Scalped, a western/crime noir comic book by current Marvel architect Jason Aaron and artist R. M. Guera, is about as rough as it gets. The book starts with a bar fight, and the violence and testosterone doesn’t relent until toward the end, when the shape of what Aaron and Guera are really doing begins to take shape.
At the center of Scalped is the idea that native reservations are “still forgotten, still a third world nation in the heart of America.” Through all of the gunfire and male posturing that seems to make up the main action of this story, there is a deeply focused commentary on how the effects of the holocaust of the Native Americans shapes the country to this day. Red Crow, who is the boss of the tribal police, is a ruthless character who polices his community in his own way, threatening to scalp the lead within the first few pages. He’s referred to as “Chief Eat-Shit-‘N-Die” by his family, and others on the reservation believe his end goal is to corrupt the community with drugs and crime as a means of control. However, as he strongarms his way into making his latest venture, a casino, succeed, his sights are set on creating a thriving business within this forgotten land. As Red Crow says: “From here on out, the white man better bring his fuckin’ debit card.” Crow’s ambitious and cruel, but his actions are in response to being expected to stay in line within a society that has violently and systematically oppressed his people. Even in just the first issue, Scalped begs his actions, and the actions of the already large cast, to be examined within the context of their culture. Because Red Crow is obviously corrupt… but it matters how he got there.
Bad Horse, on the other hand, is a character who has come back to the reservation, seemingly to stir up some shit. However, he ends up getting a job working on Red Crow’s police force – or, as he says, “I beat people up for you.” Bad Horse is disenchanted with the ways he considers “old,” and accepts the work (I mean, the alternative was getting scalped or his fingers sliced open, so the choices were limited) but rejects the idea of being part of the tribe. He says: “I never gave a shit about any o’ this Lakota bullshit before, and I certainly don’t care about it now… The Indian Wars are over, and you guys fuckin’ lost.” This attitude is familiar to Red Crow, who laughs it off and welcomes him home to the land of the disenchanted. However, this quiet exchange between two men, who seem to be on opposite ends of a wide spectrum, sets a powerful theme for a book that was, until this moment, a flurry of violence and power struggles. It’s a hell of a scene, and quickly establishes Scalped as a book with a hell of a lot to say.
However, in true Vertigo tradition, the cliffhanger at the end of the first issue turns all of that on its head.
Scalped satisfies all of the things that you’d expect from a crime thriller. We’ve got corruption, twists, shady loyalties, copious gunfire, murky but stunning art by Guera and colorist Lee Loughridge, and conflict that is already boiling over before we even read the first page. It’s the exploration of culture, morality, and the lingering effect of violence, though, that intrigues me about Scalped, a book that seems intent on opening America’s closet and dusting off those deeply buried skeletons.
Looks like it’s going to be a bloody ride.
PAT SHAND writes comics (Family Pets, Robyn Hood, Charmed, Van Helsing) and pop culture journalism (Sad Girls Guide, Blastoff Comics). Though he is allergic to cats, he owns three. Life choices.