“Show, don’t tell,” is a writer’s maxim for a reason: nothing kills drama like turgid exposition. Many contemporary comics still fall into the expository trap, either underestimating the intelligence of the reader or feeling the need to fill the space with important words — the writer competing with the artist in an attempt to convey meaning.
“Scalped” has consistently been a comic that has used words sparingly, efficiently, and powerfully. “Scalped” #17 carries on that tradition. Jason Aaron allows R.M. Guera to bear much of the story’s weight, and he does it with immense skill. Take the opening scene, for example. Six pages, full of great sadness and anger, and yet the protagonist has only two lines of dialogue, total. No caption boxes provide redundant narration. There are no long explanations from the secondary characters. It’s just terse dialogue that moves the scene to its climax: the final panel of a dead young boy, a pistol on the ground, and Dashiell Bad Horse standing defiant and dejected.
I don’t have the proper unbiased perspective to judge whether or not issue #17 works on its own, out of the context of the “Dead Mothers” arc, out of context of the series as a whole. I’ve been reading “Scalped” with pleasure since the beginning. But I suspect that even a new reader could jump on board with issue #17 and immediately see what makes this comic so good. It starts with a dead child, lingers on the loss of a mother, establishes the contradictory sides of several characters (the tough Bad Horse breaks down in tears, and the sinister Red Crow shows earnest concern), and ends with blood in a bathtub. A new reader might not know who’s who and what’s what, but the individual details — the precise artistry of both Aaron and Guera — separate this comic from the rest of the Wednesday pack.
It’s that precision, those moments which seem both specific and universal, that help make this series so impressive. If it were a typical crime comic, it would start and stop with its central conceit: an undercover FBI agent working inside a corrupt reservation. But that’s merely the skeleton of a fully fleshed out world in this series — a world in which the “evil” Red Crow sincerely mourns the loss of Bad Horse’s mother, while the “good” Agent Nitz literally pisses on her grave. A world in which one son is silently zipped up in a body bag while another silently weeps on his mother’s front steps. These aren’t high-concept characters on a collision course with destiny. They are children, men, and women trying to claw their way through a violent and uncertain future.
“Scalped” is one of the best comics in recent memory, and this beautifully sad conclusion to “Dead Mothers” shows how masterfully Aaron and Guera work together. If you’re looking for something more than a typical crime comic, “Scalped” is for you.