Scalped is a comic that continually subverts archetypes and upsets expectations. One of the most notable examples of this over the course of the series has been the characterisation of Lincoln Red Crow, a onetime militant Indian rights activist turned tribal chief and gangster. Read any synopsis of Scalped and you’ll get the same impression: Dashiell Bad Horse is our hero, and Lincoln Red Crow is the villain. That’s what you get from the synopsis. Reading the story itself, on the other hand, invokes a scenario that is quite different. It’s not long before it becomes apparent that the narrative is about so much more than that “FBI agent goes undercover on the Rez” synopsis would suggest, and that this FBI investigation is but one of numerous plot threads being untangled – a thread that is occasionally cast onto the backburner for extended periods of time. Everything becomes a lot more complex, and not long after we recognise that Bad Horse is no regular hero, we come to realise that Red Crow is no regular villain either. In fact, when the series finally reaches its conclusion, we may look back and come to accept Red Crow as the true hero of Scalped.
Red Crow has come a long way over the course of Scalped. In the first volume of the series, Indian Country, he was portrayed as most certainly a villain, and not a particularly nuanced one at that. I can very rarely find missteps in the storytelling of Jason Aaron, but even now, the first appearance of Red Crow in the first issue remains problematic. In the scene, Bad Horse has just gotten into a fight with a group of Red Crow’s men and been dragged to Red Crow’s office in his casino to face reprisal. Here, R.M. Guera frames Red Crow in a way where we never really get a good look at him, either through him being framed in an obscuring angle or through his features being concealed in menacing shadow. This serves to alienate us from the character, view him more as an antagonistic symbol standing against Bad Horse than as a fully-rounded character in his own right. And as much as I enjoy Aaron’s hard-boiled dialogue, I can’t help but feel Red Crow lays it on a bit thick with his introductory lines, which are centred around this little monologue:
I may be long in winters, kid… but I still know a thing or two about a thing or two. For instance, I know your mother’s a mouthy bitch. And that she always liked a buck to pull her hair when he was riding her from behind. I know you ran away from this rez when you were thirteen, and last I heard you were well on your way to becoming a bona fide waste of space, just like your old man. But most important, I still know how to take a big knife, make an incision from the forehead to the back of the neck… and tear someone’s fucking scalp off.
At which point we pan out to reveal a dead body lying in the office, scalped. We never find out who this nameless victim is, apparently it’s not very important. When I first read this, I thought it was a suitably villainous beat in the story, enhancing the sense of peril in Bad Horse’s situation. But looking back on it with the experience of all that has followed, I can’t help but cringe a bit at how much at odds this heavy-handed brutality is with the careful, calculating Red Crow of subsequent issues. He seems to follow in a tradition of great TV anti-heroes who grew into characters much more complex than their appearances in their respective pilot episodes would suggest. Think of the haunted, broken man Vic Mackey became in The Shield as opposed to the smirking, swaggering cop killer of the pilot, or how distasteful Al Swearangen’s casual decision to have a child killed in the early episodes of Deadwood seems in contrast to the ruthless-but-principled community leader he emerged as over the course of the show’s run.
It is unfortunate that this awkward scene, arguably one of the weakest depictions of Red Crow in the entire series thus far, also happened to be his first appearance, as I believe this negative first impression of the character is what fuelled much of the complaints amongst detractors of the comic that he is little more than a racist caricature. It stands at odds with his characterisation later in the same issue, never mind in Scalped as a whole. But with Aaron’s plotting so meticulous in just about every other respect, it seems odd this random scene would be here without good reason. So how do we justify its presence?
I read and reread the first issue, looked at Red Crow’s blood-splattered entrance in the context of it, and I think I might have an answer. There’s something “off” about Red Crow here, the character simplified into a crude, villainous thug. But a closer reading of the issue shows that Red Crow is not the only figure to act in a manner inconsistent with how they would later be portrayed. In the opening of the issue, Catcher is little more than a babbling, oafish drunk, flickering around on the periphery of the frame. Gina Bad Horse is a screaming, overbearing harpy. Carol Ellroy is a sultry sexpot, all pouts and flattering poses rather than drug addiction and desperation. On a simple level, Aaron is setting up various noir archetypes, which he can then pick apart and subvert into more complicated characters as the series progresses. But looking at R.M. Guera’s artwork suggests this out of pace characterisation working on a deeper level. With the frenzied panel layouts and all those uncomfortable, claustrophobic close-ups, this issue is pushing us firmly into the paranoid, temperamental mindset of Bad Horse. He is our access character into this world, and so in this opening chapter, we are seeing these characters the way Bad Horse perceives them.
