Much like the series it focused on, the spotlight panel for Jason Aaron’s “Scalped” got off to a slow build. The previous panel at WonderCon in San Francisco on the “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” cartoon ran late, leaving audience members waiting in anticipation for ten minutes Saturday night before the “Scalped” retrospective began.
“If there are any ‘Clone Wars’ people left, I’m sure we’ll run them out in about five fucking seconds,” Aaron joked as the panel started.
John Cunningham, VP of Marketing at DC Comics and giant “Scalped” fan, moderated the talk. The retrospective was structured around Cunningham going through each story arc in “Scalped” one-by-one, asking Aaron for insight as the conversation progressed.
“[‘Scalped’ is] not only a great comic, but I would go so far as to say it’s the best book Vertigo publishes and the best book DC Comics publishes,” said Cunningham. “Every time you think you understand a character in this story, Jason finds a way to open up new dimensions to that person.”
Cunningham’s first question, jokingly posed to Aaron, was which Indian reservation did he grow up on.
“I didn’t grow up on an Indian reservation. I grew up in the backwoods of Alabama. Jasper, Alabama is the name of my hometown,” Aaron said. “The most famous person to ever come out of Jasper was a guy named George Lindsey, who played Goober on ‘The Andy Griffith Show.’ The second most famous person to come from Jasper, Alabama was Butterbean. He’s an ultimate fighter slash boxer, he looks like me plus 150 pounds. I’m the third most famous person to come from Jasper, Alabama.”
“So where did the idea or concept come from?” asked Cunningham.
Aaron said that Indian culture and history is something he’s been interested in for a long time. He’s also always loved crime fiction, but “Scalped” didn’t start out entirely this way. “It was originally gonna be ‘Scalphunter,’ an old DC western hero from ‘Weird Western Tales,'” Aaron answered. “It seemed like an easier way to sell the book was to do an updated version of an old DC character. It was going to be kind of like how ‘Scalped’ is now, but with flashbacks to the original Scalphunter in the old west.”
Cunningham asked Aaron how far along he is in fulfilling the prophecy of Dashiell Bad Horse, the main character of “Scalped.” “The issue I wrote this week is a big stepping stone in terms of the prophecy you’re talking about,” Aaron replied. “There’s a very big moment between Dash and Catcher. It’s a prophecy in some sense, but you don’t know if it’s 100% bullshit or if there’s something to it at all.”
Indian Country, the first collected edition of “Scalped,” set up much of the narrative style used in the series right from the get go. However, Cunningham observed, it wasn’t until the second volume, “Casino Boogie,” that many elements including time shifts, parallel editing, and changing character perspectives really became apparent.
“That was a conscious decision [to include those elements.] I think the second trade was pretty much the way of showing ‘this is what the book is gonna be.’ It’s really in the second volume that you get to see what ‘Scalped’ has pretty much been the whole time,” said Aaron. “I remember talking with Will [Dennis, ‘Scalped’ editor] that I want to do an arc like that and Will said, ‘Well it’s really in a series not until the fourth or fifth arc that you do that [focus an entire issue on one character]… I realized that if people don’t like these characters they aren’t going to read the book, I don’t need to dazzle them with plot mechanics, it’s not a plot-driven story. Let’s show them what the strength of the book is, these characters.”
“In that second volume you have five perspectives, but it’s all about one day,” Cunningham agreed.
“Don’t expect a whole lot of plot movement in these volumes,” Aaron said.
The topic then moved to the number of jaw-dropping moments in “Scalped,” starting when Dash is first revealed as an FBI agent. “Yeah, it’s fun to do these moments. The two-part story with Shunka I did last year had a jaw-dropping moment. Spoiler alert, he’s gay, which was something that surprised me. The best things I write are the ones that surprise me,” Aaron stated.
Aaron then said how Shunka coming out of the closet was an idea first spawned by Ed Brubaker, who mentioned the hidden history of Native American homosexuality to Aaron. This prompted Aaron to do research on the subject and write it into “Scalped.”
“I’m always trying to keep reading stuff as the book has gone on. When I started ‘Scalped’ I had an outline written out for 35 issues and I stuck pretty close to that outline as things went along. After that, I had to start building a new one. I had most of it mapped out pretty tightly in advance, but little things have changed along the way,” Aaron told the crowd.
