Aaron, Jason; R.M. Guera et al (2007), Indian Country, Vertigo
Aaron, Jason; R.M. Guera et al (2008),Casino Boogie, Vertigo
Aaron, Jason; R.M. Guera et al. (2008), Dead Mothers, Vertigo
Aaron, Jason; R.M. Guera et al. (2009),The Gravel in Your Gut, Vertigo
Noir and comics have been a happy marriage for a while now. Some of the best work in contemporary comics has been in the genre of the noir. Ed Brubaker’s collaborations with Sean Philips are among those books, but the gritty turn of comics in the 1980s has introduced a noir tone and atmosphere to many books that wouldn’t otherwise seem fitting. Batman and Daredevil have been titles where noir sensibilities have been exercised frequently, especially in Frank Miller’s runs more than two decades ago, and Brian Azzarello’s and Greg Rucka’s runs in more recent memory. However. as much as I love Brubaker’s work on almost any title he touches, the most gutwrenchingly impressive use of noir tradition in comics that I know recently has been attempted by Jason Aaron in his incredible book Scalped. Scalped, which ran for 60 issues between 2007 and 2012, is set on an Oglala Lakota reservation, a thinly veiled cipher for the Pine Ridge reservation, exploring a world of pain and hurt, of loss and disillusionment, telling a story set in our time but rooted in a history going back centuries.
Scalped is collected in 10 trade paperbacks and I have so far read 4 of them, all of which are excellent. Aaron’s co-creator and main artistic collaborator on these books is Rajko Milošević, whose nom de plume is R.M. Guéra and whose pencils and inks perfectly complement the visceral quality of Aaron’s writing. As is usually the case, guest artists pencil additional issues; while this sometimes detracts from the overall work, the artists chosen for Scalped are perfects fits, especially the Italian artist Davide Furnò, who is chosen to draw some of the most painful and intense story arcs and manages to stick both to the template provided by Guéra and add some essential qualities to it. On a craftsmanship level, Scalped is a full success. Emotional, powerful, and a true collaboration between a writer and his artists. On other levels, it’s also a troubling book, as I will explain later. It’s an intense interrogation of violence and corruption among American Indians, written by an Anglo-Saxon American from Alabama, and illustrated by Serbian, Italian and Spanish artists. Its characters are constructed so close to noxious stereotypes that it creates an undercurrent of difficult politics running through the whole book. At the same time, it feels like Jason Aaron’s writing is poised to profit from that, using the troubling politics of the book’s creation to feed into the noir darkness within its pages. The result is an imperfect, problematic, but deeply compelling work of art.
If you know of Jason Aaron, Scalped might not be the main reason for that. Much like it happened to Jeff Lemire with DC Comics, Aaron has been signed by Marvel and has been producing work on a multitude of titles there, most notably on Ghost Rider and a plethora of X-Men related titles. I can’t keep up with X-Men titles because for some reason Marvel decided to have several different books running in parallel, but if I could, Aaron’s nimble writing would be a good reason to at least keep an eye on those. Aaron does pulp incredibly well, and with a sense of humor and irony that escapes some of his contemporary masters of pulp like Rick Remender. While with Remender, even in fantastically inventive books like his recent creator owned book with Image, Black Science, one can almost see the self congratulatory masculinity and dour sense of exploitative jokes, Aaron’s books are rooted in a sense of place, a feeling of connection. He uses the literary traditions and markers of pulp, but he is sensitive to personal and social history. A lot of it is white, poor history. Aaron is not just a cousin of Gustav Hasford, the author of The Short-Timers (the less famous literary inspiration for Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket), but his first major work (and my introduction to Aaron) was a graphic novel about the Vietnam War called The Other Side (2006) It’s clearly a beginner’s work, opting for pathos and sentimentality where it’s not needed, and he’s often bailed out by his artist, the underrated Cameron Stewart, but it’s still an impressive comic, attempting to tell the story of a misguided war by exploring the toll it took on the foot soldiers in it. It’s also a work that attempts to bridge the distance to the culturally and politically defined “other side” by also telling a story from a Vietnamese soldier’s point of view, ultimately killed by Aaron’s blond American protagonist. “Sometimes I dream that I come from a place called Alabama,” he says, only to be dragged back to the brutality and carnage of his everyday life. In the end, Aaron’s protagonist survives, but he carries with him the wounds and the trauma of the murder that he was forced into. This is a recurring theme, coming up as recently as his brand new creator owned series Southern Bastards, a story about a rural Alabama community, whose inhabitants also carry the trauma and memory of wars (the first trade of Southern Bastards has just come out, I recommend it wholeheartedly).
