Scalped

March 14, 2010 at 5:20 pm (Comic/Graphic Novel, Crime novel, Thriller) (, , , , , , , , )

Scalped, vol 1: Indian Country

Scalped: Indian Country
DC Comics, 2007
124 pages
Genre: Noir, comics

Book Report: Fifteen years ago, Dashiell “Dash” Bad Horse ran away from the abject poverty and utter hopelessness on the Prairie Rose Indian Reservation searching for something better. Now he’s come back home to find nothing much has changed on “The Rez” — short of a glimmering new casino, and a once-proud people overcome by drugs and organized crime.

At the center of the storm is Tribal Leader Lincoln Red Crow, a former “Red Power” activist turned burgeoning crime boss who figures that after 100 years of the Lakota being robbed and murdered by the white man, it’s time to return the favor.

Now, armed with nothing but a set of nunchuks, a hellbent-for-leather attitude and (at least) one dark secret, Dash must survive a world of gambling, gunfights, G-men, Dawg Soldiers, massacres, meth labs, trashy sex, fry bread, Indian pride, Thunder Beings, the rugged beauty of the Badlands … and even a scalping or two.

Indian Country introduces us to Aaron’s world in Scalped: the Prairie Rose Reservation, and all the people therein. The first chapters were slow, and I was readying myself for disappointment, but by the time I reached the Hoka Key chapters, I was hooked. Here was not just sex and violence, but high drama and tragedy, and all the noir a girl could want.

Scalped, vol 2: Casino Boogie

Scalped: Casino Boogie
DC Comics,  2008
144 pages
Genre: Noir, comics

Scalped’s second book, Casino Boogie, features the opening of Lincoln Red Crow’s—I mean, the Prairie Rose’s new casino, the Crazy Horse Casino. We find Dash chasing a new villain in Diesel Engine, one-sixteenth Kickapoo, and desperate to establish his identity as a Indian–despite the double-crossing secret he’s hiding. We also meet Dino Poor Bear, little more than a kid himself, trying to make a life for his baby daughter and help his grandmother care for his brothers and sisters, and wanting nothing more than to get out of the rez. And we see through Gina Bad Horse’s eyes how things went so wrong on the Rez, wrong for her and her son Dash, and wrong for her people.

A stranger called Catcher is everywhere in Casino Boogie, talking to our major players Lincoln Red Crow and Dashiell Bad Horse. Catcher thinks he sees visions, but he may just be a drunk. Either way, he sees the internal demons both our men struggle with. Catcher is looking for Gina Bad Horse, who’s gone off to Leavenworth to see Lawrence Belcourt, on death row for the murder of two FBI agents decades ago, a murder everyone knows he didn’t commit. After their meeting, Gina is determined to use the truth to set him free, but on her way back to Prairie Rose, something goes terribly wrong.

WARNING: From here out there will be descriptions of events that will SPOILER the first two books, so proceed at your peril.

Scalped, vol 3: Dead Mothers

Scalped: Dead Mothers
DC Comics, 2008
168 pages
Genre: Noir, comics

Dead Mothers finds Dashiell Bad Horse “a man divided.” He’s a Rez cop, but working for Lincoln Red Crow. He’s an FBI agent working for Agent Nitz, whose life mission is to bring down Red Crow and any others involved in a decades old murder of two FBI agents. He’s Gina Bad Horse’s son, but now she’s dead. Submerging his own grief for his mother below the grief of a young boy whose meth head mother is murdered, Dash tries desperately to avenge Gina through his murder investigation. Through flashbacks, we see Dash and Gina’s life together, and what each of them lost when he left the Rez; these contrast with Diesle’s origin story, told in the previous volume, Casino Boogie, though both men have ended up here on Prairie Rose so close and yet so far. In a really beautiful scene, Lincoln Red Crow goes to see Gina’s body and loses himself for a moment in the past. To calm the growing troubles, Red Crow brings back Officer Falls Down to investigate Gina’s death, and we get his perspective, one that highlights both the beauty and the darkness he’s experienced on the rez. And in the Badlands, Catcher sees horrifying visions of blood.

Scalped, vol 4: The Gravel in Your Guts

Scalped: The Gravel in Your Guts
DC Comics, 2009
144 pages
Genre: Noir, comics

The Gravel in Your Guts brings Lincoln Red Crow further to the forefront of Scalped. He’s quickly becoming my favorite character, and is impossible to peg. Neither villain nor saint, although a very bad man indeed, Lincoln loves both the dead Gina Bad Horse and his estranged daughter Carol, and between the two women stands Dashiell Bad Horse. Dash can’t keep away from Carol, no matter how dark her demons, and soon finds himself sucked into the maelstrom of her addictions. Meanwhile, Dino Poor Bear gets in deeper, too, until he realizes that there’s no way out of the life he’s chosen. But with the pressure of outside investors mounting, Red Crow must decide whether to keep Gina’s soul and his own, or protect the Rez.

The Gravel in Your Guts is a rough book, but probably the best in Scalped thus far. It tightly ropes far-flung characters back together, while casting its intricately netted plot out further. Lincoln Red Crow steals the show from Dash entirely, especially in a series of flashbacks and a journey around the Rez to make things right. The best sequence is from Carol’s perspective, however, as we see her demons come to light, and find out what passed between her and her father to make her the way she is now. There’s an amazing scene between her and Dash, after they’ve screwed, highlighting both characters’ fears, as neither of them can tell the other what they’re really thinking and feeling, despite their physical intimacy. And so she retreats again into the haze of heroin. This is top-notch noir fiction here.

Scalped, vol 5: High Lonesome

Scalped: High Lonesome
DC Comics, 2009
128 pages
Genre: Noir, comics

High Lonesome starts out slow, and rather like Indian Country, with an uninteresting character (let’s face it, at first, Dash Bad Horse was just a bit much). The Man of a Thousand Faces (or really, just a Thousand Outfits) brings the perspective of a black man to the Rez, musing over differences and similarities between the Indian and black experiences in America. He’s also a hustler, baby, and one who knows Dash Bad Horse and will take his ass down while blowing his cover sky high. We also get more backstory, this time on that jackass Diesel (by far the most unlikable character in Scalped, though Nitz is a close second) and Nitz (!!!). We learn more about the FBI agent murders, and the victims … and the real killer. It left me panting for more Scalped.

Scalped is rough, it is raw, and it is dark. There’s sex and violence aplenty, rampant drug and alcohol abuse, and people who have lost all hope of anything different. But there are also families, sons and mothers, fathers and daughters, grandparents, aunts and uncles, people who love each other and look out for one another—a whole extended family of them, a tribe. There is a community, and people fighting to keep their pride and help themselves. Like any community. Scalped could take place anywhere, and it could only happen on the Prairie Rose Reservation.

There are a lot of comparisons of Scalped to Thunderheart, but I don’t see it. (Too superficial.) And a lot of people will no doubt take umbrage at the darkness portrayed as everyday life on the Rez. But they forget that Scalped is fiction, and crime fiction, noir, no less. There’s a lot of the worst of the worse (Really? You don’t think there’s any FAS, or domestic violence, or substance abuse on a rez anywhere?), but there’s also some of the best. The Poor Bears, Officer Falls Down, Gina Bad Horse, they’re all living according to their conscience, trying to be and do right. They are the breaths of optimism in what would be an otherwise unrelentingly fatalistic series, creating a vivid and ambivalent story.

I expect there’s a lot of discussion out there on why a Southern white boy like Jason Aaron thinks he can write about the rez experience. I’m going to go ahead and say he can because he does it really fucking well. Aaron works hard to not patronize, though he does sometimes hit cliched pitfalls. Those can be forgiven, however, for the intensity of his story, which is–more than anything else–noir fiction.

Regarding the artwork, R.M. Guera’s got most of Scalped in his capable hands; as the series progresses, his work gets stronger and sparer, with bold lines and iconographic imagery. His work is sometimes supplemented by the work of  (mostly) Davide Furno, John Paul Leon, and Francesco Francavilla, and with the exception of the latter, their work nicely complements Guera’s, playing to its strengths and keeping a good visual flow. However, I hate the chapter in High Lonesome done by Francavilla, which has a soft, unfinished, pastel look to it, making for a jarring juxtaposition from that of the other artists. Maybe there’s a good reason for the change (the chapter is from Nitz’ perspective), but I hate it.

Gripping and compelling, as well as brutal, Scalped isn’t for everyone, but it ought to be. I happened across the series by accident, via a short Wikipedia entry, and after a friend mentioned that he’d enjoyed them immensely (thanks, Cecil!), I requested them all from the MCL. I positively devoured each installment, and can’t wait for the sixth.

Read also: House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday, short stories by Cornell Woolrich

Covers: Fucking fantastic. They’re by Jock, and use the vivid imagery of the American Indian in the mainstream US cultural consciousness. Indian Country is especially stunning.

January – February

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4 Comments

  1. LDP said,

    Yay comics!

    But how much do you suck for picking a series that I haven’t read to review. Now I feel like I have to try this out. Honestly though, I’ll probably hate it, since I’m 1/16 of a fifth Mi’kmaq on my father’s side through marriage and I get pretty perturbed at the idea of some white punk perpetuating negative stereotypes about my peoples.

  2. John said,

    Great review! You offer a strong rebuttal and echo many of my own sentiments as regards the accusations of “Scalped” being racist, but for the most part (and rightly so) your focus is on what a strong story is being told here. I particularly loved this quote:

    “Gripping and compelling, as well as brutal, Scalped isn’t for everyone, but it ought to be.”

    That’s the kinda catchy soundbite I could see on the cover of the next graphic novel. I’m assuming you’re a trade-waiter? If so, oh boy, wait until you read “The Gnawing”. It could be the best “Scalped” story yet!

    • Schatzi said,

      I haven’t read many comics in the last few years, but I gotta say, Scalped has me tempted to step into a comic book store for the first time in over a decade.

      I cannot WAIT to read “The Gnawing.”

  3. LDP said,

    I just read Casino Boogie. One thing you didn’t mention at all was how funny the book can be. I giggled at what seemed to be a throwaway line about Merle Haggard’s bus in the part that focused on Red Crow and then laughed pretty damn loud (practically screeched) when I saw the bus in Diesel’s part. And, speaking of Diesel, I had to chuckle at my own comment above, after reading, “I’M ONE! …SIXTEENTH! …KICKAPOO! …YA COCKSUCKER!”

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