Friday, 20 April 2012

On "Scalped: Casino Boogie" & "Hoka Hey" by Jason Aaron & R.M. Guera

   
Poverty as a character-testing challenge for the hard-done-by and noble-at-heart protagonist to rise above. Poverty as the terrible crucible which strangely differentiates the decent and hard-working poor from the weak-spined, self-indulgent, and undeserving gene trash. Poverty as the easy excuse for a life of wastrelism and crime, poverty as the excuse-all plea of mitigation given by society's predatory scum. Poverty as the sinfully deliberate creation of the raptorial capitalist classes, poverty as an unfortunate accident which might be overcome if only well-meaning citizens from the more affluent stratas knew just a little bit more about it. Poverty as the purgatory whose poor damned souls can only be saved by the super-citizen from a higher social plane. Poverty as a backdrop for class-voyeuristic slumming, as a cliched stage-set for creators and readers alike to indulge in the thrill of brutally powerful men and wilful, sexually-transgressive women, in the prospect of mugger-packed mean streets, rapist-clogged cul-de-sacs and crack-den-filled apartment blocks. The way in which poverty's both depicted and put to use in the mass of comic books is nearly always as woefully predictable as it's facile and patronising.

       

Jason Aaron's scripts for Scalped discuss poverty is a way which few comics have ever thought to. He's clearly far too smart to swallow crass situationalist theories which reduce individuals to mindless victims of class structures, but he's also no interest in perpetuating the politically-convenient, hand-washing myth that the right sort of folks will always find a way to work themselves out of the worst of circumstances. From the very first chapter of Indian County, Aaron and his artistic collaborator R.M. Guera make it absolutely clear that life on the Prairie Rose Indian Reservation presents its inhabitants with deprivations which can't be wished away or conquered with nothing more than a willingness to work hard matched to godly good thinking. The Reservation is a monster of oppression and exploitation which exists beyond anyone's capacity to substantially reform, let alone redeem, without their first committing the most appalling of acts. Though the pages of Scalped show us a number of women and men who are working to make their community as good a place as they can to live in, the spine of the tale always emphasises that the Reservation has been established and maintained in such a way that its people can only at the very best survive there. In that, Scalped very much isn't a comic book concerned with the usually comforting pablum of how the individual can rise above the world if only they fight hard enough, if only they're true to this principle or that. Instead, it seems to be Aaron's purpose to discuss how the choices before his characters are framed by forces which are largely, and despite their very best efforts, beyond their control. They can attempt to wrestle sense and advantage out of the world that they've through no fault of their own been condemned to, but the cost of doing so is always exhausting and appalling.

      
Even the most apparently powerful members of Aaron's Native American cast are shown to be at least as much prisoners as masters of their situation. And so, Lincoln Red Crow's made sure that he's risen to a position of political preeminence, dreaming as he does so of bringing prosperity in the form of the Crazy Horse Casino to the community. Yet in order to achieve this, he's had to embrace and perpetuate decades of soul-shrivelling gangsterism. The corruption of Aaron's America is so complete that even the most herculean of feats by his characters can only affect the fundamental structure of the Reservation and their lives within it if they're willing to behave in ways which violate the most fundamental ethical values. The choice seems dispiritingly clear from the perspective of the reader; either these characters have to accept a life as a citizen of what's effectively a Third World state or abandon any claims to a culture which stands in opposition to that of their persecutors. As the Bureau Of Indian Affairs Regional Director Todd Jigger reminds Red Crow, the Reservation's casino has been built using exactly the same heartlessly exploitative methods which once destroyed the Native American nations. "Welcome to the white's man's world." mocks Jigger, emphasising that the final triumph of the American state is to impose the worst of its values upon the most oppressed and powerless of its victims. Or: in order to compete with America, you have to become America, and not the shining blameless America of the least discriminating patriot's dreams either.


As Aaron writes in the very first panel of Scalped, the Prairie Rose Indian Reservation is "where the great Sioux Nation came to die".  At the heart of his scripts is the fact that the Reservation's people simply don't have the resources to take control of their lives and prosper a community. They can survive, more or less, but that's mostly the best that they can achieve. No matter what they do, they can never legitimately access the weight of opportunity and wealth that's needed to transform their society into something other than a poverty-stricken periphery. What's left to them is scraps and shadows, leaving them little but a soul-withering outland in which a debilitating degree of the day-to-day economy runs on welfare and crime.(Guera's panels often seem to be describing a desperately hopeless post-industrial waste, all ramshackle shacks and deserted rusting cars, and yet the Reservation's never managed to reach a state which might ever accurately be called industrialized in the first place.)

