As anyone who reads Scalped knows, things are not always black and white.
The stories told in the Vertigo series by Jason Aaron have always played with the gray areas. After all, its main adversarial characters, Dashiell Bad Horse and Red Crow, have both crossed over the line between hero and villain.
But with its most recent story arc, "The Gnawing," Scalped has also changed up its pace a bit. The series, which has been described as a Native American version of Sopranos, has won critical acclaim for taking time to explore the various characters on the reservation with its raw and haunting images by regular penciller R.M. Guera. But in "The Gnawing," things have been moving forward at a much faster pace, with several subplots hitting an intense climax at the same time.
As the series now reaches what Aaron calls its "midpoint," Newsarama talked to the writer about why everything changes after "The Gnawing," and how the comic will deal with this storyline's aftermath.
Nrama: Jason, this comic is often very character-focused, but in this story arc, several subplots are coming to a head all at once. Was that something you wanted to do at this point in Scalped?
Aaron: Yeah, we’re obviously moving things forward a good bit with this arc, which was fun to do. The arc right before this was a lot of stand-alone character issues, which I love writing those, but it was refreshing to get to do an arc like this where we really move things forward a lot in terms of plot.
Nrama: We’ve seen a lot of evolution in Dash’s character, to the point where it almost seems like Red Crow’s the good guy, and Nitz and Dash are more like the bad guys. With Dash, will we see him evolve more? He just stood at his mother’s grave and basically admits he’s going to have to do some horrible things.
Aaron: He was telling her he’s sorry for something, but we don’t know what he was sorry for yet. So, yes, this arc for Dash is really a big demarcation point, and what happens at the end of this arc really changes everything for him going forward. Everything he does in the future will always kind of hearken back to this story.
So yes, we’ll see a dramatic change in Dash. We’ll start to see the beginnings of a dramatic change in him, in terms of his relationships with Red Crow and with Nitz. And with, kind of, you know, the man he wants to be and what he wants to do. We’ll start to see the beginnings of that. That’s why I think of this arc as kind of the midpoint of Scalped, because it sets the stage for everything Dash will be doing from here on out.
Nrama: Red Crow also seems to have gone through an evolution since we first met him, where he's not as much of a villain, or at least, he's a much more understandable one. In this arc, he wants to help Carol, and at the cliffhanger of the last issue, he just surrenders to the Hmong. Where's his head right now? Is he feeling reminiscent about his life, not liking some of what he’s done?
Aaron: To me that’s kind of always the man he’s been. It’s just sometimes you see it and sometimes you don’t. But that’s always there; he’s been that guy for a long time now, where he's chugging along, moving in the direction he wants to go. But he’s really lost sight of the man he originally was. He’s had to make so many compromises along the way, but he’s still not going to stop going after what he wants, which he still feels is the right thing to do, or maybe he’s convinced himself it’s the right thing to do. So yeah, he handles these things as they come up in the best way that he can. Going forward for Red Crow, he’ll continue to face new challenges. I don’t want to say too much, but – things aren’t going to get any easier for Red Crow.
Nrama: Is Carol going to continue playing a key role in the lives of Red Crow and Dash?
Aaron: Well, she’s going to start to have a story that’s more of her own next year. The biggest spotlight she’s had will come onto her next year. It’ll be a story where she’s not just defined by her connection to Dash or Red Crow – she’ll start to sort of come into her own. This story will really be sort of a demarcation point for her in that nothing for her will ever be the same going forward; certainly not her relationship with Dash.
Nrama: Catcher is such a strange and yet compelling character. There’s something very mystical and spiritual about him too, and he's a bit of a mystery. Is he still going to be that kind of a mystery or will we find out more about him?
Aaron: Well, he’ll still be a mystery, but we will be seeing a lot more of him eventually. He’s got a big moment in this next issue too, in the last part of this arc. And that’s a moment that I kind of leave out there for a little while before we follow up on it. But eventually we will be seeing a lot more of him.
Catcher’s not a character where I want to take an issue and lay out and say, “Here’s the whole story, here’s the origin story for Catcher,” or anything. I won’t do that. It will always be something where you’ll get pieces here and there.
But yeah, we’ll definitely be seeing a lot more of him. We’ve seen that there’s this scene in the last issue with him and Dash, when Dash comes to see him, so that’s kind of the beginning of something – in terms of what, we’ll have to wait and see. But that’s definitely the beginning of some kind of relationship with the two of them. Dash obviously has no idea this is the guy that seems to be responsible for the death of his mother.
Nrama: After this fast-moving arc, will Scalped get back to more character-focused issues?
Aaron: I think it’ll go back a little bit more like it was. I mean, we certainly won’t have another arc in the immediate future like this one, where, like you said, there’s so much coming to a head. It sort of takes so many stories to move them forward. It’s still, overall, not a very plot-driven book. It’s more of a character driven book. So we’ll definitely be getting back to more of those character stories that don’t really seem to move the plot forward a whole lot, but really flesh out who these people are. To me, that’s what – hopefully the interesting thing about the book is these characters, how they relate to each other; that’s hopefully what readers will care about beyond just the plot machinations.
Nrama: What do you have coming up for Scalped in 2010?
