Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Force of Will Review: Scapled and Criminal

I read too many comics. This shouldn’t really come as a shock to anyone (the comics audience tends towards the obsessive type, after all) but the sheer number of comics I read tends to suppress my ability to discuss them (by the time I can get to a computer to write about a comic, I’ve likely read 15 other comics, which kind of clouds the focus a bit). I don’t think writing short fierce reviews is my bag (plus, we’ve got professionals to deal with that) but my reading habits tend to dilute my focus. Also, some of the comics that I’ve been enjoying the most lately (Criminal and Scalped to name two prime examples) haven’t had that “I’ve got to write on this” effect… I love them, but I don’t know what to say about them. So, as an exercise, I thought I’d force myself to sit down and say something about them and maybe focus for long enough to see why I like them.

Scalped, published by Vertigo, currently on issue 15, is a series that snuck up on me quickly (I liked the first few issues OK, but by the end of the first arc, the hook was set). The book could best be described as western (specifically Native American reservation) noir, of the there’s-no-escaping-the-past variety. That’s selling it a bit short, though… there’s a lot going on. The main character (or the first main character – the focus shifts around a bit), Dashiell Bad Horse, returns to the reservation after almost half his life away, taking a job in local law enforcement. His almost superhuman emotional baggage leads to a rather robust level of physical violence and disruptiveness, which catches the notice of Chief Lincoln Red Crow, the reservations answer to Boss Hogg, who is about to open the big Casino that will change everything. Red Crow has some baggage too, with various interests after his money, a reservation which has gone to seed with meth and alchohol, and a past that includes being an Indian rights revolutionary, with said revolution, long abandoned by Red Crow for money (or at least a more pragmatic approach to “progress”), has two murdered FBI agents to its credit. But, as it often goes, Bad Horse and Red Crow are connected… one other person involved in the murder was Dahiell’s mother, and Red Crow’s lover, Gina, who never left the reservation, but is bitterness personified.

Added to the mix are Carol Ellroy, the “love” of Dashiell’s past and Red Crow’s daughter (now a woman who has sunk about as far as she can go into the squalor of the reservation, and who seems to be becoming Dashiell’s obsession), Catcher, a semi crazy man who was there years ago when the murders took place, and a current crop of FBI agents (I won’t say any more about them). All in all, this stew reminds me most of Lone Star (the John Sayles movie) which shared the western setting, moral tone, corruption, murder from the past, ethnic concerns (in the case of the film, Hispanic), and (if I remember right) hints of possible incest (I haven’t seen the movie in 10 years, so this might be me overlaying something). It also reminded me of Soderbergh’s Underneath, which I have a soft spot for (I lived 4 years in Baton Rouge… did I mention my wife grew up down the street from Soderbergh?), with its “man returns to entanglements he left long ago” noir vibe. But the extent to which the comic has sucked me in was unexpected.

One reason may be the Indian-casino angle. I live in Las Vegas, where the life of the town is supported by gambling. The issue of the reservation Casinos and their relationship to taxes, government, and big business has, to my mind never been fully reported on, and I find myself thinking about it like it’s food stuck in my teeth, wondering what I don’t know. This is certainly the first comic I am aware of that addresses this in any way, and maybe that’s part of the attraction. In addition, I exist in a place where (although Vegas is a paradoxically family friendly town) drug culture, especially meth culture, isn’t that far away. In a way, this is a peek into the other side of dream, at those ruined by the pleasure machine.

But I think it’s really the characters and relationships that make this one sing. Bad Horse is a cauldron of misdirected anger and misunderstood desires, and he makes a compelling protagonist, all the more since his actions (which in large part drive the story) lack coherence. Red Crow, driven from his true love by his moral compromises, and left with nothing but his will and pride to keep him warm at night (oh yeah… and money and power), makes a gripping, and very human, monster figure. Gina (what we see of her) is all idealism and loss, and Carol is all enticement and degradation. The interactions are complex, the diad relationships of character well fleshed out, and the second Rashomon-like arc gives us time with each characters hidden thoughts… some of which are surprising given the actions in first arc. The third arc, which follows the big event of the (single day of) the second arc, has been deft in its handling of the repercussions.

Criminal has also been uniformly excellent. Unlike Scalped, Criminal has been talked about and openly supported, so I don’t know that I have much to add to the discussion of the content. Instead, I want to note an odd effect: I’m anxious about whether the comic will remain good. I don’t mean “I have my doubts” anxious, I mean “I avoid reading an issue” anxious. I haven’t had this reaction to something since the first season of the OC when (believe it or not) the show, after a wobbly start and a 6 episode warm up, became the best show ever of it’s type (the funny/crazy nighttime teen soap). I would actually dread watching the episodes because they were getting better and better, but I knew it was the nature of these shows to self destruct. They can’t help it. There’s no way to reinvent the show without ruining what you have, so it’s stasis (fade away) versus self consumption (Burn out). the OC did both, starting 2/3 of the way through its first season.

Criminal has given me a couple of warning signs, despite the fact that it has been great. The first is that it is firmly a noir book, dedicated to telling a different self enclosed story with different characters every half year or so, and there are only so many noir plots (and, for that matter, so man y noir characters). Already, both of the completed arcs have been centered on heists. The second arc had someone returning to the life he left behind for revenge. Both had a bad girl with a past that spells trouble. Although both were very worthwhile, how much retreading does the future hold? Second, if the book has been building a world (I’m not sure it’s that interested in doing it), the way it’s handled character “crossovers” has been less Stray Bullets and more Sin City (“oh look, they’re in the same bar at the same time as that one scene in the first arc…score!) – not a good sign. I really don’t want this to resort to a network of cute cameos. If you are going to world build, I want fragments of a thought out functioning social construct. If you can’t aspire to be the Wire, don’t bother.

But still, it’s been great… I just don’t want it to start sucking, or worse, get stuck in a rut. I guess you should count your blessings if your biggest problem with something is that it might get less good. But does anyone else ever have a comic that they have to build up courage to read, like the way you take a deep breath to make an unpleasant phone call? So far, though, all I’ve gotten when I’ve opened the book is a sense of relief. Life is good, I guess.


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