a niche product when it comes to comics themselves or comics’ criticism.

Stumptown is a fine book but I think it disappoints a reader who is looking to it for anything more than another Rucka story. That is, Rucka’s dex is another in a long line of very similar female heroins in a long line of very similar Rucka tales. In that sense you are correct to say that it works. Rucka is doing what he does well. For this reason, the Dex character suffers when a knowledgeable comic reader brings his or her microscope to examine Stumptown. Rucka, so far, has dealt semi-realistically with his female lead but has failed to show the reader anything new as regards the treatment of women in comics. Thus, stumptown reads better when one disregards the significance of the protagonist in terms of the larger state of “women in comics” and focuses solely on the formulaic, albeit, entertaining detective story contained therein.

Welcome to the blog. I look forward to more from you. If I may nit-pick a bit, be sure to use the word “regards” correctly. Very early in your article you use the term “in regards”- a grammatical error akin to nails on a chalkboard.

Torpor – I think you’re being unfair to Rucka. Yes, there’s a degree to which Rucka is, like any writer, prone to hitting the same notes. Whether or not those notes still feel fresh to you is dependent on how much you like those notes. Personally, I love them, but I can understand how someone who’s read Whiteout, Queen and Country, Wonder Woman, and Rucka’s arc with Sasha Bordeaux could be tired of this approach.

But I think you miss what is significant about Rucka’s heroines. For the most part, the whole of women in superhero comics collapse into two basic roles – the women the author wants to tie up, and the women the author wants to be tied up by. Catwoman, Storm, any female character written by Warren Ellis – characters the author wants to be tied up by. Wasp, Batgirl, and basically any female character written by Frank Miller – characters the author wants to tie up.

What’s problematic about this is that *everything* these characters do becomes sexualized. Most significantly, their danger is sexualized. To be perfectly blunt about it, kidnap and tie up a female character in most superhero comics and there is a wiff of rape about it.

The thing that Rucka does that is superlative is that no matter how much danger he puts his female leads in, it is never sexualized. Yes, his female heroines have a lot in common with one another – but that’s down to him being one writer. The problem is that he’s also just about the only writer who can consistently write female leads where the plot is not about their sexual danger or domination.

And this applies perfectly well to Batwoman as well – Rucka has written her drugged, delerious, helpless, and tied to a chair so far, and never once has that been done sexily. Even with a character who is a knock-out sex symbol. That’s some real skill, and it’s a skill that I am hard-pressed to think of another comics writer who can pull off.

I agree inasmuch as I’d like to see more kinds of heroines capable of that. But that’s not Rucka’s fault – it’s everybody else’s.

And in reply to Ryan’s comment “Stumptown reads better when one disregards the significance of the protagonist in terms of the larger state of “women in comics” and focuses solely on the formulaic, albeit, entertaining detective story contained therein.”

It seems to me that a comic featuring a non-sexualized female lead that reads primarily in terms of its story instead of its treatment of women is exactly the sort of thing that almost everybody advocating for better treatment of women in comics is asking for.

Great commentary. Sounds like a great, real character.

Just as a parenthetical aside, take it from someone born and raised there — Portland is a GREAT place to set a modern noir. It’s often dark, rainy, depressing, and corrupt; and yet there is the occasional moment of sheer human decency and nobility that shines through. It’s a setting made for noir.

Great post – I look forward to reading more of your stuff.

The “microscope” question is an interesting one. I definitely believe that too much scrutiny of anything will reveal faults and usually give too much power to the perpetrator. But in an industry where I have to explain the Zenescope booth to my niece when I take her to a con to get her Mouse Guard collection signed, some scrutiny is still useful.

Anyway, Stumptown. I really liked it but as someone who probably has read 90% of Greg Rucka’s output in prose and comics and who owns a complete DVD collection of “The Rockford Files”, that’s probably not surprising. I’m leery of where he’s going with Dex’s sexuality, as I do think it opens him up to criticism like torpor’s and fuels arguments that downplay the importance of characters like Dex, Carrie and Tara appearing in comics. But as someone who has read a lot of his work, I’d argue that he excels at writing damaged characters regardless of gender or sexual orientation. It’s not a cliche’ to write about flawed, imperfect human beings. If they were all alcoholics because of abuse suffered when they were children (just to pick some cause & effect), I could see them being called cliches. But Rucka has also written Atticus Kodiak, Nicky Poole and Colonel Kane, three characters with military backgrounds – and somehow I don’t expect the same complaints in those cases. History suggests that Dex (and Kate Kane) will end up as fairly nuanced characters with some similarities to previous Rucka creations, but likely too some new combinations and characteristics. I say give it time and enjoy a solid crime book with cool art.

