My Top Ten Comics of 2012

We’re back a bit earlier this year, so apologies to any groundbreaking comic that comes out of nowhere in the last two weeks of December and blows me away.  This marks the third time I’ve run this feature on my blog, which I guess makes it a tradition of sorts.  There’s been an interesting shift in the tides as far as my comic reading goes.  Last year I spoke of DC’s dominance in my reading list, but one year on and the new car smell has faded from much of DC’s New 52.  The very best of the bunch are still going strong, but my DC reading list has thinned considerably in 2012, with yet more titles still hovering on the precipice of being dropped.  Marvel, meanwhile, has enjoyed a slight resurgence, with me sampling and enjoying a few of the Marvel NOW! launches and jump-on points.  But the big story of this year for me has been Image, who have been on a real roll, launching intriguing new titles left and right throughout the year and enjoying perhaps their best year ever.  Taking everything into account, the field of contention for the year’s best comics is so strong that, as of the writing of this intro, there are several comics still in the running to claim the #10 spot.  One honourable mention that was incredibly close to inclusion on the list was Thor: God of Thunder, by Jason Aaron and Esad Ribic, one of the best debuts of the year.  The only thing holding it back from a top 10 inclusion was that, with only two issues released, I thought I needed to see more of the series before I could fairly judge its merits in the context of a whole year.  Maybe in the 2013 list! Will the New 52 debuts that leapt into the top 10 last year retain their placement on the list?  Will the mighty Scalped emerge as the winner for the third year in a row?  Read on and find out!

10.  FATALE

Fatale3aThe first Image comic to make the list, but not the last.  Fatale was the first in a wave of high-profile new series launches for the publisher, with the powerhouse pairing of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips launching a new creator-owned slice of pulpy noir to accompany an impressive portfolio that already includes Criminal, Sleeper and Incognito.  After arguably the high-point of both their careers thus far with last year’s Criminal: Last of the Innocent, I was highly eager to see what the pair had in store next.  What sets Fatale apart from its stablemates is that the noir aesthetic is filtered through the lens of the horror genre.  Drawing in equal parts from Lovecraftian pulp and Satanic horror cinema of the 1960s and 1970s (The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, a good dose of Hammer Horror) the result has been a narrative that substitutes overt shocks for a gradual, creeping dread that steadily built over the course of the first arc.  The second arc, while not quite as focused, still retained some degree of this finely cultivated atmosphere.  The story revolves around Josephine, an apparently-immortal woman who is gifted/cursed with the ability to make any man fall madly in love with her if they so much as look at her.  The narrative has strands spreading along both the present and various eras of the past, becoming increasingly intricate as it goes along.  It’s a limited series, but Brubaker says it keeps on getting bigger as he realises there’s more and more story to tell.  The comics themselves are fine packages, published on nice quality paper, and complete with various fascinating essays about pulp and horror fiction by Jess Nevins.  Not as immediately gripping as some of the comics higher on the list, but a quietly commanding comic that certainly merits recognition.

9.  CHEW

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After dropping out of the list last year, Chew makes a return to the top ten.  There was never really any substantial drop in quality; this offbeat series about a near-future world populated by various strange and delightful characters with food-based powers has always remained a consistently fun read, but perhaps that made it easy to take for granted as shiny new titles vied for my attentions.  But with the excellent Special Agent Poyo one-shot spinoff and the recent “Space Cakes” story arc, Chew has really upped its game and re-established itself as one of the most inventive comics on the market.  Everybody loves Rob Guillory’s gleefully demented artwork, such an integral component of the book’s identity that the very thought of a fill-in artist is horrifying.  But perhaps not enough credit is given to the deceptively intricate writing of John Layman.  With the way each issue works so well as a standalone caper, it would be easy to assume Chew is lightweight comedic fare.  But while there’s no doubt the book is funny – I laugh out loud at least once every issue – when you actually look at the ambitious narrative that has been crafted over the course of the series, it’s a surprisingly dense mythology.  We’ve now reached the halfway point of the series, and with the heartbreaking shock of issue #30, we could be heading for a change in dynamic for the second half.  But whatever lies in store, I’m certainly onboard for the long haul.

