Southworth at an exhibit of his Stumptown artwork at Floating World Comics in Portland.
A RELATIVE NEWCOMER TO THE COMICS FIELD, Matthew Southworth scored a high-profile title early in his career, drawing Stumptown, a creator-owned private investigator series written by Greg Rucka. Rucka’s name, made on his novels, his creator-owned comics Whiteout and Queen and Country and his long stint at DC Comics, brought Stumptown instant attention, but since its debut Southworth’s art has received equal notice, impressive considering that he was largely unknown before the first issue was released.
Coming from a background in film and theater, Southworth’s primary work in comics prior to Stumptown came as assistant to artist Stefano Gaudiano, a penciler and/or inker on series such as Gotham Central and Daredevil. After a few penciling jobs of his own, Stumptown is Southworth’s first major project in comics.
I spoke to Southworth at his table at the 2010 Emerald City Comic Con, where we discussed Stumptown, his collaboration with Rucka, what assisting an artist entails, his research for Stumptown‘s Portland setting and how he uses photo reference, how a theater background informs drawing comics and several other subjects. During the interview, Southworth sat between Rucka and Gaudiano, as the three met with fans and signed books.
Wright Opinion: Since we’re talking at Emerald City, I guess the first thing I should ask you is, is this your first Emerald City as a guest, with a book?
Matthew Southworth: It’s the first one I’ve done where there’s a book out. I’ve had kind of an unusual trajectory in that the last time I was here I was doing a book, with an established creator that a lot of people had heard of, that hadn’t been published. And now, of course, it’s out, and people know about it, and a lot of people like it, and I’m thrilled about that. But, yeah, it’s totally a different experience. I had a table last year, but nobody knew who I was.
WO: What did you have at the table last year?
MS: Pages. Pages of something that hadn’t been published. And I had these little giveaway books.
WO: How has the show been this time around?
MS: It’s been thrilling. I’ve had a really exciting time. I’m supposed to tell myself that I’m above other people’s attention and praise and stuff, but I’m not, and so I’m sure pride comes before a fall. But right now I’ve got the pride part, and it feels really good. People have been really nice, and they seem to like the book for the reasons that I like it and what I think is good about it, and so something good is happening.
WO: To get into your background a bit, I noticed that you have degrees in theater and play-writing and directing. How did you get into and learn to draw, given that your background is elsewhere?
MS: Well, it’s an open question as to whether I’ve learned how to draw, but I’ve drawn since I was three, and I’ve made a lot of detours. Essentially, what happened is I used to draw all the time, I made comics as a kid. I grew up across the street from Joe Casey, so we made comics together, We trained each other, basically. And then I went off in theater, and he went off into doing whatever—he hadn’t really found his niche at that point—and gradually found his way into comics. I had gone from theater into film and moved to LA where he lived. While he was doing comics in LA, I was doing film stuff in LA and getting more and more frustrated writing screenplays that no one was buying, no one was going to produce, including myself.
And so then I would see him, and he was doing real well, and making a lot of—well, not a lot of money, but making money writing comics. And I said to myself, “Jeez, writing comics, that looks easy.” It looks fun and easy, and the best thing about it is you do it and two months later, three months later, it comes out, as opposed to writing a screenplay and maybe ten years from now they might make a screenplay which seventeen people rewrite and has nothing to do with you, but you make a little money. So, I said, “I’m gonna write comics.” And because of our history being what it was, he kind of kept going, “Well, what you really ought to do is draw some comics, and maybe we can do comics one day,” so I did and discovered drawing comics is not that easy.
WO: And when you guys had done comics when you were younger, was it him writing and you drawing, or was it some of both . . . ?
MS: It was a little of both, but the role was, basically, he wrote and I drew. Sometimes he wrote, I drew, and I took so long that he inked something, y’know. But, yeah, I drew and he was a writer. And so it was, I just kind of wound up in that situation, kind of totally inverse from where I had intended to be. But I’m glad it turned out this way, because it gave me a lot of time to develop this skill, and then I can get back into writing, in which I have some skill developed, and hopefully I can do the whole package successfully. Somewhat. Successfully on my terms, not successfully marketing-wise.
WO: Has the theater background come into blocking a scene, or the acting the characters do at all?
MS: Yeah, very much so. The main thing that it’s come into is a more conceptual thing. I think I tend to think from inside the characters maybe more than a lot of comic book artists do. I tend to think of them as roles in a way, rather than as the director moving people. So, hopefully that means that that’s showing through. I don’t know how to express exactly how I’m feeling, as I’m drawing it, but I’m trying to look at it from that perspective. Sometimes I get stuck in a slot. So I tend to look at a scene and try to come from inside it, but then when it actually comes to pictorializing it, picturing it, I then do kind of revert to theater directing mode and then film directing mode. Theater directing being, how do I actually get these people to block themselves and face the reader’s eye? And then film directing mode is, how do I move the reader’s eye? Since the reader can be anywhere he wants to be, where do I want to put him? So, it may be one of the reasons it’s so over-complicated for me is that I can approach it from ten different directions instead of one that works.
WO: And you’re going through this process with each character in a scene?
MS: Sometimes. I mean, I’ve had some interesting pitfalls. I’ve had some interesting situations come up where I’m trying to approach characters that I don’t know all that well yet, because I’m only getting a fraction of the story yet. But, yeah, I try to do it from every character’s point of view.
