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Stumptown – A Study In Retro Noir
If you missed Stumptown then you might not be blamed for the omission in your reading stack. Hell, even if you got the comic you might have missed the subsequent issues because the four issue debut arc took ten months to complete. The series kicked off plagued with timing issues but in the end the four comics knit together to make quite a good little case file for this crime comic that fills a new niche on the stands.
Stumptown is the crime comic starring Dex Parios, a generally down-on-her-luck PI who stumbles from day to day with no compass to guide her leaking ship through the turgid waters of today. She’s the sort of bumbling PI that makes me think of crime television shows from the 80’s. Dex is equal parts Colombo and Jim Rockford shaken over some melted ice and sat in the sun for a while.
It’s interesting to note that Dex, as a lady, is quite fetching. I doubt she realises that but she’s an attractive woman and almost in spite of it has turned into a life of coffee rituals and car stakeouts. She actively works against her looks and then when she gets a black eye it doesn’t feel so bad. You’re not watching a pretty girl get thumped, you’re watching a PI get thumped and that is simply par for the course.
Greg Rucka is the writer and there’s no shock that he chose a female lead. He’s been peppering his work with strong, relatable, and real female leads for years and Dex is another one while still being her own person. Rucka doesn’t deal in clichés or retreads here, Dex is a new character and you are meeting her for the first time here, guaranteed. Rucka also has a hard nose for the real side of crime, which he has brought to us before with varied projects but most successfully in his run on Gotham Central with Ed Brubaker and Michael Lark. Rucka understands that a good case can only be held up by a better investigator and so he makes sure we understand and know Dex in these opening issues.
The supporting players in the tale are also fleshed out and given relevance to our main girl. We can see she has man troubles, a disabled brother to care for, and a whole plate of issues so full you can’t see over them. Dex has nowhere to hide except work, so she buries her head so far into it that her protruding body can often make an easy target.
This first case is called ‘The Case of the Girl Who Took Her Shampoo But Left Her Mini’ and it’s about as languidly convoluted as the title might suggest. Dex is tasked with finding a runaway girl but, as with all cases, the initial call out only ever leads to much deeper cracks in the people missing and those trying to find them. Rucka understands that much like the masters of crime before him, the case must start as a tiny access point to a deep and dark spiral that will show everyone as the depraved and dirty individuals they truly are. Stumptown, like all good pulp fiction, is merely an expose that the world is broken and unfixable. People are wrong, and bad, and you can expose them but you can’t change them. You can only strive to not become one of them and this is Dex’s journey.
I would not call this comic hard-boiled as it’s not about fists and guns, this isn’t Hammett. This is strong Chandler because Hammett had that gristle to his words but Chandler’s always felt like a gentleman’s game, like it could have been on a stage at any time yet it’s still played for keeps. Stumptown is more an updated Chandler crossed over with daytime television crime. This isn’t The Wire, it’s going for a slightly softer vibe. There’s still violence, sure, and it counts, but it’s not so malicious. This isn’t crime gore, this is the study of smart people using their brains, for good and bad. Stumptown strongly reminds of The Rockford Files, which Rucka cited as an influence, and even makes me think of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
This isn’t Sin City at all. Frank Miller’s tale is ultra-noir in its over-played shadows and excessive violence that soon means nothing except being the spectacle that you enjoy. The heart in Sin City sneaks in other places but the actual crime element is usually so bombastic as to be definitely out of the realm of the real.
Stumptown isn’t even Criminal which is a comic that it’s creator, Ed Brubaker, described as being like Sin City except for the fact that if someone gets thrown off a roof in the Criminal universe they just hit the ground and die. Criminal is heavily influenced by Hammet and McCain and it’s page upon page of clenched teeth and bleeding wounds. Stumptown doesn’t follow the tracks carved by these crime comic monuments. Stumptown takes a more loose and fun approach.
The main reason for this vibe is Dex Parios. She’s a loveable lead who draws you in constantly and though you know she’ll be fine you have to know how. Dex gets shot but she always seems one step ahead and you should see it coming but everything is moving and it’s like picking out the specific duck in the shooting gallery without seeing her take the bullets from your gun at the same time. Stumptown is a carousel ride of crime and you hold on and hope and try to watch everything whiz by. Afterwards you might understand exactly where you were and what happened, but while it happened all you could feel was the adrenaline slowly fill your veins and the sound of your heartbeat becoming an isolated track distracting you from what you were being told, and shown.
Matthew Southworth is a smooth fit for the title because his scratchy work captures the feel of the case. He draws the world like Dex sees it through bleary eyes and weary mind. Southworth isn’t afraid to experiment with page design and his work is really quite well thought out and executed. It makes sense that this comic should be beautiful because genre fare often leads the way with innovative creative styles. If you look back through the pulps of crime, horror, sci-fi, you’ll find writers like Hammett, Lovecraft, and Dick who were working at the apex of the game. They twisted words and visual literacy because they were allowed to experiment in their offshoot genres. Southworth, too, shows no fear of trying something a little bit fancy here and there.
There is a great opening shot in the first issue where Southworth details the famous Portland landmark, the Hawthorne Bridge. He includes some insert panels of a goose flying away and while there appears to be not much happening what we are getting is the progression of time; that and some beautiful artwork. It’s a simple page but it’s that perfect establishing shot of exactly what we are seeing. Urban crime, serenity, the silence after violence, and the despair as everything leaves.
Southworth matches this artistic greatness in the final issue with a completely different visual as he crafts a splash page of Dex after she is knocked down. It’s a melded page of watered down Steranko/Dali influence that still manages to look modern and fluid. It’s artwork but it’s also storytelling and to get both is extremely nice. It puts us not so much into Dex’s head but close enough to it to hear the ringing.
Stumptown is a new and different comic on the stands. While crime comics are certainly making a resurgence, there’s no doubt of that, this particular title is something still new and different from the rest on the racks because it’s got a heart in it that doesn’t mind stopping to beat a little slower and let you listen. This is the sort of crime comic you can spend a day in the sun with, it’s fun and smart and entirely user friendly. Stumptown, sorting through the garbage of life so you can keep your nails clean.