REVIEW: Scalped #60

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.

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.

 

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

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

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.

Part Five

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

Part One

Part Two

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.

Part Four

Part Five

 

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

Part One

I’ve said before that the second volume of Scalped, Casino Boogie, marked something of a turning point in the series for me.  Indian Country was a great read, but in my opinion it reads like a conventional crime thriller, well executed.  With Casino Boogie, the series begins to truly find its voice.  Some of the hallmarks of the series – the sprawling ensemble cast taking turns in the spotlight, dwelling on and revisiting a single pivotal moment, and, with the refusal to immediately follow up on the shocking murder of Gina Bad Horse that concluded Indian Country, that knack for upsetting conventional expectation – first come to light in this second volume.  There is plenty to talk about in Casino Boogie as a whole, enough to probably fill a whole essay in itself, but for the purposes of this particular discussion I’m going to narrow my focus to the book’s second chapter, “Down on the Killin’ Floor”, where Red Crow takes centre stage for the first time.

With “Down on the Killin’ Floor”, Red Crow is given the distinction of being the first Scalped character (the first of many, as it would turn out), to narrate an issue.  Bad Horse may have been our access character for the preceding 6 issues, but even so he remained a somewhat inscrutable protagonist.  We follow him through his experiences, see his outward emotions, and even get a glimpse of his memories, but we don’t hear that voice in his head, and so are still, to a degree, kept at arm’s length.  It would be issue 12 before Bad Horse finally took a turn at narration.  As a result, the sudden appearance of narration in issue 7 is a bit jarring, but in a good way.  Red Crow is demanding our attention, grabbing us by the throat and dragging us into his world.  By not simply showing us Red Crow’s life and experiences, but having him tell us about them, Aaron is making it much harder to simply view Red Crow as the dragon that Bad Horse must slay.  He is the hero of his own story.

One of the most striking aspects of this chapter is just how self-aware Red Crow is, and how little that helps him.  He can think of how alcohol has blighted the lives of his family going back three generations, yet still obtains a liquor license for his casino, and downs whiskey himself.  He thinks back on all the people who begged their lives before he killed them, and how futile that was, but that doesn’t stop him begging for his own life when he believes Catcher is going to kill him.  Most tellingly, he is fully aware of how terrible some of the things he’s done over the years are, but never views them as anything other than completely necessary, as he pragmatically states on page 4:

His wasn’t the first life I ever took.  Not the last, neither.  It ain’t that I’m proud of that.  I never took no joy in none of it.  But I won’t apologize none either.  I always just did what I had to do.  If I hadn’t, then I wouldn’t be where I am right now.  We as a people wouldn’t.

Red Crow’s sentiments here demonstrate one of the character’s key recurring motifs: this struggle between his desire to do great things for his people, and the terrible things required of him to achieve them.  We get a potent sense of the toll this balancing act has taken on Red Crow’s soul with the chapter’s powerful closing image:

Here, we see Red Crow, sat amidst the ruins of his ransacked office with his head in his hands, clinging onto a symbol of his tribal heritage, bloodstains and wreckage all around him, alone.  As such, we get a compelling visualisation of the hell Red Crow has made for himself: the harder he fights to protect his heritage, the more damage he seems to do to it.  The closing words of narration that hang over this stark image – “my dreams might again outnumber my regrets” – summarise the dichotomy discussed above.  Red Crow was once an optimist fighting for a noble cause, but amidst all the murk, the Faustian pacts and the murders, he is left questioning if the means truly do justify the end.

But “Down on the Killin’ Floor” leaves us with some degree of ambiguity over just how altruistic Red Crow’s intentions are.  Has he spent his life striving to make things better for the Oglala Lakota in Prairie Rose, or for himself?  In a conversation with Todd Jigger, the sleazy, corrupt Indian Agent who Red Crow bribed to assist him in the development of his casino, Jigger makes a telling remark:

You know your problem, Chief?  You done spent too long playin’ the part a’ the poor, old pissed-off ‘skin who wouldn’t be caught dead workin’ for the man.  ‘Cause now you are the man, and you don’t know what the hell to do with yourself… You won.  This here’s what you was fightin’ for all that time.  Welcome to the white man’s world.

These words are spoken amidst a scene of excess and decadence, the rich white clientele being plied with drinks and women.  Red Crow has become the very thing he was fighting against: a rich man exploiting Indians for profit.  In the various shots of the Crazy Horse Casino (even the name is offensive, trivialising the memory of the famed Oglala Lakota war leader), the place seems overblown, tacky even.  And in the second page of the chapter, we see that, once away from the cameras and the eyes of the public, he’s aware of how shallow it all is.  Various indicators throughout the chapter suggest that, after all his years of work, the casino is destined to be a flop, and that all the money invested in it could be in danger of going down the drain.  And through it all, we see the locals of the Rez, none the richer, sealed off from the ostensive show of prosperity by wire fencing.  In the end, he might have left them worse off than before.

In spite of all this, however, I do believe that, in his own mind at least, Red Crow genuinely believes he is acting for the greater good, and in the service of the Oglala Lakota.  His development in Casino Boogie confirms to us that he’s more than just a villain.  But at this stage he’s not quite ready to be called a hero.  He’s aware of his failings, where he is going wrong, but is unable or unwilling to do anything about it.  It would take something drastic to stir Red Crow to action.

