Apr
29

Waited for the Trade(s): Scalped Revisited

Posted by Pedro Tejeda on Wednesday, April 29th, 2009 at 09:25:43 AM

A Trio of Scalped trades
Scalped vol 1: Indian Country
Scalped vol 2: Casino Boogie
Scalped vol 3: Dead Mothers
written by Jason Aaron
art by R.M. Guera, John Paul Leon & Davide Furno
Vertigo

When we reviewed the first volume of Scalped, the story of Dashiell Bad Horse, an undercover FBI agent on an Indian Reservation full of corruption, no one on the podcast seemed to enjoy it.  Even though elements of Jason Aaron’s writing were strong, the book’s violence and sex felt like it was trying too hard to be a premium cable series in comic form. R.M Guera did a good job with talking head sequences, but his work on action scenes were incredibly muddy. I picked up Casino Boogie and Dead Mothers on sale recently, based on numerous reports that the book was picking up. I hoped the book had improved as both Jason Aaron and R.M Guerra got settled into a groove.

Aaron doesn’t follow up on Indian Country‘s ending, where Dashiell’s mother is killed immediately afterwards. Instead Casino Boogie is series of flashbacks to the night before her death. This creates a feeling of impending doom, as events are colored by the reader’s knowledge of her death. Eventually, replaying this night over and over just made me impatient to find out what happened next. Another issue was Aaron’s overreliance on non-linear storytelling, with flashbacks within even longer flashbacks. In the seventh issue, Dash offhandedly mentions getting gored by a bull, making me wondered if I had missed something. Two issues later, he’s actually gored by the bull in a flashback, but we gain no new insight into this event. Why couldn’t this have been told linearly? It’s not as if it’s even shown from a different character’s point of view, so why did Aaron make things needlessly complex?

Dino Poor Bear gets shit on again

I admit that the tenth issue, “My Ambitionz Az a Ridah”, makes good use of the flashback structure, following Dino Poor Bear, a janitor at the Casino who lives on the reservation with his fucked up family. That’s because it’s the only issue in Casino Boogie that works as its own story. Aaron changes his writing style here, using different visual cues and no obnoxious time jumping. It’s one of the few times I was invested in any of Scalped‘s characters: Dash is a cipher and I don’t care if he lives, dies, or succeeds at his goal. I would be fine reading the continuing story of Dino the Janitor.

I can't see shit

“My Ambitionz Az a Ridah” also succeeds because most of it takes place in daylight. This forces colorist Giulia Brusco to use a more varied palette. Guerra’s pages are covered with tons of ink, and Brusco uses brown shades for night scenes that make it nearly impossible to tell what’s happening. I didn’t remember having as much of an issue with Indian Country‘s coloring, which I realized was because those issues had been colored by Lee Loughridge, not Brusco.  The night scenes aren’t helped by Guerra getting way too creative with his layouts of action sequences, which sometimes exist as flashbacks within the framing of a flashback. At times it was hard to tell when something was supposed to happen, and in what order.

Things always changing

Dead Mothers is stronger than Casino Boogie, starting off with an issue drawn by John Paul Leon that brings focus back to Dash. It’s not as solid as “My Ambitionz Az a Ridah”, but it brings me closer to caring about the series’s protagonist. The main story arc, “Dead Mothers” features Guerra back on pencils and Aaron writing without any time jumps. By axing that gimmick , it allows a predictable subplot about another recent orphan to be bearable thanks to the straightforward narrative. The final story, “Falls Down”, focuses on another secondary character, which seems to be the only times Scalped worked for me. “Falls Down” shows how working as a cop on an Indian reservation would color worldview, and I’m not sure if Aaron nails what that experience would be like in real life, but he did got me to live in that character’s version of it for twenty-two pages and I commend him for that.

I’m not sure if I’ll continue reading Scalped. Several characters talk about the importance of not only the land, but also that of the people who live on the reservation.  These are the same people that get lost in the murky action oriented main story arcs. They don’t have any nuance in the main story, even though they shine when the spotlight is given to them. If the art team had done a better job portrating the action scenes, I would be more apt to recommend the book. The single issue stories are outstanding and it’s a shame you have to slog through the rest of the book to get them.

Posted in Reviews · Read more by Pedro Tejeda

4 Responses

  1. For some reason I imagined you guys would love this series. i do, I’ve been following it from issue one and while it did feel weak and un-necessarily convoluted at times, I still heart. I think it might be because it reminds me of Azarello on his best day, but without the over-the-top hardboiledness (I think Chris summed it up best with his “Its a long way to the top.But the thing with Tops is, they spin!). And I think that Aaron avoids those pitfalls. Ofcourse, for once I would love for a protagonist i could root for, but hey Officer Falls Down is the fucking man!

  2. The thing that threw me off is that one or two people mentioned Scalped in the same breath as The Wire. And while that was enough to get me to pick up the first trade, things like Dashiell dual-wielding pistols made me want to go kick the asses of the folks who had inflated my expectations to such a degree (I’m a tough guy on the internet. Grr. And stuff). I liked the first trade, maybe even a lot, but…I felt betrayed, a little. Which isn’t the creators’ fault, but it has reduced the priority I’ve put on getting the second and third volumes.

    I guess what I’m going for is: Scalped: pretty good, but not The Wire.

