Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Scalped #39-42 "Unwanted"

Vertigo's "Scalped" has recently seen the conclusion of the four part "Unwanted" story-arc, featuring a sustained narrative by the regular creative team of Jason Aaron and RM Guera. Their newest effort follows up directly from the themes introduced in the preceding issue, spotlighting the protagonist's father. The publisher has already decided to group both "Unwanted" and the several issues before, into one extra-sized collection.

Structurally speaking, the four part arc is very methodic. Each issue starts with a flashback detailing the previous generation's struggle with the same issues concerning their children in the present. The start of the arc makes this connection apparent by intentionally obscuring the identity of the woman until the reader identifies her as Carol's mother. Aaron breaks this theme of flashbacks in the final chapter, by teasing a possible flash forward or a genuine time jump, before drawing the reader back in the present day, which has itself been transformed through the heft of the preceding three issues.

As for the drama that unfolds in the main narrative, it's anything but the bloody neo-noir storytelling that has preceded it. And while "Unwanted" definitely takes place in the Prairie rose reservation, the arc centers on the fate of Dashiell and Carol's individual lives, when they're briefly separated from their self-destructive relationship. Basically, it's an arc of "Scalped" without a gunshot, where even the strong language Red Crow uses to fend of Dash's father seems coarse and unwarranted.

The everyday of the Lacota tribe after the turbulent 70s being what emotionally draining for all of these characters has everything to do with their predicament, but it offers no help when they try to break from the lifestyle they have been trapped in. Both Carol and Dash are fixated on the past, but the gravity of the situation suddenly changes when Red Crow's daughter decides to no longer ignore her pregnancy. By leaving Dash for the time being, her main concern is shared with grandma Poor Bear, an aging wise woman, incapable of having her own children, and acting as a caretaker of sorts, for her tribe members wary of institutional social services.

Dashiell similarly finds himself being offered help from Red Crow's lieutenant Shunka, who drags him off to a traditional but nevertheless highly unsympathetic way of dealing with the situation. Similarly, the return of his long-absent father appears to only further aggravate young Bad Horse. This comes as no surprise as the younger generation of the tribe residents uniformly react by lashing out, incapable of really dealing with the pent up anger at the mistakes of their parents, when they yet again start affecting their lives.

It's interesting to contrast Carol's reaction then. The long suffering young woman has a much direct problem at her hands, in that dealing with pregnancy has previously affected her to such an extent that she blames many of the aspects of her current erratic behavior on the past. Yet, the traditionally hot tempered Indian woman displays a much firmer grip on the current situation then her lover. By taking grandma Poor Bear's advice and trying to struggle with the crisis brought on by unrestrained life style, she shows a much more focused approach to the unenviable position she finds herself in.

Dash on the other hand, starts panicking, which is reasonable considering he's dealing with the after effects of substance abuse, and isn't even aware of Carol's pregnancy when the arc starts. For him, the problem at hand is only the culmination of everything that's happened since his return to the Rez, and he still has no idea how to approach solving it. With Red Crow being the one initiating his return to sobriety, it goes without saying that what he goes through can only be described as a horrible ordeal.

Even without the threat of violence, these characters simply have no way of slowing down and dealing rationally with a bad situation, and are therefore forced to confront the enormity of it head on, and suffer through the consequences every step of the way. This means that R.M. Guerra gets to illustrate page after page of naked bodies falling into fetal positions, of panels centering on aggressive dismissals, and the general air of bleakness and claustrophobia that makes up their Prairie rose surroundings.

It's three issues full of characters struggling with indecision and trying to overcome the predicament by finding a firm ground to stand on. Both Carol and Dash reach this point by the end of the third issue, which is where they finally confront each other. Thus, it makes sense that Aaron would postpone their conversation in the concluding episode by featuring yet another of the time displaced opening sequences. Following this, their interaction is almost too serene - enough so that the writer feels the need to generate drama by spotlighting their second thoughts in narrative captions.

But despite this, and the horrible weight of the decisions they have had to shoulder to get to this point, both of them do emerge from the conflict with a new found sense of purpose. For the time being, the series will no doubt favor centering upon the after effects of the "Unwanted" from Dash's point of view. Simply, the decision that is fostered upon him by his father's simple question dovetails neatly with answering many of the wider plot threads, and as such provides a clear break which will be continued upon in the next arc.

As it stands, the four-parter is a great example of "Scalped" at top form. The slow-paced, character-based storytelling, that still advances the plot in a logical and realistic way is exactly what has lead readers to warm up to the series. It goes without saying that all of this is achieved through Guera's superbly atmospheric artwork. And just as the series starts once again enlisting guest artists to provide time for him to illustrate the next story arc, the "Unwanted" goes to rem how strong the book is at the it's peak.