Dead Mothers seems to mark Red Crow’s moral awakening, the death of Gina Bad Horse proving to be a catalyst that has propelled Red Crow forwards ever since.  Now, I’ve already gushed about this third volume of Scalped at length, so I’ll try to keep this fairly brief.  The primary arc of the “Dead Mothers” storyline is Bad Horse losing himself in the case of the murdered prostitute, in turn delaying having to fully confront the death of his mother.  While Bad Horse is making a great effort to not get involved in Gina’s murder, all around it seems that nobody else is interested in getting to the bottom of the case, as Red Crow states to Falls Down on page 10 of “Dead Mothers, Part 5”:

Nobody else seems to care much about seeing this case get solved.  My advisers tell me to bury it.  Tribal council tell me to find a patsy.  FBI don’t give a shit either way.  Everybody else just figures I killed her myself.

The appraisal is an accurate one.  Throughout the entire storyline, it seems that just about every scene with Red Crow involves some new obstacle thrown up in his way, some other character telling him why he shouldn’t care about seeing Gina’s killer brought to justice.  But despite all this, despite the fact that he might be acting against his own best interests, Red Crow perseveres, and continues to do all he can to find justice for Gina, from reaching out to old enemies the FBI for assistance in the case to giving Falls Down carte blanche to follow all avenues of inquiry to find the killer, no matter “who gets pissed or who gets hurt.”  While every other character – even the sympathetic ones like Bad Horse – is more concerned with their own agendas and obsessions, it is left to the “villain” Red Crow to crusade for what is right.

So, what is it about Gina Bad Horse’s death that triggered this change in Red Crow?  Obviously, the deep personal connection comes into play.  Red Crow loved Gina, and so he wants to do right by her, as well as making whoever killed her pay the price.  But I think there’s also something more than that at work, tying into the history of the Rez and the overarching struggle of the series.  In the flashbacks to 30 years ago, we see that Lincoln Red Crow, Gina Bad Horse, Catcher and Lawrence Belcourt were the central founding members of the Dog Soldier Society.  They tirelessly fought for the rights of the Oglala Lakota of Prairie Rose and indigenous tribes across America.  But with Lawrence in prison, Catcher lost to drink and madness and now Gina dead, Red Crow could see himself as the last one left.  He tells himself he has always been fighting for his people, but at least part of him doubts how in touch with them he has truly remained.  Gina, however, never lost touch.  To the end of her life she was fighting the establishment and campaigning for the rights of her people at a grassroots level.  With her gone, perhaps Red Crow sees the responsibility falling on him to be that leader his people can rally round and look up to.  But he looks at himself, and finds himself wanting in the requirements to fill such a role.  Hence his ongoing struggle to try and be a better person.  That struggle takes centre stage in The Gravel in Your Guts, the fourth volume of Scalped.

Part Three

Part Four

Part Five

 

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

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.

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

Part Five

 

REVIEW: Scalped #50

I’ve said it before, and I’ll start by saying it again: in my humble opinion, Scalped is the best comic on shelves today, has been for a long time, and the longer it runs, the stronger a case it makes for itself to stand amongst the all-time greats of the comic book medium.  I’ve already written at length about the series on several occasions, doing my best to spread the word.  But frustratingly, Scalped has never been as big a hit as it deserves to be.  So it is all the more rewarding that this gritty crime drama about an undercover FBI agent working to take down a criminal organisation in an Indian reservation (though really, it’s about that as much as The Wire was about cops and robbers) has now reached its milestone 50th issue.  It is indeed a cause for celebration, and as such Scalped #50 takes us out of the ongoing central narrative, reading more like a well-deserved victory lap for the book’s creative team.

As the issue begins, we’re taken out of the present-day saga, back to the winter of 1876.  We follow a white scalphunter and his son as they set up camp in Montana, with a gruesome opening scene going into detail about how one commits the brutal act that gives this series its title.  Through the scalphunter’s recollections, we get a glimpse of the bloody history of atrocities that Native Americans were subjected to through the ages.  It’s a sobering reminder that, if such acts were committed anywhere else, they would be viewed as genocide, but because white Americans were the ones doing the hunting and killing, it’s a dark period of American history that’s been largely swept under the rug or whitewashed (pardon the pun) by many a Hollywood Western.  Then, in a horrific, grimly satisfying (if slightly contrived) twist, we discover that (for better or worse) the Indians weren’t so different from the white settlers they fought against.

In this 9-page opening story, new readers can get a look at the winning combination of creators that has defined Scalped over its run, and get a taste of what they’ve been mising.  There’s the hard-boiled writing of Jason Aaron, both profane and poetic (often within the same sentence).  Aaron is one of the best writers around today, and while he’s best known as one of Marvel’s “architects” and the current go-to guy for Wolverine, Scalped remains the best showcase for his distinctive voice.  There’s the stunning artwork of R.M. Guera, with it’s intricate layouts and depth of detail.  Guera is truly one of the unsung heroes of comics, excelling in everything from sweeping visuals that create a distinct sense of place to a mastery of facial expression and body language that makes the “acting” of his characters almost unmatched.  And there’s the grimy, washed-out colors of Giulia Brusco, the prominent use of browns and oranges creating a parched, sun-drenched aesthetic that helps bring Prairie Rose to life as a place that feels real just as much as Aaron’s writing or Guera’s art.  The creative synergy between these three is practically symbiotic, so much so that even the best issues with fill-in artists, even when beautifully illustrated in their own right, feel like they’re missing something.

