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Revolution, Portland-style


Brian Michael Bendis’ tale of revolution now! seems prescient, even if it’s set in… Portland?

Scarlet Book One

Graphic novel review—Scarlet Book One and Two

Originally published in 2010—six years before the election of you-know-who—Scarlet asks: what might a real grass-roots revolution look like in a mid-size American city?

The city, in this case, is Portland, the adopted hometown of celebrated comics writer Brian Michael Bendis.

Now, I’ve been to Portland. And it’s not the first place I would think of as ground zero for a new American revolution. For one thing, they don’t have sales tax. But here it is. As Bendis said in a 2018 interview,

“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.'”

Scarlet’s second life under Jinxworld

Bendis relaunched the series, which Marvel published under its creator-owned Icon imprint from 2010-2016 (with gaps in between), last year. Scarlet Book One (Jinxworld, $19.99CDN) reprints the first five issues (2010-11) of the series and Scarlet Book Two (Jinxworld, $19.99CDN) collects the second series (2013 and 2016) of five. Both of these new editions are published by DC/Jinxworld to coincide with the five-issue relaunch, which just wrapped up.

The first book introduces us to our red-haired heroine, Scarlet Rue, in dramatic fashion; a splash page of her garroting a man in an alley. Bendis (and Rue, breaking the fourth wall to talk to the reader) then takes us back in time to show the events leading up this situation.

Following this rather ruthless murder, and thanks in part to social media and a little help from her friends, Rue becomes something of a folk hero to a growing number of Portlandia citizenry. By the second book, she has become the leader of a full-fledged movement, one with the power to bargain with the mayor (not Kyle McLachlan) to end corruption in her city.

Scarlet reads the riot act to the Mayor of Portland in Scarlet #7, collected in Scarlet Book Two. Alex Maleev art.

Where Hipster Lives Matter meets Paddy Chayefsky’s Network meets Aaron Sorkin’s walking-and-talking

Scarlet has the gritty feel of a ’70s crime drama. Readers will, however, recognize its politics as being firmly in the world of Black Lives Matter (here maybe a little more Millennial Hipster Lives Matter, but you get the idea) as our heroine decides she’s going to fight back against the corrupt police department. There are also shades of Paddy Chayefsky‘s 1976 film Network (an admitted influence) and, in Bendis’ sure-handed dialogue, Aaron Sorkin (another admitted influence). Throughout, Bendis continually brings up questions of morality; he doesn’t let his heroine off scot-free but lets her build a credible case for her actions.

Alex Maleev’s realist style helps ground the book

Working with frequent collaborator Alex Maleev (Daredevil, Spider-Woman, Halo: Uprising), the writer uses various techniques to tell the story. Besides breaking the fourth wall, Bendis occasionally breaks the narrative with two-and-three page spreads of six-panel grids, each panel presenting selected “highlights” of Rue’s life (i.e. “First Kiss”; “First Gun to My Head”). This is effective shorthand storytelling, the kind that would have been unimaginable in, say, a verbose DC or Marvel title from the ’70s. Likewise, Maleev (under Bendis’ direction, as is made clear by the directions in the original scripts that are included in these volumes) uses different artistic styles at certain points, usually when delineating back-story to certain characters and incidents.

The rest of the time, Maleev’s style, which is just shy of photo-realism, grounds the book. Maleev’s Scarlet is a photogenic kid-in-America-turned-guerilla/anarchist, and the prettiest thing in a book full of dark shadows and urban menace. (Again, this is Portland??!)

She’s also is a complex and determined enough character to carry a book like this. After reading Scarlet—and I recommend it to any latté-sipper who’s mad as hell and isn’t going to take it anymore—you might even be convinced that, if anyone can start a revolution, it’s this West Coast Tank Girl.

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