Nothing makes the mainstream books released last week by DC and Marvel appear more redundant than Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev's "Scarlet", a comic that seems to do most everything that the traditional superhero package does, while in truth possessing nothing so absurd and generally alienating as a superhero within its pages at all.
In that, "Scarlet" might be seen to be working on a parallel path to that of Mark Millar's recent pioneering work, where he's so successfully endeavoured to appeal to a mainstream audience by cutting the figure of the superhero loose from continuity and convention while placing it into a version of the mundane world familiar from blockbuster movies. But Mr Bendis, through what I suspect is design, but what well may be chance and inclination, has managed to escape the event horizon of the cape'n'costume genre altogether by creating with Mr Maleev a book that offers a substantial amount of the appeal of "Daredevil" and "Spider-Man" without a hint of spandex or an X-gene being anywhere in sight.
It's the Holy Grail, and I genuinely suspect that it's the great way forward too. Encoded to read as a superhero book to the lovers of that genre, while seeming to be nothing of the kind to the vast majority of the world which cares nothing for multiverses and unstable molecules, "Scarlet" is so far out ahead of most of the competition that it doesn't even seem like the future at all. It rather appears to be wholly of today, the defining book of the moment and the marker of a tipping point away from costumes and continuity which leaves nearly everything else seeming telegraphed in from the past, antique, quaint and massively self-referential.
Superhero fans will without thinking immediately recognise "Scarlet" as one of their own. The front cover alone marks her out as a modern-era almost-costumed icon, though on the surface it's simply a shot by Mr Maleev of a calm and threatening Scarlet wearing nothing that'd look too radical on a Friday night pub-crawl most anywhere in the West. But the subtle blue tones and Scarlet's almost-fluorescent red hair combined with the rifle balanced insouciantly on her left shoulder, speaks immediately to the reader of superhero comics of the likes of Mystique and the Black Widow, just as it very much wouldn't do to the non-genre consumer, who'd merely note a strong and calculating young woman balanced on her haunches and obviously ready to do something very threatening indeed with that gun. Super-women in thigh-clutching leather with lethal weapons, whether bearing azure skin or not, are so much an everyday part of the genre in 2010 that Scarlet could be inducted into the Avengers without having to adopt a stitch of anything more logo-friendly. (*1)
But then Scarlet could also be a recurring villain in the cast of a host of TV cop shows and no-one would think twice about it either.
Or: the nerds will love it, the straights can embrace it. (*2)
*1:- It's a process that Mr Maleev has of course contributed greatly towards in his "Alias" and "Daredevil" work.
*2:- I'm not sneering. I live in the second world, I'm a citizen, if you like, of the first.
Scarlet's a woman with a secret identity. She looks so pale and wan, so very harmless, that she can walk around Portland's Justice Centre without arousing the slightest suspicion on the part of the officers of the law that she intends to murder. In fact, nobody remembers her at first sight even if they've been acquainted with her in the past. Placed by Mr Maleev within the well-lit high-walled Imperial interiors of the police station, we fear for her safety, because there's an awful lot of those policemen there and, despite the craft by they're each made distinct one from the other, they're a pack, a solid wall of authority and power, and Scarlet's just a young woman in a felt hat and a waistcoat, an antelope circling at a distance a sedate but vicious pack of lions while deciding how to pick them off, one after the other.
In a sense, these corrupt policemen are recognisable super-villains. They wear the uniforms, they bear the badge, they have their distinct codes and their super-villain secret hideout, and they're quite beyond redemption. "You're a bad person. All the way through." Scarlet declares to one of her victims before killing him, and just before the gunshot, there's a thrill so like that of Batman unmasking before Joe Chill as he dies. "I ... I know who you are." the soon-to-be-shot detective says, and her own mask is off, the rush of power is triggered, and then he's dead.
Because for all her apparent powerlessness, to face Scarlet down on the territory of her own choosing is to find that she's torn aside her everyday clothes to reveal a big "K" for "killer" underneath. She's absolutely lethal, her capacity to inflict extremes of pain and indeed death upon her victims made all the more unnerving for the fact that a more traditional tale would have cast her in the role of victim and not executioner. For she's too psychologically damaged to serve as the symbol of female empowerment that, for example, Buffy was intended to be. She's not a symbol of the individual woman's capacity to stand up for themselves so much as one of what happens when society fails to stand up for its least formidable members, regardless of what their gender might be.
