Thursday, July 8, 2010

Chronic Review: Scarlet # 1

Scarlet # 1
Marvel Comics - Icon imprint

Script: Brian Michael Bendis
Pencils: Alex Maleev
29 pages + extras for $3.95

There is a common comic book refrain (Alan Moore, I'm lookin' at you, kid) that goes something like this:

"Why does everything in comics have to be bland superhero testosterone fantasies? Where is the fresh? Where is the innovation? Who is pushing the medium further?"

I have some sympathy for those sentiments. (I will get to Scarlet eventually, I promise) Looking at the current comics palette...yup, we've got a surplus of superheroes, and an excess of excrement. So the system is imperfect, which is a huge shocker.

The problem is that the "solutions" are usually worse than the disease, loaded with froofy people engaging in inscrutable froofery like "Driven By Lemons." If that's pushing the envelope, leave the damn envelope where it is. Superheroes aren't your cup of tea? I get it. But too often we misdiagnose willful confusion as portent. It isn't. Portent is portent. I'm not making this up, you can look it up, folks.

Surely there is something in between, yes? Surely somewhere out there is a creator with a story and a passion for telling it that doesn't look, feel, taste like everything else. The list is very small, but you can add Scarlet to it.

I want to describe Scarlet as an anti-heroine taking you through a living ethics syllogism, but I say "anti-heroine" and it reminds me of the 90s bad girls, and I say "syllogism", and it reminds me of Aristotle, and that's not what it is at all. Even though she is an anti-heroine, and the book acts like a philosophy lesson.

The most striking aspect of the book is that Scarlet talks to you. I'm sure every reviewer will mention the fourth wall and the breaking of said wall. What it means is...she talks to you. Like this:

That decision takes balls. If you screw that up there is no book, and it's a pretty easy thing to screw up. Maleev helps, for sure. You get to see Scarlet squirm and furrow her brow over things she's mulling, obviously wrestling with the ideas and wondering if she's truly communicating. She mentions things she's never mentioned before and then wonders to you about whether she spoke it out loud to you prior.

I was prepared for this having listened to Bendis talk about the book with John Siuntres on Word Balloon. It still knocked me on my psychic ass for a bit. It's not a piece of flair, like Deadpool. The comic addresses you on very intimate terms, and it attempts to treat some outlandish elements in a very "realistic" style.

Again, if that's not hitting for you, the book derails and it's a colossal failure. I'll give Bendis this - Scarlet is one of the most ambitious and daring pieces of fiction I've ever read. He saw a razor wire tightrope with no net and a dragon perched on it and said "Fuck it, let's do that."

There are elements of action, romance, characterization. But probably the strangest fact about Scarlet is that it's an experiment in ethics dressed as a girly Punisher book. There are a lot of the "big questions" introduced in the first issue. Why do shitty things happen to good people? What is the appropriate response to the realization that shitty things do happen to good people?

The problem of evil is a doozy. We've been thinking about it as a species for thousands of years, and to my knowledge nobody has come up with a particularly satisfactory response yet. The Hindus tell us not to worry because it's all just a ride. Paul of Tarsus says "God is God, you're you, so shut the fuck the up and deal with it."

None of that registers as really inspiring to any of us, least of all Scarlet. She has a lot of questions, and occasionally answers herself with things that almost sound profound.

Needless to say, Scarlet is a change of pace next to, oh, New Avengers. It's different. It acts differently, it feels like it matters in the subtext, the way you could just feel that I Kill Giants really meant something to Joe Kelly, or the way that Cerebus meant everything to Dave Sim. Scarlet is important to Brian Bendis, and that...I don't know...urgency translates readily.

The fourth wall obliteration? It worked for me. The philosophy? It worked for me, big time. If you want knock-em-up fluff, and it's fine if you do, this isn't it. Scarlet tells you this herself very early. If you're in that "where's the good non-superhero stuff?" camp, here ya go. No froof required, either.

At the end of the issue, Scarlet mentions that we're going to be helping with her little revolution. That could just mean tagging along for the ride, but I have a suspicion that she means something more literal and direct.

Bendis is pretty active on his forum and Twitter account. This being the 21st century, interactive possibilities are ripe. I have the feeling that the readers are going to be invited to participate in this book. Scarlet surely has access to social networking, I think readers are going to be able to communicate with her, and we'll be able to see her responses inside the text. If she reacts to those messages and it impacts the story, the fourth wall is absolutely vaporized and we're looking at something perhaps unprecedented.

I'm not even going to bitch about the price point, because we got significantly more than the usual 22 pages, and the comic was probably just too goddamn good any way. Scarlet is a smart, gorgeous book with gigantic brass balls. We need to reward this kind of work. I'm in.

- Ryan


Anonymous said...

You know what I thought while reading the first few pages?

Angsty, contrived, masturbatory, self indulgent, shit.

I was obviously thinking about your Podcast. But also, I was thinking about this totally shithouse book. If I wanted to read post-feministinc twatery, I'd pick up Brynes' She-Hulk and then I'd go burn down a halfway house for battered women.

Look, I love women. I just can't handle a mouthy bitch. I read comics to get a gaffaw and cop a perve on a latex wearing, camel toe extruding, lightbox job from a Penthouse magazine, piece of A grade ass. I don't like being sassed by a redhead with some sort of Thespian aside to the audience.

If I was writing issue 2, I'd get Dr Light down there, STAT!

Kindly Yours,

Fuckface McGee from Bumfuck Idaho.

Chronic Insomnia said...

Yeah. Bendis ran a huge risk with his authorial voice, and if it doesn't land, that's a fairly appropriate response. Although I don't quite understand your aversion to mouthy bitches....those are the best kind.

Jesse said...

Finally got this one and can comment on it... I'm having a hard time convincing myself that your review didn't sway me in the positive direction, but all in all I really loved it. By the end where Scarlet says something like "and I'm going to need your help" I was just thinking "OH HELL YEAH!"

It was a very good issue and if it continues in the same vein throughout I will be sold completely.

Interestingly enough my wife read it and really liked it, and she has NEVER liked a comic... it's hard enough getting her to try one. She read it before I got around to it and convinced me that I should pick up the second issue when it comes out. Good thing I ended up liking it too but I would be picking this up anyway.

Nice work Bendis and Meleev, and great work on your review because it may have caused me to notice things I would have glossed over.

Chronic Insomnia said...

One vote for "angsty, self-indulgent shit", and one vote for "Fuck yeah!" And that's going to be the story for this title. It's just going to be polarizing. I love it. But love it or hate least he tried something different. And different is almost revolutionary at this point, where the small press indy is stone dead and the gatekeepers demand sales figures that even DC/Marvel have difficulty living up to.