The New Cultural World Order

By Tania Carver

I’ve just finished reading SCALPED. Now I’m sure most of you know what I’m talking about and have probably been reading it too. But since I do have a rather solipsistic tendency to assume that if I’m aware of something then everybody else is, I’d better provide a little back story.

SCALPED was a comic series, published by DCs Vertigo imprint – their line that deals in supposedly more grown up subject matter. It started in 2007 and after sixty issues (which translates into ten trade paperback collections) has just wrapped. If I tell you the premise – and what the pitch possibly may have been – it sounds like any old generic crime drama. An undercover agent goes back to the place of his birth to bring down the gangster who he believes has destroyed his hometown and avenge the murder of his mother. Simple. Don’t know about you, but at the very least I’d have been only polite about that.

What Jason Aaron the writer of SCALPED did was, from the off, brilliantly subverted not only the set up but the expectations involved in it. The main thing is the setting. The Prairie Rose Native American Reservation in South Dakota is the backdrop. Dashiell Bad Horse, the undercover FBI agent, is the daughter of political Native American Rights activist Gina Bad Horse and a troubled young man trying to find peace within himself and struggling with his own identity. The head of the Tribal Council, Chief Red Crow, is Gina’s one time partner, now turned casino owner and head gangster. Agent Nitz, Dash’s FBI handler, is actually worse than the people he’s supposed to be taking down. It’s starting to sound a little more interesting now, isn’t it?

And that’s only scratching the surface. The scope of the series quickly broadened out from that initial premise as other characters were introduced, other situations developed and the Prairie Rose Reservation went from being the backdrop to the main character in the series. The characters also behaved like real people; no good guys or bad guys, just shifting, varying shades of grey so that by the end the reader’s sympathies and allegiances had become as fluid and nuanced as the storytelling.

It’s proper, grown up storytelling in a sequential art format. R M Guera’s art is stunning, the perfect match for Aaron’s words.

I’ve been with it from the start and I was sad to see it end but glad it got the ending it deserved. But when I put it down I started to think about it. And I’m still thinking about it. I know I can re-read it at any time, either immersively or just dipping in and out. Because it’s a comic. But it also got me thinking about whether there’s been some kind of cultural sea change in the way we enjoy stories, particularly (since this is Murderati after all) crime ones.

A few years ago we seemed to have more cultural absolutes. If you wanted something with strong characterisation, good stories, atmosphere, dialogue, subtext – all of the things I, and probably everyone else, look for in narrative art – you knew, by and large, where to go. Novels and films. And as far as novels went it was mainstream literary work that would supply that. Genre was for those who’d never grown up. Who still needed the comfort of silly trappings and conventions to enjoy things. Who didn’t want to confront and understand the world we lived in but ignore it, escape from it. Genre, in its most popular forms, was science fiction, horror, romance, crime. Real novels confronted real people in real situations with real emotions. Readers could empathise with them. They didn’t need murders or spaceships or zombies or romantic doctors to enjoy books. Just good writing.

Film was the same. Yes there were the Hollywood blockbusters, but not too many of them. And those that were around were treated as embarrassments, for the most parts. They make money, sure, and provide work for cast and crew, but really, we’d rather be doing good stuff. Certainly the actors. They would rather be doing Shakespeare at Stratford instead of talking in stupid voices wielding lightsabres.

And comics? Nowhere. Full of simplistic stories of men in tights and women in far less quipping away as they fought monosyllabic bad guys. Only read by children and the kind of adults who lived in their mother’s spare room.

But that was then.

This is now: The multiplexes are choked with Hollywood summer blockbusters, all year round. Big, gaudy spectacles, centring around the kind of characters who were once only enjoyed by children and the kind of adults who lived in their mother’s spare rooms. And they’re played by actors who have done Shakespeare at Stratford and find that this pays way better.

