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Vroom Socko talks about a weird little land called Portland
& reviews STUMPTOWN #4 & SCARLET #2!
Hey everyone, this is Vroom Socko. This is going to be one of those features that talks about the nature of the material, but takes some time getting to the actual damn review portion. for those of you who only want to know whether these books are good or not, just skip to the regular review headers. To everyone else, enjoy the following...This past Wednesday saw the release of two comics that share a specific connection. Oh, they're not part of any crossover event. They're not from the same creative team, or even the same publisher. But they do share the same setting, one that has a particular philosophy, if not an ideology. That setting is the actual home of the writers of both books, as well as the hometown of yours truly: Portland, Oregon, aka The Rose City, Stumptown, PDX, Soccer City USA. There's a great deal of P-Town in these books, and while they can stand on their own easily enough, knowing something about how this place works can only add to the experience of reading both titles. So here's some things you might want to keep in mind while reading.
This first bit is the most important, especially if you ever intend to visit: Oregon is pronounced Or-a-gun, and Willamette (as in the river that bisects the city,) is pronounced Will-am-it. say them wrong, and you're bound to get a talking to. Keep saying things wrong, and you will soon be greeted with open hostility.
This isn't because people here are super-anal about such things; in fact, Portland is a relatively relaxed town. It's also a town that is fucking insane, and proud of it. Sure, most of you probably think of Portland as either some Green-centric town filled with hippies, or the idealized realm of Beverly Cleary stories. To be fair, we are a Green city. Everyone here recycles and composts, our mass transit system is second to none, and our city parks are some of the most varied in the country (out of around two hundred or so parks, the largest is the 5,000 acre Forest Park, while the smallest is Mill Ends, which is a little over twice the size of a dinner plate.) I even have a neighbor who uses his yard to grow corn and tend to chickens. He even had a pig for several years. And yes, Beverly Cleary is considered an institution in Portland, but so is native son Matt Groening, who basically filed off the serial numbers and renamed the town Springfield when he created The Simpsons. And that show only uses the stuff you can get away with on television. This town breeds madness. This is a place where you can hear someone on the street say, "Oh you're looking for the Church of Elvis? It's half a block east of the Hung Far Low sign." And that won't be the strangest thing you hear that day. Politically it's fairly liberal, but with a libertarian undercurrent. We like progressive goals and ideals, but we don't suffer fools gladly, and we hate having either our time or money wasted. And we're not afraid to get our hands dirty.
Protests, ah protests. Some of our finest have been against the Iraq war, but nothing tops the regular May Day marches. Every few years, they even graduate from marches to riots. There's a reason Bush Senior calls this place "Little Beirut," and it's not because of our Lebanese cuisine. To be fair we have some excellent cuisine, in both restaurants and our exploding population of food carts. The carts in particular show how Portland loves the simple and the DIY mindset. After all, why deal with the hassle of wait staff, sous chefs, and high rent, when it costs far less to fix up a trailer and serve straight to the public. The local food item that fits the city's mentality the best, however, can be found at Voodoo Doughnuts. It's the infamous Bacon Maple Bar; that's a maple bar with two strips of bacon on top. And it's fucking delicious. (Despite word to the contrary, Voodoo does NOT sell doughnuts made with either NyQuil or Pepto Bismol. The FDA made them take those off the menu.)
It's drink though, not food, that really stands out in Portland. With close to thirty breweries inside the city limits, the most in any US city, Portland loves its beer. The biggest labels in town belong to the Widmer Brothers and to Bridgeport, with the McMenamins brewpubs being the most prolific sellers of individual pints. McMenamins are probably most famous for their hotel/movie theater/brewery/bars(plural)/restaurant located in the defunct Kennedy School. I recommend taking a look at the selection of cigars available in Detention. Then there are the multiple independent bars that have...other benefits. Due mainly to the fact that Oregon has no obscenity laws, Portland has more strip clubs on a per capita basis than either New York or Las Vegas. But it's not just in clubs that people are seen in the buff. Portland is home to the annual Naked Bike Ride, where the city's many cyclists leave their clothes behind and ride the city in the buff. Crazy, I tell you.
The thing is, it's not just that crazy is encouraged in this town, but that crazy helps the town thrive. When Walter Powell opened one of Portland's many independent bookstores, he'd never sold books before. Naturally, he decided to shelve new and used books together, and to place biographies in with the other subjects instead of as their own category. Today, the bookstore that bears his name is the largest independent bookstore in the world. Then there's the track fanatic and his coaching friend, who imported and sold running shoes from Japan. When the Japanese company folded, they got their hands on some urethane rubber and an old waffle iron and made their own,
Now, you may think that Portland is an odd place, based on all of the above. But don't make the mistake of thinking it's nothing but odd charm. The Rose City hasn't always smelled so. The KKK maintained a strong political presence here in the 1920's. The 50's saw the proliferation of gambling dens, violence, and rampant police corruption, thanks in part to the influence of Mickey Cohen, he of LA CONFIDENTIAL fame. In the 70's Mayor Neil Goldshmidt spent his days building the beginnings of our Green infrastructure, and his evenings molesting his kids’ 14 year old babysitter. Twenty years ago Ethiopian college student Mulugeta Seraw was stomped to death in the middle of the street by a group of skinheads. Even today, Portland has some of the worst homeless statistics in the country, particularly when it comes to homeless teens. We also have some of the worst suicide statistics. There is a darkness to Portland that cannot be ignored, a darkness that, in many ways, the crazy of the place helps hold at bay.
The best example of the joy of Portland, the craziness of Portland, (and I am biased since I know the man,) is Jim Serrill. In the late 70's, he was introduced to our new team in the NASL, the Portland Timbers. Wanting to provide some team spirit from the seats, he asked the owners if it was all right for him to bring his personal chainsaw to matches. Soon, Timber Jim was a regular sight on the sidelines, leading the fans in cheers and using his saw to cut a slab off of a huge log for every Timbers goal. The NASL eventually folded, but when the USL Timbers were created ten years ago, Timber Jim was back, swinging from the rafters of PGE Park with his saw in hand. his passion inspired a group of fans with nicknames like Barnacle Brian, Nevets, Bickle, and Finnegan to create their own cheering section, and soon Timber Jim found himself leading a whole Army of fans. Taking his motto of "Spread the love" to heart, the Timbers Army soon filled an entire section of the Park, then two, then three, then the entire north end. Jim has since handed off the chainsaw to Joey Webber, but Jim is still down front at matches, sharing his love of the team, the fans, and the city. Here, this is what he was doing last Thursday at around the 80th minute of a scoreless match, the last match at PGE before next year, when the Timbers become an MLS team. Just watch:
THAT is Portland, as far as I'm concerned. It's concentrated madness, coupled with a spirit of individualism and a love of the community. It's just plain weird, yet somehow lovely. I'm hoping you get it, at least a little, because the following comics creators certainly do.
Greg Rucka: Writer Matthew Southworth: Artist Oni Press: Publisher Vroom Socko: I can see my house in here!How does Greg Rucka do it? How does he write such tough yet flawed characters? How does he do it without succumbing to cliché? His Dex Parios does come close; she's a hard drinking, gambling private investigator, after all. But there's an undercurrent of tenderness to her that feels genuine, and damn is she clever.
This issue, the long awaited conclusion (loooong awaited conclusion... but let's not dwell on that) of Dex's search for Charlotte Suppa, features Dex finally finding a chance to stop reacting to the threat of the various members of the Marenco family and implement a plan of her own. This plan, as is common in stories like this, involves a trade between the PI and Mr. Marenco. What keeps this from bogging down in cliché is the solid character work that Rucka puts on the page. The entire middle section is predominantly held down by a conversation between Dex and Marenco, one of the sort that is, again, common in detective fiction. These sorts of scenes depend on the characters to bring out something interesting, and that's where Rucka succeeds. There's a beat in this scene where Dex is talking about her life that's very well written. Also very Portland.
