Dex Parios is a P.I. in Portland. She drinks, smokes, has a gambling problem and hasn’t had a date in years. When her debts start to escalate the casino owner offers a way to clear her tab. Her granddaughter has gone missing and no one has seen the girl for days. It sounds simple enough, but only minutes after Dex visits the girl’s apartment someone physically threatens her and tells her to stay out of other people’s business. So begins the first chapter of “Stumptown and The Case of the Girl Who Took her Shampoo (But Left her Mini).”
Comics writer and author Greg Rucka is a self proclaimed fan of The Rockford Files, and Stumptown from Oni Press is a P.I. comic in the same mold as the TV show from the 1970s. In The Rockford Files, James Garner’s character was a fairly ordinary guy who didn’t have any special abilities, quirks, or unusual talents like so many leading men from today’s TV shows. (Such as The Mentalist, Lie to Me, Monk, Castle, and so on. The only thing Jim Rockford had going for him was his determination to see the right thing done. Dex is cut from the same cloth as Rockford. She has no special talents but she is very observant and driven to succeed when she puts her mind to something. Given the amount of money she owes she doesn’t really have a choice about taking the case from the casino owner, but once she starts you get the impression she will find answers, no matter the cost.
Stumptown reminds me a bit of Alias, the Marvel comic by Brian Bendis. Both feature strong female characters who sometimes gets into situations over their head and then have to dig their way out. Stumptown is set in the real world in Portland, unlike Alias which is connected to the Marvel universe, so there are no superpowers or special abilities.
Greg Rucka always creates interesting characters, and in particular his female characters are layered and complex individuals that feel like real people. Dex, or Dexedrine Parios, to use her full name, is a bit of a mystery and even though we find out what kind of a person she is now, we don’t know who she was and what she did before she was a P.I.
Through the course of her investigation we learn a bit about her past, but there are still big gaps so I can only make assumptions. Dex is someone who has trouble keeping her mouth shut. She’s outspoken, blunt and her attitude is likely to offend some people and get her into trouble. She has friends in the local police department and I think something fairly major happened in her past that got her kicked off the police force. It sent her into a bit of a downward spiral, hence the gambling problem and the fact that she isn’t able to keep a steady job.
One of the richest men in the state also takes an interest in the missing girl and Dex is told in no uncertain terms that she is now working for him. This doesn’t sit well with her, but she’s smart enough not to poke an angry bear when she’s sat in its lair. So she plays along, but you just know Dex doesn’t like being pushed around and is searching for an opportunity to turn the tables.
During her investigation Dex is beaten up several times, shot, chased, intimidated, threatened and all of this takes place within the space of a few days. Dex seems to take all of it in her stride and she is cheeky, funny, flirty, and will not be distracted from finding answers. Dex discovers that the missing girl left home because she was afraid for her life. She stumbled into something bigger than her, but doesn’t have Dex’s experience so instead she ran and hid. The questions then become what did the girl stumble into? Who is she afraid of and where did she go?
Several people want Dex to succeed in locating the girl for their own reasons and others want Dex to leave it alone. Stuck between a rock and a hard place Dex does what she does best. She keeps working the case, searching for clues, determined to find the girl and return her safely to her grandmother. That’s the only thing that really matters to her. All of the games, intimidation, violence and scheming is just noise that gets in the way. With all of her faults and personal problems, Dex is a well rounded and interesting character and you always want her to succeed as she struggles against huge forces.
Stumptown is very unpredictable and the story is full of plot twists that I didn’t see coming. In the TV shows, like those I mentioned above, you know in the back of your mind that somehow the leading man will use his special gift to solve the case. In Stumptown, Dex doesn’t have a safety net, special gifts or a backup team of armed FBI agents. The only thing she has is a sense of right and wrong to guide her and the sort of people she’s mixing with don’t care about that. She’s not a police officer so they can make her disappear at any time without too many problems which makes for tense reading.
This graphic novel is a collection of the first Stumptown mini series and I was very pleased to hear more stories are planned. Greg Rucka and Matthew Southworth have created another fascinating and flawed protagonist and I was gripped and excited by Dex’s first case and can’t wait to read more of her adventures in the future.