If I have any complaint about the issue, it’s the lettering.  For this first segment, Guera letters over his own art, with Sal Cipriano taking over for the remaining 11 pages.  Guera’s lettering is decent enough, a good match for the period setting of the story.  But it’s a bit scratchy, and the blocky speech bubbles aren’t always easy on the eye.  The main problem is that I miss Steve Wands.  I talked above about the creative synergy of the Scalped creative team, and regular letterer Wands is a vital part of that.  The fluidity of his speech bubbles and captions, the way they flow and sprawl across the page, guiding the eye with precision, is reminiscent of John Costanza’s innovative work on Swamp Thing.  Cipriano makes a game attempt at aping Wands’ style, but it isn’t quite the same.  I called this issue a victory lap for what is affectionately referred to in the closing credits box as “the Scalped Crew”, so it’s deeply unfortunate that this one key, but often overlooked component of the crew didn’t get his moment in the sun.

The first half of Scalped #50 is an effective little standalone story that someone who has never looked at the series could pick up and enjoy.  But what truly earns this anniversary issue its high rating is the second half that follows.  We skip forward thirteen years to 1889, as the ancestor of Dashiell Bad Horse – the main character of Scalped – is forced into the fledgling Prairie Rose reservation.  Here, the very act of situating Natives in reservations such as this one is presented as little more than another attempt at Indian genocide by the white colonists of America.  These people were sent here to die, and Bad Horse’s forefather literally is dying from a bayonet wound to the gut.  But in his last moments, he has a visions of the future…

And what follows is a spectacular artistic jam session, a series of full-page splashes depicting select members of the comic’s vast and varied ensemble.  Tim Truman, Jill Thompson, Jordi Bernet, Denys Cowan, Dean Haspiel, Brendan McCarthy and – best of all – Steve Dillon each provide a page, and while special issues of many a comic have treated readers to a gallery of pinups, Aaron makes them more than just that by working them into the fabric of the story.  Against the backdrop of these images, Aaron’s words paint a picture of Prairie Rose and its inhabitants that is defiant and surprisingly hopeful, given how bleak the series can often be.

So, while it does work as a standalone tale, Scalped #50 also manages to act as a comment on the series as a whole up until this point.  Life can be difficult, life can be almost unbearable, but the very act of living is a triumphant overcoming of the odds.  Perhaps it is a comment that applies to the creators as well as the characters.  Scalped has defiantly lived on to its 50th issue.  Congratulations to everyone involved in getting this far: now let’s see where the rest of the story goes.

The Shadow of Scalped

With the exclusive contract he signed a couple of years back, most of the work Jason Aaron is doing these days is with Marvel Comics, arguably best known for his work with Wolverine, first in Wolverine: Weapon X and more recently in the relaunched Wolverine. But his crowning achievement remains Scalped, the masterful crime comic from Vertigo that I recently declared my top comic of 2010. With all the current discussions circulating about creator-owned comics, it might make for an interesting case study to look at how Jason Aaron handled the transition from creator-owned material to work-for-hire gigs, and how much of his own voice he has been able to bring to the tenured characters of the Marvel Universe.

Before we can examine how much of Jason Aaron’s authorial stamp carries over into his Marvel work, we need to get an idea of what constitutes a Jason Aaron comic in its purest form. As such, the best place to begin is Scalped. In this case, we’re putting a focus on Dead Mothers, the third graphic novel collecting the series thus far. The previous volume, Casino Boogie, saw the series take a shift from noir-tinged crime drama into something deeper and more ambitious, playing with time and perspective as we relived the moments leading up to the finale of opening volume Indian Country over and over, heightening the tragedy of what inevitably approached, and building up tension over what would follow. With Dead Mothers, we at last get to see the aftermath of Gina Bad Horse’s murder, and the narrative steps up to the next level.

Though having said that, the opening chapter of Dead Mothers – “Dreaming Himself into the Real World” – gives us yet more build-up, ending with us revisiting the discovery of Gina Bad Horse’s corpse for a third time. Now, when I first got my hands on this graphic novel, I’ll admit to speeding through this first chapter, eager as I was to finally discover how the other characters would react to Gina’s death. But upon revisiting Dead Mothers, it becomes clear that “Dreaming Himself into the Real World” is one of the most pivotal chapters in the book, if not the series as a whole.

This issue gives us perhaps the most comprehensive insight into Dashiell Bad Horse and the demons driving him that we’ve ever had, though unlocking the enigma that is Bad Horse and his motivations is a topic dense and complicated enough to devote a whole commentary of its own to. But what makes this issue so crucial to the wider tapestry of Scalped and our understanding of what Jason Aaron is trying to say with the series is how it seems to lay the trajectory of the whole series out before us, to an extent that even now isn’t entirely clear. In this chapter, Gina Bad Horse (by this point already dead, which her son doesn’t know about yet) appears to Dashiell in a dream, offering cryptic messages about who he is, where he comes from, and, on page 17, the trials he is yet to face:

It’s going to get very ugly around here, and more people are going to die. And before it’s over, you’ll have done some horrible things. Just remember that this is all happening for a reason… By the time you wake up, it will have already started.

This message, and much of the preceding dream sequence, builds up a sense of crushing inevitability, of each character destined to play a part on a stage grander than their comprehension, with any effort to resist their fate only serving to aid them in sealing it. It’s a concept revisited time and again in Scalped, through the experiences of various characters.

Gina’s forecast of what was to come here has of course turned out to be astute, given the subsequent body count that Scalped has accrued. As such, looking back on this chapter with the experience of what has followed, her warning to Bad Horse on page 18 carries with it an enhanced sense of dread:

You’re gonna want to kill him, when you find out what he did! But you shouldn’t! If you do, you’ll pay for it dearly! And he’s not worth it!

