American Crime Fiction: Why Writer/Creator Jason Aaron's SCALPED Is The Best Comic Out There
The two things that American authors and filmmakers can be said to have created outright are the Western, and modern crime fiction. They're both styles and mythologies packed into the very fiber of our country's very existence. There's something gritty and raw and romantic and completely whacked in our national identity, and it has led to the creation of two of the most readily identifiable genres in the world, complete with their own logic, their own mysteries, their complete independence from European romantic fiction of any kind, apart from maybe the Victorian era (and the utter inability for anyone to come to real satisfaction with their relationships in those books - take Newland Archer in THE AGE OF INNOCENCE as an example), but that's neither here nor there. The Western and the crime drama are the mythologies of the United States, a country that was forged from the grit and determination and the testicular fortitude to tell the rest of the world to jog on. And it's a damned brilliant mythology; one that requires constant attention and revision and humility and pride.
Late in 2008, I picked up the first volume of DC/Vertigo's SCALPED, "Indian Country", and was blown away. It was by far the grittiest, most thrilling and outrageous crime fiction since Garth Ennis's legendary PREACHER and PUNISHER runs, and better yet, it existed on its own terms, incorporating distinctly American (and distinctly Native) mythologies, real-world problems and - along with Ed Brubaker's CRIMINAL - reinvigorated American comic creators in a landscape populated on every front by Brits. This first story arch, which introduces the central character of Dashiell Bad Horse and many, many subplots, is masterful in its scope and execution, and each further arch just gets better and better.
All of this is a roundabout way of saying that Jason Aaron's SCALPED, a multi-genre mash-up of the cowboy mythos, espionage thriller, crime drama and a healthy dose of social awareness (and amazingly detailed research and depictions of life in the modern Native American community), is the best damned book anywhere, comic or otherwise. Seriously. It's envigorating to read, and has kept me up many a night re-reading my favorite little bits, particularly early on in the "Casino Boogie" story arch that tells the tale of a horrendous crime from four separate viewpoints, each getting its own single issue to work within.
A fair chunk of why SCALPED's incredibly detailed and carefully researched Native American narrative works, even when introducing heavy mysticism and ultraviolence into the fold, is the dusty down-to-Earth artwork by R.M. Guera and a stable of distinct but complimentary guest artists. The Rez (a Lakota reservation in the Dakotas) and its many, societally neglected inhabitants portrayed in the book live and breathe because of the urgency, vibrancy and alternately, as called for, dark and bright pop-infused art.
There are currently five trade-paperback volumes of the series in print, with a sixth collection coming in May, and I seriously can't wait to see what else Aaron has in store. The plotting and characterizations are convoluted enough for a Raymond Chandler story, with enough grit and gristle to fill many a tome by Elmore Leonard (in Western or crime mode). It's invigorating to read such an effortless title, and to read about the neglected and often forgotten original inhabitants of this land in such a realistic, and thoroughly modern American setting is a bit startling. It brings modern dilemmas they have as a minority to light while also highlighting their willingness to survive. In the fifth volume, there is a brief opening that runs up a history of the Lakotas through the battle of Little Big Horn to present day, and is accompanied by narration about their survival being almost in defiance of history and of this nation's invaders. It's quite powerful.
What differentiates this book from the thousands of others out there, comic or otherwise, and what makes it by far the best book on stands, is the multi-faceted plot and the deft aplomb with which it is handled by Aaron. He juggles a large cast of characters, all backed up by individual and very different personalities, and all based on what has to be vast amounts of historical research. It really is like getting a current affairs and history class lesson on American Indians from issue to issue. And that in and of itself is enough to make it noteworthy. SCALPED takes the American mythos and turns it on its head, not just in one of the prominent American genres, but in both of the most prominent ones, and completely becomes something all its own, and wholly American that even the best British comics creators couldn't have conceived.
If any of this interests you as a reader (and it should), then you should definitely give the book a shot. The first volume is only ten bucks, and is well worth it. Hell, get a friend to split it with you and read it for five. Just buy it; you'll be hooked. That's the best compliment I can give it, and the only compliment that really matters anyway.