“Scalped” #21 — presumably along with other Vertigo comics this month — features a “Vertigo Voices” column by Jason Aaron, entitled “19 Things That Fuel ‘Scalped.'” As a regular reader of the series, I could have named most of the things on the list, since Aaron’s writing wears its influences proudly, confidently. But the list should serve as a good barometer of whether or not you, too, would like “Scalped.” Do you like James Ellroy and Cormac McCarthy? “The Wire”? Spaghetti Westerns? “Weird Western Tales”? Johnny Cash? Warren Oates?
Jason Aaron does, and it shows on nearly every page of this series. If you like work in that vein — art that bites at your throat like a beautifully nasty rattlesnake — you’ll like “Scalped.” It would be preposterous to conceive of a comic book series that tried to distill the essence of a Cormac McCarthy or “The Wire” or Sergio Leone and mix it all up into a crime saga set on a reservation. Saying that you’re trying to write such a series sounds like one of those meaningless hyperbolic phrases like “‘Lord of the Rings’ meets ‘The Godfather'” or “‘Harry Potter’ for grownups.” It’s too good, to easily said, to ever really be true.
Except in the case of “Scalped.”
The virtues of this series aren’t obviously apparent if you’re just flipping through the comic in the shop, and a new reader might pick up this issue and find very little happening on the surface, but it is very much like “The Wire” in that respect. It’s the accumulation of dramatic moments, and the echoes of past story beats that add up to something remarkable. And although Aaron doesn’t try for the bleak poetry of Cormac McCarthy’s narrators, he does capture the glimmer of hope within the bleakness that’s the essence of McCarthy, and I’ll be damned if Aaron isn’t terse. But he’s terse with a purpose, and though his two main characters, Bad Horse and Red Crow, speak louder with their actions then their words, he isn’t afraid to throw in an extended monologue every once in a while. Here, Bad Horse doesn’t even appear, and Red Crow says only what he needs to, but the wise Mr. Brass speaks volumes. And like McCarthy, like “The Wire,” Aaron gives all of his characters a distinct speaking rhythm, capturing their worldviews clearly and precisely without resorting to exposition. These characters talk at each other, making their way through the cold, hard world.
But what about the Leone influence? I think of Leone primarily in visual terms — the tense cross-cutting, the juxtaposition of extreme close-ups with wide shots — and R. M. Guera’s layouts don’t look anything like that. But Aaron lets Guera carry plenty of the story weight purely with his art, and that’s something Leone might have done. The three page opening sequence contains only two words of dialogue, “I’m sorry,” but it’s a powerful and shocking scene nonetheless, and it grows in potency after reading what happens later in the issue. And like Leone, Aaron explores hard-edged characters who confront their own moral standards. It may not be the wild west in Aaron’s world, but the Rez is certainly a place of law without order, and men and women must make choices. Choices that will haunt them forever.
I’m oversimplifying “Scalped” by comparing it to its influences, because “Scalped” is much more than just a series of homages, but its powerful influences run deep and inform a series that’s a thrill to read each month. I’ve been championing “Scalped” for well over a year now, and sometimes I think I might be exaggerating its appeal just to encourage new readers to check it out. But then I pick up the new issue and realize that it’s even better than I can express. It’s a truly layered work of sophisticated crime fiction, and I love every page of it.