Warning: This post contains spoilers.
Since the series began back in 2007 Scalped has been one of the most consistently entertaining, shocking, thought-provoking, and high-quality comic books on the shelves. Created by Jason Aaron and R.M Guera Scalped is a thriller, a crime comic, a western, a mystery. It is all these things, and yet it is also unique. It is unlike anything else on the shelves now or then. There are no comics that read like Scalped, and there are no comics that look like Scalped.
Scalped stands alone as a gritty slice of Native American noir.
Scalped is the story of Dashiell ‘Dash’ Bad Horse, a man who returns to his childhood home of the Prairie Rose Indian Reservation in South Dakota as an undercover FBI agent. Fifteen years earlier Dash had attempted to escape the poverty and sense of hopelessness that surrounded him on the ‘Rez’, running away to find a better life. When he returns he finds that the Rez, and its people, have been overcome by organized crime and drugs, mainly crystal meth. Whatever pride the people of the Rez once had, has been crushed.
Dash’s mission is to take down tribal leader, corrupt politician and crime overlord Lincoln Red Crow. Throughout the 60 issues of this comic there have been many characters introduced; often tragic figures, some more instrumental than others, but all of them important in their own way. While the complicated relationship and conflict between Dash and Red Crow is the driving force of the narrative, at its heart Scalped has always been about the Lakota Indians who inhabit the Rez and who have no hope or desire to escape it.
Dash’s pursuit of Red Crow is orchestrated by FBI Special Agent Nitz. He is a fascinating character driven by obsession. It is an obsession which has cost him his family, his friends, and probably his career, but he is unable to give it up and he will pursue Red Crow to the bitter end, no matter what.
One of the most interesting characters in the series is Arthur James Pendergrass, also known as Catcher. He is the killer of Gina Bad Horse, Dash’s mother, and he is a major presence within the later issues. Aaron uses Catcher’s character to explore the idea of spirit animals, the Native American belief that each person carries with them the spirit of a certain animal which keeps them safe, and helps them to excel using the particular attributes of that animal. In the end Catcher and Nitz are locked in a bitter fight which sees them both die in a raging fire, Catcher’s owl spirit a hovering, menacing presence.
The setting and milieu of Scalped is as important to the story as any of the characters; the dusty streets, the broken down buildings, the bullet-hole ridden road signs and the holes in the fences. The only thing that’s new on the Rez is Red Crow’s casino. Yet it is the casino which symbolises all that is wrong with the Rez. As the story in Scalped develops the Rez becomes a character itself.
Jason Aaron has stated that he was influenced by TV shows such as Crime Story, The Wire and Deadwood. Another important influence on the story is the real life events of the 1970’s which led up to the arrest of Leonard Peltier for the killing of two FBI agents.
The structure of Scalped sees story arcs which take place over several issues. These are often followed up with single issue stories which take the focus away from Dash and Red Crow, and allow Aaron to look at other characters and tell the story from a different perspective. I think the technique really works for this comic and allows the reader to gain much more of an insight into the world that Aaron and Guera have so expertly created.
Scalped is also extremely violent. A look back at some of the recent issues reveals many brutal fight scenes, fatal gun battles, more than one vicious scalping, stabbings and beatings. All beautifully rendered by Serbian born artist Guera, and regular colour artist Giulia Brusco. Guera’s art is perfectly suited to the atmosphere that Aaron creates with his scripts. The setting of the reservation is drawn to be gritty and dusty. It is blindingly bright in the day and so dark at night that you sometimes have to peer at the panels to see exactly what is happening. The art draws you in to the world, in to the Rez.
A crucial part of Scalped is the cover art of Jock. As the series has progressed Jock’s gorgeous covers have become instrumental to the series. It is inconceivable that anyone else could do the cover art for Scalped. There have been many weeks when Jock’s covers have been the best on the shelves by a long way. Two of my favourite covers he has done have been in the last year.
Issue #53 depicts the Rez on top of a pile of casino chips against a black background. It’s a fantastic concept and it’s rendered brilliantly.
Issue #59 is absolutely stunning. Because the majority of the cover is made up of orange tones at first it is easy to miss the actual detail. But once you look closer the detail at the bottom of the cover is revealed and you see the burning casino in the centre. Your eyes move to the right and eventually you see two tiny silhouetted figures, dark against the bright orange, flame background. It then becomes clear that the mass of orange is the heat from the inferno at the bottom. It is a beautiful cover and it perfectly epitomises the sheer quality of this series.
In addition to the overarching theme within Scalped of community and the effect of crime, Aaron also dealt with serious social issues such as homosexuality and abortion.
Shunka, Red Crow’s right hand man and main enforcer is revealed to be gay in the two-part arc “A Fine Action of an Honorable and Catholic Spaniard”. The story explored how homosexuality is not viewed favourably on many modern Indian reservations, and for Shunka his sexuality is something that, if found out, would be a death sentence.
In “Unwanted” we see another main character Carol Ellroy, Red Crow’s daughter, who shares a long history with Dash, struggling with a decision after she becomes pregnant with Dash’s child. In the end Carol decides to abort the baby without telling Dash of its existence. Aaron handles this challenging subject in an even-handed way and you get the sense that the decision Carol made was right for the character and it fitted in with the story.
All good things must come to an end, and Scalped is no exception. Issue #60 sees the death of several characters, but more importantly it shows us a glimpse of the Rez picking itself up after the years of control exerted by Red Crow. The community spirit, which was never totally crushed, is illustrated in the whole reservation coming together for the funeral of Granny Poor Bear.
As for Dash, he comes to realize that the Rez is his home and no matter where he travels to, he will always return to it. However the final panel of issue #60 shows Dash leaving the Rez, heading for a destination yet to be decided. In doing so we see that he is leaving behind his unborn baby. In the latter issues Dash started a relationship with Maggie Standing Rock, and in the final issue it is revealed that Maggie is pregnant.
It is a poignant end to this brilliant series, and a perfect one. Aaron and Guera, and the whole creative team, have taken Dash, and the reader, on an epic journey over the past few years. And, as Dash leaves the Prairie Rose Reservation so do we.
But this time we won’t be going back.