No Stranger To Fiction #4: Friend to the Devil
'Every passing hour brings the Solar System forty-three thousand miles closer to Globular Cluster M13 in Hercules -- and still there are some misfits who insist that there is no such thing as progress'.
- Ransom K. Fern, Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan
'And ‘mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!'
- Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Kubla Khan Or, A Vision In A Dream. A Fragment.”
'Every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction'.
- Pablo Picasso
The perfect page is something many comicbook creators spend their entire careers searching for. The perfection of that single, solitary page is something that very few creators ever achieve in their entire careers, save for the elite few: Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely. Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, and later Moore and Eddie Campbell. Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson.
Well, despite not having yet earned the reputation of a team like Lee/Kirby or even Ellis/Robertson, Jason Aaron and R. M. Guera of Scalped can be added to that list of creative teams who have, effectively, created a single, perfect page. Not only does this one page boils down the entirety of the work to a five panel log-line, but it also manages to craft a brilliant critique of colonization, genocide, the repetition of history, the ownership of this world, and the act of creation itself.
Having just recently dipped into the world of Scalped (yes, I know, I’m late to the party), I discovered this page in the second trade, Casino Boogie. Issue #9 of the series, the fourth chapter of the arc, focuses on a Rez-outsider called Catcher. Here is a sort of ne’er-do-well who really does want to do well. Along with Catcher, readers are introduced to the path he’s been set as potential shaman and leader. Catcher claims to have visions, but everyone thinks he’s just fallen off the wagon again. This issue gives him his first real chance to shine, even though Dashiell Bad Horse, Lincoln Red Crow and others weave in and out of the tale.
Xanadu - an artist's rendering
But we’re really here to talk about that first page. In it, Catcher discusses the various creation stories he’s heard. He doesn’t seem to subscribe to any of them, but firmly believes that how ever it happened, whoever created this world was quite pleased with their work until humans had to come along and destroyed everything in their wake. Then the true brilliance comes in: Catcher on horseback, laughing to himself, watches the opening of Lincoln’s new casino from a mountaintop, quoting the opening lines of Coleridge’s famous poem: 'In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree'.
8 years later, Ground Zero remains blasted
Those five panels, are not just the entirety of Scalped or a scathing critique of human behavior -- they are the entirety of human history. The 'two-leggeds', as Catcher calls his fellow man, permitted the worst of things to occur. They occupied East Timor, chased the Jews to Masada, burned witches in Salem, led the Inquisition, steered slave ships from Africa and, yes, spread smallpox amongst the Native Americans all the while cheating them out of Manhattan. To Catcher, Kubla Khan could be Genghis Khan, Adolf Hitler, Margaret Thatcher, Pol Pot, Christopher Columbus, Julius Caesar, George W. Bush, Miles Standish, Richard Nixon, Vlad Tepes, Alexander the Great and many more. Since Catcher is able to articulate leadership itself, as somehow broken.
And Lincoln’s casino? Lincoln’s casino is so much more than Xanadu, and even Catcher knows it. It’s the horrifying product of what happens when assimilation into the invading culture is the only way to even remotely subvert and take advantage of that culture. For a criminal like Lincoln, it’s more than a decreed dome of decadence: it’s a means to an end.
These five panels are FernGully, Avatar, Pocahontas, Planet of the Apes, Deadwood and so many more. Stripped of the musical numbers, the aliens, the talking apes and the iambic pentameter, we are left with a shocking, mortifying and altogether disturbing sense of what not just the white man, but indeed, all “two-leggeds” have done to this world.
When we create, we destroy. When something we’ve created is destroyed, we have to create again. If acts of creation and destruction are synonymous, as Picasso and so many others suggest, then what does the creation of this page mean for Scalped, for the art of comics, the alleged 'progress' of humankind and, indeed, this world and our time on it?
There are no easy answers to this question. In the end, we must all form our own conclusions. I would offer you this, though: if you sleep well at night after realizing what it personally means to you -- if you’re not bothered by what you’ve settled upon -- then you have reached the wrong conclusion.
Next Week: Holy wars and Supermen exposed as a recent episode of Smallville dares to draw uncomfortable parallels in “God Send Conspirator”.