You say you want to start a revolution? Well, according to Scarlet, we all want to change the world… but perhaps she’s the one to help make it happen? Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev's Scarlet returned to comic shelves in August via DC Comics' new Jinxworld imprint, and the new limited series continues on with this week's #2.
Picking up shortly after Scarlet’s successfully having coordinated multiple protests across Portland, which brought the city’s corrupts officials to their knees, the young rebel finds herself at the head of a revolution that successfully took control of the city. Now, Scarlet and her band of rebels finds themselves on the phone to talk terms with the President of the United States.
Newsarama took less drastic measures and talked about the terms of this first issue with Bendis, looking at what it was like picking up this series after a two-year hiatus along with how he sees this relaunch fitting into the cultural climate in which it now finds itself being published compared to its original releases in 2012 and 2016.
Newsarama: Born out of the protests against the 1% in the wake of the “Great Recession” of the early 21st Century, you and Alex Maleev teamed up in 2012 to introduce readers to Scarlet, the story of a Portlander who sought revenge against the corrupt law enforcement and elected officials of the town through killing those who served only themselves at the expense of others.
How well did the people of Portland receive this series when it first hit? Should I assume you’re still waiting for your key to the city?
Brian Michael Bendis: [Laughs] Not likely to happen. I think I was happier that images presented weren’t taken out of context. People can often take a panel - one out of dozens, mind you - and throw it up online and does it ever read differently! I was a little worried at the time about that happening because some of the panels in isolation could be read differently with a markedly different message than what we were telling in the story in a book like this.
Nrama: In all seriousness though, your series dug deep into the anger and resentment that many Americans felt at the time and seems to do the same today. You’ve mentioned before that you don’t set out to solve the world’s problems when you tell a story, but it does seem the cultural influences around you at the time were bubbling more than a little close to the surface of this series, no?
Bendis: The answer is “Yes!” Alex and I were seeking out what a creator-owned would look like between the two of us versus our previous work together. I guess that’s sort of an easy problem to have, but when you’re known for something, you have to put that into the mix of what you do next. Any filmmaker or musician does that. You make a heavy album and then you need to go make something lighter. And Alex and I were exploring the story behind Scarlet – what was the story and what was the truth that we wanted to dig into?
Nrama: Just looking at where you were coming from at the time, were any there specific incidents that set you and Alex off to say “That’s it. There’s our story” or was it something that just grew on its own between the two of you?
Bendis: As I was doing research downtown, I saw a few cops come up to a young, red-headed girl and her friends in Pioneer Square in Portland, and it got hostile and rough. The cops grabbed and arrested her while she screamed “I didn’t do anything!” My friends and I, along with hundreds of others, saw it all and were shocked. Keep in mind, none of us knows whether she did anything wrong or not. She could have been completely guilty for all we know. It was just this visceral experience that was shocking to see and it stayed with me. I sat down then and there to write it down when all of the sudden, a wedding pours out into the streets not long after, which I included in issue #3 of the original series.
It was fascinating. In the span of about 45 minutes, I see two women who looked almost identical have their lives either seemingly destroyed or brought to life on the very same street. It connected with me and ever since that happened, the story started coming together.
Of course, the other major influencer is the city of Portland itself. Ever since 2008 and especially throughout the Occupy Wall Street movement, there have been protests throughout the city. And it wasn’t just Occupy. There were days when the whole city shutdown. It became kind of normal. Even if the next American Revolution took place and started in Portland, my response would be “Eh, okay.”
And that’s what led me back to Scarlet. What would it take to start that revolution? What would take those protests to the next level? What would happen and it would be one person being pushed too far at the wrong time.
Nrama: So, you’d say it’s between the protest movements of the 2000s and 2010s along with this one particular incident that gave rise to Scarlet?
Bendis: Yes, but also … I go through the phases of watching the movie Network by Paddy Chayefsky, which at the time, it seemed like some sort of crazy depiction of our world. And of course, it’s all come true! In one way or another, there’s not one thing that hasn’t already shown up as reality television we’ve all seen. So, what can we write today that would have that same sort of prescient nature. And that’s where Scarlet gets some of its influence as well.
Nrama: Of course, the politics of the nation have grown exponentially more divisive in just the six or so years since Scarlet first hit newsstands. In rereading the first two books alone, the 2014 conflict in Ferguson, Missouri stood readily to mind, despite being two years after your release of Scarlet. And as you point out with Network, which came out in theaters decades before, there seems to be a confluence of fact and fiction here.