Who is the mysterious “him” that Gina is referring to? Is it Catcher, who we would soon discover was the one who murdered Gina? Is it Wade, Bad Horse’s father, who we learned in issue #38, “Family Tradition”, was an FBI informant like his son? Perhaps it is Diesel, who Bad Horse later murders as an act of revenge for the deeds he commits later in Dead Mothers, in which case it is too late for Bad Horse to heed his mother’s warning. Or Gina could be referring to the transgressions of another character we’re not yet aware of. Whatever the case, you get a sense of just how far ahead this chapter is looking, how much of the overall trajectory of the series is foreshadowed within its pages.

Another interesting thing about this opening chapter of Dead Mothers is that it was the first issue of Scalped not to be penciled by regular artist R.M. Guera, with fill-in artist John Paul Leon bringing his accomplished but distinct visuals to the story. As such, it’s commendable just how consistent with the tone of all that came before this feels, saying a lot for the command Aaron’s writing has over the narrative. One striking element carried over from Guera to Leon is the balance between gritty and ethereal. Much has been said about the former, with Aaron’s hard-hitting dialogue matching up with the claustrophobic panel arrangements and heavy shadows that have come to define the comic’s visual aesthetic to create a stifling sense of decay and despair. But less seems to be said about the latter, perhaps because it’s less constant, drifting in and out of the narrative. But it’s certainly there, in occasional moments of perverse beauty, in elements of old folklore creeping forebodingly into these modern surroundings, or as is the case in “Dreaming Himself into the Real World”, with dreams that may or may not be prophetic visions from the spirit world.

Dead Mothers is bookended by another chapter drawn by a fill-in artist, in this case Davide Furno, who would go on to draw several fill-in issues of the series. In this chapter, “Falls Down”, Furno brings a style that is very much his own, more distinct from Guera’s linework than Leon’s art in “Dreaming Himself into the Real World”. In “Falls Down”, Furno’s work looks fluid and graceful, like brush strokes, and Aaron responds with a story that feels more lyrical and – dare I say it – optimistic than a typical issue of Scalped.

The key phrase of the entire issue comes on page 16, when Franklin Falls Down says in his narration, “Beauty is all around us here. You just have to fight for it.” This is a sentiment expressed in the chapter’s opening pages, with glimpses of brutal crime scenes and traumatic moments in Falls Down’s life juxtaposed against snapshots of the beautiful aspects of his home and his culture. It’s also reflected in the character of Falls Down himself. While Scalped has been criticized by some for its unrelenting bleakness and its cast of largely despicable characters, Falls Down is an example of a truly decent man, an honest cop driven by altruistic motives and a genuine desire to do good, who prefers to resolve issues through non-violent means where possible, and who is proud of his Indian heritage. His story here, coming to terms with his grief and resolving to put it behind him and do more to see all the good in the world, is different to the self-destructive arcs of most of our principle characters, which along with the contrasting art makes this feel like it could almost belong to a different series.

But despite the ostensive differences, the recurring motifs emerge here too. Once more, we get the sense of a crime narrative haunted by the symbolism invoked by its Reservation setting, and with moments of poetry emerging from the grimmest of scenarios. In this chapter this is best illustrated on page 16, which gives us one of the most memorable images of the series: the mangled corpse of Falls Down’s wife transforms into flower petals, which blow away in the wind.

But as fascinating as these two bookends may be, the main meat of Dead Mothers is the five-chapter “Dead Mothers” arc in between them, penciled by regular artist R.M. Guera. One of the most immediately striking elements throughout this arc is just how much control over the storytelling Aaron gives to Guera, most famously in the closing sequence of the graphic novel’s second chapter, where Dashiell Bad Horse is about to tell a group of children their mother is dead, just as he himself learns his own mother is dead:

After months of build-up, all the suspense over how Bad Horse would react upon discovering his mother’s death, all the thoughts that would be rushing through his head… we get silence. Yet those three silent pages tell us so much, in particular how much of himself Bad Horse sees in the oldest child, Shelton. But as acclaimed as this sequence is, it is just one of numerous silent sequences throughout “Dead Mothers”. Amidst the praise for the last 3 pages of the story’s first part being silent, it’s often overlooked that the opening three pages are almost completely silent also, showcasing Red Crow’s reaction to Gina’s death to equally powerful effect. With page 2 in particular, we see Red Crow’s memories of Gina’s life juxtaposed with snapshots of the empty shell that remains: from the special way she brushed her hair to the corpse’s limp hand, from their first kiss to the corpse’s lifeless lips. In part 2 we have Gina’s body being put into storage in the morgue and Bad Horse kicking the hell out of a car in a fit of rage, in part 3 we have Bad Horse revisiting his childhood home, and in part 5 we have Red Crow attending Gina’s funeral service and later agonizing over calling his daughter Carol, all done largely in silence.

With no words to aid us, and the storytelling entirely dependent on the art, the spotlight is on R.M. Guera, and he doesn’t disappoint. He has such an incredible talent for capturing all the subtle nuances of emotion, able to go big and dramatic when required, but mostly working with little facial shifts, doing so much with small beats like the closing of eyes or the casting of features into the shade. It is some of the best “acting” you’ll find in any comic book. Of course, silent panels can take just as much thought and effort to script out for a writer as panels with dialogue, so though a writer may get less recognition for them without their words peppered across the final page, silent sequences are typically a creative decision on their part. Aaron knows that, as a writer, sometimes the best thing to say is nothing at all.

