The Making of Stumptown: a Matthew Southworth interview conducted by Jason Leivian

Posted by on April 23rd, 2010 at 12:01 AM

I spoke with Seattle artist Matthew Southworth about his first major comics work, Stumptown, a crime story set in writer Greg Rucka’s hometown, Portland, Ore.  Because the real world-setting is a major selling point of the book, in this interview, Southworth talks about the research and preparation he undertook to make his Portland as authentic as possible. He also shares some advice on how to effectively use photo-reference in comics without making it look too stiff or jarring. Southworth will be attending the Stumptown Comics Fest this weekend (April 24-25).  I will also moderate a panel at the Fest with Southworth, where we will further discuss the use of photo-reference and photo- realism in comics.


LEIVIAN: Stumptown is your first major comics gig, right? Can you catch us up to date on what you did before comics illustration?

SOUTHWORTH: I studied theater in college and that led to my working at Actors Theatre of Louisville for a couple of years. Each year ATL hosts the Humana Festival of New American Plays, and I was in the literary department there, working as a dramaturge and reading the hundreds of submissions to the Festival. That led me to go to Carnegie Mellon University as a playwriting graduate student, and I also studied directing there. After grad school I moved to Los Angeles and made a feature film based on a play of mine, called Big Wide Empty. This was self-financed, self-photographed, self-edited and eventually self-almost-finished. During that time I worked at Tom Cruise’s company, Cruise/Wagner, at Paramount Pictures. Over time the struggle of making the film and working in the film industry wore me down, and I finally moved to Seattle. I led a band for several years, the Capillaries, and I eventually found my way back to comics, which I had drawn throughout my adolescence.

LEIVIAN: What led you to working as an illustrator in comics?

SOUTHWORTH: I got so frustrated with the structure of the movie business, that someone would labor over a script, then, if he was lucky, it was purchased, then entered a protracted period of “development,” which more often than not meant the things that made that work individual were planed away until it resembled a cheeseburger the studio could sell all over the world. And most often the film would never be made. And if it was, it likely bore little resemblance to the story the writer wanted to tell in the first place. So I looked around L.A. and saw it was a city filled with shuffling heartbroken people struggling to hold on to a dream of making something they cared about someday.

I looked at the comics industry and saw that, because of the structure of that industry there was a much more immediate turnaround. People were working artists, not waiters hoping to be given a chance to make something. I had a very positive view of the world of comics, a naive view, but I’ve been very fortunate to find that I haven’t really been disillusioned. The comics business is full of people who love comics and love making comics and love buying comics and love seeing people dress in costumes and like other people that make comics, and I like being in the company of people like that.

LEIVIAN: How did you meet Greg Rucka, and decide to work on this project with him?

SOUTHWORTH: I had been working with Stefano Gaudiano as an assistant, and Stefano had worked with Greg on Gotham Central. When Stumptown came around, Greg and James Lucas Jones of Oni contacted Stefano to have him work on the book, and he was up to his eyes in work inking Daredevil. He took on the job with the idea that he and I would do it together, but soon it became clear that he didn’t have the time to work on another book, and I was left holding the ball. Happily.

LEIVIAN: Did the real-world Portland setting make the project more interesting for you?

SOUTHWORTH: It did, definitely. I have a very obsessive side to my personality, and I find that I want to know anything and everything I can about something I’m drawing. So knowing that the book was set in Portland, I started trying to learn as much as I could about it; there’s still loads I don’t know about the city, but I’m determined to make the Portland of Stumptown comics feel like the Portland of reality. I like knowing exactly where Dex [the protagonist] lives, and how far it is to the grocery store from her place.

LEIVIAN: You live in Seattle, which is just three hours away from Portland. What sort of research and preparation did you feel was necessary to work on this book?

