Go into any mainstream comic shop or bookseller chain, and the graphic novel series you are most likely to find starring a cast of native characters is “Scalped”. The 10 volume series (collecting all 60 issues of the comic book) is published by Vertigo Comics, a mature readers imprint of DC (one of the ‘Big Two’ comic publishers). Its high profile can also be attributed to writer Jason Aaron, who currently scribes popular superhero titles for Marvel Comics such as “Wolverine”, “The X-Men”, “Thor”, “Captain America”, and “The Avengers”.
“Scalped” falls under the category of a comic that isn’t intentionally political, but deserves critical examination with a political lens. The high-concept pitch was ‘Donnie Brasco on The Rez.’ The story opens with Dashiell “Dash” Bad Horse returning home to the Prairie Rose Indian Reservation, where he escaped from poverty and hopelessness many years prior. What the reader becomes privy to in the first volume (so this is just barely a spoiler alert) is that Bad Horse is actually an undercover FBI agent, sent to infiltrate a world of drugs, organized crime, and political corruption, amidst his familial relationships.
The plot is partially inspired by real life events, like the high-profile case of American Indian Movement (AIM) member and native rights activist Leonard Peltier, who was charged with the murder of two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in1975–he remains in prison to this day. What is perhaps less well-known is the level of infiltration by state organizations in indigenous affairs, one of many factors that have fostered climates of fear and distrust within native communities and outsiders.
Corruption, crime, gambling and substance abuse are all unflinchingly at the forefront of the narrative, as well as the preservation of cultural identity.
You might find that “Scalped” does not necessarily feature a very positive portrayal of Indigenous Americans. Within its own context, it is unabashedly Crime Fiction. Hard-boiled contemporary Noir that sits alongside many of Vertigo’s other crime genre graphic novel series, such as “100 Bullets”. Generally, no one is portrayed in a very flattering way in crime fiction such as this… even the so-called “good guys”.
What you will find is a diverse range of characters, mostly Native Americans, that are all fully realized, decidedly not stereotypical, flawed and interrelating with each other in compellingly dysfunctional ways. The style is evocative of works such as The Sopranos, Scarface, or films by Scorcese or Coppola. Serbian illustrator R. M. Guéra must also be credited for visually crafting such distinctive individual characters.
With the style of modern crime thrillers come all the trappings. There is much in the way of titillating violence and sexual content, contained in an atmosphere of relative realism. Compare this to other best-selling comics with indigenous characters, such as Turok and Tonto, whose portrayal is indefensibly stereotypical. Nobody is fighting dinosaurs or hanging out with masked vigilantes here.
Of course, we need to look at this in the broader context. If this is the only readily available comic book featuring a native cast, then a broader array of representation on the shelves is, of course, needed. From mainstream heroic superheroes such as Warpath and Mirage of Marvel’s “The X-Men”, to the current ‘equal partner’ interpretation of The Lone Ranger’s Tonto, to “Turok the Dinosaur Hunter”, modern depictions of native people in comics are campy and leave much to be desired. Breaking the historical pattern of tokenism and stereotypes will require broader representation and more diversity of characters. A crime drama full of crooked characters may not be an ideal representation, but it is a start.
So bring on the native romantic comedies, the horror stories, slice-of-life tales, all ages kids characters, biographies, mythic legends, and more!