Sunday, May 30, 2010

Scalped #35-38

With the release of the latest issue of "Scalped", Vertigo's premiere ongoing crime title has finished it's new spell of one-off stories. In preparation for a longer arc that is to come, Jason ("Other side", "Ghost rider") Aaron has scripted three accessible self-contained episodes, illustrated with the help of guest artists. Regular artist R.M. Guera was presumably so busy with the follow up story arc that he only found time to complete the final of these four issues.

Interestingly, the publisher has commissioned the work of expressionistic Danijel ("Plague", "Rex") Zhezhelj, with his issue being the first to open this latest cycle. The Croatian artist's style is so unique that anytime Vertigo uses him, he completely overpowers anyone's idea of a typical fill in. With his layered and painterly disposition, Zhezhelj is perhaps the publisher's most distinctive artist, which fits with Aaron's story providing a temporary break from the series' typical stylings.

Focusing on the farm life of an elderly couple, it brings to mind the independent work of recent Vertigo addition Jeff ("Essex county trilogy") Lemire, a slow, atmospheric work that seems an antithesis to "Scalped". Yet, the far more brutal ongoing still practices a leisurely pace, with it's frequent rotating points of view making such a connection possible. Zhezehlj picks up on this, and starts putting his rough brush strokes, and heavy inks at play, to try and capture a desperate family dynamic. Gulia Brusco's colors never let up from making the problems these people face appear anything less than bleak and unforgiving, while at the same time preparing the reader for the cathartic ending.

Acting as a complete break for the series, this is the most successful of the three latest short stories, yet it still falls short compared to some of the series' previous high points. As usual with these tales, Aaron's main writing contribution ends up being his choice of an interesting narrative perspective, for providing another view of the life on the Rez. This time, it centers on the farm outside the immediate casino surroundings, and it certainly provides for a distinctive experience. Yet, seeing the writer treat such a simple yarn through the medium of two dueling narrations, seems as excessive as some of the background recalled by the characters in captions. As a writing experiment, the story would have most certainly been better of by stepping back and leaving Zhezhelj to handle the bulk of storytelling with his distinctive visuals. Yet, even such an overwritten issue as "Listening to the Earth turn" doesn't prepare the reader for the story that follows.

And while it once again shares the writer's enthusiasm in creating a dense and layered backdrop, the very themes he chooses to spotlight provide for a very uncomfortable experience. On the face of it, by choosing to portray a solo mission the longtime background character Shunka is being sent to, it feels much more at home with the longer "Scalped" story lines. Yet, despite the plot-heavy approach, the writer once again aims for a decidedly simple emotional core, based on a very particular and polarizing aspect of Native American culture.

Davide Fuerno's art capably follows the series' conventions, easing the reader to deal with the controversial themes. Yet, the regular fill-in artist's work is so solid that it calls attention to itself, by reminding the reader of the artist's sheer improvement in technical prowess. Fuerno's soft penciling gives way for much rounder and realistic figures than before, instilling the characters with some much needed humanity and unique designs that are perfectly in tune with Guera's work, yet highly distinctive on their own. Gulia Brusco follows suit, with sepia toned coloring that maintains the pulpy black and white quality of the series' predecessors.

The story they illustrate is the one most adhering to the neo-noir conventions, which Aaron tries to subvert, while remaining true to the form at the end. yet, while the ending serves to bring the escapade in tune with the wider "Scalped" storyline, what precedes it is decidedly polarizing. On the one hand, the fractured narration, and chilling outbursts of violence are the series' forte, and they are used with great care and the precision in the first part of the story. Yet, the second half, with it's over the top narration that was it's only previous distraction leads to some very blunt storytelling choices.

And while the neo-noir trappings serve to round out the whole thing as an unexpected murder mystery, it still feels decidedly ham-fisted in both it's moralizing and the level of violence. Perhaps in retrospect, the excursion could be validated by picking up on the plot points down the line, and further integrating them with the larger narrative. As it stands, "a Fine action of an honorable and catholic Spaniard" is still certainly the most immediate of the short stories, and would likely headline the collection, should Vertigo decide to publish these issues on their own.

Finally, the last side story takes place completely in flashback, filling in the back story for Dash's father, and is once again a completely accessible entry to the series. It goes without saying that opening with a Vietnam war reminiscence takes a special note when taking into account Aaron's own biography. Being the nephew of the veteran combat correspondent Gustav Hasford, the writer was inspired to create his debut Vertigo work with "the Other side" mini-series, so that seeing him revisit the conflict in "Scalped" has much more than the immediate resonance. Even the issue's cover recalls the promotional poster to Stanley Kubrick's "Full metal jacket", that was adapted from his uncle's novel "Short timers".

That said, Aaron uses the opening pages dealing with the fighting to introduce Dash's father, exhibiting an air of the supernatural to his fellow troopers. This he proceeds to deconstruct, by detailing his life in the last days of the conflict. Even before Wade returns to America, Guera is once again set to illustrating the auto-destructive surroundings of a violent man's lifestyle, only set against a lush Asian backdrop, instead of the usual desert setting. Seeing the tragedy centered around a desperate man is nothing new to the series, and in fact the stylistic union proves something of a detriment to the episode as a whole.

The shootout that ends Wade's stay in Vietnam recalls Shunka's similar response in the preceding two-parter, and unfortunately brings to mind the many similar scenes from the accumulated thirty odd issues. That Aaron uses it to build up tension in the final scene taking place in America is a clever device, but one that doesn't make the story distinctive in it's own right. This is certainly fine in an ongoing series that needs to constantly redress it's core themes, but this far in "Scalped"'s history, a random graphic display feels largely inessential.

Moreover, the whole issue seems designed to close the short story cycle by returning the reader behind the typical parameters of Aaron and Guera's work, and it feels strangely limiting. "The Family tradition" ends up being memorable mostly for the regular series' artist returning in time to begin the next issue's "Unwanted" story arc, picking up on the shocking developments of issues 30-34. And with the series entering it's final phase, it seems that the self-contained stores that were so informative in it's beginning have settled into providing local color that is almost superfluous these days.

With three whole years behind it, "Scalped" has long since become the slow boiling neo-noir tale it's creators envisioned, thus making further fragmentation hard to justify. It could be excused previously, with the main character going into an extended seclusion, but certainly not now that he's in a different situation. Of course, the answer to that once again lies with Vertigo's decision to publish it's ongoing titles with no breaks in schedule. The editors count on the writer's fascination with the setting to provide for an entertaining diversion, but in doing so they harm the overall structure.

Faced with the artists increasingly incapable of fulfilling the monthly deadlines when producing highly detailed work, the imprint would do well to break the mold and at least try to publish their creator owned titles as series of mini-series. By forcing Aaron to adhere to a strict storytelling model employed by "the Sandman", the writer responds by saving the important story beats for the larger arcs, regularly bridged by short stories not illustrated by Guera, that seem to increasingly relish their tenuous grip on the series proper. One can't help but feel that with a looser artistic style enabling the artist to work faster, "Scalped" would have ended up a much shorter and more concise book, that still exhibits it's traditional methodical approach, without breaking clear to embrace the trivialities of it's bit players' background.

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