‘Scarlet #1’: ’80s Grim ‘N Gritty… Now Available in 21st Century Female

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.

RATING 5 / 10