It's that judicious mixture of public vulnerability and private power which the superhero fan will recognise and latch onto. This may not be wish fulfillment in its most unconditional sense, because Scarlet is so damaged as well as so dangerous, but the appeal of her adventure in a world where the powers-that-be dwarf the capacity of the helpless individual to stand up for what's right is familiar and yet still powerful fare. (How can a story of the powerless standing up to the powerful ever lack appeal, even if the powerless here is, as stated, the clearly unhinged Scarlet?)
If this is a story that delivers much of what's typically found in the superheroic genre except for the costumes and the super-powers and the endless leagues of good and bad superfolk, then it's also a tale that would evoke recognition in anybody who's ever watched a 10%-realistic cop show on their TV or in the multiplexes. It has it's roots in the Serpico-esque Seventies tales of corruption and hopelessness, and it embodies the deliberate pace and naturalistic detail we'd instantly associate with any modern police procedural. And it's here that Mr Maleev's much-debated "photo-realistic" style serves the ends of this cross-market comic perfectly. The world he depicts immediately frames the reader's gaze in a recognisable view that doesn't needed to be decoded in order to be understood. His book shops and his diners, for example, are recognisable artifacts from the real world, his street scenes contain nothing of the jobbing artist's almost-abstract shorthand which leaves so many comics seemingly set in a child's toy-town, recognisable for what it is at a distance and yet smooth and unconvincing and lacking in detail close up. For "Scarlet" is a thriller set in the today outside our front doors and designed, for reasons of inclusiveness and ambition rather than commercial greed, I'd imagine, to appeal to the millions of readers who exist beyond the gravitational pull of the neighbourhood comic shop.
And should anybody think to themselves that his work appears to be "real" only because it's a supposed tracing of a photo, I'd suggest they also try to achieve his ends to his degree of achievement.
I. There's a great deal of the eccentricities of Mr Bendis's writerly style that make sense in the context of "Scarlet", where before it often seemed careless and self-indulgent. Take, for example, his habit of uncoupling dialogue from the progression of individual panels one after the other and presenting it instead as a great wad of material that the reader's then expected to make dramatic sense of. To me, this regularly seemed to be cheating the reader, although it must be said that there don't seem to have been too many others who'd share that point of view. And yet the beauty and discipline of comic books is so often that action and words, text and sub-text, are fused together in the most appropriate fashion possible, making a story one marked both by clarity and the creator's individual artistic choices. Faced with a full side of monologue superimposed over a single splash page, as so often happens in the work of Mr Bendis, where the words are left to define their own context and meaning without the aid of the art at all, I've often wanted to write "fail: please finish before handing in" on the book before mailing it off to Cleveland.
It's not that I can't grasp why Mr Bendis might have chosen to incorporate this trick into his repertory. For one thing, he loves dialogue and apparently often constructs his scripts around lines he's improvised for himself while writing; if a craftsman loves speech to that degree, then it makes sense for them to assume that their audience will too. More than that, I suspect, these concentrated blocks of texts allow a considerable amount of information to be delivered to the reader without having to abandon the more dramatic and often necessarily less-text heavy pages elsewhere in the modern comic book. And given that there's probably no comics writer more concerned to ensure that their readers receive their money's worth with each individual issue, it would make sense for a book which might otherwise be read too quickly to be positively "sabotaged", as it were, by these pile-ups of words on his illustrated text-pages, literally compelling the reader to slow down and absorb more than just one spectacular event after another. In a sense, one way in which Mr Bendis controls the speed at which his books are read is to give the market the narrative pace that it craves while moderating that with a big bunch of ideas thrown down in the reader's path. For if the art isn't telling us how characters in a story are responding to what's being said, then the reader has to do the job instead.
In essence, it's a trick that turns the reader into a co-conspirator with Mr Bendis, and the willingness, and indeed keenness, by which he trusts the audience to do that was, before it was widely accepted as "normal", a damn brave trick to be playing.
II. But in "Scarlet", the page of monologue delivered by ex-Officer Guzman in his diner seems to me to work far more satisfactorily than many of the other examples of the technique I've read. For to an even greater degree than Mr Bendis and Mr Maleev's other work, "Scarlet" is a comic book that seeks to immerse the reader in a recognisably mundane reality, and to do so in a way that doesn't seem overly "comic-booky" to a mainstream audience which can still associate Batman with "Biff" and "Pow". It's a book that's constantly suggesting that the reader stop and spend a while recognising this street or that ATM machine, and the sheer denseness of the text functions to provide the audience with a story that feels satisfying and involving without seeming to be either juvenille or dumb at all.