And to top it all of, what Aaron and Guera have produced is such a distinctively defined storyline that could even be characterized as neo-noir soap opera. It's a testament to their strengths as creators that they have taken a highly controversial theme, filtered it through the genre mash up and made it succeed at every stage as part of the book's preexisting storyline. The regular readers can only hope that the succeeding arcs will be as strong as this one.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Blueberry Fort Navajo 3 - Lone eagle

Serialized in 1967, "Lone eagle" had it's premiere in "Pilote", continuing the saga of Civil war veteran Mike Steve Donovan "Blueberry". In the third entry of the Fort Navajo cycle, both Jean Michel Charlier and Jean Giraud were already so comfortable with their new comic, that their hard work turned into page after page of solid western storytelling, without the experiments witnessed in the previous volumes.

In fact, the creators confident grip of the story is evident from it's very first scenes. Following the always dubious use of a map when it comes to depicting larger then life events, Charlier proceeds to recap the story so far. This is done using completely new characters, that serve to be introduced to Blueberry in his present state, and disappear as soon as their role is served. Yet, it's hard to find fault in this kind of a decision, considering the complicated events that are to follow. The reason for starting small is apparent as soon as the protagonist reaches Fort Quitman, for it is here that Charlier and Giraud's fiction meets it's real life inspirations, and the plot starts connecting to the important events in the previous albums.

Once again, Blueberry is put in front of the major action in the Apache wars, acting as a fictional surrogate replacing many of the important players in the events that took place in the old West. Interestingly, the long march connecting the rest of the military outposts with the ammo that Blueberry's new regiment is carrying, turns the story into a real thriller. In fact, almost all of the first half of "Lone eagle" plays almost like a detective story, with an unknown outside force sabotaging the convoy. Unfortunately, employing such specific genre conventions while restricted with page count, often leads into mysteries that are much too obvious, considering the modest number of introduced suspects.

Charlier must have been aware of this, which is why he proceeds with a scene cut, revealing the identity of the saboteur to the reader, before Donovan and his men are able to figure it out for themselves with absolute certainty. In doing so, the creative team manage to spotlight the Lone eagle character, revealing him to be a perfect foil for the protagonist, and certainly the first clear villain as such, in the series so far.

Following the trickery needed to alert the Indians to the approach of the military convoy, the story turns into a much direct confrontation between the opposite sides, making it feel like a truly well executed military serial. But again, Fort Navajo effectively turned into the Blueberry series with the previous album, thus most of these skirmishes are overshadowed by the game of wits, between two skilled hunters. Seeing someone else employ the wilderness savvy strategies that have saved Blueberry and his friends so many times before, certainly brings a welcome dynamic to the proceedings.

Yet, Lone Eagle isn't the only foil Blueberry has to endure throughout the long trek to reconnect to the other outposts. The men he's leading are dozens in number and generally virtuous, yet their given commander is a highly improbable Irish caricature. Sporting red hair and a hard drinking problem, O'Reilly is to blame for many of the mistakes that the creators are simply unwilling to let their protagonist make. Ultimately, the heroic Blueberry is cognizant of his fellow soldier's simple failings, but in recognizing O'Reilly as only human, Donovan somehow reasserts his own status as an archetype, standing in for the real world military personnel that have made the decisions attributed to him. "Lone Eagle" is thus definitely not the volume that spotlights the character's anti-hero side, but still falls short of "Thunder in the West"'s almost mythological treatment of the character.

Interestingly, Charlier uses the closing scenes for the reintroduction of a major "Fort Navajo" character, with lieutenant Graig, returning to participate in the final set piece. And following several literal highly orchestrated cliffside skirmishes, the last chance to stop the army from reconnecting with the rest of the troops in Fort Bowie, Lone Eagle uses to stage an elaborate trap. It goes without saying that Giraud used most of the album's rugged settings to get the most authentic and life-like atmosphere, but in that last ditch Indian effort, the artist advances to provide a visually spectacular scene of frantic chase and high stakes action.

In as dense a plot as "Lone Eagle" has developed over the serialization in "Pilote", the proceedings are still very clear, despite at one time the army being split in three directions. Giraud's faces are still somewhat less relaxed and natural, going against his style of clean layouts and detailed textures. Despite this, all of the main characters have distinctive designs and it's always clear what their role is, even in the most complicated of setups, dealing with false tracks and advanced strategic thinking employed by Blueberry and Lone Eagle, trying to sway the outcome to the benefit of their own respective sides.

And even though the closing scenes dully set up the following events in this fictional recreation of Apache wars, "Lone Eagle" is effectively the first time the readers were treated to a complete story by Charlier and Giraud. Their third Fort Navajo album has a very definite beginning and the end, which cannot really be said for the preceding volume, with it's last minute Mexico adventure.