Pick of the Week
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Art by R.M. Guera
Cover by Jock
Size: 32 pages
I’ve initiated a coup d’état here at the iFanboy Pick of the Week. Ron Richards originally was scheduled to write the Pick of the Week this week, but he doesn’t read Scalped and as the only member of the iFanboy editorial team that has read Scalped all the way from issue one without ever dropping it, I could not allow this final issue to go unrecognized. So I stepped in and took over, which is something that has rarely happened in the 12 years we’ve been marking the iFanboy Pick of the Week. Ron was gracious about it, although I suspect that had a lot to do with suddenly being off the hook for writing a 1,000+ word review in the middle of a busy day in the middle of an even busier work week. I don’t mean any disrespect the fine book that Ron was going to bestow honors upon, this is just the way it had to be.
And so it ends.
“It” being Scalped, one of, if not, the best on-going series in comic books today. We knew that an ending was coming; this is not Superman and Dashiell Bad Horse was never meant to fight a never ending battle for truth, vengeance, and the Lakota way. We not only knew that the story had to end, we knew that it would probably end badly, in that there would probably be a lot of guns and bloodshed and heartbreak and freshly dug graves. And that’s pretty much how the story ended.
Only not really. At least, not in the way one might expect.
The previous issue, Scalped #59, ended with our two main characters Dashiell Bad Horse and Red Crow standing in the flame engulfed confines of the latter’s casino, bloodied and pointing guns not only at each other, but at Catcher, the Prairie Rose Reservation’s resident mad man who not only has always seemed to know more about the secrets on the rez than anyone else, but who also murdered Dashiell’s mother and Red Crow’s great love, Gina Bad Horse. It was that murder that has driven this series over the last 5+ years and now it was all reaching a head in a bloody, fiery, angry Mexican stand off, and on the final page of the last issue, the shooting started.
Scalped #60 opens, moments later where we find Red Crow and Catcher have taken all the bullets, both men had turned their guns away from Dashiell because both men really hated each other more than anyone else. As Red Crow slumped to the floor in a mess of blood, Catcher staggered away and into the flames, leaving his own trail of blood on the floor of the casino like a boat leaking oil in the ocean, and as Dashiell fantasized about shooting, stomping, pistol-whipping, and then brutally scalping Catcher, in barged FBI Special Agent in Charge Nitz, who has not only represented the corrupt Federal oversight of the reservation throughout the series, but was also Dashiell’s handler when he was an undercover agent in Red Crow’s criminal organization. Nitz has a stake in all of this too because Catcher not only killed Gina Bad Horse, he also killed two FBI agents. Even though it moved very quickly, the rising tension of this scene was unbearable. Just as one got to catch their breath from the aftermath of the shoot-out, in came a new element to add to the chaos and uncertainty. And then just as quickly as it began, the chaos ended. Nitz and Catcher died in the flames, Nitz’s hands around Catcher’s throat, while Dashiell helped carry his old nemesis and father figure Red Crow out of the burning casino and to safety. While slumped over outside the burning casino waiting for help to arrive, Red Crow tell Dashiell that he can use his influence to make the murder charge that’s around Dashiell’s neck go away, and that it’s time to stop running. He wants Dashiell to stay on the rez and be the heir to his powerful political (and formerly criminal) empire. Dashiell yells at him in his native language and then we jump ahead three months.
And that’s where things get really interesting. Scalped draws to a close, probably not as most people expected, but in a way that is both satisfying for the readers and true to the characters.
The thing is: there was always going to be one final violent act of bloodshed at the climax of this story. And things were always going to end badly for most of the characters. But the real question was always going to be: what was going to happen next? What would the epilogue be? Because ultimately, while this book has excelled at grinding its characters up under the unrelenting dual boot heels of violence and despair, it has always been about life on the rez, and everyone knows, life goes on.
We already took one leap forward in time after the last big inciting incident but this time, while it has only been three months, we see that for these characters that we’ve been following for 60 issues, it’s finally time to find a new life and a new place in the world. For some, it’s returning to the land and their ancestors to live life as their people once did. For others, it’s hitting the road and really truly taking a shot at finding themselves. For others still, it’s filling the criminal void left in the wake of all the killing. And in perhaps the most heartening development, it’s making the decision to use your past mistakes to take a more active and positive role in the community. These kind of endings are often described as “the Six Feet Under”, but it’s not that final. We don’t follow the remaining characters all the way through the rest of their lives and unto death. Instead, we’ve followed them up to a door, and we’ve watched them take that first step through the threshold. It’s not a new world waiting for them on the other side, it’s a new life. And in true Scalped fashion, for some people it’s a better life and for some it’s worse.
During its 5+ year run, Scalped has been one of the best books on comics, and the final issue caps things off beautifully. All of the credit in the world goes to Scalped creators and writer Jason Aaron and artist R.M. Guera. But credit should also go to artist Davide Furno, letterers Phil Balsman and Steve Wands, colorists Lee Loughridge and Giulia Brusco, and editors Will Dennis and Casey Seijas. And let’s not forget cover artist Jock, who gave each of the 60 issues a distinctive, stylized, and usually breathtakingly gorgeous look that should have won him five Eisner Awards.
Jason Aaron is one of the biggest names in comics right now thanks mostly to his stellar superhero work at Marvel Comics. When Scalped started he was mostly unknown, his biggest credit at the time being The Other Side, a book about Vietnam for Vertigo that got him some notice but not a ton of recognition. But then Scalped hit the stands and suddenly those in the know (i.e. those who read the book) understood that the next great comic book writer was here. For 60 issues he wove an epic crime tale that was as dark and as grim and gritty as anything. But he also wrote a sprawling story about family and loss and the search for love in less than ideal conditions. Throughout Scalped, whenever things were at their most dire there was always an underlying sense of hope, a sense that if one of these characters just made the right choice or said the right thing that everything would turn out okay. The tragedy of Scalped, and what made it so great, is that these characters invariably got right up to the cusp of finding happiness and then one wrong move threw it all away. It was gut wrenching, but not in the way that makes you throw the book down in disgust, it was gut wrenching in the best possible way, the way that makes you come back for more next month because maybe this time these characters will make the right decision and someone will find happiness. It takes a great writer to weave all those elements together into an entertainingly tragic and inherently violent modern day crime epic. Jason Aaron is a great writer. I’d put Scalped up against Breaking Bad any day of the week.
In Scalped #60 we see why artist R.M. Guera was as much of a reason for this books’ success as Jason Aaron. First and foremost, he’s a top notch storyteller. The mark of any great artist is if you can tell what’s going on in the story and what the characters are thinking without any words to accompany the art. When Red Crow makes his offer to Dashiell after the gunfight, we don’t need to have Dashiell’s angry yelling translated. The intensity on his face as he was listening to Red Crow’s proposal says it all. We know what his answer is. And for all of Guera’s wonderful character work and clear storytelling, there’s also the violence. There’s no way around it: Scalped is a violent book. But stark and uncompromising portrayal of that violence never made you forget that what you were looking at was horrible without ever veering into being exploitative. When Dashiell fantasizes about all of the things he wants to do to Catcher, it’s not celebratory, it’s awful and uncomfortable. Guera never made you feel good about the violence that you were seeing, but he made sure you saw it. From the look of the characters to the violence to the seemingly wholly authentic settings, Scalped has been a book that was completely unique, visually speaking. No other book out there looks like a R.M. Guera book, and I cannot wait to see what he does next.
If you haven’t read Scalped, I urge you to pick it up. There won’t be another like it any time soon.
8 out of 60 issues were the Pick of the Week.