How Scarlet Anticipated a Modern Era of Protest
“Anger may be foolish and absurd, and one may be wrongly irritated, but a man never feels outraged unless in some respect he is fundamentally right.”
— Victor Hugo, Les Miserables
“I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”
— Paddy Chayefsky, Network
Renowned comics writer Brian Michael Bendis has admitted a debt to the work of writer Paddy Chayefsky, especially the film, Network, in inspiring his independent comic series, Scarlet. The film, released in 1976, depicted an atmosphere of righteous indignation meant to reflect the sentiments of the era: a time when public outcry and anti-establishment protest were at a high in reaction to calamities such as the Vietnam War and the most recent economic recession. Today, the film is also seen by many as decades ahead of its time, predicting a media-saturated world that seems a mirror reflection of the 21st century.
It’s interesting to think, therefore, whether Bendis could have foreseen a similar kind of portraiture within Scarlet at the time of its release in July of 2010. As it turns out, not only did the comic prove to be an illustration of the tumultuous world of the past few years in light of worldwide protest movements such as the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring, but would also foresee a new era of civil protest in America: one that would begin later that same month, with George Zimmerman’s acquittal of the murder of Trayvon Martin.
Scarlet tells the story of a young woman from Portland, Oregon named Scarlet Rue, who witnesses her boyfriend’s murder at the hands of a crooked, aggressive policeman named Gary Dunes. When she sees that nothing is done about the injustice, she takes matters into her own hands, seeking vengeance against Dunes and the corrupt police department. Through her actions, she also inspires an anti-establishment revolution against the police and City Hall.
A direct comparison between the events of Scarlet and the birth of a movement like Black Lives Matter, however, would be misguided, as the story itself lacks the latter’s racial focus on the disproportionate violence against black Americans (i.e., Scarlet and her boyfriend are white). Instead, the story provides a fascinatingly prophetic and parallel depiction of a reinvigorated age of protest in America, one in which institutions of authority, particularly the police, are held accountable for their actions.
The comic establishes itself as a vehicle of the public voice in having Scarlet regularly break the fourth wall and address the reader. In her opening monologue, she says “I know you were subconsciously hoping you could just watch without any of it directly involving you.” Later, while wielding a large sniper rifle, she says, “I’m going to stop it. But you’re going to help me.” She expresses familiar public sentiments: “Would you be able to let this go?” she asks as she watches her boyfriend’s killer walk freely about the police precinct. “I’ll answer for you… the answer is no. You wouldn’t.” Scarlet makes it clear that the rage she feels at systemic injustice isn’t just her burden: it’s everyone’s to bear as long as it’s permitted to exist. She embodies and personifies the outrage that sparks social protest, illustrating the consuming and unbearable feeling of betrayal when there’s no remediation or atonement in sight.
Scarlet is one of two characters in the comic who breaks the fourth wall, the other being a Portland Detective named Angela Going, who gradually finds herself sympathizing with Scarlet’s sensibilities. When she’s refused the chance to take on the case for herself after Scarlet murders both Officer Dunes and the corrupt Chief of Police, she comes to the conclusion that something more is amiss in the department.
“A smarter detective would’ve realized that there was some smoke coming out of that fire,” she says to the reader, “there is a reason those cops were murdered. I put myself right into it.” Going realizes that through her suspicions and unrest, she too is part of Scarlet’s movement.
After a public demonstration is violently dispelled by police, Going partners with Federal Agent Nathan Daemonakos, who is determined to catch Scarlet despite also showing some sympathy to her cause. Both investigators seem to agree that despite Scarlet’s violent rampage, she’s angry for the right reasons and at the right people, and that the justice she seeks is legitimate.
“I’m man enough to admit that I don’t know if she’s right,” says Daemonakos, “All I know is, after today I’m ready to kill someone.” Even knowing the immorality of Scarlet’s actions, Daemonakos recognizes those same feelings and inclinations within himself, and realizes they must come from somewhere, and because of something. It’s these sentiments that distinguish rage from outrage, in that the latter stems from a sincere, instinctual sense of wrongdoing. It’s this feeling that drives rebellion.
Scarlet comes across as a product of the modern era of protest, deemed the most inflammatory in America since the Civil Rights and anti-war protests of the ’60s and ’70s. The parallels between Bendis’ representation of the national zeitgeist as of 2010 and the movements of the next two years are startling. Several issues of the series depict protests against police brutality, with signs reading “no more law-breaking police” and “stop them before they kill all of us,” slogans eerily reminiscent of those seen in Black Lives Matter protests across the nation. One of the leading participants in the story’s protests is a young black woman named Isis, whose father was killed by police due to a case of mistaken identity. The opening of issue #6 tells the story of her father’s death.
“Isis’ daddy was a proud man,” reads the narration, “and wasn’t going to let his little daughter see him bullied for something he didn’t do. Her daddy pushed the police and told them they were looking for the wrong person. Her daddy grabbed her hand and started walking away. So the police got angry and shot him in the head.”
The scene depicts an all too familiar picture for black Americans: a false or minor allegation at the hands of police that escalates into violence. It’s also a type of behavior that has been increasingly exposed throughout the country through civilian activism since the issue’s publication. The scene also reflects a modern frustration with police compliance, as American citizens are increasingly beginning to question the legal prerogative of police to stop and detain when their accusations are unfounded.
Rather than directly representing movements such as Occupy or Black Lives Matter or their particular philosophies, however, Scarlet instead embodies and illustrates a sentiment underlying them both: public outrage, particularly at institutional and systemic oppression and abuse, whether it be economic, racial, or political. The parallels the comic draws with more recent events, however, makes it powerfully relevant in ways Bendis couldn’t have imagined.
Scarlet presents itself as a political revenge thriller of the modern era, primed by present social grievances. As in many revenge thrillers dating even back to Hamlet, although the violent actions of the protagonist cannot be condoned, the source of his or her behavior, being a grating sense of injustice, is often relatable and resonant. Such was the case in 1974 with the release of Death Wish, Charles Bronson’s famous film about a man named Paul Kersey who fashions himself into a one-man war on crime after his wife’s brutal murder and the sexual assault of his daughter. While the violent actions of the film’s protagonist were criticized, audiences could relate to the fear and outrage at the type of violent crime that was all too familiar and prominent in cities such as New York (also the inspiration for the grittier turn of superhero comics such as Denny O Neil’s Batman). The film tapped into a primal public wish for justice and retribution, presenting the violence of the narrative as a catharsis of an understandably militant anxiety. Such is the case with Scarlet as it strikes at the heart of public outrage, simulating its explosive capacity if left unheard.
Towards the end of the fifth issue, Agent Daemonakos asks Detective Going if she knows the term “positive visualization.”
“It’s when you’re able to close your eyes and see the future,” he says, “see your future, as clear as day. You see it, you know it, and then you just kind of conjure it into existence. You make it happen.”
In his book, The Wages of Rebellion, author Chris Hedges described the dawn of revolution as “the realization that our expectations for a better future have been obliterated.” Both in our world and the violent world of Scarlet, protest and revolution stems from the reinstatement of that vision of a better future, and recognizing that it won’t come soon with the way things are. It comes from that unshakeable, nauseating sense that something is wrong, and something needs to be done.
“‘Why’ is the cloud,” says Scarlet at the end of issue #1, “the redirect. The shell game. The question is…what am I going to do about it?”
Sometimes, that’s simply getting mad as hell.