Breaking Scalped

Alright, so we all know Breaking Bad is the best thing since stocks in Clark Wallabees (or at least Method Man would say that). It’s reinvented the basic cable crime drama, and it’s one of the only shows in television history to feel surreal, pulpy, and realistic all at the same time. We all can’t wait to see how it ends next year, but I’m also sure people aren’t too thrilled about their favorite show vacating the TV landscape. I can certainly attest, as I’ve now watched Homeland, Sons of Anarchy, and Justified, and while they are all high-quality shows they just don’t have that delicious aura that BB carries. Is there anything that comes close to capturing the feel that Vince Gilligan and his cronies pull off so well? Well, maybe you guys should check out some comic books.

As you probably saw in my Comic Noir post, I’m a big fan of crime comic books. It’s never been a better time to be a reader of that genre than right now, with crazy cool books like Criminal, Incognito and Fatale on the market (note that those are all written by Ed Brubaker and drawn by Ed Philips). Still, I feel the cream of the crop (and most Breaking Bad-esque) is a Vertigo series called Scalped. Simply put, I feel that this series is the best comic that Vertigo has put out in years. Possibly their best since Y: The Last Man, and certainly their most brutally effective one since Preacher.

Written by Jason Aaron and drawn by R.M. Guera (with occasional guest artists), Scalped is a 60 Issue series that started in 2007 and recently concluded this past August. Set in modern times, the story is set in a fictional Native American reservation called Prairie Rose (referred to as the “Rez” by it’s inhabitants) that has really gone down the fucking tubes. Alcoholism, drugs, organized crime and murder are all common on the Rez, especially with Chief Lincoln Red Crow at the head of the Oglala Tribe Council. The native-American gangster runs the reservation’s casino, along with handling drug trafficking and extortion…looks like we need an anti-hero to step in! Enter Dashiel Badhorse, a former inhabitant of the Rez, and son of an ex-lover of Redcrow’s. Decades after leaving the hell-hole he grew up in he returns and Red Crow immediately offers him a job as an enforcer. By the end of the first issue, however, we discover that Badhorse is working with the FBI and is indeed trying to take down the criminal enterprise enveloping Prairie Rose. Ain’t that some shit, eh?

So thus begins Aaron and Guera’s Scalped, and believe me it doesn’t slow down for a second. Issue after issue, the two keep putting out new chapters that are even more satisfying than the last. Aaron is a comic-book crime writer that gets everything right, from dialogue that packs a punch, to well done action scenes, and not to mention the overall ongoing arc of the story. Scalped often makes use of non-linear storylines, which go back and forth to examine the history of Prairie Rose. Never once does this tactic yield convoluted results, however, and instead keeps readers filmly invested with the book’s cast of complex characters. R.M. Guera also turns out to be the perfect artist for this series, which might seem a bit odd given his background, as he used to draw for Heavy Metal magazine. Instead though, Guera’s drawing give the series a real gritty feel, with rugged designs and often grotesque looking facial expressions.

When the series first came out in 2007, Vertigo was describing it as The Sopranos on an Indian reservation. I personally don’t think that’s the best HBO show to liken the comic too though, as I actually feel the Sopranos was hardly a show about gangsters. Instead, I feel the comic is more similar to The Wire and Deadwood (both of which Aaron says were an influence), and the most striking similarity between them is this: explication of setting. Prairie Rose is very much a character in Scalped, as integral as Badhorse or Red Crow is to the story and themes. Throughout the series, readers experience this fucked up locale, from it’s desolate livelihood, to the seedy cracks that aren’t exactly well hidden. It’s very comparable to The Wire’s Baltimore. It feels so fucking believable (if not exactly realistic), that don’t be surprised if you find yourself a little alarmed by Aaron’s view of the state of contemporary Native American culture. I’m sure this fictionalized Indian reservation is a bit worse than any real one, but it definitely gets you thinking about how bad the conditions of these places have to be.

Aaron certainly did his research on contemporary Native Americans, and even says the real-life activist Leonard Peltier was a paramount influence for the series. That brings us to an area in Scalped that works so well, yet could of easily been the series undoing: the inclusion of supernatural elements. Talk of spirits in a hard-boiled crime story could of come off as hokey, especially as the series tackles harsh subject matter like abortion and heroin addiction. Instead, Aaron does it in a way that’s every bit necessary. The series is talking about how a once proud people have lost their way, and the inclusion of a mystical sense (mainly in the character known as Catcher) makes the plight of these flawed characters seem even more harrowing. Also, Aaron wisely keeps the mysticism to the sideline, in a comparable sense to how magic works in Game of Thrones. It’s ambiguous in nature, and that’s just fine.

So in a nutshell, it’s 60 glorious issues of bloodshed, sex, gun fights, torture, drug use, social commentary, character study, revenge, and redemption. If there is one flaw to the series, I feel it might regard the ending. Scalped certainly has a good ending, but I was hoping for a little more of an oomph. Still, it nicely addresses the message that Aaron made through the whole 60 issues, gives enough resolution, and I even managed to get a little choked up by the final monolgue…shit, maybe it was a great ending?

The series can be purchased in 10 affordable trade paper back collections, and they’re available where ever comics are sold. Trust me, if more comic books were this good then there would be no reason to watch any other TV show (expect for Breaking Bad, of course).

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