Scarlet #1

by on Jul.16, 2010, under Comics

I wouldn’t ever have seen Scarlet #1 if there hadn’t been a mix-up with the comics my local store was supposed to hold for me over vacation. I suspect that that mix-up was partly my fault and said so, but nevertheless they gave me Scarlet as a throw-in to make up for it.

“You’re going to love this,” they said.

And they’re pretty much right. I do love it. It’s by Brian Michael Bendis, writer of my #9-favorite-of-the-decade series Powers, breaking a whole new set of conventions.

One of the breaks is small, but has a big effect: rather than have the red-headed twentysomething main character tell her story in narration, she addresses the reader in speech bubbles. Many comics have characters reciting voice-overs to the ether, but few I can think of address the reader in the second person with text like:

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 watch without any of it actually directly involving you. But what’s going on here requires your involvement and attention.

The other break is larger, perhaps, though handled more subtly. This is the first issue of what seems to be a new superhero story, of a kind anyway, so Bendis gives us an origin. But the hero doesn’t have any superpowers, so what she acquires in her origin—in which her boyfriend is murdered by a corrupt cop and then framed as a drug dealer to justify the killing—is a new moral outlook.

Everything is broken. You realize that, right? You know it … deep down. And you’re saying to yourself: girl, bad things happen to good people every day! And I am saying to you … yes. But that’s the proof. Don’t you see?

Of course this isn’t the first time we’ve seen a comic about an otherwise non-superpowered person who has a trauma and becomes a vigilante as a result (see Batman, the Punisher). What I find interesting about Scarlet is that her moralism is far more total than those earlier heroes, who pursued a version of revenge against criminals alone.

Sure, she beats up a bicycle thief and executes a crooked cop in the opening pages, but it’s not yet clear that these are anything more than vigilante acts of convenience. When she climbs to a rooftop with a sniper rifle at the end and tells us, the readers, that we’re going to help her do something about the broken world, I have no idea what’s coming next and want to know. Which for issue #1 is just about right.

(Bendis says it’s a revolution. Nice.)

Alex Maleev’s art looks a little like what happens when you paint in color on black-and-white photographs. It has that underlying realism of form and posture combined with the loss of fine detail that comes when you reduce the available gradations of shading. It makes Scarlet’s face hard to read, which I think works here. If I had a complaint it would be that Scarlet herself is just too damn sexy, but hey, boys buy comics.

No previews, sorry.

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