Is 2014 Comics’ Summer of Horror?

EmilyInterviewTeaserOver the past couple of months, it feels like I have been immersed in horror. Over the course of this month in particular, it’s starting to seem like my every spare moment has been dedicated to talking up my horror comic series, And Then Emily Was Gone. If you’ve somehow managed to avoid my social media PR onslaught, here’s the series synopsis:

Greg Hellinger is a man who sees monsters. Driven to the brink of madness by monstrous apparitions, he is tasked with finding a missing girl called Emily. Hellinger’s search takes him to a remote community in the Scottish Orkney Islands, where strange and terrifying things are happening…

Equal parts Twin Peaks, True Detective and The Wicker Man, with an atmospheric rural Scottish setting, And Then Emily Was Gone is a comic I’m really proud to have written, and artist Iain Laurie, colorist Megan Wilson and letterer Colin Bell have all done stellar work. The five-issue miniseries will be released monthly by ComixTribe, with the first issue hitting comic shops in July. That means this is the month it’s in the Diamond Previews catalogue available for order, and that’s left me thinking a lot about the marketability for this weird little book. From the early stages, there was concern that there might not be an audience in the comic market for this kind of morbid, gruesome story, that this might sit as something of an oddity among the more bombastic, action-orientated fare available in Previews. But recently, it’s started to occur to me that something dark is afoot in the comics world. Horror comics are on the rise, and now And Then Emily Was Gone is feeling less like a strange curio and more like a small part of a big movement.

EMILY 0108Just look at the new releases on the shelf of your local comic shop this week. Wednesday 7th May marked the launch of two new horror titles: Nailbiter and The Woods. Nailbiter is an Image Comics series from writer Joshua Williamson and artist Mike Henderson, about a small town in the American heartland that has been the birthplace of 16 prolific serial killers, and the disquieting secrets that town may hold. It was first announced at Image Expo in January, and did not seem like the most high-profile unveiling of that weekend. But over the past couple of months, I’ve watched buzz steadily built, first as people were floored by the blood-drenched preview art coming from Mike Henderson, then as the word-of-mouth started slipping out from those who’d read advance copies and were blown away. There was something palpable in the air that Nailbiter was going to be very special indeed, possibly the latest Image #1 to make a big splash. It says a lot that in the week that both Marvel and DC’s big crossover events of the year debuted – Original Sin and Future’s End respectively – the coverage and “book of the week” accolades going to Nailbiter threatened to upstage both of them. And having read the first issue myself, I can assure you it’s worthy of the hype. Mike Henderson’s moody artwork is a revelation, and while Joshua Williamson already turned heads last year with his impressive work on Ghosted, but Nailbiter sees him up his writing game once more. A single issue efficiently presents us with a well-realised world with intriguing/disturbing characters, and a steady accumulation of dread literally visualised on the page with a recurring THUMP-THUMP, THUMP-THUMP, THUMP-THUMP heartbeat growing ever more prevalent.

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But as impressive as Nailbiter was, in my humble opinion The Woods just about matched it step-for-step. From Boom! Studios – the latest addition to their slate of quality original content as they become ever more serious in emerging as a match for Image’s dominance of the creator-owned market – from writer James Tynion IV and artist Michael Dialynas, The Woods tells the story of a high school filled with pupils and staff which is suddenly and without explanation teleported to an alien world, at which point the people in the dramatically relocated building very quickly find themselves having to fight for their lives against monstrous alien beasts out to hunt them. The plot very quickly becomes gripping, and drew me in as a reader both in terms of the immediate tension presented in the high-stakes nature of the characters’ plight, and in a more overarching sense of thinking of the larger mystery behind how and why the school was brought to this world. But what really made The Woods stand out was the characters. Amongst the 513 people caught in this extra-terrestrial event, a small core ensemble of characters quickly emerge as figures to care about and get emotionally invested, already been drawn as real, likeable kids whose safety we are going to fear for. It’s very much cut from the same cloth as Manga horror classic Drifting Classroom, pushing the same buttons of intense claustrophobia, child endangerment and what sides of human nature will emerge out in the wilderness, but with enough of an American twist to give it its own identity.

