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She Wants to Talk. About Why She Kills People: Scarlet #1 [Review]

SHE WANTS TO TALK. ABOUT WHY SHE KILLS PEOPLE – Scarlet 1

The old saying goes, “You can’t fight fire with fire.” The accuracy of that advice is questionable, depending on the source you look to for proof. Japanese stat-based role-playing games are split on the matter, for example, with games of the Final Fantasy lineage ascribing to the belief that fighting fire with fire is counterproductive while Pokemon games hold to the view that fighting fire with fire is not ideal but still marginally effective. In actual firefighting, which would seem to be the most relevant activity to the saying, firefighters actually will fight fire with fire, burning a small section of forest ahead of a larger blaze to deprive it of the fuel to carry on. Then again, it’s not meant to be a literal saying. It’s meant to be a way of making the point that it may not necessarily be the wisest idea to attempt to solve a problem by using the means that caused the same problem in the first place.

Which is my roundabout way of saying that I have conflicted feelings about the first issue of “Scarlet,” the new creator-owned series by Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev. The Hollywood one-minute pitch summary of “Scarlet” is that it stars a young woman who’s like Holden Caulfield meets The Punisher meets the Suicide Girls. Admittedly, for me, that set off alarm bells. I found Holden Caulfield to be annoyingly naive when I read “Catcher in the Rye” in high school, I’ve never been all that fond of the extreme measures employed by the Punisher, and any book with an attractive female lead makes me suspicious that the creators are taking an easy route to make a largely heterosexual male target audience be interested in the character.So why’s Scarlet so easy to describe with those three references as short hand? She had an ordinary life of ups and downs until she tragically lost someone close to her in a way that made her question the state of the world, the general horribleness of those in power and, more importantly, why no one’s bothered to do anything about all this. So now, with her bright red hair, ensemble of mostly black clothing and small arsenal of weapons she’s out to make the world better. We don’t get a sense of her overall plan just yet, but we do get to observe her killing a crooked cop, bludgeoning a bike thief with a bolt cutter, and brandishing a sniper rifle with a promise of “I’m going to stop it. All of it.”

What we do get, though, is remarkable insight into Scarlet’s personality, because she spends most of the issue engaging in a one sided dialogue with us, the reader. That’s right, for what I believe is the first time, Bendis is engaging in verbose witty banter in the second person. I felt almost as though I should be writing down equally witty banter of my own, in response. And I must admit that in this way, Bendis does make the reader invested in the character in a way I’ve never experienced in a comic book before. Scarlet herself claims that, whatever she’s going to do, she’s not going to do it alone. We’re not only watching, we’re complicit in whatever she’s doing.

And considering what Scarlet’s doing is ordinary, glorified non-superheroic violence, I’m a little uncomfortable with being complicit in it. Yeah, the guy she kills is a jerk, and the guy who hurt her is an even bigger jerk. What Scarlet objects to so strongly are people in power being able to employ violence to get what they want without repercussions at the expense of the powerless. So she, in turn, uses violence to get what she wants. Admittedly her own goals seem to be far more virtuous, but it still raises the question of the rightness of her fighting violence with violence.

Now, that’s something that happens in comic books all the time. I’m not sure why it feels so strange here. Partially it’s that Scarlet seems to exist in a reality just like our own, in a Portland, Oregon setting free of any of the trappings of superheroes, science fiction or fantasy that help make other comics feel a bit more removed. But mostly it’s the fact that she’s talking directly with us, making us intimately involved in what she’s doing, making us feel like that by continuing to read we’re agreeing with everything she says in a very one-sided conversation.

I’m actually intrigued by the possibility that Bendis could use this format for a remarkable deconstruction of the philosophy behind vigilante crimefighting and as a way to question the appropriateness of using violence to achieve one’s goals, particularly when those goals include a reduction in violence, but at the same time I’m worried that I’m putting too much hope into a book about a hot redheaded chick with guns who wants to save the world.

There’s one particularly concerning moment when Scarlet condemns the question of “Why is the world like this?” and says all that matters is “What can I do to change it?” I think that you need the answer to the first question before you can answer the second, otherwise all you’re left with is trial and error solution attempts based on unfounded guesses. But for all my disagreements with the character, I still felt uniquely engaged with her and felt glad the book made me think so much, even if I was often disagreeing with it. I’ll be interested to see what direction this story goes as we learn more about Scarlet and what she’s going to do about all the injustice of the world.

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