Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Stumptown #1 Review

Portland, Oregon.  If my understanding of popular culture and geography is accurate (and I think it is), it's a pretty hip town on the Pacific northwest of the United States.  It also happens to be the setting for Greg Rucka's brilliant detective comic book series, Stumptown.  Originally appearing as a four issue limited series in late 2009, it told the story of private investigator Dex Parios as she tried to unravel an increasingly complex missing person's case.  It was also brilliant.  This week, Rucka returns to Portland to begin its resident P.I.'s second story, a tale called "The Case of the Baby in the Velvet Case".  It's a bit of a mouthful, but is it any good?  Hit the jump to get my take.

Written by Greg Rucka
Art by Matthew Southworth
Colour by Rico Renzi

The first volume opened with series protagonist, Dex Parios, being pulled from a trunk of a car parked beneath Portland's St. Johns Bridge, shot, and left for dead.  If you've read the issue (or realized that Dex remains the protagonist of this, the second volume of Stumptown), you know that she survives the event, but it still made for one hell of an opening.  Meeting our hero in medias res, receiving no explanation of what's going on, and then seeing her gunned down moments later really grabbed you as a reader.  It was big, it was daring, and it set the tone for the kind of life Dex (and the miniseries) led.

This issue doesn't have quite as explosive of a beginning.  It opens with Dex moving into her new office (technically, it opens with a rock concert, but I'll get to that shortly).  Yes, it appears that Stumptown Investigations has done quite well for itself in our absence, and Dex no longer has to run things on a shoestring budget out of her house.  With Dex leading a (seemingly) more financially secure lifestyle, she can receive prospective clients and jobs at said office, instead of being blackmailed into work to settle old gambling debts (as we've seen before, natch).

It is a noticeable departure from the tone of the original series, but it's not a complete one-eighty.  While Greg Rucka illustrates Dex's stabler lifestyle by showing her unpacking the office, he also in certain to demonstrate that the Dex we know and love is still alive and well.  A major part of the first volume was Dex's own personal code of honour, which went a long way in making her a sympathetic character (well, that and her interactions with the book's supporting cast), and although that initial scene might be a little confusing for readers new to the character, it reinforces that code and how capable of a private investigator Dex is.

So although the first prospective client we meet turns out to be a non-starter, that (actual) opening rock concert scene comes back into play shortly thereafter when Miriam "Mim" Bracca, lead guitarist for local Portland band, Tailhook, comes in to hire Dex to find her "baby".  That's right, Mim's prized guitar has gone missing and it's up to Dex to find it.  Again, I'll be the first to admit that it doesn't have quite the same urgency as "left for dead under a bridge", but that edge is still here.  It's just a little more subdued - for now.

It shows up quite a bit more as we move towards the end of the issue.  As Dex starts to look into the case, it quickly becomes clear that there's a lot more at stake than simply a missing guitar.  Of course, it should come as no surprise that Dex, as is her wont, has somehow found a way to get herself stuck right in the middle of it all, leaving us with a cliffhanger that fits right in with the issues of Stumptown that have come before.

Artwise, I'm happy to report that Rucka managed to get the whole gang back together, with series artist Matthew Southworth and colourist Rico Renzi coming back for a second tour of duty.  This is good news, because while Stumptown certainly had a distinct voice, its visuals were just as unique and important, and it's nice to see that style preserved here.  Southworth wrote backup pieces for each issue of the last series, giving an insight into the astounding amount of research and attention to detail he puts into his work, and that's definitely on full display here.  While I've never been to Portland, I have no doubt that everything we see in this book exists somewhere in that town, and should I ever visit, I imagine I could pick out some landmarks from having read this series (for example, I couldn't find an actual reference to that bridge I mention in the opening paragraph, but using Google Maps, was easily able to identify it).

My first few times through the issue, I felt like there was something off about the colouring.  For some reason, the pages of Stumptown Volume 2 #1 didn't quite look like the world I remembered from our last adventure with Dex.  Comparing issues side by side, I saw that Renzi was doing the same fine work as before, but something still didn't sit quite right.  Eventually, it dawned on me that the big difference I was noticing is due to so much of this issue taking place in the daytime.  Last volume, things were far more desperate for Dex, and so a lot of scenes were set at night to represent this fact.  Now that things are going better, the world is literally lighter, giving the book a slightly sunnier hue (sorry about that pun, I couldn't resist).  It's another small touch that shows how much care has clearly gone into this book.

My only real qualm about Dex's return to the funny pages is that she didn't bring her aforementioned supporting cast with her.  To me, those characters were a major part of the heart and soul that was Stumptown, and I hope that they won't stay away for the forthcoming chapters in this story.  As much a I love Ms. Parios, I'll be a mite sad if her brother Ansel doesn't show up.  Or her police friend Detective Tracy Hoffman (who does get a name drop here).  I could go on, but I think you get the idea.

Verdict - Buy It.  Greg Rucka is a writer you can trust, and he proves why that is so once again here with an excellent opening issue that gives a lot of clues of what's yet to come but still leaves you begging for more.  Matt Southworth and Rico Renzi do a brilliant job as Rucka's artistic collaborators, giving Stumptown that gritty yet gorgeous look that made it so recognizable last time around.  Go out and get this title.  You won't regret it.

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