With part 2, the third chapter of the Dead Mothers graphic novel, another recurring theme emerges: struggles with faith, and the part faith plays in forming identity. This chapter opens with a flashback of Gina telling a young Dashiell an old Lakota story about how Iktomi the spider trickster brought them from the underground caves where they lived long ago to the land where they live now. Young Dashiell rejects the story as nonsense, but on page 18 we see a grown-up Bad Horse telling the same story to a young Shelton. As mentioned above, in Shelton Bad Horse sees a reflection of his young self: angry, hurt, putting on a show of strength to hide his fear, and a sense of shame of his own culture and heritage (on page 8, Shelton says, “I don’t want be an Indian no more. I just wanna be a regular person.”) And it is only in seeing Shelton and finding himself on the other side that Bad Horse realizes what his mother was trying to do for him.

The opening of the fifth and final part of “Dead Mothers” highlights two more narrative tools Aaron revisits again and again. Part 4 ends with Bad Horse discovering Shelton has set off to try and kill Diesel – who murdered his mother – himself. Reading this, our expectation for the final part would be a race against the clock, with Bad Horse trying to find Diesel and Shelton before it’s too late. Instead, the chapter opens with Shelton already shot dead by Diesel, the confrontation having happened off-panel between issues. This demonstrates how uncompromising Aaron can be, often using the endangerment and even the death of children as an example of how grim the world of the story is, and how nobody is safe. It is also an example of how Aaron likes to deflate expectation, setting up scenarios that could very easily play along established routes before then taking things in a surprisingly different direction, thus making us think more about the way stories are constructed in the first place. Other examples of this in Scalped include the aforementioned silent sequence where Bad Horse learns of his mother’s death, and arguably even the whole set-up of Scalped itself, in which we were originally introduced to a cast of archetypal characters who over time became a lot more multi-faceted and complex.

It can be seen that Dead Mothers is a graphic novel dense with all the central themes that play out in Scalped as a whole, and as such is an ideal showcase for how Scalped represents Jason Aaron’s authorial voice. But if Scalped serves as a kind of control sample for what kind of stories Aaron writes when he’s dealing with his own creations and can write whatever he wants, the real test becomes how much of that is reflected in the work-for-hire jobs he has done for Marvel.

Having recently bought the Ghost Rider Omnibus collecting Jason Aaron’s entire 21-issue run with the character (15 issues of the ongoing Ghost Rider series and then the 6-part Ghost Riders: Heaven’s on Fire mini-series) – a great book, by the way, offering a fantastic story in a high-quality package for a surprisingly cheap price – I think it might be the best place to start. Ghost Rider has never been the most critically-respected character. I’ve been aware of him since the ‘90s, but the characters’ convoluted history and uninteresting cast of supporting characters and villains made him a character I never felt particularly compelled to read more of. But based on all the praise lavished upon Aaron’s run on Ghost Rider, in addition to my already-existing interest in Aaron’s work, I decided to give it a try. I didn’t regret it. Through this run, Aaron crafted an epic narrative that seemed to incorporate a wide range of characters from Ghost Rider’s history in a way that was respectful to the history of the series and respectful to long-time fans, while at the same using them to tell a story that felt complete and accessible to newcomers like me. Indeed, the brief references to the wider Marvel Universe are often played for laughs, whether it be Ghost Rider annoyed at someone confusing him with “some damn superhero”, a one-page montage of Marvel characters reacting to the apocalyptic events of the narrative in a manner that suggests they’d be hopelessly underqualified to deal with it even if they weren’t too busy dealing with their own comparatively minor issues to notice, and some Ghost Riders from the future making a reference to Secret Invasion (“What about the Skrulls? Should we tell her about the Skrulls? Have you been invaded by Skrulls yet?”). Most impressive is the mood of the whole thing, with the continuity-dense trappings of a Marvel superhero comic largely cast aside in favor of crazy, horror-tinged, tongue-ever-so-slightly-in-cheek grindhouse fun.

But I’m not here to just gush about how much I love these comics, much as I’d like to. The relevant issue here is how many of the established recurring themes in Jason Aaron’s creator-owned work are also present here in Ghost Rider? The answer to that would be, “a lot.” The very concept of Ghost Rider is one that feels perfectly suited to Aaron, given how it ties into the idea of fate, and whether or not an individual can successfully fight against the path laid out for them in life. In this run, the idea is explored not just through the obvious avenues of Johnny Blaze and Danny Ketch – the two central Ghost Riders – but in the arc of young nun Sara, who unexpectedly becomes the new Caretaker after her grandfather’s death, and to a lesser degree the heroic character of Daimon Hellstrom, Son of Satan, who dreads becoming like his father. By picking up on a twist introduced by previous writer Daniel Way – that the Ghost Rider was in fact an agent of Heaven rather than Hell, and Johnny Blaze’s predicament was the fault of a rogue angel named Zadkiel – Aaron also has an opportunity to once again look at ideas of faith, with people finding their idea of Heaven challenged by the civil war going on there, with some losing faith completely and others remaining steadfast in their beliefs.

Not everything makes the leap from Scalped, however. For example, Ghost Rider is a much wordier book, with little in the way of extended silent sequences. Ghost Rider is a different type of book, though. Scalped is very character-driven, with the overarching plot slowing or sometimes fading into the background as we dwell on the character’s reactions to it. Ghost Rider, on the other hand, is very plot-driven. Not to say it doesn’t have an interesting cast of characters, but they always act in service of the plot, and we’re always moving forward, allowing for little to time to spend some pages silently reflecting on a quiet moment. This is also a universe that – as much as Aaron has worked to streamline it and make it accessible – is still very continuity-dense, delving into big, reality-spanning concepts, and such constant exposition is often required. But despite the limitations of working in a shared universe, Aaron has the freedom to add plenty of his own concepts and characters to the Ghost Rider universe, and tells a story so distinctive that it almost feels creator-owned.

