“Scarlet” is one of those books that I want to like more than I do. It’s not a bad book by any stretch of the imagination, but I couldn’t help but wish the entire time that it was a great book instead of just good.
There is a great portion of “Scarlet,” and that has to be Alex Maleev’s art. It’s great to see a new comic from him; I’ve loved his art ever since he drew some “The Crow” mini-series way back in the day, and his art has continued to improve by leaps and bounds since then. The opening page, four panels of Scarlet looking in the mirror, drawn perfectly as she shifts from looking at herself, to the reader, then back to herself, and finally back to you. Her expression shifts as she addresses you, before continuing to finish up her self-examination. Maleev gives her the perfect “I’m all right,” fake smile on her face as she first notices the reader, that mask that so many people are adept at putting on even when they’re anything but happy. And all the while, Maleev takes care of the smaller details; the graffiti on the wall, the streaks on the mirror, the overall tinge of red. It’s a beautiful finished page, and it’s just the first of many.
Even when Maleev uses a technique that I’m normally not fond of – reusing the same piece of art for a character – it’s done with great effect here. The two page spread that follows the opening may use the same base, but the backgrounds, the clothing, and the color all shift and change around her stony, impassive face. It’s a rare example of this sort of technique working so well, and I love how Maleev pulls it off.
The story for “Scarlet,” though, still feels slight even after the second issue. Scarlet spends so much time talking to the reader that it slows the book to a crawl. I’m not saying that it needs to be all action all the time. I love a good introspective book as much as anyone else, but this seems to slide too much in the direction of talking and meandering. Brian Michael Bendis has always had a strong ear for dialogue, but this is a book where I think if you cut 20% of the words it would have improved the book immensely. There comes a point where Bendis needs to have more confidence in both Maleev and the reader to understand what’s going on in Scarlet’s head; a little less telling, a little more showing. I think that alone would pick up the pace enough to make it a more satisfying read. Right now, though, it feels plodding and that’s rarely an adjective someone wants attached to their book.
If the story itself was revolutionary and wildly different than anything we’d seen before, Bendis could get away with this slower pace. Right now, though, it’s such a familiar and old hat kind of story that something, somewhere, needs to have a bit more of a spark, either in pacing or in plotting.
For now, “Scarlet” is a book that I’d wholeheartedly recommend for Maleev’s art. If Bendis just tweaks his story a little more and moves faster, I think I’d be more on board with it. For now, though, the combination of the two makes “Scarlet” just an all right reading experience, and that’s a shame. With some work, I think it could be great.