WO: Beyond seeing Joe Casey doing comics and feeling like that looked good, what was the appeal of comics coming from film and theater? What does comics offer you as an artist that film and theater didn’t? Is it largely the practical stuff you were talking about or more aesthetic as well?
MS: There’s both, although at the beginning the main thing was that I was tired of myself and the people around me working really hard to do something that would never exist. Y’know, to do the blueprint for a building that would never be built. With comics, it seemed like even if you do it and three months later it’s out and then a month after that no one remembers it, at least it happened. I’m still rock-polishing ideas that I’ve had for fifteen years that I once upon a time was going to do as a play or as a film, that if I can find the time, I can do them. They don’t cost me anything. Whereas, in that case, you had to get permission and support to do them. Obviously, I still need somebody to hopefully pay me a little bit of money, just enough to be able to eat while I work, but it doesn’t cost anything to make the product, and that really appeals to me. I really like the idea of being able to make a world out of a piece of paper and a pen. So, it’s both—aesthetic and practical.
WO: Once you moved into comics I think you’ve said you were assisting Stefano Gaudiano. Was that your first work in comics?
MS: First thing I did was, I was working on this thing about a woman who falls in love with a piñata, and I showed that around, and I showed it to Erik Larsen. He was very nice about it, and he said, “Well, I have these little backups in Savage Dragon. Do you want to do one?” It was like six pages long. I said, “Yeah, I’d love to do that. It’d be great.” So I did it, and it was a struggle. I wasn’t drowning, but I wasn’t swimming very effectively, either. I’d sort of temporarily drown, pull my head above water, and then sink again.
WO: What was the backup?
MS: It was in Savage Dragon #131, a story about the character Star. I’m not real pleased with how it turned out. Actually, I am pleased on one level. The drawing, the draftsmanship, is pretty weak, and a lot of the things I did in it are pretty weak. However, I feel like I can see that I was approaching the story emotionally, I was approaching the story from a character point of view. It’s a character story. [Erik Larsen] did a good job of writing a pretty interesting story. So I did that, I talked to Stefano, he saw some things, and he’s the world’s most encouraging person, and that led to working with him, which was kind of the launching pad there.
WO: What does that actually mean, to assist an artist?
MS: In this case, it was purely moral support and ego-rebuilding on a daily basis. No, what it meant in this case was, it really started out being inking a lot of backgrounds, scanning, turning things to blue-line, mechanical things. And then inking a face here, inking a face there, that in all likelihood he would go back and re-ink. But he wouldn’t necessarily tell me that. He would protect my ego. And gradually it sort of turned into doing more if he needed help at a particular time. What the lesson turned out to be was “You are competent.” He taught me how to be competent. And that was actually a big hurdle, to feel like, “I can do that.” Whether I can do it well or not, I can do it. I can play basketball. I may not be a good basketball player, but I know I can play.
WO: In going through Stumptown, I’ve noticed some similarities aesthetically between your style and Stefano’s. Is that a product of working with him, or is that actually a reason why working with him was a good fit?
MS: No. Most of that stuff was not there at all before working with him. But what did happen was, when I met him, there were only two comics I bought on a monthly basis, and I didn’t even quite realize he worked on one of them somehow. I bought Captain America and I bought Daredevil, both of which Ed Brubaker was writing. What I found was, the things I was attracted to in Stefano’s style are also the things I’m attracted to in Radiohead and in David Lynch films, a certain, indistinct and fuzzy textural evocation . . . This is a little vague, obviously, but something evocative about the way in which he drew, as opposed to the specificity of the ways in which he drew. And so, working with him, he had a bunch of techniques I was able to learn, like putting fingerprints on things, that helped me to find something that I was already into that I just didn’t know how to do.
WO: So far your bibliography is mostly, it looks like, DC and Marvel things: Infinity, Inc. and the work you’ve done with Stefano . . . That’s the wrong question.
MS: Well, I wanna follow up on the previous question with something. One thing that I really learned, too—I wound up doing that Infinity, Inc. thing and inked three issues, but because of the way the schedule was working out they needed backups, and Matt Idleson also asked me to pencil the five-page backups, and Stefano inked those. And seeing my work, which was not quite ready, being inked by somebody who could make it look quite ready, was really a valuable experience, like going, “Ah-ha! I can see he fixed that for me. What did he do to fix it?” And then, there are pages in there that are still some of my favorite pages I’ve done, even though it was really kind of what he did.
WO: How did the Marvel and DC stuff happen? It’s interesting that you’ve ended up doing stuff for the big companies and then doing the small thing, rather than the other way around. Is that largely just getting in working with another artist, or . . . ?
MS: Again, it really has to do with Stefano. He was asked to ink Infinity, Inc. and didn’t have time, and they were in trouble timing-wise, so he recommended me, and I think agreed to kind of watch over me in case I dropped the ball or something. And I didn’t drop the ball, and so I got that job just through doing that.
Then Stumptown kind of came along the same way. He had worked with Greg [Rucka] on Gotham Central. When this came around I think they wanted something similar to Gotham Central in a way. He really didn’t have time to do it. But I was working with him, and we said, “What if we did it together?” And then I did more and more and more, and it became clear pretty quickly that he wasn’t really going to have time to devote much time at all.
WO: Is there anything left of his original involvement in the published book?
MS: No, there are no actual pages that he did anything on. He designed the character of Whale, who is one of my favorite characters to draw in there. And just, he helped me kind of figure out some problems I was having with the opening scene. He’s a godfather more than a father, I guess is maybe the way to put it, and given that he’s Italian, and in the Mafia, I think it’s appropriate for me to point that out.
