Jason Aaron and R.M.Guera's "Scalped" has just finished it's new storyline, coming on the heels of "High lonesome", a series of mostly unconnected vignettes framed around a plot-heavy story. "the Gnawing", on the other hand, is a very tense thriller leading to the conclusion of a lot of the plot threads set up earlier in the series.
As with many of "Vertigo"'s ongoing series, it's difficult to consider the new story arc as a story standing on it's own, not only taking into account how seamlessly it fits in the overall series continuity, but also how little actual distinction "the Gnawing" has on it's own. Both the setting and the characters stay the same, and it even retains the usual perspective associated with "Scalped". Yet, none of this is to the series' detrimental, as it has always been first and foremost a serialized story. It's to the creators' credit that the plot beats are so convincing that one can hardly forget them, even though they've happened long months, and even years before.
"the Gnawing" takes it's name from the very bleak beginning showing a nihilistic perspective of the people and their world, as explained by an elderly Native American. It's difficult to see how much of the effect this thematic cue actually has on the heart of this particular arc, as the "Scalped" is nothing if not consistent in it's thorough examination of the elements introduced from the very first issue. In any event, the mythological metaphor serves to point out that the longstanding and developing conflicts are about to start developing more rapidly, as the book has officially went past the setting up phase. The book's writer, Jason Aaron has gone on record as saying that his original plan for the title was set up until this exact point, which is now marked as the half of the series' eventual run.
Yet, despite the fast pacing and rapid plot developments, the writer was sure to explain that the next several issues will mark a return to the slower, more methodical pace that has enabled the creators to flesh out so many different aspects of life on the Indian Reservation. This, in turn, makes "the Gnawing"'s particular take on the life in Praire Rose a rare, and much needed, change of pace, designed to be particularly effective coupled with the presence of book's regular penciller R.M.Guera for it's entire five parts.
Having used the preceding "High lonesome" to shake Dash Bad Horse back into the protagonist role, the creative team are keen to push him even further. By having Dash play an active role in a scenario that once again centers around his role as a double agent, it's all the more surprising to see the character actually use his more active role to relieve himself of at least a part of his problems. The hopelessly nihilistic phase indicated by the previous year in the title is for the moment abandoned, and it's impressive to see Dash that, even though he once again makes his fare share of mistakes, actually takes a stance amid all the chaos and resolves a particular conflict that has long since plagued him.
Still, for all his confusion, he is for once second to Red Crow when it comes to the rash decisions. "the Gnawing" is centered around the way Lincoln deals with the consequences of his own rather hasty way to deal with a very delicate matter that has disturbed him for some time. Yet, the creators haven't spent the past three years nuancing these familiar faces so as to have them act out of character. In fact, it could be said that there is no better showcase of Red Crow's demeanor than these five issues. The way he deals with the situation and eventually resolves it is nothing short of consistent with the way the Indian Chief has been portrayed before, but it's also extremely visual and cinematic.
Having talked of the main players and their characterization, it's important to note the violence that goes with their way of life. "Scalped" was always a character piece that took it's plot points in gritty shootouts and this volume of modern western is no exception. Guera's inks never stop using the tradition of European western artwork to etch the consistent state of despair into the mistakes the large cast of characters makes under the red-hot desert sun. And even though these people frequently move into circles, all but promising a quick and violent end, their desperation still causes for a lot of morally pointless havoc along the way. And "the Gnawing" for the first in a long while makes this apparently clear - for every scene of the characters pounding on the wall and turning to alcohol for escape, there are more than just enough shootouts to drive the plot forward, and make some changes to the story that really matter.
Of course, Red Crow and Dash's actions once more have an effect on the people most important to them, and this in particular colors the proceedings in this arc, and no doubt, many more to come. Both agent Nitz and and Carol are thus deeply affected, and by the end of the fifth issue, heavily removed from where they were before, paying dearly for their relationships with Dash. It is certainly ironic that in order for Dash and Lincoln to gain some kind of release the people they're closest to have to suffer so much, but it also speaks at length of the complicated relationships established by the characters for years ago.
For once, the incident that took place nearly 30 years ago is not referred to extensively, but that doesn't mean that Catcher has stopped playing his uniquely decisive and spiritual role. Having a thoroughly mystical character in such a gritty and realistic crime series might seem contradictory, but Aaron and Guera once again find a way to integrate him in proceedings while retaining the mystery. For all his intrigue, Catcher could have easily turned out a very annoying character, particularly considering Vertigo's tendency of inserting post-modernism and mythology into strange genre mixes, but in "Scalped" he has always been used in precisely the right way. After having slowly revealed the shocking bits of his past, proving how important this self-proclaimed outsider actually is to the series as a whole, Aaron and Guera are once again content to have him play a small but very interesting role in the plot.
Even the traditionally stunted to the side character of Shunka keeps playing his veteran bodyguard role extremely well. In fact, he is even more convincing this time around, making the Aaron promised prospect of his own two-parter storyline seem very interesting in finally revealing another part of the series' whole. More importantly for "the Gnawing", Diesel gets a definite characterization, as the situation of his imprisonment is finally resolved. This subplot is not tied as heavily into the Red Crow scenario that fuels the center of the arc, but it ends up being very important as a character piece.
The lessons these people teach one another are universally harsh and non-forgiving. "Scalped" remains a comic where Red Crow takes a former new helicopter to hunt down a man, where a truck wouldn't do, where every truth is hard gained, and in order to get to a resolution a man has to repeatedly make a lot of missteps. This is what makes it realistic, and a pleasure to read, with characters behaving not in the soap-opera cliches, but by presenting actual emotions that make their tragic lives all the more believable.