Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Scalped - No capes allowed

By Jay Stringer

I continue to be blown away by SCALPED.

It’s a shining example of great comics, of what can be done with the medium that can’t be done with film, television or books.

And that’s a key concept, an important one. There’s a dirty secret in comic books, folks. The industry looks down on itself. It has self esteem problems, always wanting to be more like movies and TV, always wanting to hang with the cool kids. In truth comic books are at their best when they’re allowed to be what they are; a distinct art form. A language of story telling that can do some thing far better than any other medium.

Comics are at their best when they’re not redefining themselves as graphic novels, or sequential fiction, or any of the other bullshit titles that get used to make them seem worthy of having a section in a bookshop.

And Scalped is possibly the best example out there right now.

But I’ll get to that in a minute. First it’s worth noting that I came relatively late to the party. I actually flicked through the first couple of issues and….it didn’t grab me. I wasn’t in the right frame of mind, I guess. After I heard the growing praise, I picked up the first trade, Indian Country, and it hooked me a little. I wasn’t fully sold on this being the best thing since sliced bread, but I enjoyed it and kept going. It’s now up to its fourth trade, The Gravel In Your Guts, and I’m hooked. I need it. Each time i think i have it figured out, it adds another layer or takes a new turn.

What’s the plot? Well like all good things its both very simple and very complex. The basic set up is that it takes place on a Native American reservation. It covers the inhabitants of the towns, the local law enforcement, the corruption, and the building of a brand new casino. It’s every noir tale of corruption and greed that you’ve ever read, but in a new setting that’s so perfect you can’t believe it’s taken this long.

The story starts when Dashiell Bad Horse returns to the rez. He’s angry, he’s strong and he’s trouble. He picks fights with an entire bar full of people and comes to the attention of Chief Red Crow; the godfather of the reservation. Red Crow controls the drugs, the liquor and the sex. He’s the corrupt mind behind the new casino. His main adversary, a woman who is leading the protests against the casino, also happens to be Bad Horse’s mother. She and Red Crow were the love of each others lives until they started hating each other.

Dashiell is working undercover for the FBI to uncover the corruption of Red Crow and the bad guys. So far, so simple.


There are no good guys and bad guys on show here. Soon you start to think that Dash is doing the right thing for the right reasons, and that Red Crow is doing the wrong thing for the right reasons. Except that theory unravels too. Dash is a bit of an asshole. He's not in this for any noble intentions, rather a mix of entrapment, self hatred and self discovery.

And Red Crow himself soon grows to be the best thing about the book. In fact, he’s just about the most complex character I’ve come across in years, in any medium. He’s both a crime lord and a freedom fighter. He’s a flawed hero and a noble villain. As he himself says at one point;

I’ve killed many men. Women too. And I’ll kill a hundred more, if that’s what it takes to see my vision through. To carve a better place in this world for my people."

In the latest collection we see him trying to reform. He is given the soul pouch of a dead friend to guard over. What that means is that he must live a peaceful and noble life for a year so that the soul of his friend can find peace. If he fails he is condemning that soul to remain restless.

And boy, does he try. But a mans gotta do, you know? I never thought a scene where a middle-aged man says, “I’m sorry.” To a piece of cloth would have me in pieces.

The narrative cuts between the large and the small scale, to show supporting characters becoming entangled in the larger web of the plot. Much like The Wire, we see that the characters are trapped in a much larger game, just as in the old tales where the Greek gods would move the humans around like pawns. You know it’s going to end badly, and they know it’s going to end badly. But they can’t break out.

Dash and Red Crow are caught in a dance, they know one day it’s going to come down between the two of them, but they’re also locked in like family, both defined by the love of the same woman.

So what can this series do that a novel, film or TV series can’t? Why was I so bold with my opening statement?

Could this be a film? Yes. It could be a rushed and violent spectacle. It could cram the whole thing into two or three hours and barely scratch the surface of what this series has achieved so far.
Could it be a television show? Sure. The Wire has proved that this sort of thing is doable. But it would take the very best writers and directors, to say nothing of a cast who would be willing to sit out whole episodes at a time as the focus shifts.
What a comic book can do that doesn’t work on screen is to really get us into the heads of the characters. It can show and tell. And because of that, it only needs to do a little of each to hit home very powerfully.

I’m reminded of a scene in issue 19, The Boudoir Stomp.

Dash Bad Horse and his lover are sharing a bed. We see them have wild passionate sex, sharing part of each other in the most intimate way.

Then afterward we see them lying in silence. They’re both lost and alone, and desperate for company. We get too see both what they actually say to each other, and what they want to say to each other. And the fact that they can’t say the words is heartbreaking.

Could this be done on screen? Yes. With a really clunky voice over. In fact, it would need two separate clunky voice overs; one for each character. Who wants that?