SOUTHWORTH: Well, I like to travel and explore, so I’ve taken several trips down to Portland and just drove around, taking pictures. I’ve tried to imagine I’ve moved to Portland and gotten to know it just like a place: I’m having to familiarize myself with for personal purposes rather than learning about it as a “location.” Portland and Seattle are very similar in some ways — the geography is somewhat similar, the climate is similar, some of the artistic culture is similar, though Seattle real estate has become extremely expensive, and that always puts the squeeze on the artistic community. There are fewer places for bands to play than when I moved here eight years ago, the cool run-down parts of the city are disappearing in a condo haze. Portland seems to have held on to that aspect of its character. Portland’s like the Seattle I fell in love with, not the Seattle it’s becoming.

So when I visit Portland and when I draw the city as a character in Stumptown, I’m trying to find and celebrate the beautiful fragile quality of a place that is taking care of its history, even when that history is only the beauty of a crumbling old ice-house.

LEIVIAN: Does Greg help you with some of the Portland details in his script, or maybe you guys go back and forth a little bit to get the specifics worked out?

SOUTHWORTH: Not specifically, not so far. Greg has offered to take photos, things like that, but my being close enough has made that unnecessary. He has also been very generous and open to my making a lot of those decisions myself. He told me Dex lived in a Craftsman house in the Alameda district, and then I went and found the street she lives on and the house.

LEIVIAN: There was one detail in #2 that seemed a little un-Portland to me. A fistfight breaks out in front of the downtown Stumptown Coffee, which is just a few blocks away from my store. (I don’t have the issue in front of me, is that what it was, a fistfight?) I can’t imagine any sort of random violence like that happening in front of the coffee shop. We’re like a bunch of hippies and pacifists, you know?

But then again, the series is focusing on the criminal underworld in Portland and I have heard stories about the mob influence in Portland. Did Greg tell you that the crimes in Stumptown are influenced by true stories that he’s come across?

SOUTHWORTH: No, he never said that. However, Oscar, the character you’re talking about, is just the kind of hair-trigger guy who’d cause a scene like that. No concerns about being in a public place or decorum or what others might think of him. Oscar has a lot of growing up to do, and his father, Hector, really despairs over this aspect of Oscar’s behavior, the inability to think before he acts. As far as I’m aware, none of the incidents in the story are based on anything that has happened in reality.

LEIVIAN: I wonder, what was Greg’s inspiration to do a story set in Portland?

SOUTHWORTH: I think it’s just that he loves the city he lives in. He feels very proud of Portland and he feels very connected to Dex and her family, and he’s writing a personal story in crime fiction’s clothing.

LEIVIAN: I remember you mentioning that the editors didn’t consider the book to be a noir, or that they didn’t want it to strictly be a noir. That’s interesting because I would basically put it in the crime noir genre. When you and Greg were developing the series, what kind of book did you guys want to make?

SOUTHWORTH: I think the idea was that it’s not a gritty crime noir piece, hardboiled and dry in that Jim Thompson way (I’m a big fan of Jim Thompson’s) but that it was a gentler character piece that strayed into dangerous territory. That we should care about Dex and her brother, we should see them as real human beings, not as archetypes. And so there is more room for a lighter quality on occasion, and that gives me a lot of room — it’s like I have more color, that this scene can be light and free and funny, but there will be heavy contrast when a few pages later someone is tortured or stabbed to death.

LEIVIAN: Can you tell me about some of the techniques and software that you use to work on the backgrounds of Stumptown?

SOUTHWORTH: The backgrounds in Stumptown are a mixed bag of simple techniques, though they don’t necessarily correspond to the usage of any particular program. I do use Photoshop for everything at some point during the creation of a page, though it is usually more as an editing/assembly program than as a creation program.

At its simplest, I will usually refer to a photograph of a location that I’ve taken in Portland, or if I didn’t get a chance to do that, I’ll collect a bunch of things from Google. Sometimes I will drop that photo onto the page and print it in non-reproducible light blue and ink over that. This gives me the ability to change signage or pedestrians or other things in the background, change it from day to night, etc.

