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?
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.
“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.
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.