Stumptown, the Portland-based crime comic by Greg Rucka and Matthew Southworth, finally returns with a totally rockin' new issue!
While the creators of Stumptown originally gave the book a scattered release schedule to accommodate penciller Matthew Southworth's heavy workload, the real world ended up eating the artist alive. Thankfully, he was able to surface long enough to give us another Stumptown story; thus we have Stumptown 2 #1, continuing the adventures of private investigator Dex Parios.
Southworth gets to start big early, as the very first page of the issue contains all kinds of rock 'n' roll bombast, with pyrotechnics, lights, and (implied) sound bounding out in every direction. It's an eye-catching way to start things off. From there, it's a series of conversations in which the reader is given a considerable amount of insight into the characters that populate this particular version of Portland, OR. PI Dex maintains something of a shaggy, impromptu existence; we encounter her here trying to move into a new office and smashing her own thumb with a hammer. Southworth's pencils seem a bit rougher than they were in the first Stumptown story, but ultimately, it's about the richness of the setting with him. The way his characters interact with their environment is a sure strength, and the body language they exhibit tells the reader so much about who they are. Dex is casually confident, and Miriam, the rock guitarist who hires Dex to find her missing guitar, carries herself like she's used to being the coolest person in the room. Southworth really swings for it during a driving/surveillance scene, where his attention to location-specific detail and sense of place ground the quiet, contemplative action in a specifically tense mood. It's a "mundane" action that's actually a pretty deep moment for the issue. Southworth ends the issue with two ghoulish, pale-faced, tweaking Neo-Nazis that look like something out of a horror film, just to bring a bit of pulpy action into the whole thing. Things look simple, but underneath it all, there's a lot going on with his art, which is complemented by Rico Renzi's flat colors. Renzi underscores the grit of the story
All of this is of course guided by another able script by writer Greg Rucka. Modern-day crime fiction is of course in Rucka's wheelhouse, but what's really remarkable about this issue is how it really encapsulates the "everyday" of it all. This isn't a flashy, endlessly stylish noir; Stumptown lives in that routine, step-by-step process of detective work that entails gathering information by asking a succession of questions from everybody and anybody who might have something to say. The plot, as you would expect from a story like this, comes tumbling out of that milieu. In this case, Rucka introduces elements of intrigue and mystery, and before long it's clear that this is really some missing guitar (sure it's a Gibson Les Paul, by why would Neo-Nazis and the DEA be this interested?). Rucka imbues his characters with distinctive, believeable voices, though there is a bit of wonky dialogue very late in the issue (a gun-toting antagonist actually commands "now I see your hands, or I see your hands or I see the fine pink mist that once was your brains." Maybe this is a noir after all.), but the natural patter of human speech is a real strength of his, and he shows it off wonderfully here. The highlight of the script is the way Miriam, or "Mim," as she prefers, talks about her guitar. She refers to it as her "baby," and anyone who's played in a rock band, especially a touring one, knows exactly what Mim is talking about. Every musician can own 110 guitars, but they'll always have that one specific one that they truly love like it's a part of the family. "They're art," she intones, "and they're the art by which we make art. But this one, this one's my baby...always faithful, always steady, always there for me..." The way she speaks rings very true, and really, all of the rock 'n' roll stuff in the issue feels dead on, making one wonder if there's secretly a headbanger living in Rucka's nerdy writer brain. In any case, the issue really rests on that material, so it needs to be strong lest the narrative fall apart. Rucka is a very cerebral writer, but he always makes the reader feel what he's writing.
Although there isn't much overt connection to the specific events of the first series (other than a reference toHector Marenco, the crime boss introduced in that story) Stumptown 2 #1 picks up where the earlier material left off, tonally. It has a great, lived-in quality that makes it very engaging and a pleasure to read. The first issue of "The Baby in the Velvet Case" is both light fun and seriously appealing. It also achieves the best thing any first issue can do, which is to highlight the potential of the story and leave you with something that will make you want to continue reading it. It slowly but surely introduces enough plot threads to bring the reader deeper into the story, and it also flourishes on a technical level as it moves forward. One issue in, it's good to see that Stumptown is back and it's just as we remembered it.