WO: Greg talks a lot about The Rockford Files as a big influence on the series. Is that something you’re a fan of? Did you look at things like that, or were there other influences on the look of Stumptown?
MS: I remember The Rockford Files very well from when I was a kid. I’ve deliberately not watched The Rockford Files, because I don’t want to become too aware of it, too aware of the things. In trying to answer that question, what is influencing the book, I have a real hard time thinking of anything. That’s not to say I think it’s totally original, but I’ve tried to approach it so much that, like . . .
WO: It’s more influenced by the research?
MS: Yeah. Definitely in that. And also that thing of preparing each thing as though I was doing a role. I was an actor before I was a playwright, and not a very good actor, but I did it for a while. And so, I think because I’m starting there rather than going, “This is how it should look,” I think I’m sort of avoiding watching a movie and going, “Ah, I’ll make it look like that scene,” or . . . I dunno, it’s a long-winded answer.
WO: What you’ve talked about just now, going through that process and also how often you’ve mentioned drawing and redrawing pages, were you having to sort of struggle to find a look for this?
MS: Not so much to struggle to try to find a look for the book, but having a struggle to find a look for the characters. One of the downfalls to the way I’m working, I guess, is that the characters keep evolving on me, so you look at a page I drew a month ago and a page now, and you’ll find that characters are all off-model. I don’t know what a character model is, apparently, because I can’t stick to it. And so I’ll try to get it as close as I can, and nobody’s really bitching about it so far.
WO: Given that, on things like the Savage Dragon backups, or Infinity, Inc., was that an issue for you at all, coming into something an established look and established character designs?
MS: Not on Savage Dragon, because I don’t draw anything like Erik, so I didn’t have to worry about that.
WO: I mean, as far as staying on model . . .
MS: The character of Star was easy; his face is covered. The characters I was drawing, there was only, I think her name was Alex, the woman who’s the Savage Dragon’s girlfriend or something. She was the only one I really had to reference at all, and even then I couldn’t stay on model, but that wasn’t really a problem. And on Infinity, Inc., it really wasn’t a problem. It’s interesting you’re mentioning that, because I hadn’t really thought about it.
WO: So you haven’t found a serious difference in difficulty level, coming into something established versus coming up with the designs on your own?
MS: No. I mean, I like being able to design the characters. It has been difficult, though. I mean, it’s like, suddenly, not only do I have to draw the thing and block it and research it and just plain ink it and get it right, but I also have to figure out, okay, well, does she have black hair or does she have blond hair? Is she tall? Is she the kind of girl that would have four earrings in one ear, or one earring, or no earrings?
WO: Is there much detail like that in the script?
|A friend of Southworth’s modeling for the character Dill.|
MS: Sometimes. Like the number of earrings was defined. But there’s a character, Dill, who I based on a friend of mine who I lived in an apartment building with, Gary.
WO: That’s this photo in here?
MS: He’s in the back of the second one, yeah. There’s nothing about his age in the thing, he’s just “thug.” His name’s Dill, and Greg left me a lot of room. I remember writing to him saying, “Well, what if he’s in his mid-fifties?” And thinking about that, okay, he’s in his mid-fifties and he’s doing this. I think he might have a meth problem. We haven’t discussed this, but I think he does. And other issues like that, I’ve got this guy figured out. My friend Gary actually has a Ph.D in Soil Physics. He’s a soil physicist. But by taking my friend Gary and colliding him with “thug,” I got a weird chemical reaction. So it can be difficult, but it’s also really rewarding. In some ways he’s my favorite character to draw.
WO: That kind of naturally leads to talking about how you’ve been collaborating with Greg. I mean, you guys—you’re sitting side by side right now [Rucka laughs.]—do you get much opportunity, I assume, to talk things out?
MS: Yes, but we don’t take it.
MS: Yes. No, I always feel with Greg that if I need to talk to him about something, he’s all for it. I call him if I have a problem or a question. Sometimes if I’ve got an idea I just go with it, and hopefully he likes it, but one of the great things about this was, he’s a very popular, very established writer. He doesn’t need some new guy coming into the business to take up his time. I’ve never felt like I was taking his time. From the beginning he said, “This is our thing. You and me, we’re making this thing together.”
WO: You mentioned that the number of earrings was specified, and that sort of jibes with what I had heard before, which is that Greg writes a very complete script. How much room have you generally had to interpret?
MS: I’ve been given the freedom to do whatever I want. We had a thing where a page was mis-numbered—it went 17, 18, 19, 21, 22. We’re like, “Oh, jeez, there’s not a page 20.” Greg said, “Well, that means you can add a page if you want.” So I did.
WO: Where was that?
MS: It’s in issue three, I think.
Greg Rucka: I’m trying to keep from handcuffing you.
MS: Yeah, that’s the great thing. And I do think there are times I maybe go a little further than he’d like, but I don’t feel like he’s gonna punish me for it.
GR: There have been times when we’ve lost things in story, but it’s easily reconcilable. We’ve done three issues now together, so we’re still feeling our way, but you’ve got to trust your collaborator, and it would be the height of arrogance for me to turn around and say, “No, you’re going to do it this way.” I mean, that’s absurd. He’s the visual expert, and I would no sooner tell him, “It has to be presented in x way,” than I hope he would turn around and say, “That line’s wrong.”
