COMICS WRITERS! Stop setting your stories in Portland. KTHXBYE!

Posted by Rob Noble on August 11, 2011

I’ve always been fascinated with the differences in comics that choose to portray actual, real cities versus those that place their characters in such exotic locales as “Coast City,” “Central City” and “Hub City.” Probably the most famous of these fictional burgs are Gotham and Metropolis, and it was with this in mind that Stan Lee and his late-50’s, early-60’s cohorts made sure to place their Spider-man, Fantastic Four and X-Men stories in the cities of Queens, New York and Salem Massachusetts.  “X marks the spot,” indeed.

It makes sense – this real-life geo-locating is supposed to anchor the stories in our “real world,” and it certainly adds to the fun when eagle-eyed readers can yell out “Hey!” over every photorealistic background and panel.  I myself remember thrilling to Bill Willingham’s Elementals back in the day, pointing out the Space Needle and the monorail when their adventures took them to Seattle.

So it’s with a sense of weird, unfamiliar coolness that I set down Greg Rucka’s Stumptown and  Brian Michael Bendis’ Scarlet, both of which are set in my current city of residence: Portland, Oregon.  And sadly, both of them are way, waaaay poorer for it.  Don’t get me wrong, I love Portland and I … these books for what they are.  But the Portland local is so wildly over-the-top, and so totally unnecessary, that I couldn’t help but think how much better these titles would be if they actually were set in some fictional mid-sized Pacific Northwest city.   Like the crap movie version of Blake Nelson’s novel Girl, these are stories for Port City, not Portland.

Here, a case in point:

Bendis’ Scarlet is a teenager whose boyfriend (and one true love) is murdered by a pair of crooked cops in the first issue.  As her V For Vendetta-like quest takes her farther down the hole of the criminal underworld, and further up the ladder of the corrupt political cityscape, she also becomes as figurehead for the city’s disaffected population.  “No longer will we be kept down, or keep quiet,” yell the thronging masses.  “Revolution Now! “  Thousands flood the streets of downtown and the corrupt mayor and the weaselly chief of police are uneasy as a quietly stoic Federal agent enters the picture and both sides begin to gel.

Which is absolutely fucking ridiculous. Portland’s actual mayor has exactly two main interests: Teenage boys and appearing in the hipster sketch-com Portlandia.  And he’s managed to do both in his short time in office.  It’s been more than 20 years since Bush the Elder nick-named Portland “Little Beirut.” There is absolutely NO CHANCE of anybody here doing anything like what Bendis so desperately wants us to think could happen.  Honestly, when was the last time anybody saw Portland in the news without the words “bike path” and “food cart” in the first sentence?  This stinking, corrupt city of fed-up proletariat bears as little resemblance to the actual city of Portland as it does to Oz, or Wonderland, or the Shire.  And if Bendis himself weren’t a Portland transplant, I doubt the book would be set anywhere near here.

As to Stumptown, Rucka’s a little better, not much.  I liked the lower-key use of Portland locales (much lower than Scarlet), but again, the real action takes place in a series of melodramatic set-pieces that could have been anywhere.  I’ve lived in Portland, off and on, for more than two decades.  I grew up close to here, went to college here, and I can’t think of a single instance where I decided to go out for a drink and went to my neighboring casino.  You know why?  Because there aren’t any anywhere near here! Sure, Stumptown’s PI protagonist Dex Parios likes to gamble, but Rucka does her no favors by placing her neighborhood hangout a good hour from the city. He rings a little truer with scenes set below the Fremont Bridge, and up by the Timberline Lodge, but again, they don’t add much either.

Maybe my proximity to these books’ locations has soured me on their use, but seriously guys – if you’re going to set your political diatribes and Rockford Files-style crime stories in the real city of Portland, do it for a better reason than hipster cache.  (Although maybe Rucka’s onto something.  By placing so much action on back forest roads and murky river banks, the panels are devoid of many of the buildings and landmarks that make Portland Portland.)

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