Red Crow: The True Hero of Scalped? (Part Five)

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

The most recent Scalped graphic novel, Rez Blues, sees Red Crow largely relegated to the sidelines.  But seeing how the more featured characters of this volume relate to him manages to shed more light on his character.  Rez Blues is a collection of shorter stories, told mostly from the perspective of supporting characters, or in a couple of cases characters we’ve never seen before.  Such is the case with the first chapter, “Listening to the Earth Turn”.  In this story about an elderly couple living on the fringes of the reservation, Red Crow makes a one-page cameo in the form of his likeness appearing on a billboard for the Crazy Horse Casino.  It’s a small beat, with the old man forced through his poverty to sign up for food aid, then driving past the sign for Red Crow’s casino.  But it is a potent way of illustrating how little the casino Red Crow fought so long and so hard for has done to actually make the lives of many of the regular residents of Prairie Rose any better, which is supposedly what all the moral compromises it took to get the place built were intended to do.

This standalone tale is followed by “A Fine Action of an Honorable and Catholic Spaniard”, a two-part story where Shunka takes centre stage.  Red Crow only appears fleetingly in this story, sharing a couple of terse exchanges with his right hand man.  But now that I’ve mentioned Shunka, I’ll take a brief aside to talk about his relationship to Red Crow through the series as a whole, which I’ve found to be a really compelling slow-boil.  Up until this story in Rez Blues, I must admit I never much noticed Shunka.  So, upon rereading the series, I was quite surprised by how often he showed up, and the subtle dynamic built up between him, Red Crow and Bad Horse.  Take a look at this page 19 of chapter 5 of The Gnawing:

The first time I read this, the beat I took from it was Bad Horse winning Red Crow’s trust, and in terms of moving the narrative forward, that is surely the primary purpose here.  But why have that reaction shot from Shunka at the end of the page?  The way I see it, Shunka does everything he can to be a good son to Red Crow.  He’s a model employee, he always has Red Crow’s interests at heart – even when his boss is on a self-destructive bent and he has to stand against him to steer him off that road – and, as seen in part four of “The Gravel in Your Guts”, he’s even willing to pack his bags and leave if that’s what Red Crow wants.  But despite all his efforts, despite how qualified and willing he is to be Red Crow’s successor, he’s always going to be the mongrel, the bastard child.  One line on page 14 of the recent Scalped #45, “Running to Stand Still” sums up Red Crow’s view of Shunka:

You’ve been with me a long time now, Shunka.  You’ve saved my life many times, no doubt.  And in return, I’ve made you a very rich man.  But that doesn’t make us partners or friends or any other goddamn thing of the sort.  When I tell you I don’t want Dash involved in anything that has to do with his mother’s murder, I’m not asking for your fucking opinion on the matter.  I’m giving you an order I expect to be fucking followed.  If following orders is something you no longer have the capacity to do, please, by all means, tell me now.

Regardless of how he may feel about Red Crow, or how committed he is to his job, in Red Crow’s eyes, Shunka is just an employee, he’s not family.  Bad Horse, meanwhile, shows little such interest in Red Crow or his operation in public, is violent, unpredictable and was, at one point, a junkie, and privately he’s an FBI traitor planning to bring down Red Crow.  But, despite doing none of the work Shunka has, Bad Horse is almost instantly in a position of being groomed as Red Crow’s right hand man, and as his wording in the above picture demonstrates, even being viewed by Red Crow as a surrogate son.  I think this is the source of the longstanding enmity between Bad Horse and Shunka, and it should be interesting seeing that reach boiling point.

Red Crow is featured more prominently in “Unwanted” – the four-part story that makes up the bulk of Rez Blues – albeit in more of a supporting role, as Bad Horse and particularly Carol Ellroy take centre stage.  But given how much this story is about the ways Dashiell and Carol have been shaped by their respective fathers, Red Crow still casts a heavy shadow over the unfolding narrative, and “Unwanted” contains a few great beats that serve to further illuminate his character.

