Scalped is a phenomenal series, that’s not news to anyone whether you read it or not. The book gets good press like the ocean gets waves. Constantly. But just recently, I bought the latest trade, Volume 7: Rez Blues, and the next 5 issues to get myself all caught up on a series that consistently amazes me in new ways. While reading through this mammoth stack of one of Vertigo’s best titles I realised what makes this series work, the flaws in the characters. These people are so completely broken and this is massively showcased in the storyline titled Unwanted. This discussion is spoiler filled, so consider yourselves warned.
The logline for this book is that an Indian from the rez grows up to be an FBI agent who goes undercover back on the rez to take down the big boss. There’s plenty of other nuanced sub-plots involved in this tapestry of crime and family but the main one you need to know about is the leading man and his lovely lady.
Dashiell Bad Horse is an angry young Indian. He hates his parents, he hates the rez, and way deep down, he hates himself. He hates the world because all it shows him is what can’t happen. There won’t be equality for his people. There won’t be justice within his people. So he believes he’ll never know a happy place among his people. It’s a terrible place to be caught and Dash doesn’t know the best way to get out or away from it all. Becoming the latest undercover agent on the rez meant either he’d have a chance to fix it all, or at least punch it in the face a few times, or he’d die trying.
Anything else would be ignoring it and Dash can’t do that.
Y’see, the whole crux of this issue is the flaws of his people. The drugs and gambling and whoring and fighting are just the effects, the cause is malaise. No one thinks they can stand up and make a difference and just to reinforce such a defeatist attitude, the odd person who tries inevitably fails. FBI agents are trying to bring down local crime boss Chief Red Crow, tribal president and owner/operator of the local casino, and they can’t do a thing to him. Red Crow’s men can’t escape the cycle of violence needed to perpetrate and survive such a work environment. The townsfolk see generations of homegrown cannon fodder make the same mistakes.
This is why Dash left the rez in the first place, and then also why he comes right back. If that sounds like some busted up thinking to you then you’re right, but you’re also an armchair specialist. It’s hard to see the fouls amidst the play. Dash is caught upside down in his world and when he finds a footing he just uses it to shove off again. A state of equilibrium only shows him the imbalance of the world. Perhaps ignorance is bliss.
That’s probably why Dash succumbs to two different weaknesses, drugs and a women, and often at the same time.
Carol is the long lost love of Dash’s past, as well as the daughter of his firm enemy – now his boss amidst the subterfuge of being undercover. Carol hates Dash with all the love in her heart and it doesn’t take them long to violently clash with more than their fists. Both are giving into this weakness of the flesh because they don’t know any better. Or they do know better but just can’t muster up the effort to strive for it.
By anyone’s measures, Carol is a toxic woman. A lady who has been filled out like a housing application so many times her edges are worn ragged. She doesn’t even care anymore and getting into bed with a woman who doesn’t care anymore can be a dangerous proposition, and yet Dash does it. It’s not exactly love that we’re seeing on the page…but it certainly is real.
How many times have you done something involving a girl that was wrong? And how many times have you known in your guts it was wrong? Did it sway your judgment at all? No, I didn’t think so. Real people don’t see the bigger picture because we’re just a pixel within it. We can’t see it all, nor could we ever really comprehend it all. So we just get by, and not even always the best we can. Just the quickest way we can, the easiest, at least for the short term.
As Dash sinks into the despairs of a black romance he also falls under the sickening shadow of drugs. Now, Scalped doesn’t try to pull the whole “Drugs are bad, kids” angle, and it doesn’t need to because it simply shows drugs for what they are. If you’ve ever seen real drug use, not social or recreational (though those aren’t great) but real hardcore drug use, then you know there’s no way to glamorise it. It’s ugly and it’s sadistic and it’s sad and it’s so absolutely redundant and pathetic. Drugs are not cool and Scalped makes that point so easily by giving up little scenes of how it changes people. Drugs turn your world around and instead of being caught in some warped Bohemian dream you are barking at the naked woman next to you for your next hit so you can disappear up your own ass for a little while longer.
The more Dash becomes addicted to the drugs the less likeable he becomes, and that’s where this series gets interesting.
You won’t always agree with what the characters do and you certainly won’t always like these actions. In fact, the more you observe these characters through the omnipresent panel windows the more you start to either hate them or feel sorry for them, or hate that you feel so damn sorry for them. Dash isn’t a proud hero with his chest thrust forward against corruption and evil, he’s just another strung out loser looking for that next twelve hour payload. He’s a cog in a very small and repetitive machine. But you don’t hate him, because hate is just as rare as love in this world. They are the extremes and most of the true emotion and gristle resides in the middle, right where apathy and disgust and despair form a melange that smells so bad because it is so incredibly authentic.
Scalped is a book unlike any other because it is about the flaws of its characters. It doesn’t celebrate these flaws, that could be dangerous, but it doesn’t shy away from them. And most importantly, it doesn’t only peddle in the redemption found in overcoming these flaws. Some characters will never get any better, though they may do something better. Inherently, they are who they are and changing that roll of the dice isn’t something done lightly in any situation. People so rarely, truly, change. They fluctuate, they grow, they modify, but the base they are built upon is a rock that erodes to only reveal a more direct path to the truth, not a different angle on it.
Comics are a medium that usually detail the triumph of the wills, and the rehabilitation of the ills of the world, and in the end you get a smile. Or a poignant tear. But you get a resolution so much better than the start of the complication. That’s not the cycle in Scalped. People do bad things, though not necessarily evil things, and these are the bad events that go through days and weeks uncharted in most real situations. Scalped isn’t out to fix these people, or editorialise, it is only out to present.
It’s a strong statement about Jason Aaron that he has such strong convictions in his characters to let them control the story. It doesn’t feel like any authorial imposition is ever enforced. These characters are broken and often stay that way.
This understanding of the flaws of the people of Scalped came to the fore when reading the Unwanted four issue arc collected in the second half of the Rez Blues trade. Unwanted is a brutal and haunting story that will draw a reaction from you. You might go in to the tale thinking you know what will happen but you are wrong. You are wrong because you don’t know why it happens. And the why is the real issue here.
The arc opens with Carol pregnant with Dash’s child. Carol always wanted a kid, and very nearly had one, but it just didn’t work out. What does? Now, with a chance to replicate this lost love, there might be too many roadblocks for her to overcome. It’s the sort of situation that can and will define someone. No matter what happens.
This story unfolds and is influenced by the flaws of our two lovers in so many ways. The first, and major, flaw is that neither is able to communicate. They can’t confront each other, or be honest with each other, or even express just what they truly feel about each other. They are kept separate and you can’t help but feel that a conversation, even a fumbled attempt at linking, would result in some sort of cohesive union amidst this calamitous scene of creation.
Neither can get their gear together and make the complete decision that the other should be included at that juncture. It’s dramatic irony in the most heartbreaking sense. You feel like you could, from the comfortable confines of the sideline, help these people. But God and nosey readers only help those who help themselves.
Carol struggles with the concept of keeping this child throughout the entire arc. There’s never a moment I feel satisfied that she’s stuck with a decision. Perhaps Carol’s biggest flaw is that she doesn’t know. Carol is damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t, and that’s because all she can see are the negatives 500 yards down the track. No matter what Carol decides there will be negative consequences, that’s usually any situation in life, but Carol will focus on those failings and let them consume her. It’s ultimately sad to watch because you know you can’t change these people, even if you id get to talk to them. They are their own worst enemy and for all the ease it takes to tell them how to fix it all that doesn’t actually help them make any steps closer to being a person in control.
On the other side, we have Dash who refuses to see the bad and doesn’t believe in the good. His future is a faded walk into a distance full of nothing and that’s all he expects to get out of the world. He certainly doubts that he can be the change in the world he wishes to see. His slide into drugs is depressing and terrible but it’s in this arc, as he finally gets off the smack, that he doesn’t do the simple thing he should be able to. He does not communicate.
Dash doesn’t know what to say to Carol. They’ve shared insane ups and downs, sex, drugs, fights, history, and he’s told her all about his FBI intentions on the Rez. He’s laid all the cards out for her, she’s seen him at his absolute worst, so once he gets in a better state it’s like he doesn’t know how to come back from that. He can’t erase that image of himself from her mind so he doesn’t think he can compete with it. This is the part that’s real because while not everyone has dealt with a strung out relationship full of drugs and heartbreak many have dealt with a relationship that had a primary composition of heartbreak. Nearly everyone has had that person in their life who was toxic, or more importantly been the poisonous element in someone else’s reality, and you know this is the fallout from it all. You both stand around, awkwardly, not knowing how to move forward from the troubles.
Jason Aaron composes a gorgeous scene of unspoken desires through the captions while the characters mumble their way through a horrific mismanagement of their personal connection. You know if the characters actually spoke these words they could very well lead to the dream Carol has of them being a happy family. This is the unattainable goal in the Rez and seeing both characters so close is painful. All they have to do is reach out and take it but they are both blind. Neither knows how the other would react and they simply cannot commit to such an act of faith as to put themselves out there.
They each drive away in opposite directions and their future paths are irrevocably locked into yet another course of failure. Failure to be the best they can be. There’s a very sad possibility that their best qualities could be highlighted through union with the other, but that’s hard to see when their worst qualities are also known to shine.
Is it worth the risk?
That’s just simply the question of life. The one element that separates success from failure, and also sometimes joins the two. But without the effort of risk you’re generally guaranteed the same outcome. Dash and Carol are both so tired of trying and failing that this arc shows them both giving up. They just don’t have enough heart left to break.
Carol gets the abortion, and convinces herself it was the right thing to do. The only way to get through such an act is through complete commitment that she’s doing the smart thing. Dash is trying his best in other aspects of his life, though he’ll soon see that no matter his level of effort or commitment sometimes the world conspires against you. Your fate can’t override someone else’s.
It’s not often you see the lead characters make the wrong choices. Or at least what feel like the wrong choices. Usually someone or something comes along to course correct the problem to a satisfactory resolution. Usually. Scalped is not your usual book. Scalped is all about the flaws, not so much celebrating them as sinking right into them like a thick swamp fugue.
Sometimes life doesn’t work out. But in this case the situation will never work out. There’s no coming back from this decision and the only way to go is forward and it’s not going to be a fun, easy, or pretty path.
This is why you should read Scalped. There are no easy outs and the characters are like tectonic plates either missing each other or colliding with catastrophic results.