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By: Hess Sahlollbey
Over the past week, the upcoming slate of adaptations based on DC Comics properties has been turbulent, to say the least.
For instance, Sandman, based on Neil Gaiman’s comic-book series lost Joseph Gordon-Levitt, one of the driving forces behind it, further curtailing the project. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Preacher, which is slated to debut this May with Seth Rogen as an executive producer and starring Dominic Cooper.
Hidden in all of this news was the fact that Scalped, also from DC, has been picked up for a pilot by WGN. While it’s not certain that it’ll become a series, I couldn’t help but revisit the comic-book series in anticipation.
Written by Jason Aaron and illustrated by R. M. Guéra, Scalped is a crime comic book series published by Vertigo Comics. Originally published in 2007, the series ended after 60 issues in 2012. Along the way, guest artists jumped on to elevate the ongoing quality of the series. Scalped has been collected into ten trade paperbacks and is also currently being collected as five deluxe hardcovers. So far, three of these books have been released with numbers four and five planned for April and August respectively.
The series, while fictional, is set in the present and is inspired by elements of Native American history. Specifically, story elements are derived from the American Indian movement and the Red Power movement of the 1970’s. Set in South Dakota, Scalped focuses on the Oglala Lakota inhabitants of the fictional Prairie Rose Indian Reservation. Our main protagonist, Dashiell “Dash” Bad Horse ran away from the “Rez” 15 years ago in search of something better. Now he’s returned home to find that nothing much has changed save for a new casino and a once-proud people overcome by drugs and organized crime. While his motivation for returning to the reservation is unknown at first, he soon finds himself working for Chief Lincoln Red Crow as a member of the Tribal Police. Unfortunately for Dash, neither his mother nor his old friends are happy to see him return. Little does anyone know that Dash’s real reason for returning is that he is actually an undercover FBI agent, tasked with taking down the corrupted officials.
With a premise as unique as that, it’s easy to see why a television network would want to adapt the comic. This is a series that wasn’t afraid to explore some pretty dark themes. Some of those explored themes include rampant poverty, organized crime, drug addiction and alcoholism, local politics and the preservation of their cultural identity. This series was never afraid to shine a light on a neglected part of society that is rarely depicted in the mass media.
Adding a neo-western setting, the series breaks certain cultural molds and could easily be seen as a contemporary western à la Breaking Bad due to its overall aesthetic. Much like western films, the idea of progress always hangs on the horizon. In the case of Scalped however, it’s the delicate lack of progress and stagnation on the “Rez” that makes the characters so interesting. The characterization is thus the strongest force behind this story. It’s fascinating to see the evolution that these characters go through over the span of the story. All of the characters feel organic and their problems and turmoil’s are captivating and depressing. While Dash Bad Horse may have a dark and questionable moral compass, Scalped showed us just how far a hero can fall from grace and still have the reader rooting for them.
The level of realism in the series, combined with the depiction of Native American society easily makes Jason Aaron comparable to Honoré de Balzac. Adding to that, R.M. Guéra complements the series perfectly with his gritty, dirty art. While I didn’t enjoy it at first, it quickly grew on me as an acquired taste and was greatly elevated by the change of colorist from Lee Loughride to Giulia Brusco.
Casting for this series will be key, as Scalped will hopefully be a chance for Native American actors to get some prime time roles. Neither of Scalped’s creators are Indigenous and there has been some controversy in the past over how Indigenous people and their issues were depicted and treated over the course of the series. We can only aspire however that this project won’t turn out like Adam Sandler’s recent film The Ridiculous 6 where Native actors, actresses and a cultural advisor left the set in protest of the depiction of their culture. Here’s hoping that the TV adaptation will do this critically acclaimed comicbook series justice.