Preview: Brian Michael Bendis on the Apolitical Politics of ‘Scarlet’

“Nobody in that crowd knew if that girl did something right or wrong. It haunted me,” Brian Michael Bendis tells Newsweek. He’s recalling a harrowing moment during a protest about a decade ago in downtown Portland. “It was never anyone else but Scarlet because of what I saw that day,” he remembers.

Scarlet, first published through Marvel's Icon imprint in 2010, was born from what Bendis witnessed there: a young woman being hauled away by authorities. “It’s something that’s still under my skin,” he says. The book is the second title to launch under Bendis’ creator-owned Jinxworld imprint with DC Comics this year.  

Scarlet tells the story of a young woman whose life was ripped apart by police corruption. She challenges the status quo, and in doing so, inspires others to join her in what Bendis describes as “the next American Revolution.” Scarlet #1 leaves new and familiar readers to feel out this world for themselves. “I like stories I get dropped into, if it’s the right story,” Bendis says. “Let me dig it out.”

Brian Michael Bendis Scarlet-Jinxworld 02 From original creators Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev, 'Scarlet' #1 arrives Aug. 29. Jinxworld / DC

Bendis wanted Scarlet #1 to inspire the curiosity prompted by a legitimate first issue. “I did want to just drop you in, show you what happened, and then we’ll show you how it happened.” Expect flashbacks in the second issue. “It’s almost like a genre shift. In a way, it’s a war comic. We’ll back up to see what happened to Portland,” he promises.

Newsweek caught up with Bendis for a wide-ranging conversation about the writing process, his upcoming Scarlet TV series, the impact of creator-owned comics and how much he loves his Scarlet collaborator Alex Maleev. Enjoy the first seven pages of Scarlet #1 at the end. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Brian Michael Bendis Scarlet-Jinxworld01 'Scarlet' published between 2010 and 2016 by Marvel's Icon imprint. Marvel/ Icon

After reading the first issue of Scarlet, I’m curious to know more about your outlook, or I should say optimism, about the world at this point in your life.

I live in a very strange headspace, because I write both Superman and Scarlet. I’m looking at the world through the most hopeful eye and also looking at the world in Scarlet through a more pragmatic eye. They share a hopefulness, they are sharing a [mindset of] “this can no longer stand.” Superman has it easier, because he has a powerset through which he can act, where Scarlet is a single voice with nothing behind her other than her willingness to stand up for herself. That is a story where once you start typing you can't stop. It’s why we tell stories—to inspire each other, or cautionary tales. I find myself writing a book like this because I don't want it to happen. I’m writing about something because I’m trying to deflate the idea.

From Scarlet’s perspective, is there a best-case scenario? What does she want?

A real ideological change, and really just the idea that everyone should step outside themselves—her feeling that the corruption has overwhelmed to a point where you can’t even see it, that it is so involved in every step that we take, and we’ve allowed it to consume us as a people, and it should not. We keep moving the goalpost of what we allow in our lives, how much crap we will put up with. We keep moving it, and her point is we have moved that post as far as we could possibly move it, and we need to move it all the way back.

Do you feel like that fear of a fallen society is a valid one?

That’s something I learned early on in my comic book writing, that the best antagonists are really the ones that their point is very valid, their argument is very good. Magneto’s point is very good, it’s what he’s doing about it that’s arguable. Those are the best—you can see their point and it’s not just mustache-twirling. I obviously don't see Scarlet in an antagonist position, but I know that many many people would. I look at her perspective from those who would see her as a hero, but also those who would not see her as a hero … but not through the eyes of the media. We don’t ever show how Scarlet is being shown, but we hear about it.

Art always has a predictive quality, the last Scarlet run certainly did. What forward-thinking ideas are you raising this time?