Could this be a novel? Sure. Absolutely. But to do the story and characters justice, it would need to be a seven hundred page epic, it would need to have about ten different points of view, and it wouldn’t be able to show us the simple despair that one panel of art can get across.

And that’s where the real strength of the medium lies, as I’ve already said, in its ability to show and tell. A little bit of both goes a long way. It combines the strengths of cinematic storytelling with the strengths of prose. In the right hands it can become something that neither form can match.

And Scalped is in the right hands. Written by Jason Aaron and (usually) drawn by R.M. Guera, this is a masterpiece in the making.

I don't gush like this often, folks. But you know those books that people look back on? WATCHMEN, PREACHER, MAUS.....wouldn't it be great to have front frow seats as one of those legendary stories was happening?

Well, you can. Volume 5, HIGH LONESOME is due out in November. That gives you plenty of time to catch up.

If you don't, the guy to the right gets it. And a puppy.


John McFetridge said...

I was never into comic and I've never read a graphic novel, but this one has been onmy radar for a while.

And you're right, the page you show here is an example of something that can only be done in this format. The clunky voice over in a movie would absolutely ruin a scene like this and the novel would either be simply the words - without the art - or too many words to try and take the place of the art.

Good post, thanks.

Steve Weddle said...

I'm not much of a comic reader, either, but I thought TRANSMETROPOLITAN was some of the best story-telling out there when it came around. Spider Jerusalem was a great character, a HST for the future.

This SCALPED of which you write seems much more complex, as thoughtful as many noir stories out there. I'll check it out.

Chris said...

SCALPED is fantastic. And Jason Aaron is just a great story -- a guy working jobs here and there, gets his shot winning a Marvel Comics writing contest, and one things to another and we have such a fantastic series going.

I also think this book shines another spotlight on one of the problems with comics. So much of what they rely on are characters that were created upwards of 60 years ago. Aaron also does some Marvel stuff -- Wolverine, Ghost Rider, Punisher coming up -- and while it is good it is nowhere near what he shows with SCALPED. It's like a rock band who are pretty damn good as a cover band, but when they roar into their original material your head explodes.

Patti said...

I've tried to contact you via email but they come running back. Wonder if you'd review a forgotten book for my blog-Friday's Forgotten books-http://patttinase.blogspot.com
Doesn't need to be long or fancy. I'm looking for October reviews right now. I'm at aa2579@wayne.edu

Jm Diaz said...

Outstanding post! It made me want to peel away from my current reading interests, and dive back into a good graphic novel. Thanks!

Jay Stringer said...

cheers for the comments folks.

i have another few noir comic recomendations i've been thinking about blogging, but people could check them out now. CRIMINAL by Ed Brubaker -first trade is called COWARD.

THE ROBERTS is a great one shot story, two of americas most famous serial killers in the same retirement home.

Steve Weddle said...

I just picked up an issue of this one at the comic shop on Mr Stringer's rec.

I was asking the guy at the store about some of the titles being written by the noir mystery/thriller folks: PUNISHER, MOON KNIGHT, CABLE< WOLVERINE.

Him: "I really don't bother with that. I only read the independents."

Jay Stringer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jay Stringer said...

wow, he really put his back into the recomendations there, didn't he!

Those titles are being written by the noir guys, but they are more mainstream titles.

For entry points its best to stick to;

-Ed Brubaker's CRIMINAL, up to about five trades now.Starts with COWARD, then LAWLESS and moves on from there.

-Brian Bendis. JINX and TORSO
JINX is a riff on sergio leone but done as an urban crime drama with a female bounty hunter. It was a real labour of love, very indie, and a clasic. TORSO is a true crime drama, based on Elliot Ness and the torso killings.

-FELL by Warren Ellis. A cop moves to a corrupt town and starts trying to clean it up. Atmospheric and well written.

-Darwyn Cooke's adaptation of THE HUNTER is a must.

Jay Stringer said...

Also worth mentioning that there is a new PI comic book coming out in a couple of months called STUMPTOWN.

It's going to be written by Greg Rucka, and is a homage to THE ROCKFORD FILES. So you just KNOW I'll be reading it.

Chris said...

I second CRIMINAL and Darwyn Cooke's adaptation of THE HUNTER. Fantastic stuff!

100 BULLETS by Brian Azzarello is also a must-read. He also just did a little hardcover digest for Vertigo's new crime line that is called FILTHY RICH.

Johnny Bacardi said...

You could do that boudoir scene in a film, and not have voice overs. It would take actors capable of emoting wordlessly, and a director who knows how to effectively stage it, but it could be done.

You're absolutely right, though- Scalped is one of the best things being published by anyone in the comics business today, and it's a damn shame more people aren't getting into it.