     
Yet as if to make sure that no-one mistakes Scalped for a work that's nothing but despairing, if not even entirely nihilistic, Aaron also introduces to us to citizens who are doing the very best they can to create a world in which the community might hold together if not exactly prosper. There are the teachers encouraging their students to aspire to jobs such as "marine biologist", and there are the policemen such as Officer Falls Down who deliberately stands up in public to Red Crow and his all-too-obvious corruption. Small victories and passing kindnesses they might be, but it's implied that they're essential to the everyday well-being of the community. Yet despite these momentary sparks of hope and even defiance, we're also constantly being shown how terribly wounded the society of the Reservation is, and in that, Scalped stands as a rare example of a contemporary comic book which is explicitly designed to refute the argument that the Republic's social ills are largely the fault of a mass of  utterly selfish, anti-social individuals. This isn't poverty as the cumulative effect of the selfishness and idleness of a mass of scroungers and criminals, but poverty as an inescapably objective fact of life imposed and perpetuated by a political system which is, it seems, largely beyond the people's influencing.

     

No matter how fierce the exasperation and disgust which Aaron directs towards the Republic's  treatment of Native Americans in Scalped, he never resorts to idealising the citizens of the Reservation. Of course, his point is that even the best of women and men can and most likely will be corrupted to a lesser or greater degree by degrading and grindingly difficult situations, so any casting of his predominantly Native American characters as shiningly innocent and noble proletarians would hardly help his case. Yet a great many of his characters are given moments which humanise them and suggest that, were the world just constituted in a fairer and more humane fashion, they'd most likely be far better people than they've ended up. This process doesn't mean that Aaron and Guera ever expect us to side with the likes of the ultimately reprehensible Red Crow, but by the same token, it's impossible not to empathise with his awareness that he's committed a host of the most terrible crimes. Time and time again, Aaron presents us with characters who it'd be easy to portray as threatening and irredeemable outsiders. Dino and his friends drinking away the day in a landscape of beer cans, wrecked cars and crows, for example, have their ruined lives represented in a way which emphasises the waste of their potential without it ever being suggested that they've chosen the existence which they're self-medicating their way through.


It's in this context that even the most hazardous and stupid-minded of long-shots on the part of Aaron's characters become somewhat if not entirely understandable. It may be completely impossible to see how Dash's affair with Carol can ever end in anything other than a great deal of trouble and blood, and yet it's also immediately obvious that they're two broken individuals grasping for anything which might make something more of their blighted, alienated lives.Of course they're inevitably going to invite even more disaster into their lives, for what else do they have to live for except for the moment between aiming themselves at calamity and it arriving? In these circumstances, even Krystal's crack habit becomes as understandable as it's an obviously catastrophically bad choice - to say the least - for her and her unborn child. If the surface of Scalped appears at times to be profoundly Old Testament in the way in which eyes and teeth are returned with compound interest one for the other, then its sub-text is often tellingly Old Testament in its essential compassion and reluctance to judge without sympathy. None of the cast are portrayed in a way which means that they can dodge responsibility for their actions with a cry of "society's to blame", and yet, it is too.

       

It's hard to imagine Scalped ending on the happiest of notes, for the structure of the society it describes simply doesn't allow for anything other than the rarest and most isolated of individual triumphs. The only solutions for the Reservation's deprivations which Aaron implies might work are those which would demand an incredible investment of national resources over the longest period of time. In the absence of any such commitment to restorative social justice, Aaron's characters will surely remain largely compelled to operate as chess pieces do, with their rank determining where and when they can move, with the form of the board and the rigidity of the game's rules ensuring that the opportunities for achievement are mostly incredibly limited. Scalped is a comic that's congested with characters attempting to move in directions which the rules proscribe, and the more they attempt to do so, the more tension and foreboding accumulates on the page. What will ultimately happen to each individual member of the cast is of course the reason why the book's readers keep returning, and yet, part of Scalped's fascination and power also lies in that element of its set-up which can't be allowed to be resolved, which has to remain on the page at the tale's conclusion in pretty much the shape that it was when the story began. Whatever catharsis the reader enjoys where the ultimate fates of the comic's characters are concerned will most probably stand in contrast to the unchanging realities of life out on the margins of society. All in all, Aaron's is a brilliantly designed set-up, allowing for the possibility of the reader being satisfied with the climax of the overall story while still carrying the awareness that all is very much not right with the Republic and its Native American citizens.