TheWoods1So, two horror comics debut in the same week, both are quality books with buzz and critical acclaim behind them. What is it indicative of, if anything? It’s not like the comic medium is any stranger to horror. There’s in fact a rich history of horror comics. The biggest creator-owned comic in the industry today is The Walking Dead, ostensibly a horror comic, though I’d argue it’s evolved into more of a sweeping post-apocalyptic epic. And in recent years we’ve had our share of modern classics in the genre: Locke & Key, Severed, Echoes. But what stands out as different this year is the density with which these horror titles are hitting, and the splash they’re making. Nailbiter and The Woods both seem poised to go from strength to strength, but there are more debuts on the horizon. Spread, written by Justin Jordan and drawn by Kyle Strahm, is built around the delicious high-concept of “The Thing meets Lone Wolf and Cub,” and boasts some truly blood-curdling imagery. It caused a sensation at last year’s New York Comic Con, and now Image Comics have picked it up and have it slated for a July release. It got a major spotlight in this month’s Previews, and is already starting to build something of a social media steamroller behind it as that advance buzz brews. Watch this become one of the sleeper hits of the summer.

Spread1As the summer continues to roll on into August and beyond, some of the biggest names in comics will be getting in on the action. Writer Scott Snyder and artist Jock – the creative team behind one of the most celebrated Batman stories of the past decade, The Black Mirror – are reteaming for Image Comics to bring us Wytches. Now, Snyder is no stranger to the horror genre. One could argue he cut his teeth in the genre, with both his breakthrough Vertigo hit American Vampire (which since its Second Cycle relaunch has really seemed to bring the horror to the fore) and the aforementioned Severed. Even his mainstream DC work on the likes of Batman and Swamp Thing has had a fair share of horror elements injected into it, and The Wake was rich in horror trappings before morphing into an equally compelling but tonally distinct entity in its second half. So it makes a statement when Snyder talks about Wytches being the darkest and scariest he’s ever gone. This is something that’s quite fascinating for me, as horror is still something of a frontier in comics, and creators are still experimenting with how best to use the medium to scare the reader. Snyder has already been amongst the most successful, with Severed in particular making for harrowing reading, so when some of the best in the field are pushing at the forefront and striving to go further than they ever have, it suggests it’s an exciting time to be a fan of horror comics.

Wytches1Pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in a horror comic is also on the agenda for Nameless, another Image Comics offering. This also sees the reunion of the creative team of an acclaimed Batman run, this time Batman Inc, as artist Chris Burnham pairs up once more with writer and comics legend Grant Morrison. Details of this series have been sparse, and we don’t even have a concrete release date yet, but Burnham has talked about this being “the ultimate horror comic,” while Morrison has suggested that his ambition is to capture the zeitgeist and use Nameless to project a definitive statement about what frightens us on a primal level in modern society – “doing hopefully for now what H.P. Lovecraft did for the wartime generation,” as Morrison puts it – and considering that when Morrison set out to make the definitive statement on the superhero he gave us All Star Superman, we should all be very afraid at what he has in store for us with Nameless.

Nameless1But even with these big name talents with debuts lined up, there is one horror comic that I’m looking forward to more than any other. Ever since I first heard about it last year, there has been a graphic novel pencilled in as one of my premiere comic events of the year. The graphic novel I’m talking about is Through the Woods, by writer/artist Emily Carroll. When last I heard, it was set for a July release, but the marketing has been quite low-profile. But those who know about it are very excited about it indeed, as Emily Carroll is arguably the current master of the horror comic. His Face All Red is one of the single greatest horror stories to emerge from any medium in recent years. Like all the best horror, it stays with you long after you’ve finished reading, makes you think, makes you ask questions then leaves you troubled in the late hours by the implied answers. Her work has been a big inspiration to me in terms of opening my eyes to what kind of horror was possible in comic form. And up until now, her output has all been in the form of free webcomics. Through the Woods marks Emily Carroll’s first foray into the realm of print, with His Face All Red being collected with some new stories. Any horror fan should be marking this down as an essential purchase. In the grand picture of “the summer of horror” and the rise of horror in comics, Through the Woods could end up being the most important book of all.

ThroughTheWoods1There’s a quote from actor/writer Mark Gatiss I particularly like, spoken at the beginning of the BBC documentary series, A History of Horror:

The cinema is where we come to share a collective dream, and horror films are the most dreamlike of all, perhaps because they engage with our nightmares.

Just as horror films at their best have a unique power with the way they utilise the tools of that medium in the most visceral and potent of ways, I think that the comic medium has the same potential for engaging the senses. It’s a visual medium, and a well-crafted image can be seared on a reader’s psyche, yet despite the notable works in the field I feel like much of that potential remains untapped. Recently, I feel like horror cinema has lost much of its edge, and there haven’t been that many genuinely great horror films over the past several years. So, I talked about the frontier before, and I believe that more and more comics could become the proving ground where we go to scare ourselves in the most inventive and rewarding manner. For years I’ve felt like the horror market for comics could be huge, and this year it feels like we could be taking major steps in that direction. I don’t claim to be anywhere on the level of all these exciting works making their way to comic shops in the coming weeks and months, but if all the “summer of horror” does indeed prove to be a significant movement in the comics industry, I’m proud that And Then Emily Was Gone can be part of it.

