My Misspent Youth: Stumptown by Greg Rucka and Matthew Southworth

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

As I must on occasion, let me preface what follows by conceding that I am about to abuse the word “youth” in the title of this feature. Stumptown, written by Greg Rucka and drawn by Matthew Southworth, debuted in 2009, well past the point that I could claim any dewy upon mine eyes. My mild justification for highlighting it under this regular banner is that the series — while hardly a throwback — strongly reminded me of the independent comics I read while in high school, during the initial boom of upstart publishers challenging the so-called Big Two and their near pathological insistence that only superhero adventures could sustain a monthly publishing schedule.

The more accurate justification is that I just wanted to write about Stumptown today. So here we go.

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The series follows Dex Parios, a privavte investigator in Portland, Oregon. In the manner of countless pulp paperback gumshoes before, Dex is beset by rough-edged flaws. She has a gambling problem, a way of blundering into trouble, and a tendency to hit the bottle hard enough that it is inclined to hit back. Rucka, who’s earned plentiful praise for his female characters over the years, doesn’t write Dex as particular remarkable of tragic. She’s not some facile “strong female character,” in place to prove something about post-feminist feminism or to upend genre norms or anything like that. Instead, she is just a complex person made up of fascinating layers — so the stuff of fine fiction.

While the fundamentals of the character and the storyline — involving a missing young woman, a batch of shifty individuals, and, of course, money that must be followed — are often deployed to fill up a lean detective novel, Rucka isn’t just transporting a story suited for a different format over to the funny pages. He knows full well that he’s writing a comic, which opens him up to other storytelling tactics in terms of staging. In particular, he and Southworth demonstrate an impeccable sense of timing throughout, taking advantage of the static progression of panels to deliver wryly humorous moments.

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In addition to the jointly impressive commitments to character and plot, Stumptown is notable for its setting. More specifically, in placing the action in Portland, Oregon — Rucka’s home base — the creators deliberately tried to avoid any sort of generic rendering of the Pacific Northwest city, which would be inherently wobbly in its accuracy. As with everything other element, they wanted to get it right.

“It’s always a big disappointment to watch a movie shot in your hometown and find they’ve gotten it all wrong, that’s there’s no way that character can step outside that building and see that bridge or whatever,” Southworth noted in an essay printed in the first issue.

That conviction led him — a resident of nearby Seattle, at least at the time — to do meticulous research on the places Rucka spelled out in his scripts. There’s a general directness to Southworth’s art that can tip over into visuals that are thrilling into their detail and beauty.

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I had never ventured to Portland when I original read the series, but it didn’t matter. The verisimilitude of the storytelling — visually and narrative — carried its own weight that made the whole piece feel more authentic. Especially in an era in which superheroes rule the movie screen, the immediate cultural association with comic book stories is of the wild, the wondrous, the fantastical. Stumptown is a fine reminder that comic books are a medium and not a genre. There are a lot of different kinds of stories to tell in those stepping stone panels, including stories that feel as real as a gun barrel smacked across the bridge of one’s nose.

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Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

My Misspent Youth: Doomsday by Marv Wolfman

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

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I can’t overstate how magical it was the first time I walked into a comic book shop. My age was barely into double-digits and it was an era when most comics were sold at supermarkets and drug stores, given plenty of real estate over by the magazines, so it was a strange notion, this whole storefront devoted to nothing but these colorful periodicals populated by super-powered beings.

Thrilling as it was to see the new comic books meticulous arranged alphabetically (as opposed to shoveled randomly into a spinner rack) and the piles upon piles of old issues, I think what impressed me most was the array of ancillary products decorated with popular superheroes. At the time, it was a humble lot. There were no bankbook-breaking statues or life-size replica character accouterments. Still, these were items that I’d never seen before and couldn’t imagine finding anywhere else.

On one of those first trips to the comic book shop, I picked up a slender and enticing paperback featuring my favorite characters: the Fantastic Four. It was part of the Marvel Novel Series, which gave some of the most prominent writers employed by the publisher an opportunity to try out some straight prose rendering of the wildly imaginative adventures that set the fictional universe churning. Written by Marv Wolfman, the book was entitled Doomsday. I can see with a slightly mortifying level of certainty that is the one novel that I have read repeatedly in my lifetime.

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The story pitted Marvel’s first family against their chief adversary, the malevolent, megalomaniacal Victor Von Doom. The ruler of Latveria was known the world over by his shorter, more pointed moniker: Doctor Doom.