For despite those reviews of "Scarlet" which declared it to be in many ways a film rendered on paper, it's little of the sort. It draws on film as it draws on thrillers as it draws on superhero books, but "Scarlet" is designed, I think, to provide a chapter of a story which is understandable to both niche and mainstream, and which functions well both as a single-chapter experience and, eventually, as a section of a graphic novel.
Consequently, the book is effectively structured into mostly three and four page sections, where silent scenes of Scarlet hunting her prey are alternated with intense mini-dramas, where she confronts her fellow characters and insists that they conform to the version of reality that she wants them to. Her bloody-minded determination to stalk her victims is constantly counterpointed by turns where her inability to engage on a human level with anybody else in the comic is on display, and it's an interesting example of narrative syncopation which is buried in the script but which paces the story effectively; silence followed by noise, pursuit followed by conversation. And if the tale is unremittingly grim, there's still the difference in tone between the quiet and the talking scenes, which saves all that grimness from becoming overwhelming.
But of all the techniques used by Mr Bendis to slow time for the reader while increasing their involvement with the text, it's Scarlet's habit of breaking the fourth wall and talking to the reader that's most effective. Cleverly, her words increase our empathy with her while distancing us from applauding her acts, for the greatest danger of the urban vigilante tale is that it ends up, despite often laudable attempts not to, as arguing for the principle that Bernhard Goetz was right. When, for example, Scarlet follows her execution of a policeman with the statement "I tried. You saw I tried.", the reader is thrown out of the text by the realisation that they didn't see anything of the kind, and it's such a clever business that it makes me want to applaud. For how else could the text had contained this degree of moral anchoring without disrupting the pleasures of the tale of how the apparently-harmless Scarlet hunted down those beastly men? For, yes, it is a case of a writer wanting all the thrills of the vigilante-exploitation genre without succumbing to its dubious morality, but that's actually rather impressive rather than contemptible. For to be made to enjoy seeing exceedingly corrupt cops suffer while never being for a moment expected to believe that any of this is a good thing is a clever balancing trick well-executed.
The end-result of all of this is, for all my chatter, an excellent and unpretentious thriller. None of the construction which so effectively underpins the work pokes through the surface and irritates the reader with its own presence and the creators cleverness. And the neophyte reader from the mainstream can therefore approach the tale without either the writer or artists ego, or the accumulated ritual of 72 years of superhero comics, standing between them and the story. With all these markers of difference in "Scarlet", all these blocks of text, silent sequences, the presence of fourth-wall-breaking irony, the ghosts of old film and TV and so on, this is a comic book which those unfamiliar with the modern comic book will see as different enough from their low expectations to make their consumption of it a less uncomfortable and more enjoyable business.
For this is that rarest of things, the comic book which is recognisable as typical if high-quality fare by the superhero aficionado and as something more highbrow and less childish than expected by everyone else. And created as it is in a form which allows the opposite and opposing poles of superhero fan and no-comic-book-fan-at-all to enjoy it, "Scarlet" removes the deadwood from the costumed hero tale, and serves as an example of exactly the kind of carefully and brightly crafted product which will help to crack at least some of those adult markets which have resisted comics so far. Because what became so obvious with "Kick-Ass" is gathering yet more momentum where many of the most adaptable and able creators are concerned. There's a huge market for comics out there and the post-superhero superhero designed for it is already here, whether resplendent in a green and yellow costume, or blue light and leathers and red hair, or not.
Well, don't look like that at me. I'm not even a huge fan of Mr Bendis's work, though I love "Powers" and enjoyed much of "Alias" and "Daredevil". But good comics is good comics, and that's what "Scarlet" is. There'll be a few more reviews popping up over the next few days while I adapt to the new work schedule I discussed a few weeks before re: Mr Millar's work and my writing about it, and I hope that'll be OK with the folks who occasionally drop in here. The "Ultimatum" piece is still being processed and there's more longer pieces to come. I'd welcome anyone's thoughts about whether the already-slight appeal of this blog will be compromised by my looking at recent releases in this way, I really would, and as always, I'd very appreciate your thoughts. My best wishes to your splendid selves!