Bad Horse of a Different Color: Aaron talks "Scalped"

Jason Aaron's story is the stuff that aspiring comic book writers' dreams are made of: his very first published comics work featured Marvel's resident canuckle head, Wolverine. But while the 2002 Marvel Comics Talent Search winner described that as a "very cool experience" that he'd be only too eager to repeat, as of last year Aaron has found a new home at DC's Vertigo. "For now, Vertigo is where I belong," Aaron told CBR News.

The writer's relationship with DC's mature readers line began in 2005 when Vertigo editor Will Dennis green lit Aaron's "The Other Side." This paved the way for the pitch that became "Scalped," the ongoing Native American crime series penned by Aaron and penciled by artist R. M. Guera. "I've always been fascinated with Native American culture and history," Aaron began. "When I was a kid, I was always cheering for the Indians to win out over the cowboys."

"Scalped" follows Dashiel Bad Horse, a wrong-side-of-tracks, full-blooded Lakota, whose chance return to the Reservation where he grew up draws him into the culture of corruption that now pervades it. According to Aaron, this abject rejection of Native American culture and history is cited by Native American leaders as "the biggest problem they face today." Bad Horse's return does not go unnoticed by the local crime boss, known as Red Crow. And as they tend to in actual third world countries, in Prairie Rose, the lines blur between crime lord and politician. Red Crow is legitimized by the many positions of power he counts among his own, including Sheriff of the Tribal Police Force. In the first issue, Red Crow makes our transient hero an offer he can't refuse. But all is not as it seems in Prairie Rose.

One character in the first issue describes the Prairie Rose Reservation as a "third world country in the heart of America." The analogy is apt. Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, the Reservation "Scalped's" fictional Prairie Rose is based on, is the poorest region in the United States, still largely untouched by the multi-billion dollar industry of Indian gaming. Eighty percent of its residents are unemployed, and those that are lucky enough to find work have an average income of $3000 a year. Alcoholism and fetal alcohol syndrome are rampant. One in five teenagers will attempt suicide by the end of high school, and their life expectancy is 15 years less than the national average. "Welcome to Indian Country."

Aaron cites books like Dee Brown's "Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee" and Peter Matthiessen's "In the Spirit of Crazy" as stories that had a profound effect on him during his formative years, but admits to a certain frustration at American writers' tendency not to come at stories about Native American issues head-on. As Aaron sees it, the prevailing mindset in the Hollywood of yesteryear seemed to be, "Hey, let's make a movie about Native Americans, but let's relegate all the actual natives to supporting roles, and then get some good-looking, white guy/light-skinned half-breed/dude-who's-been-raised-by-Indians to ride in and save the noble savages from themselves." This was a formula that was not limited to Native Americans, but was applied to films about all manner of minorities, Aaron contends.

"Scalped" was first pitched to DC as a relaunch of their property "Scalphunter." And though Aaron loves the character, he admitted that Scalphunter was a relic of the days when full-blooded Native American leads were taboo. Scalphunter himself was a white man raised by the Kiowa, mirroring the portrayal of the title characters in Atlas Comics' "Apache kid," Fiction House's "Firehair," and DC's "Hawk, Son of Tomahawk." And the few full-blooded Native American characters that did take center stage in that era (Pow Wow Smith, Indian Lawman and Johnny Cloud, The Navajo Ace, to name a few) "were all still defined by their relation to white society."

"We've rarely ever seen stories about Native American characters that were actually set in a Native American setting." This was an oversight Aaron hoped to rectify with "Scalped." Aaron drew inspiration from the recent films "Skins" and "Pow Wow Highway," which broke new ground in that direction. He was also influenced by Western greats Sam Peckinpah, Cormac MacCarthy and Sergio Leone, and such modern-day crime classics as Brian Azzarello's "100 Bullets," William Friedkin's film "To Live and Die in L.A.," David Simon's critically-acclaimed TV series "The Wire," and the works of novelist James Ellroy.

Even though penciler R. M. Guera lives half a world away, Aaron told CBR News that he enjoys a "tremendous working relationship" with the veteran artist. "He's extremely passionate about this world and these characters," Aaron said. "We've been on the same page right from the get-go with this book, and I think we continue to bring out the best in one another."

The first installment of "Scalped" hits the stands in January '07. For more with Aaron about scalped, don't miss our article from this past August.

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