Bendis: I get a lot of tweets about this movie when they see me recommend it. But to rewind things a bit, what really rattled me is that I’ve never been on a book where the world has shifted so dramatically that the truth of the book still works so well. That was startling. Looking back at the older issues of some other series, you can see they’re built on a world that could feel like a million years ago even though they’re only two or three years aged. Not so with Scarlet. There’s a truth to it that still rings loud and clear.
Nrama: With incidents like that taking place increasingly more often, how difficult do you find it now to avoid deliberately blending news headlines into your storylines when writing a story that seems to run a fairly close parallel – in sentiment if not in action – to what many of your readers are experiencing today?
Bendis: It’s very difficult and goes even further. It’s true about anything you put out there. You hope it will translate well into the world it’s being born into. You always think about this. If you’re being truthful to the story and character though, that will get you through. They’ll hold up to being true to the moment even as time passes.
Nrama: You’ve never been one to be shy about your ideological beliefs. As I was reading the first issue that you and Alex released from DC, one point struck me: How do you think someone of a political persuasion different from your own would respond to reading Scarlet #1? Is this a book you think all readers can get behind?
Bendis: This is not a political book. This might surprise some people, but there are no politics in this book. Zero. And it wasn’t even by design for this relaunch, but there is “no lecturing.” Though we see Scarlet break the fourth wall in issue #1, and I get there can be a real temptation to roll up one’s sleeves and lecture it up, there’s no need to keep regurgitating that same point once she’s gotten her message across. So, A. She’s not lecturing anybody, and B. She’s simply anti-corruption. She’s anti people abusing the rules for their own benefit.
And you know what? I have yet to meet anyone who is for corruption and abuse of innocent people. Most people reading this book feel abused by those in power and marginalized by people in power. Wherever you are on the political spectrum, this is a problem we are dealing with and hasn’t gotten away. What’s more? It seems to be getting worse.
Nrama: Okay, that’s fair. But have you heard anything from people who fear you may be painting with a broad brushstroke?
Bendis: You may recall with the first series of books that I was getting some letters from readers who were police officers, and they did not like the way I was representing the police in this series. It was very interesting because one of the police departments I had been doing research about, where there were numerous instances of corruption and questionable behavior, ended up being where one of those writers came from! This was really interesting to see when one of the harshest complaints I was receiving was coming from one of the real-life places that helped inspire the story!
But overall, I’ve been really happy with how well I’ve been able to really adhere to the writing philosophies and theories that I’ve adopted for this story. I think this latest issue of Scarlet has proven successful is because of its lack of politics, it’s lack of anchoring itself to real world incidents versus speaking to certain truisms. It’s of itself while speaking to the real world. But talk to me in about five years and let’s see where it falls.
Nrama: You bring up an interesting point – have you had many readers for this relaunch who never experienced the original two volumes of Scarlet? How does this first issue stand for them?
Bendis: It’s like an entirely new book. I’m getting a lot of fascinating feedback. Everyone seems to be getting the fact it’s a story we’re telling because we don’t want to the world to be crazy, but Scarlet’s Portland is what could happen if things keep going like they are. I want my kids to grow up and find happiness and many of us - creators and readers - aren’t seeing that today.
Nrama: Taking one of the previous questions the next step further, I’d like to think we can all agree that killing people is bad, taking the law into our own hands is bad, and that cops breaking the law for their own profit and at the detriment of others is also bad. But given the tenor of discourse here in the United States the past few years, is Scarlet doing something dangerous or risky in challenging its readers to be more critical of their elected officials and law enforcement officers and how close should comics get to the world in which their readers live?
Bendis: You’re talking to me about what I literally just witnessed and that’s Sen. Cory Booker doing what he thought was right before the senate committee and the American people. He was just saying what he thought was right, but that’s also an incredible act of defiance and rebellion these days. I guess it made me feel like we live in a world where that kind of stuff needs to happen right now. Of course, we also live in a world where half of the people will say “That man is a hero!” while the other half will say “Wow, he’s a villain!”
And keep in mind that we’re not making a call for violence. We’re not saying “Go and do this!” You’re asking “How much farther can people be pushed?” It’s every day that we see people doing things to others they shouldn’t – people in power abusing those they should be looking out for.
That’s what we’re exploring and challenging people to ask of themselves and others.
Nrama: Scarlet clearly seems to think that challenging the status quo through revolution is what’s required in her immediate world. Given the precipice upon which she and her revolutionaries stand in this latest issue, did you struggle at all with how to best catch readers up to the current moment – both in where the characters are in the story as well as the emotional and political movement built up over the previous two books?
