Occasionally, a book comes along that inadvertently manages to tap into the current zeitgeist in a way that borders on precognition. Scarlet is such a book.
Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev couldn't have known when they first started working on Scarlet that the first few months of 2011 would be suffused with such a revolutionary spirit. Recent real-world events have demonstrated over and over again that the urge to protest and to campaign for social change (through both non-violent and violent means) is very much alive across the globe -- as is the will of leaders to exert pressure to maintain the status quo.
You only need look to Tunisia, Egypt and Libya as well as closer to home (for Western readers, anyway) in the US, UK, France and elsewhere to see people taking to the streets in an attempt to force change in society -- often through non-violent protest, but occasionally through more aggressive action.
And Scarlet is about all of that.
Over the course of the first few issues, we saw the titular heroine lay out the reasons behind her disaffection with society (apparently her boyfriend was mistakenly killed by a dirty cop, although we have to take her word for it) and begin a campaign to bring her knowledge of society's systemic corruption to the attention of the masses.
Last issue, we saw a groundswell of support for Scarlet that culminated in a fully-fledged protest by her followers. And here, we see that protest quickly descend into chaos, violence and unrest -- although we're led to believe that this is as much due to the way the police handle the crowds as anything else.
When reading the issue, it's impossible not to be reminded of the pro-democracy rallies we've seen lately in the Middle East, or the recent protests against government spending cuts that have taken place in the UK -- which have seen police accused of unsound 'kettling' techniques to control crowds, and which have been widely mischaracterised by the media as violent and mob-led rather than as the largely peaceful affairs that they are.
However, Scarlet's story also serves as an uncomfortable reminder of those individuals with extremist or non-conformist views who have instigated violence against society, such as the recent Arizona shootings, among other examples.
Bringing together so many relevant contemporary ideas gives Bendis the chance to examine these social trends in more detail, looking at what kind of person might be behind such activity, and --crucially -- encouraging us to consider several conflicting viewpoints on the subject, rather than painting Scarlet's story as a straightforward good-versus-bad tale.
But the book doesn't win credit for merely being timely and somewhat insightful. It's well-written on a more technical level, with Bendis controlling his usual urge to let dialogue spill out across the page for its own sake in favour of a more restrained approach. Everything that's said is said for a reason -- whether to move the plot forwards or to shed light on characterization and motivation -- and the writer also shows a keen control of scene-to-scene pacing that keeps the atmosphere tense even when very little is actually happening.
And when something important does happen -- like the incendiary act of a policeman throwing a grenade into a group of protesters -- clever little tricks like extreme time decompression and setting panels-within-panels help to emphasise the significance of the action.
It doesn't hurt that Maleev is such a capable artist, and one who isn't afraid to draw conspicuous attention to his craft to achieve a desired effect. Although his linework is beautifully intricate and his use of texture extremely effective, I find myself most impressed by his use of color here. Sometimes, he makes use of subtle effects, such as the slightly-brighter-than-usual shade of red that identifies Scarlet in a heavily-populated crowd scene. And sometimes, the coloring is more emphatic, such as the confident use of bold, flat primary colours to signify danger in the aforementioned grenade sequence.
Another thing that keeps the book entertaining is its compelling characters. There are some interesting personalities at play here -- I particularly like the law enforcement operatives that bear more than a little resemblance to Agent Driver and Angela Del Toro from Bendis's Daredevil run -- and I'm keen to see the writer move some of them towards their inevitable meeting so that their contrasting viewpoints can clash in person.
It's also pleasing to see that Bendis has moved beyond the fourth-wall-breaking gimmickry (albeit effective gimmickry) of the earlier chapters. Here, he relies on the link with the audience that's shared by a couple of the book's characters only when it makes sense to do so: to convey thoughts, emotions or plot points that would be impossible for readers to garner in any other way.
A good example of this is the issue's cliffhanger, which sets up a potentially very different status quo for future chapters of the book. At the moment, we know little about Scarlet's new situation, but she shares just enough with us to encourage us to come back and find out more in issue #6, subtly introducing the idea that having become an iconic figure in the minds of her followers, she might now be forced to live up to their image of her rather than continue being herself.
This closing development brings to mind ideas around how the public can take ownership of an idea--whether political, artistic, or otherwise--and either realise that idea or change it into something very different through the action they take. It's too early to predict where Bendis will take this notion yet, but I certainly think it's already possible to say that in many ways, this book is all about the power of ideas, and gives the writer the perfect opportunity to explore the kind of debates that are being thrown up by the revolutionary world events that we're continuing to hear about every day.
Admittedly, Bendis might not be quite getting stuck into all that yet, preferring instead to throw a lot of these ideas in our lap and ask us to make up our own minds about how we feel about Scarlet and her mission, as well as the mission of those who would prevent her from achieving her goals. However, these first five issues (comprising the entirety of “Book One”) provide an excellent setup for what I hope is a long series that will examine the idea of social revolution from many different angles.
What did you think of this book?
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