MS: And I know that it’s really important to him, and I want him to really love it. I assume that he had a great relationship working on Checkmate and that—I haven’t read Checkmate, but I’m sure it’s great [laughs]—but I know that Stumptown is really important to him, and I really want him to like it. I don’t want him to flip through the book a year from now and go, “There’s that thing I hated. Fuck that guy.”
WO: How much has the pacing been established in the scripts? Like with this double-page spread and this moment with the bird, was that suggested in any way or is that you?
MS: This is a pretty significant example of being free to do what I want.
GR: That was the idea.
MS: I think this was three pages in the script, and it felt like I could drag it out, make it a little more tense if I tried. I redrew this several times, trying to get it right. I couldn’t get it right. Stefano and I did a pass at it that didn’t think really worked. I did a pass at it that he judged didn’t work. We did one together that didn’t quite do it. Kept doing it. And I went down under that bridge under a really nasty rainstorm. Not normal Portland rain: this was a rainstorm. I was down there, and I noticed there were all these geese. There was nothing about geese in the script. And I just thought how cool would it be to have the ostensible murder observed by a goose. And then I wanted the goose to fly away, to flutter away, but I have this big reveal of the gunshot. That was specified in the script, that it would be a double-page spread, so then how do I do this? So it led to those little inset panels. So that was all my idea, and I was really pleased that people felt like it paid off.
WO: Since this has become as much your project as Greg’s, you’re in for the long haul?
WO: Have you guys discussed long-term where the story goes with Dex and the other characters?
MS: No, I think he would tell me more if I wanted to know, and I do want to know . . .
WO: You prefer to be surprised?
MS: I want to know, but I don’t want to know yet, because I haven’t finished the first one, the first set, but the idea is to do four-issue chunks, each one’s a case. So there would be four issues, then a break while we prepare the next case. Case two, break, case three. So it’s an ongoing series of miniseries, kind of like B.P.R.D., I guess.
But, yeah, I’m in it as long as I can keep doing it. As long as he’s liking what I’m doing, as long as I’m liking doing it, which I don’t see any end in sight, I want to keep doing it, and hopefully we become the top-selling book in the world, so that it would be foolish to quit.
WO: Can you talk a bit about the delays? Has that been still just finding your feet on the art, or production problems?
MS: No. It’s unusual. I can talk about it, I just can’t really explain it. Nobody’s barring me from telling what’s going on, I just don’t really know. There was a long lead-in to getting the script for the first issue, and I worked on that for a while, and then it was done. I think I got the second script while I was still finishing the first issue, but they didn’t want to publish until we had three or four issues in the can. Well, that didn’t end up happening. We kept waiting for it, waiting for it, waiting for it, then we just went ahead. The scripts were ready, the art is ready on issue three, but there’s some kind of delaying that I think has something to do with the reprinting of issue one, because it sold out like that. They wanted to do reprints. I’m not sure whether that’s actually what caused the delay, that’s what I understand. I think I may have actually just answered my own question. So issue three is ready, but it’s not gonna come out until some time in April or May.
WO: So it’s colored, digital files and everything?
MS: Well, I haven’t seen the colors. I’ve seen the backup material, I’ve seen the cover’s done, cover layout, cover colors. The colors for the covers are flat, so they’re simple. I haven’t seen Lee’s colors for the interior yet, but other than that, it’s ready. But for some reason it’s not going to be until late April, early May.
WO: So you’re moving ahead on issue four? That should come out shortly after three?
MS: In theory, yeah. Thus far I haven’t been responsible for the delays. That’s not to say that I wouldn’t have been had we been on schedule, but I haven’t screwed that up yet. I haven’t had the chance to wreck that yet.
WO: Going more generally, art issue, in the credits of yours I’ve been able to find, you’ve almost always inked your own stuff. Is that something that you feel is just becoming more common, or is it a preference on your part?
MS: There aren’t a lot of people, I think, that have the sensibility that I am interested in. There are other people doing art similar to what I’m doing. Sean Phillips is doing stuff, and I love Sean Phillips’ work; I’ve definitely learned a few things from him. But there aren’t a lot of guys working as inkers who I think would ink it the way I want it. And what I’ve started to do is pencil less and less and less. Like this thing, I did virtually no pencils on the cover. Stefano I would love to have inking me, but he’s exclusive to Marvel, so it’s just not working.
WO: Are you then hired on to ink yourself or do you request to ink yourself?
MS: I want to ink myself, mainly because I’m not doing the division of labor thing. One thing that we’re trying to figure out is how to do the lettering a little bit differently next time. This series I’ve lettered it on the boards, I pencil it, ink it myself. I like being able to do everything I can, partially for control, but partially for the way it influences how I’m thinking about it.
WO: And it looks to me, is the lettering printed on the boards?
MS: Yeah, it’s computer lettering in Adobe Illustrator, but it’s on the page.
WO: I like that, because it gets a little grainy on the paper and then when you scan it again it gets a little more variation, even though it’s digital.
MS: Yeah, every once in a while it goes a little too far, it gets a little too blotchy, but yeah, it does show up. It might have been this one, where it’s starting to bleed together. But that’s not killing anybody, I don’t think.
WO: Is this the first time you’ve lettered yourself?
