A personal code of ethics is a very useful thing. Your code is like your own battle plan for dealing with life’s difficult challenges. There’s an old saying, however, that few battle plans survive contact with the enemy, which means many of us will often find ourselves making wrong choices or betraying our code for something we think we need or want. In short, these actions have consequences. In “The Gnawing,” the latest arc of writer Jason Aaron and artist R.M. Guera’s Vertigo series, “Scalped,” many of the characters are facing the consequences from a number of bad decisions. CBR News spoke with Aaron about the arc, as well as his future plans for the crime series.
Dashiell Bad Horse, one of the central character in “Scalped,” is a Native American undercover FBI agent assigned to return to his childhood home, the Prairie Rose Indian Reservation in South Dakota, in order to infiltrate the organized crime ring of Chief Lincoln Red Crow. Over the course of the series, Dash has accomplished just that, becoming an important part of Red Crow’s organization, but he’s also taken a lot of dangerous risks and made a number of bad choices along the way. In “Scalped” #31, Bad Horse’s decisions placed Dash in a very thorny Catch 22 when a locked up meth dealer witnessed a murder that Chief Red Crow committed. It just so happens that this meth Dealer has supplied Dash with drugs, as well, and was threatening to blab about it. So, if Dash turns the dealer over to his FBI superiors, it’s possible that he’ll be locked up. And, if Red Crow hears what the dealer has to say, an even worse fate may await Dash.
“Dash is in this situation because he compromised himself. He’s put himself in a bad position. He was already stuck in a war between a brutal crime boss and an unscrupulous FBI agent. If he screws up, either one of them would have no problem cutting him loose and letting him take the fall. Now he’s made things worse by compromising himself morally and getting addicted to drugs,” Aaron explains. “Here he is again, stuck in a bad situation because of his previous choices, and he’s doing his best to get out of it.
“For Dash, ‘The Gnawing’ is about coming to a crossroads, making some tough choices, and asking himself how is he going to get out of these situations,” Aaron continued. “He definitely becomes more proactive. Whether that makes things better or worse for him is something we’ll see play out over the course of this arc.”
Further complicating matter for Dash is the return of Britt “Diesel” Fillenworth. Like Dash, Diesel is an undercover FBI agent, but whereas Dash doesn’t want anything to do with his Native American heritage, Diesel is obsessed with the fact that his family is allegedly 1/16th Kickapoo. Diesel is also a violent sociopath who Dash had previously sent to prison for murder. In “Scalped” #31, readers saw that Diesel used his FBI connections to secure his release from prison.
“Dash definitely has a big vendetta against Diesel, but the last time we saw them together, Diesel told Dash that they’re really more alike than he’d care to admit,” Aaron remarked. “The way Diesel sees it, they’re in the same boat, and they have no one to trust but each other, since their FBI handlers would burn them and cut them loose at the drop of a hat. So with Diesel getting out of jail, what does that mean for his relationship with Dash? It looks like it might go in a different way than people were expecting.”
Dash Bad Horse isn’t the only”Scalped” cast member facing a reckoning over bad choices. Chief Red Crow has also committed a number of rash and dangerous acts that he’ll have to pay for in “The Gnawing,” the most recent being the murder mentioned earlier. That’s because the man Red Crow murdered was an associate of the gangster that supplied Red Crow with the money to build his casino. “Red Crow’s worst qualities are his temper and the fact that he can become so focused on a goal that he’s willing to do anything to get there. He can become so obsessed and driven that he’ll compromise his own moral code,” Aaron said. “So, with Red Crow, the chickens are definitely coming home to roost, and he’s going to have to face up to what he’s done. So the question becomes, is he ready for war? Is he prepared to fight a war on his own turf, and is this a war that he can win? These are all questions he has to ask himself.”
Red Crow’s potential war is with Johnny Tongue, the Hmong gangster who bankrolled his casino. Tongue is on his way to the Prairie Rose Reservation to make the Chief pay for murdering his associate. “We haven’t seen much of Johnny,” Aaron stated. “We know he’s a crime boss and he’s on his way to the Rez with his gang in tow. And before this arc is through, we’ll see him and Red Crow come face to face. Issue #32 [in stores this week] is really act two of ‘The Gnawing.’ By the end of this issue, all of our pieces are in play. Now we’ll just see how things fall and who’s left standing at the end.”
Aaron has enjoyed all of the work series artist R.M. Guera has done on “Scalped” and feels the artist’s pages for ‘The Gnawing” are some of the best he’s ever done. “He’s gotten better and better as this series progressed, and I thought he was pretty great to begin with,” the writer remarked. “In this arc, he gets to draw a lot of big moments and action and a lot of quiet moments as well. It’s great to see him draw an arc and really deliver that mix.”
“The Gnawing” comes to a conclusion this December in “Scalped” #34, and the events of the story arc will have significant ramifications for the entire cast of the series. “I never want this book to be about a murder mystery or plot mechanics. It’s more about characters and how they interact with each other, but it has been fun with this arc to do something that’s a little more plot driven,” Aaron said. “The previous arc, ‘High Lonesome,’ was all character studies, so it’s good to move the story along in a big way, plotwise. In the first chapter of ‘The Gnawing,’ we killed off a significant character, and moving forward in this arc there will be more bodies hitting the floor. And even the characters who survive will be left in very different places.”
The characters in “Scalped” may find themselves in different places by the end of ‘The Gnawing,’ but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll forget where they were before, or the events that will bring them to their future circumstances. “These big events happen, really, so we can see how they affect these characters. ‘Scalped’ is not a plot driven book, and I’m not a plot driven writer,” Aaron explained. “The aftermath of ‘The Gnawing’ will really be about exploring the fallout from the arc and what it means for the cast. Things happen in this arc that play a part in the remainder of the series”
In January, “Scalped” kicks off the new year with a stand alone issue. “It focuses on a couple of characters that we haven’t seen before,” the writer revealed. “Then, right after that, we we’ll get a small arc, probably two issues, focusing for the first time on Red Crow’s right hand man, Shunka. You get to see him in action on his own, learn a little more about his history, and you discover that he harbors a few secrets of his own.”
Readers may have heard that Aaron recently signed a one year extension on his contract for “Scalped,” that doesn’t mean that the series is slated to end in 2010. “That’s sort of a formality. Creator owned contracts like that are usually for 12 months. The book isn’t coming to an end soon, or anything like that, though. That’s not the plan,” Aaron explained. “When I got the most recent contract, it went up to issue #48, and it was just a cool moment seeing that number. It made me reflect on how far the book has come and how happy I am that we’ve been able to make it this long. A lot of books in our same shoes unfortunately haven’t been as lucky. So I’ve been really happy with the responses we’ve gotten.
“Every show and signing I do, I’m still getting fans that say ‘Scalped’ is one of their favorite books. I read stuff online in blogs and message boards and listen to podcasts where people talk the series up. And all of these people are the reason ‘Scalped’ is still around,” Aaron continued. “We had the odds stacked against us from the get go. I was an unknown writer, and Guera was an unknown artist here in the States. So it’s incredibly gratifying for the book to have stuck around for as long as it has, and to get the response it’s gotten. Hopefully we’ve still got a long ways to go.”