If you were to ask what makes Greg Rucka a strong writer, my answer would be that it is everything that he leaves out of his stories. It’s not that he’s omitting important information or not completely explaining all of the action and intrigue. It’s just that he knows how much he has to tell his reader and how much he can let them discover on their own. His Queen and Country, featuring a wonderful blend of character and action, is some of the leanest writing that you can find in comic books even as he tackles the complicated and real world of international espionage. Working with a variety of artistic collaborators in Queen and Country, there is no image or word that is extraneous, flowery or just redundant. Rucka whittles his stories down to their barest essence, creating strong and driven stories that are rich but give the readers room to figure things out on their own. Rucka actually trusts his readers to keep up with him and to be able to understand everything that he doesn’t explicitly say in his stories.
Rucka’s newest graphic novel Stumptown, drawn by Matthew Southworth, contains one of my favorite lines that Rucka has ever written. The line speaks volumes with how little it actually says. Early in the book as Dex Parios, a Portland, Oregon private investigator with a small gambling problem, is given a job by Sue-Lynne, the matriarchal boss of the Native American casino where Parios is $17,616 in debt. If Dex takes the job to find one of Sue-Lynne’s grand-daughters who has recently gone missing, Sue-Lynne will forgive all of Dex’s debts. It is a fairly terse conversation where Sue-Lynne is completely in control and Dex can’t say “no” no matter how much she tries to find a way out of the job. Sue-Lynne isn’t requesting anything; she’s telling Dex just what Dex is going to do. Dex tries to push Sue-Lynne’s buttons, trying to find a way that she knows doesn’t exist out of this obligation. Slumped on a couch in Sue-Lynne’s office, Dex comments on how proud Sue-Lynne must be of her grand daughter. Sue-Lynne replies that she’s proud of all of her grand-children. “Even the ones who run off?” Dex pushes. “ALL of my grand-children,” Sue-Lynne tells this petulant little girl who owes her over $17,000.
Who is Sue-Lynne talking about there? Is she only talking about Charlotte, the missing grand-daughter or is there something else behind her words? Rucka doesn’t push the point at all and just lets Sue-Lynne’s statement hang in the air. Sue-Lynne is proud of all of her grand-daughters, including those who have disappeard and who may be in other kinds of trouble. “All my grand-daughters” may be words pointed toward Dex, hinting at some unstated relation between the casino boss and someone who owes her a large sum of mony or athey may simply be the words of a grand-mother stating her love for a missing grand-daughter. Rucka leaves it open to the reader to decide what is actually happening here and what the casino boss is actually saying. It is a very simple statement that defines Sue-Lynne and Dex’s relationship without locking Rucka and Southworth into anything yet.
From interviews that Rucka has given, there’s no doubt that this is his take on recreating the classic TV show The Rockford Files in comic form. Dex even drives an old, classic convertible Mustang, hearkening back to Jim Rockford’s Firebird. Dex isn’t merely a female version of Jim Rockford though. Through this case, Rucka lets Dex’s life unfold in a pure and natural way. Dex’s brother Ansel is mentally challenged and is presented very matter-of-factly. Rucka does not go for the sensationalism or the melodrama of Dex having a brother with special needs but presents it merely as part of her life. She gets a job, gets beat up, almost shot and yet still has to get home to make sure her brother gets off to work on time. Rucka builds up Dex’s life not with plot points to be exploited but instead fills it with all of those challenges that get thrown into our lives on a daily basis.
Matching Rucka’s writing, Matthew Southworth is a great artist for this series. Like Sean Phillips and Michael Lark, he has a very natural and understated style that’s enhanced by creating a shadowy and morally ambiguous world. Southworth creates a very real world for Dex without getting lost in the details. Like Rucka, he knows when to let the reader do the work and fill in the blanks. He provides enough details about Dex and Ansel’s house to make it a real place from scene to scene. From a few simple panels, we can immediately know the layout of Dex’s house and even what shelf in the refrigerator she keeps her frozen peas, mostly used to compress bruises more than as a side dish at dinner. Sue-Lynne’s casino and office are real places. Her office is not a place you want to get called in to. Southworth is not faking any of the settings or making any of this up as he goes along. Each scene has a very solid sense of time and place thanks to Southworth’s artwork.
As he makes Rucka’s script feel and look real, Southworth draws these fantastic scenes of action and suspense. The book opens with shooting beneath a large bridge in Portland. Rucka and Southworth build the suspense up for a couple of pages before the shooting, with Dex being pulled out of the trunk of a car by a couple of thugs. It’s the opening pages so we don’t even know Dex or what kind of trouble she is in yet but you know that she’s not in a good place at the start of this book. Then the actual shooting is on this lovely and quiet two page spread, the bridge hanging high overhead while the actual act seems so small and almost insignificant against the dimly lit night sky. It’s a powerful and understated way to begin this book as Rucka and Southworth balance Dex’s own trouble against everything else that may be going on in the world. It’s both very significant and insignificant depending on your point of view.
Every good P.I. story needs a good mystery at its heart and Rucka wonderfully subtitles this book “The Case of the Girl Who Took Her Shampoo (But Left Her Mini).” The mystery lets Rucka introduce all kinds of wonderful and corrupt characters as Dex tries to find out where Sue-Lynne’s granddaughter has disappeared to. Did she run off on her own or was she taken? Rucka writes stories like this where the central plot takes over the character’s whole life. His characters get pulled heart and soul into the plot as he takes his characters down dark roads that almost no other comic writers are willing to go. As a first story, we learn so much about Dex, who she is and how she thinks, by watching her try to find the girl who disappeared.
For Rucka, his stories’ plots are never something that just happens to his characters. The plot is the characters lives and the specific plot points become real events that inform the reader about who his characters are. Whether they are bodyguards, international spies, rock stars or even the occasional Batman inspired heroine, Rucka’s characters all look, feel and sound real. It’s because we don’t know as much about them as we want to; his characters have secrets and lives beyond the printed pages. What we see in Stumptown is only one small part of Dex Parios. I hope we get to find out more about her in the future.