*Minor spoilers follow.*
Every now and again, a story comes along that moves people in ways they didn’t expect. Whether it be the deep characterization of the main players or the emotional resonance of the plot, some stories transcend the genre they were made for and take on a life of their own. When this happens, people begin to stand up and notice, similar to how shows like Breaking Bad can take on a life of their own by the conclusion of their run. They leave the confines of their niche and break out into the very essence of pop culture itself.
I bring up Breaking Bad because right now, everyone holds it up as the premier standard for dramas. The way the writers were able to weave each disparate plotline together into a magnificent tapestry of violence is a testament to how great stories can be told. While I won’t argue the power of Breaking Bad and the legacy it left behind, I don’t think it is the premier crime drama everyone thinks it is.
That title belongs to Scalped. Written by Jason Aaron, with art by R.M. Guera and a plethora of others, the series brings together broken and flawed characters into a powder keg of emotions and grudges dating back decades. Over the course of sixty issues and ten collections, Aaron and company manage to create a story that is disturbingly beautiful and emotionally haunting, setting a new bar for not only graphic storytelling, but storytelling as a whole.
The series begins with Dashiell “Dash” Bad Horse returning to his birthplace of Prairie Rose Indian Reservation after being away for over a decade. Once on “The Rez,” Dash joins up with local Tribal Chief and crime boss Lincoln Red Crow to work inside his organization as a tribal cop. While everyone assumes Dash is back to join in on the takings of a newly built casino, in reality he is an undercover F.B.I. agent sent in to bring down Red Crow once and for all. But like all undercover cop stories, Dash begins to wonder which side he’s really on, and how he’s going to make it out in one piece.
What is arguably the best aspect of the series is the writing. Aaron brings perhaps his best comic work to the series by showcasing a once-noble people who have been treated like dirt because of the system they live in. That system creates perhaps some of the most nuanced and complex characters in all of comics, regardless of genre. From Red Crow, the crime boss who only wants what’s best for “his” people, to Dino Poor Bear, a struggling father who believes he only does bad things for the good of his family, each character has enough flaws and attributes to make them feel like real people you could meet out on the street.
This depth of character is also shown in the protagonist of this series, Dash Bad Horse. With a bad attitude and lightning-quick nun-chucks in tow, Dash makes his mark known on the Rez as being a hardened, tough-as-nails criminal who doesn’t care about anyone beyond himself. There will even be times when you may hate the character’s guts for some of the actions he makes. But as the series unfolds, Aaron is able to bring more of Dash’s past out into the light and showcase not only the traumas he experienced throughout his life that made him who he is. Dash may do horrible things, but only because so much was missing from his life to begin with. By the end, the reader can’t help but feel sympathy for Dash’s plight and the trajectory his life has taken him through.
But that trajectory leads him into another aspect of what makes Scalped so breathtakingly beautiful is the cyclical nature of the Rez and the roles that must be followed. Throughout the series, readers are introduced to characters that both aid and hurt the people on the Rez. Absentee fathers driven away by pain and regret mingle with medicine women who try and help others without thinking of themselves. They help to define the flaws of the Rez, but also showcase what makes it such a remarkable place. Yet by the end of the final issue, those roles have been vacated due to death and outside actions. Yet Aaron brings certain characters full-circle by having them fill these roles, not only fulfilling their roles but also showing that these people, whether they be good or bad for the community, will always be there.
Within these roles that Aaron defines out, there are no true “villains,” making this series rise above others in the portrayal of their characters. Yes, there are those that work against Dash and his quest to get what he wants, but only because what they want stands against what Dash wants. Aaron manages to take the time to have certain story arcs follow these “villains,” giving them the depth Aaron brings to all of the characters. One such figure that stands out in this regard is Shunka, the head bodyguard and right-hand man of Red Crow at the start of the series. For a good portion of the story, Shunka manages to only stand as a side-character that has little to him. But in the story arc entitled “A Fine Action of an Honorable and Catholic Spaniard,” Aaron brings his A-game by turning a baddie who had only been a one-note gruff into an emotionally complex figure.
It’s these kinds of reveals where the series rewards multiple re-reads. Many times, the narrative of a story flows in a direct and unchanged path. While that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it doesn’t add much to going back and experiencing it again and again. Scalped doesn’t face this problem, giving readers plenty of plotlines to go back and review with new eyes to everything that goes on.
All of this makes Scalped a series to take note of in it of itself, but the story would be nothing without the artistic aid of R.M. Guera. Showcasing the dirty reality of what life on an Indian Reservation is truly like, Guera captures the pain these people live with on a consistent basis, issue after issue. From the trash-filled backyards children walk through to the grungy meth labs that pepper the countryside, Guera shows the dismal reality that faces many Native Americans across the country.
Yet at the same time, Guera also brings nobility to these people’s lives that still hangs in the air. While Prairie Rose may be a hellish place to live, there is also the history of nobility to these people’s lives that still hangs in the air. They may be poor, alcoholic, and miserable, but their history shows that they will always have some level of importance that no one can take away. In one of the most resonant issues of the series, Guera, alongside a group of superstar artists, show the true nature of Native Americans and how they will always be a part of the history of this country.
Yet despite a high level of greatness, everything must come to an end. Scalped, being no exception, brings all of its true power and emotional weight for the final two volumes of the series, entitled “Knuckle Up” and “Trail’s End,” respectively. By bringing in threads that had been introduced and left dangling even from the very first issue, Aaron and Guera pull out all the stops to have Dash’s world, and the world of Prairie Rose, brought down around their ears. The catharsis that each character goes through is heavy and knocks right in your gut, making you realize how much you care for even the smaller characters Aaron and Guera brought into the series.
All of this culminates in the final issue, where the fates of everyone are dealt with in fashion and all plotlines are wrapped up. The tension may be gone, but the final four pages of the series, in which one character reflects on their home and what the future may hold for them, packs such emotion it still gets me each time I read it. Aaron manages to capture a mood that nearly everyone feels and condenses it down into an inner-monologue that can’t be beat.
It’s hard for me to read crime books now, ever since I finished Scalped for the first time. None have been able to match the intensity and compelling nature of life on the Rez, and I have no doubt it’s going to be a long time before I find another story that does match it. I’ve since gone back and re-read the series all the way through again and it still feels emotional by the end. Very few stories have been able to do that to me, and when they do they’re absolutely something special. This book might sit at the top of that list now.
So here I am, ranting and raving about how fantastic this series is. If you take away anything from this piece, it’s that you should go out and read it. Talk about it. Have debates about it. Enjoy it. Feel the ride and experience the weight that these characters have to them. Even if you don’t think of it as highly as I do, at least you’ll have seen what I have and understand why I love Scalped above nearly all other stories.