Evil is rarely an absolute quality. Most "bad guys" aren't born that way, and even when they walk an evil path, they're not always selfish. By the same token, "good guys" aren't always as altruistic as they might appear, and their own demons can cause them to do some truly destructive and vile things as well. This moral complexity is one of the driving themes in writer Jason Aaron and artist R.M. Guera's Native American crime saga "Scalped." CBR News spoke with Aaron about the Vertigo series' current arc, "High Lonesome," which explores some of the character defining choices, mistakes, and incidents of several series cast members.
When "Scalped" first began, it looked like the book was going to be mainly about Dashiell Bad Horse, an FBI agent undercover inside an organized crime ring on the Prairie Rose Indian Reservation in South Dakota. As the series progressed, Bad Horse remained an important character, but he's shared the spotlight with some of the Rez's other prominent and interesting characters. "Initially, you want to give readers one character to latch onto and identify with, and Dash fit that perfectly because even though he grew up on the Rez and was coming back, he was basically new to the place because he had been away from it for so long," Aaron told CBR News. "He tried to block out that part of his life so thrusting him back into the middle of it and focusing on him made for an easy beginning point, but going forward the plan always was to expand the focus and make the Rez itself the main character of the book. This will be the standard operating procedure for the series. Going forward to the end, we'll always get these big plot driven arcs that take everything forward interspersed with these stand-alone issues that are more character focused issues and hopefully everything will fit together into one big puzzle."
The current arc, "High Lonesome," is composed of loosely connected character-spotlight issues. The arc began with "Scalped" #25, which introduced readers to a new character, a card player and con man who came to the Rez in search of a big score. He found the key to that score in the form of Dash Bad Horse. Then in issue #26, Aaron put the spotlight on Diesel, a sociopathic white man who claims his 1/16th Kickapoo background makes him Native American, and whose last encounter with Dashiell Bad Horse lead to a prison sentence. Aaron established Diesel, who desperately clings to the little Native American background he has, as sort of the mirror image of Dash Bad Horse, who grew up trying to deny his heritage.
"You could kind of see from the first moment that those two met each other that they were on a collision course," Aaron remarked. "And Diesel has evolved and changed some, but issue #26 was an issue I planned out about three years ago, so it was a story I had wanted to tell for some time."
Diesel may be currently behind bars, but his part to play in the larger story of "Scalped" is far from over. "He'll have a big part in our next arc titled 'The Gnawing,' which will take us through about the end of the year," Aaron confirmed. "He's part of the crux of the story."
In stores now, "Scalped" #27 is part three of the "High Lonesome" arc, and in it, readers finally learn more about Dash Bad Horse's superior in the FBI, the relentless and amoral Agent Nitz. "This is another issue I've been planning for a long time," Aaron said. "I wanted to give him a little more spotlight because he's been a pretty major character but we haven't seen much of him on his own. The issue starts off right around the same time as issue #26. The whole 'High Lonesome' arc is kind of like the 'Casino Boogie' arc in that we get five different issues from five different perspectives, but they all fit together and take place at the same time. So the Nitz issue picks up with him having to go out of town on what he considers a spiritual journey. It also has some flashbacks to the deaths of the two agents who were killed on the reservation back in the 1970s. We kind of see why those two guys were so important to Agent Nitz; how he became friends with them and what he's done since their death."
The death of Nitz's FBI agent colleagues in the 1970s is further explored in "Scalped" #28, part four of "High Lonesome." "It was an event that kind of set everything rolling and brought us to where we are now in 'Scalped,'" Aaron said. "So in issue #28, we'll see what really happened that day, and who really pulled the trigger. We'll also catch up with Officer Falls Down's investigation into the murder of Gina [Gina Bad Horse, Dash's mother]. He comes to a realization that the two cases are connected and he's going to have find out what happened on the day in 1975 when the two agents were killed."
"Scalped" #29, the concluding chapter of "High Lonesome," brings things full circle by returning to the end scene of issue #25, which saw the new card shark character, who's operating under the pseudonym of Moses Johnson, trying to blackmail Dash Bad Horse into robbing the Crazy Horse Casino. The issue will also show readers how dangerous Dash's recent drug addiction has become. "The main focus of the issue is catching up on Dash's state of mind, and it's not in the best place it could be," Aaron explained. "It sort of sets the stage for 'The Gnawing' as he's in this horrible state of mind and predicament and is going to have to deal with some pretty major events coming down the pipe. So we'll see if he'll be able to scramble, keep his head above water and survive or if this is going to be the end for him."
The first chapter of "High Lonesome" featured artwork by regular "Scalped" artist R.M. Guera, while issue #26 was drawn by artist Davide Furno. "He did a great job on that. He had previously done the 'Boudoir Stomp' arc for us and the first issue that focused on Officer Falls Down. So it was great to get him back because I'm a big fan of his work," Aaron stated. "Issue #27 is the first issue for artist Francesco Francavilla, who I'm also a big fan of. He worked on the 'Zorro' comic from Dynamite and he's a big fan of noir. He loves it and really gets it. So he's a perfect fit for 'Scalped.' After that, Guera comes back for the last two issues of the arc and then he'll jump right into 'The Gnawing.' I love Guera and he's the heart of 'Scalped' and the series wouldn't be what it was if not for him, but it's always cool to get other perspectives on these same characters from different artists."
In the previous "Scalped" arc, titled "Gravel in Your Guts," (the collected edition of which is in stores April 28 and features an introduction by Ed Brubaker) Chief Lincoln Red Crow, the organized crime figure Dash Bad Horse has been sent to bring down, did something to alter the balance of power in the series. Mr. Brass, the representative of the Hmong Gang who helped finance the construction of his Casino, was arrested at the behest of Red Crow. "The Gnawing" begins with the fallout from that act.
"Once Johnny Tongue, who is both Mr. Brass's boss and the head of the Hmong gang, gets word of what happened and that his man is locked up in jail he's not going to be too happy," Aaron explained. "He gives Red Crow a call in that first issue of the arc and that call sets everything in motion."
Jason Aaron couldn't get too specific as to what exactly happens in "The Gnawing," but promised the arc will significantly change the status quo for several of the major characters in "Scalped." "I think we're coming to the midpoint of the story. The initial outline I had for 'Scalped' was for the first 35 issues and it brought us to the point we'll be at by the end of the year," the writer said. "I'm obviously not going to wrap up all the mysteries and subplots for the series, but by the end of the year some of our characters will be dead, the ones that are still alive will be very changed, and some of our major characters will be in very different places than before. Hopefully they won't be places readers are expecting."
"Scalped" recently passed its milestone 25th issue, a fact that Aaron enjoys but tries to not to dwell on. "When this series began I was a nobody. I had written maybe a couple issues of 'The Other Side' [Aaron's Vietnam War miniseries, also from Vertigo] when I got 'Scalped' greenlit. So 'Scalped' #1 was like the third or fourth book I ever had published. So at the time it was just a dream to get an ongoing series period without any real thought of how long it would last, how it would be received or anything. Guera was also new to the American audience. He had done some stuff in Europe, but America didn't know who he was. So the odds were kind of against us. We were two nobodies with a crime series that had a Native American cast.
"So for the book to survive as long as it has and be at the point where things look healthy, along with all the acclaim and response we've gotten is pretty amazing. And I don't want to be just satisfied with that. I want to make sure we tell the story that we came to tell and not settle for anything less."
"Scalped" #27 is on sale now from Vertigo.