Comics

'Scarlet #1': '80s Grim 'N Gritty... Now Available in 21st Century Female

Think Rorschach, In A Bra: In breaking the fourth wall Scarlet creator Brian Michael Bendis distracts from the narrative flow of the first issue.

With the creative team's first major collaboration since Halo it's clear that Alex Maleev has upped his game. But has Bendis?


Scarlet #1

Contributor: Alex Maleev (co-creator, artist)
Publisher: Marvel Icon
Length: 36 pages
Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Price: $3.95
Publication Date: 2010-07
Amazon

Kicking off a new series with a strong #1 is no easy task. The act is doubly hard when you’re introducing a new creator-owned property. In terms of success and viability for any new comics project, sales figures are critical to survival. Marvel’s creator-owned imprint, Icon Comics, was launched in 2004 with Brian Bendis and Michael Oeming’s acclaimed Powers series. Over the past six years fans have seen a growth in Icon titles with Kick-Ass, Criminal, Incognito and the re-launch of Powers creating the first real challenge from the House of Ideas to DC’s Vertigo line.

Yet even Vertigo, perhaps the most popular publisher of “mature” comics, has seemed to struggle as of late. Despite the long running success of titles like Hellblazer and Fables, Vertigo has seen multiple cancellations in recent months, most notably the underappreciated Unknown Soldier and the short-lived Greek Street (it’s final issue closely approaching). Although an imprint like Vertigo still publishes new titles that represent the best of comic storytelling (just check out Daytripper), the chances of creator-owned titles surviving are constantly threatened by poor financial returns. It was shocking to learn in a recent interview with Matt Fraction that his and Gabriel Ba’s Casanova, resulted in almost zero profits, to the point where neither could “work for free” to keep the title going.

Part of the challenge is convincing readers to take a chance with an unfamiliar protagonist in a new book. Without the character and brand recognition of high-profile franchise characters like Batman or Iron Man and the closeness that readers associate with those heroes and the worlds they inhabit, the writer and artist of a new creator-owned series are faced with a daunting prospect: create a compelling character, depict that character’s world or environs, and introduce a conflict that entices the reader to seek it’s resolution in forthcoming issues.

This sets the stage for Scarlet #1, the new creator-owned property from high-profile industry talents Brian Bendis and Alex Maleev. Fortunately, the duo already made a name for themselves with critically-acclaimed and fan-favorite runs on Daredevil and Spider-Woman. The duo’s new project revolves around Scarlet, a gun-toting, red-headed vixen with a penchant for talking directly to the reader. And the need for more strong female leads in comics can't be argued for enought, Scarlet is little more than a throwback to the grim and gritty anti-heroes of the ‘80s, except now with tight black pants and an exposed midriff. Think Rorschach in bra.

The story is run-of-mill -- a crooked cop is the symbol for a crooked society, and Scarlet’s sexy vigilantism is the proposed rallying cry. Perhaps most off-putting is the narrative approach Bendis takes. His work on "Siege" and Dark Avengers is to be applauded as is his ability to write a gripping story that utilized an extensive cast of characters. However, with Scarlet, Bendis seems to struggle when faced with a solitary character. Apart from a beautiful two-page spread giving the reader little snapshots of memorable moments in Scarlet’s life, the rest of the book struggles to locate a singular voice and character, something tangible a reader can latch on to.

Part of the problem is Bendis’ overuse of direct audience addresses, or the “breaking of the fourth wall”. Taking cues from Bertolt Brecht, Bendis’ objective seems to be the dissolution of the artificial barrier between fiction and reality, between the character and the reader. Numerous times Scarlet includes the reader in her exploits, attempting to build a kind of solidarity, or at least a common culpability. The reality is that without a strong relationship to the character made manifest through active identification, I feel little involvement with Scarlet, despite her addresses. If anything, the addresses continually impede the most interesting part of the narrative -- the actual story that Scarlet keeps interrupting.

Of course, the fourth-wall breaking address is difficult, and a hard concept to maintain over time. How much Ferris Bueller or Deadpool addresses do we need before the character is firmly established, we feel like part of the narrative and it just becomes redundant? If used more subtly, or at least gradually, like the clean-cut psychopaths in Haneke’s Funny Games, I think it could ultimately work for iScarlet.

As for Maleev’s part, his work is a continuation of the style seen in Daredevil. It’s big on the photo-realism, but with his trademark painted style. The muted colors of the street scenes are wonderfully offset by Scarlet’s bright red hair, and while her personality and character might not have grabbed me, Maleev successfully presents her as an icon against a drab environment.

Will I be back for #2? It’s hard to say. Although this comic failed in capturing my interest with a strong #1 issue, I understand the difficulty of introducing new characters, a new world, and a conflict in twenty-something pages. I’m convinced that the Bendis/Maleev team is capable of greatness. It just hasn’t showed up yet in Scarlet.

5

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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