When you think of excitement, the United States’ Midwest probably doesn’t spring to mind. Sure, the Mall of America is fun, but it’s hard to compare a huge shopping center in Bloomington to the glitz and glamour of L.A, the fast paced life in NYC, or the sex appeal of Miami. At least that’s what you’d think if you didn’t know writer Jason Aaron, whose new DC Comics/Vertigo ongoing series, “Scalped,” is set in North Dakota. It’s a “Native American crime drama,” taking place on an Indian reservation and exploring a culture rarely seen in modern comic books. CBR News spoke with Aaron about “Scalped” and the author explained the nuts & bolts of the book..
“Basically ‘Scalped’ is about all the bad things that can possibly happen when you take the poorest region in the United States and you suddenly add a multi-million dollar casino to the mix,” Aaron told CBR News. “‘Scalped’ will give readers an in-depth slice of life on the Rez: the good, the bad and the ugly of it. Plus plenty of Peckinpah-style shootouts, Billy Jack kung fu action, criminal intrigue, political corruption, methamphetamine trade, murder mystery, trashy sex and of course a brutal scalping here and there.
“The story involves the Oglala Lakota, descendents of Crazy Horse and Red Cloud, last vestiges of the Great Sioux Nation that once spread across much of the Midwest, now confined to the poorest counties in the United States. Where in the past, the Lakota fought wars for the Black Hills and to preserve their traditional way of life, now their only fight is with themselves. On the one hand, you have the progressives, led by Lincoln Red Crow, who’s either a forward-thinking tribal president or a burgeoning crime boss, depends on who you ask. On the other hand, you have the traditionalists, who oppose Red Crow’s planned casino in favor of a return to the Old Ways. In the middle, you have our main character, Dashiell Bad Horse, a troubled young man who has always rejected his Lakota heritage and who ran away from the Rez as a child, hoping never to return. Now he’s back, against his will, with secrets in tow, caught up in the war for a place he frankly doesn’t give a damn about. There’s also a woman in the mix, of course. Plus a mysterious alcoholic who talks to his horse, a bunch of bad-ass, wannabe-gangsters who call themselves the Dawg Soldierz, assorted meth dealers, tweakers, car crash victims, former ‘Red Power’ militants and an evil wasichu or two, including the sheriff who presides over the largest drunk tank in the Northern hemisphere.”
One thing Aaron made clear in speaking with CBR News is that “Scalped” is set entirely on the reservation and features a cast that’s almost exclusively native. “In other words, the main character is not just some white guy who’s been raised by Indians,” explained Aaron. “And there’s no dashing, Caucasian hero coming to save the noble savages from destruction. We’re doing our best to keep this series as gritty as possible. I’d love to think of it as HBO’s ‘The Wire’ on the Rez. Or ‘Thunderheart’ meets ‘State of Grace.’ ‘Scalped’ is about combining the richness of Native American plains warrior culture with present day, white trash crime noir. The romanticism of half-naked braves with painted faces riding bareback over the prairie, paired with the harsh realities of meth-addicts with rotten teeth and sawed-off shotguns hidden under their ragged trench coats. This is a world where the house always wins, and the meek shall inherit sweet fuck-all. A world of morally ambiguous heroes and sympathetic villains. Of stark, eroded landscapes, paved with broken treaties. Of massacres and lies.”
The editor of “Scalped” is Will Dennis, whom Aaron first met while working on his other Vertigo series, “The Other Side.” The October shipping series turned out quite well under the eyes of Dennis and Aaron, so the scribe says, “That dream project led to this dream project.”
When asked about “Scalped’s” artist R.M. Guéra, Aaron credits Dennis with bringing the talented pencillier into the mix. “That’s all Will Dennis,” said Aaron. “He’s got some sort of underground pipeline for finding these European wunderkinds. Guéra’s a Serbian artist who’s been working in Spain and France for several years. When I saw the work Guéra had been doing overseas, I was blown away. His art is gorgeously gritty and chock full of soul. The guy can just flat-out draw his ass off. I have no doubt he’s going to make a huge splash here in the states, and I’m just hoping to keep him for myself for as long as possible.”
