Brian Michael Bendis means many things to many people, but for the longest time Bendis, to me, meant company bullshit and the error of super-hero comics. I’m not necessarily sure why. I think it was a matter of his position and the frustration I felt toward Marvel. You see, they raised prices at the time of my highest “hate,” and, well, I was one of those “3.99 protesters.” I know, I know. Something I should probably keep hidden nor does it really have anything to do with Bendis,but whatever. I was there, and I’m past it now that I actually read my comics…Anyway, Bendis…not my favorite dude in the heyday of late 2009/early 2010. His books were 3.99, his Avengers did plenty of talking, and Siege was on the horizon.
“Fuck this guy,” I thought. “My days of Ultimate Spider-man respect are gone.”
Taking Marvel Readers for the usual spin, Siege came and went, but while so, news broke.
“In July, writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Alex Maleev examine those questions and more when “Scarlet,” their new ongoing, bi-monthly creator owned series from Marvel Comics’ Icon imprint, begins. We spoke with Bendis about the project…”
– Comic Book Resources
July, Bendis back to his roots, and I gave it a shot. Boy, I’m glad I did so.
Scarlet’s still some sense of the traditional Bendis. Characters talk while stories span more than a few issues. There’s even that sense of slow down mid-arc while the last chapter inspires thoughts of, “what happens next.” Bendis writes this book through and through. No doubt about it. On a larger playing field though, this book resembles something like a rejection slip or a mighty middle finger aimed at all the nay sayers and labels. Yes, in some sense, this is Bendis’ Recovery. Here’s the album where the artist, while not totally reinvented, comes out and exclaims, “I’ve still got it.” That “it,” in this case, would be Bendis’ ability to bring something a little different and exciting to the comics market. Scarlet proclaims Bendis’ right to still be in this game.
Part of the Scarlet’s statement simply comes from the creator-owned aspect. We have this odd perception in the comics scene that when a creator goes creator-owned it means some sense of “rebellion.” Kirkman, I think, is owed much thanks for this perception. The original Image guys inspired this idea nearly twenty years ago, but I think for this current era Kirkman steals the show. That manifesto went a long way, and it still lingers in the air now. He, whether he wished it not, made creator-owned this quasi-bad boy act where the artist can tell the company man to fuck off and seemingly be ok.
Not saying Bendis is telling Marvel to fuck off – that would honestly make no sense -, but the bare aesthetic of a creator-owned comic encourages thoughts of breaking the mold. Scarlet being Bendis’ first major creator-owned work since Powers, the book that got attention, says something about the writer’s place as of now. After ten years of being Marvel’s go-to boy with an on-and-off creator-owned book floating in the background, Scarlet makes us all suddenly question. Is Bendis just the “Avengers guy?”
That answer would be no. Our attentions are so caught up in who this guy is today that we forget Brian Michael Bendis wrote and drew as an indie comics creator. Before Ultimate Spider-man, the world knew Bendis as Fire and Goldfish. And Bendis still talks about these books, more than a decade later. Listen to any Bendis Tapes on John Siuntres’ Word Balloon Podcast, and I bet Bendis will name drop a few of those early books. Why? I think they are still strongly attached to him. This isn’t a guy who found a Marvel gig and said, “Ok, now I start.” This is a guy who loved doing his early stuff, and he never tries to cover it up. Bendis still pushes copies of Jinx and Torso; he wants the world to know what he’s capable of. Scarlet, and really this entire wave of new creator-owned material from Bendis, is another step in that direction. A certain amount of it disproves the majority perception, but another piece of the pie is a return to form. Bendis’ core, I think, is creator-owned, and Scarlet exists as a call back to that.
But it’s not all in the book’s appearance and identity; the story itself holds meaning. This book kicks off with a female protagonist who, right out of the gate, strangles a man and tells us why. The bare action isn’t the point, though. The “how” is.
