Don’t judge “Scalped” by its title, because it’s a comic book (written by a white guy) set on a reservation with a casino, rampant alcoholism and you think that it lampoons Indians. It’s not a definitive portrait of everyday Native American life, which, according to its author, Jason Aaron, “would be ridiculous” if that were true.
“I’m writing a crime story, one that’s always going to be littered with flawed and morally-ambiguous characters, one that’s always going to focus on the seedier aspects of life.”
“The Sopranos” (on a reservation) comes up in comparison but Aaron didn’t use it when first evolving his story. He was gleaming influence from the lower profiled: Michael Mann’s late ’80s TV series “Crime Story,” the 1990 Irish Gangster flick “State of Grace,” and from the drug-dealing communities and broken institutions of HBO’s “The Wire” and “Deadwood,” stocked with gunslingers, killing in the middle of the thoroughfare and the like.
Aaron’s rough first idea, to reboot the old comic “Scalphunter,” had matured. “It all really came from me loving both westerns and crime stories and wanting to combine the two.”
There isn’t a better combination of a western and a crime story than a casino, implying big-city vitality (hiding big-city crime), planted in the desert (nothing but dirt) expanse of a reservation.
Launched in 2007, published by Vertigo Comics, the ongoing “Scalped,” the story of a FBI agent’s war against a crime boss, is partially based on the very real 1975 shootout on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation; two FBI agents were killed (as they are in the comic).
“I tried to read as much as I could about that case and then in a sense, forget it all and write my own story,” Aaron said. Leonard Peltier, imprisoned under protest about his guilt, was the only person charged and convicted in the 1975 shootout.
Aaron supports Peltier but “Scalped” is not a statement, pro or con, about the shootout. The event just served as a beginning.
Aaron was born in small-town Jasper, Ala. “My grandfather was a coal minor and a Baptist preacher. My great-grandfather died of rabies. That’s about as country as you can get.” Although now residing in the suburbs of Kansas City, “I think my Southern upbringing flavors everything I write in one way or another, whether it’s a story about a young NVA soldier in North Vietnam or alien Skrulls in the Marvel Universe or Native Americans in South Dakota.”
Small town (or small town-esque) communities breathe like-minded beliefs and experiences. Undercover FBI Agent Dashiell Bad Horse represents the unbridled fury contingent. He pummels a rowdy crowd that outnumbers him 15 to 1, walks towards bullets shot at him. He’s so good at being undercover, he’s self-destructive.
Dashiell’s name is a shout-out to renowned crime writer, Dashiell Hammett.
For research, Aaron read: Peltier’s “My Life Is My Sun Dance,” books on Plains Indians, Pine Ridge, Battle of the Rosebud, the American Indian Movement, the Red Power Movement and the rise of Indian gaming.
“These days what’s nice is I also get a lot of people e-mailing me who are fans of the book, a lot of Natives from all over the country who’ll point out things I got right or got wrong and also tell me their stories.” The response from Native Americans has been “overwhelmingly positive” but, however well-researched, “Scalped” cannot satisfy everyone, especially with complaints about highlighting stereotypes.
“And yeah, I’m a white guy writing about life on an Indian rez. I faced the same sort of challenge when, as a guy born in 1973, I set out to write a story about life on the ground in the Vietnam War. I don’t mind that sort of challenge.
“It’s noir with a rich setting, one based on a real place, and with a rich history, part of which is based on real events, but at the end of the day it’s still noir,” Aaron said. “It’s a [crime] story about a specific group of characters, many of whom are Indians.”
Set in South Dakota, this group of Oglala Lakota Indians occupy the fictional Prairie Rose Reservation, overseen by Chief Lincoln Red Crow, the (self-described) Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost of The Rez, who controls the meth, illegal arms, prostitution and the Indian Police.
He wants to rejuvenate the rez with a casino, by any means necessary. According to Aaron, “Red Crow was already headed in that [violent] direction. He was already willing to do pretty much whatever it took to try and achieve his goals of saving the rez and its people, a job he feels only he can ever truly accomplish.”
Red Crow indoctrinates the undercover Bad Horse, who ran away from the rez at 13. Dashiell’s the kicking-and-screaming prodigal son. What drives him? “Anger at everyone around him really, himself included. He’s only driven by duty in the sense he wants to get his job finished up as quick as possible and get the hell out of town,” Aaron said.
Since its debut, “Scalped” has received critical and fanboy props, consistently making Best of Comic Book lists while continuing to grow.