Aaron’s current tenure as writer of Punishermax has proven to be more challenging. While Ghost Rider was a character lacking much in the way of classic stories or celebrated creative runs, in recent years The Punisher has become defined by the celebrated work on the character done by one writer – Garth Ennis – also under the Punisher MAX label. Though this run exists outside Marvel’s main continuity, it has come to be viewed as the definitive Punisher of the character’s history, and the “real” Punisher within Marvel proper has often been deemed lacking in comparison. When Ennis’ finished his landmark run, it was believed that Punisher MAX was finished too, that no one could touch that version of the character after Ennis. So it was with some surprise, and a certain level of controversy, that the series was relaunched with the slightly altered title of Punishermax and Jason Aaron was tasked with telling his own stories with what many would call “the Garth Ennis Punisher,” even working with regular Ennis collaborator Steve Dillon as the artist.

Given how comprehensively Ennis explored the character of Frank Castle throughout his run, Aaron perhaps wisely sidesteps that with the arc collected in the first graphic novel of his run, Kingpin, instead focusing primarily on Wilson Fisk, and his rise into the eponymous role of The Kingpin of Crime. It made for a clever hook for this relaunch, taking the idea of reimagining The Punisher against the backdrop of a gritty crime saga in a Marvel Universe where there are no superheroes, and applying it to The Kingpin (and in the following arc, Bullseye). So, The Kingpin, a character who, despite not having a costume or superpowers, still always seemed almost as fantastical as your average supervillain, is grounded in this “real-world” tableau, with a new interpretation that the idea of a “Kingpin of Crime” has long been nothing more than a myth, a fictional bogeyman that couldn’t realistically insist, and Fisk creates the persona of this mysterious, all-powerful crime boss who doubles as a “humble dealer in spices” – basically Fisk’s classic persona in the main Marvel Universe – supposedly as a ruse to distract The Punisher, with the five heads of the New York Mafia families bankrolling the operation. And it’s only by degrees, over the course of the five-chapter story, that Fisk turns on his bosses and becomes the Kingpin for real. It’s not until the very end of the story that we see Wilson Fisk in his fortress skyscraper, in his white suit, holding his diamond-tipped cane, as the character is typically portrayed in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man or Daredevil. The whole story, then, serves as a continuance of this idea of fate as an inescapable, even Machiavellian force carrying characters along towards their ultimate purpose. In the case of Kingpin, the effect is heightened by our familiarity with the Kingpin of the Marvel Universe, our acute awareness of what Wilson Fisk will inevitably become by the story’s end.

Kingpin1

Aaron’s Wilson Fisk has a lot in common with Lincoln Red Crow, more than the obvious similarity of them both being involved in organized crime. Both had troubled childhoods, each fighting through abuse and emerging hardened as a result of it. Both find themselves alone and estranged from their families as a result of the decisions they’ve made. And both have toughness, determination and a willingness to fight against enemies stronger than them (in terms of influence, manpower and resources, if not physical power) that makes you almost want to cheer for them in spite of their despicable actions. But there is one crucial difference that sets Fisk apart from Red Crow, best illustrated by Fisk’s own narration on pages 19-20 of the story’s final chapter:

I always told myself, everything I did, I did for my son. So he’d never have to suffer like I’ve suffered. He’d never have to be raped by five guys in prison or have to take shit off a man like Don Rigoletto. He’d never have to kill like I’ve killed. I always said, this was all for Richard. But now… now I have to admit to myself… this was never about Richard. It was for me. It was always for me.

However immoral or even reprehensible many of Red Crow’s deeds have been over the course of Scalped, we have learned that everything he does is – in his own mind at least – in service of a greater good, acting in what he believes are the best interests of the Oglala Lakota nation. We have seen that at certain key moments he has been able to act in the interests of others in a manner that could even be called heroic. But everything Fisk does is motivated by self-interest. And while we might find ourselves supporting him in his ruse against Don Rigoletto, the whole last chapter is a clinical exercise in removing any illusions we might have had about Fisk’s human decency, with his final actions to ensure his rise to power resulting in the violent death of his young son. Worst of all is his attempt at reassuring his hysterical wife as she screams for her lost son: “We’ll have another one.”

This scene serves as an example of that recurring theme of even children – or perhaps that should be “especially children” – not being safe in the dark worlds Aaron presents to us. This is an example of how the move from Vertigo to Marvel, in this case at least, doesn’t result in material any less uncompromising from Aaron. The story’s placement within the MAX imprint allows for enough nudity, violence and strong language to make this feel like a largely seamless transition from Scalped. It lets Aaron include content that’s much darker than you would expect to find in a Marvel comic:

Of course, uncompromising adult content is hardly new to Punisher stories. Ennis had been doing it for a long time before Aaron came along, so its presence in Kingpin is hardly a concrete example of Aaron making his own distinct voice heard within his Marvel work. However, when we take a look at what Aaron has Frank Castle doing during Fisk’s rise to power – namely his confrontation with Amish killer The Mennonite – we see Aaron working in one of his most prominent recurring motifs. While Ennis typically treats religion with gleeful contempt, in the character of The Mennonite Aaron once again gives us a measured depiction of a struggle with faith. He is someone trying to bury his old life as a killer (in chapter 3 we see him literally burying his guns), but when his wife is deathly ill and he prays to God for a sign of a way to help her, he receives word that Don Rigoletto is looking to hire him to kill The Punisher. And so he takes the job, attempting to do so in a way that honors the rules of his religion. Hypocritical as this may sound, ironically enough it is when he casts aside the rules of his religion prohibiting the use of guns (with a “To hell with it,” even) that he seals his own fate. Touches like this, as well as the various other recurring motifs noted, not to mention Aaron’s near-peerless knack for hard-hitting dialogue, allow Jason Aaron to step out from the shadow of Garth Ennis and with Punishermax give us a Punisher book that very much feels like its own entity.

