A second pass at SCALPED or How The Fun was Lost

how’s the weather/how’s my father?/am I lonely/heavens, no!

-Tracy Bonham 

Image from flickr, taken from SCALPED writer Jason Aaron's blog 
at: http://jasoneaaron.blogspot.com/2007_03_01_archive.html

About a month ago, give or take, I wrote an entry about the comic book SCALPED from DC. At the time I wanted to reserve full judgment until I’d seen more of the series. Now that I’ve read the first “chapter” in graphic novel form, I feel better talking about it.

At the same time, I’ve recently met a fellow scholar who works for a comic company that attempts to present things in a more positive light. I’m going to keep from naming that group just yet as I don’t want to sound as if I am singling them, or this fellow scholar who I respect a great deal, out in this particular post. I will be talking a bit about this scholar’s work later, though.

I return to the point I was trying to make initially. In fact that point has been galvanized by reading more and seeing that SCALPED actually does get somewhat worse in its depictions of things. The final page of the first graphic novel is of a woman who has been scalped.  I find of late that either what I am trying to argue to some degree is considered highly-counterproductive to people in my field. But I want to restate it, because I feel this is important. I think it might be CRITICAL to ever really making sense of things in this world.

As academics, we walk in a different space. I will not call our space ‘better’ than anyone else’s (that’s been done forever by people who presume there is an Ivory Tower and we live in it), but it is certainly different. We think about things that we seem to assume others don’t (often incorrectly, but sometimes correctly) and we press for meaning in places where meaning isn’t usually saught. When one of us– as I am, as so many are now– tries to go into a more mainstream or “popular” arena, there are things we have to remember.This is rule number one for me: if I’m studying something, I’m studying it. I’m not studying it while figuring out how I can co-opt it, and I’m not studying it reading an agenda onto it. I will read with lenses that reveal agendas (we all do– that’s how the best revelations result), but I won’t come to something and say “because this does X, it is obviously Y.” This is my defense of SCALPED; it’s a story. I have decided that I wish it were just a touch less gritty, but I continue to have nothing but love for the two most commonly associated pieces of contemporary fiction: FX Network’s The Shield and HBO’s The Sopranos. In fact I have posters from each of those two programs (they aren’t currently on my wall– they’re back in my old apartment).

I have no tie to Italian Americans, so I cannot speak from the position of their culture. I have, however, addressed general Italian-Am responses to the Sopranos in this blog before. My father, may he rest in peace, was a cop (in fact my father was a “dirty” cop, though he didn’t go as far as Vic Mackey). As such, I feel that I can fairly say that The Shield isn’t meant to speak for all police officers. The Sopranos specifically screams that it doesn’t wish to speak for all Italian Americans.

These are stories.

Given these are not stories that carry the sacred material or spiritual understanding that the stories of the Cherokee might carry, for example, but these are not meant to be depictions of what is “real.”Fiction is a form of social commentary, but it’s also a form of entertainment and can be seen in a way as the fantasy of the best and worst of us.

I doubt Stephen King was trying to besmirch the name of the automobile industry when he wrote Christine.

I don’t think Clive Barker was trying to ruin the concept of solving puzzles forever when he wrote The Hellbound Heart and spawned the Hellraiser movies.

 I will agree with what many have said about SCALPED; I don’t want anyone  to think my people ALL behave that way. Sadly, however, I know there are bad Cherokee. I’ve seen them, met them, faced their behaviors. As such, I wouldn’t want a comic book about the cliche Noble Savage to try to depict my people, either (or that part of me, anyway– a small portion of my people are Euro).I disagree that SCALPED should be boycotted, though, or that it should be outright defamed.

If you don’t want to read it, don’t read it because it’s only a marginally good story (I sort of like where it was going while simultaneously wishing it wasn’t going there). If you don’t like that Aaron is portraying a tribe as corrupt, write commentaries about it.

But I think it’s wrong to say “WE shouldn’t be presented this way,” which is what I hear many, many people saying.As a kid, I went through a period as an outcast where I identified strongly with the villains in the stories I read. I wanted to be Lex Luthor. I wanted to be Darth Vader. I wanted to be the Joker so much I asked my parents for a big black trench coat (thankfully I was old enough that the stigma that goes with that look now hadn’t hit… imagine that as a faux pas). Why should any group of people be exempt from representation as the villain?

Perhaps it’s just my twisted postmodern view, but I think part of decolonization is saying “sure, we want to appear in this medium the way anyone else does.”

Of course I’d feel better if this were an Indigenous artist creating the evil mafia-like tribe with their corrupt casino, but I think it sets us– all of us– back to claim that something should be off-limits.

The second problem is that when we start twisting things so that they fit a popular genre but they are entirely positive, we ruin the recipe. I see this all the time with educational video games (which are growing exponentially). The reason a game like Grand Theft Auto is fun is because it’s a specific sort of fantasy release for the gamer. It doesn’t mean that gamer will want to go actually commit crimes (there’s research that proves this, btw… I don’t have the citations handy but will gladly fish them up if you email me).

On some levels yes, we can sanitize and reappropriate popular genres. But on another level, we risk rupturing what is appealing about them for the sake of our tinkering.

Use SCALPED as an example of what Native Americans aren’t, but think carefully about the implications of saying “we won’t be depicted like the Sopranos or like the cops on the Shield” is really saying. It’s asking to be removed from a specific conversation.If you’re someone who wants us out of that conversation, I extend to you all the respect in the world. But I feel like *I* am embedded in that discourse. It’s part of the tapestry of my life. And in order to use it, to study it, and to feel a part of it, I see no choice but to allow things like SCALPED to become a part of what we consume and accept.  

There’s a move in the field of rhetoric to attempt to bring about social change. At times I find that sort of a strange call to arms. I love the concept, but we should be bringing about social change every day by virtue of the fact that we’re teaching others to read and write, to look at things critically and to understand how to interact with the world around them. But commenting on something like SCALPED can provide a space for social change. Sure… it’s a negative way to see any tribe, even a fictional one.

But it opens a number of illuminating dialogues:
-What does it mean to leave your land and go back?
-What does it mean to lose respect for your land and your ways?
-What is the brutal history of scalping? How does that sit in comparison to current society?
-If life looks bad on this fictional reservation, what does it look like on a real reservation?
-If a non-NDN is writing this story about a fictional tribe, how would, say, a Cherokee who liked the Sopranos write the same story? What is lost in a cultural translation? What is gained?
and the most important question…

-Why is it out there, why is it selling, and why do people keep reading?

There’s much to be learned. I don’t think we learn that by simply saying “what it says is bad.” Sure, that’s pretty obvious. I doubt anyone will read it and say “I want my people thought of this way.”But it starts a valuable conversation, and more importantly, it shows us in mainstream American culture in a way that isn’t as the Lone Ranger’s sidekick, or the X-man with the knives, or the guy in the headdress who gets big as a superpower. It’s an opening to appear in a different way. I consider it empowering. And I know some of you disagree. I love you anyway. 🙂 

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