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Jason Aaron is a writer whose work I have come to really enjoy in recent years. I consider him in the same class as guys like Greg Rucka & Ed Brubaker: a writer who does really good superhero stories, but when he branches out into other genres, his work absolutely sings. His first major work was The Other Side, a Vietnam story for Vertigo, which I might just write about here someday too. But today, I'm going to be talking about his other Vertigo series, a book that I think stands along with series like Preacher, Transmetropolitan, and Y: The Last Man as one of the great creator driven Vertigo series: Scalped.
Scalped is a crime comic, and if you've ever read my blog before, you know how much I love a good crime comic. There are two kinds of crime stories that really resonate with me. One is the caper, which is often more about an intricate plot than about the characters in it. Then there is the story where the crime itself is secondary to telling you something about human nature (yes, the two can be mixed, but I often find them as distinct entities). Scalped falls firmly into the latter, crafting a large cast of sad and broken people, all trying to find a way to make it in the world, or make it out of their own part of the world, and none of the them succeeding, or at least not in the way they expect.
Scalped is a modern noir, and something that I have dubbed in my head (and, am fairly sure, I saw addressed as such by someone else and have co-opted it) a Rez Noir, a crime story set on and about a Native American Reservation. The Prairie Rose Indian Reservation, home to a tribe of Oglala Lakota Native Americans, is not the kind of place you would want to live, and fits with the popular image of a Rez; depressed economically and spiritually, drugs and alcohol fuel much of what goes on there. But Chief Lincoln Red Crow is getting ready to open a new casino that he assures the populace will bring prosperity. Red Crow already lives high on the hog, metaphorically, as he controls much of the local criminal trade. As the series begins, a wild card enters Prairie Rose: Dashiell "Dash" Bad Horse.
Dash is the principal protagonist of Scalped. I use protagonist instead of hero because Scalped is a series that feels like The Shield or Justified; there are no heroes in this world, just lighter and darker shades of grey and black. Dash is a pureblood Oglala, and a native of the Rez, who was sent away by his mother at the age of thirteen. Now in his late 20s, Dash has returned and almost immediately falls in with Red Crow as one of his chief agents and enforcers. But Dash is harboring a major secret: he is actually Special Agent Dashiell Bad Horse, sent by the FBI to infiltrate Red Crow's organization and bring it down.
Almost immediately things go very wrong for Dash, starting with the murder and scalping of his mother, Gina Bad Horse, former militant Native American rights advocate turned less militant but no less socially active. Gina's death is the impetus for much of the series action, with both Dash and Red Crow, who was once in love with Gina, seeking her killer. Dash's superior, Earl Nitz, is a dirty agent, one who has an axe to grind against Red Crow; he believes Red Crow killed two fellow agents years before and has gotten away with it. This is about vendetta for Nitz more than justice.
Dash is now trapped between these two men, as well as his feelings for Carol Ellroy, Red Crow's daughter and his first love, a burgeoning heroin addiction, and the violence he feels in himself that he has to do to stay in Red Crow's good graces. Dash has a violent temper, and often acts rashly and brutally when pushed. He is an anti-hero in the truest sense. The reader sees Dash going down the path to damnation, first slowly and then practically running down it, and yet you can't help rooting for him, hoping that he will find a way to pull up from the spiral. In volume six, The Gnawing, Dash crosses a line by brutally murdering Diesel, who has even worse violent proclivities than Dash himself (and who also happens to be working with the FBI) and who killed a young man who sought revenge for Diesel's murder of his mother. This act is Dash's eventual undoing, and does nothing to stop the violence that fills the world of the Rez.
Violence, how it feeds on itself and just spawns more violence, is central to Dash's story, and to all of Scalped. People get hurt and killed. A lot. The story is gritty and the art suits it well. Principally drawn by R.M. Guera, the pages seem dirty, caked in the grit that permeates the narrative. Nitz's obsessive quest to get Red Crow for a murder more than twenty years old, and the search for violent retribution for Gina Bad Horse's murder are two inciting incidents where nothing can be done for the victims; they are long since dead. One of the very few truly good people in the series, Officer Franklin Falls Down, the only really good Rez cop, suffers for just trying to do the right thing. What is left at the end of the day are people who have lived in a culture of violence that is not willing to let them go.
The theme of family, those we are born with and those we choose, also is important throughout Scalped. Dash's relationship with his mother, one that was strained in life, drives him to his vengeance. While he refused to reconcile with her in life, he feels the lost opportunity after she has died. Regret is as strong a force in Scalped as violence. Dash's relationship with Carol, the two of them desperately in love, or at least lust, is destroyed when Carol becomes pregnant, and hides this fact from Dash, getting an abortion. Carol's relationship with her father, Lincoln Red Crow, is no better than Dash's with his mother. Lincoln wants a better relationship with Carol, but she refuses him, and goes out of her way to do anything that could enrage him. And in the end, broken by her drug addiction and the abortion, Carol is taken in as apprentice to Granny Poor Bear, matriarch of the large Poor Bear family and wise woman of the Rez. Carol trains to be Granny's eventual replacement, finding a family of the whole Rez, not the one she was born with but the one that needs her.
Dino Poor Bear, who is one of the wards of Granny, is a young man of the Rez, and who the reader watches take part in all the thematic elements of the series; he suffers for his choices and winds up a very different man at the end of the series. At the beginning, Dino wants nothing else but to get off the Rez, and to find a better life for himself and for his daughter, a baby from a one night stand that Granny now watches more than her father does. Dino gets involved in all manner of crime, starting small and expanding to something bigger. He suffers, getting one of his eyes gauged out, and his heart is broken. At the end, the violence that Dino has witnessed and perpetrated leave him forever trapped on the Rez, damned to the fate of criminals like Red Crow and his gang.
Beyond these characters, Scalped in populated with a cast of rogues, con men, and criminals. Shunka, Red Crow's right hand man and chief enforcer, is a tough guy who distrusts Dash from the moment he reappeared and hides a secret of his own. Sheriff Wooster Karnow, the sheriff of the town nearest to the Rez, is crooked and lies constantly and vociferously about his past. And there's Catcher. Catcher is a hermit, living on the outskirts of the Rez, riding a broken down nag and seeing spirit animals; whether they are real or in his head is up for debate. Catcher wanders, talking to himself and seeing things, but his actions are some of the most important in the series.
The past and the present confronting each other is the final principal theme of Scalped. Tradition and culture are central to Rez life, or at least are supposed to be, and as they slip away, different characters clash over it. Gina Bad Horse, Dash's mother, was leading protests against the building of the casino because she saw it as another blow to the traditions of the Oglala Lakota. Granny Poor Bear acts as the only voice of counsel to people who might often deny their cultural heritage but rely on it when things go very wrong. And mad Catcher is driven by the spirits that he hangs on to, that he believes justify his own heinous actions.
In the end, what you can take away from Scalped is that no one is as bad (or as good) as they seem. Lincoln Red Crow is a drug lord, but he truly wants to help the people of the Rez and thinks the casino is the way to do it. Dash is a law enforcement agent who really does care for people, but he is also an unrepentant killer. It is a series that breaks your heart along with its characters, who are at worst pathetic and at best tragic, and makes your skin crawl with the sheer, unblinking violence. The noir, with its characters that exist in a twilight world, and the western, stories of the west where people solve their problems with guns and ask questions later, meet in the modern world of Scalped.
The entire sixty issue run of Scalped is collected in ten trade paperbacks, the first of which is Indian Country . They are all in print and readily available at your local comic book shop.