Up until now, much of what I’ve talked about has taken the form of hints and glimpses of how Red Crow could emerge as the main protagonist of the series. But The Gravel in Your Guts actually sees him rise and fulfil that potential, at least temporarily. This is a process that unfolds in two stages. The first step comes with “The Boudoir Stomp”, the two part story that opens the graphic novel. Here, we see the (again, temporary) subjugation of Dashiell Bad Horse.
Through Carol Ellroy is the principal player of this two-part storyline, throughout we get glimpses of how ineffective Bad Horse is becoming in achieving his aims, his inability to act. His guilt over both his mother and the death of Shelton seems to have rendered him inert, and we see him drift through interactions with Red Crow, Nitz, Diesel and, repeatedly, Carol, unable to draw anything satisfactory from any of them. “You useless son of a bitch,” screams Nitz ten pages into the first chapter of the book, “When are you actually going to start doing your fucking job!?” This line works on a meta level too, as, stuck as he is in this quagmire of self-hatred, Bad Horse is failing to do his job as the protagonist of Scalped. He’s not moving the story forward: he’s not hunting for his mother’s killer, and he’s not progressing in his work for the FBI. And as he turns to drugs in the final pages of “The Boudoir Stomp”, he digs himself further into this hole, taking himself off the map as a viable player in the narrative.
The second step of Red Crow’s ascension comes with “The Gravel in Your Guts”, the four-part storyline that forms the bulk of the graphic novel. Bad Horse is almost entirely absent from this arc, only making the briefest cameo in a single scene of its third part. In his place, the burden of carrying the narrative is passed onto the shoulders of Dino Poor Bear and, in particular, Lincoln Red Crow.
The unlikely relationship between Red Crow and Dino has proved to be a fascinating one. Their first interaction came in “My Ambitionz az a Ridah”, the fifth chapter of Casino Boogie. In this encounter, Red Crow mentions that Dino’s father used to work for him, and asks Dino if he would like to do the same. When Dino turns him down, and speaks of his desire to leave the Rez, at first it seems like the scene might turn into a confrontation, but when Dino tells Red Crow that he wants his infant daughter to have the opportunities he never had, it seems to strike a chord with Red Crow:
I think Red Crow sees something of himself in Dino Poor Bear. Dino is at a crossroads in his life: he is a grown man with a child, but he’s still young enough to start over. When Red Crow was at that crossroads, he stayed on the Rez (above he says he “never could” leave), and amongst the many things he’s lost perhaps the loss he feels most sorely is the love of his daughter, Carol. I think Red Crow knows deep down that it’s too late for him to find redemption, but it might not be too late for Dino. Of course, Dino doesn’t take the opportunity to leave Prairie Rose, lacking the courage to make such a leap from the familiarity of this life he hates. This hubris once more comes into play in “The Gravel in Your Guts”, as he finds himself drawn deeper into the murky criminal underbelly of the reservation.
But while Dino Poor Bear does get plenty of face-time in “The Gravel in Your Guts”, I’d argue that the storyline’s main protagonist is definitely Red Crow. He is the featured player in the scenes that bookend the four-part storyline at its opening and its conclusion, and he best embodies the central theme of the arc: the choices we make, and their consequences. The opening scene takes place chronologically near the end of “Gravel in Your Guts”, but it’s placement at the beginning of the arc instantly gives the story a hook:
Right away, Aaron uses an interesting framing device. Normally, this scene would be presented, and the following scene would begin with “Three Weeks Earlier.” But instead, Aaron opens this sequence with the caption “Three Weeks from Now,” and the following scene with “Now.” Often, as an audience we are less attached to a flashback in a story, as it feels less like the “real” narrative than what’s going on in the present. But with something as small as this, an effect is generated where the flashback is the present, not the past. We’re living in that moment, invested in it. As a result, this scene with Red Crow finds itself placed in the future, standing ominously on the road ahead waiting to come to fruition.
But at first this is just a vague sense of menace, an awareness that unspecified bloodshed lies ahead. The true implications of the scene are not made clear until near the end of the first chapter, with which we learn that the satchel bag in Red Crow’s car was Gina’s soul bundle, that Granny Poor Bear has made Red Crow keeper of Gina’s soul, and that he believes that – if he’s unable to live “a harmonious life” without conflict, violence or sin, Gina’s soul will be doomed to “wander the Earth forever, lost and alone.” This scene would be powerful in its own right, but with the added dramatic irony of this scene unfolding when, thanks to the opening sequence, we already know Red Crow fails in this task appointed to him, it has an even greater impact. In his introduction to The Gravel in Your Guts, Ed Brubaker’s comments shed light on why this approach works so well:
What some people, at least some comics, readers, sometimes forget about noir is that it’s not about plot. I mean, yes, good noir often has amazingly intricate twisty plots, but that’s just icing on a dark, dark cake. Noir is about the characters moving through those plots, ricocheting like a banged-up pinball that only bounces down, down, down…And as you watch them move, you know their final destination, you recognize it… because it feels inevitable… The best noir stories make you forget plot entirely by giving you characters that feel so well-realized you can’t look away as they fall.
So, taking this into consideration as we return to Red Crow’s journey through this storyline, we can conclude that the narrative is structured the way it is because the point of the story is not plot-driven questions like, “Will Red Crow renounce violence in Gina’s name or return to his old ways?” By giving us that answer before the question is even raised, Aaron instead encourages us to focus on character, to take a closer look at Red Crow and the kind of man he is.
One final point of interest to note about the opening chapter of “The Gravel in Your Guts” is what Granny Poor Bear says to Red Crow on the final page, when he suggests that Dashiell Bad Horse should be the one to take the burden of carrying Gina’s soul bundle:
Her son ain’t up to it, you know that. This is Gina’s last chance, Lincoln. And yours as well. Don’t squander it.
