Month in, month out, “Scalped” is one of the best comics published. No qualifiers like ‘from the big two’ or anything, it’s simply a damn good comic book, even when it’s a quick, breezy issue like this week’s #32. I don’t mean ‘quick’ and ‘breezy’ as negatives; that’s how the issue reads since things are in motion, the action is heating up, and there are a lot of subplots that look like they’ll be converging soon. That means quick, succinct scenes that pile up, creating a sense of dread and doom in this middle part of “The Gnawing.”
The issue revolves around a single witness to Chief Red Crow’s murder of a jailed Hmong sent by the gangsters that backed the building of his casino. If the witness is turned over to Dash Bad Horse’s boss, FBI Agent Nitz, then Red Crow will finally go down for murder and Dash’s time on the rez will be over; if the witness is kept hidden by Red Crow, he’ll be killed later and Dash will still have to find the undercover agent on the rez, namely himself. Add to the mix an old man by the name of Catcher buying a gun and Dash’s complicated and drug-fueled relationship with Red Crow’s daughter, and lots of things happen here.
While quickly paced, this story is unusual since almost every aspect of it is driven entirely by the characters. Usually, fast-moving plots like this are more artificial with external influences, but “The Gnawing” is the culmination of the book’s first two years or so as everything comes to a head. As such, scenes between Dash and Carol or Carol and her father get a lot of emphasis to not just advance the plot but the characters as well. With things moving quickly, Jason Aaron wisely has the characters try to cling to or protect what’s important to them.
R. M. Guera’s art is gritty and raw as he twists and alters these people, making them almost caricatures of themselves in their reactions. This approach works to heighten the emotional level of the scenes, to raise the stakes, which is remarkable since a less capable artist using the same technique could easily give the book the feeling of an over-acted soap opera. But, Guera also knows when to hold back, to keep things understated, making the big emotional, over-the-top moments hit harder. He knows exactly what each character is thinking and feeling at any given moment and shows that on the page.
Like most middle chapters, this part of “The Gnawing” is mostly about moving things along, but Aaron and Guera do that with great skill, embracing the speed with which things are happening now, piling it all up so it can fall over in future issues. It’s not just treading water, padding things out, as the issue ends with a few big changes as a new alliance is formed and trouble continues to approach the reservation. If you’re not reading “Scalped,” what are you reading and how is it better?