Where so many of the comics that populate the mainstream  focus largely upon the mythically "deserving" individual's ability to escape from poverty, if poverty is touched upon at all, Scalped appears designed to ensure that its readers remain unseduced by any such evidence-denying, heart-hardening nonsense.

        
Your restraint with spoilers, dear reader, would be appreciated from the blogger who is at yet just 2 books into Scalped:


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12 comments:

  1. I don't know if I'll ever get over a casino named after Crazy Horse--of course it would be and, of course, it should never be.

    Once again, a thoughtful article I will be pondering for some time.

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    1. Hello Carol:- The Crazy Horse casino. Until recently the Brits like to pretend that the reason a great of Brit humour didn't travel across the pond was because Americans didn't understand irony. It was never true, of course, and it's certainly not true now. A huge nation will always have a huge number of folks who don't either care for or grasp irony. But the Crazy Horse casino would seem to me on its own to show that irony is anything but alien even to the supposedly lowly comic book. I do appreciate how under Scalped's apparently macho blow-it-up surface, a great deal of smartness is going on.

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    2. personally, i appreciate the economy of irony in those three words: "Crazy Horse Casino." it manages to top the Crazy Horse Memorial, while being conscious and not actually desecrating anything.

      carol

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    3. Hello Carol:- And you make me realise that - as of the middle of the third collection, and to the best of my memory - no-one in Scalped insults the reader by spelling out the irony. It's a comic that trusts to its reader's intelligence. Bless it.

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  2. You'll not need any restraint from me nor fear any spoilers. I'm only 4 volumes into Scalped myself, and it really is SO good, but I keep finding myself to put off getting the rest for all the other comics I need to catch up on; Neon Genesis Evangelion, Blade of the Immortal, Lone Wolf and Cub, Berserk, Preacher, Northlanders, DMZ, Fear Agent, Morrison's Animal Man, Orbital, Aldebaran/Betelgeuse, Prison Pit...
    (That's both the blessing and the curse of coming a little late to the comics party: there's sooo much great stuff out there that it's hard to know where to begin, and once you've begun where to go from there. Of course, that's not really a bad problem to have.)
    It's not that any of these comics are any better than Scalped, it's just that Scalped always seems to be an after thought for some bizarre and unjustifiable reason.

    But you're absolutely right about Scalped being a very humane comic despite being horribly nihilistic. In the face of and because of everything that's happened to and by everyone, it's hard to absolutely hate anyone.

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    1. Hello Joe:- I'm not sure it's coming late to the comics party which means there's far too much good stuff to read :) I've been sitting in the kitchen here for decades now & I'm not just failing to dent the "must-read" pile, it's getting bigger and bigger with quite literally every passing day. As you say, it's easy for a book like Scalped to get lost in that, because it's easy for any book to suffer that fate. And yet, again as you say, that would be a shame and a great deal more than that. What I wrote above was of course nothing more than a baffled bloke's notes, but I can see that I was grasping for now was (a) how a book can use the conventions of the macho shoot-em-up to actually project a profoundly humane agenda, and (b) how to use a book to discuss a social problem without pretending to be able to solve that situation in the comic's pages. The very fact that those issues are so well illustrated in Scalped speaks volumes, I think, although of course the central matter is, as always, "Is it a good story well told?" And the answer, as we both agree, is yes!

      It's a time of extraordinary riches in the comic biz, isn't it?

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  3. I'm glad you're reading Scalped, as it's among my favorite series. As dark as the series can get, there's a great deal of humanity in Aaron's scripts. I tend to like artists whose work has a grimy surface; my one complaint about the book is that I think the printing or paper type in the tpbs can obscure Guera's images.

    The above is the kind of write-up I would like to see more of in the comics blogosphere; for all that I enjoy reading reviews and posts about various facets of the plots, characters, and creators, I think theme and meaning get left behind. Of course, too few comics have enough substance to write at length about, but I'm glad we have series like Scalped amid all the dross. Baffled bloke you may be, but your thoughts came through perfectly clearly.

    I've been lucky enough not to have ever experienced poverty directly, but I see what it does to students and their families at my school. Poverty has a way of destroying hope and contextualizing people's lives. Being unable to do what others take for granted and having to adopt a harder attitude become accepted, and education is not seen as a solution. I'm over generalizing, probably, but I'm drawing conclusions based on what I've seen and heard. Poverty is an insidious, dehumanizing force.

