Bendis Gives a Study in "Scarlet"

In the opening stanza of "Concorde Hymn," his poem about the American Revolution, Ralph Waldo Emerson talks about how the Battle for American Independence began when angry farmers fired "the shot heard round the world" at British soldiers. In the first issue of writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Alex Maleev's recently launched, creator-owned series "Scarlet," another shot rang out with global repercussions. This one was fired by a corrupt member of the Portland Police Department and set the title character down a path that will transform her into a vigilante and revolutionary out to tear down what she feels is a corrupted American system. CBR News spoke with Bendis about the series, published through Marvel's Icon imprint.

In the opening scenes of "Scarlet" #1, readers met the title character when she introduced herself directly to them. Since then, readers have seen her do a number of morally questionable things. The series opened with Scarlet strangling a police officer in an alleyway, and at the end of issue #2, in stores now, she cold-bloodedly murdered another cop - the corrupt detective who framed and gunned down her boyfriend, and tried to kill her in issue #1. After each of these incidents, Scarlet actively seeks approval from the book's readers, but Bendis doesn't feel you should necessarily approve of all of his protagonist's actions.

"The point of even breaking the fourth wall was, what this character is selling you and trying to convince you of isn't easy to swallow. It hopefully makes you think. You may agree with her, you may disagree with her," Bendis told CBR News. "I have gotten more mail from 'Scarlet' than I've gotten for anything in my entire life. And in the next issue I'm going to try to funnel out all the different points of view.

"I did that a little bit in issue two. There are people who are like, 'Yeah, kill 'em all!' There are people who are disturbed by it. There are people who are upset by it," Bendis continued. "That was kind of the point. I'm trying to create a non-politicized story and most people seem to have got that. I find you can have a real conversation that way. If you make this too political, it gives people a way out, back into their political comfort zones, and that's not what we're doing."

As readers know, Scarlet doesn't just seek her audience's approval: she also wants their help. In both issues, she's hinted that she has something she needs the audience to do.

"That's what we're going to build up to in the next couple of issues. Issue #3 kind of brings that all to a head. Then, when issue #4 hits, we're going to see the direct sociological fall out of what she's done. We're going to see the reaction and what happens next. Plus, there will also be a big hint about Scarlet's true nature, as well," Bendis explained. "That's when the narrative starts to get really complicated because we're not only going to see things from her point of view. What she's out to do is not a simple thing to embrace. There are going to be people who want to blow it off. They think, 'She's a killer. Who cares? Fuck her.' Then there are other people who will take her very seriously, see meaning in what she does and understand what she's trying to do."

So far in "Scarlet," the title character has been playing vigilante by eliminating the corrupt cops who murdered her boyfriend and framed him as a drug kingpin. What some fans may not be aware of is, the actions of the police officers in the story were inspired by real life incidents in Portland and across the country.

"It's funny - there were quite a few people who referred to me as a cop hater, and I wanted to point to the 10 years I've been writing 'Powers' as my argument that that's not the case. So, yes, there were incidents that happened in Portland and other cities. They were pretty public - some killings and some corruption. You can Google and find them. Of course, my version is much more amplified, but when you find someone who rises to a position of authority and abuses that authority and privilege, from an outsiders point of view, it looks like the person tried to get into their position specifically to abuse it. To this day, things like that are fascinating to me.

"A lot of times when an author does a story about something like that, it's them looking into things they don't understand and trying to understand them through their work. For instance, Shawn Ryan created 'The Shield' in part to understand the LAPD Rampart scandal. That's what a lot of my writing heroes do. They sit down and try to understand something by looking at it from all the angles, the point of view of the police and from the point of view of the criminal. They try to figure out how something happened and what it means," Bendis continued. "As I've said before, the point of 'Scarlet' is to present an idea that hasn't happened in our world. No one has stood up and declared war on things and from there started what is close to a revolution in our times. I imagine, though, if we woke up and found out that someone had, it wouldn't shock us. That's what I wanted to present; an idea that's not happening, but is not that far off."