Pointing out how many great monologues there are in “Scalped,” Cunningham asked if this was due to each character needing one, or if it was just part of Aaron’s overall style.
“When I went to college I was a English major. I wanted to be the next great American novelist. I wrote a lot of really, really shitty novels that I hope nobody ever has to read. I always read comics and loved comics, but I’d never written comics before. ‘Scalped’ #1 was the third comic script I’d ever written. I think I was still figuring out how to write comics and certainly there was more of a literary influence on me,” Aaron said. “Captions and narration, when they are done badly, are really horrible, but if you do them great, I love it, it’s some of my favorite stuff.”
“Dead Mothers” was the next story discussed, which Cunningham noted as his personal favorite story in “Scalped.” “What hits me going back, looking at the sequence of ‘Dead Mothers’, is that there are some amazing moments of unspoken emotion. Bad Horse looking at Gina’s corpse, the amazing sequence where Dash tells the kids their mother is dead silently through the window, Dash beating on his car and those horrible shots of those bodies going in and out of the drawers at the morgue,” Cunningham elaborated. “At the very end Dash walking into his mother’s house and finding the arrow heads on the wall. That is an amazing, resonant moment that is done in purely visual terms. What struck me is that that is very different from the monologues I saw in the second book. You are shifting and going forward.”
“That was me and [artist R.M.] Guera really figuring out how to work together. Me trusting him to be good enough to pull this off. Actually, it sounds weird, but as a writer one of my favorite things is when I write the script and the artist draws it and I get a lettering draft, where you can go over and make changes. I can go over it and pull out captions and pull out dialogue because I realize you don’t need it,” Aaron said. “That feels awesome. It’s all there on the page. That was a big step in that third volume.”
Aaron cited the scene where Dash tells the kids their mother is dead as one which originally had dialogue, but that he removed it after seeing the art from Guera.
Cunningham brought up the fact that Aaron and Guera only met for the first time at New York Comic Con this past October. “We worked together for almost five years before we ever met in person,” said Aaron. “He lives in Barcelona, I have never been to Spain. He had never been to the States before.”
Aaron was afraid to meet Guera for the first time, since if they didn’t get along it could mean the end for “Scalped.” Luckily, the two hit it off right away and the meeting has actually helped strengthen “Scalped.” “For dinner one night, over steaks and beers, we wrote the ending to ‘Scalped.’ We wrote the last page and figured out exactly what the last page would be, which never would have happened if we didn’t get to sit together all night.”
“The Gravel in Your Guts” is the fourth trade paperback of “Scalped,” and contains a silent exchange between Dash and Carol Cunningham pointed to as one of his favorite moments of the series. Aaron said that moments like that are hard to write in prose books, but can be done much easier in comics, which is part of the reason he loves writing for the medium so much.
Despite the freedoms offered by comics, Aaron did say that parts of the story may remain untold. “There are stories of ‘Scalped’ and of the res that will go untold, that I just don’t have time for, so yeah, there are other stories out there, but they may evolve in to something else and pop up somewhere else [other than ‘Scalped’],” Aaron explained.
After Cunningham asked Aaron to read a monologue from the book by Red Crow, Aaron revealed that he is his mother’s favorite character, as well as his own, even though the character is very different from the writer. “I once got jury duty on a serial murder trial, but I got kicked off because I opposed the death penalty. I’m also an atheist. I was raised Southern Baptist but have considered myself an atheist probably since college,” said Aaron.
In “High Lonesome,” the fifth trade of “Scalped,” Aaron takes the character of FBI Agent Earl Nitz and provides him with a depth he previously lacked in the series. “That’s the intent all along, I don’t want any cardboard cutout characters in ‘Scalped,'” Aaron said.
In the same collection Aaron finally reveals that Catcher is the one who has been killing FBI Agents. “I did not want [‘Scalped’] to become about that mystery, it’s not about plot mechanics. It’s not a whodunit,” Aaron explained. “I didn’t want people to be guessing who did these murders.”
Moving on to “The Gnawing,” the sixth “Scalped” collection, Cunningham pointed out how #34 was crammed full of events.
“The first two trades ended on the same fucking plot point, so at some point it was good to do an arc where there was a lot of plot shit happening,” said Aaron.
