Monday, December 30, 2013

YALSA top ten 2012: Scarlet

Written by Brian Michael Bendis. Illustrated by Alex Maleev.
Published by Icon/Marvel (2011)

Brian Michael Bendis is probably one of the biggest creators in the "mainstream" (ie. superhero) comic book industry. He's been one of the most successful writers at Marvel for over a decade, writing major books like Avengers and X-Men and leading overarching storylines and events. His "David Mamet-like" dialogue has influenced pretty much all of superhero comics, and for the most part I really don't care for his work.

Actually, that's not really fair. Bendis is nothing if not prolific. He's written hundreds of comics, and when he first started in the industry he was also drawing his own stuff. I enjoyed his early crime books like Jinx and Torso, I didn't get really into Powers, his cops in a superhero world comic, but I'd probably read more of it if you gave it to me, I remember really enjoying Fortune and Glory, his comic about his experiences in Hollywood, and I've read a bunch of his (massive) run on Ultimate Spider-Man (and will read more at some point).

But at the same time, I've hated (or at least not cared for) a lot of his comics. I'm not the biggest Avengers fan, but I pretty much avoided that entire corner of the Marvel Universe for the entire time that Bendis was writing those titles. (When I did read some I found them boring and blah.) He recently became the main writer of the various X-Men related titles, and I was kind of disappointed, as I'd actually been getting back into those books and was reading and enjoying both Kieron Gillen and Jason Aaron's books.

So all of this is to say that I generally don't go out of my way to read Bendis' comics, and if this book hadn't appeared on this list I'd never have bothered seeking it out.

Scarlet is the story is of an early 20s girl who lives in Portland and has her boyfriend killed by a corrupt cop. He gets away with it, and so she vows that she'll get revenge. Does she try to expose corrupt cops? Perhaps try to get them fired or whatever? No, she just kills them. And everyone loves her!

There are definitely some parallels between what the characters in this comic say and what happened with the Occupy protests (ie. having to take stuff into their own hands, because the existing system is broken/corrupt and set up to perpetuate itself), and it's kind of surprising that this series predated all of those events. But I think that's what really frustrated me about this book: it's about dealing with problems that exist in the real world, and instead of the character realistically trying to make a difference they just kill people. Killing people isn't the answer!

I mean, I agree with much of what the characters in this book (and the people involved with the Occupy movement) are saying: a lot of police officers are corrupt assholes (I still feel a little sick whenever I hear about cases like this), the government is horrible, corporations have far too much power, etc. But you know what? I really don't think that in our society killing people is the answer. Especially in the ridiculous vigilante style that is demonstrated in this comic. Scarlet kills these cops, and says that they're corrupt, but never seems to present any evidence about this. Yet people love her anyway. I mean, I know it's set in Portland, but even then...

So yeah, I feel as though this comic takes a real, important event, and reduces it to something that should be ignored. That by making it into a ridiculous revenge fantasy it takes away from the legitimacy of real events that have happened. Yeah, I guess the Occupy movements have proved that nothing will change yet, but I still don't want to start putting people up against the wall when the revolution comes.

As for the art, Maleev's style is not going to be to everyone's liking. His artwork is distinct and recognizable: it's heavily photo referenced, but also grimy and dark. Personally, I like the art quite a bit, though I have two major complaints. The first is that reading the script at the back of the book revealed a few instances of things that I did not think were conveyed particularly clearly through the artwork. Looking at the art after reading the script I could say "oh sure, that's what's happening I guess", but I feel that a fair number of people might miss what was happening their first time through.

The other thing is something I've found in several Bendis comics (though it's possible they're comics Bendis did _with_ Maleev, so it could be either of their faults): pages that don't read like you would expect them to. This isn't even a case of weird panel layout, instead you get (for example) two side by side pages each with six equally sized panels on them. The panels are entirely contained within their own pages, so it's not immediately obvious that you have to read the entire top row of panels and then the bottom row. That's now how comic pages are supposed to work!

Also, the script mentions that a bunch of people in the comic should look like "punks", since nobody actually looks like that either this was an early version of the script that they moved away from, Bendis is referring to all young people as punks (ie. Bendis is old), or Maleev has never seen an actual punk in his life. Also also, the cover sexualizes Scarlet in a kind of creepy way that isn't actually in the comics themselves. I'm not sure if that's good or bad or somewhere in between.

Even ignoring all of that (the good and the bad), it becomes incredibly hard to recommend the first volume of a series when there is no conclusion, and the end doesn't seem to be coming any time soon. In the two and a half years since this book was published a grand total of two more issues have come out.  It's not as though Bendis doesn't write many comics, he regularly has five or six out in a single month, and he's still a big star with Marvel so it's not like he couldn't do this series if he wanted to. Maybe that's the thing though, perhaps he knows that Marvel won't always be willing to give him this much work so he should just go with it for as long as possible. I mean, he's got his whole life ahead of him to write stuff like this, so why not spend a few years/decades earning six figures writing X-Men comics? (Of course I'm sure it didn't help that Bendis and Maleev did 12 issues of Moon Knight from 2011-2012.)

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