"And in my head there's all these classic cars and outlaw Cowboy Bands, I always kinda sorta wish I'm someone else. When our boots they hit the ground, they made a high and lonesome sound, when our boots they hit the ground down from the clouds, they made a high and lonesome sound."
That's an excerpt of lyrics from the song 'High Lonesome' by The Gaslight Anthem, and while I'm not 100% sure that Jason Aaron named the latest collection of Scalped after that song (It could be after an old Western movie, or an old Country Band or maybe it's a common phrase?), it nevertheless fits the book perfectly, and allows me to sort of frame my review. Maybe I'm reaching for pseudo-profundity, maybe I just have great music taste? Who knows? It's probably both.
Scalped is a book all about 'Outlaw Cowboys' and people who kinda sorta (well, definitely) want to be someone else. Beneath all the trappings of Crime and Drugs, it's about the struggle for identity of a certain ethnic minority, and how different people seek to gain their sense of self in that culture. Red Crow gains his identity as a Native through crime, Dash Bad Horse has tried to escape his heritage, but couldn't, and Diesel desperately clings to it.
This latest collection of Scalped issues, is much like Volume 2, Casino Boogie, in that it is a series of one-shot issues that fold together to make a cohesive whole. Jason Aaron does a fantastic job at this, the links are subtle, yet strong. And on a second read, it creates a holistic view of the Rez. We see the domino effect of someone's actions. Also of note in this Volume is what we learn when we venture back into the past, a past of Classic Cars and Outlaw Cowboy Dreams, In this book we finally see what actually happened that night when the Outlaw band of Red Power Warriors led by Red Crow and Gina Bad Horse murdered 2 FBI Agents, as well as learning the backstory of FBI Agent Nitz, a figure of some machiavellian evil, who nevertheless has come off short when up against his nemesis Red Crow in terms of depth. But now he's filled out. Part of the pleasure of reading Scalped is not just in following the present-day actions of our characters, but in seeing the past, how people ended up how they are, and it's something which Aaron excels at.
The opening chapter of High Lonesome, entitled 'This Then Is The Rez' is interesting in that it introduces a new character, an outsider, a master con-man who has come to Prairie Rose to count cards and steal from the Casino. Aaron puts us right in this man's head, we learn all about his methods, and his mindset. One particular scene has him talking with a Prostitute, and we see what he's thinking and what he actually says, we learn a lot about him here, and it's one of the things only comics can do. And then on the last page where he threatens to blow the whistle on Dashiell Bad Horse... it's one of the most arresting moments in graphic fiction I've read in years. Also of note is that the issue opens in 1876, with Custer's Last Stand, we see how the Rez was formed over 100 years, and how the current identity for natives is formed, Aaron hasn't delved back so far before, and it's interesting to see how deep the roots go.
So of course Aaron doesn't follow it up right away, we have to wait 3 whole issues before the story of the conman is continued! Chapter 2 is all about Diesel aka FBI Special Agent Britt Fillenworth, a white man who claims to be 1/16th Kickapoo. Diesel is a real bastard, he's killed women and children, but he's still a fascinating character. That's Aaron's strength, in a book full of terrible people, we still find something to like. There is something tragic about Diesel Engine, and his flashback shows it, he just wants to belong, and though we know the events in his story are going to end badly, we still root for him, little Britt is just so desperate to be a Native American. A sympathetic Child-murderer? Who knew? I think what makes Diesel so interesting is that he is the mirror image of central character Dash Bad Horse, both are FBI agents, but Dash is running away from his Indian Heritage, whereas Diesel clings to whatever (if any) he has. Aaron performs a similar exploration of a character's past in 'The Ballad of Baylis Earl Nitz' where the tough as nails bastard is given some history, some context. We find out why exactly he has such a mad-on for Red Crow, and why such an old Man is still at it in the FBI. I love how he's just as much of a psychopathic criminal as Red Crow, in the world of Scalped, both sides are corrupt. It's also crucial that this story takes Nitz out of town, as I doubt he would have been as accomodating with Falls Down in chapter 4.
I said earlier that Scalped is a book full of terrible people, but that's not strictly true, and Chapter 4 features 2 of the books few good characters; Officer Falls Down, the 'one good cop' on the Tribal Police Force and Lawrence Belcourt, a Leonard Peltier analogue serving time for a crime he didn't commit. It's this issue which delves the most into the past, and for readers who have been following the book for 30 issues now, it is full of revelations, chief among them the answer to who killed the FBI Agents in '75. I had my suspicions, and they were dead wrong. Scalped is always surprising, and this issue adds to the tapestry perfectly, and also manages to make one of it's most enigmatic characters even more threatening and mysterious than before.
But what of our hero? Dashiell Bad Horse? Well, I say hero, but ever since he started doing drugs in Volume 3, Dash has been a ghost moving through the series, a background player. He is lost in his struggle for identity, he is literallly high and lonesome, and his stoned stumblings through the robbery attempt are truly heart-racing. Dash has faded so much that it is possible that he could die, he doesn't have that main-character shield, I can concieve Aaron killing him. The robbery moves at an incredible rate, and it's an ending you won't see coming, unless you're a very perceptive reader. I believe this hints at a reckoning for Dashiell Bad Horse, his drug use has caused him to jeopardise his mission, and he's going to have sort himself out. His face at the end is one of a man who knows he needs to change, and the last page where he begins to open up to Carol is just one more spiral in his woes. Dash is falling, down from the clouds, and when his boots they hit the ground... well, you know what sound they make.
The artwork in this volume is just as high quality as ever. Regular artist RM Guera tackles 3 issues, and his gritty artwork could not be more perfect for the series. It's not pretty, but it shouldn't be. The opening pages of the book are particulatly strong, where we see the passage of time. Davide Furno returns to pencil the Diesel issue, and he is also a great fit, his character's faces are as hard as granite and more larger than life than Guera's, but for a character like Diesel it's fitting. Francesco Francavilla provides the art for the Nitz issue. Francavilla's art is more traditional than Guera or Furno, but it's still very strong, I liked how the flashback scenes are a bit more blurred and washed out than the present day. Jason Aaron may be the lightning rod for praise on Scalped, but without artists who suit the material Scalped would never have worked, and it's great seeing Guera and his fill-in help only get better as time goes by.
This was another fantastic volume of Scalped, and one that builds a lot on the last 4 trades, but also adds a lot to the pot. It says a lot that a volume without 2 of the books main characters Chief Red Crow and Dino Poor Bear can still be so strong, but Jason Aaron has assembled such a strong cast of characters, an entire world even, that they are not missed. If you haven't been reading this series, you owe it to yourself to check it out from the beginning. It's an epic.
Scalped Volume 5: High Lonesome
Written By Jason Aaron
Artwork By RM Guera, Davide Furno and Francesco Francavilla
Published by Vertigo Comics
Out Now in all good Comic Shops