In 2007, writer Jason Aaron and artist R.M. Guera kicked off their creator-owned Native American crime saga “Scalped” through DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint. The first issue transported readers to the Prairie Rose Indian Reservation in South Dakota and introduced them to undercover FBI Agent Dashiell Bad Horse, who was returning home for a special assignment: take down corrupt politician and mob boss Chief Lincoln Red Crow. In subsequent issues, the story grew and readers got to meet a fascinating and often tragic cast of characters which included Dash’s FBI handler Baylis Earl Nitz, tribal policeman Franklin Falls Down and Red Crow’s chief enforcer Shunka. The civilian cast of “Scalped” also grew as readers were introduced to Dash’s mother Gina, Red Crow’s Daughter Carol, Catcher, a horse riding reservation resident who claimed to commune with spirits, teenager Dino Poor Bear and his grandmother Agnes “Granny” Poor Bear.
Over the course of four years and fifty issues, the residents of the Rez have experienced enough for several lifetimes and soon, their story will come to an end. At this year’s Comic-Con International in San Diego, Vertigo announced “Scalped” will end with issue #60.
To celebrate the recent 50th issue of “Scalped” and help readers prepare for its end, CBR News spoke with Aaron about the creation of the series while looking back at several of its memorable stories.
CBR News: Jason, let’s go back to the beginning and talk about what inspired “Scalped.” You obviously have an interest in Native American culture and life — did this lead to the creation of “Scalped” or was this something developed as you worked on the series?
Jason Aaron: It was definitely before “Scalped.” It’s something I’ve been interested in since I was a kid, really. I don’t know what sparked it or where it came from. It’s just something that I’ve been interested in off and on since I was little.
When you first started developing the title, it wasn’t originally going to be creator-owned. Instead, it was going to be something similar to “The Losers,” which took an existing DC Comics property and re-imagined it with a Vertigo sensibility.
Yeah, it was originally going to be a modern day update of the old DC western hero Scalphunter. I think the original idea was that we were going to have a story taking place in the present day and another story taking place in the past that actually involved the original Scalphunter. I don’t have any idea how I was planning on connecting those two tales. When my editor Will Dennis and I started talking, we decided to scrap the Wild West stuff and focus on the modern day story revolving around a casino.
“Scalped” is set “now,” but a lot of the action has ties to events in the past. One particularly important event in the series is the murder of two FBI agents in 1975. Now, real life Native American activist Leonard Peltier was arrested for the murder of two FBI agents in 1975 — was Peltier’s story an influence on “Scalped?”
Yeah most definitely. Peltier’s story and the whole story of the American Indian movement of the 1970s had a big influence on “Scalped.” For a while, Peltier was in prison right down the street from me in Leavenworth. He’s since been transferred. I believe he’s in Pennsylvania now.
So he’s another aspect of more recent Native American history that I’d been interested in even before “Scalped.” The book “In the Spirit of Crazy Horse” is a great read that covers the whole stand-off at Wounded Knee and the troubles on the Pine Ridge Reservation in the ’70s that lead up to the Leonard Peltier case.
What were some of the other inspirations for the series?
The series was partly inspired by Michael Mann’s “Crime Story,” which was a great TV show from the ’80s about one cop chasing a hood on the rise. That was the original idea for “Scalped.” We’d have one undercover FBI agent and follow his struggle to bring down a crime boss on the rise. Once I started working on it, it pretty quickly grew and became about this diverse cast of characters on the reservation.
That focus on crime, community and a large cast of characters has lead many people to describe “Scalped” as the HBO show “The Wire” on an Indian reservation. Was your work on “Scalped” influenced or inspired by “The Wire?”
I was probably just getting into “The Wire” right around the time “Scalped” was coming together, so that certainly had a profound influence on what I was doing.
“Deadwood,” another HBO show, was also a big influence. I was already deep into the show at that point. The character of Al Swearengen was a model, in a lot of ways, for what I wanted to do with Red Crow in “Scalped.”
Swearengen was an intriguing character because he was a villain who was not entirely evil. Were you trying to create similar characters in “Scalped?”
I try not to paint things in black and white like that when I write. I wanted a book where the characters could grow and become more nuanced as they went along. Right now, with issue #50 there’s no clear cut villain and there’s no clear cut hero anywhere in the book. Readers are left to figure out those roles for themselves.
