It’s been a LONG time since writer Brian Michael Bendis has sat down to write something that doesn’t involve superheroes. While I’ve (mostly) liked his work with Marvel’s superheroes over the years, “Ultimate Spider-Man” being his crowning achievement, his early creator-owned work has always been more memorable in my opinion. Re-reading “Jinx,” “Torso,” and “Fortune and Glory,” recently, I was amazed at how well they still hold up, even with “F&G” being mired to a specific time and place. Sure, “Powers” is great, but the series has fallen off a scheduling cliff in the past year as Bendis and artist Michael Avon Oeming continue to be busy with their other projects. The return to his old-school roots, with artist Alex Maleev, is a welcome one that sets up a potentially fascinating story.
We’re introduced to the title character as she’s killing who she claims to be is a corrupt cop. Strangling him and then taking his cash. Then she starts speaking directly to the reader as she goes into her life’s story and the sordid tale of how she wound up here, because the world as we know it is rotten. What’s her goal? Nothing less than a second American revolution to get us back on the right track.
If you’ve been reading “Ultimate Spider-Man” for as long as I have, then you’ll know that every so often, Peter Parker vents a very specific frustration about why people in the world can’t be good. Why they choose to hurt other people through inaction or outright malice. “Scarlet” is that particular thread blown up into its own series and put into an environment where Bendis can do whatever he wants with it. While Scarlet’s quest may seem laughably small-scale and unattainable at first, events come together by the end of the book to make it seem scarily plausible. That’s what makes the series’ direction so compelling to me.
Everything up to that point is some very well-executed setup on the part of Bendis and Maleev. While the style and cadence of the former’s dialogue is as familiar here as it is elsewhere, there’s a freshness to it in the way that you have ordinary people talking to each other about ordinary things. This also goes for the not-so-ordinary things like hearing city officials talk about how to properly police a flash mob or a federal investigator describing his complicated feelings towards this case to his potential partner. Even when it’s not advancing the plot, it’s still fun to read his dialogue.
As for Alex Maleev’s art, it’s some of the best I’ve ever seen from him. The man would get props for simply showing everyone else how to use photo referencing properly -- Scarlet’s model is listed in the credits -- by giving us characters who have natural facial expressions and realistic body language. However, he’s also up for whatever stylistic experiments Bendis wants to throw his way. The nine-panel, multi-page snapshots of the lives of certain characters being the standout in this area.
If I have any reservations with this first volume, it’s that even though it ends quite strong, you wish they could’ve done a bit more with the space that they were given. As much as a I like the dialogue and art, there were more than a few scenes where things go on for much longer than they should’ve. I also fear for the series’ schedule. While these five issues were delivered in a reasonably timely manner, Bendis and Maleev are now at work on the new “Moon Knight” series, so I imagine it’ll be a while before we see vol. 2. I’ll admit that it was smart of them to make this first volume self-contained, but still -- “Moon Knight!” I’m sure they had their reasons, but just as we had to deal with Sean Phillips taking a break from “Criminal” and “Incognito” to do “The Dark Tower,” you can’t help but wish they’d gone and done more “Scarlet” instead.