In Scarlet Book 1, Brian Michael Bendis wants to be a dangerous storyteller. He wants to be edgy and relevant and maybe even thought provoking with his story of a girl who was so royally screwed by the system that she goes after the system with all guns blazing (quite literally, too.) Scarlet is all about violence, even assaulting you on the very first page with a brilliantly red-headed girl choking the life out of a man. Right there out of the gate and you’ve already witnessed a killing. Bendis and artist Alex Maleev try to make you a participant to the first act of violence in the book, pulling you in and softening up for their big trick in this book; breaking the fourth wall.
As you get into the story of Scarlet, a girl who was shot by a corrupt cop just because he needed an out after killing her innocent boyfriend, Bendis and Maleev don’t try to subtly coax you into the story by slowly building it with plot and characters. After Scarlet chokes the life out of a cop on the first page, she goes through his wallet and finds $600. Quite literally turning to the camera, some of her first words are “Don’t be so quick to judge, ok?” as in she’s talking directly to her audience. And she’s telling them not to judge. Cast aside the reality that this is a comic book we’re talking about and you can see that Bendis and Maleev are doing something kind of interesting here; they’re making you an accomplice in everything that this crazy red head does.
While at least one other character in Scarlet breaks the fourth wall, it’s Scarlet, this crazy, messed up, deluded girl, who does most of the talking to the audience. Bendis has her constantly talking to us, explaining who she is, what she’s doing and why she’s doing it. This puts the audience in different role in this book. We’re not the passive observers, reading an escapist story. Thanks to Bendis’s easy, conversational dialogue, we become equal parts criminal and thief as Scarlet bears her soul to us and we go on this journey with her. Bendis uses this one-way dialogue between reader and character to try and make an instant connection between the participant of the story and the witness of the story.
Bendis writes Scarlet to be a dangerous character. The problem is that she comes of as equal parts righteous and petulant. In this day of Occupy Wallstreet and all of its various local iterations, Scarlet feels like it comes out of the same place. Bendis and Maleev are channelling the discontent with the way things are and trying to enact on it on a social level. Where the Occupy movement is more financially or socially driven, Scarlet’s actions and movement are motivated on a moral level. It’s not about the haves and have nots but it’s about the good, the bad and the ugly. Scarlet’s crusade is against corrupt cops who took part of her life from her. And she strike back the way any kid today who’s grown up on video games and Facebook would; her snipers rifle speaks for her and to all of her followers on Youtube.
Scarlet is as much a character from a video game as she is a rebel who is taking back society. That’s where Bendis falters a bit with the character. Maybe it’s her brashness, maybe it’s the repugnant actions (no matter how corrupt they may be, brash cop killing still feels like cop killing none the less,) Bendis is walking a slippery slope along with his character. As he’s explored in other writing, mostly in Powers, a hero and a villain are sometimes separated only by the point of reference of the society around them. In his and Michael Avon-Oeming’s Powers, Deena Pilgrim comes close to being one of those cops that Scarlet would target. After gaining powers, Deena’s dark side comes to the forefront as she kills the criminals she was charged with capturing. Both Scarlet and Deena perform morally ambiguous acts in the name of justice.
Reinforcing the confrontational tone of Scarlet’s monologues to the audience, Maleev’s artwork is shocking in its clarity of her actions. His documentary-style artwork frankly depicts acts of killing and brutality even as it gives Scarlet a sympathetic stage to explain herself. Maleev’s characters and settings are captured with the stark reality of photographs, creating images that you cannot ignore.
While Bendis plays with a double reality of Scarlet, showing us the difference between the life she lives and telling us her own justifications for that life, Maleev depicts it all to show the reality of both her deeds and her reasons. Through his concise images, he draws the audience into the story, reinforcing the witness/accomplice roles of the audience. Maleev pulls you into the story by plainly showing you Scarlet’s life and adventures. He’s documenting Scarlet’s life as much as, if not more than, he’s telling you a story.
Scarlet is far more interesting because if how it is rather than what it is. Bendis and Maleev’s revenge story feels like it’s trying to be a catchy and gritty story full of snappy dialogue and shocking visuals. That story is only getting started in this first volume and the substance of the book does not yet match the style of the story. The ways that Bendis and Maleev suck you into Scarlet are still far more interesting than the story itself.