A recurring feature on this blog will be recommendations for comic series that you should read, with tips and analysis to help you determine whether or not you will enjoy them. Also, no spoilers. Let’s consider the series Scalped, (by Jason Aaron and R. M. Guera), as both an excellent comic book series and a good example to understand comics themselves.
Scalped is a series consisting of sixty issues, which are available in ten volumes. A good way to look at this is that each issue is like an episode of a television show: they appear once a month, they take one sitting to enjoy, and they are typically self-contained while telling a larger story. They cost between $1 and $4 and are somewhere around 32 pages. They are then collected into volumes, which come as trade paperbacks and collect between five and twelve issues, with the ads removed.
That said, let’s talk about why Scalped is something worth reading, and, if you have not read a comic book before, it’s an excellent series to start with.
Without giving anything away, (all recommendations on this blog will be spoiler-free), Scalped is like a mash-up of The Sopranos and The Wire, set on a Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. It takes some of its inspiration from the story of Leonard Peltier, as well as exploring tribal politics, tensions between Native Americans and whites, alcoholism and drug abuse, the corrupting influence of power and money, The American Indian Movement and the FBI and the war in Kosovo. With the inclusion of Hmong characters in the Twin Cities, gay assassins, and Lakota spirituality, it’s safe to say that you have not read anything quite like this. The cast includes at least a dozen compelling characters, and the storyline frequently features brutal cliffhangers and shocking turns.
Let’s try to break it down in a few more ways, that will help you determine whether its up your alley:
Accessibility: High. You don’t need any advanced knowledge of any characters or universes, as the story is self-contained to these ten volumes. Furthermore, whether or not you know much about Reservation life, the Sioux culture, the Leonard Peltier case, meth labs, or casinos, you can follow the storyline and absorb the ideas.
Rating if would have if it was a movie: R, without a doubt.
Potential to be adapted into a movie or television show: Very high. I will be surprised if Scalped does not end up as either a Showtime, HBO, or AMC series within the next five years.
Intense or Light Reading: This is not light reading. You pick this up on your lunch break, and you will have trouble going back to work or class after.
What About the Art?: I will not pretend to be an art expert, but I would say that the art of Scalped resembles the storytelling. It’s accessible, it’s realistic, and it’s compelling.
Are the pages a bunch of little boxes?: No. This seems important to point out. If you haven’t read comics since you were a child, or if your understand of comics stems from what your local newspaper publishes on Sundays, then you may imagine that a standard comic book page has the same structure as a tic-tac-toe board. Scalped, like most comic books today, has evolved beyond that style.
Publisher: Vertigo. This might mean nothing to you at this point. Vertigo is an “imprint” of DC, which is the publisher responsible for Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and a few other names you may recognize. (There will be more on this in a future post named “Marvel and DC: Understanding the Two Party System of Comic Books”).
Portrayal of Minorities and Women: Healthy. While moral ambiguity runs rampant in this series, no one is reduced to a stereotype based on their demographic. The one thing I initially questioned was the portrayal of the Hmong gangsters, but after giving it some thought I decided that the author was simply telling the story in a way that he thought fit and seemed realistic, and the presence of Hmong gangsters was not racist or malicious (although I would be interested if anyone viewed this differently).
Television: Scalped pairs well with Breaking Bad, The Wire, or The Sopranos. It’s contemporary, it’s gritty, it’s full of anti-heroes and tragedy. Characters die without warning, while the various ostensible main characters scalp their enemies, shoot heroin, and spout off racial slurs.
Film: The Godfather films, The Departed, Sergio Leone’s westerns, and Quentin Tarantino’s films. Scalped is a gangster movie without being a gangster movie, a western that isn’t quite a western.
Books: The works of Sherman Alexie and Mario Puzo seem to have inspired this work, in very different ways. It’s also tempting to suspect that the semi-protagonist Dashiell Bad Horse may have been named after Dashiell Hammett. The works are also rife with a number of other literary allusions, along with true stories. Other good works to check out would be The Journey of Crazy Horse: A Lakota History by Joseph M. Marshall III, and any of the many books on Leonard Peltier.
The only two reasons that I can think of not to read Scalped is that a) it might be darker than what you are looking for, and b) it will spoil you. It’s accessible, it’s powerful, and it’s compelling. I will say it again: you will never read anything else quite like it.