This week saw the much delayed release of Stumptown #4 and in celebration, the smartest man in the outhouse, Eli Katz takes a look back at the first arc.
Credits & Solicit Info:
It's the startling conclusion to the debut STUMPTOWN story arc! Private Detective Dex Parios finally placed together all the pieces of the puzzle, only to have the fist of organized crime come in and knock it all to hell. Now Dex doesn't just have to reacquire the target from her missing person case, but keep herself alive as well! Superstar writer Greg Rucka (WHITEOUT, DETECTIVE COMICS) and hot new artist Matthew Southworth wrap up their first STUMPTOWN adventure with style and surprises!
Format: Single, Standard
Content Rating: O (Older Audiences)
Street Date: Sep 1, 2010
STUMPTOWN #1 - 4 REVIEW
In an early scene in STUMPTOWN #1, a well-dressed security guard drags Dex Parios away from a craps table before she can lose any more money. "You know why you're such a bad gambler?" he says, as he leads her out of the main casino hall. "Because you don't know when to quit." Dex disagrees and says she knows exactly when to stop: "Consistently, a minute too late."
This simple, two-panel exchange is worth noting for several reasons. First, it sets the tone for the rest of the book, showing that this is going to be a crime story where the inevitable tragedy and violence of the genre will be diluted with a healthy dose of one-liners. Second, it reveals a defining feature of Dex's character, namely, that she's a desperate, down-and-out risk-taker who prefers to laugh at defeat than grovel in self-pity. Third, this scene links directly to the case that Dex, a struggling private investigator, will be forced to take. Rather than kicking Dex to the curb, the guard takes her to see the matriarch who runs the casino. The matriarch offers to erase Dex's nearly $18,000 gambling debt if Dex is able to track down the matriarch's teenage granddaughter who has suddenly disappeared.
Rarely do we see such efficient storytelling in a single scene. Character development is layered upon subplot, which is layered upon the main mystery. What's even more impressive is that this efficiency of storytelling is sustained for the entire four issues that make up the first arc, THE CASE OF THE GIRL WHO TOOK HER SHAMPOO BUT LEFT HER MINI. With the concluding chapter out this week, writer Greg Rucka and artist Matthew Southworth have produced one of the best crime comics of 2010.
All four issues deal with the missing persons case. Dex learns that the missing girl, Charlotte, has been dating the son of a local crime boss, Hector Marceno, and has fled in fear. It isn't clear at first why she has fled, but Dex learns that the crime boss's daughter has helped Charlotte escape. After surviving several nasty confrontations with a pair of thugs, Dex figures out that the Marceno family has ensnared Charlotte in a robbery plot and is now trying to kill her off before she can reveal the scheme. Issue 4 wraps up this story with Dex confronting the crime family on a dark, desolate beach in order to save Charlotte's life.
STUMPTOWN has many of the elements found in classic PI stories: a teenager on the run, a conniving crime family, and oversized henchmen lurking in the shadows. The use of these stock characters shows that the book isn't interested in breaking new ground or busting apart the clichés of the genre. It isn't trying to compete with, say, SCALPED or SCARLET. Instead, it is firmly rooted in the traditions of detective fiction and works hard to remain within the parameters of these traditions. Yet, as familiar as the material is in this book, STUMPTOWN never gets bogged down by its clichés.
There are a couple of reasons why. For one thing, Rucka tells a solid suspense story, with enough unpredictable twists to make us want to know what happens next. For another, he makes Dex a very likable protagonist who is as unpretentious as the story that's built around her. She has a somewhat glamorous job, but she is not a glamorous person. She isn't sexy or curvaceous. She isn't especially tough. And she isn't trying to prove that she's as sharp-eyed or as capable as any male PI. She's simply out to do her job and to get paid for a hard day's work. There's no warrior-feminist politics or postmodern gimmickry here. We are encouraged to identify with her precisely because she is so average and unassuming.
Also, a big part of Dex's appeal comes from her being modeled after James Garner's iconic private investigator, Jim Rockford. For those of you who haven't seen the 1970's TV show, THE ROCKFORD FILES, Garner played a smart-mouthed, down-and-out PI who always solved the case but who rarely got paid for his time. As a consequence, he lived in a dilapidated beachside trailer in Malibu and often had to catch fish out of the ocean just to feed himself. His only valuable possession was his sports car, a Pontiac Firebird. But frequently something terrible would happen to the car and he would end up borrowing his father's very conspicuous truck. The best parts of the show were not the mysteries that Jim solved, but rather the hilarious interactions that Jim had with friends, thugs, and the LAPD. Jim would always tell his best jokes when he was in the most trouble.
Dex has the same Rockford-esque, devil-may-care attitude. She doesn't get angry or upset when the Marceno henchmen try to kill her repeatedly; in fact, she smirks as one oversized goon gets ready to punch her senseless. Dex also has the same love-hate relationship with the police that Jim had. In nearly every episode, Jim was fighting with either Lieutenant Diehl or Lieutenant Chapman as he tried to coax information out of his friend Dennis. In a clear homage to THE ROCKFORD FILES, Dex is shown to have an ongoing feud with a high-ranking police official named Volk. In a brief scene in issue 2, Dex is going through mug shots at the police station when Volk comes storming out of his office and forces her out of the building. "Are you breaking up another marriage?" he asks, clearly making a dig at the PI profession. "No," Dex replies, "I stopped that after yours."
There are a number of other parallels between Jim and Dex that ROCKFORD fans will no doubt spot. (Just like Jim, for example, Dex is woken up in the middle of the night by desperate callers.) But Rucka makes sure that Dex is more than just a female version of the much-loved Malibu gumshoe. While Jim was very much a man's man, always ready to charm the ladies, Dex is just as likely to flirt with guys as she is with gals. Her sexual identity and sexual preferences are left ambiguous, and she uses this ambiguity whenever possible to manipulate suspects and rivals. She's a sweet talker with great range and a lot of flexibility.
The art in this book is very good, especially the character designs. Panel after panel, issue after issue, Southworth makes every person look unique and instantly recognizable. This is no small task because, in a non-cape book, there are no gaudy outfits or mutant facial features to distinguish one figure from the next. But Southworth draws all the characters in STUMPTOWN with remarkable consistency and clarity. They look like people off the street and quickly become familiar faces to the reader.
Southworth also does a great job on the establishing shots and background art. At times, his work is photo realistic. The opening, double-page spread in issue 1 features a stunning illustration of a bridge in northern Portland. Issues 2 and 3 are filled with highly detailed illustrations of fairly common items, such as a parking ticket and a package of frozen peas. At other times, Southworth's art is dark and rough, and consists of dry brush strokes and inky fingerprint marks. The contrast between these two styles is intentional and effective. The greater the detail, the longer the reader is encouraged to linger over the scene. The rougher the line work and the blurrier the backgrounds, the faster the reader is encouraged to flip to the next page. The realism gives the reader a clear sense of place; the more abstract pages speed up and intensify the action.
STUMPTOWN is a fun crime comic that has more witty banter than it has scenes of violence. Unlike any crime book on the stands right now, it avoids the usual depictions of drugs and decapitations and, instead, sets out to make readers chuckle and smile. And without a doubt, it succeeds in this mission. If Rucka and Southworth maintain a long collaboration on this book, they will most certainly make Dex Parios one of the most cherished PIs in comics' history.
(For information on upcoming STUMPTOWN issues and storylines, check out Greg Rucka's blog at http://www.gregrucka.com/wp/on-the-occasion-of-stumptown-issue-4 / )
Review by: Eli Katz