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Abhay Rambles About Scalped and Criminal without the Benefit of a Clever Blog Post Title

Abhay Khosla

So before Ye Old Comic-Book-Reviewing Internet folds onto itself like sexy origami over this week’s high-profile new releases, I want to slide one in about last week’s books. I’ve been busy so I haven’t really given this review the time or thought it deserves; it’s my busy season, but two of comics’ finer crime comics wrapped up their current long-running arcs last week, namely Scalped and Criminal. That shouldn’t go by without some note.

I have that weakness as a critic of focusing on shiny, new doo-dads. First issues are just more fun to review, though. Spring has come! The circle of life has begun anew! But then issue #2 comes out—“Issue #2? What do you want, a fucking cookie, ya crumbum?

Do other people suffer from that first-issue bias? I don’t know if that’s a problem for other people. Every time Iron Fist comes out, say, people sure seem happy to review it. Really, really happy. Maybe worryingly happy? “The doctors said I had testicular cancer, but you still make me feel like a whole man, Iron Fist” happy. I like Iron Fist— I just can’t get the juices flowing month after month after month. I just take it all for granted.

I blame my memory. The new issue of Scalped resolves a 6-part arc which recounted the events of a single day from the point of view of six different characters in the Scalped ensemble. The only problem? I can’t remember six months ago. I can’t remember five months ago. Four, three, two…? Last month was…? I just lost that ability to remember comics somewhere along the way. When I was a kid, I could remember a previous issue like I’d just read it, like I’d just had it in my hands, but those days are gone. The only way I could properly review Scalped #11 would be if I reread the arc.

And that would require genuine effort on my part… (shudder).

I’m not saying this as some obtuse argument about the advantage of trade collections over issues. Shit, I have problems with trades, too. They require something in even shorter supply than memory: they require an attention span. All that material, sitting there, waiting to be read; taunting me. I could wait for the trade of Criminal, but a couple pages in: “Oh, Criminal doesn’t know who he is. Sometimes, I don’t know who I am, too. Those people who say they’re women trapped in men’s bodies—is there a time limit on that? What if I realize that when I’m on my deathbed? I’ll be lying there saying, ‘Oh No, I’m going to die never having known what it’s like to look into my own vagina with a mirror.’ Oh that reminds me: I’m going to die. I’m going to die I’m going to die die I’m going to die.” And then I pee on myself. Wah!

Luckily, with the Scalped arc, my memory’s not been a real problem because each issue has its own merit. Each issue has been a complete story in and of itself concerning that issue’s focal character. It’s a scarily efficient machine of a book, that Scalped. Man…

The latest issue—let me just talk about a single panel of that actually: the last panel of Page 19 (counting the ads). The last few pages have been an emotional conversation between an older woman visiting a man in prison. She’s guilty about him being in prison; if she had done the right thing way back when, he could have been a free man. During the scene, she’s overwhelmed by guilt, and he’s reassuring her. He’s made his peace with it. Then the scene ends and he leaves, and the last panel is a shot from behind her, of her alone hanging up the phone. But if you look at her legs, they’re tilted in this peculiar way. Both of her feet aren’t solid on the ground; one’s at an angle so when you look at it, you can tell her position is unstable. If she just leaned a scooch to the left, she’d just fall over right then and there. Without him there to keep her propped up, she’s just crumpled.

Did Jason Aaron write it like that in his script? Is that what artist R.M. Guera brings to it? Or is it neither of them: is it me and I’m just projecting onto some completely random panel?

I had the same memory problems with Criminal, but it was easier to follow thanks to an easier set-up: it’s a revenge thriller. Even then, in this last issue, in the climactic moments, this character pops up and says “Remember me?” Uhm.

I feel bad for comic creators. They work so hard, and here I am, and awww dude, I’m letting them down. Well, I don’t feel bad for Ed Brubaker because I know Newsarama holds him at night, and interviews him about Captain America until he falls into a gentle night’s sleep. I used to worry about how often Newsarama was interviewing Ed Brubaker about Captain America. Now, I’m starting to suspect that if Ed Brubaker took off his shirt, Newsarama would be on his belly like Kuato from Total Recall. Remember Kuato from fucking Total Recall? That Kuato dude was all fucked up.

