May 21, 2014

Greg Burgas reviews Scalped

With the recent announcement of a Scalped TV series in development, it's time to revisit my criticism of the comics.

Comics You Should Own–Scalped

By Greg BurgasIn case you are unaware, the “hook” of the comic is that Dash has returned to the Prairie Rose reservation in South Dakota after over a decade away. Prairie Rose is a Oglala Lakota reservation, modeled clearly after Pine Ridge, and Dash’s mother, Gina, is still living there, protesting against the new casino being built by Lincoln Red Crow, the “president of the Oglala Tribal Council, as well as the 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,” as Red Crow himself tells Dash when they first meet (well, meet again, as Red Crow knew Dash when he was a boy). Red Crow hires Dash to be his muscle on the police force, but at the end of issue #1, we discover that Dash is actually a special agent for the FBI, sent undercover to build a case against Red Crow. Thus the storytelling engine of the series is revealed–Dash will try to bring Red Crow down, despite all the hardships that will entail.

This grand plot led people to describe Scalped as “The Sopranos on the rez,” which is an unfortunate and largely incorrect description. People are often desperate to fit something new into a familiar category, so they have to break out the comparisons. Yes, Scalped is a crime-noir title, but the FBI’s case against Red Crow and Dash’s attempts to build it are by far the least interesting aspects of the book. This is partly because Aaron doesn’t do enough with Dash himself, so it’s tough to care too much whether he succeeds or doesn’t. Dash careens from mishap to mishap, many of them ridden with clich├ęs. He gets involved with Carol, Red Crow’s daughter, with whom he was in love when they were both young teens. Carol’s story, for a long time, is itself drenched in stereotypes, and when Aaron focuses on their dysfunctional relationship, Scalped is at its worst.
So two of the main characters are either poorly written or "drenched in stereotypes"? Sounds like a problem to me. A problem that continues throughout the series, not just the first few issues.Obviously, Scalped created some controversy, especially early in its run. FotB Rob Schmidt collected a lot of stories about the series early on in its run, and I encourage you to check it out (although a lot of the links on the page are now broken). I spoke to Rob recently and he said he hadn’t read beyond the first arc, and I agree that the early issues are somewhat stereotypical. I’m not sure if Aaron was unsure if he could do an ongoing series, as this was so early in his comics career, or if he wanted to grab everyone’s attention with all the violence and sex, but the book becomes far more nuanced after the first six issues and especially after issue #11.Interesting, Greg. You explored all of Scalped's great character work--how the characters changed and grew over time. What you didn't explore was Scalped's overall presentation of life on the rez. The problem is embodied in this sentence:Lincoln Red Crow, the “president of the Oglala Tribal Council, as well as the 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”...No person on an Indian reservation has ever had this much concentrated power--at least in recent years. For instance, I'm almost certain no tribal chairman manages his tribe's casino. If one did, I'm almost certain it would violate the law.

Which means the feds would intervene and shut the casino down. Casinos don't operate unless the feds are certain they and their management are completely aboveboard. There are hundreds of Indian casinos and not one has been revealed to be a criminal enterprise.

If someone did have as much power as Red Crow, I'm confident the tribe would oust him and the FBI would arrest him--quickly. So an evil empire of this type is essentially impossible. Yet that seems to be the premise of the whole series: criminality far beyond anything possible in real life.

Where are the National Indian Gaming Commission and the tribe's own casino regulators? The internal and external media--such as the NY Times, ABC News, and the Oprah Winfrey Network, who all reported on Pine Ridge recently? The nonprofits, documentarians, even tourists who visit and share what they see? The activists on Facebook and Twitter who protest rez-based conditions? (You and Aaron do realize that most Indians have computers, I trust?)

I don't see any of this reflected in the Scalped I read--or in your review. The whole environment seems like a dark, isolated den of iniquity with no hint of how modern or sophisticated most Indians are. In other words, no matter how good the individual characters are, the series' vision of Native life seems cramped and ugly--i.e., stereotypical. That's my main criticism and I'm sticking with it for now.

P.S. Apologies for the links on my website not working. I've got literally thousands of pages and no time to update any of them. I need worker bees to help me, dammit!

Commenter seeks butt-kicking

Then there's this commenter on Greg's review:Bryan
December 2, 2013 at 11:29 am

Going by the review at the linked site, Rob is an absolutely terrible reviewer and shows very little aptitude for being able to read and comprehend a work. His childish responses are so ignorant it’s almost shocking. Obviously it’s one thing to like or dislike something, but his analysis of the first issue doesn’t seem to grasp the idea of fiction — it’s as if he’d watch Casablanca and think it claimed everyone in Morocco spent all their time in a bar, or read The Great Gatsby and think it claimed everybody in the New York area was spent their wealth excessively.
No, Bryan, it's like I watched Planet of the Apes or Escape from New York but it was described as present-day NYC and everyone but me was too ignorant to know the difference.

Ever hear of Birth of a Nation, Amos 'n' Andy, Song of the South, Mandingo, etc.? You seem blissfully unaware that works of fiction can be flawed to the point of prejudice. "Art" isn't a magic label that absolves someone's work of racism, sexism, or any other -ism I could name. Something can be artistic or stereotypical or both.

You can say Aaron's depiction of rez life is unrealistic, fictional, fanciful, or whatever word you want. I say it's unrealistic, fictional, or fanciful in ways that are stereotypical if not racist. I'm not disagreeing with you, I'm just thinking more deeply about the subject than you are. I'm assessing the fiction, not merely acknowledging it like a baby waving at his mommy.

If you disagree, you must prove there are no stereotypes and Aaron's depiction is more or less fair and accurate. So go ahead and do it. Put up or shut up.

Here, I'll make simple for you. Aaron's depiction of rez life is (choose one):

1) Nonfictional.
2) Fictional with racist stereotypes.
3) Fictional without racist stereotypes.

You stupidly think that *I* think it's 1). Wrong. I think it's 2). And you apparently think it's 3), since you've disagreed with me. So explain your position, if you're not too afraid. How is Aaron's Scalped a stereotype-free depiction of rez life?

As for the rest of my review, be sure to let us know when you can quote anything that isn't true. With your fact-free criticism of my criticism, you haven't done it yet.

For more on Scalped, see "Native Spiritual Adviser" Warns Rob and Aaron on Ending Scalped.

Below:  Near-naked strippers, including one in a headdress, at a casino opening? Has Jason Aaron ever set foot in an Indian casino? Because this scene of debauchery would be unrealistic in Las Vegas, much less a regional Indian casino.

Depicting a girl in a headdress (right edge) is telling by itself. This isn't an "artistic choice" that contributes to Aaron's noir themes. It's pure racist stereotyping, nothing more. It's an insult to every Plains chief who earned his feathers through acts of valor.

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