8.  WOLVERINE AND THE X-MEN

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I’ll confess, I’m shamefully late to the Wolverine and the X-Men bandwagon.  I almost picked it up at the beginning.  But that was when my interest in Marvel was at its lowest ebb, and when DC’s New 52 was making big demands on my pull list, and one of my favourite writers, Jason Aaron, was launching two new Marvel titles – Wolverine and the X-Men and The Incredible Hulk – in the same week.  I didn’t want to add more than one new Marvel comic to my monthly reading list.  So I chose The Incredible Hulk.  Now, I quite enjoyed Aaron’s run with the Green Goliath, it had some engaging ideas behind it.  But based on the tidal wave of positive feedback I’d been hearing for Wolverine and the X-Men, I began to suspect I may have made the wrong choice.  My decision to sample issue #19, billed as the Marvel NOW! “jumping-on point” for new readers, confirmed it.  Fun and accessible – two words I haven’t typically associated with X-Men comics – the strength of the issue encouraged me to pick up the previous few issues at my LCS, which included Wolverine and the X-Men #17, the Doop issue drawn by Mike Allred, perhaps one of my favourite single comics of the year.  That sealed the deal.  I went back to the start, and have been gorging myself on collected editions and back issues to get caught up.  What I love about this series is that every character earns their place.  No one is here because they were popular during Claremont’s run or whatever.  This is an ensemble piece, and every character – be they student or teacher – has something to contribute.  Which brings me to perhaps my favourite aspect of the series: the return to the school dynamic, previously crucial to the appeal of the X-Men franchise, but all too often overlooked amidst the more general superheroics.  I might have been late to the party, but better late than never!

7.  SWEET TOOTH

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Much like Chew, Sweet Tooth is a series that has been consistently great each month since its beginning, but which slipped from my top ten last year, only to return to the rankings in 2012.  In the case of Sweet Tooth, the fresh burst of momentum has come from the title’s impending conclusion.  Over the course of this year, all the plot threads have been getting drawn together and paid off, with – as of the writing of this list – only one issue remaining before the whole series is wrapped up.  Jeff Lemire has been doing very well with his work in the DCU, but this post-apocalyptic drama about a young animal/human hybrid boy, a battle-hardened old man, and their travels through a wasteland ravaged by a global pandemic – both written and drawn by the Canadian cartoonist – remains his best ongoing series.  And it’s a title that I feel has long been unfairly overlooked.  It is so well-crafted, filled with heart and characters you care about, and Lemire does some really interesting, ambitious things with his art, his layouts, and at times even the very structure of the comic itself.  I’ve talked a lot about what a void in my comics-reading life the end of Scalped will be, but I might be almost as sad to see Sweet Tooth go.  On the plus side, I’ll be first in line to check out Trillium, Jeff Lemire’s follow-up Vertigo project in 2013.

6.  THE MANHATTAN PROJECTS

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And to think, I almost didn’t buy this comic.  I’m afraid I must confess that, before The Manhattan Projects began, I wasn’t the biggest Jonathan Hickman fan.  I’d tried a few of his Marvel titles, but they’d ultimately left me cold.  But the buzz around the first issue, along with the enticingly high-concept proposal for the series – an Expendables-like team of famed scientists from history teaming up to engage in bonkers super-science – was enough to whet my appetite and make me give it a try.  I’m glad I did.  Each issue has at least one moment where I have to stop and say to myself, “That’s utterly demented!”  And, unlike lesser comics that I feel have been cynically engineered around an “Oh shock, WHAT A TWIST!” beat as a cliffhanger each issue, The Manhattan Projects manages to introduce a genuine shock revelation with each chapter in a manner that feels organic, because it tends to come from the characters and inform their portrayal.  This series has really made me a fan of Jonathan Hickman and his approach to storytelling, and since enjoying this I’ve picked up the first couple of issues of Secret, dipped my toes into his epic Fantastic Four run, and devoured The Nightly News, a wonderful comic that’s probably my favourite thing he’s done.  I’ve also become a fan of the offbeat artistic stylings of Nick Pitarra, whose visualisation of this crazy world have very quickly become definitive.  A gem of a book, that keeps going from strength to strength and getting better with each issue.

