Another review from Chris, who is reading far more than me at the moment. [Insert bitterness about the amount of holidays teachers get here.]
“Graphic novel” is the term used for a story told in comic book form. Sometimes this is just a story arc from a superhero comic collected together, but most graphic novels out there have nothing to do with superheroes or fantasy.
Scalped, written by Jason Aaron and mostly illustrated by R.M. Guera, is as far away as the superhero comic as you can get, having the feel and pace of a crime television series rather than spandexy-planet-shaking-adventure pap. As the name hints, it is about Native Americans and violence. This is not a feel-good book, and it took a second reading for me to get past the bleakness and noir stylings to consider the story almost obscured beneath it.
A young Lakota named Dashiell Bad Horse ran away from his people’s reservation as a teenager, and worked hard making a life for himself that had nothing to do with his heritage. But after earning a rep as an FBI agent, he finds the part of himself he has been avoiding is the very thing others want to exploit. So the FBI, and in particular the embittered Agent Nitz, send him back home to work undercover for Red Crow, the ruthless tribal leader and crime boss of the reservation. Overall Scalped is most concerned with why people so often get trapped in places and perpetuate situations they should be doing everything they can to escape from.
This book is gritty. Nothing is romanticised. You’ll feel like washing your eyeballs and sending all your money to third world charities after reading it. But at the same time this book isn’t making a cheap attempt at using violence to be cool or adult in nature, as too many comics do. Scalped reads like a well considered portrayal of the problems indigenous people, and even disadvantaged people in general, deal with. While the peripheral characters will often commit immoral, violent and even psychotic acts without much reason or explanation, the motivation of the main characters (I won’t say ‘good and bad’ because the distinction disappears very quickly) are explored fully and with great sympathy. Even Red Crow, the heartless Godfather figure, becomes relatable, though never excusable.One of the most interesting characters to me was a young boy called Dino Poor Bear, who is about 15 or 16. The first time we meet him he asked Dashiell—by then working as one of the town’s only straight cops—if he can tag along or help out. Dashiell tells him to piss off. A few chapters later we are further introduced to Dino, and we meet his obese auntie and diabetic uncle. His pregnant sister is smoking crack in the backyard, and defends it to Dino by claiming its better than crystal meth because ‘crack comes from plants and shit’. As he leaves for work Dino’s grandmother, who provides the only other income to the house by tying tobacco twists, reminds Dino to hug his daughter before he leaves. He does so, promising the baby he’ll get her out of there once he gets his car running. And this is just his introduction, we watch Dino gain a footstep that might help him get out, but follow them up with choices that take him back two paces. The same is true of all the characters, but the writing and plot are such that we believe and sympathise with their mistakes, more than judge and condemn.