As Bendis hinted, in upcoming issues of "Scarlet," word of the title character's actions and intentions will begin to grow, though the writer is more interested in examining how his protagonist's story affects people than how it's spread. "The press is almost the easiest version of the story to tell. I think anyone can see how the press will relate to her. 98% of it would be dismissive or [involve] things like talk show jokes and 'Daily Show' pieces. A lot of that kind of material was covered in 'Powers,'" Bendis stated. "So I'm not going to do the talking heads with TV pundits talking about her. We're going to show more of the impact right on the street. Also, we're going to switch points of view to people whose lives she's affected in the same way that her life was affected by others. I think that's a little more interesting."

While the way the media presents Scarlet's message won't be an active part of the story, the medium in which her message is delivered will play a role. "Scarlet knows that media is corporate owned, so why would she care what they think or say about her? Or use it in any way, shape, or form to get her message out? Bendis remarked. "It's underground media and the internet where her message gets out and the truth about her is heard. It's unfettered and uninterrupted. She knows and accepts that the mainstream media will be used to make fun of her or squash her, but by sheer force of will, she won't allow it. That's a big part of the story for me. The TV talking heads is the easiest route to tell that story, so by nature for this kind of story, it's the least interesting."

Interested readers can get a hint of some of the things Scarlet might have to say by following her actions online by following her on Twitter. "Her Twitter feed is @scarletrue. She's on fire on there. She's angry," Bendis said. "I'm hoping that Scarlet's Twitter feed has more followers than Amadeus Cho's Twitter feed as soon as possible. She's also kind of declared war on him, which is weird. She kind of said he would be the first one to go when the revolution comes. I hope people don't think that's me and Greg Pak yelling at each other through fake twitter accounts, because that's absolutely not the case . [Laughs]"

As word gets out about Scarlet's crusade, the supporting cast of the series will grow exponentially as friends and foes are drawn into her orbit. "Police detectives, the F.B.I. and the Secret Service will all be hunting her," Bendis revealed. "Also, Scarlet's, for lack of a better word, 'army' of assistants will grow. Even next issue, we're going to meet some people that will be big players on both sides."

Not everyone who recognizes the truth in Scarlet's words and mission will rally around her, however, and her biggest test might come from people who agree with what she's thinking...but just don't care about changing it. "There will be people who greatly resent what she's done because people want to be comfortable. Even if they agree with her they'll be like, 'Hey! You're messing up my life!' Some people just want their television and their food and they want to be safe in their home and what she's offering is not that," Bendis said. "So even with the people that agree with her there are some that might say, 'No. I don't want to go down this road.' Plus, there's the argument of, 'Who's she to say this? Why her?'"

As "Scarlet" progresses and the title character's actions gain notoriety, the scope and scale of the series will continue to grow along with the cast. "It's a pretty elaborate story that gets very large. The only thing I'm worried about is reaction to the series. It's been so overwhelmingly positive and people have enjoyed the almost 'Death Wish' Charles Bronson nature of the first couple of issues, but the story is going to get geometrically larger with every issue," Bendis explained. "I'm curious to see how people will react as the stage the book is set on expands. It will move from a citywide story, to a nationwide story, to an international one as she moves from vigilante to revolutionary."

When preparing to launch "Scarlet," Bendis was a little worried about how the series might be received, but he's very grateful for the warm welcome comic readers have given the book. "The reaction has been crazy excellent for a non-superhero book and something that's very different from what we tried before. I've been really relieved at how it's been accepted, and Alex Maleev is emboldened like I've never seen him before," Bendis said. "Sometimes, trying to get your friends to do creator-owned books is a little difficult because they get used to the way things are. You want to teach them the bonuses of creator-owned work; how good it is for your soul. So to watch Alex completely come alive as that washes over him has been amazing. People have seen online that he's loving this book. So, thank you for giving Alex that experience. It's going to come back to you guys tenfold."

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