Monday, October 28, 2013

Opening Contract - Scalped #40

This weeks Opening Contract comes courtesy of Scalped #40 by Jason Aaron and R.M Guera from Vertigo Comics.

The issue is Part Two in the four part arc entitled 'Unwanted'. For those who haven't read Scalped, the Wikipedia entry for the series serves as a fine primer
The notion of time has become a reoccurring theme in this column and it rears its head again this week. Some panels, especially those at the start of an arc or series, make references to events that play out later, or set out the stall with a mission statement for the tones and themes for the series. You only have to look back at the inaugural entry of this column to see an example of this.

Sure, we can agree that comic book panels are singular units of information, but they only ever reveal their true meaning and potential when they're given context, when they're juxtaposed against other images and the threads of the narrative as a whole. It speaks to the very nature of the medium itself -- cause and effect. Even two seemingly disparate images, when placed next to each other, will produce a meaning to a reader (whether intended or not). That's just part of the magic (see Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics).

Keep that notion of cause and effect in your mind, because, ultimately that's what the opening panel in Scalped #40 is about.

The panel itself takes up the first half of the page. The left side of the panel is taken up by a row of chairs, leading from the top left of the panel and down in a slight diagonal. In the chairs sit two women. One seems disinterested, bored or asleep, her face turned away from the reader. The other leans forward, handbag in her lap, and a hand covering her mouth, maybe out of sadness or grief. The placement of the women in the top left causes the reader's eye to be lead down to the next, most important, element of the panel.

The right hand side of the panel is taken up by a pair of hands holding a pamphlet. A glance at its contents, stop the eye in its metaphorical tracks, as well as telling us all we need to know to fully piece together where we are -- an abortion clinic. A waiting room window can also be seen in the upper right of the panel, along with the only speech balloon, coming from off panel:
"You're free to go. As long as you have someone to pick you up."
The rest of the sequence deals with Gina Bad Horse (mother of the series protagonist, Dashiell Bad Horse) leaving the clinic after it's revealed she's just had an abortion. She then gets into her truck with a young Dash, but not before chewing out and berating her deadbeat other half, Wade (Dashiell's father) and leaving him in a trail of dust. We then cut to a full page splash of Dashiell, in the present, going cold turkey in a sweat lodge.

The juxtaposition of course suggests the events are connected, that the decisions our parents make have a knock on effect to us throughout our lives. It suggests that whatever bad influence Gina thought Wade had on Dash has now manifested itself. A large part of the arc concerns Wade coming back to 'the rez' to visit his son and catch his wife's killer. There's a conversation between the pair where Wade talks about how much Dash is like him. So perhaps this cycle of hell was inescapable. Earlier, in a drug addled vision, Dashiell is visited by his other parent, Gina who turns him away due to Dash's recent actions. He's the 'unwanted' of the arc's title. Cause and effect.
The previous issue, #39, opens with a close up of Claudine Dixon, years prior to the main events of Scalped. Claudine is the mother of Carol, love interest to Dashiell and daughter of series villain, Red Crow.

What spins out of the first panel here is a sequence showing us how Claudine intended to get an abortion. She worries that Red Crow won't be around to help raise it, that he'll fall into the cycle of his past misdemeanors, crime and violence. She doesn't want to bring a child into that kind of world. Red Crow finds her, promises that things won't be that way, before promptly being arrested and lead away.

As Claudine chooses the name of her unborn child we cut to Carol, years later, lying fully clothed in a half full bathtub. She's just learned that she's pregnant. She's also trying to go cold turkey herself. This is the sum total of Claudine and Carol's choices. Neither of them envisaged the life they received. But later, in #42, the opening panel of that issue forms the part of a sequence that shows us the life Carol did envisage, a world where her, Dash and their child live happily ever after in domestic bliss.

Crime fiction is a genre chock full of people trying to escape the cycles they're a slave to their, their pasts, their mistakes and themselves. Scalped suggests that these cycles propagate, becoming legacies and hand me downs from one generation to the next. The moment presented in the first panel of #40 (and the other issues mentioned) are moments that echo through time. They represent the moments that come to us all, where we're forced to make a choice we know will come to define us in some way, however large or small.

Presented as a singular moment it's easy to judge what's "right" and what's "wrong" based on our own belief system. But it's only when we see the whole, the sum total of the actions and choices made, that we see the areas of grey in between. By the end of the arc Carol follows through with a decision she's been toying with for its entirety, taking the road her mother was unable to take -- getting an abortion. "It was the right thing" she says to herself in the mirror afterwards.

Only time will tell.


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