WO: And how does drawing the balloons in the artwork yourself—does that affect the way you compose a page?
|A dialogue-heavy page from Stumptown #1. Click for larger image|
MS: Absolutely. Yeah, that’s the main reason I want to do it. Two things about that. One, that’s a lot less wasted drawing time, behind those balloons. Two, it’s hard when you’ve drawn a great background, and you think, “I love that building, and that tree, and that car,” and then you’re like, “Where am I gonna put the balloons? But that’s my favorite thing about the page, but that’s the only place to go.”
WO: Yeah, one of things we end up doing as assistants at Dark Horse is balloon placement. And there are some obvious things, like don’t put them in front of someone’s face, but then sometimes it is a really cool background, and you feel awful that you’re putting it on top of something that looks so good.
MS: You know, the other thing is I hate the look of digital balloons. I hate them. That’s why these are all crooked and sharp.
WO: With the art sometimes overlapping.
MS: Yeah, I don’t like that smooth, ellipse look.
WO: What changes have you ended up making to accommodate the balloons? How have they affected the way you handle the pages generally?
MS: How is the composition affected by the balloons?
WO: Yeah, drawing them in. Have you found it more or less difficult?
MS: Less difficult. What I want to do, and this is a secondary or tertiary or quadertiary, or whatever the word is, concern, is with all the other stuff, staging and characterization and composition stuff, try to balance the amount of black with the amount of white. If it’s a night scene, obviously a lot of black, but the balloons are white. They’re big, white spots all over the place. The white balance versus the black balance versus the graphic element. I mean, Alex Toth is the guy for that, and if you ever read anything where he’s talking about page design, like in that famous thing where he’s critiquing/criticizing Steve Rude, one of things he gets on is, “Why don’t you guys do your own balloons? Gah!” And the last thing I want is the ghost of Alex Toth coming to get me.
WO: So is that something that as much as possible you’ll want to do, at least the placements if not necessarily the lettering?
MS: Yeah, I would definitely want to do the placements. It would be very hard for me to let go of that.
WO: When you say you’re doing it differently next time then, what will be different in the next series?
MS: Because of some of the changes I’m making, Greg’s not satisfied with the progress of the storytelling in some places. I might add a panel or something like that, and to change it requires a lot of art changes, because I did the lettering on the art. If he just wants to change a word, that’s easy. But if he wants to add some balloons and add this and add that, if I built it in that makes it tough. So we want to find a way to accommodate all the changes he wants to be able to make and at the same time have that synthesis of steps right in front of me at all times, if at all possible. I’m not totally sure how to do it yet, but I’ll find a way.
WO: Is the font you’re using something you developed for the project, or something you bought?
MS: It’s just a ComiCraft font. I would actually like to do a font of my handwriting at some point and maybe for the collection we re-letter it, but at the moment it’s just a ComiCraft font.
WO: As far as coloring goes, I think I heard Greg say in an interview that you insisted that Dex’s car be yellow?
MS: Yeah, it’s a color called Phoenician yellow.
WO: What is your collaboration with the colorist, Lee Loughridge, like? How do you guys work out color? Have you talked to him much about it?
MS: I talked to him before he’d colored it. He bumped into my girlfriend, and he said, “Why are you here at this convention?” and she said, “My boyfriend’s drawing this book.” And she said, “What are you doing?” He said, “I color comics. I’m coloring this book called Stumptown.” And she was like, “Oh, my god, that’s the . . .” So we talked a little bit then about what we were trying to do. And I sent him some notes and stuff about, I want this to be this color yellow, I want her coat to be black, not brown, this and that, some of which happened right off the bat, some of which we had to talk about a little bit, but there’s been no conflict or anything like that. But Lee is so busy, he’s not real communicative. He just does his work. Like with anything that you start, you find certain things. Like, I said Phoenician yellow, I don’t think he saw that note, the car came back red. I was like, “Phoenician yellow!” It has to be Phoenician yellow.
WO: Why did it have to be?
MS: The first person I ever knew who went to rehab had a Phoenician yellow Mustang, and I’ve found that the more personal I make these things to me, the better they are. If I think of that as Joey’s Mustang that somehow she ended up with, it works better.
WO: You’re doing acting for the car in addition to for the character.
MS: Exactly. Exactly. That’s the fun of it to me. I get to do all this stuff that I did some of before, and even at the moment may be able to make it pay a little.
[Note: Due to a busy schedule, Loughridge was unable to complete Stumptown. Issue three was colored by Rico Renzi, and Southworth himself colored a portion of issue four.]
WO: Since Stumptown is so influenced by noir, was there ever discussion about it being black-and-white? Did anyone advocate for that, and if so, what were the reasons you ultimately went with color?
MS: Originally we were doing the book as black-and-white, and I started the artwork under that idea, and then one day James said, “What would you think if we made the book in color? That’s up to you and Greg, but we might do that . . .” And at first I wasn’t sure. It meant giving up some control and responsibility for the artwork, but it also meant that there was a whole other dimension to it, and I’m glad we finally decided to do it that way. Actually, if you look at issue two and definitely at issue three, you’ll see me trying to make room for color and struggling with how much black to put in, how much to leave open. I think I’ve finally figured out that I like it the best when I draw it as though it was black-and-white and then let color complement that.
A page from Stumptown #4 drawn and colored by Southworth. Click for larger image.
WO: You mentioned earlier visiting and photographing the bridge, so since you are just a couple hours north in Seattle, what have your reference trips been like?