We’ve talked inspirations and the series’ two chief characters. Now, let’s move into storylines. The first two arcs, “Indian Country” and “Hoka Hey,” were full of shocking revelations like Dash’s status as an FBI agent and the murder of his mother Gina Bad Horse. What was it like writing those first two tales?
The first arc was very hard. I had only written two other full 22 pages comics by the time I wrote “Scalped” #1 — the first couple issues of “The Other Side.” I worked on the first issue of “The Other Side” for months; longer than I’ve ever worked on any other single comic. So, I was still very green and still figuring out what I was doing. I don’t know that I was truly prepared to dive into all the stuff I was going to have to juggle in an ongoing monthly comic.
Unfortunately, I’d have to say that our first arc was probably the weakest of “Scalped.” It’s me figuring out where I’m going and what I’m doing. I think Guera and I were still figuring out how to work together. Things start to come together a little more by the second arc. I think you start to see hints of the type of book this is going to turn out to be in the long run.
In “Casino Boogie,” the series’ third arc, the series overall goal became even clearer become because we got to see things through the eyes of several different characters, not just Dash and Red Crow. Why did you decide to open up the series to the viewpoints and perspectives of other characters?
This wasn’t a book that was going to dazzle people with plot mechanics. If we were going to draw people into “Scalped,” it would be because of the characters. So in “Casino Boogie” I got to focus on a different character each issue and flesh them out and present the world from different perspectives. I think this was the arc that put “Scalped” on the map for a lot of people.
After “Casino Boogie” came “Dead Mothers,” an arc that found Dash dealing with the death of his mother while trying to protect some children who had just lost their mother to murder. What was is like writing such a dark and melancholy arc?
I think that’s the arc where everything really all came together. I felt like I had a pretty good handle on what I was doing by that point, and Guera really started to hit his groove. I think that’s the arc where we truly started to click. There were some stand out issues in the “Casino Boogie” arc like the Red Crow issue and the Dino issue, but “Dead Mothers” is where we really found our groove.
You often follow up major story arcs of “Scalped” with single issue and two-part stories that spotlighted a specific character. Immediately after “Dead Mothers,” you told a one-off tale starring officer Franklin Falls Down. In earlier stories, it seemed as though Falls Down really didn’t belong on the Prairie Rose Tribal Police Force, but with issue #18, you really showed how capable he was.
Yeah, you really see him step up in that issue. He was always supposed to be the one good cop in a corrupt force. In that standalone issue we really start to see why he is the way he is. He’s kind of a tragic figure. He’s a good hearted guy, but he’s a tough guy as well. He’s a bit saltier version of Sheriff Andy Taylor from the Andy Griffith Show. He’s got to be tough to do the job he’s been doing for so long and survive.
In issue #18, Falls Down is in put in charge of the investigation into Gina Bad Horse’s murder. Several story lines later he would solve that murder and the 1975 murder of the two FBI agents that set the events of “Scalped” into motion. Did you always mean for Officer Falls Down to have such an important role in the series?
He always had a role to play. Pretty much all the characters that I focus on in “Scalped” have had set roles from the get go. Some of them have grown as things have developed along the way. Certainly though all those were in place from the beginning. I’ve also known from the very beginning how Falls Down’s story would eventually wrap-up.
You followed up the Falls Down one-shot with “Boudoir Stomp,” an arc that placed the spotlight on Dash’s relationship with Red Crow’s daughter, Carol and took him to some pretty dark places. If I remember correctly, this was the arc where Dash became addicted to heroin.
Yeah, that was something that was in the outline from the get go and this was one of those stories that seemed to strike a chord with readers. Dash and Carol are certainly fun, in a very twisted way, to bounce off each other. They just sort of pull each other in all the wrong directions. Going into this arc, the only questions were who was going to survive? How are they going to survive? And where is that going to leave these characters in the long run?
“Boudoir Stomp” is also yet another “Scalped” story named after a Rolling Stones song.
Readers were left wondering the answers to those questions for a while, because in the next “Scalped” arc, “Gravel In Your Guts,” you moved the spotlight off of Carol and Dash and onto Red Crow and Dino Poor Bear. What made you want to tell a story that put these two characters together?
I did that for a couple of reasons. One, I liked the idea that we ended the previous issue with Dash about to make a very dark choice and do heroin with Carol and followed that up with another arc where you only see Dash for one scene, where he’s buying drugs. The idea of setting that up and then cutting away from him for a while makes you wonder just how far he’s gone since we last saw him.
