Review: Scarlet #1

By now, a small contingent of readers have been prefacing anti-Bendis rants with “While I loved Alias” or “Besides Powers” or “Torso excluded” for so long it’s almost absurd.  Brian Michael Bendis made his name writing dark crime stories, gritty, witty books about murder and betrayal, and even Bendis’ latter-day detractors (including the fine folks here at read/RANT) were forced to admit that the man had a damnably impressive back-catalog.  Do you miss that writer?  Well, then, you owe it to yourself to pick up Scarlet.

Scarlet is a woman with a purpose, though that purpose unfolds very slowly over the course of the issue.  Broken (or at least beat up) by tragedy, Scarlet is an interestingly damaged woman, and to help introduce her to us, Bendis jumps around freely in her timeline.  We see her, in one pretty damn fantastic three page sequence, from birth through college.  We see her murder a police officer in the issue’s opening pages, and we see her get ready to kill more people as it closes.  And, perhaps most importantly, we see the tragic incident that made her the woman with whom we start and end the book.

Maleev’s art is spectacular and underwhelming in almost equal measure, though his work here is never bad.  Given how much of the book is dedicated to either Scarlet’s monologue or to conversation, I might have hoped for an artist with a stronger handle on conveying emotion through body language and facial expressions, but Maleev’s command of the atmosphere and colors often makes up for it.  Meanwhile, it’s impossible to look at those first three pages, Scarlet ensconced in shadow after an act of shocking violence, and not be impressed, or that final, haunting image of Scarlet standing above a shadowy, eerie cityscape of Portland, looking out at us.  Maleev’s art helps sell the atmosphere of the book, even when the sometimes-repetitive monologue threatens to undermine it.

Most of the tricks have been tried before, particularly the fourth-wall breaking narration, but Bendis wields them here with an unusually deft hand, giving me a great deal of hope for the future of the book.  It isn’t without flaws, of course.  The clumsiest use of the narration comes at the beginning of the issue, when Scarlet says, “I’m sorry to be right in your face like this.  I know you were looking for a little diversionary fun. I know you were subconsciously hoping you could just watching without any of it actually directly involving you,” a statement that seems faux-edgy, a betrayal of the fourth-wall breaking narration.  It is particularly out of place given the issue’s conclusion, which makes the same point, but far more subtly… and to far greater effect.  The frequency with which Scarlet reminds us that the world is broken and horrible, in case we didn’t pick up on that from the actual content of the issue, is another problem.  Both suggest a lack of trust in his audience, and one that I hope he gets over soon, because, at its core, Scarlet is the most promising project I’ve seen from Bendis in a long, long time, and one of the most promising #1’s I’ve read this year.

This is how you do a set-up issue well: keep us engaged, keep us on our feet, keep us informed, and keep us guessing.  At the end of the issue, we’ve still only met one, maybe two, major players.  That’s it.  We have no idea what the issue-to-issue reality of the book will be, not really.  But we want to know.  Divorced from the guaranteed selling power of Marvel’s biggest names, Bendis and Maleev rise to the challenge and deliver a powerful introductory issue.

Grade: A-

– Cal Cleary