SPOILER WARNING: The following interview contains major spoilers for those trade-waiting "Scalped."
When writer Jason Aaron successfully pitched "Scalped" to Vertigo in 2006, he provided his editor, Will Dennis, with an outline that would take the series through its first three years. With the completion of the sixth major arc, "The Gnawing," which will be collected later this year, Aaron’s original outline is complete. And the writer told CBR News that he knows exactly how his opus will end, but he’s not ready to start thinking about that anytime soon.
After a two-issue arc kicking in next week's "Scalped" #36, illustrated by guest artist Davide Furno, showcases Shunka – "one of the reservation’s most mysterious characters" – is complete, Aaron and regular series artist R.M. Guera will deliver a one-issue story in May's "Scalped" #38, before kicking off the next major storyline, "Unwanted." Set in South Dakota on the fictional Prairie Rose Indian Reservation, "Scalped" tells the modern-day tale of an organized crime boss named Red Crow, who also happens to be chief of the local Oglala Lakota tribe, and his dealings with Dashiell Bad Horse, an undercover FBI agent who has returned home after 15 years to infiltrate Red Crow’s operation, which includes a $97-million casino.
In an up-to-the-minute spoiler-filled interview, Aaron shared details about his early influences on the project, what he loves about his leading men – Bad Horse and Red Crow – and why his upcoming arc, "Unwanted," will leave another of his leading characters with some very difficult choices.
CBR News: You’ve had great success writing books like “Wolverine” and “Ghost Rider” for Marvel, but how sweet is it that your own creation for Vertigo, “Scalped,” has received such high praise from both readers and reviewers?
Jason Aaron: It’s a little more rewarding just in the sense that, well, it’s mine. Even if I write a run on "Wolverine" or "Ghost Rider" or "Punisher" or whatever, it’s still one of many runs on those characters. And five years there will be lots of more runs on those characters. Having a book, that’s completely yours, you don’t have anyone stepping in and saying, "No, you can’t use those characters." And you’re not dealing with continuity established 30 years ago. It’s very refreshing and rewarding. I still love the superhero stuff I do. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t love it but it’s nice to be able to do both. It’s nice to be able to use different parts of your brain but at the end of the day, if I had to choose, I’d rather be a guy who is bringing something new to the table – someone trying to create my own world instead of just playing with the toys that somebody else created.
This is the first time you and I have discussed the series, so maybe for me and readers who don’t know, can you share the story of how you developed "Scalped"?
There’s not a great genesis story to tell. I was working on the other side for Vertigo and they asked me to pitch some more stuff, so I sent in a group of pitches – there was a zombie book in there, I think, another book that I still hope to get to one day – and I don’t even think "Scalped" was in that first batch. It just came from emailing back and forth with my editor, Will Dennis. We’re both big fans of the crime genre and I knew I wanted to pitch him something crime-related.
I think I had been re-reading some of Michael Fleisher’s "Jonah Hex" and old “Weird Western Tales” stories from DC. So I had an idea to doing an updated version of "Scalphunter," which was an old DC character. It was the typical story, if I remember correctly, of a white guy that is adopted or raised by Natives Americans. He’s one of the Caucasian Indians that pepper a lot of old stories about Native Americans.
So that’s the genesis – it was a story, initially, that part of it would go back to the Old West, to that original Scaphunter character and part of it would be set in the present day on a modern Indian reservation with a story focusing on a new casino.
So pretty quickly in our emails, I lost the Scalphunter aspect of it, we ditched that and just focused on the present day stuff. And it just grew from there.
So was Bad Horse always there? Or did your main man grow organically as you developed the story?
Even though it was initially linked to this Scalphunter character, the idea was to do a Native American story with an actual Native American in the lead role, which, like I said, often doesn’t happen. So I knew I wanted a predominantly Native American cast.
Dash just provides easy access into the book. He was a rough and tumble fighter with some kind of death wish. He was supposed to be kind of a modern day Billy Jack, if you remember that horrible movie from the seventies that was a massive hit.
Initially, I think in the first pitch, the undercover F.B.I. agent was actually a different character. And then those two were combined because initially the story began farther along then where we actually ended up beginning.
Originally, the story was going to start pretty far after the death of Dash’s mother with Dash going back to the rez in the wake of her death and getting embroiled into everything then. Things changes around quite a bit in those early days. But Dash was always that easy access into the story. Obviously, as things have moved along, he’s grown and changed and he’ll continue to do so even though he’s not always the focus of the book, at the end of the day, it’s his story. He’s the one who will have the biggest arc from beginning to end of the book.
Do you know how "Scalped" ends?
Everything is building towards an end. So it’s not really a status quo that we could kind of run with, indefinitely. Everything is gradually falling apart in some ones and for other characters, things are gradually building up. So yeah, in terms of an ending point, I know what the last scene of the last issue will be. And I know where each character is headed. And how they’re going to end. I’ve never said, this is when the book is going to end – in terms of an issue number – because I’m not sure how long that will take to get there. Some of the stories that we’re doing this year are really stories that kind of came up recently, they were not things that I have planned.
