Thursday, March 14, 2013

Scalped - The Series Reviewed

Now that Scalped has reached its conclusion I decided to sit down and read the entire 60 issues in one sitting.  Well, as close to one sitting as I could manage in my schedule.  More like 5 or 6 sittings.  It was less than a week, anyway, once I got started.

As Jim has noted on several occasions, this may well be Jason Aaron's best work.  Honestly, I can't say because I haven't read enough of his other work.  What I have read has been superhero stuff like Ghost Rider or Swamp Thing.  While both of those aren't the standard superhero fare, they're still limited by corporate ownership of the characters.  I don't think an adequate comparison can be made between writing on corporate owned characters and creator owned characters.

Regardless of whether it's Aaron's pinnacle, it's great work.  R.M Geura's contribution to it shouldn't be underestimated, either.  He provides the art on all the major arcs in the book.  Davide Furno provides several arcs on minor characters, while Francesco Francavilla and Danijel Zelzelj provide the art on single issues.  The dark feel is maintained regardless of artist, though I do have a preference for Guera's work over the others.  There's a rawness matched by a beauty to Guera's art that isn't quite there with Furno, who has the rawness down well but not quite the beauty.  Francavilla's one issue had a pencil feel, as though the rough lines were still coming through in the finished product.  That made it lighter than the work by Guera and Furno.  Zezelj's one issue was entirely unique, and I'll talk about it a bit more later.

The basic story is about Dashiell Bad Horse, a Lakota who left the Prairie Rose Reservation (aka The Rez) when he was a teen, sent by his mother, Gina Bad Horse, to live with relatives in Arkansas.  Dash returns as a bad M-F, fighting with as many bar denizens as possible, until he comes to the attention of Lincoln Red Crow, chairman of the Rez and criminal overlord.  Red Crow hires him as a deputy in the police department.

Of course, Dash is also an FBI agent, serving under the supervision of Bayliss Earl Nitz.  Nitz is obsessed with putting Red Crow in jail for the rest of his life, no matter what has to be done to accomplish that.  The five year run of the book is all about how Dash tries to gather evidence to put Red Crow away, which Nitz feels is only sufficient when there's evidence of Red Crow murdering someone.  By the time the story ends there are a lot of dead people.  Whether Nitz achieves his end is something you'll have to read on your own.

This novel, and it really is a novel with pictures, dives deep into human pathos.  None of the main characters have an easy or straight and narrow time of it.  Even the two pillars of virtue in the book, Granny Poor Bear and Officer Falls Down, have a hard way to go, especially Officer Falls Down, who's shot at least twice in the book.

With the main characters there's a lot of back story.  Gina Bad Horse and Lincoln Red Crow were AIM radicals in the 1970s, along with Wade Rouleau (Dash's father), Lawrence Belcourt, and Arthur Pendergrass (aka Catcher).  Gina and Lincoln were lovers until the group was involved in the killing of two FBI agents.  Those two agents, in turn, had saved Nitz's life when he was a new agent and helped him exact vengance on his attacker.  Of course, they were also smuggling heroin from Vietnam.  Nitz has forever blamed all of them for the deaths of his friends and sought revenge ever since, with only Belcourt ever being imprisoned in the case.

Dash has no relationship with his father, who was thrown out by Gina when he was little.  He had a poor relationship with Gina, too.  He didn't forgive her for sending him away when he was a teen.  He also had a childhood crush on Red Crow's daughter, Carol.  Carol's now a drug addicted waitress who screws just about anyone who will provide her a score.

Probably the most unrealistic element of the story is that Carol, a drug addicted mess for quite a few years, is incredibly hot.  It takes almost no time for Dash to find himself first scaring off the guys she's been screwing then taking over the role himself.  A poor drug addict like Carol, estranged from her father who she rightly blames for the death of her boyfriend and fetus some years ago, is more likely to look like hell after that abuse of the body.  But I'm willing to forgive it.

This book is an emotional read.  It's awash in sex and violence, graphically on both counts, but also makes you care about the characters.  One of my favorite moments in the book is when Dash and Carol, having left one another in the depths of their mutual addictions and achieved some measure of recovery, are driving around a snowy Rez looking for each other now that they've cleaned up.  They finally come across one another on a remote stretch of road, traveling in opposite directions.  They come to a halt and have a conversation that is told far more in internal dialogue than in what they say to each other.  The important things about the love they have for one another remains unsaid, as well as important things they should tell one another about what's happened since they separated.

In contrast to that conversation, the single issue story with Zezelj on art is about an older couple named Mance and Hazel.  They live on a remote part of the Rez where there are frequent Air Force flyovers at low altitude.  They both have health problems.  Their only child was killed by a drunk driver some years ago.  They farm and occasionally go into town for supplies.  They are having a hard year because of an injury Mance had that prevented him getting in as many crops as needed to keep them going through winter.  They're both taciturn, but what they leave unsaid is accurately assessed by the other.  They know they love one another.  They know what the other is thinking when the hard times are pushing them toward government assistance.  They know what to say to help the other get through those hard patches.

The one issue story of Mance and Hazel is a marvel.  It's totally unrelated to any of the rest of the book.  The two characters make no other appearance in the book.  None of the major characters in the book appear in this issue.  And yet their story is an essential part of the book.  They are the relationship that works.  They are the contrast to Dash and Carol.  Yes, they keep silent about many things, but they do so with the comfort of knowing one another so well that they don't need to speak.  Dash and Carol have passion that's hot and dangerous.  It might have developed into a simmering passion like Mance and Hazel have, but their inability to verbalize their feelings stunts the relationship. 

Mance and Hazel are also how the Rez could work, with its people living sober lives, close to the land and happy with their relationships.  They're poor but not impoverished.  Their lives aren't without tragedy but aren't ruled by tragedy  Their happiness isn't measured in accumulation but in satisfaction with who they are and what they have in each other.  It is a shining light in what is otherwise a largely bleak landscape.

Fortunately, the book as a whole doesn't end bleakly.  It's not chipper, mind you, but two of the major characters are in a place of contentment that they hadn't had at any other point in their lives.  A third has come to accept who he is but is separated from the land he loves, as well as a woman he loves who, without his knowledge, is pregnant.  Some hope and some poignancy.  It's a hard road to get there and a journey well taken.

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