“Rez Blues,” the most recent seventh collection was featured on the New York Times best-selling graphic novel list. “They can never take that away from you. That should be on the cover of every book you ever publish from here on in, ‘New York Times best-selling author.’ The only was it should be replaced is when we are able to get a volume of ‘Scalped’ at number 1 on that list and you will always be ‘The #1 New York Times best-seller,'” said Cunningham.
“‘Scalped’ has exceeded far beyond my expectations. I would say anybody’s expectations,” Aaron humbly admitted. “I wouldn’t be sitting here, I wouldn’t be in comics if it wasn’t for ‘Scalped.’ Because of ‘Scalped’ I have a career in comics.”
Aaron chose to create the character of Wade, Dash’s father, so people wouldn’t assume that Red Crow was his father, avoiding an “Empire Strikes Back” style cliche.
“I didn’t want to do any brow beating or hit you over the head with what I thought about abortion,” said Aaron of “The Unwanted” story arc. Aaron wrote the story after he realized no one had done a Vertigo story about abortion, but he also wanted to make sure the story was neutral.
Looking to the future, Aaron revealed the upcoming eighth collection would be titled “You Gotta Sin to get Saved” and collects the most recent monthly issues, with two issues yet to be published. Aaron said that “Scalped” #49 will be a game changer. “[Dash] is not gonna die, but he may wish he was dead.” “Scalped” #50 will feature two stories: One will be a western about the history of scalping that Aaron wrote five years ago and the other will be a story about one of Dash’s ancestors.
Asked how long “Scalped” will last, Aaron said that it is definitely in the home stretch. “60 is a nice number and a lot of great Vertigo series have had 60 issues, so I’ll leave it at that,” Aaron said coyly. Cunningham then told Aaron that he would encourage him to revisit the “Scalped” world in occasional graphic novels down the line, an idea which Aaron didn’t discount.
Cunningham then opened up the panel to questions from the floor, and a fan asked Aaron what Native American feedback he’s gotten about the series. “I get a lot of Native feedback, 99.9% positive,” Aaron answered. “Natives really love the book.”
Another fan pointed out a Canadian show called “North of 60” which featured a similar set up to “Scalped,” in which a Native American chief runs the crime world in a small Native-run town. Aaron hadn’t seen the series, but said he’d like to check it out.
Would Aaron be interested in turning “Scalped” in to a TV show, one fan wondered, and, if so, what network would he want the show to air on? Aaron said that there have been talks and he’s even gone so far as to meet with actors, but nothing has happened yet. “If it happens, I hope I’m involved, I’d like to be involved, but it’s basically a Warner Brothers property because its part of Vertigo,” Aaron said. “Don’t hold your breath, but maybe.”
Cunningham then encouraged fans to find Geoff Johns and ask him to make “Scalped” in to a TV show, since that would now fall under the newly promoted Chief Creative Officer’s job duties.
What did Aaron do before writing comics? “I was working really crappy day jobs, I’ve written about it in my Comic Book Resources column “Where the Hell Am I?” My last job was a warehouse job, I sold a few short stories and doing film reviews, which was fun for a while. If you do film reviews you mainly go see lots of really bad movies. Pretty much 1 in 10 movies are worth a shit and you get to go see all of them.”
Aaron told the audience that his favorite James Ellroy novel was “American Tabloid.” Ellroy gave Aaron one of the best pieces of advices he’s received on writing: “Don’t write the shit you know, write the shit you want to read.”
Aaron then described his process for writing comics for a fan. He writes all the dialogue in a script first, then brief panel breakdowns. Finally he starts from the beginning and builds it all up in to a script.
Aaron told the crowd that his son, who is the same age as “Scalped” the series, is also named Dash. He forgets who got named first, the character in the story or his son.
The final question for Aaron was what his greatest regret as a writer was. “If I could go back and rewrite any part of ‘Scalped,’ I would rewrite that first issue. When I went to pitch the TV show, in pitching the pilot, I kinda got to do that,” Aaron said. “I had to rewrite the show the way I’d like. The first issue is probably the weakest issue in the whole series, which is partly because I had just had my first child so I was like a zombie during that time. If you have kids, you know what I’m talking about. It was the third script I’d ever written, the first script of an ongoing series, and I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into.”