Studying Scalped: An Introduction

Scalped is the best comic in the world.

I think that’s as good a point as any to begin.  In my humble opinion, Scalped – the Vertigo crime series from writer Jason Aaron and artist R.M. Guera – is the finest ongoing monthly comic on the shelves today, and has been for quite some time.  The opening issue set the stage.  An angry young man called Dashiell Bad Horse returns to the Indian Reservation where he was born, and soon finds himself employed by Lincoln Red Crow, community chief and feared gangster.  But Bad Horse is actually an FBI agent, working undercover to bring Red Crow down.  A good start for a crime thriller.  But as the series has progressed, it has evolved into something much more complex, dealing with big issues like identity, heritage and destiny, and providing us with some of the most fully-realised, compelling characters in comics.  All of this is woven into Aaron’s meticulously-plotted tapestry, usually complimented by Guera’s stunning artwork.

I believe that, one day, Scalped will come to be recognised alongside the likes of Watchmen and The Sandman as one of the great comics of all time.  At least it should be, as in terms of both quality and technical innovation it has already earned its place in the canon of comic book classics.

So why is nobody talking about it?

Every time I read a new issue, I find myself eager to discuss and share the latest bundle of excellence the creative team have provided us.  But even on the internet, where the most obscure of passions are catered to, discussion is relatively scarce.  It’s like Scalped is the comic world’s best kept secret.  Indeed, when I went onto Google to run some searches on Scalped to see what was being said about it, I was disheartened to discover that the most prominent topic of dicussion as regards the book was arguments over whether or not it was racist.  I find the accusation as groundless now as I did then, and addressed the controversy at length in an article I wrote for Comic Book Resources one year ago:

Scalped and the Stereotype That Wasn’t There

But though I refuted the accusations of racism there, and have continued to do so elsewhere, I can’t help but feel that it’s a great shame that this is what I seem to have spend most of my time writing about Scalped focused on.  It’s just so reductive, ignoring all the richness the text has to offer in favor of lowest-common-demoninator squabbling.  So I decided to create an outlet for discussing at length the numerous elements of the comic that merit further exploration.

Recently, we’ve seen the old debate of diversity in comics flaring up again, with the likes of Steve Niles and Eric Powell championing a greater focus on creator-owned work.  What can we do to make sure creator-owned comics get more attention?  One small way we can make a difference is by talking about the comics we love.  And I mean more than simply saying, “This comic’s great!”  Enthusiasm is good, sure, but what’s even better is telling us why the comic is great.  Reviews are good for this, and I try to do my bit with reviewing the creator-owned comics I read.  But even this is ultimately just a subjective expression of opinion.  The next step is analysis, going beyond the quality of individual issues, and really getting into studying the themes and character arcs of the series as a whole.  Let’s start treating our favorite comics as literature worthy of deeper analysis.  Surely the first step of getting the sceptics to view comics as a legitimate, credible artform is to start doing it ourselves.

More than that, every piece of in-depth commentary adds to a body of work.  The more we talk positively about Scalped and provide in-depth commentary about the series on our blogs and sites, the less new readers will look up the series on Google and find nothing but arguments about racism.  I don’t propose that I’m some kind of literary genius or comics expert.  I know my understanding on art is lacking, and I probably won’t be able to talk about the excellent visuals with as much depth as I’d like – though I’ll certainly try!  I’m just a fan of a great comic, that wants more people to be reading it and talking about it.

Are you a fan of Scalped too?  Maybe you can help me out.  Write your own blogs discussing the series, focusing on whatever aspect you choose.  If you write something up, contact me – my twitter ID is johnlees927 –  with a link, I’d love to read your thoughts.  And it doesn’t need to be limited to Scalped: if there is a creator-owned comic you’re passionate about, show that you’re passionate about it!  Share the love!

“Studying Scalped” will be a series of commentaries featured within my blog that I’ll update periodically.  I’m getting the ball rolling with “The Shadow of Scalped”, a slightly-modified version of my latest column for Project Fanboy.  I’ll be posting that up here on my blog soon – watch out for it.  If you read Scalped, I hope you enjoy these blogs and are encouraged to reply and start talking about this series – I’d love to talk more about this series with other fans.  And if you don’t read Scalped… maybe this will convince you to give it a try, and see for yourself just why I think it’s the best comic in the world.

