[15 May 2014]
Killing off a child character is not something that’s done very well very often in any medium. It’s far too common that a dead child is used at least in part to efficiently, almost automatically add extra tragedy to the situation without needing to earn it. It’s harder for many to see children die than adults, because of their relative innocence and defenselessness. And, of course, because they simply haven’t experienced as much life, so taking it from them prematurely is that much crueler. But these are not story-specific reasons for a young character’s death to hurt more. They are generalizations, and if the only motivation for a creator or creators to remove a kid from the narrative instead of an adult is for this free bump in overall sadness, that ends up feeling cheap from the audience perspective.
Jason Aaron and R.M. Guera’s Scalped never did go for the easy or lazy emotional punches. When they hit, it was well-aimed and powerful, something they’d prepared for just the right amount of time before delivering. In the entire 60-issue run of that series, there is no better example of Aaron and Guera’s ability to really earn their big moments than Dead Mothers. It is a major arc for the book in a number of ways, setting up important players and events that have ramifications all the way through the end of the book. Not bad for a five-issue arc from the title’s second year, and it says a lot about the planning and craft that went into Scalped from the very beginning. Of all the major shake-ups in Dead Mothers, though, nothing is more powerful or lasting than the death of twelve-year-old Shelton Bittan at the hands of undercover FBI agent and off-the-rails psychopath Diesel.
Shelton’s death is brilliantly done for a number of reasons, starting with the details of his life. He is introduced to both the reader and protagonist Dash Bad Horse during a drug bust at a meth lab. Dash is a cop on the Native American reservation where the lab is located, and is in charge of the bust. Shelton’s mom spent much of her time at the lab as a user and prostitute, and he and his half-dozen or so siblings accompanied her there, stashed in one dingy room while she did her business in another. Dash discovers the kids, and shortly afterwards another cop finds their mother’s corpse, strangled and abandoned by a killer who fled out the window. So Shelton enters the stage in a whirlwind of tragedy, and for a moment, it does kind of seem like he might just be a token kid character, with no discernible personality traits other than his age. That impression of him doesn’t last for long, though, as Shelton quickly forms a strange bond with Dash that makes him a much more important part of the story.
Not too long before Shelton’s mom is murdered, the same happens to Dash’s own mother, Gina Bad Horse. The two of them never had a very close relationship, and Dash refuses to let himself show any signs of sadness at her death. He ignores it as much as possible and throws himself into figuring out who killed Shelton’s mom instead. At first, this is mostly just because Dash wants any distraction at all, but his investment in the case changes once Shelton approaches him and makes a personal appeal. The kid is determined to see his mother’s killer brought to justice, refusing to leave the reservation until Dash catches the guy. Even though Shelton’s mother was by all accounts neglectful and harmful to her children, Shelton remains fiercely devoted to her memory, saying, “My mom wasn’t so great either. But I still always loved her.” This attitude catches Dash by surprise, and he appears to have a strange kind of respect or even jealousy toward Shelton after he hears it. Dash’s mom was caring and committed, but they clashed over other things, mostly Dash’s own anger and apathy. For Shelton to love his mom so completely even in the face of blatant mistreatment is something Dash has a hard time wrapping his mind around, and, though he wouldn’t admit it even to himself, it’s something he wishes he could understand. He would like to have been able to feel the kind of unconditional love and closeness for his mom that Shelton does, and therefore Dash grows determined to do right by Shelton and give him what he wants. It becomes personal for Dash, not about solving the case or keeping his mind off Gina’s death anymore, but something he needs to do for Shelton’s sake, to reward the child for his good, loyal heart.
This also leads to Dash and Shelton forming a somewhat restrained kind of father-son relationship. Neither of them are particularly good at opening up to other people, so all their quality time amounts to is Dash teaching Shelton how to shoot a gun, taking him camping, and a few other hangout sessions that do no particular good for either of them other than helping to pass the time and keep their mind off things. Still, that seems to be enough for them, and Dash even makes a few feeble attempts at getting Shelton interested in his Native American heritage, something Gina used to try in vain and get Dash excited about when he was an angry adolescent.