Then there are times where it gets much more complex and I use Sketchup, which is a simple architectural tool for building virtual 3D models. You can build streets and whole environments with it, then travel virtually through your model, taking “photographs” (really just screen captures) from different angles. It’s one of the most useful tools available to a comic artist who wants to work in a realistic style, but it’s also very time-consuming and can become a fascinating distraction from what is actually important to the story.

So all of those screen captures and photos and so forth can be used loosely as reference, something you draw from and refer to as you work. Or you can drop them onto the page and ink them. Sometimes people literally just drop the photo itself on the page and don’t alter it in the inks, but to me that always clashes and draws my eye to it in a distracting way.

The use of realistic backgrounds can lock you into a style that can be restrictive. If the shop window and the cars and the parking meters all look realistic, but you’re having trouble making the folds on someone’s jacket look convincing, that clash can pull the reader out of the story. And also the background is rarely intended to be the visual focal point of the panel. So what I try to do is meet in the middle, to abstract the backgrounds a bit with linework that blurs and blotches and enlivens the image — this is the kind of line-work that interests me on the figures as well.

LEIVIAN: I hadn’t heard of Sketchup before you mentioning it. I know some artists that can draw people really well but they’re having trouble with backgrounds and environments. Do you recommend Sketchup for other artists? It obviously doesn’t do all the work for you, right?

SOUTHWORTH: I do and I don’t recommend it. It’s a rabbit hole. It can solve some problems for you if you need to use something to keep a background consistent — that table must always be 18 inches from the wall, or that chair sits just that close to the coffee table and I don’t want to change it. But if you don’t understand basic perspective drawing and proportion, basic but sometimes-difficult drawing skills and concepts, it can be murder: because your mistakes stick out like a sore thumb. It’s also very easy to spend all your time building 3D models and not drawing the book. I spent something like 25 hours building a model of Dex’s house.

LEIVIAN: Sometimes photo realistic art can come off as too stiff or awkward-looking. Can you talk more about what makes for a good photo-realistic technique?

SOUTHWORTH: I think using photos can be a trap — you can back yourself into a corner where you can’t necessarily use an expressive cartoony drawing to convey something because it clashes with the photo-realism you’ve tried to achieve on the rest of the page. There is a sweet spot in there that artists like Jacques Tardi achieve, and that’s what I’m trying to find in my own work. The use of reference photos is very valuable when trying to convey specificity — if you want Portland to feel real the simplest and most direct way to do so is to draw actual buildings on actual streets in Portland.

I find because I can get restless and unfocused very easily that I apply an impressionistic technique sometimes without even meaning to. Things become blotchy and patterned and textural, and I think that contributes to a tactile quality of the page, a feeling that there is some processing and translation going on. I know that those are things I respond to in art, and I usually find things that show too much reliance on photographs to be really flat. Particularly when the characters are drawn from photos — when the figures and faces are too specific it somehow seems to put the viewer at arm’s length. David Mamet, in his book On Directing Film (and in a book written by students of his acting classes, The Practical Handbook for the Actor), talks about the “uninflected idea.” This is the concept that when someone tells you a story — a beautiful girl sweeps the floor of her cottage and finds a tarnished golden ring; when her stepfather enters unexpectedly, she hides the ring in her apron, for example — you don’t need some specifics, and as a matter of fact those specifics can destroy your ability to “read” the story. We don’t know the girl’s hair color, we don’t even know her ethnicity, we don’t know how large her father is, we don’t know much about her cottage beyond that it needs sweeping.

When you do comics, you provide a great many specifics — if you draw that story, you obviously define all those physical characteristics visually. But it’s important to leave doorways for the reader, and I think photo-realistic character design may close those doors. When it becomes a representation of someone else, you can no longer invest that character with the attributes you might empathize with. Somehow the motion and the sound and the actor’s work creates a different sort of magic in a film, but for me in a comic when the character looks so much like a real person, I can’t feel myself in their story.

