REVIEW: Scalped #50

I’ve said it before, and I’ll start by saying it again: in my humble opinion, Scalped is the best comic on shelves today, has been for a long time, and the longer it runs, the stronger a case it makes for itself to stand amongst the all-time greats of the comic book medium.  I’ve already written at length about the series on several occasions, doing my best to spread the word.  But frustratingly, Scalped has never been as big a hit as it deserves to be.  So it is all the more rewarding that this gritty crime drama about an undercover FBI agent working to take down a criminal organisation in an Indian reservation (though really, it’s about that as much as The Wire was about cops and robbers) has now reached its milestone 50th issue.  It is indeed a cause for celebration, and as such Scalped #50 takes us out of the ongoing central narrative, reading more like a well-deserved victory lap for the book’s creative team.

As the issue begins, we’re taken out of the present-day saga, back to the winter of 1876.  We follow a white scalphunter and his son as they set up camp in Montana, with a gruesome opening scene going into detail about how one commits the brutal act that gives this series its title.  Through the scalphunter’s recollections, we get a glimpse of the bloody history of atrocities that Native Americans were subjected to through the ages.  It’s a sobering reminder that, if such acts were committed anywhere else, they would be viewed as genocide, but because white Americans were the ones doing the hunting and killing, it’s a dark period of American history that’s been largely swept under the rug or whitewashed (pardon the pun) by many a Hollywood Western.  Then, in a horrific, grimly satisfying (if slightly contrived) twist, we discover that (for better or worse) the Indians weren’t so different from the white settlers they fought against.

In this 9-page opening story, new readers can get a look at the winning combination of creators that has defined Scalped over its run, and get a taste of what they’ve been mising.  There’s the hard-boiled writing of Jason Aaron, both profane and poetic (often within the same sentence).  Aaron is one of the best writers around today, and while he’s best known as one of Marvel’s “architects” and the current go-to guy for Wolverine, Scalped remains the best showcase for his distinctive voice.  There’s the stunning artwork of R.M. Guera, with it’s intricate layouts and depth of detail.  Guera is truly one of the unsung heroes of comics, excelling in everything from sweeping visuals that create a distinct sense of place to a mastery of facial expression and body language that makes the “acting” of his characters almost unmatched.  And there’s the grimy, washed-out colors of Giulia Brusco, the prominent use of browns and oranges creating a parched, sun-drenched aesthetic that helps bring Prairie Rose to life as a place that feels real just as much as Aaron’s writing or Guera’s art.  The creative synergy between these three is practically symbiotic, so much so that even the best issues with fill-in artists, even when beautifully illustrated in their own right, feel like they’re missing something.

If I have any complaint about the issue, it’s the lettering.  For this first segment, Guera letters over his own art, with Sal Cipriano taking over for the remaining 11 pages.  Guera’s lettering is decent enough, a good match for the period setting of the story.  But it’s a bit scratchy, and the blocky speech bubbles aren’t always easy on the eye.  The main problem is that I miss Steve Wands.  I talked above about the creative synergy of the Scalped creative team, and regular letterer Wands is a vital part of that.  The fluidity of his speech bubbles and captions, the way they flow and sprawl across the page, guiding the eye with precision, is reminiscent of John Costanza’s innovative work on Swamp Thing.  Cipriano makes a game attempt at aping Wands’ style, but it isn’t quite the same.  I called this issue a victory lap for what is affectionately referred to in the closing credits box as “the Scalped Crew”, so it’s deeply unfortunate that this one key, but often overlooked component of the crew didn’t get his moment in the sun.

The first half of Scalped #50 is an effective little standalone story that someone who has never looked at the series could pick up and enjoy.  But what truly earns this anniversary issue its high rating is the second half that follows.  We skip forward thirteen years to 1889, as the ancestor of Dashiell Bad Horse – the main character of Scalped – is forced into the fledgling Prairie Rose reservation.  Here, the very act of situating Natives in reservations such as this one is presented as little more than another attempt at Indian genocide by the white colonists of America.  These people were sent here to die, and Bad Horse’s forefather literally is dying from a bayonet wound to the gut.  But in his last moments, he has a visions of the future…

And what follows is a spectacular artistic jam session, a series of full-page splashes depicting select members of the comic’s vast and varied ensemble.  Tim Truman, Jill Thompson, Jordi Bernet, Denys Cowan, Dean Haspiel, Brendan McCarthy and – best of all – Steve Dillon each provide a page, and while special issues of many a comic have treated readers to a gallery of pinups, Aaron makes them more than just that by working them into the fabric of the story.  Against the backdrop of these images, Aaron’s words paint a picture of Prairie Rose and its inhabitants that is defiant and surprisingly hopeful, given how bleak the series can often be.

So, while it does work as a standalone tale, Scalped #50 also manages to act as a comment on the series as a whole up until this point.  Life can be difficult, life can be almost unbearable, but the very act of living is a triumphant overcoming of the odds.  Perhaps it is a comment that applies to the creators as well as the characters.  Scalped has defiantly lived on to its 50th issue.  Congratulations to everyone involved in getting this far: now let’s see where the rest of the story goes.

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