Jason Aaron on the End of Scalped,Comics’ Answer to Deadwood and The Wire
- August 22, 2012 |
- 6:30 am |
- Categories: Books and Comics
When Dashiell Bad Horse, the protagonist of comic book series Scalped, walked into the Badlands Cafe on the Prairie Rose Native American Reservation in 2007, he brought a lot of genre conventions with him.
Cowboys and Indians, sure. Also crime fiction. The old prodigal-son-returns template. And, most importantly, the gangster epic.
But none of those archetypes survived the epic 60-issue run of Scalped. The story of Bad Horse’s return as an undercover FBI agent to the reservation where he was born has been one of the hardest comic books in recent memory to define, and that’s why it’s among the best.
Along the way, Red Horse has confronted radical-turned-warlord Lincoln Red Crow, who now runs the rez, dealt with the death of his mother and wrestled with his own identity. The constant in the series — the real protagonist, according to writer Jason Aaron, clear from the very first panel of the very first issue — is Prairie Rose itself: an unforgiving wasteland, forgotten by America, that forges its own rules.
The only real comparisons, in both the scope of the comic’s ambition and the dexterity of its execution, are to the recent wave of sophisticated, genre-busting television series. Prairie Rose is to Scalped what Baltimore was to The Wire and what Deadwood was to, well, Deadwood. It’s twisted, it’s funny, it’s tremendously violent — and so are its people.
On Wednesday, DC’s Vertigo imprint will publish the final issue of Scalped. Bad Horse is set for a seemingly decisive confrontation with Red Crow. Prairie Rose will close its borders for the last time. Aaron will end the series that made him a comic-book star having crafted a modern classic. Now one of Marvel Comics’ “architects,” Aaron helps define the world of mutantkind in Wolverine and the X-Men, a book that couldn’t be more different from Scalped. But that didn’t stop Aaron from taking Wired on a final tour of Prairie Rose.
Wired: How did you create Prairie Rose? Were there specific allusions you wanted to make?
Jason Aaron: I usually don’t think about stuff I’m working on in those terms. I’m just trying to create characters and tell stories.Scalped is representative of the kinds of stories I like to read and I like to watch. Certainly The Wire is part of that. I gravitate towards morally ambiguous characters.Scalped is certainly rife with those.
The selling point of the book was always the setting. Plot-wise, there’s nothing particularly groundbreaking about Scalped.It starts off as something we’ve seen plenty of times before: the story of an undercover FBI agent infiltrating a criminal organization and the story of the guy at the head of that organization. The twist was always the setting: a modern-day Native American reservation. Given that, the reservation always had to be a character in the book.
Wired: Did you start out with Prairie Rose or did you start out with Dash or Red Crow?
Aaron: The original pitch morphed a little bit. Red Crow was certainly in there right from the beginning. Dash changed a little bit. Two characters combined to become Dash. But everything with the reservation and the casino was there from Day 1, from the very first pitch. Certainly at the time when I was putting together Scalped, Deadwood was fresh in my mind. If anything, I wanted to create my own Al Swearengen. That was probably where I was going with Red Crow, before I even knew what I wanted to do with that.
Wired: What made you want to tell the story of a Native American reservation — and particularly a Lakota Sioux reservation?
Aaron: It may have been that the Lakota were the tribe I knew the most about coming into the thing. I’ve always been fascinated with the history of the Plains Indians and the history of the American Indian Movement in the ’70s. Those were things I read about before I even had the idea of doing something likeScalped. The imagery of it, the history of it, it all seemed perfect for everything I wanted to do and it all clicked into place.
Wired: What was the research process for creating Prairie Rose?
Aaron: Just a lot of reading and talking to people. I’ve never been to Pine Ridge or Rosebud in South Dakota, which are obviously the reservations that inspired Prairie Rose. I have connections to people who do live on reservations. Like I said, it was something I had been fascinated by for a while. It wasn’t something I had to come to fresh and start reading about.
Once I had the idea for Scalped and continued reading and researching it, there were things that came out about it that I had no idea about before. The Shunka story [an account of Red Crow's underboss], where we find out he’s gay, part of that was the history of Two Spirits, this long history of gender and sex roles in Native American tribes, which was something I had no idea about before I started researchingScalped. I didn’t know that about Shunka when I started. That story, in another form, had been around for a long time and I almost did that story earlier in the run, but if I had done it then it would have been an entirely different story.
Wired: What feedback do you typically hear from Native Americans?
Aaron: I try not to let that influence my stories. That’s a dangerous rabbit hole to start going down — changing what you do in response to what you read on the internet. But the response has been overwhelmingly positive. Not everybody is a fan of the book, it’s not going to be to everybody’s taste — it’s a crime series where characters are morally ambiguous. I’ve never shied away from some things that are stereotypical, like having Indians who drink too much; the book has one of those. Certainly there are characters that are extremely violent. But I don’t think you can look at Scalped and say it’s a book that portrays Native Americans as savages.
Wired: Have you always known how the series would end?
Aaron: I didn’t know exactly when it would end, what issue we would end at. I knew pretty much exactly where the midpoint would be. Around issue No. 33, No. 34, we were halfway there. I had a huge document sketching out those first 30-something issues from the get-go. I put that together as I was working on the second arc.