Torpor – I disagree about Rucka’s work on the whole (obviously) but perhaps on some more basic level I’m a little willing to accept Rucka’s cliches (and I’m not sure this necessarily is one – it’s just that so many detective stories have been told and it’s pretty hard to break every mold in the first 35 pages) but if it’s a cliche then perhaps it’s just one I’m more comfortable with i.e. a capable non-sexualized woman with a past getting things done as a P.I. versus starlet dressed in a tank top six sizes too small stumbling around pretending to be something we can all see she’s not. One obviously makes me more comfortable if we’re going to be dealing in cliches anyway.

Ryan – I don’t think it is. I mean, I definitely think some of the microscope belongs to me, absolutely. But I spend a lot of time reading female positive comics blogs, and they rail at (as do I) in an almost unrelenting way on what is going on in mainstream comics where women are concerned, and I think they are right to do it. We need it to be done. But I’ve also tried to put myself in the position of creator/writer/artist – and I think it must be crippling to be writing something and realize that every single element from the shoes she is wearing to hair color and job description is going to be dissected. Now, maybe because we’re a comics community and that’s what we do with everything, it actually has nothing to do with women in comics, but rather just comics in general. But I can’t help but feel that the microscope as I called it, doesn’t help to free creators to be all that they can be. I have been on the fence (until recently) about Batwoman in Detective Comics, but when I looked at the criticism leveled at that book (and I include my own here) I found it pretty stifling. I mean some of it was absolutely warranted…but some of it…well, it made me feel like no matter what is done, there will always be horrible cries of foul…and I find that kind of depressing. Thus, I feel the microscope is very real (and not only in my head). I also think it’s very necessary, but comes with some unfortunate side effects.

As for regards/regard. Apologies. That has always been a bit of a blind spot for me. I knew going into this post I’d make at least one stupid grammatical error. I’m annoyed to see that’s the one…but there it is.

Phil Sandifer: I agree. You nailed it for me in this:

“It seems to me that a comic featuring a non-sexualized female lead that reads primarily in terms of its story instead of its treatment of women is exactly the sort of thing that almost everybody advocating for better treatment of women in comics is asking for.”

I think this is exactly what I’m talking about both for Stumptown and for “the microscope” in a larger sense. I want to just be able to enjoy a well told story with a female lead that isn’t fucked up by being sexualized (etc)…and for me, Stumptown did it well. And I’ll be excited to see what comes next.

http://www.theouthousers.com/content/view/5124/228/

Can I pimp my own review? Good? Yes.

I do think that Rucka’s Lesbian thing is a little weird, but I don’t think whatever Dex’s sexuality is is brought up here, it’s only hinted at. And as long as she’s interesting, it doesn’t matter what sexuality she is. Batwoman is boring, Lesbian or otherwise.

Niam, I couldn’t agree more

Stumptown to me is a good story with the potential to get better and the difference between this and Detective Comics isn’t necessarily Rucka’s fault. When I read Batwoman, I can’t help but think about the sexuality of the character primarily because that feature was used to hype the book.

I read Stumptown with no knowledge of sexuality and was able to focus on the story. Whether or not Rucka falls into similar pitfalls of prior writing we shall see. All I know is that the first issue did a good job of hooking my attention for a book 2….

Nice piece, and don’t like comics, OR women (just kidding!)

Fuck. Jokes don’t work when your grammar is bad.

Nice solid review. Already ordered it, but this just solidifies my eagerness to receive this months books.

Regarding Rucka’s “lesbian thing,” while I would certainly be happier to see better representation of lesbian characters in comics coming from female and even lesbian writers. That said, I’m not going to say no to lesbian characters being well-handled by male writers.

I am curious, Kelly, what the main line of critique of Detective Comics is. I (and several friends, male, female, straight, and gay) have ann been elated with it, so I’m curious what the problems are seen as being.

Greg: I’m SOOO into Portland. I’ve been dying to visit and experience it in real life (as opposed to how I imagine it). The setting seemed both perfect to me, and also new, which was great.

s1rude: Thanks for the comment. As I said in my comment above, I really do believe the scrutiny is necessary – just that it often has unfortunate side effects.

