Marvel imprint Icon’s Scarlet is a comic series that aspires to be innovative with its point of view and espouse a unique take on corruption, virtue and the seething alienation felt by youth culture. The optimal word is “aspires”, because for all the adjectives that could be thrown at the book, and for all the analysis of its point of view, Scarlet has enough flaws to render any good intention mute.
Writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Alex Maleev’s Scarlet is about revenge and revolution. It’s about a young woman having the world ripped open before her and seeing its dark underbelly. She doesn’t like it, no, not at all. And in a vain attempt at revenge, she seeks to kill and expose all that darkens her world’s streets…even if she has to kill a lot of people to do it.
We are familiar with comic protagonists taking the law into their hands and dishing out justice. Usually it doesn’t involve killing (aside from a dozen titles that do). As we know, the title character from Scarlet takes a different approach. This person wants everyone within earshot of her to experience the exact same pain she feels. Though her progression to killing corrupt cops is part of the whole “Does the ends justify the means” debate, there is this unarguable self-centered quality to her plot. But, any good revenge story has that. That’s the point and we shouldn’t be wary of, the amount of ego present in a tale such as this.
What Bendis and Maleev should be wary of is the extent to which their story becomes repetitive. This is more a criticism of Bendis’ dialogue, as the repetitive “world’s broken and we’re fixing it” line variations feels like padding rather than character or story development. It’s arguably the comic’s biggest flaw, as the redundancy spoils the pacing, dragging down the narrative and watering down the hard fought plot points. Even the in vogue breaking of the fourth wall by several characters is not enough to save it. Refreshing in the inaugural issue, Scarlet’s direct addressing of the audience quickly loses much of its intended impact by the fourth and fifth issues. The experimental narrative structure is a nice trick, but it remains to be seen if it is anything more than just a ploy.
Trying to guide this narrative is the photo-realistic artwork by Maleev. There’s a gritty confessional style to his panels. As the light changes in different scenes, so do the facial qualities of the characters. It wasn’t as apparent in the first couple of issues, but by the fifth issue it’s quite pronounced. Jarring? Maybe. Surreal though realistic? Definitely. It’s our world, just highlighted by red and blue tones.
Scarlet for all intents and purposes is a redheaded, more violent Legend of Billie Jean. The similarities are not just in their shared use of an angry female protagonist, but in their general tone, the cult-like progression of their influence, the use of media to push their message and their want to expose the inherit injustices in the world. Scarlet and Billie Jean are both screaming through their actions and voices that, “Fair is fair”. The loss of innocence is a common theme, and both subscribe to this relative point limited to their microcosms. With Scarlet, virtue is as corrupted as the police force that covers the tracks of its own murderers. It’s systematic and endemic, owing itself to a value system adopted to maintain a sense of control in a world that is constantly on the verge of anarchy.
Issue five, as the finale to Scarlet’s first long chapter, by all accounts should be a swirling narrative using the themes of alienation, virtue, revenge, control and corruption as pegs to hang its many hats. While explosive plot points certainly enhance the general feel, there is this unrelenting feeling that nothing happened at all. Maybe it’s the stunted nature of the book? Maybe it’s the effect of the redundant and flawed narrative after so many issues? Maybe it’s the hyper-realized progression of the plot? Putting the various questions aside, the main point is, there is a disconnect between what Scarlet wants to be and what it is.
The themes are aplenty, but not one of them seems to stick. The book’s speculative take on virtue and youth alienation, certainly speaks to the its intended impact. We shouldn’t be mistaken, it is meant to have an impact. It just doesn’t. Somewhere between the first issue and the fifth issue, Scarlet went from average with the potential to be good, to unexceptional. That is almost hard to believe. The creative team is definitely sound. The themes are ripe for exploration. The narrative trick, while staid by today’s standards, is still a worthy engine for exposition. So what happened? That’s a mystery, and a plot point not intended to a part of this series.