And you have to be able to draw. In some ways, you must be a more exacting and disciplined draftsman if you’re using photos, or that awkwardness starts to show. You’re competing with reality instead of creating an entirely new, subjective world of your own.

LEIVIAN: Did you learn a lot of these skills and techniques while working with Stefan Gaudiano? Has your craft developed a lot since then?

SOUTHWORTH: I learned a lot from Stefano, and I still do. We still work together occasionally. I learned a great deal about tools and techniques from him. A lot of the development I’ve had since then is really due to trial and error, though. You do something wrong enough times, you’re eventually going to crack the code. So I’m getting a lot more confident and varied in my technique and in my approach. Future issues of Stumptown will continue to become more and more consistent and more effective, I think. I’m proud of the work I’ve done so far and I think it has a lot of charm, but I can see a lot of the flaws in pretty stark relief to what I’d hoped to make.

LEIVIAN: Name some more artists that do photo-realism well. And who are some that don’t do it well?

SOUTHWORTH: I wouldn’t know how to pick out anyone who doesn’t do it well — you can sometimes see someone using a photo that looks out of place in an otherwise consistent context, and that always bothers me. I think a lot of the time using photos in a superhero context doesn’t work that well. Michael Lark does it very well, though. He’s like a film director who draws very well — I feel like in his case, he’s saying that the drawing is not the point; it’s the storytelling. And he creates a consistent work of art that is both realistic and exaggerated; he’s inventing the work using a variety of tools. Alex Ross is heavily reliant on photography, much like Norman Rockwell was, and he does what he does very, very well. But for my own personal taste, it is a little overly specific and I lose that spark of enjoyment when I read his work. I love to look at it, though. He uses color so beautifully… and his sketches, like in that book that just came out, are gorgeous. I’d love to see him draw a book without using photos at all, just a very quick sketchy-looking superhero book. He draws better than virtually everyone in comics.

LEIVIAN: Who are some other artists you admire that don’t necessarily use a photo-realistic style?

SOUTHWORTH: There’s an artist named Tony Salmons that is one of the most interesting guys in comics. He doesn’t work that much anymore, though he did just have a book come out recently called The Strange Adventures of HP Lovecraft. His work is so personal and so idiosyncratic that I feel like I can read his moods and his frustrations and his moments of satisfaction when I’m looking at it, almost like each page is a diary of his various states of mind while doing it. He’s really extraordinary — there’s no one like him in comics.

I love Darwyn Cooke’s work, both his writing and his drawing. I think he’s an excellent storyteller, unafraid of being emotional and honest. His drawings communicate so clearly, particularly his rougher style. He draws in several styles, depending on the project, but I particularly love his very loose brushy style like on The Hunter.

Chris Ware is another major favorite of mine. Also a very emotional storyteller — when people say they think his work is cold, I think they’re totally insane. He has found a language of drawing/layout/pacing that is so perfectly tuned, something I really hope to learn to do. Jimmy Corrigan, Smartest Kid on Earth is one of the best books of any type that I’ve ever read.

And Jaime Hernandez. There’s not even much to say about him anymore, it’s so clear and obvious how good he is. He has the world’s best eye for expression and body language, and his sensitivity to his characters as people is thrilling to me. The ongoing unfolding story of Maggie and Hopey is like a continual 30-year-long cliffhanger. His drawing style is supernaturally refined — there are no missteps in his work, no failures. Like everyone just starting out, there was a while where he was still figuring out how he wanted to draw, how he wanted to tell a story, but once he really got it, he locked it down and never let go of it.

LEIVIAN: So the first storyline will be four issues, which will then be collected in trade. Do you and Greg have more storylines planned for Stumptown?

SOUTHWORTH: We do. The next batch deals with a rock band, and I couldn’t be more excited about it. I really, really know what that world is like, and I’m really excited to draw it.

