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Scalped Book 1

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Scalped Book 1 back

Jason Aaron & R. M. Guera


Page 45 Review by Stephen

"And yet, here we are, still forgotten, still a third world nation in the heart of America."

Crime and grime on the Prairie Rose Indian Reservation, South Dakota, "where the great Sioux Nation came to die".

Gone is the majesty, the beauty, the health, the wealth and the freedom to roam

They've been replaced by grinding poverty enforced by unyielding societal shackles, dilapidated housing patched up with corrugated iron, refuse-strewn streets, gutted car wrecks abandoned on pock-marked asphalt and a burned-out people deprived of any opportunity but to drink themselves to death.

"From us Lakota they took the Black Hills, our sacred Paha Sapa, and the billion dollars in gold that was buried there. They took the herds of buffalo and the prairie where they roamed. They took the pride and the dignity of a once great nation, giving nothing but misery in return."

The Lakota have been left with nothing except 80% unemployment, the highest alcoholic rate in the country and a life-expectancy fifteen years below the national average. The suicide rate's through the roof. Take White Haven, Nebraska, where the locals pick up their processed cheese with food stamps:

"Population - 28. Average annual beer sales - 4 million cans."

Young Dino's family is a perfect example: amongst the eight living together is a brother enduring the after-effects of fetal alcohol syndrome, an uncle who's a diabetic amputee, while his sister Krystal has upgraded from crystal to crack. And she's pregnant.

Oh, and Dino has a daughter. Dino dreams of leaving and never coming back, but his dreams are so far beyond reality so it's time to get a job as a janitor in the casino.

Oh yes, there's a new casino in town, which is exactly this community needs. Partially paid for by misappropriated federal funds and a hell of a lot of ill-gotten gains, it "belongs" to tribal leader Lincoln Red Crow. As does almost everything and everyone else.

"Most powerful crime figure in three counties. Traffics in methamphetamine, illegal arms and prostitution. Runs his own private army of murderous thugs. And generally rules over this reservation like a medieval warlord."

Or, as Lincoln Red Crow would put it:

"You're looking at the President of the Oglala Tribal Council... as well as the Sheriff of the Tribal Police Force, Chairman of the Prairie Rose Planning Committee, Treasurer of the Highway Safety Program... and managing director of this here brand spankin' new casino."

Essentially, he doesn't have much trouble with the law anymore. He is the law, locally at least.

Agent Nitz of the FBI has other ideas, and it's personal. For over thirty years he's held a grudge following the murder of two fellow agents by radical Native American Rights activists amongst whose members were Red Crow and Gina Bad Horse, once close but now obviously very much at odds. For years Nitz has been unable to pin down who pulled the trigger and make them pay, but recently he's found a way in: Gina's son Dashiell.

Unlike Dino, Dashiell did escape the Reservation when his mother sent him away in his early teens. He's been gone fifteen years during which he toughened up quite considerably. Resenting all the time she took protesting, he too swore that he would never come back but now - much to Gina's astonishment - he's back and - much to her horror - he's working for Red Crow, ostensibly as a cop but more of a hired thug. One of his very first actions is to bust his mother over the boot of his police car.

Oh yes, Dash has fitted right back in, with much of the muscle he'll need to survive.

And that's exactly what he was sent back to do: fit in.

He's working undercover for the FBI. He is FBI. It's Dash's job to find blood on Crow's hands, even if the blood in question is Dash's. For what no one has thought to tell Dashiell is that he isn't the only Agent in town. It's going to get brutal.

Now, the reason I've placed so much emphasis on the abject misery and decay is that it is essential to what transpires. It's not just the setting, it's the cage which forms the confines of whatever actions or reactions are open to its many protagonists. There is a poverty of opportunity for almost everyone here and Jason Aaron is not about to belittle the reality - for it is a cold, stark reality for Native Americans and First Nations Canadians who aren't feeling too bright right now about their colonisers' anniversary celebrations and wouldn't necessarily be best pleased with my even referring to them as Canadians.

