When it comes to comic books, it doesn’t get more Portland than Stumptown. Set in Portland, published by Portland’s Oni Press, written by Portland fan favorite Greg Rucka and drawn by Seattleite Matthew Southworth, the detective graphic novel is pure Pacific Northwest.
The second book in the series, subtitled The Case of the Baby in the Velvet Case, has just been released in oversized hardcover format with an introduction from comics writer and Portland native Kelly Sue DeConnick.
Stumptown centers on Dex Parios, a private investigator working in Portland. For her latest gig, Dex is hired by local musician Miriam Bracca to find her stolen guitar—the “baby” in the velvet case. The guitar is valuable on its own, belonging to a member of a popular band, but naturally there are a few extra layers at play.
The story is self-contained, so you can hop into the second volume like you would with any episode of a cop TV show. It does help on a context and character level to have read the first book, but it’s not necessary.
Even in the second volume, the sheer novelty of the Portland setting is still exciting. Though Portland has gained national notoriety in recent years with Portlandia, Grimm and a season of The Real World, there’s still something remarkable about recognizing our home turf in a piece of major media.
At one point, I was reading Stumptown on the MAX next to Union Station and had to stop myself from showing strangers how cool it was that I could match up the iconic “Go By Train” sign with its illustrated counterpart. Your novelty mileage may vary, but the quality and accuracy of Stumptown’s representation of Portland is undeniable.
Rucka has been at the mystery game for years, in both novels and comics, and it shows in his tight storytelling. Though this second volume is longer than the first, no scene seems unnecessary, no panel superfluous. The dialogue is one notch removed from reality (“Now I see your hands…or I see the fine pink mist that was your brains.”), grounded enough to be believable, but exaggerated enough to be entertaining.
Whenever the book jumps up a notch, gravity pulls it down to earth. An entire chapter is devoted to a thrilling car chase that has the reader physically turning the book with the action. After the chase is over, instead of high-fives and beers all around, there are real and logical consequences. Combined with the real-world setting, Stumptown benefits from an authenticity that’s rare in detective fiction, comics or otherwise.
Though Rucka’s dedication to Portland shines through in Stumptown, artist Matthew Southworth is due a fair share of credit. Southworth’s style morphs from page to page, from detailed depictions of real buildings to rough sketches that almost look like storyboards but always remains faithful to the city.
The aforementioned car chase is the highlight, a marvel of plotting and execution that seems hectic and fast-paced without ever becoming indecipherable. It’s an impressive feat; fistfights in comics are a dime a dozen, but great car chases are few and far between.
The asymmetrical technique isn’t for everyone. In one panel, Dex’s face might be a meticulously crafted expression of anguish, and another might resemble a common internet smiley face. Some will appreciate the inconsistency for its improvisational quality, while the unevenness might drive others up the wall.
No matter the style, colorist Rico Renzi does a fantastic job filling in Southworth’s lines. Somehow he knows just the right amount of purple tint to add to a skinhead tweaker’s complexion, and the exact cherry brick red to give a treasured guitar an air of magic. Together, Renzi and Southworth deliver unique and idiosyncratic visuals deserving of the Rose City.
The $29.99 price tag might sound like a tall order, even for a deluxe hardcover, but there are other options for the budget-conscious. A set of the individual issues that make up the book can be found for about $20 at one of Portland’s many fine comic shops. Barring that, the digital version can be found online at Comixology for $8.99.