I realize that bloggers and online reviewers’ primary intentions are usually to have the “first word” on a subject, to break the big news, or to leak the latest spoiler; however, I believe in this rush to “publish,” whether it be on sites such as CBR, Newsarama, IGN Comics, or others, or on personal blogs, undermines the validity of the medium itself, evoking in many ways some of the greatest negatives associated with comics’ pulp predecesors. That is not to say that the reviews published by organizations listed above are not solid and well done, but one of the goals of this site is to move beyond the fan review, beyond the quick hit review, and delve deeper into comic culture itself and its larger social significance.
Of course, Scalped #35 is perhaps not the best issue to begin a review with as it is a stand alone issue transitioning between writer Jason Aaron’s story arcs. Having been with the series since the first issue, having covered its initial seven issue run in a book manuscript, and having spoken with Aaron several times about the series, this latest issue comes as a welcome departure away from what few if any reviewers have identified as potential problems for the series itself. One of the things that truly brought me into the title was its brash and often times brazen use of violence and language juxtaposed against an environment that is often times overlooked in American popular culture–Indian Country. Yet, this defining aspect of a series once called “the Sopranos on an Indian Reservation” by Vertigo, which once served as a potential catalyst for more contemporary, more modern, and some cases, more realistic portrayals of Native peoples, became, for a time, a stereotype in and of itself.
In this issue, Aaron introduces readers to two new characters, Mance and Hazel, both of whom live on the Prairie Ridge Rez. Opening with a crisis contrasted against a nostalgic memory of times past, Aaron identifies a crucial and critical theme in Native history–reservation vs. non reservation Indian peoples. Aaron states “back when the rez was formed, the only Indians lived near town were the ones who had given in, given up the fight, sold out completely. The real Indians lived as far from town as they could get. The further out, the more real you were.” While recognizing this often complex and difficult relationship between rez and non rez Indigenous peoples, and the hostilities that would obviously emerge, Aaron, like most other writers dealing with contemporary Native America (in comics or otherwise) overlooks the modern demographic shift away from reservations and into cities, and the importance of urban Indian peoples in the twentieth century. Almost establishing an “us against them” mentality, Aaron, throughout the series, reinforces stereotypes while simultaneously challenging and critiquing them. Yet, are readers aware of this? Does Aaron’s sound and viable research into Native history (which he does quite well) translate over to audiences largely ignorant of said history beyond what they have seen on film and television thousands of times?
This is not to say that the plight, the poverty, the hunger that are depicted in Scalped are not true–far from it. America’s own third world is here in Oklahoma, here in South Dakota, here in Arizona, New Mexico, and beyond. And, this is also not to say that Aaron should simply tell a “happy” story once and a while. But, Aaron is often times championed for his “dark” and “gritty” approach to writing. This is great and it is definitely one of his strong suits as an author. And, in selecting a reservation as a locale to explore such themes is commendable and usually quite intriguing; however, the major trap that the series has fallen into is that the “darkness” and the “grit” are overwhelming the characters, specifically the cultural landscape upon which the entire book is founded. Native audiences in have very few places that they can look toward and see themselves reflected back in mainstream comics (let alone film or television), and for every harsh, “dark,” and “gritty” storyline that depicts the brutality of rez life that is presented, Aaron would do well to give his Indigenous characters more agency and allow the “bright spots” of issue #35 to be achieved by the people themselves, rather than simply acted upon by outside forces beyond their control.