So, working with both Ghost Rider and The Punisher, we can see that Jason Aaron is able to bring a lot of the elements that worked so well in Scalped over to his work for Marvel. But in one way or another, both these runs operate on the fringes of Marvel, with mitigating factors allowing for an increased level of control and influence over the characters. How far then does Jason Aaron’s authorship extend over his work with Wolverine, one of the most popular and prolific characters in the Marvel Universe?

Of all the characters in the Marvel Universe, few are more difficult for a writer to make their own than Wolverine. His whole life story spanning back decades has been told and retold and made into its own spinoff ongoing series. He appears in about a dozen comics a month. Just about every writer who has spent any degree of time at Marvel has taken some kind of stab at portraying him. So when Marvel launched a new ongoing – Wolverine: Weapon X – written by Jason Aaron and drawn by Ron Garney, perhaps some questioned what else this series could possibly say about the character that hasn’t been said already. Aaron wryly acknowledges Wolverine’s prominence and the difficulties it can cause at various points throughout Adamantium Men, the first graphic novel collection of the series. On the first page of the second chapter, reporter Melita Garner proposes a news story about Wolverine, to which the editor replies with “forget it, he’s way too overexposed.” The story spanning across the last two chapters, “A Mile in My Moccasins”, attempts to illustrate how ridiculously busy someone who simultaneously works for several different superhero teams while also going on his own solo adventures would actually be. Aaron even attempts to rationalize this in a way that advances Wolverine’s character, suggesting this is all driven by a self-destructive response to the return of all the memories of the awful things he’s done throughout his life.

Looking at Jason Aaron’s run through Wolverine: Weapon X and Wolverine as a whole, it seems the key contribution that Aaron has tried to bring to the table is a new dimension for Wolverine’s character. This has taken the form of Logan gradually finding faith, tying once more into one of Aaron’s favorite themes. It becomes a lot more prominent with Aaron’s subsequent work on the character, but even at the very beginning of the run in Adamantium Men, Wolverine’s closing narration across the last few pages of Chapter 5 alludes to ideas of heaven and hell:

But maybe I’m wrong about hell. Maybe it ain’t down there in the depths after all. Maybe it’s up here with us. Maybe hell is that we have to keep going, keep working… keel killing, keep hating… keep watching everyone around us die. Maybe heaven only comes when we blink out and suddenly it don’t hurt any more and there ain’t nothing left to dwell on or fret over. Nothing at all. I have a hard time believing in heaven, but it’s easy to believe in hell. A place where people are tortured for all eternity because of the sins they committed in life? Judging by what I’ve seen of the world… that sounds about fair.

Oddly prophetic, considering that later Wolverine would literally be sent to hell. But aside from this, reading The Adamantium Men, there is not much to immediately indicate that this comes from the same writer as Scalped. Yes, it’s very well-written, as Aaron’s work tends to be, but quality is not exclusive to Jason Aaron, and can be found in other superhero titles in the Marvel Universe. So, does this mean that there is a limit to authorship in comics, that any sense of creative identity amongst even the best writers is overwhelmed under the constraints of continuity and visibility within a shared universe?

Not necessarily. Speaking on a purely subjective level here, Wolverine is not a character whose comics I’ve ever been particularly interested in. But I’m buying and enjoying Wolverine every month, and if you’d told me I’d be doing that a couple of years ago I probably would have laughed you out of the room. So whether it’s obvious or not, Aaron’s presence as writer does make a difference. Perhaps it does a disservice to a writer to reduce their authorship to a series of easily identifiable recurring motifs, when versatility is as desirable a skill for a creator to have as any. In fact, it could be argued that writing a good run with an established canon character requires the flexing of a whole different set of creative muscles than writing good stories with original characters. In the February 9th edition of Where the Hell Am I, his weekly column for Comic Book Resources, Aaron talks about what he enjoys in particular about working for Marvel:

I like being a part of these things. I like getting to play with Marvel’s biggest toys. I like having a voice in the creative direction of the company. And I like working for a company that wants a diversity of voices in that room and that wants to empower its creators to tell exactly the kinds of stories they want to tell.

In other words, I’m very happy where I’m at in my career right now, as a cog in Marvel’s machine.

For Aaron, writing for Marvel has its own set of perks and benefits, distinct from writing creator-owned work, whose benefits Aaron has also been vocal in declaring. I think an important point to take from this is that the way I originally approached this study was wrong. Maybe it’s inaccurate to view a creator-owned series like Scalped as Jason Aaron in his purest form, with this purity being increasingly watered down the deeper into Marvel Aaron’s projects take him. Adamantium Men is as much a Jason Aaron book as Dead Mothers, just a different kind of Jason Aaron book. One thing I’ve come to appreciate in all Aaron’s Marvel work is how much humor there is, which is a welcome surprise given how dark and joyless Scalped can be. And while Wolverine, Ghost Rider or The Punisher may seem to fit the angry, morally ambiguous badass archetype that doesn’t stray too far from the Dashiell Bad Horse mold, when Aaron gets the opportunity to write a full-blown, cheery, wisecracking superhero such as Spider-Man, he nails the character’s voice perfectly. That’s a virtue for a writer of established superhero franchises: to be able to capture a character’s voice and fit in seamlessly to a character’s mythology, in a way rendering yourself invisible. And if you’re able to do that while at the same time working in the same themes and ideas that interest you in your creator-owned work, as Jason Aaron has done, then you’re a very good writer indeed.

