Following the release of the trailer for the upcoming Cobie Smulders headlining series from ABC, we take a look back at the Portland, Oregon set comic on which the show is based in our evergreen review of the first volume of Greg Rucka and Matthew Southworth’s “Stumptown” from Oni Press. Read more about the television adaptation here then come on back and read our thoughts on the first installment of the series that kicked off in the fall of 2009 and whose first story ‘The Case of the Girl Who Took Her Shampoo (But Lost Her Mini)’ was collected in hardcover format in 2011.
Written by Greg Rucka
Illustrated by Matthew Southworth
Colored by Lee Loughridge, Rico Renzi, and Matthew Southworth
Superstar writer Greg Rucka (BATWOMAN: ELEGY) embarks on his first creator-owned series since the Eisner Award-winning QUEEN & COUNTRY! Dex is the proprietor of Stumptown Investigations, and a fairly talented P.I. Unfortunately, she’s less adept at throwing dice than solving cases. Her recent streak has left her beyond broke and she’s into the Confederated Tribes of the Wind Coast for 18 large. But maybe Dex’s luck is about to change. Sue-Lynne, head of the Wind Coast’s casino operation, will clear Dex’ debt if she can locate Sue-Lynne’s missing granddaughter. But is this job Dex’s way out of the hole or a shove down one much much deeper?
As one of the elder statesmen of the Portland, Oregon comic book scene, Greg Rucka sets his homage to late ’70s and early ’80s era private investigator television like The Rockford Files in his adopted hometown, using the city’s hipster coffee haven crossed with industrial port vibe to great effect. There’s a grittiness to Southworth’s linework and the coloring team’s choices that gives the proceedings a lived-in look, a perfect pairing with his series protagonist.
Dex Parios is a real piece of work and embodies the kind of flawed anti-hero that’s a time-honored trope of the hard-boiled noir detective stories of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. She’s a heavy drinker and a gambler who’s deep in debt to a nearby Native American-run casino, a pickle she can only extricate herself from by locating a missing girl. Dex’s story as well as those of her P.I. progenitors is a uniquely American one in terms of its bootstrap aesthetic and naked vulnerability of its protagonist. Flawed as she is, she has a code even if that code is rooted in self-preservation. There’s also a kind of Mark Twain shaggy dog rambling construction to the narrative that by design takes some of the air out of the resolution but makes Dex’s journey no less enjoyable. Ultimately, this first four-issue collection is as much about learning about Dex as it is about solving a missing persons case. It’s as if Rucka has taken great pains not to present it as a stone cold whodunnit, instead opting for the kind of episode-of-the-week day-in-the-life-of story that feels more honest than having an investigator merely chase down clues and shake down associates to solve a mystery. And while there are undeniable noir influences in the ubiquitously neon-lit city, Rucka takes equal care to subvert those noir trappings by giving the proceedings a sense of real community against it’s metropolitan backdrop. Dex’s ad hoc employer Sue-Lynn knows about Dex’s family and Dex knows about Sue-Lynn’s. Dex’s younger sibling, Ansel, is someone who everyone knows and thinks to ask after. It’s the kind of storytelling flourish that makes Rucka’s storytelling more enjoyable and relatable. It’s as if no one is a complete stranger, and Dex seemingly has some sort of past association with everyone. For those she doesn’t know, she definitely makes an impression.
The series starts compellingly with Dex finding herself in the trunk of a car, flashing back to the events that proceeded it just as she is seemingly gunned-down by a couple of burly toughs. One can only assume that the Sunset Strip-inspired prelude is a feint and that the rest of what transpires is not being told from beyond Dex’s grave. What follows is an immediate escalation of events and introductions over the previous day, each wrought with complications as mundane as the vandalism of Dex’s vintage Mustang (What self-respecting P.I. story would be without providing an old muscle car for its protagonist, I ask you?) to shady businessmen and the offer of an increased payday for completing her job at the expense of betraying her original employers wishes. It’s byzantine scripting in the best sense, and Rucka’s no stranger to this kind of tight plotting. His keen ear for natural dialogue makes it even more enjoyable to follow the scripts twists and turns along with its colorful cast of characters with shared or soon-to-be-intertwined histories.Continued below
By the time the first issue in the arc catches up with the present day (Dex lives!) readers know they’re in for a throwback-inspired ride, and its not surprising in our nostalgia infused culture that the series should find its way to being adapted into a television series. Rucka has channeled the what’s old is new again into a seat-of-the-pants serial that feels like the kind of television that inspired it as well as laying down a blueprint to show how it can be updated for the 21st century. Dex’s wiseacre demeanor should translate as well to the screen as it does to the page. What will likely be lost is the moody look of Southworth and the coloring team’s art. Every scene appears to take place either at twilight or in the dark, a nod both its noir influences and the locale’s climate. Don’t expect to see these daring aesthetic choices in major network primetime.
By the end of this first volume, readers get a conclusion that has unfurled in a more naturally contrived way over a jaw-dropping reveal. More importantly, readers will feel like they know Dexedrine Callisto Parios. It’s a feat that should come as no shock to followers of Rucka’s creator-owned career. He did the same thing with Dex’s spiritual relative, Tara Chace in “Queen & Country.” Where Chace’s story was more buttoned-up and emotionally distant by design, the drama of “Stumptown” really revolves around wanting to see Dex get a win despite her failings and her mounting occupational-hazard related injuries. While her acerbic demeanor and compulsions makes life more difficult, we can’t help but root for her. As for me, I’ll be rooting for the upcoming show to capture some of the magic of Rucka’s series. If it can, it should be a winner.