By Michael DeLaney
This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!
The medium of comic books isn’t an ancient indecipherable text, but it does have its own language that is learned and acquired by readers over time. Along with the significant portions of sequential art, readers must become accustomed to multiple forms of word-based storytelling. In Scarlet 1, writer Brian Michael Bendis, artist Alex Maleev, and letterer Joshua Reed showcase an additional storytelling device not often seen in comic books.
If someone is picking up a comic book for the first time they might not immediately understand the difference between the “word balloon” and the “caption box.” The former is spoken word, audible to other characters that are in the scene, whereas a caption box is a narrative device used by a character or an omniscient third party. In Scarlet 1, however, the titular character uses a boxy word balloon/caption box hybrid that forms a bridge between the two storytelling devices.
I’m not sure who to credit – Bendis, Maleev or Reed – so I’m just gonna go ahead and say it’s a collaborative effort. It’s a visually-distinct device that is also stitched into the story itself. On the previous page Scarlet provides a lengthy narration of how America has always been a shit show – something I’m inclined to agree with. But she stops midway to break the fourth wall and address the readers head on.
Scarlet doesn’t want to talk at her audience, she wants to communicate with them. This gives the use of the unique “word box” that much more significance; it’s not just a bridge between two narrative devices, its a bridge between Scarlet and the reader.
Once we become accustomed to these word boxes, the story starts bending the rules a little bit. Fearful of the parachuting soldier who enters her territory, Scarlet trains her gun on him. We see the word boxes intercut with her word balloons – contradicting/providing context to the reader that the characters don’t have. Scarlet doesn’t want her people to see that she’s afraid but she’s ok with us knowing it. After all, she’s been talking with us for most of the issue.
The conversation doesn’t stop there. What do you wanna talk about from this issue?
Oh fuck this was terrible.
I’ve said before that Scarlet is my favourite thing that Bendis has worked on. In fact, books like Scarlet was why, despite loving some of his recent Marvel work, I kept wanting him to leave superhero comics and go to Image. He was one of Marvel’s top writers for at least two generations of talent, and so he should be doing what those generations have done and gone of to make his own Kill or Be Killed, or Wicked + the Divine or East of West or Deadly Class. It also meant that he could continue writing Scarlet.
And then Bendis fucked it up with this turd.
I was excited, but this issue is nothing but the removal of all the things that made Scarlet great, with no meaningful replacement. The dumbed down and shallow version.
For example, Scarlet talking to the audience. Michael, when you say that Scarlet wants to communicate with the audience, that is only half the story. Scarlet doesn’t want to communicate with you. She wants you to join her. She wants to make you complicit in her revolution. Except none of that is in this issue. While in previous issues, there was an arc to our relationship as the reader to Scarlet, as we fall deeper and deeper into Scarlet’s world by our choice to keep reading and stay involved with Scarlet, that’s gone here. Honestly, it might as well be pure, traditional captions because everything that made the fourth wall breaks great is gone. The form remains, but the function has disappeared. Hell, Scarlet literally says that now that we have reached this point, she doesn’t need to talk to you further.
And then there is the time skip. Urgh. I understand why Bendis made the choice. It had been ages since a Scarlet issue had been released. Bendis wanted to ensure that the new issue was new reader friendly and was a starting point. A soft reboot.
But this was a bad idea. Usually, time skips are great for soft reboots. And usually, I am pro soft reboots and believe they are important to the success of long running series (though considering this is only the 11th issue of Scarlet, this is not what I meant by ling running series).
But Scarlet’s not the sort of book that can handle a time skip. A time skip goes against everything the book is about. Bendis promised from the very beginning we would get here. Would get even further, actually. But what made Scarlet work was the journey. It was seeing how things escalated at each stage. We got to see how what begun as vigilante justice grew and grew into a movement by seeing each stop. And it was seeing that process, that change,that the book was about. It was about the arc of the event. To skip that is to screw up everything up. You are skipping the narrative meat of the story.
Not only have we skipped through the actual story Scarlet was supposed to be telling to get here, the fact that we have missed this makes the new status quo feel… unrealistic. If we saw step by step how we got from last issue to here, I’m sure it would feel better. But without that, it feels like a tonal betrayal. Scarlet was always a pulpy book, of course, it is about an American Revolution. But it was always based on realistic responses to events. The threat wasn’t something as goofy as “US military waging war on Portland, which looks like Dark Knight Rises Gotham”. It was police riots (I’d need to look at specific issues due to the previous book’s messed up release schedule, but Scarlet either successfully predicted the Ferguson protests or used them as inspiration). Again, this could have made sense if we understood the build up. Saw the escalation at each step that turned something more realistic into such an out of control situation that something so goofy happened. But without that, it feels like Bendis pandering to the lowest common denominator. Going for the simplest, most generic and boring version of American Revolution instead of the smarter approach the book used to have.
Talking about the feeling of this being dumbed down, let’s talk about the morality. The original Scarlet didn’t approach things so simplistically. It wasn’t just punk v government. Things were more defined. Scarlet thought the system was broken. But she had a more clearly defined philosophy. It wasn’t as simple as being anti government. She wasn’t inherentlty against government, even though she thought it was broken. Instead, she had a simple ultimatum. No corruption. Either deal with corruption, or she will. This created a compelling dilemma. Instead of there being two clearly dilenated sides, characters found themselves on a spectrum. And, it was a more compellingly set up situation this issue’s simplistic framing.
And the fact that this stuff is just missing makes Scarlet so much less compelling as a character. Everything is less compelling.
I was so excited for this to return as I loved the original Scarlet. But it is just a vapid and empty version of what the book was. Honestly, I don’t think the time skip is a mistake that can be fixed. It so fundamentally breaks Scarlet that I can’t see an easy way to do so. But honestly, everything else is so vapid and bad, it isn’t as simple as just fixing that. Because, honestly the issue is so full of narrative problems.
I hate to hate one of my favourite series. I loved Scarlet. But this was awful. Few things are worse than a favourite series going to shit.
Damn. I was looking forward to this