When selecting Friday Recommendations, I generally try to stick to books that haven’t already earned a lot of praise or forgotten books. It just feels right that way – to heap accolades upon something that has gone unnoticed previously.
Jason Aaron and R.M. Guera’s Scalped is not one of those books. It is a critically lauded book that is loved by creators throughout the industry. However, I did notice it has never been Rec’d here before, and that’s with good reason: I’m the only writer here who even reads it (Gil is starting though!). This is a shame, as Scalped isn’t just a good book, it is in my mind the single best comic on the market today and should be required reading for fans of the medium of comics.
Whenever I try to accurately describe a series like Scalped, I never do it justice. With this one, I’ll leave it to the professionals at Wikipedia to describe the plot:
Dashiell Bad Horse returns to the “rez” after fifteen years of absence, picking fights with whoever crosses his path. His belligerence quickly leads him to a run-in with Chief Lincoln Red Crow, chief of the Oglala tribe, chief of the local police, and a wealthy mob boss. Red Crow assesses Bad Horse’s fighting ability and enthusiasm for getting his hands dirty, and coerces him into joining the tribal police force. Bad Horse’s primary duty is breaking up fights and shutting down meth labs–Red Crow is about to open a $97 million dollar casino, and is anxious to clean up the tribe’s public image, not to mention taking out competition for his illegal interests.
Bad Horse, an undercover FBI agent, is tasked with infiltrating Red Crow’s organization. Dashiell’s immediate superior wants to bring Red Crow to justice for the murder of two FBI agents thirty years ago, when Red Crow was a militant Native American rights activist alongside Dashiell’s mother, Gina Bad Horse.
Dashiell develops an obsession with Red Crow’s estranged daughter, Carol, who resents Dashiell for leaving the reservation. Dashiell speaks to her occasionally, but mostly follows and observes her as she tries to escape the crushing boredom and poverty of the reservation through alcohol, drugs, and sexual promiscuity.
The first story arc, ‘Hoka Hey’, ends with the murder of Gina Bad Horse, seen scalped and lying on the ground outside the rez. She had previously tried, frantically, to speak to her son, always narrowly missing him.
While that exists as the central plot to this day, many tributaries have developed organically thanks to Jason Aaron’s superb character work. Many writers would have issues with a book such as this, but Aaron truly creates a whole new world for readers in this book. All of his characters, from Bad Horse to Red Crow to Carol to even minor figures like Red Crow’s right hand man Shunka have fully realized histories that constantly weigh on their present. When you read this book, you’re fully aware of not just what is going on in the Rez (where 95% of the action takes place), but of the fact that exterior influences could and will factor into each and every equation. Not only that, but the relationships between each of these characters pack a palpable tension that could only belong to those that have a deep seated distrust and a robust history that succeeds even just with Aaron’s implication.
It’s truly a unique book, as Aaron acts as a flawless conductor to this truly magnificent orchestra of deceit, violence, and dark pasts.
Not only are these characters well drawn, but they are all given their moments to shine and their own reasons to stand out. Even characters like the likely disturbed minor characters like Catcher are given angles that make them remarkably interesting, and Aaron can take that turn and evolve them into something far more.
His work with someone like Dash is even more phenomenal, as when we first met him he just seemed to be a punk with a penchant for drinking and anger. Dashiell Bad Horse in my mind is the most underrated lead character in the industry today, existing in a web of self-torment and deceit that is so deep that he’s driven to be a shell of a man he once thought he was. Yet, every once in a while Aaron finds ways to ignite him with a passion for justice that is easily relatable even in its merciless vigor. The character arc of Bad Horse has been one of my favorite to watch since this book was released, and it is one whose tortured nature is only perhaps matched by The Walking Dead‘s Rick Grimes.Continued below
Perhaps the biggest reason Scalped has escalated in the past year or two from a book I liked and steadily read to one I absolutely loved with every fiber of my being is the revelation of R.M. Guera. When I first began reading this title, Guera was someone whose work frustrated me with its intense darkness and overtly gritty line work. I’ve never been able to figure out whether or not this is his fault or his colorist or even my own fault as a reader (my tastes have likely evolved just as much as his work has), but I just couldn’t get into it even though I loved Aaron’s scripts. Around the arc “The Gravel in Your Gut”, something snapped in me and Guera’s work became some of my favorite in the industry.
Some artists excel as a storyteller but are lacking in actual draftsmanship…some work in an opposite fashion. Guera is one whose work reaches the apex of both of those aspects, providing visuals that tell a story unto themselves (Aaron often leaves major storytelling beats in Guera’s hands to be told via a simple gesture or look) as well as some of the most dynamic panels I’ve ever seen. You know you’re looking at a bravura panel when both the writer and artist sign it, as if they’re saying “yeah, this is going to make some collector extremely happy some day, so they better remember it was us.”
I can’t write about this without mentioning Jock’s efforts on this title. Jock is the cover artist for this title and has unleashed a fleet of some of the most memorable covers in the industry over the past few years, including my winner of Best Cover of 2009 with issue #31’s gorgeous page that speaks volumes about what exists inside the cover. He’s a champion of the artform, and his lack of representation at the Eisner Awards this year perhaps the most disheartening snub in my book.
When I was writing my review for Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead this week, I mentioned that it is like a metronome of greatness, never reaching transcendant levels but never going below “very good” either. Scalped is similar in its consistency, except it is on an unparalleled run of at least 20 straight issues of virtuoso comic booking. It doesn’t matter whether or not it is a one-off issue about characters not even related to the central story or a massive arc that affects every facet of the comic previously and going forward – they are all of a highest quality. In fact, not only did Scalped earn my highest rating ever in a review (9.8), it also has never dipped below a 9.0 (I doubt it’s gone below 9.2 either). That’s a hell of a thing, but unsurprising for a book that I consider the pinnacle of comic book storytelling today.