Scalped, then, seems both like a bit of a stretch and something striking close to home for Aaron. In literary terms, it’s connected to classic American noir (down to its protagonist whose first name is Dashiell), to mid-70s Mafia fiction à la Mario Puzo and to comic book tradition, like Frank Miller’s justly revered Daredevil story Born Again, territory that he’s tread many times since. While there’s a sense of Sherwood Anderson to books like Southern Bastards, rural white America only gets a few mentions in Scalped. Instead, his focus is on the plight of “the Rez”, the fictional Prairie Rose Indian Reservation, where people live in poverty, unable to resist the pull of crime. And the reservation’s kingpin is Lincoln Red Crow. He introduces himself to us and to the book’s protagonist like this:
“You’re looking at the President of the Oglala tribal council, as well as sheriff of the tribal police force, chairman of the prairie rose planning committee, treasurer of the highway safety program and managing director of this here brand spankin’ new casino.”
He’s judge, jury and executioner on the reservation, both head of its police force and kingpin of the various crimes committed there. He has committed murders and blackmailed people in order to keep his position. But he’s a complicated character. More than once he says of himself that he’s pursuing a vision for his people. That he is aiming for something higher than profit or money.
And indeed, while people cheat him and play their own games on the reservation, seemingly a death sentence in other mafia-style environments, he lets them do what they want, knowing that they have families that need to be fed. This tension between being a cold murderer and crime boss on the one hand, and a tribe head very conscious of the plight of his people is the main intrigue in the book that goes beyond individual fights and small affairs. Aaron uses flashbacks a lot structuring whole arcs around remembered events. Many of those memories tell us the story of young Lincoln Red Crow, a young American Indian firebrand, fighting for the rights of his people in the 1970s and after. Many of the people involved in current events in the book are shown to have been connected to young Red Crow, including Dashiell Bad Horse, the book’s protagonist, whose mother Gina had also been an activist in the 1970s. It’s not just memories catching up with Red Crow, it’s also some of the crimes he may or may not have committed in his activist past that come to the fore as the FBI opens and pursues an investigation into the murder of two FBI agents in the 1970s.
Unspoken and unmentioned, but always looming in the reader’s mind, is the 1973 Wounded Knee incident, when hundreds of Oglala Lakota occupied the historically significant town of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. This led to an armed confrontation with no real resolution. Pain and violence followed in the many years after the incident, with a corrupt Indian administration possibly murdering up to 60 of its critics. The Wounded Knee incident brought the terrible situation of Native Americans to national attention. Remember when Marlon Brando declined to accept his Academy award in person, sending Sacheen Littlefeather in his stead? That was sort of in response to the incident, which brought the maltreatment of American Indians by the American government newly into focus, as were many other public appeals and actions by activists all around the nation. Meanwhile, the corrupt head of the reservation, whose actions had resulted in the rebellion by the Oglala activists was left in place, and continued about his business. I think we are supposed to read Lincoln Red Crow from within this context. An activist who encounters a hopeless situation, trying to better the social situation of his people, and finds that fighting corruption with corruption is the only path forward. As we first encounter him, he appears to be close to success. With financing from a Hmong gang, he opens a new casino, poised to make his tribe rich.