MS: Well, they’ve been great. I really like Portland. Sometimes they’re just research, but sometimes they’re just to go to Portland and I wind up doing research. I think the first time I went was just for research. I went to the St. Johns Bridge, I drove around St. Johns. I want to have a roadmap in my head of how long it takes to get from St. Johns to Floating World Comics off Burnside. Here’s how many bridges there are, how many of those are drawbridges, where the Made in Oregon sign is. I wanna know where those are, even though I could do that on Google Earth or something, it’s not the same as physically knowing, “That’s right, I turned right there and went on the freeway for a while.”
We have a car chase issue planned, and the whole issue will be a car chase, so thirty pages of car chase or whatever. And when we get to that, I’ll drive around Portland for two or three days with a video camera. I’m going to go on a low-speed car chase—I might even have my girlfriend go in another car and chase me—maybe somebody in that car taking pictures. So, one of the things about researching that is, I wanna know how long would it take to get across the Burnside Bridge, and how long would it take on foot? Any of those things. Like how long it takes for the drawbridge bridges to open. Is that two-minute process or a twenty-two-minute process? So, I could certainly call you or write you and say, “Tell me this,” but it’s not the same as knowing. I wanna shoot on location rather than in a studio.
WO: Speaking of shooting on location, have you been able to research—like in the second issue there’s a scene in one of the Portland police precincts. Were you able to go there?
MS: No, that I pulled from Google. I wasn’t able to research the police station directly, but we were able to get photos and stuff. What I’m hoping to do by the time I get going on the next series is to be able to know enough of the locations ahead of time and research it heavily. I was able to go around the neighborhood where Greg said Dex lives, and I know the street where she lives, I know what’s across the street from where she lives, I even know what the manhole covers look like on the sidewalk.
WO: It sounds like at this point you know Portland better than I do.
MS: Well, I can’t remember the name of that street, though. I remember where it is, but I can’t remember what it’s called. But I couldn’t find the house, I couldn’t find the right house. I found one that was close, and so I just built my model, and I mentally situated it where that other house is, just bulldozed the other one and put another old house on it.
WO: Greg lives in Portland, but so far as I know he hasn’t set a comic in Portland. He’s got a novel set in Portland . . .
MS: Fistful of Rain?
WO: Yeah, but no comics. So the setting clearly is deliberate. What’s the significance of the setting for you in drawing the story, that it is in Portland as opposed to some other city?
MS: Well, I think of Portland as like Seattle around the corner. It’s not even a sister city, I think of it as very, very similar. So the aspects of Seattle that I love are what Portland is to me, which is kind of a weird thing to say, I guess. “The things I like about my current girlfriend are what I liked about my previous girlfriend,” or whatever.
WO: Back when she was a little younger and hotter.
MS: Yeah, the old version of that girl, before I traded her in on this new one.
It’s significant in that, like I was saying before, I know it’s significant to him, and it would be really significant to me if I was reading it and I lived in Portland, or even more so if I used to live in Portland, and now I lived in Milwaukee and I missed it. I want it to hurt more for the people who miss Portland when they read it. So there’s that aspect of it, but also there’s a particular Northwestern character to the town that I think is really important, like really built into this kind of noir, “wet noir” sensibility. It’s funny that we haven’t had any rain in it yet. Because of course everybody thinks there’s storms all the time, and I think of both these two cities as just damp.
WO: Yeah, it’s perpetually overcast, usually.
MS: Like that character in Dr. Horrible, Moist.
|A page from Stumptown #4. Click for larger image|
WO: That’s a perfect comparison. You hear filmmakers or authors all the time say, “The location is a character.” What does it mean when people say that? Do you think it’s true of this series? Or is it just a pretentious thing people say?
MS: Well, when I hear people say that, a lot of the time it sounds a little glib and canned, y’know? But I do in a sense, though. I think of it as vitally important. Okay, sometimes you drink something and the bottle is just the container that the drink comes in, and I think that’s what location is in many, many comics and many stories. You don’t need to know anything about Metropolis; it’s just Metropolis, it’s just a city, it’s just the city. You don’t need to know anything about Gotham City except it’s not a good place to live, you know? In this case, it’s the bottle, but it’s a very beautiful bottle and it’s one of the things I hope enhances the experience of drinking the drink. So I don’t know if I can say it’s a character, but it definitely affects the characters, because it’s where they live. Their whole life is surrounded around this thing, and I think that’s really important.
WO: Beyond visual reference of neighborhoods, architecture, all that, has anything else helped you get a sense of the tone? Things that are popular in Portland right now or the semi-notorious criminal history of Portland?
MS: I haven’t yet. We talked a little bit about the tunnels, some kind of tunnels.
WO: The Shanghai tunnels.
MS: Yeah, Shanghai tunnels. I’m really interested in that. Obviously we haven’t gotten into that. I don’t know that we will. He mentioned it, though. I’m really interested, but I don’t know anything about that yet. The only thing I’ve really gotten aside from photo research is from being there a lot and trying to soak it up that way.
WO: In your essay in the first issue, and you brought it up earlier as well, you talked about the digital models that you built. How do the models end up being used when you’re actually penciling and inking the artwork?
