Unhappy Trails: A Farewell to “Scalped”
Holy crap, what a ride.
After five years and 60 issues, Jason Aaron and R. M. Guera’s noir masterpiece, Scalped, came to an end a couple of weeks ago with the release of Scalped: Trail’s End, the tenth and final collection.
And just. . .wow.
There is s spoiler below, just so you know, but it’s given away at the end of the first issue. If you absolutely can’t stand spoilers, stop reading this and go read Scalped. It’s that good, just go read it instead of my craptastic review. Everybody else, you’re going to be a little spoiled.
Scalped is the story of a Lakota reservation in South Dakota, seen through the eyes of its inhabitants, most notably: Lincoln Red Crow, the bloody-handed chief and community who wants nothing more than prosperity for his people at absolutely any price and may have killed some FBI agents in the 70s; Catcher, the enigmatic loner who still follows the old ways and has visions of their gods; reservation officer Falls Down, who may be the most (and nearly only) genuinely good person in the whole story, and Dino Poor Bear, a single father with a family that is physically and/or mentally ill and who wants nothing more than to leave the reservation once and for all. Our protagonist, our guide to the reservation, the eyes that show us this poverty-ridden, drug- and alcohol-ravished community, is Dashiell Bad Horse.
Dashiell left the reservation – more to the point, was sent away from the reservation – 15 years ago by his mother. Dashiell returns seemingly for no apparent reason 15 years later, angry, full of piss and vinegar, and eagerly kicking the crap out of Lincoln Red Crow’s soldiers. This of course gets him pulled into Red Crow’s office, who decides Dashiell Bad Horse would make a better soldier than an enemy, and because Dashiell’s mother, Gina Bad Horse, leads the protests against Red Crow’s soon-to-open casino.
So remember when I said that Red Crow might have killed some FBI agents in the 70s? FBI Special Agent Bayliss Nitz certainly remembers, and will do anything he can to inflict pain and suffering on three of the people that were involved: Gina Bad Horse, Catcher, and Lincoln Red Crow. Agent Nitz figures the best way to nail Red Crow is to send a mole onto the reservation and into Red Crow’s organization to find evidence of wrongdoing and nail Red Crow on murder charges. His choice?
FBI Agent Dashiell Bad Horse.
And that’s where Scalped begins: Dashiell returns to the rez, and is revealed (to the reader) as Nitz’s mole at the end of the first issue. That’s the spoiler.
Believe it or not, being caught in the war between Red Crow and Nitz is pretty much the high point of Dashiell’s life for most of the series. This is a story that takes its noir very seriously: each story arc, rather than presenting some happiness here, some sadness there, a problem, and a resolution basically boils down to the philosophy “things always get worse.”
And things always get worse. Unrelentingly, unrepentantly, unmitigatedly worse. Poor decisions are made, worse consequences follow, violence and drug addictions spiral out of control, body parts get lost, Red Crow’s hands only get bloodier the harder he tries to clean them, Dino Poor Bear falls in with a bad crowd, Falls Down falls down, Catcher starts losing his mind, and Dashiell. . .the shitstorm around Dashiell is just terrible.
And it’s still one of my favourite comic book series of all time.
Scalped wears its influences proudly. You can see bits of old Westerns in the behaviours of some of the characters (especially Sheriff Karnow of the neighboring county in Nebraska, where rez people go to buy alcohol). The dialogue, character complexity, and noir nature are deeply reminiscent of my favourite TV show ever, Deadwood, which Jason Aaron specifically cites an an influence and also took place in the Black Hills of South Dakota. There is also a bit of Garth Ennis’s Preacher in the writing, which Aaron also cites an influence.
Speaking of that character complexity: Aaron nails it very well here. No one is pure. People do bad things for good reasons and good things for bad reasons all the time in Scalped. There are no real heroes or real villains; even Red Crow comes off a lot like Al Swearengen of Deadwood, doing bad things for the good of his people.
That’s what makes it noir, and that’s what makes it good. Guera’s art is a bit too dark at times; some scenes are difficult to make out, but that’s a small complaint to make in comparison to the rest of the fantastic work done on this series.
Best of all, the ending is neither overly sappy nor overly dark – it simply fits. Consequences come back to haunt everybody in the end, and that’s really as it should be. No one gets out with clean hands, and some do not make it out alive. It’s a dark story, and glorious in its darkness. It’s a simple story made wonderfully complex by its characters – just like life.
So why are you still here? Go read Scalped.
Oh, by the way: Scalped is violent. Nearly everybody gets shot at least once, there are vicious beatings, stabbings, and horrific crimes committed by terrible people (also by well-meaning people). If you can’t handle violence, this is most definitely not the story for you.