Saturday, June 11, 2011

Scalped 43-44 "You gotta sin to get saved" prelude

Following "Unwanted", the Vertigo's longtime title ambitious story arc, a break was called for before the beginning of another multi-parter. Traditionally, the DC imprint commissions the one-off short stories in order to allow the lead artist time to advance with the artwork enough so as to prevent any breaks in the publishing schedule. Although by definition slighter than the RM Guera pencilled arcs, these episodes usually spotlight a peripheral player, and act largely as foreshadowing for the future events. Typically, a certain amount of back story is related to in flashback, framed by the present day trigger, and narrated by the character in question.

Lately, though, Jason Aaron has opted to tie these one-offs even more directly to the narrative, in this case going as far as extending the theme of the larger arc to the two preceding short stories. The first of these, "A come-to-Jesus" at first feels very superfluous, starring a minor character from one of the previous arcs. Yet, the Jason Latour pencilled and inked issue acts as much more of a bridge toward the "You gotta sin to get saved" five parter, than it's somewhat more crucial follow-up, starring agent Nitz.

The reader is first invited to partake in the snapshot of sheriff Wooster Karnow's regular routine which is filled with lies spun to make a local hero out of a seedy aging bureaucrat. The story consists of him encountering a visiting war veteran turned US marshal. Seeing how a real hero deals with a situation involving a highly dangerous criminal, forces sheriff Wooster to reevaluate his bullying and exploitative ways. Following a near-death experience, he eventually comes to a decision that promises to tie him in more directly with the regular "Scalped" ensemble cast. Read on it's own, the issue seems almost a generic noir morality tale whose main importance seems to be in fleshing out a side character for future use.

Yet, taking into account the arc that it precedes, it's apparent how it introduces the main conflict and plays it out on a much smaller field, before the basic ideas are introduced into the more complex #45-49. Unfortunately, some of the detail of Latour's caricatural figures gets lost in Giulia Brusco's murky atmospheric coloring of the central part of the issue. The rough linework and extreme closeups make for a very involved atmosphere that only breaks up when the John Wayne-styled sheriff stops in his tracks, surrounded by contradictory backgrounds all around him. The artist's expressive cartooning at times reminds of Sean ("Joe the Barbarian") Murphy's work, but even then Latour still manages to channel the "Scalped" atmosphere perfectly. Much more importantly, Jason is a natural storyteller, equally adept at character design, as well as layouts and the sense of pace. The one time the book feels a little unclear turns out to be done on purpose and is used to maximize the intended effect.

By the time the book opens up again to daytime setting and brighter colors, it's clear that the writer is leaving nothing to chance. In utilizing the narrative captions on the final page to return to a point made in the opening scene, Aaron seems to underline the irony. Yet, the writer makes the subtext explicit, doubling as both the morale of the story, and the credo for the character's future actions.

 Rereading the story in lieu of "You gotta sin to be saved" reveals the underlying depth of Aaron's approach. Basically, the writer uses "A come-to-Jesus" as a way to introduce a spiritual dimension to the complex psychological underpinnings of his established characters. This is in keeping with the general approach regarding his and Guera's flawed and all too human cast. Explicitly in #43, Aaron's larger idea is in trying to recontextualize Wooster's painful emotional journey of facing his demons as a test of fate.

Every man's got somethin' out there, waitin' to test him, he's just gotta be willing to find it, and face it

The idea is put to action in the second oneshot, pencilled by Guera's regular replacement on the series, Davide Fuerno. "The night they drove old Dixie down" is a very frantic experience, as befits protagonist agent Nitz' more energetic personality. During his work on the fill-ins, Fuerno's art has improved so much, that he's today a very different artist than he was when first tasked to fill in for Guera. For a start, he's work on this issue is much less angular, with characters realized in such a way that the story is told mostly through their emoting faces. That the backgrounds seemingly exist only when specifically called for is hard to notice when faced with such strong layouts and excellent panel flow.

At the same time, the artist works so well with colorist Giulia Brusco, that it appears as though one person alone has handled all of the art. The final look seems almost like it has been reproduced directly from Fuerno's pencils, skipping the inking stage altogether. In what is a very fast paced story, Fuerno and Brusco do a lot to flesh out agent Nitz' mental state, going so far as to render some of his narration unnecessary. Arguably, the key three conversations that make up the issue reveal all the information the reader needs to understand the extreme circumstances agent Nitz has found himself in.

Aaron duly lists the reasons the FBI has for questioning the current state of the investigation, but there is still something contrived about the manner in which the events unfold. By the time Nitz decides to take matters in his own hands, the way in which he proceeds to confront Red Crow seems absurd. What's worse, on the page it reads not so much as shocking but almost like a dream sequence, which is surely not the intended effect. Yet the casino scene is merely the set up for what follows.

In a true noir fashion, Aaron plots the issue so as to make sure that Nitz's downfall is all but certain, playing with the reader's expectation of a last minute reversal. It's important to note that despite the realistic milieu, "Scalped" has always been a genre book, so in itself, the writer's adherence to the noir tropes is not a problem in the slightest. Yet, even for a genre book, the gimmick Aaron comes up with is completely unrealistic.

Adding a political element for the sake of plot convenience is very sensationalistic, and the fact that it enters the story without any kind of set-up certainly goes against the book.Upon further examination the reader finds that Red Crow's men brought Nitz almost to the exact location of his controversial "blaze of glory", yet there is no clue that they knew about the complication the disgraced agent would get himself in, nor is it clear how they could have benefited from his actions. A very forgiving and creative reader could suggest that they manipulated him into eliminating the competition, but even this seems as a stretch compared to how they were treating him just minutes before.

In any event, it brings a lot of drama to the story and leads to the specific conclusion the writer was going forward, perhaps inspired by "the Wire". Yet, getting back to his overall statement regarding "You gotta sin to get saved" it's easy to recast the huge coincidences in Nitz's story in a new light. Using sheriff Wooster's terminology, one could look at the FBI agent's sudden fall of grace as another near death experience, allowing the character to continue his life from a different point of view.

And while Nitz's arrogant smirk certainly doesn't double as a typical sign of wisdom on the face of the tested, it can be said that it serves the same purpose. At first glance, The FBI agent seems simply to recede back to his arrogant self, but perhaps the knowledge he's gained through the ordeal will become more apparent later on. Even if it he remains pretty much the same character as he was before, which seems implied in his limited page time in  "You gotta sin to get saved", the renewed focus on his work certainly seems a positive outcome. It's doubtful that even such a cautiously optimistic pronouncement can be made concerning the primary characters of the next arc.

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