One especially poignant aspect of “Unwanted” is that over the course of the arc, we get to see both the scene where his tumultuous relationship with his daughter Carol begins and where it effectively ends.  In the opening pages of “Unwanted Part One”, the fifth chapter of Rez Blues, we get a flashback to a young Red Crow’s confrontation with Carol’s mother, Claudine, upon first discovering she is pregnant.  She had been attempting to get an abortion before Red Crow found out and stopped her.  She explains to him that she was afraid Red Crow would not be there for her and she would have to raise the child on her own, and on page 3 we see Red Crow try to assure her that this is not the case, simultaneously observing him come to the terms with the impending reality of fatherhood:

Listen to me, Claudine.  I do love you, you know that.  If you wanna get married, the fine, let’s go get married.  Right now.  I know I’ve been busy.  But I’m done with the Dog Soldiers.  I’m done with all that, I swear to you.  You’re all that matters to me now.  You and that baby.

But before he can finish, their car is pulled over and the local sheriff arrests him, presumably for his revolutionary activities.  In past and present, his commitment to Prairie Rose always seems to get in the way of things for Red Crow.  The relationship between Red Crow and Claudine is an elusive one that will likely never be elaborated on in any more depth than we see here.  But we can imagine the inherent strain that would be there, given how Gina Bad Horse is the woman Red Crow always truly loved.  Our knowledge of this, combined with our awareness of how Carol turned out, make Red Crow’s claims here ring hollow.  But he seems to believe it as he’s saying it.  And in this way, we can view his aspirations for Carol as a microcosm of his larger arc regarding his aspirations for the Rez:  he has absolute belief he can make everything work out for the best, even if he is inevitably doomed to failure.

I may be wrong in my interpretation of the scene, but based on my reading of pages 13 and 14 of “Unwanted Part Three”, I take this as the moment where, after all his struggles and abortive attempts to find a way back into Carol’s life, he finally accepts his utter failure as a father and lets her go completely.  With Shunka having discovered that Carol has been living with Granny Poor Bear, Red Crow makes it as far as the door of the house, before telling Shunka that, rather than going in to get her, they are just going to leave her where she is.  On page 14, we see Red Crow walking away from us (and out of Carol’s life), becoming increasingly obscured by the snowy night with each passing panel until he has disappeared completely.  This page is almost totally silent save for one single line, spoken by Red Crow to Shunka:

Don’t ever have kids.

In this question over whether or not we can view Red Crow as the hero of Scalped, perhaps more than even his various killings and criminal deeds, it’s through his treatment of Carol that he falls short of the title.  As tempting as it is to view the criminal empire Red Crow runs in an abstract sense, the flashback in “The Boudoir Stomp” back in The Gravel in Your Guts, when Red Crow’s men kill Carol’s lover and accidentally shoot her in the gut, killing her baby, makes it explicitly clear what kind of people Red Crow has in his employ.  On the numerous occasions which Red Crow runs down Carol as the worst kind of trash (including the very first time we see her in issue #1), we see Red Crow at his most callous, particularly with how little acknowledgement of his responsibility in the way Carol’s life turned out.  And in his half-hearted attempts at trying to salvage their broken relationship – such as the phone call at the end of Dead Mothers, where he can’t even talk to her, just listening to her silently on the other end of the line – we see him at his most cowardly.  In the numerous ways he has let Carol down over the years, we see the personal failings in Red Crow that prevent him from being the hero he could be.  And when we learn here, in the aftermath of this final line, that a tearful Carol was hiding nearby and heard everything, we see that even in letting her go, Red Crow has found a way to hurt his daughter.

The other great Red Crow moment in “Unwanted” comes in its second part, the sixth chapter of Rez Blues.  Here, we get what a small scene that is nevertheless one of my favourite to appear in Scalped thus far, as Red Crow has a brief but tense reunion with Wade Bad Horse, Dashiell’s father.  This four-page exchange is the first time, past or present, that we’ve seen Red Crow and Wade together, but Aaron packs so much history and animosity into those four pages that their antagonistic relationship instantly becomes palpable and compelling.  With these two trading venomous barbs, Guera’s masterful facial expressions depicting how each one struggles not to give any ground to the other, their confrontation is more exciting than many physical fights you’ll read in other comics.  But the most revealing moment of all comes on page 12, as Wade and Red Crow deliver their respective parting shots:

Though it is Red Crow that gets the benefit of the last word, in doing so he is also the one that gives the most away.  As discussed above, the conclusion Red Crow comes to about Carol is that he should never have had children.  But this page here hints that his regret isn’t that he had a child at all, but rather that his child wasn’t Dashiell Bad Horse, that he didn’t have Dashiell with Gina, that he wasn’t in Wade’s place.

