4/6/12

"Stumptown" by Greg Rucka

Lately it seems that Portland has bubbled into popular culture. Or maybe it’s not lately – starting all those years ago with the Simpsons, when Matt Groening loosely based his fictional family in Springfield on his real family and hometown.  More recently IFC’s “Portlandia” is more obvious example showing P-town town as an omphaloskeptic society bent on proclaiming rights for bicycles and with residents interrogating waiters about the heritage of their lunch.  In both cases, Bridgetown plays along in a wacky sort of way, glad of the attention, sort of like a bachelor uncle at the family gathering.

But Portland isn’t always the happy-go-lucky uncle. Sometimes there are murders, kidnappings, and police car chases, just like in Chicago, LA or New York. OK, not exactly – we have a couple beautiful snow-covered volcanoes in the background, and some of the cops ride mountain bikes.  But there’s also a dangerous and ugly underside to the City of Roses, and it’s in this culture that Greg Rucka sets his graphic novel “Stumptown.”

As Matt Fraction mentions in the foreword, “Stumptown ” is vaguely inspired by “The Rockford Files.” It has a subtitle, appearing at the end of the chapter as if it was the name of episode:  “The Case of the Girl Who Took her Shampoo (But Left her Mini),” done in 70’s style Cooper font.  It has the angry chief, the rough and tumble locations: a bar, a casino, the hotel parking lot, a shooting under a bridge. And central to the story is the tough, independent PI named Dex Parios, who hangs her shingle as “Stumptown Investigations  503-389-2135”

“Stumptown” has all the trappings of an early 70’s detective show, yet Rucka has cleverly twisted everything to make it fresh, and wrapped it around a world he’s envisioned so completely it’s almost tangible.  The cheap bar Parios uses as a meeting spot, the Ringside, actually exists as a Portland landmark, known mostly for the steaks and onion rings, and it’s not really cheap.   A meeting in Mt. Tabor Park is rendered by the comics’ artist Matthew Southworth with sufficient chiaroscuro to portend danger, unlike the actual park I’ve visited with my kids.  And my favorite twist is the minor chase scene / standoff inside and outside the Heathman Hotel.  I could see Jim Rockford in a similar scene, but only Dex Parios would be in this one.

Dex Parios showcases her messy car, bad ass style & bad luck
Speaking of Parios, I’ve often read that Rucka writes “strong female characters.”  I’d have to say Rucka doesn’t write strong female leads. He writes strong leads who sometimes happen to be females.  Dex Parios needs to be strong. She has some luck, both good and bad, but she’s mostly determined.  Taking the case of tracking down the granddaughter of a missing Confederated Tribes casino manager isn’t all her idea – she owes the casino $18,000 – but she works it like a professional. Between that and taking care of her mentally-challenged brother, gambling too much, and probably eating too much take-out and sleeping on the couch in front of the TV, she’s a classic flawed character.  And just like Philip Marlowe, another detective, the sign advertising her detective agency is on the window of her office, but in another twist her office is in her house – a Craftsman bungalow.

Bottom line: Greg Rucka and Matthew Southworth have taken the 70's LA detective TV show, breathed a new life and story into it, and steeped it in Portland culture, and poured everything into a graphic novel.  I hope to read more Stumptown investigations in the future.

"Stumptown" by Greg Rucka has been nominated for an Oregon Book Award in the category of best "Graphic Literature."  To learn more about Rucka, check out his blog at www.gregrucka.com or his fan page on Facebook. On twitter he's @ruckawriter.  Or, if you need a detective, here's theStumptown Investigations website, or call 503-389-2135.

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