She Has No Head! – Brian Michael Bendis And Alex Maleev’s Scarlet
Alias buys you a lot of credit in my house.
Powers does too.
A lot of people, when they hear Brian Michael Bendis’ name, they think “Avengers” and then maybe a string of expletives. But I didn’t read that stuff for one reason or another and so I think “Alias” and then I think “Powers” and then I think that I absolutely adore both those things.
So yeah, I tend to give Brian Michael Bendis the benefit of the doubt when it comes to new work, especially creator owned work, of which this book is the first in a long time.
All these reactions made it easy for me to buy and subsequently love his and Alex Maleev’s new creator owned project, Scarlet.
Scarlet is the story of a girl named Scarlet (‘natch) living in Portland as a kind of vigilante after suffering a serious head injury and losing the man that she loves to police violence. The story breaks the fourth wall (i.e. she talks directly to the reader) and you feel in her speech that she’s definitely trying to get you to come along with her, despite her violent actions. She feels justified, and tells us the story of how she turned into this, a person who kills a cop on page one, and beats up a would be bicycle thief on page nine, and worries she’s crazy in-between those two things. There’s plenty of cliche in Scarlet’s set up, but in the hands of writers and artists of Bendis and Maleev’s caliber they’re able to blunt the oft times necessary cliche and deliver the story powerfully independent of that. For example, Scarlet tells her “highlights and lowlights” as they were, through a series of brilliant single panels – “birth”, “first kiss”, “first infidelity” etc.:
It’s clever and wildly effective, because it allows us to both get to know the bones of Scarlet instantly, but it also makes her an everyman in a way that I suspect will benefit Bendis’ story, because we all have those things. You could use those titles for anyone of us and create a snapshot of life, something that is both everything and nothing. It’s a brilliant way to make us relate to Scarlet, even if we’re nothing alike, because we all have those moments and they’re the moments that gather up to create who you actually are. It’s easy to see through those panels how Scarlet came to be and that she’s both the same and different than me, you, and the guy three rows down. It’s great. Greg mentioned his strange surprise that her favorite thing is the Hawthorne Bridge, but that was one of my favorite moments because I instantly wondered why. What experience did she have on that bridge that made it her favorite thing in the world? Did she see her first sunset there with her father holding her hand? Did she have her first stolen kiss while under it? What was it that imprinted it onto her brain and are we going to find out? Wonderful stuff. The kind of stuff that really raises a book above the shorthand that sometimes must be used to get the background of a story out there.
On the surface (at least so far), Scarlet is not an idea I’m necessarily wowed by. It’s not some crazy unique high concept idea which is to say it doesn’t blow my socks off in concept the way something like Powers does (or did when it first debuted). But it’s hard to come up with ‘blow your socks off’ ideas, and more often than not, that’s a one trick pony, so what’s more important, in the long run at least, is that the execution of whatever idea you have is fantastic.
And so far, that’s exactly what Bendis and Maleev have.
Say what you want about Bendis, but when he’s in the zone, he can write the hell out of some comic books, and Scarlet is no exception. His dialogue is sharp, his characters are interesting, and his plotting does not mess around. This is no meandering Spider-Woman. This is hard and fast and to the point. In issue one I know where Scarlet is coming from, what she’s about, and where she’s headed. Impressive for 29-pages. I wish more books could deliver so much.
Personally, I’m not a big fan of breaking the fourth wall. Chalk it up to me finding Christian Slater super annoying in Kuffs…the first movie I remember seeing with a wise-cracking fourth wall breaking character. That said, thanks to things like Alias and Powers, I trust that Bendis is doing this for a reason, and already you can feel where he’s going with it. That in a society obsessed with reality television and existing in a 24-hour news cycle this is the way a new revolution in the U.S. would feel…delivered right to your door.
A handful of pages in, Scarlet tells us “Take or leave some…and I promise you this is exactly how it happened”. Immediately I bristled. Because I’m a firm believer that truth is entirely subjective. That truth is never truth when filtered through someone’s eyes. And so there’s no way to tell a story that is wholly accurate, because someone sitting next to you that experienced the same thing, likely experienced it differently. However, I think this is the whole point, maybe, and the thing that I disagree with Greg Burgas about in this issue. Because the point is that this is what Scarlet believes happened. And as readers, it’s up to us whether we believe her or not, whether we think she’s mistaken or lying, or just flat out confused. Bendis isn’t advocating that the police, or the government, or the system, or the man, or corporations are evil, though I don’t think he’s arguing that corruption is a fantasy of delusional hippies either. He’s just letting us know that this is how Scarlet feels. Is she a hero or a villain? We really don’t know yet, and I’m not sure Scarlet does either, but it will be up to each of us to decide for ourselves. All we have is what she has experienced, or at least believes she’s experienced. And this is the result of that experience – it broke her and she’s going to break the world right back.
And I can get behind that. Haven’t you ever felt that way? Regardless of the perfect truth of the situation, hasn’t something happened that broke you…and you wanted to break every single thing in existence right back?
Yeah, I can definitely get behind that. And thanks to some smart writing and clever plotting, I’m in for all the fourth wall breaking Scarlet can bring me. I don’t know that I agree with her, but I can see where she’s coming from and I’m curious to see what she can do, how far she can get, what it will take, and if she’ll realize she’s wrong or that she was right all along.
Alex Maleev’s art is stunning. If you don’t like the really photo realistic stuff then it’s just flat out not going to be for you. But I happen to love it. Perhaps because when done well, I tend to see less crazy unrealistic proportions, as the figures are based more solidly on real life images, still idealized, but rooted in realism. And I like that. It’s a nice change from a lot of other stuff out there. Not everyone can do it well but Maleev is the best as far as I’m concerned.
If this issue is any indication Maleev is going to be doing the best illustration work of his career and who doesn’t want a front row seat for that? I liked his work on Spider-Woman more than most people but tonally I don’t know that it was the best fit, but here, tonally I can’t think of a more perfect fir for this story than Maleev’s dark gritty super realistic art. A cartoony Scarlet breaking the fourth wall would just not be as effective, and so I can get behind the style even more when I feel it’s been matched to a story with real purpose as it has here.
Though a girl named Scarlet with a shock of red hair IS a bit of a cliche visually is was a good choice because in addition to just looking fantastic, it makes Scarlet easy to pick out in the gritty pages. Personally the pages are a bit on the dark side for me, but that’s my only complaint. The pacing is excellent, the composition is well considered and wonderful, and he’s doing just enough creative stuff (like the first two pages I posted) to shake things up visually, while most of the time giving us a highly cinematic look, as if we are right there with Scarlet on the streets. Overall it’s incredibly effective.
So while the actual title feels a little cliché, and the high-concept is a little outside my personal wheelhouse, Bendis and Maleev delivered a hell of a first issue full of stunning art, strong writing, and a story that is already delivering, and I’ll definitely be coming along for the ride, in fact, I can’t wait for the next issue.