I live in a world where there is great protest. In Portland, even though we started this book eight years ago, it was because there was so much protest here. The idea that a revolution would start here did not seem crazy. It wouldn't shock us. Years have gone by and the protests have gotten more intense and the city politics around those protests have gotten intense in a way that I couldn't even perceive. It fueled the idea, the over-the-top idea, that a protest could go so far to shut a city down and paralyze the government that is supposed to be dealing with it. It was one of those ideas that sounded crazy when I started, and more and more, it just sounds like anything in the world doesn’t sound that crazy [anymore]. I started with, “what would be the most insane idea I could think of that I could go to thinking I would be years ahead of the curve?’ Yet I still feel it’s not that ahead of the curve.

I would argue, to people who would hear the headline, they might think this a totally political book. There is no politics in it whatsoever, this is an ideological war, if anything. A protest of ideas. I have yet to find anyone who is pro-corruption. Her ideology is quite unifying. 

Sometimes when you convey a specific message, people judge you on how well you articulate the message, instead of discovering that message for themselves and questioning it in relation to their life. How do you find that balance between theoretical exposition and leaving things as rhetorical question?

It’s a lesson I’ve learned, sometimes the hard way. On Scarlet, I definitely applied the lesson of ‘don’t lecture,’ particularly when she’s breaking the fourth wall. She’s involving you in the story, it’s very different from other comics. Originally, when it was in the first volume, it was more of a crime comic, almost a revenge comic. She was involving you in what were basically crimes and you were almost guilty with her. It was a unique relationship to have with her. Where in this instance, there is a very large protest that has shut down an American city and she is there at the ground level, more selling you her point of view, more letting you in on her point of view, than lecturing you. In fact, when she feels herself building up a head of steam, she actually stops herself. We actually make a point of it in the book that if you are reading this you agree with her. Why would she lecture you?

That in itself separates it from what people might perceive to be a political book. People being lectured is not fun or dramatic, or the point of any of this. But it is the trap that can happen when someone has such a strong point of view and they are looking right at the camera and talking to you. That was a fun thing for us, to really use that to engage you with Scarlet’s point of view in a way that’s different, but at the same time not set a trap for ourselves, which would make it political or a screed of some sort.

Do you think you’d be able to tell this story outside of a creator-owned book?

It’s one of the things I’ve always loved about creator-owned comics. There’s just something about it for any creator if you are coming up, and it’s your first comic ever, or someone like Alex and myself who have years under our belt. It almost forces you to push yourself creatively and artistically. What Alex is doing in the book is very special, something he does not do in other books—fully painted and this pallet that he’s using, it’s very special to him. It pushes us as creators.

This is how my brain works: If I was buying this book, I would be very excited about these creators. But I would also like them to push this idea in very far and exciting places that I would not go, or think this would initially go. When you open up this volume, I think we accomplish that. And when we end this volume, I think we really accomplish that.

I gave that a lot of thought. First of all, it’s a very crowded market, so making sure that your truth is there when you are putting it out, making sure that it’s worth somebody’s time. The concept is pretty ballsy. We are making a statement, and as a fan I would like to see it go this way.

Do you still get nervous when you publish something?

Yeah, that was the big surprise. I’d always been nervous. If you are doing it right—there is a famous quote from Arthur Miller, something like “all your best work is the stuff that’s just that close to embarrassing.” — if you are doing it right, you are feeling embarrassed when you put it out. But it’s also true about your worst work, so it’s a hard line for us to know.

What surprised me was, I had been through so much this year. I had some real health scares. I thought that would maybe put it in perspective or something and make it less, but no, I was way more raw and emotional about putting out Pearl and Scarlet and Cover than I’ve been about anything I’ve ever put out. It’s so hard to describe. I was, like, going up to my friends saying ‘I’m very raw.’

When Pearl came out, the response was such a relief that it went away immediately. With Scarlet, it’s a little different because she’s already been out there. And we got a response from her that was more than we could have ever hoped for. We are working on the TV show at the same time, so it feels very empowering.It also feels like the right thing to do. It feels good in my soul to be working on it. It feels good to Alex. And when people are yelling at you, ‘put it out please,’ it make you less nervous about putting it out.  That’s one thing I love about comics: we don't have a lot of time to keep our heads up our own butts. It’s a tight deadline every week, every month, you don’t have time to do a number on your own self.

