Welcome to guest dare! For those new to the feature, our Guest Dare is a monthly endeavor in which we invite an unsuspecting victim to read a book totally outside of their comfort zone. You can read all previous Dare posts HERE.
This month’s victim is Peter, the dude behind the hilarious (and bizarrely informative) Bitterly Books – a blog that, in his own words “takes caustic, uncomplimentary tours through ill-advised and poorly executed nonfiction.” Peter actually approached us for the Guest Dare, and we were more than happy to oblige him. When he said he was in unfamiliar waters with Graphic Novels (especially of the non-superhero variety), we came up with a list of titles for him to try…
So, without further ado, we give the stage to Peter and his experience with Scalped.
Author: Written by Jason Aaron, Art by R.M. Guéra
Genre: Crime/Thriller, Noir, Graphic Novel
Publication Date: August 2007
Softcover: 126 pages
Stand alone or series: Collects issues #1-5; first graphic novel of six in an ongoing monthly series
Fifteen years ago, Dashiell “Dash” Bad Horse ran away from a life of abject poverty and utter hopelessness on the Prairie Rose Indian Reservation searching for something better. Now he’s come back home armed with nothing but a set of nunchucs, a hell-bent-for-leather attitude and one dark secret, to find nothing much has changed on “The Rez” — short of a glimmering new casino, and a once-proud people overcome by drugs and organized crime. Is he here to set things right or just get a piece of the action?
Why did we recommend this book: Scalped is good. Like, really f’ing good. Even if you’re not a fan of gritty, crime noir type stories, Scalped is one of those transcendent books that defies genre snobbery. When Peter told us that he was out of his comfort zone in graphic novels, crime/mystery, thrillers, and westerns, it all sort of…clicked.
For my dare, I read Scalped: Indian Country, a graphic novel set on an Indian reservation. I was excited to see how it differed from both Ralph Nader’s depiction of Indians as lazy deadbeats waiting for their next welfare check and Louise Erdrich’s portrayal of them as PTSD-suffering statutory rapists. According to Jason Aaron and R.M. Guéra, Indian reservations have just as much sex, drugs, and violence as some of the classier parts of New Jersey, but the unemployment rate is a little higher (80%!).
The story begins as young Dashiel Bad Horse arrives on the Prairie Rose Reservation and starts kicking ass unrepentantly. This soon attracts the attention of Lincoln Red Crow, the reservation’s main shot-caller (president of the tribal council, sheriff of the tribal police, chairman of reservation’s planning committee, and managing director of the new casino, to be specific), who decides to use Dash for his own ends. However, it turns out that Dash both has his own agenda and is already serving as the semi-complacent pawn in someone else’s schemes. I’m not really a fan of crime dramas, but Aaron and Guéra do a good job of keeping up the tension, and the way the characters’ stories intertwine was compelling enough to hold my interest through the whole book.
I found a lot of things to like in Scalped. For example, it doesn’t waste a lot of time focusing on piddling technicalities such as due process or excessive use of force. Setting the story on an Indian reservation, which can make and enforce its own laws, means that Bad Horse gets to employ brutal vigilantism while remaining on the badge-wearing side of justice. Instead of Law-and-Order style wrangling over whether or not the defendant will later walk on a technicality, you get Roadhouse style asskicking with a side order of handcuffs. (I hold no special reverence for Colonel Custer, but if enjoying the sight of somebody beating on a filthy hippie in a “CUCK FUSTER” tee shirt is wrong, then I have no hope of ever being right.) Dashiel’s only problem is that for all the freedom he has to punish bad guys, the biggest criminal on the reservation is the one he can’t touch.
The main story is well executed. It turns out that Dash grew up on the reservation. Now he has to deal with his estranged mother, who herself has a past history with Red Crow. There is some discussion about what happened to Dash outside of the reservation, and he didn’t leave to become a Rhodes Scholar. The unsolved murder of two FBI agents on reservation soil turns out to be an important part of the story, and past history tangles with present characters to make their motivations complicated while keeping the plot simple.
Complicated motivations help explain Dash’s attraction to Carol, the love interest (she’s a little too much of a skank for me to call her a femme fatale in good conscience). She and Dash grew up together, so she evokes his nostalgia for a time when everything was more innocent. She’s also the daughter of Red Crow, an overprotective father who makes it dangerous to be seen with her, so she is an alluring forbidden fruit. And she’s a walking train wreck that no sensible person would go near with a 40-foot pole. Seriously, she’s got major daddy issues, is a heavy drug user, has sex with multiple partners in the course of a single day, trades sex for drugs, and generally makes poor lifestyle choices throughout the book. Bad Horse can’t get enough of her.
I had some problems with Scalped, but they were mostly with the artwork—probably a personal failing of mine for not being able to recognize or appreciate techniques beyond the Dogs Playing Poker school of American Realism. The book does a good job of setting the tone with the visuals, letting the reader know when the characters are being sarcastic and adding subtle details to underscore hypocrisy, but there were a few times when the visuals raised questions that distracted me from the story.
Six pages in, there’s a scalped corpse lying on the floor. In a story called Scalped, I give them points for getting right to business, but didn’t recognize it right away because it was unexpected. I don’t think it’s normal to see a mutilated body in the manager’s office at a high end casino—I would assume that they have parking garages and irregularly lit supply closets for that sort of thing. Red Crow, the scalper, has it there to illustrate a point. Had the scalping been done there? Because Red Crow is later shown to be pretty concerned about keeping his carpets clean. Who was that guy? We never find out. Does Red Crow just casually scalp people, or had this dude done something seriously wrong? Void of any context, it’s just a prop to intimidate Bad Horse. I would be pretty pissed if someone killed me and carved off bits just to make a point in a conversation with somebody else. The scalped body is never mentioned again.
There is also a gang of deformed psychopaths that is introduced and killed off over the space of a few pages, for the apparent purpose of showing that Bad Horse is one tough hombre. The reader knows that the gang is bad because they use big words, dress well, and all have hideous burn scars. Why are they burned? Were they a gang before they were burn victims, or a bunch of burn victims who found each other and decided that a life of crime was where it’s at? The text hints that maybe they were all caught in the same fire during their last job, but it looks like a lazy shortcut to show they are evil. Too much effort is put into making this gang stand out as a bunch of specially skilled, verbose fancypantses before they get thrown away like expendable foot soldiers with very few lines.
Unfortunately, the whole book is just an introduction to the larger series. After introducing the characters, describing their pasts and motivations, and showing them relating to each other for a little bit, everything ends on a cliffhanger. (Thanks for spoiling it for me, Wikipedia!)
It was nice to read something other than nonfiction, and I haven’t read a graphic novel in a very long time. I appreciated the way that Aaron and Guéra were able to use text and images together to tell a complex story in a tight format that would have been much longer in a text-only format. I don’t think I’m hooked on either crime dramas or graphic novels now, but I appreciated the experience.
On the Book Smugglers rating scale, I give it a solid six, “Good, recommend with reservations.” This is so I can gratuitiously use the word reservations.
Thank you, Peter! And we’re glad you found Scalped to be a good read, even if it wasn’t exactly your cup o’ tea.
Next on the Guest Dare, it’s none other than Sam Sykes – debut author of the highly anticipated Tome of the Undergates. And, because Ana is SO obsessed with it, Sam will be reading (take one guess):