A couple of years back, I recall reading a column by Jason Aaron where he spoke of a meeting in a New York steakhouse with R.M. Guera, during which the final page of Scalped was decided upon. Ever since then, I’ve been waiting with anticipation – and perhaps a bit of dread, too – to see what that last page would be, the final word on one of the greatest comic books of all time. Now, that revelation has finally arrived, and the last page presented to us is simple, but also absolutely fitting. It features a sign, on which reads the message, “NOW LEAVING THE PRAIRIE ROSE RESERVATION.” Of course, the very first panel on the very first page of the very first issue featured the flipside of the same sign, reading, “NOW ENTERING THE PRAIRIE ROSE RESERVATION.” And that says it all, really. Through the run of Scalped, we were able to visit Prairie Rose and glimpse into the lives of its residents, but now our stay is over, and it’s time to leave.
I’ll warn you that I’m going to go into spoilers in this review. I held off on posting this up immediately to give everyone plenty of time to check it out. But if you haven’t read issue #60 yet, go and do that now, then come back to read this. And if you haven’t read any of Scalped…. what the hell are you waiting for!?
Scalped #60 is very much a comic of two parts: climax and epilogue. Before reading this issue, I suspected that the climax would be missed out altogether, and that we would jump from last issue’s violent cliffhanger straight to the “Three Months Later” epilogue, with us left to piece together what happened in the intervening time. And I still think there’s a compelling argument for Aaron to have gone that direction, as the climactic showdown that opens the issue feels a bit rushed. I think this conclusion would have benefitted from the “double-sized finale” treatment to really let everything breathe a bit more. However, ultimately I’m glad the climax was included, as it gave us some powerful moments.
R.M. Guera and colorist Guilia Brusco shine here, giving us some truly haunting vistas, none more striking than the demise of Catcher and Nitz. Arguably the two most despicable, irredeemable figures in the series, it’s so fitting that the two died together, choking each other as both are engulfed in flames, with that well-established omen of death, the owl, hovering over them. I’ve talked to a couple of people unhappy that Bad Horse was robbed of that cathartic moment of vengeance for the murder of both his parents, save for in that brutal “fantasy sequence” that unfolds in his fevered mind. But instead, Bad Horse chooses redemption of a sort, saving Red Crow rather than seeking vengeance. When in a position to make this choice before back in You Gotta Sin to Get Saved, you’ll recall, he chose selfishly, so making the more noble decision here suggests there could be some hope for him after all. Not for Nitz and Catcher, though. These are lost souls with nothing to live for but past grievances and old hatreds, and their fiery end is an appropriate illustration of their mutual damnation.
Just as powerful, though, is the quieter final moment shared by Red Crow and Bad Horse. These two titans of the series, the central protagonist and antagonist (one could argue the two seemed to shift back and forth between these two roles over the duration of the story), end their rivalry on a surprising note: something of a reconciliation, with Bad Horse saving Red Crow’s life, and Red Crow offering forgiveness and a shared future on the Rez. But it’s an offer that Bad Horse cannot accept, for reasons that will continue to niggle at us long after this concluding chapter. More on that later.
But for me, the epilogue serves as the true highlight of this final chapter, a victory lap of vignettes giving us our last glimpse of various key characters we have come to know so well over the past several years. My favourite of these scenes had to be our farewell to Red Crow. I’ve made it clear in my various writings on Scalped that Red Crow is not only my favourite character in the series, but in my opinion quite possibly the best-written characters in comics in general from the past decade. But I was also fairly sure that the character’s trajectory over the course of the series all but guaranteed a tragic end, almost certainly his death. So, imagine my shock, and even my relief, when instead Red Crow was given a hard-earned happy ending.
