Native Noir: Genre and the Politics of Indigenous Representation in Recent American Comics
By Derek Parker Royal
Guéra's art, gritty and saturated with dark, dull browns and blues, creates a foreboding atmosphere that parallels the sinister fate that seems to await all involved. Even the daylight scenes are illustrated as if under shadow. All in all, the series is one that resonates with the noir tradition established by such practitioners as Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, and James Ellroy.
Yet, what is perhaps most significant about Scalped is its narrative use of indigenous predicaments as a way into the noir genre. More times than not--and as demonstrated by critics such as Sheyahshe, Pewewardy, and King--when not represented in the historical past and in Western settings, Native Americans are typecast as superheroes. And usually it is those characteristics most stereotyped, such a shamanistic connection to the spiritual world or the extraordinary ability to "read" nature, that find expression within that genre. Some even claim that Scalped, as is the case with many superhero comics, does harm to Native Americans by playing into common stereotypes. Schmidt, for example, condemns what he sees in the series as an "ultra-negative portrayal of life on the rez," "a grotesque look at reservation life," and a tendency to "tak[e] the worst possible scenario and presen[t] it as the norm." He bluntly concludes that "[t]o portray Indians worse than the reality isn't 'realistic.' It's a textbook example of unrealistic. Since [Scalped] reinforces a thousand previous portrayals of Indians as drunks, savages, and killers, it's stereotypical as well as unrealistic" (Scalped).
What is apparently at issue in Schmidt's critique is the need for verisimilitude. As with most studies on Native American comics, the assumption here is that the value of a comic should be based largely on the writer's and artist's accuracy of representation. That is, the more "true" one is in one's rendition of Native culture, the better the comic. But faithfully illustrating contemporary reservation life has never been Jason Aaron's primary concern. In his response to Schmidt's review--one that judged the new Vertigo series solely by its first issue--Aaron stated, "I'm not writing Scalped with any sort of agenda in mind, and I'm not nearly pretentious enough to think that I'm here to educate the country on the state of Native life." Instead, he set out to write "a crime series, so it's obviously going to focus on criminal elements" (qtd. in Schmidt, Scalped). Given Aaron's sentiments, the question then becomes, why base the crime (or noir) series in a reservation setting? Aaron has stated elsewhere that Native American history is "just one of those things I'd always read about, especially the American Indian movement and the Red Power movement of the '70s, and the Leonard Peltier story. So all that just kind of worked together with my desire to do a crime series. ... I wanted to do, like, a familiar genre, but something that was a little different" ("Sticking with Scalped"). In essence, the comic book has its genesis in Aaron's fascination with generic forms: "It all really came from me loving both westerns and crime stories and wanting to combine the two" (qtd. in Rozier).
Questions of ethnic stereotyping in Scalped are certainly open for discussion. Whether intended or not, Aaron's representation of indigenous contexts could strike some readers as unflattering or even insensitive, and this matter has sparked quite a bit of debate on blogs and networking sites devoted to comics and pop culture.
A few points here:
I'd say Aaron's agenda is something along those lines. He's exploiting Indians to tell tales of depravity and doom and score points with fans and critics. And I'm pointing out this exploitation.
I don't think I've ever said verisimilitude is the primary factor in fiction--something that determines the "value of a comic." Rather, I expect the plots, characters, themes, settings, and other elements of fiction to work together to produce optimal stories. Verisimilitude is a thread that weaves through all these factors, strengthening and enriching them. Other things being equal, a believable story is almost always better than an unbelievable one.
You see, you can't have it both ways. Either Aaron is being "unfaithful" to reality and using negative stereotypes or he isn't. If he is, I'm criticizing him for it. Period.
False and stereotypical depictions of a particular race are racist by definition. Racist portrayals done in the name of art are still racist portrayals. I for one will never defend or excuse racism for any reason, including "art."
For more on Scalped, see "Native Spiritual Adviser" Warns Rob and Aaron on Ending Scalped.
Below: Chairman Red Crow shoots it out with Hmong gangsters for control of his casino? Because Indians are modern-day savages no different from the thieves and killers around them. And reservations are lawless hellholes akin to a post-apocalyptic wasteland.