MS: I use them as though they were real houses. Sometimes you can find a generic street or put together a street with some cars. If I had to do something—wouldn’t happen in this series—but let’s say I had to do something where an atomic bomb exploded and cars were flipping all over the street and stuff, you could do that real easily in SketchUp. But the model that I’m using the most is the one I built of Dex’s house. And what’s great about building it is I know where the bathrooms are, I know what happens if you turn left out of that room. I learned some real interesting stuff from doing it. When I built Dex’s bedroom, it shares a wall with the living room. On the other side of that wall in the living room is the TV. They have a big, flatscreen TV, and her brother Ansel loves to play X-Box. I know that her brother—her brother has some mental challenges—I know that he’s not aware. I know he would play games just whenever he could. I know he’s probably not real sensitive about when she’s sleeping. I also know that she loves him enough that she wouldn’t bitch at him. So—it’s funny, I’m getting a little choked up talking about something I discovered building a 3D model—but it really, really informed who they were, just because I built that thing. If I’d just had to draw the living room and then later on draw the bedroom, I don’t think I would have thought that through.
WO: That does sound like something that would have more in common with how you’d approach film, where you would of course physically build the house probably.
MS: Yeah, I mean I can walk around the model if I want. It’s kind of a clunky model, actually, because I didn’t know what I was doing when I built it, but I know where things are, I know how they relate, and as a consequence, that informs how the characters relate. How far does she have to go from her room to the bathroom, for example? It’s across the living room, it’s not next to her room, so if she were to have a man—or a woman, depending—over for the night and they were to have sex, if she got up to go the bathroom afterward, would she have to pass through the living room where maybe Ansel was asleep on the couch, or does she go to the bathroom next to Ansel’s room? He has the room next to the bathroom. Greg hasn’t intimated anything like that, but I’m actually kind of excited just from talking about that. That’s the kind of conflict I’m really interested in.
WO: In actually drawing the pages, do you impose them on the page, or is it just for reference?
MS: What I do is, I don’t ever just drop in a photo and leave that there. If I use a photo, I will ink it differently, I’ll adjust it. Partially because a photo just looks like a photo and it takes you out of it. Partially also because the Portland of Stumptown looks like I think it looks, not how someone else thinks it looks, so if I take other stuff and just drop it in, I’m violating what I think it looks like. It’s like asking somebody to come in and speak for me.
WO: Right. So, with the model of the house, you’ll put that in and will that then be printed on the page and you’ll pencil and ink over that?
MS: Right. That was all sort of a prelude and then I got lost. What you do in the SketchUp model thing is you can export a photograph. It’s just as if I was at your house walking around and I took a picture from the doorway that looks into your bedroom it can also see into the bathroom or something, you set up. Essentially you set up a camera in there, and then I use those photos, those fake photos of the 3D model, and sometimes I drop them in, sometimes I just look at them. It depends. One of the useful things about that, for example, is they have a bookcase, they have a couch, they have all the kitchen appliances and all that stuff. By dropping in the photos as reference and then inking them and appliances, I can keep those things consistent. I don’t move the couch all over the room by accident. Stuff like that.
WO: Speaking of the essays, it seems like it’s unusual for the artist and not the writer to provide that sort of backup material. Whose idea was that?
MS: It was my idea. Kind of at the last minute I asked James, “Can I write a thing?” And I think I wrote one page in the first one. The second issue it got longer and in the third issue it’s a lot longer. And I don’t know what I’m writing for the fourth issue yet. I know Greg wants to do the next set of those, and I’m a little bummed out about it. I like doing ’em. But, y’know, he gets his turn, too. It’s only fair.
WO: So are you writing down just what you’ve been thinking about while you’re working on it, or is the act of writing it down affecting how you’re thinking about illustrating?
MS: Both. I run into problems, and I think, “What’s actually going on here?” I might write about confidence next time; I’m not sure. I might write about confidence, it might be something about the McLuhanesque philosophy of “hot medium/cold medium” thing. I’m not real sure. But in thinking about what I’m gonna write, it affects what I’m doing, too. So it’s sort of chicken or the egg.
WO: What has been the balance between research and your own design? You mentioned that you found Dex’s house, but I imagine the interior is pretty much your design.
MS: Completely, yeah.
WO: How involved have you been in things like the Whispering Winds Casino? That’s not a real place, right?
MS: No, it’s not a real place. In fact, we’re about to have a big thing in Ocean City, which is Lincoln City; it’s not a real place.
WO: Why is that, by the way? Since the main story is so connected to a real place, why are the periphery areas not?
MS: I’m not sure exactly why that is. I think, though, that Hector, the crime boss, he’s not literally the mayor of Ocean City, but he’s The Man in Ocean City, so I think that’s why. I mean, I don’t think anybody from Lincoln City could sue anyway, but I think it’s just polite.
WO: Why piss people off.
WO: What has the balance been between your research and your design?
MS: That’s an interesting question. It’s basically been that I research it until I discover that I can’t find what I need, and then I just make it up. Or if I just know. Obviously I didn’t go to the Alameda district and knock on people’s doors and say, “Can I see your living room?” I just looked at the house and thought, “Well, that’s how the windows are, and if that was my house, where would I put the couch?” or whatever.
But, yeah, Whispering Winds Casino, I just figured out the sign, and I think I based that sign on something, but I don’t remember what; I think I just made it up. Oh, no no no, I do remember. Greg said what it was, a fish jumping over a waterfall or something. But the way he described it, I could not figure out a way to get it to work right in the icon. A fish jumping over a waterfall, how can you tell it’s a waterfall if it’s on a neon sign? How do you represent water? If it was an ocean wave or something, that’s easy to communicate in neon, but a waterfall . . . Is it just some lines? I couldn’t figure it out. And I spent a lot of time trying to get that sign to work. And then the interior of the casino . . . I’d never even been in a casino when I drew that. Complicated series of things, I wound up on a cruise ship, talked to the guy there. I’d never played craps, anything like that. The dealer, I told him what I was doing, he was like, “Oh, lemme show you.” He was really friendly. I said, “I’m not really allowed to take pictures in here.” He said, “Yeah, y’know . . .” Anyway, I took a bunch of pictures of the casino.