Dino Poor Bear's story is particularly poignant and - after being given a break by Dashiell in not busting him when Dino was so blatantly running supplies for the meth manufacturers - I felt a twinge when he later reaches out to Dashiell as a possible guiding father figure or big brother substitute only to be ignored... until I remembered that Dash is as damaged and so as dangerous as everyone else. Here's Agent Nitz:

"This punk is not just arrogant...
"He's reckless, stubborn and completely out of control.
"A borderline sociopath driven by deep-seated anger, and maybe an unconscious death wish to boot.
"He's a violent meltdown just waiting to happen. A definite danger to everyone around him.
"In other words...
"He's fucking perfect."

No one here is on the side of the gods except perhaps Catcher of the deep green sunglasses who has squandered his native visionary gift and international Oxford education (which could have made him the upstanding leader the community so desperately needed) in favour of the white man's gift of alcohol-induced oblivion (of which he is all too aware)... Granny Poor Bear who feels her prowess waning in spite of the enormous, potent animal spirit which Catcher sees rearing up behind her... and Gina Bad Horse. But even Gina is guilty of maternal negligence as well as... well, you'll see.

On her way to make amends for the latter Gina spends an entire day trying to make amends for the former by persistently attempting to contact her son, but he's one dismissive step ahead of her and the only interaction they'll have in this first instalment is over the boot of that car.

By the same grey token, however, what Aaron goes to great pains here and throughout is to emphasise that although there are some major malfunctions of humanity in the form of Diesel and Red Crow, neither are monsters without some considerable making.

Lincoln, for example, was raised in a residential school run by white Christian priests, reduced to a number rather than a name and then regularly flagellated in order to induce him to pray:

"We must kill the Indian inside you in order to save the man!"

The sins of the fathers...

It's Red Crow rather than Dashiell who will reach out to Dino in a most unexpected manner at a most unexpected moment, but with the most predictable and entirely understandable results. It may make you weep. One of the volumes that follows actually did make me weep, physically.

Structurally the second half of this book is exceptional. Those six chapters revolve around the intense, bloody launch-night of the casino. Each is devoted to an individual protagonist and some of the key events in their past which inform their present, as well as their future trajectories. Along the way their own, differing perspectives on those key hours is limited by their experience of them: what they see, who they overhear talking to whom, and who they get hit by. As events go out of eye-shot or move out of ear-shot, then we are left waiting for the next witness who might have seen more. This places you firmly in each individual's shoes while you walk in them which is vital for your emotional investment both now and during the horrors to come. But, of course, as a reader you are privy to them all and as the dots join up in the order which Aaron has controlled to precision, you are left not only with so many secrets which no one else knows, but a burning desire to learn precisely which single, blisteringly time-sensitive question Catcher wants answered by Red Crow.

I'm ashamed that it's taken me this long to talk about R. M. Guéra.

For if this is a cage of confinement, you couldn't feel the bars without them being smelted behind you, cooled down while you wait then set in their stone or concrete.

To comprehend their physical constrictions and choice-based restrictions you have to be able to see them with your own eyes or else those taut tensions are lost.

As I wrote previously, the environment here is all.

The Prairie Rose Reservation is far from pretty. It's wretched, worn out and its walls as well as its doors are all too boot-brittle thin. As a township it is insular. It is surrounded by countryside - so much countryside! - yet therein too lies its awful isolation from any judicial force which might give a good goddamn.

Guéra draws this all this alluring nature in the form of owls, stags and bears and it is beautiful to behold. It's just appallingly rare, so often dead and decaying, and crawling with maggots in Catcher's drunken day-dreams or visions.

The art is both bold and fluid, well lit at night and dramatically exposed during the day.

Dino's smooth face and open eyes are seen in stark contrast to Granny Poor Bear's wisely narrowed slits between puffed and hooded bags, while her flabby jowls and wizened mouth speak volumes, if only anyone would listen.

The glint of light on Catcher's green aviators under his wide-brimmed hat unexpectedly suggests mid-John Byrne as inked in different places by Klaus Jansen or Tom Palmer.

This new package contains the first two slimmer volumes with enhanced production values yielding much sharper lines and brighter colour while losing none of the original atmosphere.

If the opening few paragraphs of this review got your teeth grinding in anger at the injustice of it all, I highly recommend Ethan Hawke & Greg Ruth's INDEH: A STORY OF THE APACHE WARS to see the white man making his first inroads before making off with the lot.
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