Still, I’m letting Sean Phillips down anyways. Look how well he draws; that lovely and it still comes out clockwork. On a “rational” level, I know other artists need more time; everyone needs a different amount of time to achieve the best they can. With some people, you can’t rush creativity. On a rational level, I know that. But Sean Phillips’s stuff, I just look at that and say “Aww, the rest of you are just crumbums. You got no excuses, crumbums!” So… I guess what I’m trying to say is … Sean Phillips’s art makes me a worse person. Wait, no…

You know what’s improved about Criminal that’s maybe gone unmentioned? The sex scenes. That’s what killed Sleeper for me—I know that was a favorite with y’all internet types, but not my book. Looking back on it, I think a big reason why were the sex scenes had this peculiar thing where they were each supposed to be transgressive and hot … but in my Swiss cheese memory, here’s how I remember each and every sex scene in Sleeper: “Then things got transgressive and hot, and we had sex in public where people could almost see us.” Which is … you know, it’s a kink. I’m not saying it’s not a kink. It’s Kinsey-approved. Kinsey says “Go for it, sport-o.” But then the next issue? “Things got transgressive and we had sex in public. Again.

In what’s left of my memory? That happened every issue. Is that the case? I don’t know. Maybe that’s just another example of how bad my memory is. But the way I remember the premise of Sleeper is that it was a comic about two people enjoying their mutual love of risky public sex. Is that right? That doesn’t sound right.

The sex scene in Criminal—that bit with the snow? That was just a much more interesting scene to me. And I guess I just appreciated that they were in a bedroom and not in a men’s bathroom at Chuck-E-Cheese (damn you to hell, Kinsey).

Criminal is such a different book from Scalped in so many ways. I like Scalped because of how far it feels outside of genre trappings. The characters feel like people, not types; there are certain familiarities to its plot, but it doesn’t ring as formula. While Criminal, I like because of its genre trappings. It’s “bad guy versus worse guys.” If that’s a formula, well, that’s a formula I happen to like. It’s comfort food. Mac and Cheese. If Mac and Cheese had dead people in it. Mac and Cheese and dead people. They serve that at Campanile on Thursdays.

This arc’s been a “tough guy comes back to his hometown for revenge” thriller that just wrapped up in #10. And I enjoy it even though I don’t really find the story especially surprising or unexpected. It’s not especially a timely story; if anything, those moments in the finale where they do allude to a “Ripped from the Headlines” quality are my least favorite bits of the issue. They feel intrusive to me, and what they tell us about the lead character that the rest doesn’t—heck, Jog’s the one smart enough to figure out that stuff, not me.

Do you play that video game Grand Theft Auto? Has that, I don’t know, changed your relationship to this kind of story any? Criminal was fun, but how much better would it have been if Mr. Criminal had shot an old woman in the head, jacked a Sentinel, and drove it off a cliff while listening to Wham? I really liked this arc; I’m not trying to insult the book with that comparison. But… how do I put this… just that thing where things are this close to a genre, this close to a formula, where they all just kind of blend together in your head. But in a nice way. Is there a word for that? I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think that’s part of the fun of the comic. That’s something I like about Criminal. I like how the guy in Criminal reminds me of the guy in Point Blank who reminds me of… you know, lots.

I’m absolutely not saying that I think Criminal is derivative, to its detriment. It reminds me of other things I enjoyed, and that feeling of being reminded is itself part of my enjoyment of the book. Which… oh god, this is all starting to sound weird. It starts with me talking about this elaborate echo chamber I’m groping around senselessly trying to describe, and then somehow or another, a couple paragraphs later, I’ll be talking about how I want to dip my balls in one of those lotto machines—you know, the lotto machine on TV where the balls shoot out of the tubes and show you the lotto numbers? There’ll be a whole paragraph of me eager to teabag the Powerball machine because that’s sort of an echo, too, or whatever. That’s how I see this going down if I keep going down this line of thinking. Let’s change the subject.

And, hey, I know what you’re saying. You’re saying “Which band was Wham again? Did they sing Dance Hall Days?” No, that was Wang Chung. Here are some Wham lyrics to refresh your memory:

I am never going to dance again
guilty feet have got no rhythm
though it is easy to pretend
I know you’re not a fool

That wasn’t such a good song. Still, guilty feet? Guilt, regret; they’re such different books on the surface but once you get under the engine of Scalped and Criminal, it’s all family and guilt and no-one-ever-gets-away. I enjoy how Scalped has gradually wrapped itself around a crime set in the past— the book has more than one original sin that never gets wiped away for its characters. Criminal hints at similar terrain— a prior generation’s sins haunting the next. From what I remember, this arc of Scalped has been about characters desperate to escape their pasts; this last issue of the arc concludes that escape is impossible. Criminal charts that same nasty bit of geography.

Guilt, regret, crimes that don’t wash away, bad karma, shooting old women, blowing up cars, sex in public, Kuato, Wham, crumbums, that fucking-creepy man-vagina mirror-thing, old women crumpling—it’s peculiar, the things we’re entertained by. I have no explanation for it. Well, none that I can remember.

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