Also, in the “Casino Boogie” arc, the two characters readers seemed to have the strongest response to were Red Crow and Dino. I liked the idea of doing an arc that would focus squarely on the two of them. They’re the same kind of Red Crow and Dino stories that you saw in “Casino Boogie,” I just wove them together. I liked the idea of showing that this wasn’t a book just driven by Dash. This wasn’t a book that needed the same protagonist in every arc. We have a big cast, so we can jump around and focus on different characters when we want to.
In “High Lonesome,” the series’ next arc, you focused on Dash briefly at the beginning and then quite a bit at the end. In between, we got a number of interconnected single-issue stories that spotlighted several different characters. How did this arc come together?
The arc started with issue #25, which, in some ways, was meant to be an anniversary issue that focused on this new character, where we kind of see the reservation through his eyes. He’s a con man who lies to everyone around him and he comes to the Rez to try and make a quick buck. Then suddenly, his story comes crashing right into Dash’s story at the very end. This was me doing a typical sort of “undercover FBI agent gets recognized by someone who knows who he really is” story.
The different character spotlight issues in “High Lonesome” were also a lot of fun. Clearly, the one that focuses on Falls Down and Catcher was a big issue, because that’s the point where we finally see that it was Catcher who killed the FBI agents.
Gina’s murder and the murder of the FBI agents were two big lingering plot lines in “Scalped.” I never wanted the book to become just a murder mystery; it’s okay to have these mysteries for the characters, but I didn’t want it to be a mystery for the readers. I didn’t want the story to hinge upon the resolution of those mysteries. I wanted the story to hinge upon the fact that you like these characters and want to see how things turn out for them. So I knew all along that I would end those mysteries before we got to the end of the book.
Many of the stories in “Scalped” are character-driven, but you followed up “High Lonesome” with “The Gnawing,” a very plot-driven arc. What was it like writing that story? And is it harder to write character or plot-driven stories?
I like being able to mix things up. I love doing the single issue character stories, but it is good to be able to shift gears and do something like “The Gnawing,” which is very plot heavy. A lot of things come to a head in that arc. It also sets up some points that will play out right up until the very end of “Scalped.” So it’s very much a pivotal arc.
The hardest thing to do in one of those standalone issues is to find a unique voice for a different character. So maybe the big plot stuff is easier. It’s just a matter of setting up those dominoes so you can have them all come crashing down at the same time. That’s what I was trying to do with “The Gnawing.” It was a case of a lot of chickens coming home to roost all at once. I’d been setting some of that stuff up for several issues, so I just needed to clear the plate a little bit so we could move forward.
You also cleared the board of several characters in “The Gnawing,” like Nitz’s other FBI asset, the sociopathic Diesel, who was murdered by Dash. It seems Diesel may be gone, but he’s not forgotten.
Right. There’ve been few references to Diesel since his death, just to show that his death hasn’t been forgotten. It’s certainly something that’s going to come up again. Much to Dash’s chagrin.
Dash doesn’t commit cold blooded murder lightly. Unlike Diesel, he was never supposed to be quite as sociopathic as he may have seemed at times. In some sense, he was always supposed to have a bit more bark than bite. He was overcompensating for something and trying to hide what was really going on inside him. We’ve started to see more of the cracks in Dash show, and in a lot of ways “Scalped,” from start to finish, is the story of him growing up. It’s the story of him coming home, what he finds there and what that does to him, for better or for worse.
After the big, bloody action in “The Gnawing,” you slowed things down in issue #35 with a done-in-one story titled “Listening to the Earth Turn,” which didn’t involve any of the series regular characters. How did this story come about? What made you want to tell it after “The Gnawing?”
I wanted to follow up our big plot heavy arc with a palette cleanser. I liked the idea of doing what’s basically a standalone, single-issue graphic novel right in the midst of a series. There are two characters in that issue who we’ve never seen before and who we’ll never see again. It’s just a completely standalone story that happens to be set within the same world as the rest of our series. It mattered not one bit to the overall plot of “Scalped,” but in the grand scheme, I suppose it did help flesh out our setting. It showed a different side of the reservation. But really it is its own little story in the midst of all this bigger drama.
