Review: Stumptown, Vol. 2 – The Case of the Baby in the Velvet Case

Stumptown 2 coverThere is no more satisfying sight than a creative team improving on their previous output. The first volume of Stumptown set the bar astronomically high; The Case of the Baby in the Velvet Case surpasses it.

When rock star Mim Bracca walks into the office of Stumptown Investigations with a seemingly open-and-shut case involving her missing ‘baby’ – her prized guitar – Dex Parios is quick to accept the job. After the events of The Case of the Girl Who Took Her Shampoo (But Left Her Mini), which saw Dex take on crime lord Hector Marenco, Portland’s dogged investigator’s list of prospective clients has halved. Quite frankly, whatever the job, she’ll take it. Of course, nothing is ever as simple as it seems – especially not for Dex, who quickly learns it’s not just the guitar that’s gone missing. Several opposing forces, including the DEA and amped-up skinheads, are looking for the guitar and its precious addition, and once again Dex is in the middle of it.

The highlight of The Case of the Baby in the Velvet Case is the high-speed chase between Dex, a couple of skinheads, and the Portland police. While Matthew Southworth’s art isn’t as refined as it was in Stumptown: Volume 1, the diminution of its overall detail is worth it for the vehicular pursuit alone. Perfectly choreographed and perfectly paced, you can feel the acceleration and adrenaline on the page. A long time ago I was told it’s almost impossible to pull off car chases in comics; Greg Rucka and Southworth have put that argument to bed.

Dex winds up the case in routine but satisfying fashion. The journey towards its conclusion, however, is fantastic. There’s no doubt, Greg Rucka is writing the best crime series in comics.

Review: Stumptown, Vol. 1 – The Case of the Girl Who Took Her Shampoo (But Left Her Mini)

Stumptown Vol 1Crime fiction is littered with private detectives, but few have punctuated the genre like Dex Parios. Oh, sure, the proprietor of Stumptown Investigations hasn’t yet achieved the resonance of Rockford, Spade, Spenser or Marlowe – but give it time. Thanks to her incorrigible knack of landing herself in hot water, showcased in the opening pages of Stumptown: Volume One, when she is ruthlessly gunned down by a couple of thugs, Dex is destined to earn a place among that echelon.

The Case of the Girl Who Took Her Shampoo (But Left Her Mini) introduces Dex as a talented investigator, but a screw-up in just about every other aspect of her life. She owes the Confederated Tribes of the Wind Coast’s casino almost eight thousand dollars; and with her credit cards maxed out, and less than a hundred bucks to her name, she’s in no position to pay it off, or negotiate when the casino’s manager offers an opportunity to clear the debt. Seems the manager’s granddaughter has gone missing – maybe run off with a boy, maybe not – and Dex’s particular set of skills could be of use in discerning her whereabouts. Unfortunately for Dex, Charlotte’s whereabouts requite a detour through Portand’s seedier districts.

Rather than implementing the stereotypical noir-soaked first person narrative readers might expect, writer Greg Rucka avoids captions entirely, leaving artist Matthew Southworth to carry the heavy load of portraying Dex’s emotions and hinting at her thoughts. It’s a wise move – Southworth is up to the challenge. Stumptown is a comic that necessitates artistic excellence in the quieter moments, as a large portion of the narrative involve non-violent confrontations. Southworth effortlessly renders these scenes, choreographing conversations for maximum readability.  His fellow colourists, Lee Loughridge and Rico Renzi, also deserve massive credit for their chosen palette, which is stultified, but never anything less than evocative.

The Case of the Girl Who Took Her Shampoo (But Left Her Mini) sets an astronomically high bar for future volumes of Stumptown, but given Rucka’s track record, few will doubt his capacity for betterment. Bring it on, Dex.

Review: Capote in Kansas by Ande Parks & Chris Samnee (Oni Press)

Capote in KansasTruman Capote’s In Cold Blood is considered one of the greatest novels of the 20th century.

And I haven’t read it.

Ridiculous, really, given my love of crime fiction. After all, Capote’s “non-fiction novel” paved the way for modern real-life crime dramas. And while I’ve always preferred the fiction in my crime – I suppose I enjoy the safety net of the author’s imagination, that I’m not bearing witness to depraved reality – there are some books you need to make exceptions for. And indeed, thanks to Capote in Kansas, I intend to rectify that blank spot in my library with immediate effect.

This collaboration between writer (and letterer)  Ande Parks and illustrator Chris Samnee is a fictional account – grounded in fact – of Truman Capote’s investigation into the murder of the Clutter, and its effects on the town of Garden City – and indeed Captoe himself. Arriving in expensive designer garb and bearing a New Yorker’s arrogance, Capote is quickly forced to reinvent himself (thanks to some advice from Harper Lee), both in appearance and attitude, in order to have the town’s citizens open up to him. Interestingly, and somewhat uncomfortably, Parks and Samnee choose not to demonize the Clutter killers: they are humanized, presented as real, but deeply troubled individuals. But the uneasiness and paranoia of the townsfolk is never examined, unlike In Cold Blood, which I understand is a vital component of Capote’s story; and it does feel like that vital component fundamental. Even a couple of scenes interspersed throughout, just to demonstrate how affected the people of Garden City were, would’ve enhanced the story’s quality. At times it in Capote in Kansas, it feels like Capote is operating in a vacuum, when that was clearly not the case.

Capote in Kansas will ultimately live or die in the eyes of its readers depending on their willingness to accept the story’s gigantic fictional leap: that Capote communicates, or imagines to converse with (depending on the respective reader’s perspective), the ghost of Nancy Clutter.  The story needs an emotional hook, and it makes sense that Parks and Samnee, operating in a graphic medium, have chosen to visualize that aspect, and the ghost’s personification allows for a touching epilogue; but it is a constant reminder that this is historical fiction with a heavy emphasis on the fiction.

Still, for all my nit-picking, Capote in Kansas is highly enjoyable, and at the very least offers insight into the basis of In Cold Blood, thereby teasing readers into grabbing a copy of that masterwork. Samnee’s illustrations flirt with the greatness we’re seeing nowadays in the pages of Daredevil, and Parks deserves credit for not going the obvious rout with this account and overwhelming readers with historical facts. Offered a choice between a dry caption-heavy interpretation and this, I’ll choose Capote in Kansas every time.