Comics author Jason Aaron has a gift for building stories around the still-healing wounds of American history and culture. His comic The Other Side explores the horrors of the Vietnam War; with his gritty Native American crime series Scalped Aaron explores the grim conditions "on the rez".
After running away from his home on the Prairie Rose reservation at age 13, Dashiell Bad Horse returns fifteen years later, making trouble everywhere he goes. Bad Horse comes to the attention of the local crime lord, a ruthless and conniving man named Lincoln Red Crow who immediately puts Bad Horse to work as a tribal cop on his personal payroll. On the surface Bad Horse works as Red Crow’s muscle, stamping out competitors that threaten Red Crow’s hold on the tribe and silencing a contingent of protestors who oppose the developing casino that will increase Red Crow’s wealth ten-fold. But we learn early on that Bad Horse is a federal agent working undercover to bring down Red Crow and his criminal empire. Tensions increase when both a former girlfriend and Bad Horse’s mother question his return to Prairie Rose.
The basic plot owes a lot to typical mob stories, complete with an unflinching portrayal of violence, prostitution and drug abuse. The action and plotting are sharp enough to satisfy most any fan of edgy gang-style tales. Setting the story on a reservation, though, allows Aaron to explore these ideas in a fresh manner. What he has going for him is the unique palette he can draw from to build his story. It has the potential to say a lot about current perceptions of native americans and how they play into racism, culture and history.
Artist R.M. Guera's a pretty successful veteran of European comics, and his coming from that tradition really shows. The bold lines and frenetic panels to highlight the blood-and-bullets style of action. He also makes use of the western landscape, creating dramatic desert scenes that build up the tension and alienation felt throughout the story. The one real criticism I have is the way he draws faces---they are at times a bit too abstract for me. A number of characters run together visually and it's not until I read dialogue that I always knew who they were.
The real danger of this series, however, is how Aaron is playing into stereotypes. While the stereotypes are twisted into modern forms we still see a culture built around violence, drugs and extreme sexual appetites. Unfortunately, the negatives aren't balanced with any positive figures. Although a hero of sorts, Bad Horse is still pretty unlikeable; he's perpetually angry at everyone for everything and he expresses it with extreme violence.
In an interview with Silver Bullet, Aaron states that his "goal with Scalped is to make all the characters sympathetic, even the most villainous. Red Crow, in a lot of ways, will become the most sympathetic". If the story moves in a way that redeems some of these characters, a lot of the criticism will likely be turned around into praise. We see hints of this with part two of this collection. A chapter dubbed “Hoka Hey” works in layers of flashbacks, hinting at stronger development of both character and theme as the series continues. After all the flying bullets and slamming fists, that's what will keep me coming back to this series and I hope I see it.