Forget what Portlandia or Portland Monthly would have you believe. Scratch the skin of this town and you come up with dirt under your fingernails—theft rings under bridges, child prostitution, White Russians hooked on black tar heroin. Greg Rucka, the Eisner Award-winning author of private-eye noir comic Stumptown, understands this deeply, and in the third volume of his now-iconic series (Oni Press, 144 pages, $29.99), Portland seethes with darkness and menace, even at a sunny, summertime soccer friendly, or a Portland Timbers match later in the day.
The latent violence of the soccer chant and the animus toward opposing fans or scalpers at the gates—one of whom reportedly brawled with a Timbers fan in 2013—rise uncomfortably to the surface. After a match against the Seattle Sounders, a Timbers Army vet is brutally beaten into a coma, a Sounders scarf found strewn across a nearby hedge.
The victim's a good friend of Dex—the gruff-with-a-heart-of-gold owner of Stumptown Investigations, and one of the more rounded female characters in comics, a creature blending ill-concealed rage with solicitous familial care and a healthy (as opposed to cartoonish) libido. Much of the plot involves her hunt for the assailants, but the book digs just as deeply into Dex herself.
Justin Greenwood's art is expressionistic in the old Weimar film style. Characters' faces contort and shift with their moods, or are heavily shadowed over. Greenwood took over as artist from Seattle's Matthew Southworth for this volume, and in place of the clean-lined intricacy of those books, the panels can seem sketchy in places; this occasionally verges on unmolded clay, but at its best it's the nightmare vision at the corner of the eye.
But the steady grimness of Stumptown's Portland can stretch credulity. A pack of white-bread 107ists as hard-bitten street gang could just as easily be a Portlandia sketch as serious noir, but in Rucka's alternate-universe Rose City there are dank soccer dives dangerous as a biker bars in Texas, with violent MS13ers occupying the suites at Providence Park.
Rucka's writing is usually good enough to sell each scene, even as the relentless seaminess—though leavened with heartening, unsentimental notions of community—sometimes tips too far over the line. But consider this book an antidote to the quirky Portland hoo-ha of the airline magazines and Japanese guidebooks, an ode to the very real darkness that's always getting swept under the PDX carpet.
GO: Greg Rucka reads from Stumptown, Vol. 3, on Tuesday, May 26, at Powell's on Hawthorne, 3723 SE Hawthorne Blvd., powells.com. 7:30 pm. Free.