Wolfman’s tale was filled with details I loved from the Fantastic Four comics, including a pronounced sense of the shared fictional history (Doctor Doom’s staging of a college reunion figures into the plot, as does his fierce desire to retrieve his deceased mother from the netherworld) and a crackling commitment to the well-developed character, particular the familial foursome with a penchant for saving the planet from evildoers.

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Wolfman was writing the Fantastic Four monthly title when this novel was published, in 1979. He structures the story with a welcome commitment to honoring who these characters are, teasing out what made them foundational to Marvel, even if they’d long since been overtaken in popularity by other denizens of the wondrous world.

As I noted, the Fantastic Four were my favorite characters, so the fully recognizable depiction of them was important to me. It gave me another avenue to connect with them, to revel in their heroics. And there was the added benefit that it was the written word rather than dialogue and narration layered atop drawn images. I’d get grouched at if I opened up a comic book in class, but this little paperback — simply by virtue of its format — represented acceptable recreational reading.

And read it I did. I lost count of the number of times I returned to the book, rereading and savoring every last bit of it. I eventually picked up other entries in the Marvel Novel Series from that same comic book shop, but none of the others commanded my attention — fully and repeatedly — like Doomsday.

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The images for this post were found elsewhere and used with gratitude. 

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

My Misspent Youth: The Mighty Marvel Superheroes Fun Book

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

As I’ve occasionally acknowledged, it took me a bit of time before I plunged into the world of superhero comics. As was my wont at that age, I clung to the kiddie material I loved longer than I probably should have. At different times, I’ve probably retrospectively tagged various comics as my gateway into the supposedly more mature fare populated by the costumed do-gooders of the Marvel Universe, but it’s probably fair to say my most robust initial exposure to the characters came from a somewhat unlikely source: The Mighty Marvel Superheroes Fun Book.

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Published by Fireside Books, these were big floppy slab of books, with page after page of relatively easy puzzles themed around the various colorful characters who populated Marvel’s magnificent monthly mags. I was already a sucker for crosswords, mazes, and other mental challenges designed to wear pencils down to nubs. It only made them a little more dynamic when they were themed around super-powered beings soaring through the sky.

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“The answer called correct on page 116.”

Some of the puzzles were only tangentially related to the Marvel comics, but others ostensibly required a working knowledge of the four-color adventures that kept spinner racks handsomely stocked. The complete the Nova maze, I only needed to know how mazes worked. Playing fill-in-the-blank with Daily Bugle headlines was a different matter.

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There’s no real reason to believe these sorts of exercises would have stirred my interest in the actual comics, but they did. I genuinely wanted to know the particulars of the story that would have gotten Daredevil identified as a killer by a major metropolitan newspaper, for example. There were similar head-scratchers that pulled panels straight from the comics or teased bygone storylines (back when there was a mere fifteen years of history to draw upon).

I know I wasn’t fully, properly connect to the Marvel Universe through these books, but the osmosis of my time lingering over the pages did its job. I wasn’t transformed into a devoted Marvel reader by these books, but, strangely, I can credit these books into priming me for the helpless fandom to come.

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The images for this post were found elsewhere and used with gratitude. 

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

My Misspent Youth: The Thing by John Byrne and Ron Wilson

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

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As I’ve confessed many, many times in this digital space, there was no character who held greater sway over me during the years that my time was most clearly monopolized by superhero comics than bashful Benjamin J. Grimm, also known as the ever-lovin’, blue-eyed Thing. The craggy colossus of the Fantastic Four, the first family of Marvel Comics, was a character I’d follow just about anywhere. I religiously purchased the title featuring the previously mentioned quartet, and I was even a devotee of Marvel Two-in-One, the monthly team-up comic in which the Thing took turns collaborating with other denizens of the Marvel Universe.

I don’t think there were too many others going out of their way to add issues of Marvel Two-in-One to their collection, though. Even at the time, I was somehow able to figure that out. So it wasn’t all that much of a surprise when word came down that it was getting canceled. There was quick conciliation in the news that the team-up title’s space on the spinner rack would be replaced by a new series simply called The Thing. I recall writer John Byrne, who was presiding over a stellar run on Fantastic Four at the time, arguing that there was plenty of opportunity to see the Thing playing off of other superheroes in the team book he’d been a part of since the very beginning of Marvel. The missed opportunity was in the lack of pages turned over to simply and solely exploring Ben Grimm.

