So, Scalped. Oh Scalped. Where do I even start? I’ve been promising to do this for a while, and I’ve been excited to do so. It hasn’t really come though. Why? Well, at the end of the day its hard for me to review things I like, and its even harder for me to review things I love. I’m trained to critique, to find flaws. Expressing in concrete terms what I actually like about something has always been difficult. That said, being as I’m fond of referring to Scalped in statements like “Scalped is the best comic book being written today” and “All human beings who are not already reading Scalped must begin doing so upon finishing this sentence” I feel like maybe I should qualify these opinions.
Again though, where do I even start? Picking up the first trade was like tumbling down the rabbit hole into a gritty wonderland that grabbed me by the balls and still hasn’t let go. The series is like quicksand, working on so many levels of theme and characterization that its easy to be pulled under by it, never to return. Every character is like a diamond in the rough. Dirty, flawed, but compelling in all their many varied facets.
I’ve opted to pick up the series solely in trade paperback format. This may seem a strange choice for a series I love so much, particularly a niche series for which individual issue sales tend to be the foremost determinant of its continued publication. The fact is though I feel that trade really is the best possible way to experience the story. Each book feels like I’m watching an episode of an HBO miniseries. Equal parts western and crime drama, with just a sprinkling of hallucinogenic fantasy for flavor. You will love, hate, and love to hate every player in this sordid epic.
What I think puts Scalped a league ahead of the other entrants in the field is its explicit and powerful portrayals of poverty, addiction, and identity politics. The Prairie Rose Reservation is fictional, and its wasted physical and personal landscape is accentuated to achieve a sense of place, but this kind of crushing dystopian poverty does exist, hidden away in the forgotten closets of the American Dream. Rarely has it been brought to life so starkly as it is here by Jason Aaron’s uncompromising voice and R. M. Guerra’s peerless art. Substance abuse is a current that runs throughout the narrative of Scalped, and the self-destruction it facilitates is treated no less softly than the poverty which precipitated it. So endemic is it that I honestly cannot think of a single character who is left completely untouched by its consequences. I’ll be honest, it can be hard to read. No less of a minefield but navigated with equal nuance are the issues of racism and cultural politics. It would be easy for Scalped simply to be preachy about Native American history, both in centuries past and in more recent decades. To be sure, it hits all the right beats, and with uncommon intellectual impact, but by choosing to deal with all of its uncomfortable complexities, Scalped succeeds in making its points penetrate even deeper than it might have otherwise.
Scalped only has ten more issues remaining in its run, intending to wrap up with its sixtieth sequential entry. A good run, all told. Nevertheless, I will be sorry to see it go. Scalped was a story that can only have been told in a comic book. Any other medium simply would not have done it justice. Yet, I feel Scalped in many ways transcends the narrative art that contains it. Scalped is a book I pitch to people who don’t even read comic books, and thus far nobody has told me they’ve been disappointed. In the years after Scalped has finally drawn to a close I strongly feel it will come to be regarded not merely as a masterwork of the comic book medium, but as a masterwork of literature in its own right.
The denizens of Prairie Rose are bound together by their inability to escape. For hardcore fans of the series I believe Scalped has bound us to a similar fate. Long after the sun sets on Prairie Rose for the last time, part of us will never leave “The Rez.”