There 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.
Crime 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.