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: