Because the world is always a mess, we’ve decided to look back at dystopic works and examine why they remain so potent no matter how many years have passed between their creation and now. This week’s installment is on Tim Truman’s breakout work Scout and its unique view of the dystopia through the perspective of disenfrachised communities.
“Soon, these years will be covered in lies.” – Diary of Rosa Winter
Dystopian fiction isn’t alone in its unfortunate focus on the white metropolitan view, but even within the context of problematic representation in modern fiction the genre is overwhelmingly devoid of fresh perspectives. There are a number of things that make Tim Truman’s breakout creator owned work Scout notable but Truman’s attempt to create a new kind of dystopic work, one told from and mostly starring underrepresented voices, makes it continue to stand out. Portions of the first arc of Scout, particularly its shortened timeline and the way the narrative struggles to sustain its own ambition, prohibit it from being a masterpiece on the level of Truman’s later work Hawkworld yet it exists as one of Truman’s most timeless and topical works because of its centering of marginalized perspectives, featuring an indigenous lead who aims to almost singlehandedly topple a fascist state while dealing with the shock and trauma of the repeated eradication of his and other disenfranchised communities. Scout is more than a story about its protagonist’s efforts to vanquish tyrannical monsters, it’s also commentary on how marginalized communities are often expected to be at the frontlines of both the fights waged by and for these tyrants.
Like the similarly unique and disturbingly prophetic Martha Washington series, Scout‘s protagonist is a reluctant warrior who was plucked from his community and trained to fight on behalf of an increasingly more corrupt government. Where Martha Washington is essentially a loyal soldier trying to do the right thing in a sea of greedy thugs for the bulk of that series, Scout is already rogue by the time we’re introduced to him. Disturbed by nightmarish visions concerning Apache folklore, Scout abandons his squad to set out on a quest to take down a group of mythological creatures posing as human leaders. Or at least that’s what he believes; the series’ first arc never definitively says whether Scout’s visions are real or the result of mental illness.
Truman doesn’t give many details about that aspect of Scout’s past until the seventh issue, which functions as a kind of epilogue, but an interesting element of it is how Scout and his confidant/forced enemy Rosa Winter (both characters of color) approach their forced military training versus how Raymond Vaughn, “a big, strapping redneck from Louisiana” approaches it. All three were forced out of their communities, though in Rosa’s case the desolation of earthquake ravaged LA made her and her peers more eager to just get out of their surroundings. But only Vaughn embraces the training, taking to it with excitement and eagerness, while Rosa and Scout obediently follow orders but never really give in to the life.
And yet only Scout is truly alienated from the squad, targeted by his superiors and his peers for his silent stoicism and innate otherness even amongst a community of disenfranchised hostage troops. He and Rosa are drawn to each other and have a casual relationship, but once he starts having his nightmare visions they grow distant, until an incident where Rosa glimpses Scout’s inner monster forces them apart once and for all, only to be united later in the story as enemies.
Scout depicts an outlandish vision of a fractured America but it’s also frequently realistic in its predictions and portrayals, particularly in America’s time honored tradition of attacking and eradicating disenfranchised communities whenever it feels its greatness has been slighted.
Part of what makes Scout such a target at camp is that as this version of America slid into a downfall, indigenous peoples, who had already been forced to deal with the attempted eradication and dehumanization of their communities for centuries, thrived. Rosa comments at one point that many of her peers thought Scout was “a ‘silent savage,’ fresh out of the teepee” but “they had been watching too many movies.” Scout’s father was a college educated activist who helped the American Indian Movement make huge strides even as America fell apart and his community flourished until the government discovered uranium on their lands. Rosa outlines a DAPL-esque situation as the government uses everything in its power to steal resources from the Apache, eventually sending government agents to beat Scout’s father to death along with his fellow leaders before removing Scout and other young men, forcing them to fight for their oppressors. While his peers might think he is “a silent savage,” his superior officers know his actual background and want to punish him and his community for being survivors in the face of an ongoing, concerted genocide.
Scout’s opening sequence nicely connects back to this, as Scout pulls into a lonely gas station and immediately deals with two hicks who discriminate against him and believe he lives in a “welfare state.” Scout ends up saving their lives by shooting a bear they didn’t even realize was behind them, effectively establishing his skills, the environment he’s in and how the government has convinced poor white people that they’re poor because of communities like Scout’s rather than because of the pro-rich policies of that government. From there, Truman fleshes out Scout’s mission (kill the monsters destroying America) and the terrain, depicting this dystopic America as a combination of Mad Max, photography from the Dust Bowl and The Warriors. The comic’s desolate Texas setting makes the series feel more real and lived in than other contemporary works, and seems to have been a key influence on Garth Ennis’ perception of and interest in that same location, with an emphasis on weird characters rather than junk and chaos and squalor.
