Sunday, June 7, 2009

"Scalped" 25-29 - High lonesome

Jason Aaron and R.M.Guera's "Scalped" has just concluded it's most recent story arc, "High lonesome", thereby becoming the first "Vertigo" title in recent memory that has not been cancelled. The neo-noir series set on the Indian reservation has been consistent in it's slow pace and meticulous character work, set back against the wild western atmosphere.

It started out with the focus on Dash Bad Horse, an FBI agent going undercover back at his childhood home, and being faced with the decades-old secret and misgivings left by his mother. Having set up the central mystery, tying both the present and the past together, the series' brutal and very raw feeling has since gave way for the structure-minded vignettes fleshing out the supporting cast, while the inevitable vents realistically meander toward their final resolutions.

The "High lonesome" story arc is set up in a very unique way, with Jason Aaron's story spotlighting a different "Scalped" character every issue. Structurally, each of the chapters employs a specific view point, and their pace differs to provide the best glimpse into the narrator. "Scalped" has had a long tradition of telling side-tales that provide detail and color to the main plot, which in this five part tale serves to literally bookend them.

The story begins with the new player whose coming in the Rez', signifies the conflict directly continued and resolved in the fifth and last issue of the arc. The opening chapter, presented from his view is very active, showing all of the person's energy and intent in a somewhat manic way, rendered through a rambling and self-conscious voice of a unreliable narrator. The reader is forced to piece up the clues and forms his own theory of the individual, before the character's final actions demonstrate his true intentions in a very visual way. Even though Guera masterfully illustrates the moody and ambiguous issue, especially it's historical pages, his art is not to be seen on the pages of "Scalped" for the next two issues.

The subsequent episode does not up on the first chapter's cliffhanger, instead providing a side story, whose divergent narrative serves as the framework for the series' second look in the past of Diesel. Dash's erratic opposite number is a very different narrator, providing cold and unrelentingly sparse comments about his strange behaviour. Aaron trusts artist Davide Furno's soft earthy pencils set back against somewhat angular inking to present the reflection of the central event in the troubled man's life. The plot alternates with present days scenes acting as a parallel that reaffirms the change's lasting effect on the character.

The slight progress in the overall plot is addressed offhand at the beginning of the next issue's even more brutal story, featuring both Diesel and Dash's acquaintance, the hotheaded agent Nitz, whose drive from revenge has instigated the entire book's setup since the very beginning. Yet, it's only in the middle of the "High lonesome" arc that a more revealing light falls on the character, who was so far presented as being very one-dimensional. It's very revealing then, when the traditionally non-empathic Nitz, gets to follow Diesel, by revisiting his own past. Aaron contrasts the lawman's flashbacks to the defining moments in his life with their present-day after-effects. The agent's rare sentimental leave turning into a study of his bloody and violent underpinnings is brought to the reader by Francesco Francavilla's painterly hues. Francavilla's visuals only fail when portraying the difference in the characters' ages between the two decades, yet the colorist Gulia Brusco helps erase the confusion by alternating the blueish dream-like look of the thirty-two years ago with present-day's clearer, orange tones. Faced with some of the most intimate art the series has seen, Aaron counters with some of the story arc's most coarse and amoral moments. The character-work in the issue reads very access able and finally brings the Nitz some of the definition he desperately needed, concentrated as he is on the civil rights activist days of Dash's mother.

Despite being self-contained, the second and third issues of the arc work as reminders of Dash's perilous legal status, with Diesel and Nitz acting as comparisons. The stylistic changes in artwork provide for a different perspective on the viewpoints of characters away from the Rez'. The subsequent, co-creator Guerra pencilled tale once again rearranges the structure of "High lonesome", while still working in part as an intimate portrayal of a seldom-seen character. It brings back officer Fallsdown,who is forced to collaborate with agent Nitz's associate, providing the link between the chapters. The investigation calls back to the first, Guerra-pencilled issue of the story-arc, but seems mainly as a catalyst to finally reveal the truth that's been eluding agent Nitz for so long, about the bloody night from thirty two years ago. By focusing on the common past of all of the book's main characters, the issue's epilogue serves to set-up future events, recasting another series regular in the new light.

Yet, it's only after spending three issues on subplots, that Aaron and Guera use the arc's concluding chapter bring the sense of closure to the initial plot of "High lonesome", providing definition to the whole, disparate experience. Bringing the focus back on Dash, the writer is uncompromising in structuring the story to reveal the truth of his present state, and challenge the character to change, in the light of the catalyst memorably depicted by his co-creator. In effect, bringing Dash's hidden identity to the forefront of the heist-oriented plot is a very welcome idea, capable of sustaining the violence that surrounds it. Despite hinging the starting point of the drama on a coincidence, in the end Aaron offers no easy answers, in keeping with the book's return to the more grounded scenario.

In fact, perhaps "the Scalped"'s greatest strength might well lie in it's characters, and their decisions to acknowledge the events that shape their lives, sometimes taking the very long and life-like periods of time to come to grips with what their decisions should be. The story unfortunately loses some of it's focus due to the shift to other characters in it's three central three issues, making it appear as though they were intended for publication after the two parts that ended up framed around them. Strangely, Diesel, agent Nitz, and officer Fallsdown effectively make no direct impact on the main plot, making it appear that their stories could have been published verbatim after the events of thus much-shorter "High lonesome" arc.

It seems like no coincidence then, that the first two of these character pieces are pencilled by Furno and Francaville, with Guera's highly detailed and atmospheric style returning for the concluding issue in the story-within-a-story seeming almost misplaced. The fill-in artists are a necessity with the editorial's preference for the monthly publishing as a way to ensure the audience's enthusiasm doesn't decline for the relatively new title. Taking into account that "Vertigo" titles are traditionally strong trade paperback sellers, a more relaxed publishing approach could have perhaps made "High lonesome" a different reading experience.

In any event, with Jason Aaron as the constant, the book keeps it's gritty edge, most bluntly by various atrocities commited by the characters, that permeate the issues. The arc's negativity works to keep up the book's balance between wild-west inspired shoot-outs, and the carefully depicted acts of crime with long-lasting dramatic consequences, such as the tragic event in the Dash's mother past. No matter the artist, the grittiness and depression never seem to stop gnawing on the characters of the Rez', acting as both an explanation for their anti-social behaviour, and a catalyst for their further deterioration, with all of it's implied consequences.

As rendered by Guera, Dash is a perfect example of all the book's philosophy, trying to make sense of his violent tendencies colliding with long-suppressed emotions. Forced to endure a situation as traumatic as the one his mother faced thirty-two years ago, by the issue's end it's still unclear how will he proceed, given all that has befell him since coming to the FBI assignment. Still, the renewed focus on Bad Horse's exploits could only benefit the book as it comes closer to the inevitable resolutions it's been building up to, since the beginning.

Because, despite the many players influencing the events in Prairie Rose Reservation, and orchestrating random acts of violence on their own, "Scalped" never stops being a classical tale of a man trying to make piece with his past. Hopefully, it will end as it begun, with Dash getting past the details, to deal with the most important man in both his and his mother's life.

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