Thought Balloon: Scalped
Scalped is a sixty issue crime series from writer Jason Aaron and artist RM Guerra. Starting in 2007, the series has met with consistent critical acclaim for the last six years and with the sale of its last issue, no.60, last Wednesday, the final page has been turned on a bar-raising series for crime comics.
Set on an American Indian reservation in South Dakota, the story revolves around Dashiell Bad Horse, an undercover FBI agent, returning home to the ‘res’ where he was raised to take down tribal leader and local crime boss, Lincoln Red Crow. The Prairie Rose Indian Reservation not only provides the comic with a great western flavour but slowly emerges as a principal character in itself. The story that unfolds in the pages of Scalped isn’t just a crime story; it is an odyssey of a place and its people.
Dashiell Bad Horse left the res at age thirteen and swore to never look back. He wanted to be free of the shackles of poverty and responsibility to the Lakota people, yet he accepts the case to return to the res as an undercover cop in Red Crow’s police force.
Of the people Dashiell left behind, his mother Gina Bad Horse is an Indian activist who did her best to raise Dash but was also complicit in the crime which prompts his return to the res. His old sweetheart Carol also dreamt of running away but was less successful. Carol spent life on the res making all the wrong choices, including marrying an abusive white man to piss off her father, Red Crow. Carol is the femme fatale as a contemporary Indian princess but that isn’t incumbent with the brush off that such a female lead normally gets.
Lincoln Red Crow is the head of organised crime in South Dakota. Red Crow is also the tribal leader and head of the tribal police. He allows the manufacture and sale of meth on his res. He also upholds the traditions of his people. The reader believes every bit as much as Red Crow that he is a proud Lakota warrior. It’s his leadership that leaves much to be desired.
And on a mission to take Red Crow down is Special Agent Baylis Earl Nitz. Nitz is single minded to the point of madness and his extreme irreverence to the rest of the world makes for some of the most delightful, redneck, politically incorrect dialogue you’ll ever read.
Everyone in Scalped is fully realised in complex shades of grey and no character is allowed go to waste. The expanded cast are spotlighted in unexpected and moving ways as the story progresses and by the halfway point, the depth to which Aaron had planned out the lives and the events that shape Prairie Rose begins to make itself clear, though some shocking turns still sneak their way in before the end.
RM Guerra’s pencils are so successful in evoking the feel of Prairie Rose, you may feel the need to wash your hands afterwards. America’s disregard for the res is visible in every panel of Prairie Rose – its garbage, its dilapidated homes, and its dirty streets. As well as rendering the gritty reality of the res, Guerra’s heavy lines add layers of expression to his characters’ faces. One could linger on panels of Red Crow or the tribal matriarch Granny Poor Bear, studying their expression. Guerra’s art was so pitch perfect for the series, it’s impossible to imagine anyone else in the role, though there were serviceable, stylistically similar fill-ins for standalone issues along the way. Also, one can’t discuss the artwork on Scalped without mentioning the beautiful, symbolic covers for the series provided by the artist, Jock.
The crime/western flavour of Scalped will draw comparisons with TV shows like Deadwood and The Wire. More so than any other comic series I can think of, these comparisons are apt in that those programmes also defied the expectations of their genre for television. Indeed, tonally speaking, Scalped is the best HBO series not on TV.
Collections of Scalped are available at your local comic book shop or if it’s worthy, the graphic novel section of your local book shop. The first volume is called Indian Country. The last volume, Trail’s End, goes on sale in September.