Posted by Don MacPherson on November 11th, 2010
Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Artist: Alex Maleev
Letters: Chris Eliopoulos
Cover artists: Maleev/Michael Avon Oeming
Editor: Jennifer Grunwald
Publisher: Marvel Comics/Icon imprint
Price: $3.95 US/CAN
I wrote and published a post on this website a couple of years ago posing a question in which I had some interest: Will the Real Brian Bendis Please Stand Up?. In that editorial, I suggested that the Brian Michael Bendis — who’s proven to be such an integral cog in the Marvel machine over the past decade — really wasn’t the same writer who offered up such strong, independent work such as Jinx, Torso and Fortune and Glory. I concluded that previous essay with the following passage:
There’s no denying Bendis is still a valuable asset for Marvel, and his involvement in so many projects and his upcoming guidance of the Secret Invasion event are testaments to that fact. But I miss the Brian Michael Bendis of the mid to late 1990s. I miss the Bendis that created Jinx. I miss the Bendis that breathed life into Spawn’s supporting cast members in Sam & Twitch. And God I miss the Bendis of Fortune & Glory. Is it too early to eulogize those Bendises? (Or is it Bendii?) Only the writer himself can pen those obituaries… or give us some hope that those men within the man will be found alive and well.
Some might suggest that Bendis of the mid-1990s is back with Scarlet, his latest creator-owned project. I don’t agree. With this new project, I’ve met a different Bendis still, a better Bendis whose writing offers a real challenge to his audience. Without a doubt, Scarlet is his finest creation yet.
Scarlet continues to put her put her plan into motion. She wants the people to rise up against a corrupt establishment, to become aware of the abuse of power that she sees as routine among police officers. But she knows a revolution of one won’t make the impact she desires. She needs help, and she turns to the one person she believes might just be as outraged over her boyfriend’s death as she is: his best friend. She tells Brandon just what’s she done, why she’s done and what she’s planning next… which just happens to involve a rather public conversation with the city’s chief of police.
When I first heard that Bendis was teaming with his former Daredevil collaborator on a new creator-owned title, I was definitely interested. Then I saw the initial promotional images of a gun-toting redhead; I was immediately put in mind of such bad-girl properties as Painkiller Jane, which definitely don’t appeal to me. Fortunately, the content itself proved to be much different than the initial window dressing suggested. While Scarlet makes a significant departure and step up for Bendis and his writing, there are familiar elements. If there’s one thing he’s demonstrated that he can do well, it’s crafting a compelling bit of characterization in the form of a damaged female protagonist. That, above all else, is what made Alias such a riveting read years ago (and what makes it so rewarding to see her achieving happiness in her life now in New Avengers).
The title character of this new Icon series is damaged in the extreme. One could argue that she’s been violated in the deepest way. A simple, happy life has been shattered by corruption and manipulation. Bendis offers up extreme examples of that corruption, of how the system fails us in small and big ways every day. But as extreme as it is, it’s also convincing and entirely plausible. The a crooked cop would kill an innocent kid is (unfortunately) easy to accept. That the cop’s partner with a conscience would quit but still keep quiet is easy to accept. That the media would accept the tidy story the police force offered up for a fatal police shooting is also easy to accept. Who could imagine such corruption would go unchecked? That, in turn, makes Scarlet’s mission to expose the establishment by any means necessary all the more believable yet shocking.
Given the down-to-earth (yet, as I noted, extreme) premise, Maleev’s photorealistic approach to the artwork works quite well. Yet he distinguishes it from a fully realistic look with the colors. He bathes most scenes in unnatural red and orange tones, in part to convey the title character’s controlled but unending rage at a broken system. The colors also seem to indicate who’s really “alive” and who’s been compromised. The police officers, from the beat cop to the chief, are practically rendered in black and white, making for a stark contrast with the rest of the characters and background figures in the book. I also note with interest that the only real color in Scarlet’s look is her hair. There’s a hint of red in her lips, but Bendis even includes a scene in which the character rejects a brighter shade of lipstick. The only time she really has color in her flesh is when she reunites with Gabriel’s friend Brandon, no doubt because she’s reconnecting with her life from before the tragedy that now defines her. Color seems to equal innocence in this book; the most colorful scenes are the flashbacks of key characters’ childhoods. In contrast, though, the other use of color is to convey violence and death. Since it’s Scarlet that wreaks all of the violence in this issue, one could argue that each murder she commits is how she tries to return to herself, to her past, to her happiness.
Another storytelling technique both creators contribute is the use of grids for flashbacks in order to convey a lot of information quickly. I love how Bendis captures each moment with a one-word (usually) caption and how genuine those moments look, thanks to Maleev. It’s a device that keeps popping up. I hope that continues to be the case, as it helps to set this book apart from other comics (and not just other Bendis comics).
Despite her shattered psyche, the audience can’t help but like Scarlet. That she’s fighting back against all odds is admirable. She comes off as brave and definitely clever. But with her reunion with a friend from her previous life, Bendis softens the character, making her more relatable and likeable. Showing her softer side is key, because the climactic moment of the issue demonstrates just how far she’s willing to go and just how far gone she really is. Another aspect of the script that makes it easier to connect with the main character is her expression of love for the city of Portland in the opening scene. Portland’s become something of a Mecca for comics creators in recent years; it’s home to a couple of big publishers and some of the top talent in the industry. Bendis informs his audience why Portland is such a draw. It serves as a nice balance to the fictionalized, over-the-top vision of the establishment in the city. I continue to enjoy the beats in Bendis’ dialogue — that’s one of the things that drew many readers to him in the first place. The dialogue isn’t necessarily realistic, but it’s an entertaining and convincing facsimile thereof.
Though it was always intended as such, it’s in this issue that Scarlet’s mission moves from personal to political. What sets this title apart from previous Bendis works is that socio-political aspect, his exploration of what a real revolution in America might look like in its infancy. I also see Bendis’ story as a comment on terrorism and that whether one deems acts as being terrorist or righteous really lies in the eye of the beholder. Scarlet has been pushed to the limit and beyond, and the person that’s emerged on the other side is understandably outraged and intent on revenge and/or social change.
Scarlet clearly plays two roles in her own story, that of the victim and of the heroine. But she also fulfills a third key role — I see her as also being the ultimate villain in this drama. The audience understandably sympathizes with, empathizes with and pities Scarlet. Circumstances and the system have transformed her into the destructive yet influential force that she becomes in this issue. She’s out to fight corruption, and she does so unforgivingly, unrelentingly. But that determination and skewed perspective are what threaten to make her the villain to all, not just those who abuse power. There’s an undertone to her call to arms that she sends to the public that leads me to believe she’s going to take a “if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem” approach to her mission. It’s one thing to attack those who are tainting the system. It’s another to destroy those who either don’t agree with you or are apathetic. I wonder how widely Scarlet will cast her net in her efforts to fix what she sees as being wrong with the world. 10/10
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