Brian Michael Bendis, cinephile of the people, would know that Jean-Luc Godard famously said, “all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun.” While that may be true, it’s not all you need to make a good movie, and I should know, since I once watched the entirety of a not-so-cinematic-gem called “Barb Wire.”
And though we’re talking comics here (hey, “Barb Wire” was totally a comic book, too!), all we really knew about Bendis and Maleev’s creator-owned “Scarlet” series was that it would feature a girl with a gun. Two guns, according to the cover!
Well, I suppose that’s not really true, since Bendis hasn’t been shy about talking “Scarlet” with the comic book press, and in his conversations he’s evoked Paddy Chayefsky’s “Network” as a more specific inspiration for this series. So we knew three things about “Scarlet” before it’s released: (1) a girl, (2) a gun, (3) she’s mad as hell, and she’s not going to take it anymore.
Does that add up to a good comic? Apparently it does, when Bendis and Maleev are involved. A very good one.
“Scarlet” #1 tells the origin story of the young female protagonist, but it’s not told like a typical origin story. It’s almost all narration, but instead of captions juxtaposed with images, it’s Scarlet talking directly to the reader. During the opening scene, right after she garrotes a police officer and rifles through his wallet, her word balloons shift from ovals to rectangles. At first, the shift seems odd — does it signify a different speaking voice? Is she recording something? Is she a robot? — but then it becomes clear that the rectangle boxes are her narrator voice, and she’s encouraging the reader on her ride of rebellion.
The rest of the issue provides flashbacks to how she ended up where she is now, and it’s told with flair and charm. One sequence gives us the highlights (and lowlights) of Scarlet’s entire life, panel by panel, each one labeled accordingly, like “Birth,” “First Kiss,” “First Disappointment,” “First Profound Realization,” etc. It’s an approach that would only work well in comic books, and it shows the kind of playfulness that this issue is full of.
Maleev does the full-color art on this first issue and it looks great. It borders on the too-photo-real like so much of his artwork in recent years, but because he’s providing the painted (or digitally painted) colors as well, he’s able to make it more expressionistic than it might be with a more muted color palette. And the harsh realism, coupled with the bold watercolor look, gives a strange mix of hard-edged city life and dreamy emotionalism. That’s really the core of Scarlet, so it fits well.
Though I mentioned Godard and Chayefsky above, this comic feels less influenced by those filmmakers than by the pre-Marvel work of Jonathan Hickman. “Scarlet” is a bit like Bendis and Maleev’s version of “Nightly News,” and that’s certainly not a problem at all. It has that same sense of strident judgment of society along with the uncertainty of narrative voice. It’s the “are we really supposed to feel this outraged?” kind of reaction that Hickman seemed to encourage from the reader, and Bendis does as well. And because Scarlet is inviting us to tag along with her, are we complicit in her actions?
It’s a strong start to what looks like the best work from Bendis in years, and maybe the best work from Maleev ever. “Scarlet” #1 feels personal and passionate, from cover to cover.