After “Listening to the Earth Turn.” you dove back into the world of organized crime with “A Fine Action of an Honorable and Catholic Spaniard,” a two-part story about Red Crow’s enforcer Shunka and the secret he harbors. How long did you want to tell a story focusing on Shunka and did you always know that he was gay?
I always planned to tell a Shunka story. It was originally going to be part of the “High Lonesome” arc, but I think it was Will [Dennis] who suggested we take it out because that arc was getting a little too big. Because I held it back and waited to do it, the story changed into something else. So, no, I didn’t always know that Shunka was gay.
That story really came about because of Ed Brubaker. Ed is a fan of “Scalped” and he also grew up near a reservation. He suggested I do a story that looked at homosexuality on the Rez. When I began researching that subject, I found out all this stuff about Two-Spirits and traditional gender roles within Native American Tribes. It was a fascinating history that I had never even heard about before. So I knew I wanted to incorporate that into a story at some point, and at the same time, I already had the idea for the Shunka story, where he goes off and gets into trouble at another casino. Suddenly, they became the same story.
Injecting the idea of Two-Spirits and that history into the story completely changed it. It basically became a gay Native America noir story, which I’m gonna go out on a limb and say no one had ever done before. It all really clicked and made perfect sense for Shunka. He’s a character we didn’t really know much at all about. I think I dropped a couple pieces here and there about his history, but he was pretty much a blank slate. So the revelation of Shunka’s sexuality was definitely a big surprise to readers, but it was a surprise to me as well. It was just something that kind of came about as I was writing.
That revelation adds an extra bit of tension to scenes featuring Shunka because it seems like if any of his business associates ever found out about his sexuality, he would be killed.
Yeah, in the story I think we talked about how homosexuals are not looked upon favorably on a lot of modern day reservations, so he’s in a position where he feels like he has to hide who he is. This is something that could be held against him, especially in his line of work.
After the Shunka story, you tackled another social issue, abortion, in an arc titled “Unwanted.” The story dealt with Carol’s decision on how to handle an unwanted pregnancy and it did so in a pretty even handed and objective manner. What was it like writing this story?
It was a challenge, but it was a challenge I was excited about. I couldn’t remember another Vertigo book that had tackled the subject. I liked the idea of doing a big abortion story that would not just be about Carol’s decision whether or not to have an abortion, but would also look at the idea of unwanted pregnancy in connection with a lot of our characters.
The beginning of each issue has a flashback where you see how another character from “Scalped” had an abortion, thought about having an abortion, or what happened because they didn’t have an abortion. You see all those different things as they play out across the history of “Scalped” all building up to Carol’s decision. That’s something that I read and thought a lot about. I was very careful and deliberate about how I handled and portrayed things. I didn’t want it to come off as a preachy arc, I didn’t want anybody to read that arc and think that this is a writer who is obviously pro-choice or pro-life. I wanted it to seem like a balanced portrayal of what’s obviously a very complicated and divisive issue.
It’s easy to find portrayals of abortion that are slanted one way or the other. In researching this arc, I went online and read a lot of stuff like testimonials from women who’d had abortions, and they were almost always slanted one way or the other depending on what kind of website you were reading them on. I wanted to do something that walked the middle road and hopefully showed both sides of the argument.
Ultimately, Carol was going to make a decision one way or the other, but the idea was that her decision makes sense for her character, and I think it did. We didn’t portray it in the book as something she does lightly, but it’s also not something she walks around every day of her life regretting. She was able to look herself in the eye and go, “This is what I’m going to do. This is the right choice to make.”
You’ve done a couple done-in-one stories that focus on Nitz, Dash’s FBI handler who is obsessed with taking Red Crow down. Each of them illustrated the dangers of this obsession. It seemed like “Scalped” #44, the issue that followed “Unwanted,” was an especially pivotal issue for Nitz.
Yeah. That was kind of about Nitz getting his groove back. I wanted to take him down a notch and from there, have him stumble into a treasure trove in some sense. I wanted him to come out of the issue stronger, more powerful and more determined than ever to really start to put the screws to Red Crow.
The treasure trove, as you put it, was a number of FBI agents that were put under his command after he accidentally stumbled upon and eliminated a terrorist cell. Nitz, of course, tasked these men with taking down Red Crow. At this point in “Scalped,” does Nitz have any free will of his own or is he a slave to his obsession?
