June 13, 2014

Derek Royal reviews Scalped

After Gregory Burgas's review of Scalped, here's an academic take on it. This review also mentions my critique of it:

Native Noir: Genre and the Politics of Indigenous Representation in Recent American Comics

By Derek Parker RoyalMost reviewers have read Scalped within the context of crime fiction--"Sopranos on the rez," as many have called it--but perhaps a more precise way of reading the series is through the lens of noir fiction, a subgenre of crime and detective narrative. More than any comic discussed in this essay, Scalped bears the characteristic stamp of noir by almost anyone's definition. Dash Bad Horse is certainly a detecting figure, working not only to uncover the criminality of Chief Red Crow, but also to expose the amoral actions of Agent Nitz. Like many noir protagonists, he displays self-destructive tendencies--as evidenced by his growing heroin addiction--and becomes an unwitting victim of the world he inhabits. As the series evolves, Dash finds himself with shrinking options, trapped by the uncompromising demands of both Red Crow and Nitz. Against his better judgment, he is irresistibly drawn to the comic's femme fatale, Carol Ellroy, the promiscuous and drug-addicted daughter of Red Crow. She functions as a narrative doppelganger, since both of them are estranged from their one remaining parent--Dash's father and Carol's mother are introduced only in brief flashbacks--and both withdraw into themselves, and into their dysfunctional sexual relationship, as the pressures around them build. As such, the tone of the series is both alienating and claustrophobic--panels framing skewed angles and extreme close-ups are common throughout.

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.
Rob replies

A few points here:

  • It's quite common to review the first issue of a series, so let's not pretend it's something strange or unusual.

  • I addressed the issue of Jason Aaron's agenda when I wrote: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.Even if Aaron denied his own words and claimed Scalped was pure entertainment, it wouldn't change my point. Someone can have a conscious agenda or an unconscious one he isn't even aware of. For instance, gaining fame and fortune by portraying people in a dark, ugly way.

    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.

  • Verisimilitude is an important factor in almost every kind of writing. In stories set in an unfamiliar place and time, it's imperative to make the setting realistic so people will suspend their disbelief. Even in pure fantasies, most things operate just as they do in the real world.

    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.

  • Suppose we concede that "faithfully illustrating contemporary reservation life has never been Jason Aaron's primary concern." Not being faithful to reality means using racist and stereotypical tropes to tell one's fantasies of modern-day Indian savages. If we agree that Aaron is doing this, what's the problem? I say Aaron uses racist stereotypes and his defenders don't deny it. End of story?

    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."

  • Any questions?

    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.

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