When I first pitched, "Scalped," I wrote out a pretty long outline that went through the first 30 issues that translated to about 34 issues, I guess, because that’s the point that we just passed. I was relying on that first outline for a few years and now I’ve had to scramble together another one. I’ve been able to plug in a lot of stuff since then that I never envisioned initially, so I don’t know exactly how long it’ll take to get to that ending point but there is one coming.
As you said, things are building up for some characters and that’s the precisely the case for Shunka, who is getting his own two-issue arc.
I always knew that he would get at least an issue. I thought it was going to come sooner. It was initially going to be a part of the "High Lonesome" arc we did last year, which was five issues with each one focused on a different character. Initially, his issue was going to be a part of that, but we ended up pulling it and saving it for later. Because, we did that, the story actually changed and grew from being one issue to being two issues. And it went in a dramatically different direction than I first anticipated and kind of gives us much more insight to his character without him really revealing anything at all. He doesn’t narrate the story, he doesn’t talk that much. And you don’t really learn anything about his history but you still learn something big that you didn’t previously know.
I guess that’s the beauty of "Scalped" being an ongoing series versus a miniseries or even a series of miniseries, because it allows you time to explore a character like Shunka – one "one of the reservation’s most mysterious characters" – for an extra 64 pages?
It’s fun to have those characters around. They’re always around but you don’t really know anything about them. You kind of pull them out of the shadows and into the spotlight a little bit. I’ve done that a few times throughout our first 35 issues. And I’ll continue to do that. There are still other characters from the world of “Scalped” that we haven’t focused on that have stories coming.
"Scalped" #38 is an issue that focuses on another character that we’ve really only seen in glimpses before. I didn’t mention who it was in the solicitation because I wanted to keep it a secret. And there will continue to be little surprises like that here and there where we pull a character out and give him or her their own story – a story that doesn’t impact in any way the main plot, kind of like the plot we just did in #35. It was completely irrelevant in terms of the overall story but very much relevant in terms of fleshing out the reservation, which is very much a character in and of itself.
I’ve been looking forward to doing that story in "Scalped" #35, which was completely unconnected, for some time. It’s just a story about people from a different corner of the reservation.
While Shunka headlines this next arc, will we be seeing much of his boss, Red Crow?
He’s actually only in it briefly. The Shunka story takes place off of the reservation. It takes place on another reservation, so it’s Shunka kind of off on his own. He’s on a mission that Red Crow sent him on, but he’s the only character from the story that we recognize. Everybody else is new.
Red Crow is such a difficult character to define. He’s certainly not the hero and yet, as reader, you can’t help but be drawn to him.
I know for me and I assume for a lot of other people out there, it’s always fascinating to see ‘bad guys’ that you can find good in. That’s what people find fascinating about "The Sopranos," "The Shield" and "Deadwood" with the Al Swearengen character. It’s always really interesting to have somebody who is, on the one hand, pretty despicable and ruthless and not want to be friends with and certainly not want to cross, but on the other hand, they can turn around and surprise you with their actions and motivations. It gives you great insight into their character. I also think that’s fascinating so that was always kind of the idea from the get-go with Red Crow. He’s a bad guy but he ahs his moments where he’s kind of the hero. He’s pretty much always the hero is his own mind. He’s almost always able to justify what he’s doing in his own mind – or he’s able to believe that what he’s doing is for the better good. I’m always interested in that and going forward, we’ll continue to see him in that same position and the challenges he faces will only get bigger as time goes on.
That reference to Al Swearengen is perfect.
I love the journey he took during that series. That first season, he’s a frightening guy. One of the first things he’s doing in that show is trying to have a young girl killed – murdered. But as the show goes along, you come to like him and even start to root for him at times. And that’s the stuff I just tend to eat up. I’m not interested in the heroes who wear the white hats and the villains who wear the black ones. I don’t like things that are that black and white. I like heroes and villains both who are morally ambiguous. That, to me, is more interesting. That, to me, is more real.
I think most everybody in "Scalped" fits that bill, not just Red Crow. There are some characters that are more villainous, there are some characters that seem more pure and heroic, but for the most part everybody lives in this kind of grey area between good and evil and right and wrong.
After this two-issue arc with Shunka and the stand alone issue in #38, where is “Scalped” heading?
We’re heading into the next big arc that comes right out of the end of our previous big arc, the end of "The Gnawing." So if you haven’t read the end of #34, then I would suggest not looking at the cover for #39.
But if you have read #34, then you know that Carol has found out that she’s pregnant. So our next big arc springs from that and if you see the cover for #39, it’s kind of obvious – it’s a woman with a big, pregnant belly and the word "unwanted" is written across her stomach, so you can what situation she’s in and what kind of choices she’s having to make.
It’s very much Carol's story. And it’s the first time there’s a story that’s really hers as opposed to stories in the past where she’s pretty well defined by her relationship with Dash or with her dad. That said, there's a bigger story where we look at several different characters from our reservation and how they’ve dealt with this same question of abortion or been affected by it, so it’s very much an arc about abortion, as much as it is an arc about family. And Carol is obviously caught in the middle between both of those. The question is what direction is he going to go?
"Scalped" #36, written by Jason Aaron and featuring art by Davide Furno and a cover by Jock, arrives in comic book stores across North America on March 24.