Review of Stumptown, Volume 1
Deeply indebted to the casinos run by the Confederated Tribes of the Wind Coast, Private Investigator Dex Parios is given a deal by the casino’s head; if Dex can locate Sue-Lynne’s missing granddaughter, Charlotte, the debt will be cleared. Though she’s a solid investigator and knows her way around Portland, Oregon, Dex immediately finds herself in trouble with criminals also searching for Sue-Lynne’s granddaughter and a counter offer from Hector Marenco, a local businessman with alleged ties to drug cartels. Dex quickly discovers that her life and Charlotte’s are in danger, but what is less clear is who wants to make sure they’re both never found again.
The story is a pretty strong piece of hard-boiled detective fiction, and the Portland setting gives it a different texture than similar kinds of stories set in far more dense, urban places like Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, and Boston. There is frequently a relaxed atmosphere, but it can quickly turn to violence and danger as Dex discovers even her supposed allies don’t always have the same goals as her. Dex’s willingness to lash out also means that she alienates some people—like the Portland police—who could help her. She, like many private detectives in fiction, remains on the social fringes, but in the case of Stumptown, this disaffection may be as much as product of Dex’s personality as it is her actions in the setting.
The out-of-sequence first chapter is meant as a hook, but since the rest of the story doesn’t play out in this fashion and nothing much comes of it thematically, it feels a bit unnecessary. Otherwise, the graphic novel is filled with the tense interrogations, rough and tumble action, and betrayals that readers want in this variety of story. The family and crime drama around the Marcenos doesn’t always feel as well-established as it could be, but their actions do make sense given what is discovered about their desires and motivations.
Dex is unpredictable and gritty, being a fair investigator, but making up for her shortcomings with tenacity. Though she’s often intimidated, outnumbered, beaten, and shot, Dex presses forward with a stubborn if slightly bent moral compass. She readily admits to her many faults:
I gamble, I drink, I smoke, and I’ve got a car that runs half the time. I just took out a second mortgage, half my bills are past due, and my mentally retarded brother pulls a steadier income than me. I own three pairs of shoes, one dress that I’m not ashamed to be seen in, two pairs of jeans, and a collection of t-shirts that say more about my adolescence than I care to remember. I’m thirty-two, single, unattached, and the last time I went on a date the president was white and in his first term. My word is all I have. (129)
Reflecting on her shortcomings lets the audience stay on her side because she’s self-aware and making the effort to try and be better. Her personality is often too abrasive for her own good, and she frequently seem to leap into tense or perilous situations without much forethought. These qualities call to mind Lew Archer from Ross Macdonald’s hard-boiled stories because he was another flawed investigator who enjoyed the thrills and danger of his profession. She's also reminiscent of the unlicensed detectives Hank Dolworth (Donal Logue) and Britt Pollack (Michael Raymond-James) from the show Terriers. Ultimately, this comparison puts Dex in good company as far as hard-boiled detectives go.
The Hard Way
The art is subdued and effective. Southworth provides the right level of workmanship for a crime story, which is less bombastic than superhero comics. The coloring and composition evoke a grimy, noir mood, and the action is usually sudden and vicious, giving a realism to the violence. There are also several unique panel layouts that draw the eye in multiple directions and require careful study. The overall match with the story is a good, complementary fit.
Fans of crime stories and hard-boiled detectives will want to check out Stumptown. Dex is acerbic and self-destructive, which might turn off some readers, and the plot is solid but not a unique masterpiece. Nonetheless, the positive elements far outweigh the negative, and the continued adventures of Stumptown Investigations is cause for excitement.
Rucka, Greg, and Southworth, Matthew. Stumptown, Vol. 1: The Case of the Girl Who Took Her Shampoo (But Left Her Mini). Oni Press, 2017.
- Stumptown – Oni Press
Read the comics before you watch the show! Dex Parios is a sharp-witted army veteran with a complicated love life, gambling debt and a brother to take care of. Her skills make her a great PI, but her style puts her in the firing line.
- Terriers (TV Series 2010) - IMDb
Created by Ted Griffin. With Donal Logue, Michael Raymond-James, Laura Allen, Kimberly Quinn. Ex-cop and recovering alcoholic Hank Dolworth partners with his best friend, former criminal Britt Pollack, in an unlicensed private investigation business.
- Review of The Moving Target
Take aim because Seth Tomko reviews The Moving Target by Ross Macdonald.
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