5.  SCALPED

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What’s this!?  Scalped at last toppled from the number one spot!?  I assure you, its lower placing on the list year is down to the insane quality of the comics above it, rather than any decline in the series itself, which came to an end this year.  The year in Scalped began with the dramatic conclusion to the “Knuckle Up” story, before segueing into “Trail’s End”, the final storyline that brought the saga’s major storylines to a head while still managing to leave a few tantalising loose ends dangling at the end.  This final victory lap made for some highly rewarding reading for loyal Scalped readers, as some of the catastrophic events we’ve been waiting to inevitably happen for years finally took place.  But even as the end drew near, Scalped never felt like it had checked out early.  “Trail’s End” immediately threw us off-kilter by picking up after a leap forward in time, with the status quo of several characters suddenly shifted and us left playing catch-up.  And from there, Jason Aaron steadily turned the screw and built up a sense of dread and uncertainty where, even right up to the last issue, we weren’t sure how it was all going to end, who would live and who would die.  There ended up being quite a few surprises with the way all that worked out.  And one of the biggest joys of Scalped this year is that, if I can recall, all the issues released in 2012 were drawn by the mighty R.M. Guera, who added so much to the rough, rugged aesthetic of the book.  It will be greatly missed, and my 2013 Top Ten Comics list will feel emptier for its absence, but Scalped has, for my money at least, cemented its status as one of the greatest comic books of all time.

4.  IAIN LAURIE’S HORROR MOUNTAIN

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There is perhaps no comic I’ve enjoyed continually rereading more this year than Iain Laurie’s Horror Mountain.  Given its lack of distribution it may be unlikely to appear on many other top ten comics lists this year, and that’s a great shame, as this is one of the most original, darkly inventive comics of 2012.  Horror Mountain is a standalone collection of shorts introducing various warped and depraved characters from the shadowy recesses of cartoonist Iain Laurie’s mind, with such unforgettable monstrosities as Captain Tits and Nazelbahhn.  The resulting end product plays a bit like a sketch comedy show broadcast in Hell.  By turns surreal, horrifying and strangely hilarious, Iain Laurie’s Horror Mountain is perhaps the purest, rawest expression of a singular creative voice in comics you’ll read all year.  Iain Laurie is one of the most exciting creators in comics right now, and I can’t think of anyone more deserving of having a breakout year in 2013.  I imagine his work best presented in the oversized hardcover format of X’Ed Out and The Hive, the recent output from Charles Burns.  The only thing preventing Iain Laurie’s Horror Mountain from getting higher on this list is that there isn’t more of it.  If you’re at all the kind of person who reads through these year-end “best of” lists to figure out what comics to buy next, then this should go to the top of your list.  BUY IT NOW. (Also available digitally for just $1!)

3.  BATMAN

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Last year I predicted that Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s fantastic work on Batman would earn the comic a high placement on this year’s list, despite the book not placing in the 2011 top ten: I opted to go for Scott Snyder’s Detective Comics instead, since the Batman run had at that point just begun.  Sure enough, here it is.  In the intervening 12 months, Batman has emerged as unquestionably the crown jewel of the New 52, not just in terms of sales, but in terms of quality.  The Bat-titles are strong in general right now – I currently read and enjoy Batman & Robin, Detective Comics and Batman Inc – but Batman reigns supreme.  The year got off to a blistering start for the title, with Batman #5 soaring out of the gates as an early contender for the best single comic book of 2012, not to mention one of the best single issues of an ongoing Batman comic I’ve ever read.  Featuring Batman trapped in a labyrinth by the Court of Owls and gradually losing his mind, with trippy, boundary-pushing artwork by Greg Capullo, this saw Batman pushed to the brink of defeat and despair in a way that shocked many readers.  This was the high watermark for the “Court of Owls” saga, and though it might have faltered slightly in the last chapter or two, for the most part “The Court of Owls” was a textbook example of how to tell a gripping, high-stakes Batman epic.  And now it looks like the all-star creative team is set to top it with “Death of the Family”, the currently-unfolding storyline featuring the hotly-anticipated return of The Joker.  Scott Snyder has done a stellar job of injecting a sense of genuine danger and peril into the “illusion of change” world of superhero comics, crafting nightmare scenarios where even jaded comics readers are left on the edge of their seats wondering how the hell Batman can possibly prevail.  And Greg Capullo is giving us perhaps the finest work of his celebrated career.  If Batman can maintain this dizzyingly high standard, I fully expect it to rank highly on next year’s list as well.

