Some people have a ton, some people have a few, but just about everybody has a book, or books, that they love. I asked author James Newman and he narrowed his recommendation to a series of comics ...
Are you into crime/noir stuff like I am? Perhaps you enjoyed my novel Ugly As Sin, which happens to be that kind of book. Though my first love is horror, I also adore gritty noir (think Joe R. Lansdale, Ed Kurtz, Ed Gorman, and Adam Howe). I’m fascinated by tales about broken people who are far from all good or all bad, people who are looking for something better than what life’s shown them so far but they’re never gonna find it without getting blood on their hands. Ugly As Sin has been marketed as “white trash noir,” and I can’t think of three words that could more appropriately describe the story of a disfigured pro wrestler who befriends a twitchy meth-head as he searches for his missing granddaughter.
If you dig such stories too, you should be reading Scalped, from Vertigo Comics.
I’ve always been a casual comic book fan, but there are too many titles in circulation these days for me to keep up with them all (not to mention the fact that I’m usually so broke I can’t afford to pay attention -- have you seen the cover price on a comic book these days?!). That said, I’ll drop by my local comic shop once every couple of months. I’ve always been a big Batman nerd, but I lost count a long time ago of the number of books DC publishes that follow the Dark Knight’s adventures. More often than not I approach the cash register with some horror-related or crime/noir books in hand.
Last year I fell in love with a series called Southern Bastards (which I also highly recommend). ‘Bastards is written by a fellow named Jason Aaron, who has since jumped into the big league with Marvel, scripting such titles as Doctor Strange and Star Wars. I kept hearing about this early thing Aaron had written called Scalped, but I’m ashamed to admit that my first thought was, “Noir on an Indian reservation? Doesn’t sound like something that would interest me.”
What a pale-faced fool I was.
Fast forward to this past October. I was on vacation with my family in Orlando, and – like I always try to do any time I’m out of town – I scoped out some local comic shops. I asked the guy behind the counter to recommend something “dark.” He replied with a bunch of stuff I had already read. He asked about Southern Bastards, and I gushed about how much I loved that one.
“Dude,” he said. “Scalped is ten times better.”
I figured he was full of shit, but took a chance anyway. I picked up the first trade paperback collection (Indian Country), and I’ve never looked back.
If my own Ugly As Sin was “white trash noir”, then I guess the best way to describe Scalped is “red-skin noir.” That’s not the most politically correct way to put it, but it works.
Scalped takes place on the Prairie Rose Indian reservation. There are a number of storylines going on within the narrative, but the one at the forefront follows Dashiell “Dash” Bad Horse, a full-blooded Oglala Lakota. Dash -- a Kosovo war veteran turned convict turned undercover FBI agent -- is a very angry young man, full of vitriol that he directs not only at his (crooked) superiors but everyone around him. His mother was a militant activist with the Native American Rights movement who was never there for Dash when he was a kid, and he resents her for it. These days Dash works for a bad man, a fat-cat organized-crime type by the name of Lincoln Red Crow. Chief Red Crow used to be heavily involved with Dash’s mother, and was a leader in the N.A.R. movement, but the whole thing ended in murder and grudges that would last for generations. As the story begins, Chief Red Crow has just opened the Crazy Horse Casino, which he sees as a way of paying back his people for everything the white man has taken from him. Others have a different opinion. His detractors believe that Red Crow only cares about making himself wealthier. Not to mention the profitable meth business the chief has going on the side. The local police won’t do anything about it because he owns the entire force.
There’s so much more going on in Scalped than what I have outlined for you here. There’s the story of “Diesel Engine” Fillenworth, a white man who desperately wants to be an Indian (“I’m one-sixteenth Kickapoo!” he tells anyone who will listen, although he’s usually beating the shit out of that person as he tells them). He’s a rapist and a murderer, yet Dash’s superiors deny him again and again when he asks to take Diesel down. Why? You’ll have to read the book to find out, ‘cause I’ve said too much already. I haven’t even discussed any of the fascinating secondary characters. Like Dino Poor Bear, the teenage father who wants nothing more than to get off the Rez and make something of himself . . . or the skinhead with the foot-long goatee who offers Dino a job just when he’s trying to do right by his infant daughter . . . or prune-faced Mr. Brass, the creepy one-armed Asian hitman who carries a doctor’s bag full of shiny instruments of torture.
This is one the best series I have ever read, and I’m not barely halfway through its run. It’s the kind of story in which the good guys do things that will turn your stomach, and the villain has commendable reasons for committing despicable acts. That’s the best kind of noir. I can’t wait to find out what happens next. And yet, as engaging as Aaron’s writing is, it’s the art that I really want to talk about . . . .
Scalped showcases the incredible talent of an artist by the name of R.M. Guera. I was shocked to learn that Guera lives in Spain, as his work on Scalped captures the dark side of America with a perfect eye. Here reside the people who owned this land before the white man stole what was theirs and cast them aside to rot in the sun. These people look broken beyond repair, their flesh weathered by years of hard living because they were never given any other choice. They are surrounded by the dust-covered evidence of their discontent: junk cars, crumpled beer cans, and the detritus of dreams they abandoned long ago. It’s a depressing dichotomy when the flip of a page invites us into Chief Red Crow’s world of excess – stacks of cash, expensive cigars, flashing lights, and dancing girls -- just down the road a bit from all that despair. Whether we’re living it up in the casino or slumming it on skid row, Guera inserts more detail into the background of one seemingly-mundane scene than most artists provide in an entire book. At the risk of inviting accusations of hyperbole, I will gladly say that Guera’s work on Scalped is the best I have ever seen in my thirty-plus years of reading comic books.
Case in point: I dare anyone to peruse two specific pages in the middle of Volume 3 (Dead Mothers), and argue that it’s anything less than sublime. When no one else will step up to do the job, Dash Bad Horse takes it on himself to tell a group of young children that their mother has been murdered. Not a word is spoken in any of these panels. We don’t hear what he says. We don’t hear their response. Yet we know, as we “watch” from the other side of the window, everything that transpired inside that room. Our lives are changed, along with those poor kids’. We are one with their fear and confusion.
It’s heartbreaking. It’s uncomfortable.
But it’s real.
And it’s perfect.
Get up to speed with Scalped. Thank me later.
Like a patron who walks out of Chief Red Crow’s casino with more money than he started, this is one gamble you won’t regret taking.
James Newman is the author of a diverse selection of horror and suspense tales, dark fiction told with a distinct Southern voice and more often than not with a hint of pitch-black humor. His published work includes the novels MIDNIGHT RAIN, THE WICKED, ANIMOSITY, and UGLY AS SIN, and the collection PEOPLE ARE STRANGE. STILL WATERS, a short Christian-themed horror film based on his original screenplay, is now available for purchase at www.tackytiefilms.com. Up next are the novels DOG DAYS O' SUMMER and SCAPEGOAT (co-written w/Mark Allan Gunnells and Adam Howe, respectively). His most recent release is ODD MAN OUT.
WEBSITE/BLOG AMAZON FACEBOOK TWITTER GOODREADS