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And Then Emily Was Gone #1 is released in July.  Pre-order your copy now, Previews order code MAY141251.  For more info, follow the Facebook page or check out the official blog.

Through the Woods is released in July.  Pre-order your copy now, Previews order code APR141272

Spread #1 is released in July.  Pre-order your copy now, Previews order code MAY140579

Wytches is released in August.  Nameless does not yet have a release date. 

Nailbiter #1 and The Woods #1 are available to buy now from all quality comic shops.

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.

REVIEW: Detective Comics #881

You might not have thought about it, but Detective Comics #881 might actually be one of the biggest comics the publisher has ever released.  Not only is this the double-length conclusion of Scott Snyder’s brilliant run on the book, wrapping up his 11-part saga and bringing his various plot threads back full circle, but it is the final issue of Detective Comics, Volume 1, a title that has been in publication since 1937, the longest-running comic in America.  Detective Comics literally made DC’s name.  So, Detective Comics #881 can really be seen as the end of an era.  So, under all the weight of expectation, does the comic deliver?

In recent weeks, we’ve seen a few of DC’s finale books struggle by trying to encompass the entire history of a character or series, bring everything to a definitive close as DC prepares to relaunch in September.  Perhaps what makes this concluding issue so much more successful is that it isn’t self-conscious about being the finale to Detective Comics.  It is the finale to “Black Mirror”.  In the opening page, Dick Grayson’s voiceover about Gotham City from the first issue of the run is repeated, only now the words hold much more weight, as over the course of the arc we’ve seen the dark, malevolent power Gotham holds.  And as James Gordon Jr, the sinister son of Commissioner Gordon who has lurked on the periphery of the main narrative, takes centre stage as the climactic threat, it becomes clear how all the disparate threads running through this saga have always been leading to this one finale.

Much of the issue is dedicated to James Jr giving a big monologue explaining his motivations and his evil schemes, and while at certain points this does come across like Snyder having characters parrot out the observations he’s made himself in interviews within the context of the narrative (as if to preserve his ideas in fiction for posterity), for the most part this dialogue helps craft James Jr as a memorably creepy, skin-crawling villain.  I have a beef with Mr. Snyder, as he has now forever ruined the ending of The Dark Knight for me.  Now, when I watch it, I can’t help wishing Batman would have let Two-Face kill the evil little bastard.

But although he gets the lion’s share of the dialogue, James Jr isn’t the only guy to get a chance to shine in this issue.  Dick Grayson’s Batman, Commissioner Gordon, and even Barbara Gordon get their moment in the sun.  We get some final commentary on just what makes Dick Grayson so different from Bruce Wayne, what drives him to keep on fighting crime as opposed to his predecessor.  Gordon shows his cast-iron principles once more, and while Snyder has really emphasized what a haunted, weary soul he is, seemingly at breaking point, in the end he gets his strong, heroic moment.  I truly think Jim Gordon is one of the greatest, and perhaps most underrated, heroes of the DC Universe.  And Barbara is presented as the ultimate survivor, as well as the one person with the insight to have always seen James Jr for what he really was.  She also gets the single most badass moment in the issue, if not the entire run.

So, this is very much a culmination of Snyder’s story, and the major character arcs featured within it.  But the nods to wider Batman history are there, subtle but undoubtedly present.  In particular, there are recalls to Batman: Year One, with the bridge infant James Jr fell from popping up as a pivotal location, and best of all, with us finally getting a definitive answer to the question, always left ambiguous, of whether or not Gordon has always known Batman’s true identity.  To me, this was a huge moment, and the kinda thing a little post-relaunch continuity shuffle could quietly tug back under the rug, but I’d hope not, as it was one of my favorite beats in the comic.

In terms of the art, I was pleasantly surprised to see that this was a collaboration between Jock and Francesco Francavilla.  In my review of issue #879, I praised Francavilla’s work in the Gordon subplot fill-in issues, and I’d been lamenting my belief that Francavilla was now gone from the book because, while Jock is of course great, I felt Francavilla’s contribution to the series also merited recognition in this final victory lap.  But both get plenty to do in the issue, and though their art styles are quite starkly different, the transition works well.