2.  SAGA

Saga4aIt has become very fashionable for everyone to gush about how amazing Saga is, and under that sea of hyperbole it might be easy to overlook how good this series actually is.  I’ve read the first issue several times now.  I read it two times in a row on the week I first bought it, before reading any of my other comics from that week, and I remember doing this because I was more excited about rereading this mind-blowing book than reading of my other purchases, none of which could hope to live up to Saga #1.  Since then I’ve periodically returned to that first issue, and recently downloaded it free on Comixology so I can reread it even more on my iPad.  Though I should clarify that the other 6 issues to follow have been great too, establishing a unique, vibrant sci-fi/fantasy world that feels like the basis of a fresh and exciting mythology I’m incredibly excited to explore and learn more about in the years to come.  The best of the crop of new Image comics to launch this year, Saga marks the return of Brian K. Vaughan to comics.  Given how much I adore Y: The Last Man and Ex Machina, that alone was enough to guarantee my interest.  But Vaughan doesn’t rest on his laurels, and isn’t content with just coming back to do what he did before.  No, he’s pushing himself with what could be his most ambitious narrative yet, a huge, sweeping space opera that incorporates various planets, species and cultures, a tale of star-crossed lovers on the run with their baby, and a long-running intergalactic war with unsettling real-world parallels.  But at its core Saga is a book about characters, and it’s amazing how quickly readers have come to care about Marko, Alana, Izabel, Prince Robot IV, The Will, Lying Cat and the rest.  And the art, oh God, how can I not mention the art!?  Fiona Staples has very quickly emerged as one of my favourite artists in comics, and of the breakout comic stars of 2012.  As artist and colorist (and occasional letterer when it comes to Hazel’s narration), Staples is crucial in giving the book its visual identity, crafting an aesthetic that often abandons hackneyed genre tropes where you’d expect to find them and instead crafts something new and often a bit crazy in its place, making Saga feel like no sci-fi or fantasy story you’ve ever encountered before, in any medium.  So integral is Fiona Staples to the book that, when the announcement came that the book was taking a hiatus of a couple of months in between arcs to let her get caught up on her art, the usual grumbling was pretty much absent, with a “Yeah, that’s fair enough, because a fill-in artist would be unthinkable” response proving to be the norm.  This is the comic I look forward to each month above all others.  When Scalped finished this year, I did not expect any comic to fill that “monthly comics crack” void.  I certainly didn’t expect it to happen so soon.  But Saga could very well be the spiritual successor to Scalped, and I can’t think of a better compliment to give a comic than that.

1.  THE UNDERWATER WELDER

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After all that fawning over Saga, it might be hard to believe it only made it to #2 on my year-end list.  Believe me, pretty much right from its stellar first issue, I thought it had the “Best Comic of 2012” spot in the bag, and it would take a very special comic indeed to top it.  It’s a good thing, then, that The Underwater Welder is a very special comic indeed.  Essex County is Jeff Lemire’s masterpiece, and stands as one of the finest comics of the past decade, not to mention one of my all-time favourites.  So, as much as I’ve enjoyed Lemire’s work in the DCU, I had been eagerly anticipating The Underwater Welder – his next graphic novel for Top Shelf– since I first heard about it last year.  And while it doesn’t quite surpass the mighty Essex County, it could very well be Lemire’s most accomplished work since that breakthrough book.  It is very much a thematic cousin to Essex County, given its exploration of fathers and sons and life in a small community, but this tale – of an underwater welder still haunted by memories of a father he lost in childhood as his wife is expecting with a child of his own – takes an unexpected, Twilight Zone style twist into supernatural territory that sets it apart.  While many may know Lemire primarily as a writer, The Underwater Welder shows his outstanding ability as a cartoonist, with a nigh-unparalleled gift for wringing a surprising amount of emotional heft out of seemingly simple images.  Lemire’s artwork feels a lot more precise and polished than it did with Essex County, but still retains that rough, sketchy quality that some might find initially off-putting.  I, however, love it, with Lemire simplifying much of the extraneous detail and honing in on the emotional truth of a moment.  And it’s surprising how immersive the worlds he draws can become, as we build up an emotional investment in the characters and gain a strong sense of place from their surroundings: this book left me seriously wanting to visit Nova Scotia.  Lemire also does some impressive visual experimentation, composing some of the year’s most breathtaking page layouts for this story.  But more than anything else, what I adore about The Underwater Welder is its heart.  Lemire has a gift for telling stories that can feel nakedly emotional without ever coming across as sappy or maudlin, and he does it again with this moving, unconventionally heartwarming tale.  I wish Lemire all the best in his work on ongoing comics.  But I hope that no matter what heights his career as a mainstream comic writer takes him to, he will always find the time to come back to writing and drawing graphic novels like The Underwater Welder, because when he does projects like this, Jeff Lemire is better than just about anyone in the comics medium today.