Aaron: I’m really excited about what all we’ve got lined up for “Scalped." The first issue after the current arc will be #35, and it’s a completely stand-alone issue that features two characters we’ve never seen before, and who we’ll most likely never see again. It’s really just sort of a story about this one little tiny quarter of the reservation and this old couple who’ve been living their lives on it. It’s drawn by Danijel Zezelj.
And then right after that we have a two-issue arc, drawn by Davide Furno, who’s done a lot – who’s been our main fill-in guy on “Scalped” up to this point. It’s a two-part story that focuses on Shunka, Red-Crow’s right hand man that we really don’t know anything about at this point. So this is one of those character issues that I’ve been waiting to write for a while; at one point I thought it was going to be part of the “High Lonesome” arcs, but I decided to wait, held it.
And since I did decide to wait, it actually went from being one issue to two issues, because something kind of happened spontaneously: Something that I never realized about the character kind of popped up in the midst of writing this story that really dramatically changed what the story was. I don’t want to say too much about the story, but you learn a lot about him without really ever hearing him tell you anything or really reveal anything about himself.
Nrama: He’s playing a pivotal role in the current storyline, isn't he? As he deals with the witness that escaped?
Aaron: Yeah. I mean, he’s always been around; he just is usually the guy that kind of stands up to Red Crow and talks to him in the way that nobody else gets to talk to him. He’s obviously the guy who handles most all of the dirty work. But we don’t know anything about him beyond that, so this issue we get a little bit of a peek inside him.
The story is that he’s been sent to the casino in Michigan because Red Crow has a beef with him, so he’s been sent out there to kind of talk to these guys and intimidate them. In the course of that, he gets tangled up in some murder-mystery going on in that reservation. So that’s a two-issue story arc.
And then right after that will be another stand-alone issue and I’m not sure who’s drawing that one yet. And wow, I guess I can’t really say – it’ll focus on a character that we’ve seen for a couple of pages so far in the series. It’ll be set during the Vietnam War – it’s a Vietnam War flashback issue.
Nrama: Ah, one of your fortes.
Aaron: Right. And I really tried to get Cameron Stewart to draw it [who was the artist on Aaron's Vietnam mini-series The Other Side], but he wasn’t able to do it; he was doing some Batman book or something I guess.
Nrama: Yeah, some Morrison guy is writing it.
Aaron: Right, Morrison, right.
But we'll have that collection of stand-alone issues and short stories, and that will lead into our next big arc. I can’t say what it’s about, but it follows directly from the last page of the current arc, so once we get to the end of "The Gnawing,” at the end of that last issue, there’s another revelation that the next big arc will follow right from that. That’ll take up a good bit of the next year.
Nrama: You mentioned that you think of Scalped as being at the "midpoint." Does Scalped have a finite ending in mind yet; I mean, a number?
Aaron: Not a number, but I’ve got in the midst of my Scalped folder – my big file of Scalped notes on my computer – I’ve got all the endings written out in terms of what happens to this character and what happens to that character. I know in general how we’re going to get there. But in terms of a specific issue number, like exactly how long that’s going to take, I don’t know. I’ve said before kind of where we’re at now, with the end of this arc probably about the midpoint, but that could be a little bit more, a little bit less by the end of it.
Nrama: I’m going to ask kind of a Barbara Walter’s question, which I hate, but –
Aaron: Is it going to make me cry?
Nrama: No, definitely not. But when you first signed on with Marvel for the exclusive contract with that publisher, a lot of people thought you’d walk away from Scalped and obviously those of us who are fans of it hoped you wouldn’t. Yet here you are sticking with the series, fully intending to finish the story. What does Scalped mean to you?
Aaron: Well, I mean, I think if you would ask most writers – like if you asked Matt Fraction or Drew Baker or a lot of the guys today that same question, create your own books, it would be the same answer – that book is always something special. That’s obviously yours in a much grander sense than any work-for-hire book will ever be yours.
Even if you have a landmark run where you’re forever associated with that character, I still don’t think it’s going to be quite the same thing as if you have a book of your own – that becomes something special.
Scalped has always been like that – that’s my baby. I love what I do for Marvel. I hope I go on to do books that people love. If I am forever associated with Wolverine or Punisher, Ghost Rider, whatever – that’d be great. I’d be very happy to be associated with those characters and do runs that people really enjoy.
But at the end of the day, you know, I don’t want to be a guy that’s just known for Wolverine or just known for work-for-hire stuff; I want to be a guy that brought something original to the table. Scalped is the first one of those things that I want to do. Going forward, I’ll hopefully always be working on a create-your-own book, going forward in my career; I already know the next few I want to do beyond Scalped.
For me, that’s kind of important for creators. From the standpoint of, well, just common sense, it’s good to write things you actually own, or that you own a piece of, as opposed to spending all your time on work-for-hire books. I mean, I’m very happy in my relationship with Marvel, but still it’s good to have something that you have a real stake in.
I also just think it’s important that we’re always doing new stuff in comics. I know it’s really hard right now to get people to try something that’s new, just because money’s tight right now. It’s hard to spend a bunch of money on something you have no idea about, especially if it’s by creators you’ve never heard of, when you can always pick up the same book you've always picked up and you know what you’re going to get. It’s tough. But it’s always important to keep bringing new stuff to the table – otherwise we’re just going to go in circles doing the same sort of superhero stories.
I want to be known as one of those guys who hopefully does good work for the mainstream, or for the superheroes genre, but beyond that is always bringing something new to the table as well.