Monday, December 21, 2009

Stumptown #1

Oni Press, 35 pages, $ 3.99

Writer: Greg Rucka
Artist: Matthew Southworth
Colorist: Lee Loughridge

"Stumptown" is a nickname for Portland, Oregon. It goes back to the mid-19th century, when trees needed to be cut to make room for the expanding town, but there was no time to remove the stumps.

Portland is where Stumptown writer Greg Rucka lives and where the story is set. In an editorial, Seattle-based artist Matthew Southworth says he goes to Portland for research purposes, in order to make the settings as authentic as possible. In crime fiction, real- and authentic-looking places are crucial in terms of grounding the characters and the action, and Mr. Southworth's care pays off.

Indeed, the bridge where the first and final scene of Stumptown #1 are set, the house in which protagonist Dex lives or crime lord Hector Marenco's mansion are some of the most richly realized settings I've seen in a comic this year, thanks to Mr. Southworth's artwork, but also thanks to Lee Loughridge's atmospheric, subdued colors. The dawns (at the bridge, at the house) and the sunset (at the mansion) portrayed in Stumptown are as beautifully rendered and well-lit ones as you're likely to find on paper.

Used as a verb, now, "to stump" can mean "to nonplus, embarrass, or render completely at a loss."

Private investigator Dex Parios, the protagonist of Stumptown, is a strong female lead in the tradition of Mr. Rucka's Carrie Stetko (the U.S. Marshal from Whiteout) or Tara Chace (the British spy from Queen & Country).

Dex is clearly nonplused by the case she is presented with, although she takes it in with the kind of routine you'd expect—being stumped is her job, after all. In this case, it involves finding an 18-year-old girl—or, as the title of the storyline has it, solving "The Case of the Girl Who Took Her Shampoo But Left Her Mini." It's not clear whether Dex allows herself to be embarrassed by much, however; all throughout the story, she is jerked around by all kinds of people. She doesn't put up a fight, although we're left with the impression that this is because she doesn't want to, rather than because she can't.

We don't know what Dex thinks, precisely, but it seems unlikely that she's completely at a loss as to what's going on. She's paying attention to detail—as a good detective would—and probably knows more than the reader by the end of page 35—or she's known more all along, for all we know.

As a character, it's fair to say that Dex herself leaves us nonplused. She talks a lot, but her gestures and facial expressions say more than her words. She has a lot of vices and behaves irresponsibly, although her behavior towards her little brother—who has Down syndrome, evidently, and who lives with her—shows that she's not an irresponsible person. Also, the people who hire Dex—including the crime lord she encounters—clearly respect her somewhat for some reason, even though she doesn't seem to respect herself.

And while it's said that Dex is broke, the house she shares with her brother is a fairly big, well-equipped one. In a good story, apparent contradictions create friction and conflict, from which results genuine characterization and depth. There are a lot of contradictions when it comes to Dex, and none of them seem random or meaningless.

Now, used as a noun, a "stump" can mean "the part of a limb of the body remaining after the rest has been cut off."

Has something been cut off from Dex's life? It looks that way. As Scott McCloud says in Understanding Comics, the real communication—the real storytelling—in comics happens in the spaces between the panels, which we don't see, and which what's inside the panels therefore has to steer us towards imagining. For Dex, it's much of the same: It's the pieces that aren't there that are the most crucial ones, in her personal life as well as in her job. What are her stumps?

So it's not so much the plot that's important here, but the way Dex responds to any given situation. Why does she act the way she acts? What's missing in her life? What's preventing her from getting a grip and fighting back?

Stumptown is of one piece: a keenly observed, well-made work of literary merit. That, along with its mellow hues and subtlety, which are diametrically opposed to the screaming black-and-white contrasts of Whiteout or the tightly wound sense of duty in Queen & Country, make it a major expansion of Mr. Rucka's repertoire, as well as a major North American comics release of 2009.

Grade: A

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