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REVIEW: American Vampire #33

I sometimes feel that American Vampire doesn’t always get the recognition it deserves.  Oh, it’s hardly some criminally overlooked obscurity, given that the series has enjoyed critical acclaim and awards, and the graphic novels are regularly on best-seller lists.  But still, it seems to fly under the radar.  Amidst the undeniable ascension of Image over the course of this year and its wealth of exciting new projects, I’ve seen many talk about how “this is what Vertigo USED to be like” or “it’s a shame Vertigo don’t make great books like this any more,” and I want to bludgeon them to death with an American Vampire hardcover.  How can Vertigo’s best days be behind them when one of their best new titles in years is still ongoing?  Not that I’m immune either.  I write a lot about how excellent Scott Snyder’s Batman run has been, and from time to time I’ll comment on the virtues of his Swamp Thing, but how often do I acknowledge the brilliance of the Scott Snyder comic I was reading before any of these others?  Perhaps it’s because American Vampire is so consistently strong that we’ve begun to take it for granted.  If that is indeed the case, American Vampire #33 should be the remedy for that, presenting a climactic issue that foregrounds the full dramatic weight of the series thus far.

To give you a quick “story thus far” rundown of “The Blacklist”, the major storyline which comes to its thrilling conclusion in this issue, it has featured our vampire protagonist Pearl Jones teaming up with her old enemy, the inscrutable anti-hero Skinner Sweet, to take out the vampires responsible for attacking her human husband, the aging Henry.  Things took a shocking swerve a couple of issues back when the Big Bad behind this newly-invigorated Carpathian coven turned out to be none other than Hattie Hargrove, the villainess from the comic’s first ever storyline who has been lingering behind the scenes ever since, waiting to spring back into the story like Chekov’s Gun.  Last issue left us hanging with the revelation that Hattie sought to take a very personal vengeance on Pearl, with Henry’s life once more hanging in the balance.  Which brings us screaming into this issue.  With so much coming to a head – not just Pearl’s long-simmering bloodfeuds with Skinner Sweet and Hattie Hargrove, but the hanging question of whether Pearl would turn Henry into a vampire like her or if their days together were numbered – and a return to the Hollywood location of the beginning of the series (not to mention largely cutting everything back to focus on the characters who were players in that first storyline), this feels like the climax of not just “The Blacklist”, but the entirety of American Vampire up until now.  And boy does it deliver.

As is always the case when reading a new issue of American Vampire, the first impression the reader gets here is how utterly awe-inspiring the art of Rafael Albuquerque continues to be.  Since the very first issue, American Vampre has been one of the best-looking comics on the stands, and this issue is no exception.  A great test for how well an artist is doing their job is to look through the issue without reading any of the dialogue, and see not only how much of the story you can follow without the words, but how much of the emotion, and how much of the characters’ personality, is deliniated by the artwork.  Albuquerque excels on this front.  In particular I love his depiction of Hattie.  Snyder gifts her with some deliciously nasty dialogue, but just look how much personality Albuquerque gives her, that glint of pure malevolence in her eye.  Albuquerque handles eyes better than just about anyone: you’d be surprised how hard it is to capture a glint of emotion in something drawn in pencil and ink, but Albuquerque’s characters are gloriously expressive, doing fantastic “acting” that really helps to hammer home the ideas in Snyder’s script.

And this brings us to another of Albuquerque’s atributes: just howdiverse he is.  This issue is just about equally divided between frenetic action and quiet emotional moments, and both are handled seamlessly.  You could write a study on the way Albuquerque frames his pages, how in action scenes he has panels overlapping while other explode from their border and positions the “camera” either claustrophobically close at askew angles to create this sense of being in the thick of the battle, and then how in the more dramatic scenes he might pull the “camera” back to enhance a character’s sense of isolation.  This emotional shift is also aided immensely by colorist extraordinaire Dave McCaig, perhaps the unsung hero of American Vampire.  Look at how the issue’s color pallette shifts from orange to blue as we transition from one phase of the chapter to another.