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Teaming with Two-in-One artist Ron Wilson, Byrne didn’t quickly demonstrated just how serious he was about liberating the character from the circulating band of costumed do-gooders who shared a masthead with him in the previous series. The first couple of issues of The Thing basically plumb the history of Ben Grimm before he ever piloted the ill-fated, illicit rocket journey that resulted in him gaining super-strength and a rocky orange hide.

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That was a fine instinct, and it represented a welcome prioritization of character over spectacle, a creative ethos that more current superhero comics scribes would benefit from adopting. But it also, I will admit, got a little snoozy at times. There was an overabundance of pathos, which obscured the wry sense of humor that was truly Ben Grimm’s most distinctive trait. And, quite frankly, I could have used a little more time spent clobberin’.

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Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

My Misspent Youth: “I’ll Be Doom for Christmas” by Scott Lobdell and John Byrne

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

For a variety of reasons, superhero comics rarely provide more than glancing attention to the holidays. That was especially true years ago, when there was limited pages for the roiling sagas because publishers were wary of flooding the market. (That’s not really an issue now.) That often meant that any dose of holiday cheer was more likely to arrive in strange, non-continuity corners of the fictional universes. In the late nineteen-eighties and early nineteen-nineties, there was no stranger non-continuity corner in Marvel comics than What The–?!

The series was Marvel’s stab at a Mad-styled parodies of the superhero stories they offered up, something the publisher tried out from time to time. For their title’s tenth issue, it was promotionally repurposed as an X-Mas Special (the slightly skewed formatting of the holiday’s shortened name alluding to the most popular Marvel title of the day). The lead story was written by Scott Lobdell and drawn by John Byrne, and it had the distinction of bringing the artist back to the villain he had rendered with great aplomb during a justly lauded run on Fantastic Four: Doctor Doom.

In this story, declared “A YULETIDE FABLE,” the malevolent monarch of Latveria is relaxing in his castle on Christmas Eve when he hears the intruder alarm go off. Rushing to the rooftop, he finds that one of his security measures has entrapped none other than Santa Claus. Unable to complete his rounds, the gift-giving fellow enlists Doctor Doom to complete the annual task of delivering presents to all the girls and boys on the “Nice” list.

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Though he needs to contend with a particularly grouchy Rudolph, Doom performs well in the uncharacteristic role, at least until the route brings him into the headquarters of various superheros. That includes a stop at Avengers Mansion, where Doctor Doom discovers that Earth’s mightiest heroes adopt a benevolent policy towards the members of their rogues gallery when Christmas rolls around.

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By the time Doctor Doom touches down at the home of his chief foes, the Fantastic Four, the various heroes on duty that night have cohered around their suspicion that their armored adversary is up to no good. A battle briefly breaks out, but it is quickly halted when it spills out to the doorstep of the local “Hospital for Sickly Children.” When a doe-eyed child naturally doesn’t understand why the superheroes are attacking someone who appears to be Santa Claus, the differences are set aside for the sake of the impressionable youth.

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Once the world has been rounded, Doctor Doom lands the sleigh back in Latveria, where Santa Claus has recovered adequately to head back to the North Pole. As payment for Doctor Doom’s subcontracting work, Santa Clause bestows upon Victor Von Doom his very heart’s desire.

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Merry Christmas to all, and to all a “Good grief.”

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

My Misspent Youth: “Foul Play!” by Bill Gaines, Al Feldstein, and Jack Davis

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

When I was a young, I didn’t know too many other kids who were into comics. I had no one to commiserate with about the latest developments in the Marvel Universe, nor anyone who could turn me on to new and different stuff by sharing issues and titles that they loved to which I’d been previously unexposed. There were rare exceptions, which made them memorable. And if one of those exceptions happened to be one of most infamously gruesome comic book stories of all time that also exploited knowledge of the sport that was a concurrent personal obsession, the experience of staring at those foreign panels is understandably forged into my brain.

I don’t remember the kid who introduced me to the story “Foul Play!,” written by Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein and drawn by Jack Davis. Truthfully, my peer may as well have disappeared in a puff of smoke after pushing the comic across our fourth grade desks. I was mesmerized by the story.  Originally published in a 1953 issue of the EC Comics title Haunt of Fear, there’s no question I was looking at some sort of reprint. How this fellow elementary school twerp got his hands on such lurid material — which was still startling almost thirty years after originally infiltrating spinner racks — also remains a mystery. I’m guessing it was an older brother. I was always an older brother when it came to stuff like this.