Through the aforementioned lengthy James Jr monologue, Francavilla provides the art, along with his trademark heavy reds.  This is utterly appropriate, as he really put his stamp on James Jr, and the stillness and creeping dread of this extended sequence is perfectly complimented by Francavilla’s moody visuals.  But once we get to the action, when James Jr has his physical confrontations with Barbara, then Batman, then Gordon, it’s Jock that takes over, bringing his dynamism and adrenaline-pumping layouts to effective use.  Both artists deliver the goods, as they have throughout this run, and I was very happy to see Snyder, Jock and Francavilla all named on the cover of this final issue of Detective Comics.

From here, Snyder jumps over to Batman #1 in September, with Greg Capullo onboard for  art.  I’ll miss Jock and Francavilla, but what I’ve seen of Capullo’s art for the series looks jaw-dropping.  His layouts are inventive, his depiction of Batman is powerful and imposing, and there’s great use of blacks and shadow.  Of course, Snyder has yet to put a foot wrong in my book, and if the brief allusions to Bruce Wayne in this issue are anything to go by, Snyder is going to bring some realy meaty characterisation for the original Batman to the table.  This has all the makings of a classic run.

I think it’s an exciting time to be a Batman fan.  For the past several years, Grant Morrison has been telling some of the best Batman stories ever, stories that seem to divide readers now, but that in the future are going to be analysed and discussed and compared to the all-time greats to have written the Caped Crusader.  Now, as the Morrison era winds down to its conclusion with Batman: Leviathan in 2012, it seems the Snyder era is set to begin, as between Detective Comics, Gates of Gotham and now Batman, Snyder appears ready to take over from Morrison as the primary architect of the Batman franchise.  When you combine that with Christopher Nolan’s two incredible Batman films (and the final part of the trilogy set for next year), and Batman: Arkham Asylum being not just the best superhero game ever, but one of the best video games of any kind of the past few years, it has to be said that this era we’re in now is going to take its place in the history books as perhaps the most important period of Batman’s existence since at least the late 1980s.  It may be the end for Detective Comics, Volume 1, but Batman still has great days ahead of him.

REVIEW: Detective Comics #879

I almost never picked up the first issue of Scott Snyder’s run on Detective  Comics.  It arrived at a period when I was trying to trim down my monthly comic buying habits, and I had made myself a strict statement of intent that the only Batman comics I needed to be reading where whatever ones Grant Morrison happened to be writing.  His jawdropping, landmark run with the character is going to be looked back on one day as one of the all-time greats, and I felt that it gave me all I could possibly need as a Batman comic fan.  But after reading all the great reviews for Snyder and artist Jock’s debut on the title, I grudgingly decided to give it a go, just for one issue.

I’m glad I did: it’s become one of my most anticipated titles each month ever since, and on weeks when their respective scheduling means I can pick up both Snyder’s Detective Comics and Morrison’s Batman Inc, as big of a Morrison fan as I am, I must admit Detective gets read first.

Even more than Morrison did on his Batman & Robin run, Snyder truly gets into the psyche of Dick Grayson, and lays out what makes him unique, and different from Bruce Wayne, as Batman.  And more than that, over the course of his run he has made a potent statement about Gotham itself, with his first arc, “Black Mirror”, and its follow-up, “Hungry City”, both showing the city as almost a living entity, shifting  and changing to reflect the worst nightmares of its current protector.  I truly believe that, years from now, even once Bruce Wayne is long re-established as the sole Batman and the idea of Dick Grayson wearing the cowl has become an obscure, almost-forgotten historical curio, the strength of this story will be enough for it to operate outside of current continuity and have a healthy life in the graphic novel market.

But as much as I’ve enjoyed Snyder and Jock’s main storyline of Dick Grayson’s trials as the new Batman, I think the subplot involving Commissioner Gordon’s difficult reunion with his (literal) psychopath son James, Jr has been even better.  It began as the back-up story for the series, and when DC canned those, Snyder shifted things around  so that every fourth issue of the title would become a full-length Gordon story.  Issue #875, “Lost Boys”, was the first of these Gordon spotlight issues, and it still stands as the single best issue of this entire run, and quite possibly Snyder’s finest hour in any of his comics thus far.  Issue #879, “Skeleton Key” (after 4 paragraphs, he finally gets to reviewing the issue!), doesn’t quite top that masterpiece of comics storytelling, but is at least the best issue of Detective Comics SINCE #875.