That’s a lot of gushing about how fantastic the art of American Vampire is, and when a comic looks this lovely it can be easy to overlook the writing.  It’s a good thing then that Scott Snyder’s writing more than holds its own.  I think Snyder does a commendable job of slipping strong characterisation into the ambitious, high-concept, plot-driven narratives of Batman and Swamp Thing – there’s an emerging argument to be made that his whole run on Batman thus far is a character study on Batman’s hubris coming back to haunt him in various ways – but I would venture to say that American Vampire and its tie-ins are his most character-driven works, where the most central stakes usually seem to be emotional ones.  Tellingly, the big battle set up in the previous issue is over by a little over halfway through, and it’s the emotional fallout that serves as the arc’s true climax.  Over the course of 30+ issues, we’ve really come to know and relate to Pearl, and Henry, and even Skinner.  And Snyder cruelly exploits that intimacy he has generated here, as the storyline comes to its heartbreaking, yet ultimately inevitable conclusion.

Pearl’s characterisation is illustrated to us two-fold here.  First, through the portrayal of Pearl herself, haunted, driven, and more compassionately human than many humans.  But also through the depiction of Hattie, who in many ways is a funhouse-mirror image of “Old Pearl”, the wannabe Hollywood starlet.  Pearl, though physically the same, has grown and matured so much in the decades since that first storyline, going through the darkness and emerging on the other side stronger and better for it, much as she might be loathe to admit that herself.  Hattie, however, is presented to us as stuck in arrested development, forever dwelling on the old grudges and dreams she had back in the 1920s, a representation of Pearl’s old naive optimism rotted on the vine and turned into festering resentment and inflated entitlement.  In Hattie, we see everything that Pearl is not, and so it is underlined just how much Pearl has changed over the course of the series.

Henry’s role is smaller here, but in what we get of him he demonstrates to us the warmth and nobility that have made us buy so wholeheartedly into this relationship, even as vampire/human love stories make us roll our eyes elsewhere.  Skinner Sweet, meanwhile, remains one step ahead of the rest of us, his motives continually muddy.  Snyder continues to masterfully maintain a balance act of having us be never quite sure when Skinner Sweet is lying, even to himself.  By all accounts he’s a horrid character that we should detest, but buried deep down that spark of heroism still seems to flicker away almost in spite of itself.  I still don’t have a clue if Skinner Sweet will be seen as the hero or the villain of the series, once it’s all said and done.

“Once it’s all said and done.”  That brings us to the question of what lies next.  It’s no secret that after the next issue, American Vampire will be going on a hiatus of several months, marking what we are told is roughly the halfway point of the series.  Really, if this issue here had been the end of the series (thankfully it isn’t, and there’s more to come!), it would have made for a satisfying conclusion.  As addressed earlier, everything comes full circle, and some of the biggest storylines running through the series thus far come to a head.  If we weren’t getting any more issues after this, you could argue that Pearl, Henry and Skinner got fitting send-offs.  Indeed, so much is satisfyingly wrapped up, that I’m genuinely curious to see where things could go next, and how this can truly only be the halfway point in the saga.  I imagine the next issue will do the job of setting up what lies ahead.

I might have an idea already, though.  See, I’ve thought quite a bit about the trajectory of American Vampire, and originally I considered that this vampire story was being set against the backdrop of the history of 20th Century America.  But “The Blacklist”, with all its references to Hollywood, has gotten me thinking that, more specifically, this vampire story is being set against the backdrop of the history of American cinema.  Those early Stephen King backups were, obviously, a Western.  The original arc that ran alongside them was, in its perverse way, an ode to the early studio films of the Hollywood Golden Age, the sweeping, epic romances of the likes of Cecil B. Demille and the grand emotion of silent cinema.  “Devil in the Sand” channels film noir.  “Ghost War” is, of course, a war movie, albeit one with a vampiric twist.  “Death Race” plays like a crazed pastiche of Rebel Without a Cause and similar “teen pictures” of the 1950s.  And “The Blacklist” seems to owe something to the spy pictures that came into vogue in the 1960s.  Is it really a coincidence that we enter into this hiatus, the first “phase” of the series coming to a close, at a point in the timeline where the studio system was done and “New Hollywood” was on the rise?  As the 1970s saw the rise of the anti-hero in cinema and murkier, more psychological narratives, are we going to see American Vampire take a similar dark turn?  Now that the grand Hollywood romance is over, what new genres wait to be explored through the American Vampire looking glass?