Beyond that, yes, I knew what the ending point was, and how we would get there, although I didn’t always know how to get from No. 35 to No. 60. I knew where all the characters were heading. Now some of that changed a little bit. There are a couple of characters I realized I either didn’t want to die or wanted to die. A couple characters went in different directions than what I had envisioned. Certainly Red Crow’s ending changed. [His daughter] Carol gets an ending that people may be expecting now but back in that first trade paperback people probably didn’t expect. Dash’s ending has been the same the entire time, Dino’s ending has been the same the entire time, Catcher’s too. The main thrust of the ending has been clear before I put pen to paper on Issue 1.
Wired: It’s hard to talk about the series without talking about artist R.M. Guera, who made Scalped look unique from the start. How did you come to collaborate with him? I can’t imagine Scalped without his visual grammar — even the color scheme of it, everything’s burnt and earthy. How specific did you have to be when describing the story to him?
Aaron: I’ve never felt like I have to micromanage visuals as a writer. I’m not the one with the visual storytelling sense. I can’t draw at all. I’ve been at least pretty good at knowing what to give someone to draw, the proper fodder they need to draw. With Guera it’s always been easy. He’s a guy who comes up through the European comic scene. He’s drawn everything from samurai books to pirate comics and westerns. Coming into Scalped, No. 1 was the third comic script I’d ever written. I was learning a lot from Guera when that book first started, and he was learning how to work with me. This was his first American gig. There were growing pains initially but by some point in the second trade paperback we started to get our groove. The third trade, “Dead Mothers,” every issue we were on the same page.
We worked together for years before we ever met. He’s a Serbian who lives in Barcelona. It was fortuitous. Around the time Scalped got green-lit, Will Dennis, my editor, and I were talking about artists, and around that same time Guera sent his samples to Will out of the blue. Will thought they looked great and sent a pitch to Guera. Guera just on his own drew up a sample page. It was a flashback page, showing the execution of the federal agents in the ’70s. Once we saw that we knew this was the guy. It’s hard for me to think of that book with anyone else drawing it. We worked for a few years exchanging e-mails and talking on Skype every now and then. We’ve still only met in person twice now in seven years: once in New York, the first time he ever visited the States, and once in Spain, the first time I’d ever been there.
Wired: Is there any truth to the rumors that Scalped has been optioned for TV? Or when No. 60 hits, is that it?
Aaron: As part of the Vertigo deal, Scalped is basically already optioned by Warner Bros. They have the media rights. Is there something happening with that? Who knows. Certainly there are rumblings and talk, some talk I’ve been involved in, some talk I haven’t been involved in. I don’t hold my breath. I’ve always been focused on the comic. I feel incredibly lucky that I’ve been able to tell 60 issues of this story. When the book was launching that did not seem to be very likely. I was brand new on the comic scene. Guera was brand new in the States. And we were doing a Native American crime book, which there wasn’t exactly a big outcry for. The fact that I got to tell the story I wanted to tell and wrap it up the way I wanted to wrap it up, I felt fortunate. I’ve always looked at anything else as gravy. But we’ll see.
Wired: How can you write a story as bleak as Scalped and then write a lighthearted book like Wolverine and the X-Men? You’ve got the adorable Brood student in a comic I could give my nephews to read. I wouldn’t want to give them Scalped until they were 13 or something.
Aaron: Yeah, I’d maybe wait until they were older than 13 [laughs]. For me, Scalped never bummed me out. I’ve never seen it as that bleak. Maybe it’s because I like the characters so much. It’s not like I’m spending time with characters I find so unpleasant.
Wired: Seriously? Even when Carol and Dash are smoking heroin? Or when the gun talks to Dash?
Aaron: I loved writing that scene with Carol and Dash and the heroin. You’re right, it’s a horribly bleak, depressing scene. Maybe this just speaks to some fundamental flaw in my psyche. But I’m the guy in movies who laughs at inopportune moments, just because I get excited by the flow of the story, by good writing, by good storytelling. Even if it’s heart-wrenching, it makes me smile. It makes me depressed at the same time, if that makes any sense, but I’m happy.
I like writing that kind of stuff. One of my favorite bits from Scalped was that issue with Dash and Carol lying in bed together and I write the captions with all the things they’re not saying to each other. So that’s real depressing and heartbreaking, but you can still picture me writing that with a smile on my face, because I’m having such a good time.
It all comes from the same weird place. I don’t do anything different, writing-wise, from Scalped toWolverine and the X-Men. I like that aspect of my job, getting to do completely different things. I never feel like I’m standing on an assembly line, making the same thing day after day.
It’s also the way that Scalped is tangled up in my life. I got married the same week Scalped got green-lit. Maybe the day after the phone call green-lighting it, I got married. My son was born not long after the book started coming out. And his name is also Dash. I quit my day job to stay home with him after he was born. That was about when my comic career started to take off — slowly at first. Basically my comic career is as old as my son is.
Wired: Did you name your character for your son, or the other way around?
Aaron: My memory is hazy. I think he came first and the character came later. But it was around about the same time, he was coming and I was working on my outline and proposal. I’m wrapping up Scalpedand my son is about to start first grade. It’s a big starting point for him, and now I feel like I’m wrapping up the first part of my career and now I’m moving on to the next thing. As far as I’m concerned, the last page of issue No. 60 is the last time we’ll see these characters.