WO: Have we pretty well covered Stumptown, or is there anything else?
MS: Not that I can think of.
WO: When we spoke briefly in Portland, you mentioned another project you had set in Pittsburgh.
MS: Yeah, there’s actually a couple of things going on. There’s that Pittsburgh project, which kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger, so I decided, hold on, I’m not ready to chew that big a bite. So, I stopped working on that long enough to get my writing for comics skills down on something a little smaller, which is of course now growing bigger and bigger and bigger.
I’m doing something called The Loudermilk Brothers, which is the story of these two singing preacher brothers in 1956 in Tennessee and their sudden rise to becoming national known Country Music television and radio personalities, and how the disintegration of their relationship and the disintegration of the town in which they live, as a result of their success, mirrors the American obsession with celebrity and hypocrisy. That’s the most highfalutin way I’ve found to describe it yet, just extemporaneously, but it does describe it. What I’m really interested in is the idea of hypocrisy, and how religious figures in particular will espouse a certain lifestyle or espouse a hatred of a certain lifestyle, and then be caught indulging in that thing they claim to hate, or in any case failing to live up to what they claim is healthy and normal, and how the common response is to judge them as hypocrites and to laugh, basically. Whereas I think there’s something actually really tragic in that. That I know what I think is good and I want to be that and I’m not that. I’m trying to get there. So that tragedy of people failing to be that I think is actually kind of instructive. Rather than going, “Ha ha, look at him, he claims gay people shouldn’t get married, turns out he was gay the whole time!” what could be more tragic than to have that sort of, I assume, honestly felt division in your personality? If you take them at their word that they actually believe x and that they actually live y, I guess what I’m saying is, don’t question the sincerity, tell me your response to their failure. It’s not intended to be a preachy thing, I’m actually really interested in it. I don’t have a conclusion to what I think about it yet.
WO: And that’s something that’s in the writing phase or the planning-out phase?
MS: Yeah, I write for two hours every day on that before I theoretically get to work and draw, and eventually I’ll start laying it out, and that’ll be probably like a second draft. As I do some layouts I’ll think, “This sequence needs a lot more something.” At this point I’m not even writing it in comics format. I’m just writing it as though it was a screenplay, though it’s never intended to be that, but just because I’m comfortable writing in that format.
WO: So it sounds like going forward comics really is where you’re planting your flag.
MS: Yeah, I don’t have any interest in making a movie again. Done that, and it was a good experience. I do have an interest in making a movie again; it’s not what I want to do, though. Yeah, comics are what I love. Everything about comics I love. Not everything about the way comics are sold or the way they’re marketed or the way people respond to them, but the thing itself, just like playing music. Playing in a band can be a total pain in the ass, but I love playing music.
WO: Is Stumptown pretty much it going forward? That’s taking up your time? Or is there anything else we can expect to see?
MS: It’s the only thing I know of. I really would like to draw Lobster Johnson.
WO: I see you got that in there.
MS: I say that semi-facetiously. I hope in the break we have between Stumptown, I can do a fill-in issue of something good, something I really like. I don’t wanna just draw something for somebody just because I’ve got some time. I’d really like to do something like Jonah Hex or Lobster Johnson, or any of these things I really think are great, that if I could go sleep in somebody else’s house for a month and draw that, that’s the idea. Of course, I’m sure if I were to do that, if I were to get to draw Lobster Johnson, I’d probably start obsessing, “I have to build his lair in SketchUp!” and spend thirty hours doing that, “and now I have to travel to whatever shitty part of New York Lobster Johnson lives in!”
Update: Before posting, I checked in with Southworth about the delays on the final issue of Stumptown.
WO: There have been a few further delays. Has the art hit a snag or is that more to do with the colorist change or some other production issue?
MS: It’s hard to really pinpoint what caused a lot of the earlier delays, some of which were related to reprinting the first issue, some of which I’m not sure about. The delay on the last issue is definitely due to my lateness, however. I had the opportunity to work on some other things that A) paid some bills and B) were exciting and fun, and those projects, plus a lot of convention travel and a few other things got in the way and made it really, really late. Totally my fault. We’re designing the schedule for the next arc so that these delays can’t happen—we’re not going to solicit the first issue until three of them are fully drawn. So it will come out on a regular, reliable schedule, which is important to me as the artist wanting to make assurances to the readers and as a person who needs to be able to estimate how much time he’ll be spending on a project.
WO: The highest-profile of the things you’ve worked on in the meantime is Amazing Spider-Man. How did you get onto that team, and were there any special challenges in working on the series?
MS: I did the work on Spider-Man in order to help out the team working on the “Grim Hunt” storyline, as they were getting behind schedule. It was a great deal of fun drawing spandex-clad people fighting hulking monsters in Central Park—not something I get called on to do in Stumptown. I used some muscles that I hadn’t used, and those muscles were a little creaky at times, but it was a complete joy, and I’m hoping to do some more superhero stuff.
Interview conducted, transcribed and edited for length and clarity by Brendan Wright, proofread by participants.