Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Stacks - Scalped #36

Scalped #36: "A Fine Action of an Honorable Catholic Spaniard"
written by Jason Aaron
illustrated by Davide Furnò
DC Comics/Vertigo, 2010

You may not be familiar with Scalped. It certainly hasn't done anything before now would warrant mentioning it on a blog like this. It's a crime comic book that follows the adventures and misadventures of a number of Native American cops and robbers on a Lakota reservation is South Dakota, a reservation haunted by violent years of government repressionand civil rights activism in the 1970s. (For a brief history lesson, click here.)

Scalped has been compared to The Sopranos, except with Indians instead of mafiosos. So far the series has focused on the undercover FBI agent and general badass Dashiell Bad Horse. He is trying to take down corrupt tribal elder and casino owner Lincoln Red Crow -- and discovering things are not as morally black and white as he assumed. The series also features an ensemble cast from all walks of reservation life, many of whom it has only begun to explore 36 issues in.

One of these is Shunka. He's Red Crow's trusted right-hand man, doer of the dirty work. He's part hitman, part consigliere, always in the background, the only man on the reservation who might be a bigger badass than Bad Horse. Writer Jason Aaron hasn't developed the character beyond that. Issue #36 opens with Shunka breaking and entering, holding a man at gunpoint, threatening to kill him -- then embracing him and fucking his brains out. Shunka is gay, and deep in the closet.

The issue explores homosexuality and homophobia among modern American Indians. Shunka's lover Joseph Crane tells him that Indians traditionally respected gay and transgender people, whom some tribes dubbed Two-Spirits, but that in modern times they have assimilated the homophobic attitudes of the white rural communities surrounding their reservations. In the story, Crane is a tribal leader in a neighboring state who embarrassed the wrong people by coming out. Shunka is there to help intimidate him into silence but it doesn't work and Joseph Crane ends up murdered. Shunka's first reaction is to shrug and leave town, but he has started to fall for Crane. The issue ends with Shunka deciding to unleash his own brand of justice on the men who murdered Crane.

Since Scalped is frequently compared to The Sopranos, people are going to want to compare Shunka to Vito Spatafore, the closeted mobster who is outed and eventually killed on that series. But the comparison doesn't do Scalped justice. Jason Aaron is giving us a much more interesting portrayal of homophobia in gangland. Vito Spatafore's story always rubbed me the wrong way -- the moment he was outed is he suddenly becomes every gay cliché in the book, as if now that he's out he's reverting to type. One moment he's a mob enforcer, the next he's going to BDSM clubs in full leather gear, running away to a small town in Massachusetts to hang around in antique shops and live in domestic bliss with a tough but sensitive biker. Shunka, by contrast, remains the same person after we learn he's gay. Before, he was a violent badass that we didn't really like. That hasn't changed -- although, romantics that we are, we're rooting for him to get justice for his murdered lover.

That's the reason why Scalped is handling its gay story better than The Sopranos did -- no stereotypes. Shunka is a criminal and a murderer. He doesn't go running to the antique shop when we find out he's gay. He stays true to form and gets ready for a blood bath, gay stereotypes be damned. This story is not being played for laughs. It is deadly serious.

The story concludes in Scalped #37, on sale on April 28.

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