The Gray Area Reborn: Scalped

Originally The Gray Area ran on Socialfist and was written by Tribe One aka Niles Gray aka The Evil Villain Demonos aka Devil Rhymeosaur. While Niles is currently on tour with Adam WarRock, MC Lars and MC Chris he has given us the permission to rerun the old articles.
Originally published online May 3, 2011 at Socialfist as “It’s Late and I’m Tired and You Should Read Scalped. Ignore the Rest of This. It Doesn’t Make Any Sense.”

So, my main man Luke asked me to write up some comics reviews for his site to post today (Monday). Instead I’m going to be talking a bit about the nature of fiction and sequential storytelling and it probably won’t be going up until Monday night at the very earliest (Sorry, Luke). I guess this could be considered a review of the latest issue of Jason Aaron’s Scalped, issue number 48, but if I’m being completely honest “review” is going to be a bit of a stretch.
Comic books really are a unique form of fiction, not only because of the fanaticism they inspire in their fans (although other genres like SF and fantasy fiction do as well) but because the progressive nature inherent in serialized storytelling. Only recently, it seems, have other genres really begun to take advantage of the idea of telling a whole story in multiple pieces. There have been notable multivolume books (Lord of the Rings, Dune, etc) but in recent years it seems as though every fantasy/SF book is part of a trilogy. Even so, this still does not put them on the same scale as comic books, in which stories evolve and adapt and take place over decades and multiple creative teams and visions. Man, this is sounding really pretentious. Sorry, guys. I’m a librarian who was an English major.

Anyways, I read the latest issue of Scalped, which came out this week and it raised a couple of questions in my mind about character progression, story progression and how they interact both because of and in spite of each other. Specifically, it made me think about what the reader wants to happen and what actually happens in a story.

Scalped, for those unwashed non-readers among you, is a comic book series that follows the lives of certain residents of the Prairie Rose Native American Reservation. There are no happy endings–nor beginnings or middles, for that matter–to be read here. It’s a story of unhappy people finding new and more complicated and ingenious ways to make each other even more unhappy. And sometimes dead.

It is amazing and you should be reading it.

Scalped’s main character (maybe protagonist, though the series seems to only have antagonists) is Dashiell Bad Horse of the Prairie Rose Lakota Tribe Native American Reservation in South Dakota. He is a bad person. He kills people. He does hard drugs. He is in the process of betraying the people who believe in him. What makes this book both fascinating and frustrating is that Dash is supposed to be becoming a better person. He’s back on the reservation under some false pretenses after several years away and since he’s been back he’s seen and done some things that should have changed him. I thought he had changed until the moment he was given a choice in this latest issue and he made the choice he would have made on page one, panel one of the first issue.

I was heartbroken.

Looking back, however, I realize that it couldn’t have gone any other way. Dash’s defining characteristic is that he is incapable of choosing the right thing to do. Because the narrative is so agile in moving from perspective to perspective and character to character, as readers, we are privy to things to which none of the characters in the story have access. So we already know what the consequences of each of Dash’s choices will be. That’s a testament to Aaron’s ability to weave this story. As such, we know what Dash is supposed to choose. But we also know what he is going to choose, as much as it hurts us to watch him make that choice.

It’s almost like sleight of hand, the way Aaron is able to make us believe that Dash has undergone these profound, life-changing experiences only to lift the veil and show that he hasn’t changed at all. He’s been undercover the whole time, putting on a front as much to us as to Red Crow.

And here is where I make the case that this is only something comics can achieve. Is it possible for a well written book to pull the rug out from under us? Of course. Now that I think about it, Scalped is more of an argument for comics as literature than anything else. Scalped and books like The Walking Dead (which also had a new issue this week) are books that eschew the mainstream (read: big two) comics convention called “the status quo.”

The status quo is the bane of comics’ existence. It is, it could be argued, the dividing line between acceptance into the annals of American Literature and the junkyard of disposable pop art; pulp. Fuck Literature, I say. If Literature is too good to be associated with Norse gods smashing the shit out of impossibly advanced robotics in the name of American Freedom, then I want no part of it. No thank you, sir.

There are only two examples of Big Two comic books I can think of that ignore the idea of a status quo and are currently being published. These are Captain America and Batman. And Captain America is in the process of reestablishing its status quo (just in time for the movie! *gasp*). That leaves only Batman. Already a symbol of the one-man pursuit of change, Batman is one of the oldest superheroes in existence. How funny that Captain America is nearly as old and also currently in the midst undergoing a major upheaval. Things that make you go “hmmmm” (or not).

Let’s look at the major factor shared by the four titles named thus far: Batman, Captain America, Scalped, The Walking Dead. They are all written by one person over a years-long stretch. Captain America: Ed Brubaker, issues 1-50, 600-617. Scalped: Jason Aaron, issues 1-48. The Walking Dead: Robert Kirkman, issues 1-84. Batman: Grant Morrison: A whole bunch over several titles. We all know that Steve Rogers is going to be taking up the mantle of Captain America again and James Buchanan is going to be Bucky again (just look at the solicits for the title’s name change to Captain America & Bucky), but Batman is another story altogether.

The recent change in Batman’s status quo seems like it’s going to stick. No take backs. From now on there’s going to be a whole lot of guys called Batman. That’s just how it’s going to be. Of course, there can only be one Bruce Wayne, but the management at DC would have to be really dense and pretty goddamn stubborn to take the cape and cowl away from Dick Grayson. That’s a huge goddamn deal, you guys. It’s something that only “indie” comics have been able to get away with since pretty much ever. This is a real change in a comic that’s been the exact same since the 1930’s. This is the first ever Batman story ever told that couldn’t have been told by Bob Kane and Bill Finger.

I’m going to go ahead and wrap this thing up now since it’s become something I never intended it to be and also because it’s now past midnight and this was supposed to be up on Monday. Basically, what I’m trying to say is this: Think of a comic book that has changed significantly since you first started reading it. You can probably count the number of titles on one hand. That’s totally ok though because comics about men who dress up like robots don’t have to change. They’re already awesome. They’ve already outlived their creators and they’ll outlive this generation of creators as well.

The real revolution in comics is happening on the other side of the mainstream. It’s happening despite Captain America getting shot and Superman renouncing his American citizenship. It’s happening whether you’re reading it or not, and more often than not, you’re totally missing it. I don’t even know if I’m making sense anymore. I know I’ve lost track of my original point. Oh well. See you next week. Good night.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *