Eye on Comics

Comics criticism and commentary from Don MacPherson

Tribal Counsel

Posted by Don MacPherson on January 4th, 2007

Scalped #1
“Indian Country, Part One of Three”
Writer: Jason Aaron
Artist: R.M. Guera
Colors: Lee Loughridge
Letters: Phil Balsman
Cover artist: Jock
Editor: Will Dennis
Publisher: DC Comics/Vertigo imprint
Price: $2.99 US/$4 CAN

Comics scribe Jason Aaron offers up a new ongoing title that works well as a crime drama. There’s an intensity to the plotting and characters that puts one in mind of another Vertigo title, 100 Bullets. Aaron takes us into a violent world where brutality trumps reason and corruption reigns supreme. The artwork captures the setting and violent circumstances quite well. Sounds like another solid winner from Vertigo, right? Well, culture hasn’t factored into the equation yet. Aaron isn’t just bringing a crime story to life; he also invites his readership into an isolated and oppressed culture that, for the most part, remains ignored and abused even in the 21st century. The depiction of the politics of a reservation and its residents didn’t sit all that well with me. Some might dismiss it as liberal white guilt, but I hope we’ll find more balance in the characters and cultural elements in future issues.

Dashiell Bad Horse turned his back on his home, family and friends on the Prairie Rose Indian Reservation in South Dakota years ago, when he was still in his teens. There wasn’t much to him in those days, but he’s returned home, and he’s changed. He’s angry, he’s cocky and he’s tough as hell. That draws the attention of Lincoln Red Crow, the man who runs the community, its business interests and its new casino. He’s as corrupt as they come, and in the angry but resourceful young Bad Horse, he sees a kindred spirit, one he puts to work for him. Dashiell’s got a lot more than just a new job to contend with, though. His past haunts him, and his bosses from his old job aren’t through with him yet either.

Guera’s dark, gritty quality of the artwork here definitely fits the tone of the story. I’m reminded of Carlos (Just a Pilgrim, Bloody Mary) Ezquerra’s style here, but I also detect hints of the influence of such artists as Neal Adams and John Byrne. The opening fight scene is a bit difficult to follow at times due to the effort to hold off on revealing the protagonist until the cusp of the eruption of violence. I think the most striking visual in the book is the introduction of the potential love interest, Carol. She’s not the typical shapely femme fatale or damsel in distress. There’s a meatier, weathered look to her, but Guera doesn’t portray her as unattractive either. Loughridge’s colors help to bring out the arid nature of the setting. The cool blues and greens he usually employs give way to orange and yellow tones.

Jock’s cover sums the book up well, giving a sense of the noir feel as well as the unique cultural backdrop that sets it apart. But more importantly, the cover represents a leap forward in the artist’s usual style. Jock’s always had a great eye for design, but the level of detail and texture in the dominant figure is impressive. 

I really didn’t read much about this comic book before buying it; all I really knew about it was that Aaron was the writer. I bought the comic on the strength of the writer’s work on The Other Side. I’m glad I kept my knowledge about the plot and characters to a minimum because the revelation on the final splash page came as a genuine surprise and bolstered my interest in the story itself. The seeming plot of a criminal among criminals didn’t really hook me, even if it did seem as though Bad Horse would eventually achieve some kind of redemption.

This introductory issue paints life on the Lakota reservation as one of perpetual violence, anger and betrayal. It’s a harsh place, and that depiction is understandable. But what’s uncomfortable about it is that there doesn’t seem to be any kind of oasis of peace, any icon of a better way of thinking, to be found. Everyone seems prone to violence; even the group dedicated to opposing the corruption is armed to the teeth. Every character seems so harsh, so damaged. Is it realistic? Maybe it is, but it doesn’t feel that way. There’s a need for some small bit of calm in this cultural storm, an honest character, a peaceful character. Come to think of it, what’s missing is a spiritual character, which would very much be in keeping with the Native American culture that’s so vital to this story. 6/10

5 Responses to “Tribal Counsel”

  1. Dave Farabee Says:

    I haven’t read Scalped yet, but just the premise and the reviews I’ve read of it have left me disheartened. I think it’s because I watched a late 90s movie called Smoke Signals a few weeks ago, a decidedly non-conventional outing that painted a rich, sad, and sometimes hilarious look at modern Indian life. Absolutely one of the best movies I’ve seen all year. Alas, seeing something that innovative depresses me in regards to the comics biz when I see that it has to lens the Indian experience through the familiar genre tropes of the noir/crime story. More ugly characters doing ugly things? This is the best a company as groundbreaking as Vertigo has to offer up?

    And it’s not that I think anything should be off limits. Hell, Scalped could be GREAT at what it does for all I know. I’d just like to see something a little more human, a little less reliant on the crutch of violence.

  2. Jason Aaron Says:

    Very thoughtful review, Don. Thanks for checking out the book. The world of SCALPED does include a few honest and spiritual characters, I promise you. One of them appears next issue. And even the most villainous characters will be made more sympathetic. That’s my goal, at least. Thanks again.

  3. Don MacPherson Says:

    Jason Aaron wrote:
    The world of SCALPED does include a few honest and spiritual characters, I promise you. One of them appears next issue.

    I look forward to reading it. The strength of your work on The Other Side and the effectiveness of the final-page twist/cliffhanger had me on board for another issue or two to see if the balance I sought would come. Glad to hear it’s on the way.

  4. Dan Coyle Says:

    Jason: I felt Red Crow was, in his own way, sympathetic. Or at least understandable. I think he’s genuinely trying to line his pockets with the casino, but also feels that it’s the only way to lift the people of the reservation out of poverty. I think he takes Dashiell in because they have a similar “fuck the principles, I’m tryin’ to SURVIVE” attitude.

  5. Don MacPherson Says:

    Dan’s absolutely right. It’s Red Crow’s culture and his twisted sense of working for and within that culture that sets him apart from, say, the Kingpin.