During the hiatus, I think I might try a marathon readthrough of all 33 issues, see how this saga reads as a whole.  And if you don’t read American Vampire, if you say you’re a Scott Snyder fan but just stick to his Batman, now is the time to amend that and play catch-up.  I don’t know what lies ahead for this cracking series.  But I can’t wait to find out.

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.

My Week in New York: Friday

My day didn’t start off well.  Three days in a row of New York pizza had wrecked havok on my stomach – which already had never exited amber alert from my departure from Glasgow – and the less said about the terrifying monstrosities that escaped from my bowels that morning, the better.  I opted for a lighter breakfast in hopes of stilling my queasy belly, and minimising the risk of any violent sprays coming out from the other end, and thankfully once I was out of the hotel and heading for the con my tummy seemed to settle.  I was worried that tides of projectile vomit might hurt our comics sales.

Thursday was a nice way to ease into New York Comic Con, a chance for us to get set up and dip our toes in the selling waters.  But with Friday festivities began in earnest, as we launched into the first full day of NYCC.  The doors opened to the public at 10am, but I got there before 9, wanting to be early to make sure everything was in order.  Already, a line had formed at the venue.  It was a great feeling, being able to just walk past the queue, waving my magic exhibitor badge, and head into the show floor.  And it’s also really cool just being able to walk through a serene, quiet, empty show floor at a con, knowing it’ll soon be bustling with people.

I arrived at the booth, and started getting everything set up for the day.  Tyler arrived not too long afterwards, and I got a chance to do some early shopping before the con started proper: another bonus for exhibitors!  I looked all over in vain for Scalped #1, but it was nowhere to be found.  I think I checked literally every booth selling comic back issues on the entire con floor, and only a few of them had any issues of Scalped, never mind the first one.  However, I did pick up a first print copy of The Saga of the Swamp Thing #29, the infamous “Love and Death” issue that murdered the Comics Code.  Having picked up the “Anatomy Lesson” issue in a back issue bargain bin at the Glasgow Comic Con, I now had my OTHER favorite issue of Moore’s seminal run – and my vote for the scariest single comic ever made – to add to my collection.

Speaking of Swamp Thing, I also got the chance to make what was surely my most frivolous purchase of my time in New York.  One of my big regrets of being unable to attend the San Diego Comic Con this year was that I missed out on getting the SDCC exclusive DC Universe Classics Swamp Thing action figure.  So imagine my joy when I spotted it in New York!  I was on my way back from not buying the ridiculously overpriced water from the snack stall (they had marked it up a price a dollar from the day before, and the next day they would add on yet another dollar to the price – incredible) when I spotted the big box sitting at one of the stalls.  It was even more ridiculously overpriced than the water, but I had to have it.  This guy is absolutely massive, with some really cool detail on the sculpt.  I now have him proudly displayed in my bedroom.

Swamp Thing!

And then it was 10am, and time to get to work.  Joe was held up waiting for a shipment of stock, so at first it was just Tyler and I holding the fort.  Again, business was slow but steady, with us still having a hard time hooking as many people as we’d like.  One thing that did sell well was our ComixTribe package deal: all 6 of our comic books – The Standard #1, The Standard #2, Epic #1, The Red Ten #1, Runners #1 and Scam #1 – plus an 11X17 print and one of Tyler’s art sketchards, all for $25.  That really enticed a lot of people, as it was a good deal that was giving people a lot of stuff for their money.  The package deals were what really made us the bulk of our money over the first couple of days.

I briefly slipped away from the booth to head over to Artist’s Alley and meet Rahsan Ekedal, whose artwork on Echoes greatly impressed me as I read it while waiting at the departure gate at Glasgow Airport.  He was a friendly guy, and signed my copy of the book.  I then headed over to Archaia’s booth, where I hoped to meet editor-in-chief Stephen Christy.  I got to say hello to him and introduce myself, and talk to him a bit about Archaia’s submission policy.  They have recently made the move away completely from single issues, now focusing solely on the original graphic novel market.  I love Archaia, the presentation of their graphic novels is always of the highest quality, and they’re a company I’d love to work with in the future.  So I gave Stephen copies of The Standard and told them I’d be stopping by at their panel later in the day.