That brings us to the end of the Scalped stories currently collected into graphic novel format, and so almost to the end of this discussion.  But “You Gotta Sin to Get Saved”, the arc that has just wrapped up in the monthly comics, has thrown some engaging developments for Red Crow into the mix that surely merit some exploration before we bring this to a close.  The first part of this story, “Running to Stand Still”, puts the spotlight on Red Crow for almost the entire issue, as he falls into perhaps his greatest crisis of conscience yet.

This is an issue densely packed with insight into Red Crow.  Picking up on the Wade/Red Crow confrontation from Rez Blues, pages 9 and 10 of “Running to Stand Still” see Red Crow struggle to verbalise his paternal feelings towards Bad Horse.  He might not even realise that this is what he’s doing, but it’s there.  Though ostensibly talking about how Hassell Rock Medicine – the onetime mentor who is now standing against him for leadership of the tribal council – helped to raise him as a young boy, when Red Crow remarks, “Sometimes your father is just a guy who fucked your mother,” we can’t help but feel he is also alluding to Wade Bad Horse, and suggesting that he could be a candidate to fill that father-shaped void for Dash.  The silent panel with just the two men that follows allows this point to further sink in.

It is this return of Hassell Rock Medicine into his life that brings about the aforementioned crisis of conscience for Red Crow.  It is Rock Medicine who reminds him of the idealism and spirituality he once had, while Shunka later reminds him of all he has done to lose them: stunningly illustrated by Guera with a violent montage on page 15.  When Red Crow visits Rock Medicine at his home on page 3 (Red Crow sitting alone in his car before heading in reminds us of Red Crow’s moment of quite reflection before going into battle against Brass in The Gravel in Your Guts, Aaron cleverly setting up expectations of how this meeting might end up), Rock Medicine makes a comment that succinctly sums up the tragic flaw of Red Crow I have spent so much time analysing in this article:

I know what you’ve been doing, Lincoln.  And it’s not God’s work.  It’s your own.  Your problem is you don’t see the difference anymore.

These words seem to have a profound effect on Red Crow, as he sees a vision of himself in the mirror, chained to the rotting carcass of a deer.  It is an image heavy with symbolism.  No matter what he does, he can’t escape death, destruction and bloodshed.  He’s chained to it, quite literally in the case of his vision.  Jock’s cover for this issue depicts this vision even more powerfully, with Red Crow symbolically consumed by the deer’s corpse.  After seeing this nightmarish version of himself in the mirror, he turns to his old mentor, desperate for salvation, and asks if they can pray together.  But even as he struggles to find redemption, Catcher’s narration is superimposed over the two men at prayer:

Some folks spend their whole lives runnin’.  And never get nowhere.

It is a line repeated from the first page of the issue.  It’s also what gives this chapter its title.  And it serves as another summary of Red Crow’s journey through Scalped.  No matter how hard Red Crow strives to be better, he always ends up back in his old ways.  He can’t run away from himself.

“Are You Honest Enough to Live Outside the Law?”, the fourth chapter of “You Gotta Sin to Get Saved”, marks a major turning point for both Red Crow and Bad Horse.  Catcher’s narration on the opening page forewarns us, “Sometimes a man’s fate is decided… in a single moment.”  And this issue finds Bad Horse at a crossroads.  This is the issue where Red Crow finally comes clean about everything, lets Bad Horse fully into his trust, and potentially seals his own fate.  On page 14, Red Crow goes into detail about the various grubby criminal activities he’s involved in.  But as he confesses his numerous crimes to Bad Horse, vulnerable, literally naked, more than ever we sympathise with him.  When he says, “The door’s open, if you’re ready to walk through,” it almost seems as much an invitation for us as for Bad Horse.  We know that Red Crow has done some bad things, but we can understand why he has done them, and have seen the good he is capable of too.  We are ready to make an informed decision about whose side we are on.  And when I see the types of people Red Crow has had to deal with, to defend the Rez from, and the motives and tactics of Nitz – who represents law and order, the traditional “good guys”, while remaining the most utterly reprehensible character in the series – I think I would choose to side with Red Crow.