  3. I also revisited the series due to a like of Aarons’ Other Side, his marvel work and also because a lot of people were calling it their favorite book month to month. I normally am able to disconnect myself from other people’s expectations, and I think in this case, I was able to do so but I really wish to know why this clicked for others and not for me.

  4. Pedro, let me preface my counterpoint by saying that, yeah, Scalped is my favorite current book (the proverbial one that ‘got me back into comics’), and that I usually enjoy reading FBB a great deal – our opinions might not line up perfectly all the time (which would be creepy anyway), but I always appreciate the intelligence and skill that go into the arguments. However, this review? Not so much.

    First of all, on its own, but also as compared to other fare of a semi-similar caliber (100 Bullets, Criminal, Preacher, Hitman, etc.), I don’t perceive Scalped as leaning heavily on sex, violence & action. More often than not, the book lingers on the build-up and/or aftermath of the violence. The very first scene in #1 illustrates this beautifully: just under four pages of set-up for a brawl that only gets shown for three small, short panels that have the ‘camera’ receding again, our final view of the fight a blurry image seen through a window. Even with later, more extended action set-pieces, the violence is never fetishized or gratuitous, but realistically abrupt, lurid and disorienting.

    Which brings me to your critique of the artwork – or rather, the repeated assertion that it’s extremely, confusingly murky. I wholeheartedly disagree: sure, I had to re-read a page or two in Scalped’s 28-issue run so far, but having to take a second look at such rich, textured art is never a chore. The comparison to ‘the Wire’ is actually quite apt: both are like an immersive visit to a fully fleshed-out world, where every detail fits and enhances the experience: the rumpled clothes, the decaying buildings, the subtle emotions, the grooved, weathered faces, the lively backdrops, the ever-present dust…there’s genuine social realism, genuine Americana in Scalped, and RM Guerra is a big part of that. I’m always disappointed when the book has a fill-in artist, even when it’s the otherwise inestimable JP Leon (Wintermen shout-out, yo!).

    Then there’s the question of non-linear storytelling. Have you noticed that the flashbacks are colored differently (shades of gray in case you’re wondering) from the present-day scenes? And that the characters are more often than not younger (yet still recognizable as themselves, I might add, through both art, dialogue & narration)? I found that to be tremendously helpful. And obvious.

    That being said, the whole point of retelling the same day four times in Casino Boogie is that just like ‘My Ambitionz Az A Ridah’ (2Pac shout-out, yo!) the four stories work as stand-alone portraits of their respective main characters as well. The bullfight in Pt. 3 *is* in fact shown from a different perspective: Diesel’s, whose back-story is interspersed throughout the issue, making Dash’s first full-on confrontation with his nemesis (a nice example of the classic ‘polar opposite, yet cut from the same cloth’ archetype) much more resonant & bittersweet – we see that even this braying, over-confident enemy has reasons for being an immoral asshole. So, it’s not needlessly complex – it allows each episode to be reasonably self-contained while still servicing a greater whole.

    Another example: the shooting of two FBI agents 34 years ago by the Red Power group Catcher, Dash’s mother & Red Crow belonged to is the major catalyst for most of the present-day action. That it tainted all those involved (and their families) is clear from the start. But by keeping the particulars of what precisely went down obscured for so long (#28 – out now! – finally puts all the pieces into perspective), Aaron is able to mine much more compelling drama & suspense from the incident. In juxtaposing the specific bits these characters remember with their present-day predicaments, we see more clearly how the shooting made them what they are, and how it informs and shapes their current course of action, all the while leaving the reader wondering (and guessing) which character really should be bearing the brunt of the guilt. This mosaic of memories is a hell of a lot more interesting (and challenging, apparently) than just telling the story in a linear fashion.

    Oh, and while I’m singing Jason Aaron’s praises: both his brilliant choice of setting (an Indian Rez) and the painstaking effort he puts into making it a fully-realized, believable world with its own culture, customs and atmosphere cannot be overstated. Where reading a book like ‘Criminal’ on occasion leaves me with a nagging feeling of over-familiarity because of the bare-bone sketchiness of the surroundings, Scalped presents a milieu so fresh and untapped story-wise, it always leaves me wanting more. Again, in that respect, it truly does resemble the Wire.

    Finally, a few quick points. I’ll grant you that the coloring might, on occasion, when absentmindedly flipping through an issue in a hurry, in a dim room at midnight, while being attacked by ferrets, give the outer appearance of murkiness. It’s a shame that Vertigo trades aren’t published on a better stock of paper than the singles/floppies/what-have-you anymore, especially considering they sell a lot better than the regular issues (still: go forth an add it to your pull-lists, cretins!).

    Also, if you like Dino, keep reading! Jason Aaron said in an interview that Scalped was always meant as more of an ensemble-book, IIRC. Dashiell Bad Horse mainly got the position of protagonist in the first few arcs on account of him being suitably new to the Rez: we got to learn the lay of the land along with him, allowing for different characters taking the spotlight now that we’re settled in. That’s perfectly fine with me, even though I did like Dash as the main star – he’s a solid noir anti-hero, certainly not a cipher (boo, hiss).

    So in summary, this is why Scalped clicks for me: it is awesome incarnate. It *is* that great, high-quality, every episode feels like a mini-movie, premium cable series HBO unfortunately no longer makes (shouldn’t have canceled Deadwood, suckers!) in comic form. The only reasonable complaint any comics cognoscenti could have against Scalped is that it isn’t being read by more people, and that it isn’t being published weekly and on better quality paper. So there!

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