The three-part “Indian Country” arc that makes up the first three chapters of the Indian Country graphic novel continues this trend, very much serving as our crash-course introduction to the Prairie Rose Indian Reservation, its history and its inhabitants, with Dashiell Bad Horse as our surly tour guide. As such, Red Crow’s depiction remains largely in similar moustache-twirling territory, as best illustrated by his attempt to have honest cop Falls Down assassinated. Arguably even more ruthless is the casual manner with which he has “old friend” Lister killed for failing to finish the job:
You’ve seen me at my weakest. My most vindictive. My various highs and lows. One might say you were privy to all my deepest, darkest secrets… So, tell me how it feels then, Lister?…Outliving your usefulness.
I will take this brief moment to say that horrifically burned hitman Lister’s early demise is something I remain a little disappointed about. He’s only in a couple of scenes, but he’s a visually interesting character, with hints of some enjoyably murky history, and could have been entertaining to have around even for another arc. However, it’s a testament to the strength of the Scalped ensemble that a charismatic villain who might have been a standout character in a lesser comic wasn’t really missed after his death in this series.
Returning to Red Crow, in “Hoka Hey” – the two-part story that makes up the remaining chapters of Indian Country – we get a glimpse of the depth and complexity Red Crow has come to be known for. It emerges in the flashbacks to the 1970s, where we see a young Red Crow and Gina, and the passion they have for both their cause and each other. Even back then, they were kept apart by circumstance and the clash in their personalities and ideologies, but in the present we see that, in spite of all that has happened to drive them further apart, those feelings still linger. R.M. Guera perfectly visualises their complex relationship in the closing pages of chapter 4:
With the way the page is framed, we get a sense of Lincoln and Gina’s shared history hanging over them like a cloud, their deep connection inescapable. But in the present, each one is alone, divided from the other, and tellingly, facing in opposite directions. In The Gravel in Your Guts, Red Crow has to say about their doomed relationship:
We were too much alike, Gina. You woulda never admitted it in a million years, but it’s the gospel truth. Too quick-tempered, too stubborn. Too full of ourselves. Too much damn gravel in our guts. Still, I always figured we’d somehow end up together.
More recently, in Scalped #48, “Are You Honest Enough to Live Outside the Law?”, Red Crow confides in Bad Horse about his feelings for Gina:
I loved your mother. And for too brief a moment… she loved me. But all I ever did was push her away. I have more than my share of regrets. God knows I do. But none greater than her.
But perhaps the clearest illustration of how these characters feel for each other comes 3 pages into chapter 4 of Indian Country, in what would ultimately be the only present-day scene Red Crow and Gina have together in the entire series. At the beginning of the scene, Red Crow seems to be using the same intimidation tactics that had typified his demeanour up until this point. But as the confrontation progresses, his facade dissolves, with him resorting to first making offhand remarks about wanting to protect her, then outright pleading for her to leave Prairie Rose for her own safety. In fact, it could be said that Red Crow breaks before Gina, as while he softens to her and his true feelings towards her start to become apparent, she remains icy, and won’t let him forget his numerous transgressions. Bringing up Laurence Belcourt turns out to be pushing one button too many, and with an angry outburst we see a flash of the guilt that has come to be one of Red Crow’s defining traits.
So, as Indian Country comes to a close, we’re left with hints that there is more to Red Crow than what we’ve seen so far, that he might be more than just the villain of the piece. But at this stage, it’s still only hints we were getting. So much of Indian Country was presented to us from Bad Horse’s perspective, making his status as the protagonist of Scalped largely unchallenged. For Red Crow to step more into the foreground and make a claim to that role, we would have to start getting inside his head.