“Scalped” was originally set to be announced a year ago this weekend and was supposed to be Aaron’s first published Vertigo work, but ultimately “The Other Side” came first. Why the delay? Aaron explained. “I’ve been working on both of these Vertigo books, ‘The Other Side’ and ‘Scalped,’ for quite a while now, and the big question was always, which one should come out first? Since I’m an unknown writer, it seemed best to have my ‘introduction’ be with ‘The Other Side,’ since it has Cameron Stewart, a well-known artist on board. So ‘Scalped’ got pushed back until ‘The Other Side’ was ready to go. It sucked to have to wait, because I’m anxious for people to see the book, but the plus side of that extra lead time is that we’re now pretty far ahead on the book, so we shouldn’t have to worry about any deadline crunches for the foreseeable future.”
Whenever a story is this steeped in a particular culture’s lore and traditions, concerns of authenticity are common and it’s something of which Aaron is cognizant. He’s not Native American, but has found that the culture fascinated him since his youth, in terms of actual history and fiction such as Timothy Truman’s “Scout” comic book. “I was born in Alabama, and the first Indian reservation I ever visited was Cherokee, North Carolina, which makes for a cool vacation, but it seems a far cry from a place like Pine Ridge in South Dakota, site of the infamous 1975 ‘Rez Murders’ that landed Leonard Peltier in Leavenworth,” Aaron explained. “I grew up fascinated with Native American culture, with heroes like Crazy Horse and books like ‘Black Elk Speaks’ and Dee Brown’s ‘Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.’ It was years later before I learned about contemporary Indian history, about controversial figures like American Indian Movement leaders Dennis Banks and Russell Means and events like the Alcatraz occupation and the Trail of Broken Treaties. ‘Scalped’ will touch on all of that.
“We definitely want to explore the real-life drama of life on the Rez. Meth addiction is becoming a problem on reservations, just like it is most everywhere else. The loss of cultural identity is something that the younger generation still struggles with. And though everybody talks about the millions of dollars that the Indian gaming industry generates, the bulk of that money is earned by a small number of tribes, mostly in California and Florida. The average Native American in South Dakota, Oklahoma or Montana isn’t living large on casino money. ‘Scalped’ is set on a fictional reservation, but one that’s obviously influenced by Pine Ridge, and I have plans to visit there this fall. I’d also like to swing up and see my aunt and cousin, who both live and work on a Cheyenne reservation in Montana.”
For additional research, Aaron said he’s been looking at, “Gritty little movies like ‘State of Grace’ and William Friedkin’s ‘To Live And Die In LA’ (two of my favorites), Elmore Leonard’s westerns (particularly ‘Hombre’ and ‘Valdez Is Coming’), Sam Peckinpah, Cormac Macarthy, Dashiell Hammett, Ian Frazier’s ‘On The Rez,’ Peter Matthiessen’s ‘In the Spirit of Crazy Horse,’ the music of Johnny Cash and Steve Earle, Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Nebraska’ album, ‘Deadwood,’ David Simon’s ‘The Wire’ and ‘The Corner,’ the slick yakuza films of Seijun Suzuki, David Lapham’s ‘Stray Bullets,’ Michael Fleisher’s ‘Jonah Hex’ and ‘Weird Western Tales’ issues, just to name a few.”
If you were to ask Aaron about superhero comics, he’d probably surprise you and reveal that he actually has written one of the biggest superheroes of all time in “Wolverine” #175, a gig he earned by winning the Marvel Comics Talent Search. “Unfortunately, that didn’t lead to anything else with Marvel, but as you can imagine, I couldn’t be happier with where I’m at right now, writing two series for Vertigo and with more stuff in the works,” Aaron said.
CBR Staff Writer Arune Singh Contributed To This Story.
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