Now, some might disagree. When we last see Red Crow, wandering through the wilderness, he’s in apparent exile, having lost everything, all the money and power he fought and killed to accumulate. But in spite of that, or more likely because of it, he seems happy! I’ll need to go back and reassess my back issues, but in the very last shot of Red Crow’s face we’re ever going to see, he’s smiling. Not a mean smirk, but a genuine, grinning, happy smile. It could be the first time we’ve ever seen this from Red Crow, at the very least the first time we’ve seen it from him as an old man. Or maybe I’m only seeing things, and it’s a grimace. But my speculation is that “losing everything” is the best thing that could have happened to Red Crow. We’ve seen him make repeated attempts to change his ways and lead a better life, but his status within the reservation prevented him from doing so, with him always being forced to revert to his old, murderous methods. He tried to change Prairie Rose for the better, but in the end it changed him, and remaining part of the cycle was devouring his soul. The only option left was to remove himself from that cycle altogether. So, he may have “lost everything”, but in exchange he seems to have gained plenty, such as peace of mind, and the ability to get back in touch with the man he used to be and has wanted to be again ever since he set out on his bloody and ultimately futile quest to make things better for his people. He also gained another Shunka, in a nice touch. Seeing Red Crow make it out of this saga somewhat intact was one of the great joys of this issue for me.
This elation of Red Crow escaping from his downward spiral of spiritual ruin was contrasted with the emotional gutpunch of Dino Poor Bear taking his place. Of course, Dino’s fate was pretty much sealed from the moment we discovered he had killed Sheriff Karnow, but it was still gutwrenching seeing that inevitability play out to its natural conclusion. And it was all the more saddening seeing him sat there, overseeing the burying of bodies, in the very car he had hoped to use to escape from the reservation in the title’s earlier days.
The theme of old roles being filled with new people is continued with Carol, who replaces the deceased Granny Poor Bear as the new trusted advisor to the community, adopting the moniker of Mamma Poor Bear. Of all the characters, it must be said that Carol’s transformation has been perhaps the most drastic. Seeing Carol here, and looking at her in issue #1, you would think they were two totally different characters. This idea of life moving in cycles, history repeating itself, and the broken society continuing to roll on as we and some of the characters we’ve been following depart from it puts me in mind of the finale of The Wire. Like with that seminal TV series, with Scalped there’s that oxymoron of leaving this world behind with no real resolution in a lot of ways, but with a perfect, rewarding resolution in other ways. In the case of both narratives – which I’d suggest are of comparable quality – we end with an open, ongoing world that is going to keep on rolling on without us watching, and there’s a kind of comfort in that.
But the biggest question mark of all most likely lies with our final encounter with Bad Horse, the closing scene of the book and the series. Throughout the epilogue portion of this issue, Bad Horse’s presence is heavily felt, but it’s not until here that we finally see him. The final message is somewhat conflicted, as Bad Horse comes to the realisation that, after so long trying to escape Prairie Rose, all along it was the place he was meant to be, “the only home I’ll ever have.” Then he leaves, presumably forever. Ostensibly, it’s to avoid the authorities catching him, but earlier in the issue Red Crow offered him a chance to make those charges disappear, an offer he presumably declined. Why then does he leave Prairie Rose behind upon realising it’s where he belongs? Perhaps his reasoning is, in the end, similar to Red Crow’s. Being on the reservation changes you, and inevitably you will be drawn into the everlasting cycle and be pushed into the role that fate has determined for you. By leaving, Bad Horse is going into an open world of infinite possibility. Or vast, empty nothingness. What lies behind on that shadowy stretch of road stretching out onto the horizon of that last page is up to us, I suppose.
And now, we’re leaving the Prairie Rose Reservation. These 60 issues have been an incredible journey, one of the best comics-reading experiences I’ve had or am ever likely to have. Every month I knew I was in for a treat when I saw a new edition of Scalped on the shelves, and throughout its run it managed to consistently be one of the best titles in circulation. Now, there’s a massive void in my reading pile that will not be easily filled. It’s a shame that it wasn’t read more widely, and I can only hope its audience and acclaim continue to grow in the years to come. A big congratulations, and a massive thank you, to Jason Aaron, R.M. Guera, Guilia Brusco, letterer Sal Cipriano, cover artist Jock, editorial team Will Dennis and Mark Doyle, and all the other creators who have made this comic so special over its magnificent run. Scalped is comics at its very best.