Bendis: I looked to The Shield for inspiration in that regard. If you look at each season, they’re like their own individual shows. Very, very solid crime fiction where you don’t need to see each previous season, but if you do? Wow! It comes together amazingly.
What a grand opportunity with this relaunch then! We looked at where we wanted to take Scarlet and then simply had to determine where would be the best place to pick up with the revolution for old readers while simultaneously ensuring new readers would feel the excitement of this group’s mission.
So, we see what happens when a protest goes too far and the protestors are prepared for that to happen.
Nrama: Shifting gears a bit, let’s look a bit at the style of Scarlet, which is rather different from many of your other comic books. You break the fourth wall in this series frequently – and perhaps this upcoming issue most of all. What strengths do you find this has in terms of relating Scarlet’s story? Are there any drawbacks to it?
Bendis: I think about this constantly. For years, I’ve been thinking about doing something like, and I’m very inspired by the movie and book High Fidelity by Nick Hornsby. You get to see everything from the perspective of the main character, who lets you in on the first part of the movie only for the audience to discover by the end of the first half that he’s the asshole of the story. He’s not a nice person but the audience is so involved in his life that the they almost feel guilty, too! And then the rest of the story has the main character slowly digging himself out of that hole for the audience to see why those mistakes were made and decide whether or not those problems can or should be fixed.
I was completely charmed by this, but the crime writer in me wanted to involve the reader in a crime. You start the narration off and bring the reader along, build some trust, and then you flip the script and introduce the crime leaving readers to say “Whoa! I didn’t agree to that plan!”
Nrama: Where else did you look for how to handle this narrative approach apart from Hornsby’s book and movie?
Bendis: Years ago, Matt Fraction and I saw a play by Aaron Sorkin called The Farnsworth Experiment and it’s about the birth of television. You have two narrators who speak to the audience: One who invented television and one who was the president of RCA who stole the idea for television. Throughout the play, they tell their respective versions of the story about the rise of television and about halfway through, they begin fighting with each other very passionately. Matt and I looked at each other and asked “Who is stealing this idea first?!?” Of course, a brilliant narrative device like that needed the right kind of story to go along with it. I waited years and Scarlet was the right one.
The downside, of course, is if she starts lecturing about the obvious points readers are already seeing. How much is too much? How much is too little? You really need to balance it because a little bit will go a long way.
Nrama: You’ve also worked with Alex Maleev on a variety of other comic books in the past; however, I know you mentioned when we last spoke that you felt each one of your collaborators on the new Jinxworld relaunch was performing at their very best. How would you say that Alex is pushing himself beyond his past limits as a storyteller with the relaunch of Scarlet?
Bendis: I can tell you right away! The director of the Scarlet pilot just emailed me about Alex’s color palette as being simply exquisite. It’s hard to look that effortless. It’s one of those things that other artists constantly complain to me about because they’re just scaling that mountain that Alex has long since mastered. He has a number of years under his belt as an artist – not just as a comic artist but as a print maker and everything else he’s brought into his work. If people find themselves captured by this story, it’s because of Alex. He’s the reason you want to spend more than one panel with her. She’s done some terrible things, but you still want to hang around with her and that feeling is real. That’s Alex Maleev.
Nrama: The colors do tend to come out in certain elements of the panels more than others. This would be an example of where the artist uses color to help guide the reader’s eye throughout particular during important moments, which seemed to occur pretty consistently throughout this first issue.
Bendis: That’s exactly right. Every Jinxworld book has its own particular color palette and storytelling philosophy. Michael Gaydos is using color as a storytelling device in Pearl just as David Mack is in Cover and Mike Oeming and Taki Soma are in United States v. Murder Inc. It’s one of my personal joys is seeing the use of bold coloring to help tell the storytelling clearly.
Sorry to be so braggy, but the point about coloring is something I’m immensely proud of. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I really think these might be some of our very best books.
Nrama: And as a final question, where does Scarlet’s revolution go? How far do you see her taking her quest for justice? Given how the first issue ends – which readers can check out this week – it seems her problems have leveled up exponentially.
Bendis: I make it very clear that they’re in uncharted territory. There isn’t a plan after the protests. She called for the revolution and it helped heal her, but once it was done, what next? I think we’ve all had some of those nervous breakdown moments, and the revolution she started was hers. And then we wake up the next morning and say “Whew!” But … she can’t.
That is what we’re writing and it’s so interesting to write. It’s like nothing I feel like I’ve done – no past reference point – and that’s a great place to be when writing genre fiction. And based on the initial reactions to issue #1, it seems people are really responding to it.