After The Gravel in Your Guts serving as arguably the best showcase for Red Crow as a character – potentially even a protagonist – we’ve seen in the series thus far, he’s all but absent in the fifth volume, High Lonesome. Perhaps this lack of development in Red Crow’s arc is why this has always been my least favourite graphic novel in the Scalped collection, and the one I’ve revisited the least. It could be worth revisiting and possibly reassessing this arc in the future, but for the purposes of this particular course of discussion, it’s probably best to skip ahead to the sixth volume. I’m certainly aware of how long this study is trailing on as it is. However, page 11 of the first chapter of High Lonesome provides us with an interesting perspective on Red Crow:
Here, with the enigmatic, nameless con man that serves as this arc’s antagonist, we get a total outsider’s view on Red Crow, and some context on how he is viewed by the wider world. Needless to say, it’s not a flattering portrait. Regardless of where his true moral standing, the public image he has built for himself is that of a villain, a “mad dog” to be feared.
It is with the sixth volume, The Gnawing, that we get to see the consequences of Red Crow’s actions in The Gravel in Your Guts. With the opening chapter, we see Red Crow stuck in a kind of no man’s land between wanting to do the right thing and needing to do what’s necessary. So Mr. Brass sits in a jail cell, and Red Crow talks about how Brass is going to need a lawyer, but the sombre expressions Guera draws him with while saying lines such as “I don’t want nobody else getting killed around here” seem to betray the fact that even Red Crow knows how this has to end. But he still goes through the motions of actually fulfilling his role as sheriff of the tribal police, rather than simply using it as cover for his criminal activities. Ultimately, it takes the threats and racial slurs of Hmong gangster Johnny Tongue to finally push Red Crow into action by killing Brass.
For much of the rest of The Gnawing, Red Crow talks about how stupid he was to do this. Some might interpret that as him regretting killing Brass. I don’t quite agree with that, though. Eventually, Red Crow was always going to realise and accept that anything short of killing Brass would be an unsustainable half-measure. I believe the mistake in Red Crow’s eyes is that he let Johnny Tongue force his hand and kill Brass in a police holding cell, in front of a department full of witnesses, rather than on his own terms. He’s not only endangered the whole reservation through setting the Hmongs on a path of destruction, but by implicating all those witnesses in the murder he is dragging the institution he had been struggling to uphold down with him.
But whatever wrath his actions could have brought upon Prairie Rose, at the end of the fourth chapter, Red Crow offsets that by taking that wrath upon his own head. He confronts the Hmong outside the police station alone and unarmed, and takes a vicious beating. By ordering that no one interfere, that no one fight back, he is ensuring there is not a war on the Rez, that mass bloodshed of his people is averted. It is another act of heroic sacrifice, in this case even more literal, as he could very well have been giving up his life to protect the reservation. But rather than being simply noble, there could be an element of Red Crow punishing himself too, given how soon the confrontation comes after having to take Carol to the hospital, then having her refuse to see him.
Throughout this arc, there are questions over Red Crow perhaps going soft, losing his edge and his ruthlessness. Shunka seems to take charge, answering the difficult moral questions Red Crow leaves hanging in the air, and making the unpleasant decisions Red Crow seems hesitant to confront. But any sense that Gina’s death had made Red Crow soft and sentimental are commandingly put to rest in the final chapter when he and Shunka ambush Johnny Tongue in his own home, and massacre him, his men, and anyone else who happened to be in the room. And then Red Crow’s comments throughout The Gnawing can be read in a different context. “No war. We can’t allow that. Not here.” “This is our home. This is not a fucking battlefield.” The problem was never with the war and the killing. It was with sullying Prairie Rose any further by doing it there. And suddenly his whole arc throughout the graphic novel can be read in a different light. Did Johnny Tongue really make him lose control, or was everything calculated by Red Crow to let Johnny Tongue think he had Red Crow where he wanted him? At what point in the story does Red Crow decide he’s going to kill Johnny Tongue: on page 9 of chapter 5, or page 18 of chapter 1?
But for someone so analytical and strategic, does it really make sense for Red Crow to be tasking Bad Horse with the job of finding the FBI undercover agent he learned was working within his organisation back in The Gravel in Your Guts? The scene across pages 10 and 11 of chapter 1 of The Gnawing, where Red Crow indeed gives Bad Horse this assignment against what should be his better judgement, is an intriguing exchange between the two characters. Looking at the back-and-forth expressions, what each man gives away, it can be read in various ways. It’s certainly fodder for the idea that, on some level, deep down, Red Crow knows Bad Horse is the agent of his destruction, just like deep down he knew he’d have to kill Brass.
Scalped is a series that largely revolves around the still moments, focusing on character. But The Gnawing is a very plot-driven volume, with characters driven into action. Red Crow takes action, making dramatic moves that considerably shift the power dynamics of the casino and the reservation firmly in his favour. The fate of Prairie Rose rests on Red Crow’s actions, and as such there is a compelling case to be made that he stands here as primary protagonist. But this is the chapter where, finally, Bad Horse also acts. His actions are on a smaller scale, more personal, but deeply pivotal in shaping both his own character and the direction of the series. However, while Red Crow giving himself to the Hmongs to protect the Rez is another heroic act from the ostensive antagonist of the series, Bad Horse’s actions throughout the arc are driven almost entirely by self-interest, and as we see him engage in the cold blooded murder of Diesel (presumably his first), our protagonist crosses a line into dark, arguably villainous territory. The protracted nature of the murder recalls Red Crow’s own first murder as recounted in The Gravel in Your Guts, implying that the two may be more alike than Bad Horse would like to admit. The concluding act of The Gnawing further blurs the lines between protagonist and antagonist, leaving us questioning where our loyalties and sympathies should truly lie.