While comic books – and the television shows they spawn – are a natural home for physics-bending powers and supernatural menaces, not all comics require some fantastical element to be entertaining or acclaimed. A few take their inspiration from some of television’s more budget-minded and contained ideas.
Stumptown, by Greg Rucka, Matthew Southworth and Justin Greenwood is one such title. And the television show of the same name — based upon the comic and Certified Fresh at 95% on the Tomatometer at the time of this publication — maintains that realism.
In the TV version, Cobie Smulders plays Dex Parios, an ex-soldier living in Portland, taking care of her developmentally challenged brother Ansel, and trying to keep herself one step ahead of the trouble brewing around her as a private investigator. It is the sort of premise which used to dominate television, but by the time Rucka and his compatriots were first bringing Dex’s stories to life in the comics, the P.I. show had all but disappeared. And, as it happens, those American TV P.I.s tended to be male — notable exceptions include Sally McMillan (Susan Saint James) and, of course, Jessica Fletcher (Angela Lansbury); although neither of them made private investigation their day job. And though Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) claimed to be a P.I., she always spent more time being a superhero.
For Dex, investigating cases will be her day job. At least, when she remembers it is her day job. She’s a delightful trainwreck sometimes more interested in booze and sex than making sure she closes a case. At the Television Critics Association summer press tour, Smulders described Dex as “tough and smart, but [also] she’s broken, and she’s just trying to get through the day.” In several ways, she is quite a departure from Smulder’s How I Met Your Mother Role of Robin Scherbatsky (to say nothing of her Marvel role as Maria Hill), even if she recognizes certain aspects of Robin in Dex. Nonetheless, the distance between them inspired her.
“When you go into something that could potentially go for multiple seasons, you want to choose something that you’re never going to be bored with,” she said.
When Rotten Tomatoes spoke to Rucka about the television show, he said bringing the more rough-and-tumble private investigator back to TV as a woman gives Stumptown a unique flavor.
“When you flip gender in some of these situations, you get some really great dramatic and thematic dividends, because society treats men differently than it treats women,” he explained. “Expectations are different … Ask any woman if her experience walking down the street alone at two-in-the-morning is the same as yours.”
To Rucka, it is important to embrace that gender flip for all the diverse story lines it presents, while making sure “gender is not the defining attribute of character.” And, like real people, Rucka said, a character is what he calls “an emergent organism.”
“They are all these things: Different pieces. They are the color of their hair, and their education, and how they were raised, and where they were raised, and what religion they were raised in, and whether they still believe, and when they had their first kiss, and what their favorite food is, and gender’s in there,” he said.
And don’t dismiss her as a “lady P.I.” — it’s 2019 and Smulders’ Dex is no Jessica Fletcher. She’s vibrant, flawed, and has had extensive fight training.
Rucka’s holistic approach has made the females characters – from Rene Montoya and Batwoman in the Batman books, to Queen and Country’s Tara Chase and Dex – favorite characters among his readers.
And to executive producer Jason Richman, that richness of character was part of the appeal, as he explained at TCA in August.
“Such a complex character in this genre — given the history of this genre on television — was completely unique to me,” Richman said.
As it happens, almost all of Rucka’s creator-owned comics are optioned for some sort of television development (Batwoman is set to debut on October 6), but Stumptown was the first to emerge. He credits Richman, his team, and ABC for “hungrily” wanting to bring it to television. For his part, Rucka just wanted to make sure his collaborators received a fair piece. At that point, it went “from zero to 60” in terms of shooting a pilot and getting the series on ABC’s fall schedule.
“I’ve had stuff in development for 15 years,” he said. “This happened in nine to 12 months — literally, less than nine months from acquisition to [when the] pilot was picked up.”
And in that brief time, the production assembled a cast which includes Smulders, Jake Johnson as Dex’s close friend Grey, Cole Sibus as Ansel – both characters from the comic book – Michael Ealy as Hoffman, a gender-swap of the comic book character, and Camryn Manheim as Lt. Cosgrove, a character re-imagined for the television series.
When asked about the character at TCA, Manheim said Cosgrove appealed to her because “we tend to see a lot of professionals in uniform who we never get to know their backstory. We don’t get to see their flaws.” Cosgrove, as a regular character, has a life that will be fleshed out across the season.
“She has some desperation and some goals she never reached,” Manheim added. “I think it’s going to be nice to see the inside of someone who generally just has a badge and is in a uniform.”
Ealy, used to playing cops, agreed to play Hoffman — an intentional sexy detective — because he felt Stumptown could go anywhere.
“I’m just now starting to see where it could go, and I’m very, very happy with my decision and with the possibilities of this character,” Ealy said.
Similarly, Grey is somewhat familiar territory for Johnson — the character is a bartender like The New Girl‘s Nick Miller — but he was nonetheless happy to take on the role because of where he starts and the potential going forward.
“I like that you meet him, you feel like you know him, he’s a friend … [but] every character has secrets, and you reveal more and more as it goes,” Johnson said.
The series also features Native American actor Tantoo Cardinal as Sue Lynn Blackbird, a power broker and manager of a casino near Portland. The character appeared in Dex’s first comic book case, but received a major expansion for the television series.
“It has been a part of my madness that this society has really misconstrued ideas of who we are. We’re kind of an enigma, you know. Some people are kind of surprised that we’re still alive,” Cardinal told television reporters in August. “I was kind of astounded, actually, to get the script, and to see this character, and to see who she is. And I think it’s really exciting for us and for the viewers to see a whole different idea of who we are, and closer to the truth of who we are today.”
The expansion of Sue Lynn Blackbird — and Hoffman’s appearance as a man – will be the first of several notable changes readers of Stumptown will spot immediately when watching the first episode. Another: TV Dex is just beginning her journey to becoming a P.I., whereas in the book, she’s established a firm long before the first published story.
To Rucka, giving her that journey made sense for television: “[Audiences] want to see how she is going to evolve and change. I think in so doing, you create those greater investments on the part of the audience, but also you can create something that allows your lead [actor] to continue to be engaged and passionate.”
And while Stumptown was born of more episodic television like The Rockford Files, Rucka suggested an element of serialization – beyond Dex learning to be a P.I. – may filter into the show. That serialization may present itself in the secrets both Johnson and Richman referred to in August.
“You’ll find with all the characters in the show, that what we’re building are very complex people,” Rucka said. “Often [they are] hiding secrets from each other … sometimes from themselves even.”
He also noted a shared tragedy between Dex and Sue Lynn will continue to inform their relationship: “She may find herself on opposite sides of something that Dex is working on, or they may need each other in certain instances. And there’s always this complicated past at play.”
Beyond the ways characters evolve and change on modern television — and how it relates back to the TV P.I . — Rucka also noted one of the key secrets in adapting a comic book to TV: A 100-page comic gives you roughly one-half hour of TV drama if directly translated to the screen.
“Comics do not go one for one,” he said. “You can’t do it, and trying to do it insults both mediums and that’s disrespectful.
“When you bring a comic book audience to these adaptations, there are certain expectations,” he continued. “There are things people are going to want to see or going to want to see referenced because that’s part of the comment, right?”
To Rucka, it’s the emotional beats that are worth preserving because “[they] are easy to replicate” and they are the moments fans really want to see. It is this element he felt the show really honed in on and replicated for television.
“You sit down and you read the comic, it’s going to look recognizably like the TV show. That’s an enormous honor and almost an unexpected one. There was no reason to actually expect that kind of parity,” he added.
Stumptown premieres on Wednesday, September 25 at 10/9C on ABC.