It’s at this point that things, rotten and precarious for years, start disintegrating. The FBI has infiltrated his tribe, and as the book opens, they are sending another agent to try and get close to him. That agent is the book’s protagonist Dashiell, who is a dark complicated character, but for personal reasons, not for political reasons like Red Crow. This setup is reminiscent of Leonard Peltier, the American Indian activist who was arrested for allegedly murdering two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge reservation shorty after the Wounded Knee incident. In interviews, Aaaron has acknowledged that the Peltier case is one of the inspirations for Lincoln Red Crow (the book even has a direct stand-in for Peltier in the jailed character Lawrence Belcourt), which reinforces the tension in the book. It makes it abundantly clear that we can’t and are not supposed to read Red Crow as a pure antagonist, as a villain, a drug kingpin. Peltier is one of the heroes and touchstone of many civil rights activists, and by referring to him and events at the Pine Ridge Reservation, Aaron lets us understand that this is a morally murky situation. At the same time, viscerally, he uses the broad and dark brush of the tradition he employs. Murder is murder and it’s shown in brutal detail. Suffering and the desperation of those who are not part of Red Crow’s success are highlighted and stressed.
As you can tell, I find Red Crow’s vision and past to be the driving force of the books. The protagonist is a player in a larger game whose parameters have been established through Red Crow’s actions. Dashiell Bad Horse is much more of a conventional noir character. Haunted by his own past, falling in and out of drugs, and soon, haunted by the death of his mother and friends, he pushes on in the darkness of “the Rez”. As the books progress, the story gets more convoluted and characterizations improve and deepen. The moral complexities of the book are met by similarly complex art and writing. One would be tempted to call this book a success if not for a vague feeling of unease.
That unease comes from the fact that the author of this book is a white rural boy from Alabama. He is not just telling a story that contains American Indians, he is telling an American Indian story, and while his politcal intentions are sound and smart, as a reader, I remember the protagonist from Sherman Alexie’s searing Indian Killer who is constantly alienated by the benevolent preaching of his non-native friends. American Indian voices are not so loud that a white author’s voice would just be part of a larger chorus. Instead, the American West is largely explored by white writers with many American Indian voices drowned in the process. An example in the crime writing genre is Todd Downing, a writer of the Choktaw Nation, who, in the early 20th century, wrote a couple of mystery novels set in the American southwest, mostly in Mexico. He also taught Choktaw language and culture and wrote books on the struggles and conflicts in the borderlands that prefigure Cormac McCarthy’s work. Downing is very careful in how he frames indigenous experience. He shows us how the violent stereotype of the American Indian and the Mexican both are flawed and how they contribute to unequal treatment by the police force. Yet his voice almost vanished completely. His study of indigenous Mexican culture The Mexican Earth wasn’t published until after his death and his novels fell out of print for decades until a small press decided to reprint them in 2010. The “inconvenient Indian”, to borrow a phrase from a book by Thomas King (who is half Cherokee) is not well represented in literature where the audience tends to prefer tales of the American West or southwest written by white authors. There is a stereotype trap as to what stories are told about American Indians and what stories are not. Thomas King’s short story collection A Short History of Indians in Canada is among the best attempts at pointing out those problems. And having Jason Aaron jump right in and offer a portrayal of what is basically the Pine Ridge reservation, with all the historical injustice perpetrated against its inhabitants, it doesn’t sit right with me. Especially since the book is so one-dimensionally dark or gritty. It is complex, yes, but within this dark framework. If you add in the more complex depictions of white rural poverty in books like Southern Bastards, what the reader is left with is a kind of irritation.
This irritation that the book offered to me is augmented by some other questionable depictions. The most egregious one is the character of “Mr. Brass”, a Hmong enforcer who came to get the Rez and the Casino back on track. In the process he doesn’t just turn out to be a killer. He’s a sadistic murderer who sodomizes and tortures his victims before killing them. As a character, he is not far from a James Bond villain from the Roger Moore era. This fits the overall use of pulpy ideas, but given Aaron’s other choices with respect to whiteness and color, this is not helpful. None of this irritation, incidentally, takes away from the skill involved in creating this book. It’s smart, powerful and emotionally challenging, with some storylines that can hold up to some of the best work created in comics. It’s just not perfect, especially in the cultural politics of the book itself.
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