When I mentioned to my cohort that I was going to review a Bendis book, I got an astonished look in return.  “Really?” he asked.  “I thought you didn’t like Bendis.”

That is a pretty common misconception.  I don’t like Bendis on the Avengers.  I like Bendis when he is writing individual characters where there is plenty of talking story.  I am not a fan when it comes to his team comics or fight scenes.  (Kevin Smith famously said that the reason there were never any good fight scenes in his movies was because he didn’t know how to write them.  I kind of feel the same way about Bendis).  So, for me, Bendis is great when it comes to Powers, Alias, and his early work on Daredevil.  Late Daredevil, Avengers, and pretty much any other team book he has been a part of has not been my mug of PBR.

So, when I saw that Bendis was writing a single character vigilante book (with art by Alex Maleev no less!), I wanted to check it out.  I had enjoyed Bendis’ all ages book, Takio, and I am always willing to check out a Maleev book.

Scarlet is, according to the back cover, “the story of a woman pushed to the edge by all that is wrong with the world… A woman who will not back down… A woman who discovers within herself the power to start a modern American revolution!!”  Now that is a pretty catchy description.  It has a good hook and the promise that there could be some real consequences and change because of the main character’s actions.   If it could be carried off well, it could be another DMZ or Stumptown depending on the angle Bendis chose to take.

Unfortunately, it just does not work out that way.

We are introduced to Scarlet as she chokes a man to death in a back alley.  Immediately, Scarlett breaks the fourth wall and begins speaking directly to the reader.  This is beyond the old trope of narration boxes that serve as voice over.  No, she is looking directly at the reader, speaking directly.  It is more than a bit disconcerting, and does not make for an engaging read.  It is distracting and does not help the reader to connect with her…which is what both she and Bendis desperately want. they both want us to know that there is more going on than what we initially see.

Scarlet reveals that she witnessed her boyfriend get murdered by a corrupt police officer.  In addition, Scarlett is shot as well and spends months in the hospital recovering.  The police officer, instead of being charged with any crime, is promoted.  This exposes Scarlett to the harsh truth that hte world is not as rosy and wonderful as she thought it was.  So she vows to get her revenge.

As I said before, this could be a good story if handled well.  Bendis is capable of writing noir-ish stories (Alias, Goldfish, Powers).  He knows how to make realistic sounding dialogue and create believable situations.  However, everything that comes out of the characters’ mouths (every character) sounds superficial and stiff.  I never bought anything anyone was saying, and Scarlett’s desire to change the world seems to ring hollow when she tries to explain it to anyone.

Not only do characters not speak in a believable manner, but they most certainly do not behave in a believable manner.  When Scarlett makes a public appearance after murdering several police officers, the FBI agent in charge orders that she not be taken in to custody.  Let me repeat that line.  The FBI agent in charge orders that a serial killer who is appearing in public and is potentially armed and is definitely dangerous should not be taken in to custody.  Yeah.  It is that kind of book.

Alex Maleev was a solid choice for Scarlet.  He has a gritty, rough look to his pencils that add an edge to the book.  He effectively sets the mood, alternating between grey-tones and fully saturated color for the scenes.  It adds a richness to the city of Portland that is not readily available to the reader’s imagination (there is a reason why most noir stories are set in the big cities back East..).  It is clear that he worked extensively from photos of Portland as he has most of the major landmarks and it is immediately identifiable as the City of Roses (there is one gaffe that is only apparent to Portlanders).

Check out the face in the lower left corner

Maleev has gone to a heavily photo-referenced look in the past couple of years that makes the faces of his characters seem a bit off (in much the same way that motion capture movies cannot seem to quite get the faces right).  While the character designs are solid and the backgrounds are detailed, the faces just seem disconnected from the rest of the body.

Overall Scarlett was a bit of a let down for me.  Book One appears to have just been the setup for the “real” story.  Now we have the characters in place and the revolution (and completely unnecessary manhunt) can begin.  Not sure that I will be back for volume two.  But, then again, that may not be an issue.  Volume One collects the first five issues of the “ongoing series”.  However, issue 6 has yet to be solicited, so it will be a while until I have to make that decision.  Until then, I will be out enjoying the sunshine, and stopping by Powells Books, which, as all Portlanders know, is on the corner of 10th and Burnside.

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