Evolving Revolutions in a Devolving World: ‘Scarlet #1’

Scarlet #1
Brian Michael Bendis, Alex Maleev
DC Comics
29 Aug 2018

Rebellion is one of those unavoidable pitfalls of an imperfect world. Wherever there’s injustice, fictional or otherwise, there will be popular uprisings. It’s also a rite of passage for any teenager who had to endure an early curfew. By definition, rebellion is deviant because it opposes the status quo. At the same time, it has an uncanny allure because it dares to pursue something better.

Scarlet Rue personifies rebellion in the rawest sense. When Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev introduced her in Scarlet back in 2010, they went out of their way to craft a character who embodies the fighting spirit for those wronged by corrupt authority figures. She’s not a superhero. She’s not some incorruptible demigod who just shows up and decides to do the right thing for the sake of the children and puppies. Scarlet is very much a victim of an unjust society that takes corruption to its grittiest extreme.

What she lacks in superpowers, though, she makes up for in endearing grit. She doesn’t wear a mask or run around in skin-tight uniforms, either. Most of her attire can probably be found on clearance at a department store and that’s important because many of the people she inspires aren’t the kind who can afford fancy clothes. They’re like her, living in a world where they constantly deal with the misfortune of not being related to a senator, a CEO, or a billionaire. Being able to relate to Scarlet makes her easy to follow and that’s what makes DC Comic’s Scarlet #1 work.

Her rebellion doesn’t stop at petitions, protests, or spreading witty internet memes. Scarlet Rue throws herself into the heart of a struggle, upsetting the fragile order that relies heavily on people like her, but who don’t have the energy or spirit to fight back. The story in Scarlet #1 picks up at a point when the fighting has escalated beyond any protest or riot. Scarlet Rue is now the face of a full-blown revolution and the people rallying alongside her are at their breaking point.

The extent of that revolution is not for those with something to lose. Maleev flexes his artistic style by presenting rich, detailed cityscapes that reveal the scars that Scarlet’s revolution has left on Portland. Bridges are destroyed, the streets are in ruin, and buildings crumble under the bombardment of constant drone strikes. It’s a war-ravaged world, but one in which Scarlet’s message gains greater significance every step of the way.

For much of the story, she walks this war-ravaged world, talking to people and giving them a sense of perspective. She makes herself vulnerable by being so bold, but she has to at this point in her revolution. The powers that be aren’t ignoring her. As such, they’re making it increasingly difficult to operate. There’s no electricity, internet access, or infrastructure to work with. All Scarlet has are the streets and the people brave enough to walk them. She manages to make the most of it, though.

As she and her fellow revolutionaries walk the streets, she talks to them about how bad things have gotten. She doesn’t come off as one of those revolutionaries who seeks to overthrow one tyranny just to impose another. She’s not some wide-eyed idealist, either. She keeps her message real and concise. She also never elevates herself above that message. At times, she even shows a reluctance to be the face of the revolution but she doesn’t avoid her part in it, either.

That’s critical for the merits of her struggle because it keeps her from being blamed for all the damage the revolution has brought. Scarlet acknowledges, at one point, that she is responsible for the destruction her activities have wrought. She also points out that she isn’t the one who blew up the bridges or cut the power. It’s those opposing her movement who did that. They just happen to have access to military-grade hardware and are willing to use it to preserve the status quo.

The ramifications of these choices, both for Scarlet and the authorities, take shape towards the end when another building is destroyed by a drone. If the intent is to put pressure on Scarlet and foster resentment among her supporters, then it clearly backfires. The people who survive the attack don’t blame her for bringing about so much hardship. They blame the government that sends those drones. They’re at a point where nobody trusts anyone in established institutions. Every time they try to dissuade the revolution, they end up giving Scarlet more supporters.

It’s a dangerous state of affairs, but one that’s more relevant today that it was in 2010. Through Scarlet, Bendis depicts a revolution that has progressed to a point that there’s no containing it. Scarlet #1 demonstrates that the government has done as much as it can to suppress the revolution without resorting to nuclear weapons, but it still doesn’t work. Scarlet Rue’s movement just keeps getting stronger and people keep rallying to her cause.

It’s a uniquely real take on rebellions within a corrupt world, one that relies less on photogenic superheroes and more on average people willing to confront the truth. Certain aspects of the story are fairly dense. While Scarlet #1 is friendly to new readers who haven’t been following the series, it goes somewhat overboard with the exposition to provide context and setting. It gets a bit wordy at times and that’s not just because of Scarlet’s personality. It takes a while for a real turning point to occur, but when it does, there’s plenty of intrigues.

There are many salient messages within Scarlet #1 that go beyond furthering the personal journey of Scarlet Rue. She’s not some loud-mouthed protester who doesn’t understand the complexities of the world around her. Her revolution comes from actual crimes in which she is an actual victim. There’s not much complexity beyond that. She’s a character who’s easy to root for and easier to worry about, given what she’s up against. She’s also a character who reflects the kind of revolutionary spirit that is all substance and little style. That kind of personality is rare in comics.

RATING 6 / 10