In my perspective at least, here I found myself willing Bad Horse to side with Red Crow too.  This arc has further brought to the foreground the idea that staying on within the Rez, eventually taking Red Crow’s place, could be his true calling, the one thing that might give him purpose in an aimless, angry life.  He seems to have nothing but contempt for his FBI assignment, and in turn Nitz seems to have nothing but contempt for him.  Furthermore, the misery of his father foreshadows what fate lies ahead for choosing that path.  For a long time, the narrative has toyed with the idea that Bad Horse may be better off actually being the prodigal son returned home rather than simply pretending to be, and in this issue, Dash has to make a decision.  To form a crude analogy, this is the part in Avatar where Jake Sully chooses to side with the Na’vi against his human superiors.  But thankfully, Scalped is not Avatar.  As a result, things don’t go as we might expect, or even want, as we see on page 18:

Here, we see Bad Horse blow the chance to fulfil the role of hero he has been presumably primed for on three fronts.  First, in his betrayal of Red Crow, we see him calculatingly use the words that are most likely to seal the deal in winning his trust, with the irony being he is likely unaware of the truth in them.  Second, in going to Nitz with the assurance that “Red Crow’s finished”, we see him make the deal with the devil, cementing his alliance with this least sympathetic of characters instead of breaking it.  Finally, we see him choose vengeance over heroism, opting to be taken to his mother’s killer rather than saving the wounded Falls Down.  In the case of this last sequence, Bad Horse isn’t just failing our abstract test of emerging as the hero of the narrative, but failing an actual test set by Catcher to see if he’s worthy of becoming the hero of his people within the world of the story.

Of course, Scalped is not over yet, and there could still be a chance for Bad Horse to change his mind, but continuing on this path he’s on, he seems set to prime himself as a polar opposite of Red Crow.  We talked before about Red Crow doing the right thing, even when that involves breaking the law.  Bad Horse is upholding the law, doing his duty as an FBI agent, but it still feels like he’s doing the wrong thing.  Who, then, is truly the villain?  And who is the hero?

“Ain’t No God”, the 49th issue of Scalped and the final chapter of “You Gotta Sin to Get Saved”, finds Red Crow faced with a crossroads of his own.  Hassell Rock Medicine has a heart attack while alone with Red Crow, and on page 12 we see Red Crow grabbing his phone to call an ambulance… then hesitating.  At this moment, we see the opportunity arising before Red Crow’s eyes.  Rock Medicine is challenging him for the leadership of the tribal council, and has a good chance of beating him.  By letting him die, without even needing to kill him, Red Crow would be getting rid of a major threat to his status within the reservation.

But later in the same issue, we discover that Red Crow did indeed call an ambulance and save his old mentor’s life.  Unlike Bad Horse, when faced with a choice, Red Crow takes the more heroic route.

On page 8 of Scalped #49, Red Crow offers one more answer to the question of whether or not he can be considered the hero of this story:

I’m not looking for nobody’s blessing.  Not even God’s.  That ain’t ever coming, and I know it.  I just want him to see… I want you to see… that a man is better than the worst of his deeds.  Sometimes sacrifices have to be made, for the betterment of us all.  I know that in my heart, if my soul is that sacrifice… so be it.

Now, as we move forward into unknown territory as Scalped approaches his endgame, this most recent of his appearances sees Red Crow make potentially his most drastic attempt at walking a more righteous path yet, as he tells Shunka to shut down his entire criminal operation.  Over the course of the series, we’ve come to view Red Crow as a good man forced by circumstance to do terrible things for “the betterment of us all.”  But with Red Crow now hoping to remove this qualifying factor from the equation, becoming a good man who walks the harder path to do good things, could we see Red Crow on the cusp of becoming the hero of Scalped?

My guess would be that Red Crow will not succeed.  Even as he states this admirable intent, we see the enemy forces circling.  Nitz is more powerful and dangerous than ever.  Sheriff Wooster Karnow has renewed determination to bring him down.  Even loyal Shunka seems on the verge of losing patience with his boss.  And he has welcomed a traitor into his trust in the form of Bad Horse.  Some people just aren’t meant to be the hero of the story, no matter how well they might be able to fill the role if given the chance.

But I could be wrong.  As I said way back at the start of this discussion, Scalped is a series that subverts archetypes and upsets expectations.  And on this note, on page 2 of the second chapter of The Gnawing, Granny Poor Bear offers a most appropriate final thought on Lincoln Red Crow, who – hero or not – is arguably the most compelling character in comics today:

I don’t know what to make of that man no more, I surely don’t.  Just when I’m ready to give up on him for good, he up and surprises me.  Maybe I’m crazy but something tells me… he may yet surprise us all.

 

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