REVIEW: Scarlet #2

Scarlet #2

Written by Brian Michael Bendis 

Art by Alex Maleev

Letters by Chris Eliopoulos

Covers by Alex Maleev, Mike Avon Oeming, David Mack

$3.95 / 32 Pages / Full Color 

Icon, Marvel Comics

As readers and accomplices, we've caught Scarlet red-handed twice in as many issues. She's murdered two policemen, assaulted a bicycle thief, and flashed her piece at an ex-cop. She exacts vengeance with cold efficiency, though not without motive. Scarlet is a vigilante with good reason to be angry. Her boyfriend is dead, taken from her in cruel fashion. This warpath is her coping strategy. If she's not a hero, she's at least our protagonist. And as much as this story is a character study with themes of loss, healing, and justice, it's also an experiment in moral ambiguity, reader culpability, and narrative in general.

It's also really fucking good.

Crime fiction is almost singularly complicated when it comes to questions of morality. Even the most noble protagonists turn out to be anti-heros who rack up as many dirty deeds as the villain. It's often just a matter of perspective. We root for the character telling us their story. Because they're opening up their lives to us or because we experience the world through their vantage. I caught a French gangster flick called Mesrine: Killer Instinct the other day, the first or two parts. Vincent Cassel plays a charming thief who robbed some 32 banks and escaped four maximum security prisons during the 60s. At one point he lashes out at his young wife for suggesting she'd leave him. He tackles her on the stairs and places a gun in her mouth, in full view of their little boy. It's an intense scene, a moment of repulsive human cowardice. But thirty minutes later I was rooting for him to sneak past the guards and out of his first prison, thrilling to his return to the place weeks later, armed to the teeth, bent on springing the rest of the criminals he'd left behind. Mobster movie, crime movies, have a way of manipulating us, gathering up our allegiance and spooling it around their fingers. All fiction toys with us like that, but it's the crime stories of gentleman thieves and charismatic death merchants that really turn us into willing accomplices. Scarlet is like that too, but the deception is so much more complex, so much more compelling.

Scarlet is a beautiful woman, but she's not simply a femme fatale. If she isn't the girl next door, she's certainly the girl down the street. What matters is that she's a girl. She's petite, sometimes tomboyish in a derby hat. She doesn't come off as threatening. In fact, she's the picture of innocence. At least in this stage, in the days before she becomes the valkyrie we see on the covers. She's also an open book, inviting us into her story, literally inviting us to be a part of her mission. We catch her in these moments of extreme brutality, but she takes comfort in rationalizing it for us, the audience. Look at that first panel. She's a lost girl coming to grips with some pretty heavy shit. She just killed the crooked cop who killed the love of her life. She didn't mean to, but it happened. It's pure panic for that lone panel. Then she sees us, and she relaxes. She tells us the story. By the last page, we're back to the mirror, this time on the opposite side. We've seen everything now, and we see the same moment of reflection in a new light. The real question is this: If we hadn't show up to hear her out, would she still be so calm? Are we just an excuse for her to rationalize what she's just done. Simply put, if she didn't have us, would she be alone in a bathroom talking to herself?

Scarlet is the voice of confidence, but how reliable of a narrator is she? Is what she's doing really right? There are often points where she insists that she's acted in a logical way, that if we were in the same position, we'd have done exactly the same. Most of us don't know, first hand, the tragedy she was forced to endure, so it's impossible to say with any real certainty whether we'd follow the same path. Even if we did, no two people could experience the same kind of grief, the same kind of loss, because there are so many different variables and life experiences to factor in. This is Scarlet's story, and as she reminds us on that first page, we made the conscious choice to return. In this fictional spree, we're her willing partner. That's a pretty cool relationship between protagonist and reader, as well as author and reader. This makes it personal. This leaves us with a lot more questions than we might have otherwise. That kind of interaction makes the story live past its page count.

Here we're also treated to Bendis the wordsmith at his best. It's not just the words he uses or even their volume. It's the rhythm. Those structured word balloons are like 16 hit combos. Bendis is a born playwright, and what he's doing here comes off like music. He's controlling the speed at which we read and the way we absorb the story. And not only with words. Take the montage of Scarlet aging several months as her surgery prepped head regains its trademark hair. Or the way that ex-cop recognizes her. While Maleev's photo reference can sometimes be a little distracting or static, most of the time he captures great moments of insight, pain, and fear. The storytelling in that diner scene is so nuanced and affective, I've read it over several times. It's haunting. Her eyes are so alarmingly sad, yet so strong too. There's a moment of connection that's really pretty rare in comics.

Scarlet continues to engage on a level that few other comics can reach. I don't know if this girl is good or bad. And that's refreshing. 


Story: 5     Art 4.5   Overall: 5


Scarlet #2 is on sale now. Pull it.




Paul Montgomery is guilty as charged. Find him on Twitter or contact him at 


  1. Nice review, Paul. I’ve been anxiously awaiting this since we discussed it on Fuzzy Typewriter, and I’m glad to see the execution continue. Bendis is taking the time to really dig into this character and her world. "This is how I came to murder." It asks the audience to walk along with her, creating a great sense of empathy (if not sympathy). You’re exactly right in your observation about crime fiction and how we are asked to–essentially– cheer for murderers and gangsters and thieves. This book takes that notion and,rather than try to slip it past us with a wink, it looks us right in the eye and then attempts to answer the question directly. Thus, the break in the fourth wall serves as a useful, necessary part of the story he’s telling.

    I’m completely digging this book.

  2. You can listen to that podcast discussion of Scarlet #1 here: 

  3. I enjoyed this a lot more than I did the first issue, and I was very glad for that.

  4. I’m not reading this, but based on the previews I’m seeing, this is practically-almost-basically fumetti, right?

  5. This was my PotW. Really solid art overshadowed the story slightly.

  6. I actually didn’t quite like this issue as much as the first. It was still really great though, and my PotW.

  7. @OttoBott: Pretty much, yes.

  8. Can’t wait to pick this up in trade.

  9. My pick of the week.

  10. Fucking well written review. I imagine the book is good too. 

  11. anybody else catch that ron was the writer in the newspaper like josh in issue 1 🙂

  12. Warmed-over Howard Chaykin and Frank Millar. Blah.

  13. In terms of themes? I guess. Mechanics? No. 

  14. What revolutionary mechanics are emloyed?

  15. I think it’s a confluence of things. Naturalistic dialogue, montage, the broken 4th wall, second person interaction. These are not new elements individually, but together with these themes, I think the combination is pretty special. I haven’t read everything from Chaykin or Miller, but I don’t recall anything with this level of engagement. This, to me anyway, was a unique reading experience. That’s all I’m saying. 

  16. This books was stunningly beautiful and the story, captivating.  I’m very glad to see comics like this being made.

  17. Damn, this is so good.  By far, my POW.