Stumptown, Vol. 1
Greg Rucka (Writer), Matthew Southworth (Artist), Lee Loughridge (Colorist)
A no-nonsense female private investigator, who also happens to be bisexual, Dex Parios could have been a one-dimensional fantasy figure aimed at a male audience, but Greg Rucka has created a nuanced portrait of a really interesting character situated firmly in a real-world setting.
Dex’s gambling debts have reached worrying proportions–deposit on a small house proportions–and she’s offered the opportunity to wipe the slate clean if she takes on an investigation into a Native American casino boss’s missing granddaughter. The central kidnapping plot involves indigenous sacred sites and MS-13 criminal cartels, and Rucka’s tale perhaps goes a little too far in trying to ensure that race doesn’t become a special “issue.” The specificity of the background of the characters involved is sketched so lightly that it practically disappears, especially for a non-US reader. However, this lightness of touch, and “show-don’t-tell” attitude is more often indicative of Rucka’s wider skill as a storyteller.
Rucka uses next to no exposition text and does a lot with dialogue, which means that Matthew Southworth’s detailed backdrops do a lot of work to locate and delineate character and setting. This is a comic that develops a real sense of place and people, which is something highlighted in the effusive introduction from Matt Fraction at the opening of this collected edition of the first series. The flow of the page design is often cinematic. For example, the deft inset of smaller panels into larger background images echo a tension building series of shot reverse-shot dialogue.
Lee Loughridge’s use of colourwashing and limited palette by turns suggest the black and white of original noir, and the muted colour schemes of the ’70s neo-noir. The sketch-like quality of Southworth’s pencils, and his restrained use of colour, work perfectly to suggest simplicity and directness, whilst doing some very complex work to communicate perspective and state-of-mind for our equally complex heroine. Although the dialogue can sometimes get a little exposition-heavy as the detective plot winds up, Stumptown has a real maturity to its design, narrative, and execution.
All this being said, I found myself enjoying the uncoloured eight page short bound into the collected volume as an extra, titled “Mustang Ranch,” almost more than the longer series. It’s a really clever little snapshot of characterisation with humour and pathos that had me responding in kind. A brief scene with the abandoned wife and children of a debtor Dex is tracking down demonstrates her sense of fair-play, as well as her professionalism. When hit in the face by a baseball, Dex compliments the kid on her swing. Later, she doesn’t pressure the wife about the debt, but continues to pursue the true defaulter.
This short helped me put my finger on a slight sense of dissatisfaction with the four-comic arc I had just finished. Reading this initial volume, I can see Dex is going to be a great character. There’s plenty of scope for her friends and acquaintances, but the focus in this first arc is the central investigation, without developing a subplot or expanding any of the interactions Dex has with her associates beyond that which is necessary to the narrative. “Mustang Ranch” blends narrative and character delineation perfectly, in a way that only a really good short story writer can. I feel that the longer arc is missing some of this deftness, which is a pity for a series introducing new characters.
Overall, I’ll be picking up the newer collections. Unfortunately, this series is hard to get hold of in the UK, where smaller press hardcopies get limited distribution. It must be gorgeous on paper. Good genre fiction works because the creators understand how the codes and conventions became established in the first place and what purpose they serve in structuring the story, both technically and philosophically. The isolation of the PI, both as a condition for taking on the role and as a result of the work itself, is ably demonstrated in Dex. She demonstrates a distinct lack of interest in abiding by society’s usual boundaries regarding sexual relationships, with the implication that this has ruined key working relationships. Though very little backstory is given, much is hinted at.
Working with the conventions and expectations of detective and noir predecessors, Rucka and Southworth demonstrate a real affection for genre without their work feeling derivative or predictable. Rucka and Southworth have created a classic detective with a fresh slant in Dex, a heroine who badly needs to reflect on the causes and choices in her life, but is busy employing those skills, and that emotional energy, on the day job.