I feel pretty guilty, as I spent the bulk of this particular day away from the booth, attending various panels.  The first one I went to was the screening of the Locke & Key TV pilot, which we now know was not picked up by Fox – one more reason to hate Fox.  I was pleased that there was a big queue for this event, and I only barely got in.  The episode was great, really true to the spirit of the comic, which makes it all the more devastating that we probably won’t see any more of it.  I will say, however, that the pilot alone covered the entirety of Welcome to Lovecraft, the first volume of the series.  So I don’t know if there would be enough content within the Locke & Key mythology to sustain 22-24 episodes across multiple seasons.  Perhaps a miniseries would be a better bet?

I stopped back briefly at the booth in between panels, to find that Joe had arrived, and he’d kindly brought lunch!  I was also happy to meet Raphael Moran, writer of Dream Reavers, who stopped by at our booth to introduce himself.  When I next set off, it was for a double-header of panels.  First up was Archaia’s panel on how to make a great indy graphic novel.  This had all kind of useful pointers about developing ideas and the submission process.  Plus, I got to ask a question about Archaia’s approach to design in publication.  I had to leave a bit early in order to make the next panel, but what I saw of Archaia’s panel made it worthwhile attending.

Next up was the Vertigo Visions panel.  Jeff Lemire, Scott Snyder and Jason Aaron all on a panel together, how could I not be interested in this one?  And they were accompanied by such a wealth of talent that the bulk of the panel was taken up simply by Karen introducing each panelist and letting them talk a little about what they were working on.  Poor Karen arrived late, getting the starting time for the panel wrong, and was all flustered in her attempts to moderate the panel.  The highlight of the hour for me was the announcement that Paul Cornell – another favorite of mine who sadly couldn’t attend New York Comic Con this year – would be writing a new Vertigo title called Saucer Country.  I was pleased when the mention of his name was greeted with well-deserved applause.  What this means is that, in the brief window of time between Saucer Country beginning and Scalped ending, four of my top five current comic writers will all be writing titles at Vertigo (the fifth one is Grant Morrison, as I’m sure you can guess), meaning it’s a very exciting time for the DC imprint, at least in my book.

After the Vertigo panel, I got to say hello to Mark Doyle.  Here’s a guy involved in editing American Vampire, Sweet Tooth AND Scalped, meaning he surely has one of the most awesome jobs in comics.  I regularly tweet him about my progress in trying to assemble every Scalped single issue, so I got to tell him in person that I was now only missing the first issue.

I returned to the booth to find that sales had been chugging along nicely in my absence, and I hung around for a while, until I once more left my compatriots in the lurch for the Creator Connections panel.  This is presented as a kind of speed dating for creators, where writers are paired up with artists.  I enjoyed this a great deal, as I got to talk to a lot of talented artists, and got a whole bunch of business cards and potential contacts I may get in touch with for future collaborations.

By the time that panel was done, New York Comic Con was done for the day.  As I said, I felt pretty bad about not being at the ComixTribe booth much on Friday, and told Tyler and Joe that I planned to be there for much of Saturday and most of Sunday.  It’s just the way things worked out that Friday had a high concentration of panels.  And I still had one more to attend!

I made a brief stop at a jam-packed McDonalds near the Javits Center for dinner (I kid you not, I was sat between a girl dressed as a Green Lantern and a guy dressed as a White Lantern) , before heading back to the con for a night-time panel on horror in comics.  I had a hard time finding the room at first, but once I did I was able to just slip in without needing to queue, which was nice.  The panel was actually really interesting.  Horror is a genre I’ve long loved, and have recently begun to appreciate more in the comics medium.  I’d love to attempt a story in the genre, and attending this panel gave me a lot of inspiration and ideas.

This panel took me to near 10pm.  By this point, the ComixTribe gang were over on the other side of the city, so rather than trying to play catch-up, I just walked around New York at night a little, then headed back for an early night.  I’d enjoyed the panels, but I felt this day was a lot of sitting and listening to people talk.  I wanted to make the most of the last couple of days.  Though I did get to see a dog dressed as Superman on Friday.

That's right... A DOG... DRESSED AS SUPERMAN!

NEXT: I meet Scott Snyder… thrice!

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.