Because the comic is conveyed via both Scout’s perspective and Rosa’s written entries about the time, there’s also a tension between fantastical imagery and more grounded action. Mirroring that are the perspectives of Scout’s gahn, a snarky animal spirit who both guides and antagonizes him, and Missy, a young woman who decides to ride with Scout early on, attempting to connect with him as a fellow fish out of water. Scout’s world is one of constant noise, whether it’s from his enemies, or his accidental allies, or the spirit plane and Truman draws the series with that in mind, altering perspectives and filling out panels with details, except in key moments where he drops out the backgrounds and hones in on Scout’s stoic reactions. As much as the narrative momentum is guided by Scout’s mission, his constant internal spiritual and psychological battle guide it too, making it perpetually unclear whether Scout’s perception is accurate or if he’s imbalanced and it’s just that the world’s own imbalance has made his unhinged views basically accurate.
That comes even further into focus when Scout encounters The New Disciples, a combo band and street gang patrolling the streets of Houston and is saved by Doody, a boy sniper who is convinced Scout was sent by Gandalf to help him kill the monsters. The Disciples become concerned when Scout openly talks about needing to “kill monsters,” because it matches comments the mentally disabled Doody has made to them. But by this point it’s too late for them to back out of the mess Scout has gotten them into. Scout even questions their cynicism about his visions by pointing out the Christian imagery they still believe in, but Truman’s rendering of their expressions and posture after make it clear that nothing Scout says or does is all that comforting.
This point in the story is also where Truman truly comes into his own artistically. Houston has become the new capital of America and in a nice bit of commentary on politics as entertainment, the Astrodome has become the new White House and the president Scout is trying to take down is a former wrestling star. The real life Astrodome is a massive labyrinth, its myriad levels and chambers named things like “The Ozone Layer,” and Truman portrays it as a monstrous fusion of colosseum grandeur and complex tech wizardry. Meanwhile, the rest of Houston has become “a deathcamp full of spectres, waiting around to die.” Truman’s panels here are dense and packed but not overly detailed; instead he gets more abstract in his backgrounds, his buildings inky and raw while Sam Parson’s painting fills in the details, utilizing shadowing and lighting to give the architecture form.
The Disciples are a rare bit of color and flash in all this darkness, dressed up like musical pirates, wielding guitars alongside machine guns. They wear purple and blue and gaudy make-up, standing out from the red and green and orange palette that defines the bulk of Scout. Notably, the only other characters who are as colorful are the henchmen protecting President Grail, former wrestling figures eager to defend their savage leader. But Grail and his cronies use this imagery not to stand out but to hide their true monstrous selves, distracting viewers from the hideousness of their actions and desires.
When Scout breaks through that visage and forces people to see who these figures actually are on a live broadcast, there is notably no real sense of triumph. Scout accomplishes what he sets out to do, but both he and America are gravely wounded, and there is little sense of any hope for things to change. While Rosa remains at her post guarding the drug addicted Vice President, trying to work within the system to enact change by forcing the VP into sobriety, Scout heads off into the sunset, bleeding and resigned to the fact that for people like him, America is always a nightmare state. He may have killed this set of monster men, but in the final battle as he squares off against the Bannon-esque figure actually pulling the strings of the presidency, he’s forced to acknowledge that there’s nothing supernatural about the American need to enslave and brutalize anyone we believe isn’t like us.
In a conversation about some of the themes I saw in Scout, indigenous media critic James Leask told me that in the online indigenous community there is talk of “the idea that native peoples actually ARE living in a post-apocalyptic world, given the ongoing genocide against them that fundamentally changed their societies. In the view of the contemporary indigenous world as a post-apocalyptic one, there can be pain and pride in the survival of it, and wry observation of settlers discussing it as something new or forthcoming.”
The conclusion of the first volume of Scout seemingly connects with that, and feels all the more powerful in the current climate because of it. Scout’s assassination of the heads of state who were profiting off of the pillaging of America doesn’t provide any true sense of accomplishment for the people suffering the most within that environment in much the same way that the Obama presidency didn’t really improve anything for America’s most disenfranchised communities, and in some cases, like the ongoing police brutality struggles and DAPL, the situations worsened even before the current administration emerged.
This isn’t to say Scout is a hopeless work, but there is immense power in its commitment to portraying America’s neverending war on non-white people and the sacrifices we demand from those communities. We task those communities with waging a perpetual war for actual liberty and keep them from ever achieving victory while taking comfort in the small victories they achieve despite that. Is a work still dystopic if it’s merely a visually enhanced portrayal of that struggle? Is it still prophetic if it only maximized the perception the disenfranchised have of the alleged land of the free they already live in?
Special thanks to James Leask for his feedback and additions to this piece.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover