Sunday, February 04, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #35: Stumptown Vol. 1 by Greg Rucka and Matthew Southworth

There are creators I feel guilty about not reading more often. I don't know if that's an emotion most readers have -- it's weird and counter-productive and based entirely in my own head, so I hope it's not widespread -- but I look at shelves and book lists and new publications all the time and think "Oh no, I am so far behind on {Creator X}."

Greg Rucka is one of them. I don't mind missing most of his superhero-universe comics, since I've mostly avoided those worlds for the last twenty-some years -- when superhero stories just annoy you instead of pleasing you, that's the sign to stop reading about superheroes. (This rule is applicable to many other things, of course.) But I read his novels avidly for a decade or so, I really liked Whiteout like so many other people, and I was fond of Queen and Country until it went too far down the rabbit hole for me. And I actually knew Rucka in person, once upon a time, half a million years ago in college.

So I have the weird sense that I ought to read his books. Since I've liked them, that shouldn't be too difficult, right? Well, the world is big and the flow of books is huge and endless. Sometimes just keeping track of the things you want to get to someday is too much work.

Anyway, something like a decade late -- this was published as comics in 2009 and in this snazzy book form in 2011 -- I finally got to Stumptown, Vol. 1: The Case of the Girl Who Took Her Shampoo (But Left Her Mini). It's drawn by Matthew Southworth, whose work I don't otherwise know, in a muddy dark palette that works very well for this moody dark crime story. Southworth is credited as the only artist and one of three colorists, so I'm simplifying to his name to talk about the art -- but the other colorists, Lee Loughridge and Rico Renzi, are probably responsible for a good part of the tone and feel of this book.

Rucka specializes in muddy dark crime stories, in case you didn't know, even when there are superheroes lurking around the edges. I hope you'd have know that by this point, if you read any of the same kind of things I do, but, again, the world is big.

There are further Stumptown stories -- I think three more hardcovers like this one, and maybe more -- all about the same flawed heroine and her city. And I might keep going now that I've started.

But I find I'm really not convinced by the kind of stories in which PIs get regularly beaten up anymore. Sure, someone does try to kill our heroine, Dex Parios, once or twice, but she also gets beaten with some regularity in these four issues, repeatedly by the same people to make her give up. Admittedly, it's fair to assume crooks are stupid, but they're smart enough to know that bullets are cheap.

I have a hard time believing Dex survived to the end of her first story, frankly. And the "getting roughed up by the bad guy's hoods" trope now feels like a creaky genre trapping to me, which I didn't expect. Or maybe I'm coming to think that folks willing to break skin and bones are just as likely to break skulls or other parts in a more permanent manner.

Look: there's great noir atmosphere here, with a runaway teen girl, the down-on-her-luck detective coerced into a job by her own debts and demons, up-to-date ethnicity for our gangsters, local color for Portland, the Ross Macdonald-esque family at odds with itself, cool cars, taut dialogue and occasional gunplay. That atmosphere is equally from Rucka's scenario and words and Southworth's inks and colors. It's a well-done detective story and a smart genre exercise.

I'm just saying I'm finding it harder and harder to believe in those genre trappings -- which is all on me and none on Rucka and Southworth. If you like PI stories, particularly tough female ones (think V.I. Warshawski, for example), Stumptown is something you should check out.

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