The finale to "The Gnawing" is an example of when winning can feel a lot like losing. Red Crow and Dash Bad Horse both walk out of this comic in one piece, their respective problems solved for now, but the solutions were ones that brought both characters down to lower depths than we've seen before. And, if you're a regular reader of "Scalped," you'll know just how low that is. For those unaware, both men have killed before, both men have shown an ability for cruelty to those they love, and, to make matter worse, both men are in desperate situations here. Like no other issue, "Scalped" #34 pairs the two, having each reflect the other, and hitting that point home in the final two pages in a stunning revelation.
Dash could very well be discovered as an undercover FBI agent, with a shaky alliance with fellow agent (and newly released convict) Diesel showing cracks early in this issue and a witness to Red Crow committing murder also knowing of Dash's true occupation -- and about to be captured by Red Crow's right-hand man. Red Crow, conversely, was last seen walking out unarmed to a whole crew of Hmong gangsters who funded his casino and whose people Red Crow killed in cold blood. Both men begin this issue with everything to lose and how each manages to save himself is the point here, of the horrible actions each man is willing to take just so they can continue living their crummy lives that, if you asked them, they would both say they hate to some degree. It's fascinating to see how two men who seem so different and are, in fact, enemies, can both cling to their unsatisfactory lives with such vigor, always clawing to make things better, but always managing to screw things up even more.
The impact on Dash in this issue is greater. Or, more accurately, the impact of Dash's actions is greater as he sinks lower, and shows more cruelty and sadism than anyone reading the book probably thought him capable. R. M. Guera's depiction of him early in the issue as he deals with his partnership with Diesel is some of his best work to date as Dash is depicted at his calmest, most stoic, and it's far more chilling than Dash at his most angry or fierce. The final panel on page five just stops you cold when Dash's true face is revealed.
While Aaron's writing drives this issue, Guera's art is what I like best about it. Throughout his run on "Scalped," Guera has improved greatly and, in this issue, it pays off as he is alternately subdued and unrestrained his approach. His ability for grotesque exaggeration is on display throughout, but he also pulls back a lot in this issue, particularly with Dash. Instead of glorifying and reveling in the horrors we see, he simply presents them in a more direct, harsh manner. And while the final panel of page five was my favourite piece of Guera's work, he tops it with the last panel of the comic. Absolutely stunning work.
"The Gnawing" was promised a game-changer of a story and, with this week's conclusion, it was proven as such. Both Jason Aaron and R. M. Guera delivered their best in this issue by showing just how far Dash and Red Crow will go to save themselves, solving their immediate problems by creating new ones that will have to be dealt with in the future. "Scalped" remains a shocking, gripping comic and the best Vertigo book currently being published.