There’s an intriguing relationship between Red Crow and Granny Poor Bear that’s really only been hinted at over the course of Scalped. She is one of the few people that even he won’t dare cross, and he seems to have a genuine respect, even affection for her. In Casino Boogie, he mentions to Dino that he used to spend a lot of time at the Poor Bear house. I imagine this is one of those story threads that are just going to be left implied, without ever really being explored in detail, but it is something I’d like to learn more about.
But the point of quoting the above line is that – according to Granny Poor Bear, at least – Red Crow is still capable of great things that Bad Horse isn’t. He is someone who can operate, and potentially do good, on a far greater level than Bad Horse, but when he “squanders” this heroic potential, it results in him doing evil on a far greater level instead. This is something we have see throughout the series, and something I will talk about more later.
Part 2 of “The Gravel in Your Guts” provides us with one of the most fascinating insights into Red Crow’s character seen thus far in the series. It contains a dual narrative, cutting back and forth between the past and present. Thirty-five years ago, we see the chain of events that led to Red Crow turning from idealistic activist to killer (and in turn breaking away from Gina Bad Horse forever), while in the present, we see Red Crow struggle to escape from the dark, murky path his life took from that day onwards. Red Crow’s narration in the closing pages of this chapter tells us a lot about the conflict that drives him:
There are two kinds of people in this world… those simple-minded fools who believe all life is precious, be it unborn fetus or death row murderer. And then there are ones like me. Ones who accept the cold hard fact that sometimes people have to die for the greater good. That’s the world I see around me. That’s the only way I’ve ever known how to be. But I’m trying, Gina. I promise you I am. I’m trying to be something different.
The interesting thing is that, for Red Crow, it’s not as simple a divide as living a moral, non-violent life being the right choice, and engaging in crime and murder as being the wrong choice. In most stories, the figure of Shunka – with the role he plays in this arc of trying to pressure Red Crow into taking a stand against Mr. Brass – would be the metaphorical devil on the shoulder, tempting Red Crow back to his old, wicked ways. But in this particular story, Shunka is totally justified, and arguably even taking the moral high ground. Mr. Brass is a truly vile, evil, monstrous character, possibly the worst to appear in Scalped (which is saying something), and from his arrival he steadily cuts a swathe through Prairie Rose, torturing and killing with no opposition (perhaps because he’s faced with no opposition) from Red Crow. Shunka likely has selfish reasons for wanting Red Crow back as the take-no-shit crime boss he’s used to working for, but he doesn’t make Red Crow break his promise to Gina by showing him the cost to his business. He shows them the dead bodies of some innocent teenagers Brass has raped and murdered, shows him the human cost of his inaction. Red Crow is forced to choose between the spiritual salvation of his lost love (not to mention his own personal salvation) and the well-being of the reservation. And he chooses the reservation. In a way, it’s a classic heroic sacrifice.
The fourth and final chapter of “The Gravel in Your Guts” sees the conflict come to a head, and the disparate plot threads of Dino Poor Bear and Lincoln Red Crow collide in dramatic fashion. The “Three Weeks from Now” has become “Now”, and Red Crow, Dino, Mr. Brass and his men are all converged at the Badlands Cafe. Jock’s cover for this issue, with the giant gun hovering over the building, is a brilliant visualisation of how all roads seem to have been leading here, of an impending bloodshed that seems like it was always inevitable. Mr. Brass is mutilating Dino, in the process of pulling out his eyeball, when Red Crow interrupts. What follows is one of the most badass gunfights you’ll see in any comic. And in the end, Red Crow saves the day. He places Mr. Brass under arrest, and saves Dino’s life. In many an action story, this would be the hero’s big feel-good moment. But for Red Crow, it is the knowing condemnation of his soul, of Gina’s soul. It’s not a victory, but a defeat. And as “badass” as Red Crow might be here, any glamour is undercut by how the fight is portrayed. Scenes like this are not pretty or choreographed in the real world: they’re messy, body parts fly around, and people scramble on the floor, biting, gouging and fighting dirty to survive. Still, no matter the cost to himself, or how ugly it all seems, this is Red Crow at his most heroic. With Bad Horse temporarily taken off the board due to being overcome by his own demons, it falls upon Red Crow to do what is conventionally the protagonist’s job: save innocent lives, and stop the bad guy.
However, things are never straightforward with Scalped. So, just in case we might have been getting comfortable with Red Crow at his most noble, this scene is immediately followed by Red Crow at his most loathsome. In a flashback, we see how – to make sure Gina wouldn’t stand against his impending election to the tribal council – he held a gun to the head of the sleeping Bad Horse (at this point just a young boy) and threatened Gina until she agreed to keep her silence. He turns into a monster before Gina’s eyes, forever obliterating any chance they might have had of repairing their destroyed relationship. Ironically, in both these situations – Red Crow at his best and at his worst – he is ostensibly being driven by the same motivation: acting in what he sees as the best interests of the reservation, no matter who he has to hurt and what bridges he has to burn.
After these two starkly contrasting scenes, we end The Gravel in Your Guts with another one of Red Crow’s most iconic moments:
Here, we see that Red Crow is a mass of contradictions. All the good things about him, measured against all the bad things he’s done. And as the story ends, we see him giving in to his vices of drink and girls that he had briefly tried to turn away from, and Gina’s soul bundle is returned back to Granny Poor Bear. This is Red Crow’s way of telling her that he can’t be the hero she wants him to be, and in turn the hero Scalped might need. But, in what is perhaps the greatest contradiction of all, his conscious decision to be the villain of the piece, “because someone has to”, is, in its own twisted way, the act of a hero.