Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Miracle Pictographs
    Graphic Novel Reviews by Spencer Ellsworth
October 2012

Thoughtlessly Doing Rain Dances For The Rained-Upon

Scalped (Vertigo, 2007), Anya's Ghost (First Second, 2011)

Scalped and Anya's Ghost are both lovely products of the recent comic book renaissance -- books with no connection to superheroes that reflect a singular creator's vision.

Scalped is the tale of Dashiell Bad Horse, an Oglala Sioux Indian returning home to the reservation in order to take down the corrupt mob boss who is running the casino, the cops, and the drug rings on said rez. It's a dark, filthy noir filled with drugs, swearing, sex, betrayal and lots of sex. Did I mention that? This ain't a comic for your momma.

I had read Scalped years ago, but it was a bit too hardcore for even me, and it's always weird to read something where every character portrayed is of a different ethnicity than the author.

I went back to it recently because I've been working at a tribal college on the nearby reservation, and I was curious just how much of a contribution this comic was to literature about (not by, mind you) American Indians.

Author Jason Aaron is a white dude, but he more or less gets the rez right for his purposes. More about that later. The "Prairie Rose Reservation" is a thin fictionalization of the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, well-known as one of the poorest places in the USA and riddled with drug abuse.

Aaron fictionalizes many aspects of recent Native American history -- the shootout in 1975 in Pine Ridge, for instance, when two FBI agents died and local Leonard Peltier took the fall despite a lot of shoddy evidence.

Chief Red Crow, the mob boss of Prairie Rose, is a former American Indian Movement activist gone sour. He was there for the shooting, here blamed on "Lawrence Belcourt," a nom for Peltier.

Red Crow runs the reservation as his own private kingdom, and is much disliked for it, but his drug money has built the casino, and pays off the cops, including Dash, to clean out unlicensed drug operations.

Problem is, Dash came to the rez specifically to take Red Crow down. From the start, he's a wild card, hated and admired by everyone, including his mother Gina, who was once an ally of Red Crow's in AIM, and has now turned her activism against the chief. Gina doesn't know about her son's secret agenda, and he doesn't bother to confide in her.

Carol, Chief Red Crow's daughter, may be willing to trade sex for drugs, but she's got a weird kind of allure for Dash. He knows better, but he ends up in bed (on floor and against wall, actually) with her anyway.

Good, gritty stuff. Betrayal piles on betrayal, death on death, and Dash spends a lot of time in warehouses getting shot at, when he's not sabotaging himself, partially through Carol, partially by working with the racist, Indian-hating FBI agents who seek to take down Red Crow.

RM Guera's art more than holds its own -- in fact, the sketchy, dark, but weighty pics really define the noir world. Special mention must be made of the dark, earthy colors that suffuse this world. The sky always seems to be a particular shade of red somewhere between blood and clay. Thematic, that!

Jason Aaron more or less manages to avoid the accusation of fictional colonialism -- in which a white author writes about minority characters -- if only because Scalped isn't meant to be a deep, profound work. I recently wrote about Craig Thompson's Habibi, which failed mostly because it was a white man trying to say ponderous, philosophical things by writing about the rape of two Middle Easterners.

Scalped is simply The Wire or The Sopranos on a reservation. Blood, death, sex, politics.

And yet, I wish a Native American author or creator was involved or at least acknowledged. This is not like Robert Redford making a movie about the Peltier conviction, in which a privileged white man parleyed his privileged status to give voice to the American Indian community regarding their recent historical injustice.

This is appropriation of Native American history, ideas, and culture. It's all in good, dark noir fun, yes, but appropriation is questionable business.

Indian activist Vine Deloria made a good point about the book Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, by Dee Brown, a white historian. The book was a seminal moment in deromanticizing the Old West, and recharacterizing the "taming of the wilderness" as the genocide it really was. Many Native Americans, including Pulitzer Prize-winning author Scott Momaday, deservedly lauded Brown's book.

But Deloria pointed out that if a Native had written the book, it would be subtly different, different enough that it might have made more of a difference to Native issues right now instead of simply serving to reeducate people about history.

Scalped, were Jason Aaron a Native himself, might say a bit more than it does.

Don't let that keep you from reading Scalped. If you, kind reader, are Native American yourself, or if you have Native friends to pass the comic on to, or if you are interested in the cultural appropriation debate, please don't just put Scalped down and move on. Spread the comics love and spread the conversation.

(And if you haven't read/seen them, hit your library for Brown's book, DeLoria's God is Red and Custer Died For Your Sins, and Redford's film Incident at Oglala.)

(I cannot plug libraries enough, since that is where I found all of Scalped!)

Anya's Ghost is a comic my wife and I looked forward to with much glee, since Vera Brosgol is a well-known name among artists on that big crazy Internet. She's been gracing us with her doodles and paintings for years, and I had no idea she was a writer too.

In this era of gritty, nasty comics like Scalped, it is nice to see a comic that can touch on dark issues, and on the tricky business of growing up, while maintaining a distinct, cartoony sensibility. Anya's Ghost fits right into the growing genre of young adult comics.

Translation: you can indeed buy it for your momma, unlike Scalped.

Even if your momma is not a young adult. Sometimes names don't name things.

Anya's life is a slow drudge of being a nothing at school, smoking with her one, also-nothing friend, and hating her mother's Russian cooking and fresh-off-the-boat attitude. Until she falls into an abandoned well, and meets the ghost of a girl who also fell in, ninety years before.

Anya gets out eventually, but the ghost follows her, after Anya accidentally picks up the fingerbone from the girl's skeleton. Creepy at first, yes . . . but then Anya discovers that her ghost can flit around the room and snag answers from other students' pop quizzes, can warn her when the teachers might see her smoking, and most importantly, can haunt the locker of the boy she likes.

Anya starts out as a rather selfish character, with little perspective on her life. Once she has the additional viewpoint of the ghost, things start to change. After the ghost snags the information about a big party, Anya sees her crush in action with the ladies, and doesn't like what she sees.

The ghost has a very different reaction, horrified that Anya would dare walk away from a chance to be with her man forever (or for one drunken encounter in a bathroom).

That leads to a number of weird suspicions on Anya's part regarding the ghost's death . . . and from there, the story takes a turn for the creepy.

Anya's Ghost has a marvelously singular vision. Vera B's art is minimalist, a little cute, and incredibly expressive. It seems to be the incarnation of Scott McCloud's observations in Understanding Comics: a simplified, expressive figure can have just as much resonance as a detailed photo.

This comic is the best way I can think of to pass half an hour. The story is fun, subtle and entertaining, and not the least bit contrived. Every page is full of delightful proportions and cartoonish goodness.

At its heart, it's a story about identity and the lies we tell ourselves. In that sense, Anya's struggle with ethnicity and normal life dovetails weirdly with Scalped.

Next issue, dear readers, we vindicate that old warlock, Alan Moore, in the face of DC's new Watchmen prequels. He stands accused of witchcraft and fuddy-duddery, and a general lack of capitalist greed. Let us toss him in the water, and be it God's judgment if he float.

Read more by Spencer Ellsworth

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