<-- from http://www.bluecorncomics.com/scalped.htm Some of those who want forces/are the same that burn crosses...
-Rage Against the Machine
I’ve been thinking seriously about extending my small nugget of comic book scholarship (see long, rambling Soviet Superman paper…) into the ever growing circle of my Native studies scholarship. My first instinct was to write about the Marvel comics character Warpath (a hyper-violent Native warrior with mutant strength and a pair of almost “magical” knives who is currently carving up people in a story called “The Mesiah Complex”), but as I looked over some of the things out there to analyze, I came across the Vertigo title SCALPED.
If you follow the link above, you’ll see a rather scathing review of the title (the image is a piece of art from the series). I cannot, currently, launch a direct counterargument because I have only read one issue (I’m going to order the trade paperbacks from Amazon, so look for more on this). I can attest to seeing exactly what the creators claim is in the first issue, though: it looks like the Sopranos on a reservation. It’s gritty, and sadistic, and quite frankly gripping.
My commentary here is a response to the general idea expressed by the commentary from the critic at Bluecorncomics.com. I don’t particularly disagree with his interpretation/response; the whole idea of reviewing and critiquing is to say what you feel. But I think, based on the exchange depicted on the page, there is a problem that I sort of fear as I move into Native/Indigenous studies: why should ANY depiction of Native peoples be considered a reflection on ALL Native peoples?
I have twice (or maybe thrice) made the comparison to the Sopranos here. I think that’s apt. I personally LOVED the Sopranos (even the ending that bothered so many fans that the complaints crashed HBO’s website three times the night it aired). I found most of the characters compelling, and while the situations were gritty, sometimes way-over-the-top, and certainly less-than-positive depictions of Italian Americans, the show pushed artistic bounds and entertained while making an intricate, engaging argument.
Other than within the program (through the Italian American character who plays the otherwise forgettable therapist who sees Dr. Melphi, Tony Soprano’s therapist), there is very little backlash from the Italian American community about the Sopranos. It is, after all, a mafia TV show, following the same sort of genre fiction as Puzo’s Godfather or movies like Goodfellas. It is quite obvious that Tony Soprano isn’t meant to be “every Italian-American man,” though at times it seems like he’s the American everyman (in fact the last episode’s title “Made in America” makes perhaps the most clever wordplay of the series, pointing out that Tony and his crew are a decidedly American development as “made” men). The stories that David Chase and his crew of writers crafted for the Sopranos draw from a specific community, and raise visibility of that community, but they are not meant to stand in as an ubersignifier, as it were.
And I am sure that someone, somewhere, would lodge the complaint that I am misrepresenting the complaints lodged against the Sopranos; there were no doubt small scale things. But the initial fervor that was anticipated when the show was first discussed (before it had ever aired) didn’t result in the wide-scale criticism. And to be fair, the complaint I linked here is one of the few entirely anti-SCALPED commentaries I’ve seen. If one were doing something other than a thought exercise (as I reveal my own research ethics) she’d want to do this sort of research. If I’m misrepresenting either situation, my apologies.
But my concern is that as a Native creator, the reviewer from BlueCorn was just too hard on SCALPED early on. I’ve done extensive research on Leonard Peltier, and as such I know that there has, indeed, been a spotlight on violence involving reservation land and policies. I also know, as a fan of both comic books and crime dramas that the genre demands a certain handling of violence and “grit” as I’m going to call it right now. In that sense, what *I* saw in the first issue of SCALPED was a cabal of tribal criminals acting like criminals.
I would argue that to craft SCALPED any other way would be wrong. There’s no reason to make a Native criminal somehow noble, and in fact I think that would do harm to popular understanding of what life on the reservation is like. So if the other argument, I assume, would be to NOT write about criminals on a reservation, corrupt casino owners in a violent, violent world. And I guess, in some ways, as a mixed-blood Cherokee, I can see that. But I don’t “get” it as a scholar.
I don’t think we should ever treat some segment of the population as “off limits” as fodder for popular culture just because we’re afraid that trying to depict something stylized but realistic using elements of that culture. If we do that, we essentially say “popular culture has to be about white people,” and that’s one of the biggest criticisms of the status quo on TV, in comic books, in movies, etc.
Until we can accept that any of us can be good or bad, and as such any of us can be depicted as good or bad, I don’t know if we’re really making progress or just playing “nice” with each other.