Getting Red Crow is very much the sum total of his world. Everything else has kind of faded. In the previous Nitz stories, we saw how he pretty much threw away his family in pursuit of this obsession. It’s obviously cost him, career-wise. It’s cost him friends. At this point, there’s just no way he could ever walk away from it. He’s going to see this vendetta through, one way or the other.
In the series next arc, “You Got to Sin to Get Saved,” you had Dash finally confront Catcher, his mother’s killer. When “Scalped” began, Catcher was almost a comical character, but by the end of this arc, he’s a very scary one. He almost reminds me of Kevin Spacy’s character from the movie “Seven.”
[:aughs] Throughout most of “Scalped,” I play with the idea that we don’t know if Catcher is really having these visions and talking with spirits. Is he really acting out some big, divine, lofty plan? Or is he just a flat-out crazy person? In this arc, you certainly start to see that he is more crazy than he is spiritual. Ultimately, in some ways I suppose he proves to be the true villain of the piece. In a lot of ways, he’s caused more violence than Red Crow. Plus, there’s obviously still some of his story left to tell, so who knows what he’ll be up to next.
“You Got to Sin to Get Saved” was also a pretty big story for Red Crow. In issue #49, the final chapter of the arc, he seemed ready to give up his life of crime. How big of an impact will this arc have on Red Crow going forward?
Yeah, issue #49 had some profound moments for a few different characters. Those moments will definitely set the course for the next arc, which starts in issue #51. It really sets the course for their arcs from here on out as we head towards the close.
As “Scalped” progressed, it became clear that it really was a story about the community of people that live on the Prairie Rose Reservation. Issue #50 seemed to illustrate that quite nicely. What was it like writing this milestone issue?
It was tough to figure out what to do with this issue. The original idea was to do a big anthology issue, with different artists as well as different writers doing stories set within “Scalped.” Unfortunately, we had to scale things back a good bit from there. The “Art of Scalping” story was one I had actually written about five years ago. It was initially going to be part of a western anthology. That didn’t work out, so it’s been sitting around since then. Guera had already drawn part of it and it was a story that I wanted to find a place for somewhere.
Then, when issue #50 came about, I realized that with just a little tweak I could connect that story to the world of “Scalped.” That lead to the second story in the book, “The Art of Survival,” which delved into the history of the reservation and showed one of Dash’s ancestors. That was something I had also been meaning to do for quite a while.
That then gave us a way incorporate a series of pin-ups into the story. I loved the idea of getting different artists to draw those characters, but usually when you do an assortment of pin-ups in the back of an issue, while it may look cool, readers ultimately just flip through them for a second and move on. If we were going to do pin-ups, I really wanted to figure out how to incorporate those into the story in a big way. I think it turned out really cool. I was really happy with the work of all the people involved. I think the different voices the artists brought to those characters was great.
At Comic-Con International, it was announced that “Scalped” will come to an end with issue #60. We know that you’ve been moving towards an end point for quite some time now, but what made you decide on ending things with issue #60? And can you offer up any hints or teases about what readers can expect from these final issues?
Yes, we are ending at issue #60. That’s been the plan for a quite a while now, actually. And yes, this was the choice of those of us who produce “Scalped.” We were not pushed into this in any way by DC. Karen Berger and everyone at Vertigo and DC have been nothing but supportive of this series from the get-go. But this was always designed to be one big story, with a beginning, a middle and an end, and things will now be ending about where I had always imagined they would. So yeah, ten more issues. Two more big arcs. The first is called “Knuckle Up,” and it features lots of things on fire, lots of people shooting at one another and more than one major character making their last appearance. It also ends with the biggest fight in “Scalped” history, one fans have been waiting a long time to see. And then there are still five more issues after that!
Any final thoughts you would like to share about “Scalped?”
I’ve been thrilled with everybody I’ve been able to work with on “Scalped.” I wish we could have gotten the chance for John Paul Leon, Jason Latour and Francesco Francavilla to do more stuff, and I always wanted our cover artist, Jock, to draw the interiors for an issue, but unfortunately we’re not going to be able to get to any of that. The plus side of that, though, is that Guera should now be able to draw all the issues from here on out.
By the time this is wrapped up, I think I’ll be able to look at the full run and say I got to tell the story I wanted to tell and I got to work with some amazing people. Hopefully Guera and I can stick the landing and give these characters the proper send off.