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Scalped

March 9, 2010

I’ve been looking to get something written on comic books for a while now but didn’t quite know where to start. Fortunately, a recent trip to my home country saw me get my hands on a truly fine title that should make a fitting place to start.

In the east, in the far east, when one is far from familiar surroundings and unable to enjoy simple pleasures that once were taken for granted, it pays to listen to one’s friends. So it was that a friend of mine that knows his shit, an initiated man, made a strong recommendation about a comic book and I jumped at the first opportunity that presented itself. This same guy told me to check out a TV show called The Wire a few years ago and damn if that didn’t lend his urgings serious weight. Recently, he’d been a-gibbering and a-jabbering about a monthly comic title called Scalped and I finally heeded his call.

Scalped is published by the mighty Vertigo, an imprint of DC Comics, and is written by Jason Aaron with art courtesy of R.M Guera. Aaron had made is comics debut in 2006 with The Other Side,  an acclaimed mini-series that dealt with the Vietnam War, but it is his original creator-owned series, Scalped, and the many plaudits that have resulted from it, that has really made his name. His subsequent work on several more mainstream titles for Marvel has seen him named Best Writer for 2008 and 2009 (by comic industry magazine Wizard). Aaron has said that Scalped was inspired by his longstanding interest in Native American history and the story of Leonard Peltier in particular. Set on a fictional Indian reservation in South Dakota, the series is a noir crime fiction, unique in featuring a largely Native American cast of characters involved in organized crime. This has led to the comic often being described as “the Sopranos on an Indian reservation” but this feels like a rather lazy and glib attempt to pin down just what makes this book so special. The comparison doesn’t really hold up under close scrutiny (and perhaps I say so because I’ve been watching a lot of Sopranos recently). Certainly, both Scalped and The Sopranos are character driven stories rich with truly memorable figures but there is a lot more pathos and elements of cultural and historic tragedy in Aaron’s tale than in the HBO gangster drama. Indeed, one issue of Scalped that introduced a cross-section of destitute minor characters on the reservation, complete with accompanying arrowed-panels pointing at them to give the reader brief biographical details e.g. “foetal alcohol syndrome”, “high school drop-out”, brought to mind more apt comparison with HBO’s greatest show, The Wire, and its moments of unflinching, bleak social commentary. The Sopranos comparison comes merely from the organized crime element but Scalped in that sense could just as easily be “Goodfellas on an Indian reservation” or (perhaps closer) “Infernal Affairs on an Indian reservation”. There is no intention here to denigrate The Sopranos, it was a monumental achievement in television drama entirely deserving of the plaudits it received. However, the blurb comparing that TV show to the comic, Scalped, is misleading. The Sopranos was a brilliant black comedy throughout; it focused on human ugliness and told its story with a group of characters that were essentially a carnival of terrible clowns. There is dark comedy in Scalped and there is plenty of ugliness too, but the tale told therein has wider scope and seeks to encapsulate a more epic and tragic approach to America.

Scalped wears its noir credentials boldly on its sleeve with a central protagonist named Dashiell Bad Horse and a femme fatale called Carol Ellroy (after crime fiction authors Dashiell Hammett and James Ellroy, respectively). The immediate plot is hardboiled crime fiction of criminal conspiracies, corruption, murder, revenge, and greed delivered in heady doses of desperate sex and ultra-violence. It’s not long into reading this title, however, that the unusual setting for this crime fiction, an Indian reservation, begins to loom ever-larger in the story and the real meat and viscera of the book gradually reveal themselves. Aaron concerns himself with exploring a contemporary story of Native Americans with its roots in the subject of Native American activism in the 70s and the fallout from events there (a la Leonard Peltier). Blended into this are strong elements of Native American mythology, spirituality and the tragic history of “the people” themselves. Aaron and artist Guera really want the reader to smell the blood and the tears that lie in the soil and the noir, crime-fiction conventions bring a necessary level of intrigue and thrill to counteract the unrelenting grimness of the tone here. Scalped can be as bleak as all hell at times but nevertheless remains utterly riveting.

Although I have only read the first three collected volumes of the comic (issues #1 – #18), I’ve already exposed myself to some spoilers in researching the series for this blog post (35 issues of the monthly comic have been published as of this writing). I loathe giving out any spoilers here, in turn, but a rough plot outline is required. Scalped introduces us to Dash Bad Horse, one angry young motherfucker, who has returned to the Prairie Rose reservation in South Dakota after a 15 year absence. Once there, he quickly begins working as a corrupt police officer/mob enforcer in the employ of the local crime boss and tribal chief, Lincoln Red Crow, once a militant “Red Power” activist now turned into an utterly ruthless and lethal criminal kingpin who controls the reservation. Dash’s life is further complicated by his mother Gina, still a passionate activist within the community (with long ties to Red Crow), and Red Crow’s drug-addled, promiscuous daughter, Carol. SPOILER ALERT! – As revealed at the end of the first issue, Dash is actually working with the F.B.I. and has been sent to infiltrate Red Crow’s criminal empire in order to bring him down at the behest of a revenge-seeking F.B.I. agent who is also another ruthless, angry bastard.

There is murder and mystery aplenty as the secrets of the character’s pasts and their true motives remain shrouded and hidden. As strong as these central characters are, there is also a litany of superbly crafted supporting characters whose own struggles and tragedies play no small part in elevating Scalped to be one of the most essential titles on the shelves at the moment and certainly the best I have read in a significant time. Grab it, buy it and tell your friends about it. It’ll tear your face off (or possibly the skin atop your head).

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2 comments

  1. It’s good to see you’ve been reading Scalped.

    How far along are you?


  2. I have read the first three trade paperbacks which I believe covers issues #1 – #18. I have also recently made a mail order purchase of the fourth and fifth trades and they are currently on their way to me.



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