Scarlet breaks the fourth wall. The technique should clue us in. The author wants to talk. Let’s look at this line: “I’m sorry to be right in your face like this. I know you were looking for a little diversionary fun. I know you were subconsciously hoping you could just watch without any of it actually involving you” (Issue 1, Pg. 4). Hmmm. Involving “you.” This goes back to my idea typed above. While Scarlet in the story is on a mission to instigate revolution and wants “your” help, Bendis is clearly speaking for his own cause here. The thought of looking for some “diversionary fun” without involvement so sums up a majority of comics readers and specifically the readers invested in Bendis’ Marvel work. Stuff like Avengers and the event books are so spelled out, and people read them as diversion. I mean, that kind of is the point of entertainment, but comics readers, as most on the internet should know, take the concept of thinking and multiply the aspect of pain tenfold. Remember Final Crisis? Yeah, people bitched. Why? They wanted the story’s “hows” and “whys” spelled out.
Bendis’ work kind of contributes to this. His style of storytelling, the decompression we’ve all come to love, is the norm in today’s mainstream comics. It’s become Marvel’s house style of writing, and it’s possibly conditioned readers to be, well, lazy. Decompression lets everything see time on the panel. Thought needs no part of the reading process when the writing is such because the writer can literally tell you everything.
But Bendis wants “you” involved in this one. He wants “you” to think and contribute. He, again, wants us to see him differently.
This opening houses another important aspect, though. Maybe more important than the line about contribution. It’s how it’s written. When we think of Bendis, we think of dialogue and long scenes of transacting characters. It’s the Bendis trademark. Scarlet breaking the wall reminds readers of that and reminds in a fresh way. The opening scene jolts us. It’s Bendis writing dialogue but not in a fashion we expect. Characters sit no where near a table, but rather one pissed off woman looks directly at us. Sure, she delivers a few lines of meta statement, but her plain action almost says more. She’s just talking, but she’s taking the Bendisism in a different direction.
Bendis, because of his sometimes overuse of dialogue, has lost some of his shine. Rather than it now being his gift, dialogue has almost become his curse, and it’s not something readers look forward to but rather dread. This opening feels like Bendis taking control again, though. The switch in approach makes the dialogue feel special again. The moment sounds a lot like the opening seconds on Eminem’s “Cold Wind Blows.” The exclamations of “I’m back” and “Some things just don’t change” seem appropriate in this moment. It’s Bendis doing his finest Bendis and showing that he is still the guy for dialogue. No one does it better.
The story continues as Scarlet opens up her operation and rubs the dirt further across her hands. Cops die and pressures increase, but the series unfolds in other ways. I want to point out the statement made by this comicbook, but I also feel it shouldn’t be limited to that. Scarlet has more to offer as a story. Namely, the use of a female lead. For a tale about rising up and speaking out against oppression, following a woman around seems like the only right idea. The male voice could make a point here, and maybe convey some similar feelings, but making the character female brings much more by simple nature of context. Plus, Bendis has history with the lady lead, and Scarlet makes a lot of sense in his larger body of work. Jessica Jones meet Scarlet.
But, yes. The context. This is the woman taking back her world and executing revenge on the men who made her suffer. Sounds about right. Where on the surface Bendis shapes Scarlet to represent the common, downtrodden, middle class person, Scarlet herself takes on another shape. She’s a symbol. A symbol for what we are told and a symbol for the woman as an entity. Here’s a woman who feels the need to speak and speak loud in a culture where men seem to make the rules. Plus, she’s tearing down the rules and citing them as wrong. It’s almost like this woman scorned is the release of hundreds of years of built up aggression. The denial of school, jobs, voting, and sexuality are all being voiced against right here, through Scarlet. Maybe Bendis wants that, maybe he doesn’t. I see it, though, and I think it’s impossible not to because the fiery red of Scarlet’s hair and the show of midriff only catch the eyes.
So, to wrap up, I blame this book for my resurgence of Bendis reading. While not necessarily something game changing or even solid, Scarlet shows me that Brian Bendis can still make a point and make a comic with a layer or two. I lost faith in this dude for a while, but it feels like Bendis is hitting a new creative stride. He still needs to speak and deserves to do so. He still makes interesting comics. I’m happy about that.