Phil: I heard everything on Rucka’s Batwoman from it’s brilliant and perfect to “why does her father have to be here? Why does she need a MAN around in order to be a superhero?”. Which seemed a bit crazy to me, and like people (including myself to a degree) were just looking for things to have problems with. I think there was legitimate criticism/disappointment that Kate turned out to be a drop dead gorgeous lipstick lesbian…but I don’t think that’s Rucka’s fault and I think most people get that…DC doesn’t believe that we’re ready for a mainstream superheroine that doesn’t look like a stone cold fox…and probably too many people at DC fall into a “oooh hott lesbian action potential” category. It takes time to change these things.

In the meantime I think some people are upset about Batwoman for fairly legitimate reasons (the suggestion that there is some sexualization to Kate’s “interrogation techniques” especially in issue #1) and some are upset at things that are a real reach to me (the presence of her father in the book). I was on the fence with Detective Comics – thinking it was better than most the stuff I was reading, but watching it with a wary eye, until the most recent issue. I think Rucka and Williams nailed that last issue and I finally stopped holding my breath while reading it – I hope that continues!

Sure, I agree there’s sexualization to Kate’s interrogation tactics. What I liked about that, though, was that it was in a fundamental sense a chaste sexualization. Kate seduces the guy into giving the information she wants, yes, but given that she’s a lesbian, the move is utterly a feint – as phony as her hair. She’s using her sexuality as a weapon dispassionately, as just another tool in her arsenal. It’s such a Bat-character thing to do that I love it.

I must second Other Greg’s love of Portland. It’s such a cool city, and a haven for comic book creators. If you can get there, you definitely should.

Phil: I think you’ve hit on something really fundamental there. Because on an individual character basis, I don’t mind a superheroine using her sexuality as a weapon (especially in this particular case when – as you correctly put it – it is a feint)…but I’m not a fan of female characters on the whole using their sexuality as a weapon – especially when I don’t see male characters doing that…like…almost ever.

I think far fewer people would have cried foul on this issue in Batwoman if this was something unique we were seeing – but our female comic characters almost uniformly use their sexuality as a weapon (I’m having trouble thinking of an exception – maybe Wonder Woman?). Again, for Kate, I think it probably made sense and was interesting, particularly because we know she’s just using every arsenal at her disposal, but because we see it constantly, even in the way that characters are drawn and costumed, it makes it frustrating and not unique to her – it makes her just like every other poorly written pornographically drawn superheroine from Poison Ivy to Jean Grey…resorting to “mysterious feminine wiles” to get the job done. And that irks.

Full disclosure: I wasn’t actually incredibly bothered by it, but I could see the point others were making.

I will be checking this out, thanks for the heads up!

Superhero comics are cool but I reall do enjoy crime comics and comics with a more realistic spin. I also need some new books with cool heroines in them :)

Aw, man. Good piece.

… rassum frassum makin’ me try harder and stuff now …

Great first column, Kelly.

It was both Rucka’s Montoya and Bendis’ Jessica Jones that first grabbed me when I got back into reading comics 6 years ago. Those characters gave me hope that females in superhero comics were evolving a bit. That’s not to say that we’re close to evening the field, but I do think that the female positive comic blogs and sites are giving a noticeable voice to a segment of the readership that has often ignored in the past. And, from what I observed, the new creator talent coming is far more conscientious than their predecessors of just a generation ago. Yay progress! And thanks for being one of those voices.

Also, I haven’t got my hands on Stumptown yet, but I’m really looking forward to reading it.

The thing to me, though, is that the explicit dispassion with which Batwoman uses her sexuality has a bit of a knock-on effect for other superheroes. Rucka, by having her emotionlessly use her sexuality introduces a different explanation for the entire concept of female superheroes using their sexuality as weapons. It introduces the possibility that the sexuality fanboys have been drooling over can just as easily be read as pragmatic, calculating manipulation.

I like that. I like the way it flips the gaze around and puts the reader on the defensive.

great review- great selection of subject matter to review.

[…] work.  I like it though it tend to get repetitive.  Kelly Thompson over at Comics Should be Good reviews his latest, Stumptown.  Be sure to read the […]

I often don’t read comics because they are so cliche, but this review makes me want to read STUMPTOWN. Thanks Kelly for revealing the psychology in Dex’s character that leaves me wanting more ;)

Do you guys know what lipstick lesbian means?