The shadow of Scalped does loom large over Jason Aaron’s Marvel work. But I think that has as much to do with how a reader familiar with Scalped reads books like Ghost Rider, Punishermax or Wolverine as it does with what Aaron himself is writing. Ultimately, I think that rather than making Wolverine more like Scalped (or making Invincible Iron Man more like Casanova, or Detective Comics more like American Vampire), the true benefit of having the writers of celebrated creator-owned projects doing work-for-hire gigs for DC and Marvel is that our perceptions of those books are carried over into these superhero stories. By having a quality creator at the helm, it offers a promise of quality, suggesting that these comics are being taken more seriously than just being exercises in continued licensing. And hopefully, in turn, a reader who enjoys that writer’s Marvel/DC projects will be enticed to try out their creator-owned work. Like how reading Punishermax is what finally prompted me to try Scalped. The realms of creator-owned and work-for-hire don’t need to be at odds: both can coexist, and even assist one another, as Jason Aaron demonstrates with his diverse body of work.

Studying Scalped: An Introduction

Scalped is the best comic in the world.

I think that’s as good a point as any to begin.  In my humble opinion, Scalped – the Vertigo crime series from writer Jason Aaron and artist R.M. Guera – is the finest ongoing monthly comic on the shelves today, and has been for quite some time.  The opening issue set the stage.  An angry young man called Dashiell Bad Horse returns to the Indian Reservation where he was born, and soon finds himself employed by Lincoln Red Crow, community chief and feared gangster.  But Bad Horse is actually an FBI agent, working undercover to bring Red Crow down.  A good start for a crime thriller.  But as the series has progressed, it has evolved into something much more complex, dealing with big issues like identity, heritage and destiny, and providing us with some of the most fully-realised, compelling characters in comics.  All of this is woven into Aaron’s meticulously-plotted tapestry, usually complimented by Guera’s stunning artwork.

I believe that, one day, Scalped will come to be recognised alongside the likes of Watchmen and The Sandman as one of the great comics of all time.  At least it should be, as in terms of both quality and technical innovation it has already earned its place in the canon of comic book classics.

So why is nobody talking about it?

Every time I read a new issue, I find myself eager to discuss and share the latest bundle of excellence the creative team have provided us.  But even on the internet, where the most obscure of passions are catered to, discussion is relatively scarce.  It’s like Scalped is the comic world’s best kept secret.  Indeed, when I went onto Google to run some searches on Scalped to see what was being said about it, I was disheartened to discover that the most prominent topic of dicussion as regards the book was arguments over whether or not it was racist.  I find the accusation as groundless now as I did then, and addressed the controversy at length in an article I wrote for Comic Book Resources one year ago:

Scalped and the Stereotype That Wasn’t There

But though I refuted the accusations of racism there, and have continued to do so elsewhere, I can’t help but feel that it’s a great shame that this is what I seem to have spend most of my time writing about Scalped focused on.  It’s just so reductive, ignoring all the richness the text has to offer in favor of lowest-common-demoninator squabbling.  So I decided to create an outlet for discussing at length the numerous elements of the comic that merit further exploration.

Recently, we’ve seen the old debate of diversity in comics flaring up again, with the likes of Steve Niles and Eric Powell championing a greater focus on creator-owned work.  What can we do to make sure creator-owned comics get more attention?  One small way we can make a difference is by talking about the comics we love.  And I mean more than simply saying, “This comic’s great!”  Enthusiasm is good, sure, but what’s even better is telling us why the comic is great.  Reviews are good for this, and I try to do my bit with reviewing the creator-owned comics I read.  But even this is ultimately just a subjective expression of opinion.  The next step is analysis, going beyond the quality of individual issues, and really getting into studying the themes and character arcs of the series as a whole.  Let’s start treating our favorite comics as literature worthy of deeper analysis.  Surely the first step of getting the sceptics to view comics as a legitimate, credible artform is to start doing it ourselves.

More than that, every piece of in-depth commentary adds to a body of work.  The more we talk positively about Scalped and provide in-depth commentary about the series on our blogs and sites, the less new readers will look up the series on Google and find nothing but arguments about racism.  I don’t propose that I’m some kind of literary genius or comics expert.  I know my understanding on art is lacking, and I probably won’t be able to talk about the excellent visuals with as much depth as I’d like – though I’ll certainly try!  I’m just a fan of a great comic, that wants more people to be reading it and talking about it.

Are you a fan of Scalped too?  Maybe you can help me out.  Write your own blogs discussing the series, focusing on whatever aspect you choose.  If you write something up, contact me – my twitter ID is johnlees927 –  with a link, I’d love to read your thoughts.  And it doesn’t need to be limited to Scalped: if there is a creator-owned comic you’re passionate about, show that you’re passionate about it!  Share the love!

“Studying Scalped” will be a series of commentaries featured within my blog that I’ll update periodically.  I’m getting the ball rolling with “The Shadow of Scalped”, a slightly-modified version of my latest column for Project Fanboy.  I’ll be posting that up here on my blog soon – watch out for it.  If you read Scalped, I hope you enjoy these blogs and are encouraged to reply and start talking about this series – I’d love to talk more about this series with other fans.  And if you don’t read Scalped… maybe this will convince you to give it a try, and see for yourself just why I think it’s the best comic in the world.