A big part of what makes “Skeleton Key” – and the rest of this Gordon subplot – so brilliant is the artwork of Francesco Francavilla.  Jock’s interiors in the “A-story” have been great too, and rightly celebrated, but in my personal opinion Francavilla’s work might be even better.  Of course, it’s two different styles for two different stories: the kinetic, exciting layouts of Jock’s artwork reflects the high-octane acrobatics of Dick Grayson as Batman.  This Gordon story, however, owes more to the psychological crime thriller, even horror, and that is reflected in Francavilla’s heavy shadows and claustrophobic panel construction.

But perhaps more than his crisp, noir-tinged artwork, it’s Francavilla’s colors that really set the tone of his work here.  The use of bright neon pink, purple, orange, yellow and red (especially red, lots and lots of red) might initially be a bit overwhelming for some.  It reminds me of the original coloring for Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke.  I know Bolland wasn’t a fan of that look, and had it recolored in more muted tones for the recent hardcover re-release, but I was always a fan of those original colors and the nightmarish funhouse vibe it gave the story, making it feel like a bad acid trip.  The word “nightmarish” also springs to mind for the effect it has on the story here, with Francavilla plunging us into a world that feels sinister and off-kilter.

Of course, much credit must also go to the writing  of Scott Snyder.  Here is a Batman comic where Batman doesn’t once appear, and thanks to the stellar characterisation of Gordon, we don’t miss him.  Jim Gordon is a character I’ve long been fond of.  As much as Batman: Year One is hailed as one of the definitive Batman stories, I think at it’s core it’s really a Gordon story.  Even in the films, as talented as Christian Bale is, I think Gary Oldman’s better.  Here, Snyder engages in something he has shown a skill for: opening up unexplored pockets of history and exploring how they impact on the present.  In Gordon’s case, he has brought back the long-absent James, Jr – seen as an infant in Year One, and rarely since then – as a malevolent figure.  For a while, the menace of the character came from us not knowing his true motives, and whether his words could be taken at face value.  After last month confirmed our suspicions about James, Jr’s true nature, here we see Gordon come to that same realisation.

The actual main narrative development of the issue is probably the weakest aspect of the comic.  When we discover what James, Jr’s plans are, it feels to much like a supervillain’s evil scheme.  A really clever evil scheme, it must be said, but part of what made James, Jr such an unnerving presence is that he didn’t feel like just another larger-than-life  supervillain.  He was a monster that was a lot more uncomfortably close-to-home than that, and as such Gordon – and by extension, us – didn’t know quite how to react to him.  By going from something not quite tangible to being “the villain”, the obvious solution becoms “flip on the Bat-Signal and call in Batman.”

No, the real strength and power in Snyder’s writing here comes in the smaller moments.  Perhaps most potently of all, near the end – once he learns the full extent of his son’s darkness and is rushing to stop him – Gordon is haunted by fragmented images of his son as a smiling, innocent child, a child that is now long gone.  If the overarching story of Snyder’s run is about Gotham acting as a “black mirror”, the corruption of his son is the ghoulish reflection Gordon sees staring back at him.  This is a story about parents and their children, and as such a large chunk of the issue depicts the relationship between Gordon and Barbara.  Snyder doesn’t hammer us over the head with it, a lot is left unspoken, but the absolute trust, faith and love the two have for one another is clear.  As the ever-worsening grimness of the James, Jr story plays out, this more positive relationship for Gordon serves as a beacon of light, however dim.

Oh, and The Joker shows up too.  The Joker is probably my favorite character in comics, if not all fiction, so I always love seeing how new writers and artists will handle him.  Here, hidden behind a Hannibal Lecter style mask for the entirety of his appearance, inhuman eyes bulging out of the narrow slits, he fits in effortlessly with Francavilla’s neon-noir horror vibe.  His words (lettered by Jared K Fletcher in their own distinct, ragged font, heightening the aforementioned “inhuman” effect) are an elaborate mind-game for his captors in Arkham, but take on a whole new significance when juxtaposed against the Gordon family drama: “It’s a story about LOVE!  LOVE!  LOVE!”  I’m of the opinion that every story becomes that little bit better if you put The Joker in it (The King’s Speech would surely have won even more Oscars if the Clown Prince of Crime went on a killing spree in the third act), and so I can’t wait to see how he works into the narrative in the remaining issues.

If you’ve not been reading Detective Comics these past few months, you’ve been missing out.  It’s a shame that we’re now entering the endgame of this  particular saga, with the DC Relaunch in September drawing ever closer.  The good news is that Snyder will be jumping over to Batman #1 with the arrival of the New 52, and so I’m pretty sure that title is in good hands.

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.

 

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.

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.