The “BLOOD-CURDLING, SPINE-TINGLING, FEARFUL FUNGO-FABLE” hinged on a fateful September baseball game played with the bush league pennant on the line. The creepy circumstances are set into motion when Central City’s slugger Herbie Satten in hit by a pitch and awarded first base. Moments later, he steals second base, adopting a sliding methodology from the notorious ruthless Ty Cobb.

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Though it seems Herbie is primarily trying to deliver a few debilitating scratches, it turns out there was a far more nefarious plan in effect. The next inning, a woozy Jerry Deegan steps to the plate with the game on the line. As a called third strike blazes past him, Jerry collapses on home plate, mysteriously dead. In the clubhouse, his teammates figure out what caused the sudden, fatal ailment.

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Since this is an EC horror comic, a fitting revenge is naturally in order. The Bayville Nine spend their off-season plotting. By the spring, they’ve got their plan sorted. They mail a letter to Herbie, shrewdly designed to play to his ego.

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When he arrives at the ballpark, deep into the evening, Herbie finds no admirers. Instead, it’s the surviving pals of Jerry Deegan. They want to play a little baseball, but they’re short on gear. Luckily for them, and unluckily for Herbie, there’s a handy solution before them.

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Setting aside the pedantic but valid concern that a human head is far too large too sizable to be a truly adequate substitute for a baseball, there’s a sadistic elegance to the solution concocted by the angry ballplayers. It’s not the kind of thing likely to get these guys into Cooperstown, but it does represent an undeniable innovation in the sport.

Images courtesy of the fine individual who posted the full story online.

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

 

My Misspent Youth: The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

As I’ve acknowledged previous in this space, my quest for more, more, more of superhero comics when I was at the peak of my youthful obsession extended past the paneled adventures themselves. Any opportunity to read about the fantastically powered heroes and villains I’d committed to was highly welcome. I read material like that over and over again, hungrily pulling in as much information about the characters as I possibly could. Equally inhibited by time and access, there was no way I’d be able to read every Marvel comic book ever printed, but I could develop a facsimile of the encyclopedic knowledge I craved through whatever CliffsNotes-style recaps I could find. Empty calories, but at least I felt sated.

So when my publisher of choice announced a limited series entitled The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, it was as though it was made just for me. In an extension and expansion of the succinct biographies that ran in the back of issues of Contest of Champions, In Handbook, major characters were typically afforded an entirely page to share their histories and vital statistics, right down to detailing height and weight.

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I reveled in all this data, delighting in the knowledge that accumulated in my brain. I studied these pages more intently than any schoolbook I had at the time. The entire month between installments would be given over to scrutinizing the minutiae, imagining the stories referenced, and thinking about how everything lined up. A major allure of the Marvel stories was the direct promise that they were interconnected, all part of one tremendous saga. This was the serious-minded almanac of that saga, delivered one issue at a time.

As if the character profiles weren’t already satisfying my itchy curiosity, there was another facet of the Handbook that hit my spot so perfectly that it practically set my foot thumping like a supine Labrador who is the beneficiary of a perfectly deployed belly scratch. There were entire pages set aside to break down the gadgets, vehicles, buildings, landscapes, and other significant objects in the Marvel Universe. And the attention to detail was blissfully ridiculous.

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Nothing cemented to me that I’d fully given over to helpless comic book geekdom like the measureless time I spent hovering over a cutaway rendering of the Avengers Quinjet trying to determine where the vertical thrust deflector ducting sat in relation to the variable area afterburner nozzle.

After I’d read every word, I considered the implicit messages that could found in the production particulars of the series. The general prominence of the characters in the Marvel Universe could be sussed out by their placement and size on the wraparound covers, for example. Even the artist assigned to the drawing seemed to hold a clue, with fan favorite pencilers on major figures and handy bullpen toilers on the comparative super-powered scrubs.

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There was also the nifty running appendix that dutifully presented the different alien races that popped up over the years, many of them for little more than a single issue. That’s how I learned “Vegans continually radiate anti-gravitons from areas of their brains contained within two horn-like projections on the front of their skulls in order to support their vast bulk.”

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I wasn’t the only one who fell for The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe. The series proved popular enough that it was extended a few issues to add deceased characters and yet more gadgets. And a second edition series followed around a year and a half after the completion of the first, immediately playing catch-up on all the new continuity wrinkles that had piled up. Eventually, they started circling back to the conceit with such regularity (not to mention indulging in odd offshoots) that I lost interest. The foundation remained, though. A sizable amount of schooling from that time might be gone, but still have a handle on the history of the Marvel Universe, at least up to that point.

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.