April 07, 2008

Richard Van Camp on SCALPED

Richard Van Camp, an up-and-coming writer from the Dogrib Nation, has reviewed the SCALPED comic book. Since he works on comics himself, his views are especially relevant.

in print:  Who's Scalping Who?It’s written by Jason Aaron and it’s like The Shield Indian Style. I want to hate it because the title and that frickin’ first cover with the main character, Dashiell Bad Horse, wearing a headdress and war paint, with his nunchucks hanging over his shoulders. It’s ugly to me and a slap in the face to anyone who knows anything about Aboriginal culture. And the story is brutal. It reinforces every stereotype out there about Aboriginal people, and yet I can’t stop reading it. R.M. GuĂ©ra’s artwork is incredible and perfect for this kind of writing because it, too, is chiseled and dark. I want to hate it but I don’t.What are SCALPED's "virtues"?This is a grim story. At times, it feels like hate literature. Chapter five in Casino Boogie, titled “My Ambitionz az a Ridah”, is so insulting and portrays the reservation as hell on earth and the American Indian characters as ignorant, infected, and without any hope whatsoever.Some advice for SCALPED's writer:I am thrilled that Jason Aaron is showing his readers the history of the American Indian Movement, Leonard Peltier, boarding schools, and the poverty that many Aboriginal communities face; however, I am hoping that Aaron continues to tell this hard story and begins to show the world the joy, the pride, the families, and individuals returning to wellness with dignity. The Lakota are a proud people. Show it.Comment:  If this is a positive review, I'd hate to see Van Camp's negative reviews. But he's too nice a guy to criticize people the way I do.

Yes, let's hope Aaron "begins to the show the world the joy, the pride," etc. In other words, let's hope Aaron writes a totally different comic that isn't full of stereotypes.

FYI, I reviewed a draft of this article. Van Camp originally wrote that he hoped Aaron would "continue" to show the joy, pride, and so forth. How could Aaron continue to show these things, I responded, when he hadn't shown them at all?

Comparing SCALPED to The Shield is revealing. I'm a fan of The Shield and also The Sopranos, another series to which SCALPED is frequently compared. In The Shield, only Vic Mackey's team of cops is arguably corrupt or immoral. The rest of the officers are human and flawed, but also decent and honest. That's different from SCALPED, where most of the authorities (not just a few) are corrupt and immoral.

I'm not impressed by Aaron's showing the history of AIM and Leonard Peltier. That's old news. It didn't apply to most reservations then and it definitely doesn't apply to them now.

Rather, it stereotypes Indians as angry and anti-social activists. It portrays them as too violent and out-of-control to legislate or work peaceably for change. The term for an activist so rabid he's willing to kill to get his way is savage.

Funny that Van Camp sees the same flaws that I do, yet feels compelled to keep reading. When I read something that portrays "Indian characters as ignorant, infected, and without any hope whatsoever," I think, "This is bad. If it were free I might consider it, but I won't pay money to patronize a writer's bias against Indians."

Since Aaron doesn't like criticism, I should clarify my position. Other than the Native stereotypes, Aaron's writing is pretty good. But the Native stereotypes are pretty bad. The net result is a wash, and not something I'm willing to subsidize.

Van Camp also mentioned writers who have taken care to portray Indians respectfully, including Tim Truman and me. Curiously, he thought we were both Native--presumably because we seem to understand the Native viewpoint. Actually, neither of us is Native, but it's nice to be mistaken for one.


Delia Christina said...


I don't know. I know where you're coming from politically, I guess. I mean, I went to college on the west coast and supported the Chicano studies movement and different campus causes for Native Americans. (I mean, who hasn't if they've gone to UCLA?) I've supported renaming school mascots so we don't have Warriors or Chiefs or whatever. I get all that and I guess I'm 'down' with that, as a progressive woman of color who considers herself an ally to other marginalized and colonized populations.

Sure, compared to some folks, my bona fides are weak, but intent has to count for something, right?

But I read the first two trades of Scalped over the weekend and, I have to say, I really liked them. I thought the narrative was dark, brutal and tight, the art was great and I look forward to more. I can understand your criticism that there is nothing ennobling about his story, but do all stories dealing with native peoples need to be ennobling?

I mean, coming from my own ethnic background, that's like saying stories depicting African Americans need to show us living some version of the Cosby show, instead of the cracked out narratives of life some of us live in in South Central or the south side of Chicago. Are those stories of urban, inner city life ennobling or uplifting? No. Could they be used by those who enjoy racial and cultural privilege to justify further discrimination and disenfranchisement? Maybe, sure. And does reading those stories make me think that all my brown brother and sisters live like they're in an episode of The Wire? Of course not.