The kind of filmmakers who used to make complex, intelligent movies have mostly decamped to TV, particularly cable in the States, once the province of the kind of hacks churned out mindless drivel like FANTASY ISLAND and THE LOVE BOAT. This new breed, people like David Simon, Matthew Weiner, Vince Gilligan in the States and Steven Moffatt and Russell T Davies here in the UK, have taken popular – not to say populist – tropes and hoary old genre conventions and turned them into truly extraordinary drama. Because they’ve been showrunners and because their shows have been allowed by their networks to blossom and develop over several seasons, something new has emerged. TV series that engages and entertains on a single viewing, but that also rewards repeated and regular viewing.  Episodes become like chapters in a novel. And you’d no more think of skipping a chapter than skipping an episode.  

Mainstream literary fiction is still there but, ironically, it’s become just another genre. And, certainly in the UK, it seems, as a genre, to regard plot or storytelling as something wholly beneath itself. It’s also, and again I’m generalising as a genre, been reluctant to engage with the society we live in. That job has been left to crime fiction.

It used to be the case, certainly in the UK, where if you wanted to write a state of the nation novel you wrote a mainstream literary one. Now, you write a crime one. It seems to be the only form of narrative fiction (and again I’m generalising, please feel free to disagree) that actively engages with our society. Or that can. And that will also subvert the conventions of a genre ending; the villain may not be punished, the good guy may not win. Unthinkable a few years ago.

Which brings us to comics. And back to SCALPED. I think we’re seeing a new culture emerge. I know it’s generally regarded that comics came of age in the mid-eighties with Alan Moore’s WATCHMEN and Frank Miller’s THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS. This was then confirmed when Art Speigelman won a Pulitzer for Maus, his (not so) funny animal history of the Holocaust with mice as Jews and cats as Nazis. Then  . . . well, for the most part, the promise wasn’t fulfilled and comics as an industry seemed to retrench with stories once again being dominated by men in tights and women in substantially less. And a whole nation of men living in their mother’s spare rooms silently rejoiced.

But that’s not the whole story. Because I think we’ve seen something new emerging. The absolutes of the past are no longer there. Take Robert Kirkman’s comic series THE WALKING DEAD. A story of survivors following a zombie apocalypse, it’s got more in common with Cormac MacCarthy’s THE ROAD than anything schlocky or genre-based that’s come before it. It’s also a TV series now, produced initially by an Academy Award winning director. Boundaries are changing. A comic series like SCALPED or THE WALKING DEAD has more in common with a TV series like DEADWOOD or THE SOPRANOS or, best of all, THE WIRE in its richness and complexity. And those series have, in their scope, breadth and ambition, more in common with Nineteenth century Russian novels or the work of Dickens than the TV of a decade or two ago.

Our mediums are blurring. Our absolutes are disappearing. New creators are coming through from unexpected places telling surprising new stories, making us look not only at the world around us in different ways and through different eyes but in formats we may have previously dismissed as not worth bothering with. It’s new. It’s our culture renewing itself.

And it’s damned exciting.

2 thoughts on “The New Cultural World Order

  1. Alexandra Sokoloff

    What a great post, Martyn! You've got me sold on SCALPED. I still have a resistance to graphic novels but when friends are able to persuade me I'm always totally caught up. Your TV analogy is perfect, although I think the excellence of cable TV, at least in the US, has a lot to do with Hollywood corporate culture driving all the great screenwriters to cable where writers have way more power. Is it the same in the UK?

    And I wonder what the rise of quality graphic novels is about?

  2. David Corbett

    Martyn (May I call you Martyn?):

    I've been thinking along similar lines, but not quite. I just saw LIFE OF PI, a story that makes its point by having two different endings. The last movie I saw before that was CLOUD ATLAS, which involved six nested stories. Both of these films are based on literary novels, and the premises of both are relatively "high concept." Richard Yates they're not. And I think Hollywood has heavily influenced lit fiction, more than it cares to admit — Hollywood and post-post-modernism, shall we say. A literary novel that just tells a story won't cut it. It has to have some truly unique design concept or "big idea" — the multiple but linked stories of Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad, not to mention numerous works by Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem. Everybody's learning from everybody else and the stakes are rising, because the competition is narrowing. Chances are fewer. You have to be not just unique but really really really unique, and I think that's why everybody is looking to everything for ideas. SCALPED sounds like one of those things I'm just gonna have to read, you bastard. Thanks…


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