LEIVIAN: The series has been selling really well. Issues #1 and #2 are completely sold out, Oni did a second printing for issue #1. From a retailer’s point of view, I would love to see a second printing for issue #2, otherwise it’s gonna be harder to sell parts #3 and #4 to new readers. But I can see the publisher’s point of view as well. They may see that there’s not enough demand to justify a second printing. Some readers may just have to wait for the trade. I know that these decisions aren’t up to you, but what have you learned about the business side of comics publishing while working on this series?

SOUTHWORTH: I’ve learned a lot and almost nothing at the same time. The main thing I learned this time around is that if you do something you really think is good and you tell enough people about it, they will respond to it. I don’t think Stumptown is flawless or perfect, but I think it’s really good. I think it’s exciting. I would buy it and I would be excited when it came out each time. It looks like others are responding that way too. I think Oni is counting on it building over time, and they don’t want to over-invest on reprints of subsequent issues when the elephant in the room is that everyone knows there will be a collection soon. It’s the big question in the world of comics sales, I guess — buy the issues or buy the trade? I keep buying the books I’m excited about, like RASL or Powers, in single issues, then give those away when the trade comes out and I get that. But I don’t expect everyone to do that. I know that we intend to pack as much into each printing as we can: if you buy the issues, there’s a lot of backup material in there. And we’re planning on trying to put together more of that stuff for the trade.

I don’t want to double-dip on people, to say “how can we get them to pay for the same thing twice?” But I personally love buying the thing as it comes out, and then if I love it, I want it in collected form with all the extra stuff because I obsess over not having that stuff. So my intention is that for those folks who pay for it a second time, they should get a bunch of extra stuff for being so supportive. It sounds disingenuous, but I feel responsible to all these people who have been so interested in the book and so nice and supportive to me personally. I want to make sure they don’t feel exploited somehow.

LEIVIAN: How are issues #3 and #4 coming along?

SOUTHWORTH: Issue #3 is done, and issue #4 is on the way. I’m still drawing it, much slower than I’d hoped, but I’m getting there, centimeter by centimeter.

LEIVIAN: What’s next for you after issue #4? Right back into the world of Stumptown, or possible something else?

SOUTHWORTH: Both. I’m writing something called The Loudermilk Brothers, a project about a couple of singing preachers in 1950s Tennessee. It’s about hypocrisy and forgiveness and religion and small-town life and having sex with people you shouldn’t. I am in love with that period and with this whole milieu and can’t wait to devote more real time to writing and drawing it. But more pressing is the next arc of Stumptown, and as soon as I finish issue #4 I’m going to dive into that.

LEIVIAN: So now you’ve worked in the film, music and comic industries. Is there much difference between these three worlds? What are the pluses and minuses of each?

SOUTHWORTH: The thing is they all connect. I get the same joy out of drawing a comic as I do out of playing a show or shooting a scene — when it works. The same agony when it doesn’t work. The upside to music is it’s instantaneous when you perform; the downside is it’s ephemeral. You have a great show, 100 people saw it, it’s over. Same with theater. With comics, the product is more permanent but takes immense amounts of work and then someone reads it in 15 minutes. That’s frustrating, but it’s just the nature of how it works. Or at least the nature of how I work. But I love them all — I wish I had the time and energy to do all of them all the time instead of phasing through each one in turn. There is music in the Loudermilk Brothers, so that will connect there, and there may actually be a play coming out of that, too, in which I and a friend would perform a show as the Loudermilk Brothers. The show would be performed as though it took place in 1956 and would function a little bit as a play, a little bit as a concert. And for those that read the book, they’d get all the texture underneath what was going on.

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One Response to “The Making of Stumptown: a Matthew Southworth interview conducted by Jason Leivian”

  1. […] Creators | Artist Matthew Southworth talks about Stumptown, his Oni Press crime series with Greg Rucka. [] […]