Is the TV series far along?

Ask me next week. It’s on a major network. Stephen Hopkins has announced he’s one of the producers, but the network wants to keep it hush until they are ready. But we have a big meeting next week.

Since you are developing the TV show simultaneously, did that change the way you formed the story?

We are developing the first year as the pilot, which is Scarlet in the earliest stages of her campaign. And here I am writing very deep into the story, which would be maybe like third season. It’s exciting to be talking about that original story, in the context of the world we live in now. And talking about the story I’m writing in the context of the world we live in now, and how we reflect years from now, if the TV show happens then.

It’s a unique experience. Everything Scarlet brings to me is unique. You asked earlier about how it feels, I think you are getting to unfold writer-to-writer some interesting places the character takes us that are different from just about any other situation I’ve ever been in. And to finish the answer earlier, one of the biggest miscommunications about comics is that it’s just about superheroes. It’s funny because there are no comics without superheroes, but it’s not the only thing you can do. It’s just the thing that for a decade did better than anyone.

As TV shows and movies become sisters and brothers in that ability to tell those stories truthfully, comics almost have this obligation to keep pushing and pushing. And not only to be outside the superhero genre, but to create genres that are brand new only to comics. You see that happening on Tumblr all the time. You see that happening in web comics. And you start seeing it now in the print comics too, where the genres are so mushed or so unspecified that it becomes the genre to themselves. That gets very exciting. When people hear there’s something going on in literature that’s that explosive, and I go, “Yeah that’s comics almost all the time.”

More and more people are interested in comic books that aren’t just superheroes, or aren’t just from Marvel and DC. What’s your take on how creator-owned comics will navigate the space in the future?

I’m removing myself from this equation wholeheartedly when I say this was one of the best summers in comics history, as far as quality comics coming from every single company. A large part to that is a lot of creators doing creator-owned work, trying new things and being very forward-thinking in their storytelling and ideas. A lot of people know this, this isn’t just me. Those creator-owned comics are the first step in what’s going to be our culture in like a few years. You are seeing this wave, and you can tell it’s going to be this massive shift in the culture in the next few years. It’s an exciting time to make comics, and the creator-owned ones are always the base in which something really exciting is blossoming. I can’t wait to see what it looks like a year from now. Seeds just got planted for something really, really special for people who really know their stuff. You see sometimes in movies and music, just this wave of great material from a lot of different people. Thats what happened this summer, and it’s continuing.

Anything you would like to add?

Scarlet represents something else to me beyond the storyline and really trying to do this stuff myself. It’s the collaboration between Alex and myself. Alex is one of my lifelong collaborators, and people know us from Daredevil and Iron Man, but its really Scarlet that we’ve been able to find something between us that is so unique and special. Alex has been ahead of the curve in digital art and comics for almost 15 years. What he is accomplishing on these pages is so gorgeous, and honest, that Scarlet feels real to a lot of people. I just wanted to point out his massive contribution to the reality of this project. He doesn’t do a lot of press, but his work is so beautiful and I find myself being the champion for him because he means so much to me.

scarlet #1 cover 'Scarlet' #1 cover. Jinxworld / DC scarlet variant cover 'Scarlet' #1 variant cover. Jinxworld / DC scarlet preview dc comics 'Scarlet' page 1. Jinxworld / DC scarlet #1 page 2 preview 'Scarlet' #1 page 2. Jinxworld / DC scarlet #1 page 3 preview 'Scarlet' #1 page 3. Jinxworld / DC scarlet #1 page 4 'Scarlet' #1 page 4. Jinxworld / DC scarlet #1 page 5 preview 'Scarlet' #1 page 5. Jinxworld / DC scarlet #1 page 6 preview 'Scarlet' #1 page 6. Jinxworld / DC scarlet #1 page 7 'Scarlet' #1 page 7. Jinxworld / DC

Scarlet #1 is available at your local comic book shop and online Aug. 29. 

 

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