Thee Comic Column #24: The Return of Bendis & Maleev’s Scarlet

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It’s been about two years since issue #5 of Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev’s series Scarlet came out on Marvel’s Icon imprint. Honestly I’d forgotten about the book, so imagine my surprise when in my local comic shop yesterday I saw issue #6 on the wall with a tag that said “Last Week” beneath it. And to clarify I don’t mean surprise as a back-handed dis. Oh no. Mr. Bendis writes more than I would have ever thought humanly possible and for some of his stuff to slip between the cracks seems only natural. Look at David Lapham, another BRILLIANT creator whose creator-owned/self-published opus Stray Bullets had to go on hiatus back in 2007 while Mr. Lapham took the massive amount of work coming to him from the bigger companies in order to do what’s best for his family. I figured Scarlet was like Stray Bullets and was put on a shelf while Bendis wrote just about every major marvel book for the last few years. And it is true that Bendis talks about both he and Maleev having babies in the interim, but interestingly enough it turns out after reading the afterward in the new issue of Scarlet that domestic joy and constantly accelerating careers weren’t the only aspects of the equation.

First, if you’re not reading Scarlet let me bring you up to speed briefly. It’s not a superhero book and has nothing to do with any pre-existing characters; this is ALL Bendis and Maleev. And nothing I’m about to relate is really spoilers territory, it’s more the inciting incident in a story I believe is going to be huge:

Scarlet is about a twenty-somethings girl whose boyfriend is murdered in front of her by a crooked police officer. For no reason. Likewise there is no reason (other than bearing witness) that said cop then shoots Scarlet in the head. She survives, but her life is destroyed. What’s worse is that it is destroyed for no reason – Scarlet and her friends were merely in the wrong place at the wrong time. Upon her recovery, Scarlet’s epiphany is that she does not want to live in a world where people have to endure events such as these. She decides what she has to do, does it, and inadvertently becomes the icon for a revolution.

Now, that’s pretty incendiary stuff, right? It’s definitely commentary on the world around us. And things get especially real-to-life as the story unfolds, as mass gatherings of people begin to turn out in large groups to show their support for Scarlet and “occupy” public spaces in the city in order to express their frustration.

Sound familiar?

In the afterward of the new issue Mr. Bendis talks about how, in the wake of the actual Occupy Movement, events in Egypt and other parts of the world, working on Scarlet became, “uncomfortable”. This makes sense. Scarlet comes from a place that is at once very angry and at the same time very hopeful. It uses the morally gray area that keeps us stuck in the rut of a world going off the rails and it stretches and plays with that gray area. It must become difficult to write about that frustrating ambiguity when similar events are happening around you in a suddenly very hyper-real fashion, as a lot of the events in the last two years concerning freedom, violence and control have. What do you do as a writer, especially when your character does some nasty things to get her point across? A point needing to be addressed all around you?

You take a moment.

Scarlet does do some terrible things initially. She does them for good reasons, but there’s still the conundrum of ‘ends justifying the means’. Does a positive outcome make terrible deeds right or wrong? Part of the breath-taking reality of the book is that even Scarlet doesn’t have the answer to that question. At one point she says, “I needed to know that I could trade my place in Heaven for what needs to happen next.” I believe this one beautiful statement is the key to both the book and the character (thus far). So much is balanced on those words.It’s the idea of trading the things you’ve been taught are true about life (heaven, good naturally triumphs over evil, etc) for  a better reality as opposed to just waiting for your reward. And you know what? It’s not easy. In fact, it’s the hardest thing in the world right now. And I need to be careful here, because I’m not out there doing anything to better the world – I’m trading my laptop and my car and my home for daily windows into the madness crouched just outside my door and an ever-expanding feeling that something has to give eventually, and when it does… what will be left?

Is there hope? Honestly, I don’t know. But I’m a pessimist – it’s how I stay positive, i.e. if I think there’s no hope there MUST be hope. Is that a strange or diseased way of thinking? Maybe. But I’m digressing and this is Thee Comic Column, not Thee Pessimist’s Column.

In the interest of context I put off reading the new issue of Scarlet until I’d gone back and re-read the first five. In doing this, one thing that struck me was how much more angry the book’s set-up made me this time through. I’m sure a lot of that has to do with the events in the real world as discussed above. But Bendis’ gift is how he paints the grit and grime with bright swathes of hope, and that is another amazing quality of this book – it made me angry but it also made me feel that just feeling that anger was a healing thing. Part of this is the art, the way it converts the narrative aspect of the story into fluid images that propel the story more into the realm of a well-scripted television show such as Castle than your standard comic/graphic novel. Scarlet, her co-conspirators and her enemies, along with perhaps the second most important character in the book, Portland, OR are all visualized perfectly by Alex Maleev* and the ingenious visual cues/processes that the creators symbiotically compose make for a reading experience that really drives home that television comparison. Check this out:

pgs 12 & 13 of Scarlet #1

pgs 12 & 13 of Scarlet #1

This is one of the little techniques they use to fill-in history and really streamline the reader’s relationship with Scarlet. And it works. It doesn’t feel like a short-cut, it feels like Bendis and Maleev just nailed the conceptual equivalent of a movie’s ‘montage’ segment, without the need of music that could potentially mess it up.

As you can see the book really plays with the conventions of how our brains process and interact with story as presented in the graphic format, and that’s a treat. Oh, and speaking of presentation, one of the greatest things about this book (and I think all books under the Marvel Icon imprint) is THERE ARE NO ADS. That’s right – all the expectancy pleasures of reading a serialized book issue by issue, but without the ads. Oh! It is sooooo nice.

So the hiatus is over. Issue #5 closed Volume #1, which is in collected format from Marvel. Issue #6 just came out last week and Bendis assures us that #7 will ship in a few weeks, so we’re going to be building some momentum again. I can’t wait!


*Both Grez and I are HUGE fans of these guys when they work together – their early-oughts runs on Alias and Daredevil are AMAZING and well worth seeking out and the Moon Knight revamp they performed for Marvel about two years ago is also one of those cases where a gifted team of creators take pre-existing characters and make them their own.


Can’t find a comic shop? You can always use old reliable Comic Shop Locator at 1-800-COMIC-BOOK. Or you can take some of my recommendations. If you live in the greater Chicagoland area I recommend any of the wonderful four locations of Amazing Fantasy Books. In Los Angeles it’s The Comic Bug. Las Vegas it’s Alternate Reality Comics. San Francisco? Try the Isotope Comic Lounge and if you happen to venture a little further North I’d say you have to visit The Escapist Comic Book Store in Berkley (with the wonderful Dark Carnival Books next door and owned by the same folks). Read on!!!

Shawn C Baker

Shawn C Baker

Shawn lives in Los Angeles where he co-hosts Drinking w/ Comics, writes screenplays and fiction and has been known to drink quite a bit of beer. Good beer.

2 Responses to Thee Comic Column #24: The Return of Bendis & Maleev’s Scarlet
  1. [...] and characters. I’ve had his short re-birthing of Moon Knight (BRILLIANT!) and his wonderful Scarl...
  2. Joe Grez

    JGrez Reply

    Yes. See my co-publisher always finds the goods. So stoked about this. And yes I still have all of those Daredevil and Alias wrapped and tucked safely away. It is of my belief that Maleev best captures Bendis. And since Bendis is becoming one of the best ever, it’s also of my belief these two will go down as one of the best tandems ever.

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