Book Review : Jason Aaron - Scalped, Vol. 1-10 (2012)
* This review features mild spoilers *
For all the progress we’ve made over the last couple years in regards to diversity and representation, it seems like people never got the memo about Native Americans. There isn’t much out there aside for “noble savages” stereotypes and savage savages, which are either alcoholic or murderous or sometimes both. There’s a little bit of these to Jason Aaron’s graphic novel saga Scalped, but there’s a lot more to it. I don’t think it’s anywhere near a realistic representation of Native Americans, but it’s great to read such a powerful, sweeping saga of betrayal and vengeance starring these often forgotten people.
Scalped features Dashiell Bad Horse, a renegade Lakota coming back to Prairie Rose reservation in North Dakota, many years after leaving without saying goodbye. Nobody’s sure what Dashiell actually wants, but his presence doesn’t go unnoticed. His mother Gina, a traditionalist and an activist, is still the heart of this little community and old, but powerful men are vying for her son’s favors. Old men like tribal council leader and chief gangster Lincoln Red Crow. Little does he know, Dashiell Bad Horse is an undercover FBI agent sent to settle a decades old grudge between Red Crow and the authorities…
I’m not going to lie to you, Scalped was pretty great. It’s ultraviolent, though. And I’m not talking about the sexy-women-in-heels-beheading-people-with-swords or the celebration-of-blood-and-guts kind of violent. It’s full of ugly, humorless and undignified deaths. People with their heads split opens, others dying from shock after getting scalped and there even are allusions to sexual assault, so thread lightly if this is not you jam. But Scalped is never violent for the sake of being violent. That’s why it’s so captivating. It never builds up to confrontation. The overall goal here is to put Lincoln Red Crow in prison, but people get horribly hurt and die along the way, which ups the ante every time.
So, I wouldn’t say Scalped has a brilliant structure, but it has the proper structure most crime stories are missing. But it’s not the only reason why it’s successful. It also borrows from iconic texts everyone already loves, such as the Bible’s prodigal son’s return and Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The latter is particularly evident. Gina Bad Horse is murdered early in Scalped and her son, then crippled by self-doubt, becomes invested in taking down the usurper he deems responsible for his mother’s death. He’s even visited by her ghost in an issue, like ol’ Hamlet himself. This is not exactly a new trick, but given that most crime stories don’t see past the bridge of their nose, reappropriating tropes that galvanized people for over 400 years is a smart way to stand out.
There are things about Scalped that bugged me. Everything that had to do with social commentary felt a little wedged in there, like the Dino Poor Bear subplot. I understand Jason Aaron feeling a sense of duty towards Native American communities, since he conveniently uses them to feature in his opera of violence, but it feels like an act of contrition more than anything. The ending was a little too neatly wrapped, too. Not everyone who survived deserved it. Anyway, Scalped was a sprawling crime epic and a powerful family saga with nuanced mythological undertones. That in itself is really cool. It tried to do a little too much at times, but it doesn’t make the experience any less unforgettable.