Scalped is a dirty, gruesome, ugly and violent tale. It is steeped in deception, depravity and squalor. I also recommend it unreservedly as long as you don’t mind a near-complete lack of redemption in your fiction. Seriously, that is a recommendation; it’s just purposefully stuck at the end of the second act, where everything is going horribly and you don’t know how anyone is going to talk or fight their way out of their situation. It has no heroes, just dark, wounded souls stuck neck-deep in moral quicksand. Any glimmer of light at the end of a tunnel is just a train bearing down.
The setting is Prairie Rose Indian Reservation, present day. The Rez is poor, dirt poor, but the newly opened casino promises to generate some much-needed money for the region. Pity that the tribal leaders are corrupt, and the casino is built on dirty money. The Chief, Red Crow, is a brutal thug, but he’s the closest thing to a figure of authority that the Rez has – he’s a Native American Al Swearengen, for those that are a fan of HBO’s Deadwood. Red Crow is as much nemesis as ally to the chief protagonist, Dashiell Bad Horse. Recently returned to the Rez, Dash works his way into Red Crow’s inner circle… as well he might, as he’s also an undercover FBI agent working to pin crimes on the Chief to put him away once and for all. Pity the local FBI have a very personal beef with Red Crow and will happily throw Dash in his way, pity that Red Crow had a thing for Dash’s mother back in the day, pity that Dash has feelings for Red Crow’s junkie daughter, pity that the gangsters who backed the casino are sniffing around for signs of weakness. And, pity that Dash’s mother has turned up dead in a ditch.
Scalped is, I should add, a comic book. Pack away any vestiges of the tired ‘capes and underpants on the outside’ tropes that you may be hanging onto. Jason Aaron and R.M. Guera have crafted something special here.
I found the first collection, Indian Country, was tough-going, and if I hadn’t heard increasingly good reviews about it I might have left it there. That would have been a mistake. The second collection, Dead Mothers, takes the plots and characters of the opening story arc and extrapolates them into an increasingly gripping tale. Before long, you’re rooting for the bad guys… then realising that almost all of them are bad guys in their own way. Bad, corrupt, beaten down, prideful, vengeful, weak.
Hang in there, if you can – you will be rewarded.
(next time: I’ll get back to wrapping up that potted history of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds…)