What all of this amounts to is that, by the time Shelton dies he has become a big part of Dash’s life—and, by extension, a big part of Scalped—in very short order. In that alone, his death gains weight and value. Though he doesn’t know how, Dash wants to leave a good impression on Shelton, to send him away from the reservation somehow better off than he was before. Yes, Dash wants to catch the killer, but more than that he wants to prevent Shelton from turning into the sort of rage-filled, lonely adult Dash grew up to be. Sadly, despite Dash’s intentions, Shelton’s own rage is exactly what ends him.
After learning how to handle a gun from Dash, Shelton trades an arrowhead collection Dash gives him as a parting gift for a crappy pistol and a ride to the town where Diesel, his mother’s murderer, is hiding out. Shelton even manages to fire at Diesel, but one lesson doesn’t make him a skilled shooter, and he fails to hit his target at all. Diesel fires back and, because he has considerably more training and experience, he shoots Shelton right through the chest two times. Dash doesn’t make it in time to see any of this, only to see Shelton’s dead body bleeding out while Diesel arrogantly carries on about self-defense. This is Dash’s breaking point, the one thing he’s too unprepared for and sincerely concerned about to hold back his agony and fury. He shoots Diesel, drinks himself stupid, provokes a bunch of strangers into beating the hell out of him, and then stumbles to his dead mother’s house and breaks down in front of it before going inside for the first time since before she died. Shelton’s death is the end of one story, but because of what it means and does to Dash, it is also very much the beginning of a whole new status quo for Scalped. It’s not just a tragedy for the sake of turning up the drama; it is a key turning point for the star character, the moment where he finally lets down his walls and reorganizes his priorities. By building up Shelton as an individual and as a strange but important friend/surrogate relative of Dash’s, his death is given resonance that echoes throughout much of what follows. Dash and Diesel’s business ends in a rather ugly manner down the line, and a not-insignificant factor in how Dash handles it is his ongoing anger over Shelton. And even once that is resolved, there are new complications that arise as a result, because nothing in Scalped is without consequence.
The in-story importance of Shelton’s death is one aspect of why it works so well, but both Aaron and Guera make choices on an external level that add to it, too. For one thing, it happens off-panel. At the end of the penultimate chapter, Dash learns that Shelton has a gun and is going after Diesel, and races off to try and stop him. Then at the beginning of the finale, Shelton is already dead. We’re told what happens in between, but never shown it, which in this case is the perfect decision. There’s no need to waste time with the nastiness of Shelton actually getting gunned down. Dash doesn’t see it, but that doesn’t make his out-of-control reaction any less believable or relatable. The fact that Shelton dies without us watching it gives the reader the same sense of powerlessness and sudden loss of hope that Dash experiences when he arrives on the scene. By sticking to Dash’s view of the events, Aaron puts us through the same ringer, which keeps Dash in a sympathetic role even as he spirals.
For me, though, the most important single aspect of Shelton’s death is Guera’s artwork for the page on which it’s revealed. Three small panels that begin close on Shelton and then slowly pull back, ending in a fourth half-page panel of his body lying on the ground with a gun at his feet, two holes in his chest, and a sprawling pool of blood pouring from him. The visuals are at once cold and warm, soft yet harsh. They highlight Shelton’s inner goodness but don’t shy away from the horrors of what’s just happened to him. Guera makes Shelton looked scared, sad, relieved, and hollow at the same time, and in all four panels. It is, all these years later, still the image that sticks with me most from the entirety of Scalped. Not the most exciting or detailed or original thing Guera draws in this series by a long shot, but maybe the most gripping and gut-wrenching, and easily the most haunting.
Any character’s death should serve a purpose other than merely bumming out the audience. If there’s no clear reason to kill someone off, then better to keep them alive so they remain available for potential new stories in the future. Unfortunately, not every writer abides by this rule, but in Dead Mothers it is true across the board. While the mothers get the title, it is Shelton whose death rings loudest. He comes and goes so quickly, but his presence greatly outlives him because of how well-executed his personal arc was from dismal start to violent finish.
Matthew Derman loves comicbooks and writes about them every week on his blog Comics Matter. He also loves his lady and their two dogs.