    -Mike Loughlin

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    1. Hello Mike:- Yep, I'm late with Scalped, and in fact I didn't get it when I read the very first issue a good while ago. It's a good job I always work from the premise that I'm wrong, which means that I always go back after a while when I've not enjoyed a book. With Scalped, I'm obviously very glad indeed; it's a great book and I'm just about to launch into book 3, and experience I'd've missed if I'd've gone on first impressions.

      I don't think you're over-generalizing about poverty, and especially not in the context of the comments here. Having occasionally slipped close to it in my younger days, and having taught the psychology and sociology of it for almost two decades, what shocks me is the belief on so many folk's part that poverty is simply an obstacle to be overcome with virtue and effort. If only life were that simple, if only the only explanations for poverty were a lack of virtue and effort. It never fails to astonish me that so much of the West still manages to approach the idea of poverty through the ideology of the less well-informed of the Victorians.

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  4. Hi Colin,
    Fascinating article as always.

    The grinding poverty seen in Scalped is a pretty much all pervading. I initially thought that the characters themselves weren't terribly three-dimensional, but they do get 'fleshed out' as the series goes on - and I think it could be fair to say that some of limits of the characters and their thinking and choices are the limits set by their circumstances and their terribly restricted world - the constraints of their poverty and powerlessness. The characters are ferocious towards each other as some of the only "power" they have is within the confines of the Res' and their relations with their fellow residents. Even Red Crow and Agent Nitz - the two who arguably are the most powerful people in Prairie Rose - have little room to move.
    The other strong point of Scalped is that actions of the characters have real and often unintended consequences - most of the impetus for the story stems from events in the 1970s, but those events are still affecting the Res' and many of the characters even thirty years later and even the very arrival of Dashiell on the Res in the first place is the consequence of some of his actions previous. The actions of Dashiell, Red Crow, Nitz and others in the very early issues echo right through to the latest issue (58) and the I don't think it is a spoiler to say it looks there won't be a happy ending - a satisfactory one (from the reader PoV) maybe, but happy? I think not.

    As for your quote above - "much of the West still manages to approach the idea of poverty through the ideology of the less well-informed of the Victorians" - I'd argue that this is because this absolves the powers-that-be (and a good chunk of the rest of the population too - the rock-solid conservative vote in NZ for example is around 33%) from having to actually having to do anything about poverty.

    kiwijohn

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    1. Hello Kiwijohn:- Thank you :)Last night I finished a column for elsewhere at about 1am and read myself to sleep with the first few chapters of the third Scalped collection. The poverty gets worse! Yet the fundamental relationship between social structure and the individual which you discuss remain - huzzah - meaning that it's always the world that folks have been condemned to which picks up the biggest share of the blame. Individuals are never excused, of course, but there's always a reason for their behaviour beyond their individual characters and circumstances. That that should be a radical statement in 2012 suggests that the West hasn't embraced the huge mass of sociology and psychology we have on the causes of crime. I've no doubt your analysis of why some folks avoid looking at the situational explanations of crime. Equally worrying to me - perhaps far more - is the fact that we just don't teach social science in schools in a way that might actually open up challenges to perceived wisdoms. Some students get such a necessary experience, but not across the curriculum. Pah and pah again.

      Thank you for your restraint with the content of future issues. Yep, I think a tragic resolution will indeed be - shall we say - the most likely end. I too admire how carefully structured the piece has been from the start, with the '70s radicals and their choices working out across the years.

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  5. Brian Wiggett24 April 2012 22:07

    I appreciate how much trust you've given to your readers to not spoil upcoming events in a book you're writing about, but have not yet "caught up" to many of us reading the monthly issues. (Wait, there aren't "many" at all reading the monthlies, are there...) In any event, it's to Aaron's credit that you also felt emboldened to discuss the themes of the story only 2 books in, trusting that he won't come up with some illogical deus ex machina that sets your whole premise on its ear.
    I'm still catching up myself. Read issue 43 last night. Couldn't agree more with a previous commenter about how there's just too many things to read, and not enough time. And I came early to the comics party, 30 some years ago!
    I'll look forward to a future update on your thoughts about Scalped as you progress. Enjoy!

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    1. Hello Brian:- I haven't a fraction of the readers of a great many comics blogs, but I've got a fair few number of good eggs who drop in that are entirely trustworthy when it comes to spoilers :)

      You make a good point about trusting JA where it comes to those themes and perspectives. I guess I believed that no-one who had constructed those first few books so precisely could possibly drop the whole enterprise and head off in a new direction, which shows how much trust his work inspres.

      I'm into the third book of Scalped, which makes me about a long way behind you. I'm glad that your enthusiasm remains :)

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