9 thoughts on “Studying Scalped: An Introduction

  1. HI John,

    I love scalped, and also agree its on of the best comics out there. Its a miracle that its still able to be released every month, and has the opportunity to be read as a whole in trade. I loved UNKNOWN SOLDIER and was extremely disappointed to see it cancelled so prematurely. I have my own blog site, but lack the proper time to truly get the word out. What I will do is submit a short review of it, and will also link back to this great site.

    Keep up the great work. Scalped is amazing. I would love to see it as an HBO series.

  2. Hey Eric!

    Reviews are great too. Every little bit helps. Let’s keep on getting the word out about “Scalped”!

    I’ve also thought it would make a great TV series for HBO or Showtime. How about Graham Greene as Red Crow?

  3. John, this post is great, and I too agree that Scalped is one of the greatest comics of all time. Anytime I ask someone if they read Scalped, they either say they love it or they never heard of it. So, maybe you’re onto something, maybe the fans need to start talking about it.

  4. Thanks for commenting!

    Yeah, I think the hardest thing is getting people to try the comic. It seems that just about everyone who actually gives the comic a go and reads it loves it. And the minority that aren’t immediately won over by “Indian County” seem to find themselves becoming fans if they stick with the series through “Casino Boogie” and beyond. What we have here is a story of quality. Those who are reading it will all agree. It’s just getting those who aren’t reading it – and who would probably love it if they did – to make the leap.

    It’s a bit like “The Wire”. Probably the greatest TV show of all time. But nobody watched it, and the ratings weren’t great when it was on TV. But it’s since become a big success on DVD, because critics and its advocates were persistent in emphasizing its quality, and how anyone who is a fan of good TV needs to see it. That’s what we need to work towards doing with “Scalped” in the comics world. Even people who don’t read it should be aware of it, and its status as “probably the best comic on the shelves.” The same way that even people who watch nothing but “Jersey Shore” and “American Idol” are still aware of “Mad Men” and the Best Show on TV aura around it.

    Have you checked out my latest “Scalped” column, “The Shadow of Scalped”?

  5. John,
    I agree with everything you are saying. I’ve been reading Scalped since the beginning and for me, it’s now easily in my Top 3 all time, if not my favorite. I just finished Rez Blues last night and was left emotionally spent. Being a relatively new father, all of it hit too close to home and it was just incredible. I agree with you on the lack of discussion about of the series and your Wire comparison is spot on. I’ve been pushing it on all my friends and everyone so far who reads it loves it. Keep up the awesome work.

  6. Thanks for replying, Nate! I’m glad to hear you’ve been doing your bit to spread the word on Scalped. And yeah, Rez Blues was packed with so much quality material. I own all the single issues, but I’m going to buy the graphic novel as well, as I feel every volume is bookshelf-worthy. Despite having all the other graphic novels, I’d probably get Absolute editions too if they released those.

  7. It’s amazing to me that people will line up to buy tripe like “The Walking Dead”, but “Scalped” still languishes in obscurity. There has literally NEVER been a better graphic novel. You mentioned Sandman and Watchmen, and while I agree that they were transformative and influential, I would argue that neither one of them were as flat-out entertaining as Scalped. The problem is that people have to give up their preconceptions to enjoy Scalped, and most people aren’t willing to do so. The art is non-traditional, there aren’t any Superheroes, and there isn’t a single Zombie to be found, so most of the Graphic Novel audience won’t even give it a chance. That’s too bad, because if they did, they’d like it. Even the so-called “filler” issues have been phenomenal.

  8. Hey, I like The Walking Dead too! 😛

    But you make great points. Despite “Scalped” not catching on more than it has for whatever reason, I’d rank it as one of the best comics ever. To add to your list of possible reasons, I’d also suggest “not adapted for film and TV yet.” Because too often a comic needs to get adapted to another medium before it’s recognised as a great story, which (with all respect to the numerous great comic adaptations) does a disservice to the comic medium.

    Thanks for checking out my article and commenting. If you’re interested, the next Studying Scalped article should be coming soon.

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