The big surprise for me in this series, however, has been Matthew Southworth. It's been a while since I've seen faces carry as much of the story in a comic as they have here. Southworth's characters are pitch perfect, expressive without being caricatures, emotional without being sappy, stern without being expressionless. And damn does he make Portland look good. The previous issue has a two-page spread of Mount Tabor that comes close to breathtaking (I'd compliment his Portland in this issue, but the one scene in town is in front of the Paris Theater, and it's kind of hard to wax poetic about a porn theater.)
I can't wait for Dex's next case. This is a great character: likeable, honorable, and very resolute. And besides, her favorite beverage is Bridgeport IPA. How can you not love a character with such excellent taste in beer?
Brian Michael Bendis: Writer Alex Maleev: Artist Marvel ICON: Publisher Vroom Socko: Rose City 'till I Die!I've not been enjoying Bendis books of late. I'm on record as having a massive dislike for his AVENGERS work, primarily because it consisted of him breaking up the existing paradigm and never actually replacing it. Since the team changed status quo and shifted goals and roster with every yearly event, it was impossible to follow without following all of Marvel, and even then it shifted the style and substance so often that I didn't care what happened in the book. Who cares about what this team goes through, there'd just be a new one in six months no matter what.
On the other hand, I AM the one @$$hole who absolutely loved Bendis and Maleev on DAREDEVIL. It was experimental, particularly the “Decalogue” arc. DD was a risktaking book, a title where the story was based not on massive "events" or epic storylines, but by placing the main character into challenging unique situations and letting the character react to his ordeals. DAREDEVIL was and is probably the best work from both men. Until now.
SCARLET is nothing like any other Bendis book. It's nothing like anything else from Marvel. I don't think there's any comic to compare it to. The one thing it does resemble, the only thing I can think to compare it to, is a Jacobian revenge play. The moments where the main character directly speaks to the reader even feel like soliloquies. Honest to god, you could transpose the script directly onto the stage and it wouldn't feel out of place.
Now, I know that the main character SAYS in this issue that what she's doing is not about revenge, but revolution. (Despite the assumed name of Scarlet, she has yet to be referred to by any name in the story.) But honestly, what is a revolution anyway, but revenge against society? She claims to be in search of answers: answers as to why her boyfriend was gunned down by crooked cops, why she was shot in the head, why life is fucked up. The problem is, naturally, that there are no answers to questions like that. One character attempts to explain this to her, in what is sure to be considered the ultimate Bendis conversation (though not the ULTIMATE conversation, that's still USM #13. You know what I mean...)
That's the thing though; I don't think this book is genuinely interested in finding answers. Bendis has to know that there aren't any for something like this. Instead, it's about refining and understanding the question. I'm not saying we won't get some answers in regard to the plot; I'm sure Bendis has the story mapped out. This isn't LOST, after all. I just know that this character isn't going to find any answers to her particular questions. There's not going to be a happy ending for her, you can feel that.
Alex Maleev has a lot to do with that feeling, no doubt about it. Portland may be a rainy town, but there's a very non-Portland gloom to these pages, a dreariness that reflects the way this girl now perceives the city. It's recognizably Portland, but there's a grime to things that is atypical to this place. It's not the city that's foul; it's all in this woman's head. This shadow wasn't present in the Pioneer Courthouse Square sequence in the previous issue, that's for sure (not to mention the cover. That's the sign, again, for the Paris Theater. Again with the porn!)
My favorite Maleev moments from this issue are the beginning and middle. The sequence where the woman is following the cop who shot her is solid, with her beat-up red beetle reminding one of M. Emmet Walsh in BLOOD SIMPLE. The other sequence, the opening, is one of the most haunting sets of pages to come out of the House of Ideas since the Death of Captain Marvel.
This is the Bendis book I've been dreaming of. It's risky, experimental, and very, very dangerous. Maleev helps make it dirty, rough, and somehow even more dangerous. If you're reading this already, you know. If you're not reading it, call me and tell me why the hell not.