Lipstick lesbians:
http://www.celebritysmackblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/04/tila-tequila-stalker.jpg
http://www.allproblogger.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/03/angelina_jolie1a_300x400.jpg

(actually, they’re bisexual, but the gist is there)

Kate’s wearing tuxes. She’s got shorter hair. Her skintone is white. She’s dressed in more alternative-style clothing. She’s not a lipstick lesbian at all (which is a term, it turns out, which neither Rucka nor Didio used or wanted to use, and was used by an inaccurate NYTimes article).

@ Phil Sandifer
I would not try to tie up Elektra. Does not seem like a good idea.

“lipstick lesbian” what a dated, constricting, cringe inducing label. scottyquick is right to say that kate isn’t one.

first column, and i’m liking it already. i’ll definitely check out stumptown when i pick up dc this week.

Born in Portland, now resident of Hollywood. LOVE to see a good Portland crime comic. Love Rucka. Very interested in checking this out.

One basic complaint about the original review: it would be nice if Kelly Thompson would include a few sentence synopsis of the basic plot and story.

The reviewer identifies the character. The reviewer identifies the setting. But the reviewer never actually, um, details what this story is about.

Unless I’m dim and missed it.

Paul: Fair enough, I think I was so scope locked on the issue of “women in comics” I neglected to give you perhaps as much plot information as I should have…I think I had also already seen so many reviews that well encapsulated “the story” that I just wasn’t thinking about talking about that. For what it’s worth, the detective aspect to the story works well here and it is basically as follows: [POTENTIAL SPOILERS] The story opens with our heroine Dex being gunned down in a river by two thugs. The story then works backwards – starting with Dex losing big at a casino and being forced into searching for a casino owner’s (?) granddaughter in order to pay off her excessive debts to the casino. As Dex gathers her first clues about the missing girl she is attacked by two thugs that leave her bleeding in a parking lot. She is literally picked up from that parking lot by two more thugs – but much higher class ones – and taken to visit a prominent “business man” that offers her double her fee to find the girl, but call him first when she’s found. Obviously the case is more complicated than it perhaps appeared on the surface. Dex gets a harried call from the girl and tries to arrange to meet her, but appears to be stood up…which is when the original thugs find her again…bringing us back around to the opening scene. A really well crafted little detective set up – high stakes, and characters I already care about.

@ liz & ScottyQuick. re: Lipstick Lesbians. Hmm. I’m not a fan of the term either, as it’s like many things, a fairly stereotypical way to view someone (real or on paper) but as I understand it the term kind of broadly means “a feminine lesbian” and to me, Kate reads that way, tux be damned. I don’t think short hair and alternative clothing keep her from being feminine, but I think knowing her way around a make up table the way she appears to, keeps her fairly locked into the broad definition of a more feminine lesbian. I like that Rucka and Williams put her in a tux in issue #3 as I think it works to breaking down those stereotypes – that Kate can wear makeup and be feminine and still prefer a tux to a gown – but in the first issue – I know Kate’s look was on one level a little disappointing to some people as it was so gorgeous and kind of typically feminine and had a bit of the male gaze present there. Maybe “lipstick lesbian” was the wrong term though…I’m happy to be rid of it. I’d like it if we could retire it entirely…

I forget to pre-order this title and I’m really disapointed about that. I have discovered Rucka’s work with Whiteout and Queen&Country (plus the two prose books).
I think that this time I will order the singles AND after the tradepapernack because Stumpton takes me in the insides. It’s not a so classical woman hero with litle spandex and super boobs. She is a normal woman, lesbian/hetero/bi. What the mater with her sexuality? We don’t care.
She’s a P.I. with bad manners: gambling, alcohol and so what else… She is the counterpart of the same male P.I. we are used to see in comic books or prose books.
I will order this comic and I will be pleased to read it. That’s the main interest of a comic book, no?

Thanks for the review Kelly. If not for this column, I would never have heard of this title. Will have to keep an eye out for it when it comes out in trade format.

Have you had the chance to read the Fade from Blue series? This title was one of my first forays away from the super-hero genre and I was greatly suprised by how well written and illustrated each of the 4 lead female characters were.

Rob: Thanks. I’m familiar with Fade From Blue, but haven’t read it. Thanks for the recommend, I’ll definitely check it out.

Why is this column called “She Has No Head”? Does anyone know?

Darkhawk –

In the “Justice League: Cry for Justice” comic published a few years ago, there was this panel with Supergirl in it, I think it was the first big panel in the story, and it had Supergirl’s boobs and belly button featured very prominently, and her face didn’t even appear in the panel. It was sort of grotesque, and I suppose it was a perfect symbol of how female characters are sometimes treated in superhero comics, specially in these “nineties revival comics”.

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