Dark and cynical as it was, The Wire was awesome and frank and complicated and hopeless - just like some black lives are. And it was written by a white man. Or is that really the issue here? Is the issue that Scalped could be read as an act of cultural co-optation?

That, in a long line of white men stealing from the brown man, this here is another white man 'stealing' from the already stolen-from native community. If that's at the heart of your issue with the book, then I think that speaks to a larger question of representation of native people and demands an answer: Who has the right to represent native communities? And how should native communities be represented? Is it the writer's intent to coopt this culture or is co-optation an unintended impact of his writing?

These are questions I've asked myself when I'm confronted with yet another badly written novel of 'thug life' in Borders. Do we need another story of thug life? Is my community uplifted through stories of thug life? Do our stories really have to act like guided tours of the ghetto?

But I also ask myself if all stories about my community need to reflect some bourgeois utopian fantasy in order to make some white people more comfortable with their privilege?

Or should I just suck it up and face it that, in order to satisfy generic requirements (as well as the demands of the market), perhaps a crime story about the inner working of a social service clinic staffed by a scrappy group of socially conscious black vegans just wouldn't be quite as gripping?

Anyway, these are just some of my rambling thoughts while I avoid work. I don't really think this book approaches hate literature and perhaps your criticism underestimates the intelligence of the people who read Scalped.

Though I will say that he needs to do more about how he writes women (who are either shrews or promiscuous head cases.) I mean, come on. Carol is a joke.

Rob said...

Did you read my full review at SCALPED:  Another Comic Book Gets Indians Wrong? Because I covered this point at length. For instance, here's what I said to Jason Aaron when he tried to defend his depictions of Indians:

SCALPED #1 doesn't say anything, as far as I can recall, about "Prairie Rose" being the worst or even an exceptional case. Readers who don't know anything about rez life may infer that this is a typical situation. That's especially true since they've heard many stories about corrupt, greedy casino owners in the mainstream media. This comic confirms everything they think is true.

Also, you've said in interviews that you want people to learn about conditions in Indian Country, or words to that effect. That again implies the situation in Prairie Rose is typical or representative. No, it isn't.

I understand that many reservations are dysfunctional. If the depiction of Prairie Rose had been negative but fair (what I consider fair), I wouldn't have criticized it for that. I didn't criticize the movie Skins because it was negative, even though it portrayed the dark side of Lakota life. I thought it showed the right amount of negativity for a place like Pine Ridge.

I also get the comparison with The Sopranos, a show I've watched and enjoyed. But The Sopranos shows a wide range of Italian characters, not just bad ones. Moreover, the whole point of the show is the angel and devil battling for Tony Soprano's soul. Unlike Boss Red Crow, few of the Sopranos characters are pure evil. Almost all are complex people who love their families, honor their mothers and fathers, go to church and PTA meetings, donate to charities, etc.

So far, SCALPED seems more like Scarface, Pulp Fiction, or The Godfather than The Sopranos. It's a more extreme look at Indians than The Sopranos was at Italians. Only about half the Sopranos episodes featured mob killings or violence, while SCALPED #1 was drenched in these things.

Rob said...

To address your specific points:

My complaint about SCALPED isn't that it isn't ennobling. It's that it portrays reservation life much more negatively than any reality. That's a different criticism, so try to understand my position.

People today can see a thousand depictions of life in the 'hood--in movies, TV shows, rap songs and videos, video games, etc. But this is one of the only times they'll get to see what life on a reservation is like. Moreover, Aaron has made a point of noting how much research he's done and how he wants to show people the "reality" of rez life. Given these factors, we have every reason to hold SCALPED to a higher standard than The Wire.

With your comments about the Cosby show vs. the inner city, you're buying into the presumption that SCALPED is a tough but realistic look at rez life. That's where you're wrong. It may be tough, but it isn't realistic. As I wrote in another debate:

Let me reiterate the key point: To portray Indians worse than the reality isn't "realistic." It's a textbook example of unrealistic. Since it reinforces a thousand previous portrayals of Indians as drunks, savages, and killers, it's stereotypical as well as unrealistic.

Did I say SCALPED was "hate literature"? I don't think so. I suspect Aaron is acting out of ignorance, not malice. But people are learning from his overly negative portrayals regardless of his intent.

You think I'm underestimating the intelligence of SCALPED's readers? Are they more intelligent than the many Americans who believe the Native stereotypes they've seen in countless movies, TV shows, and comics? Where do you think people get the idea that Indians are savage, violent, immoral, and degenerate? If not from sources like SCALPED, where?