When writing a cautionary tale that details the rise of a revolution, it's probably best to avoid creating a how-to manual. That's the challenge Brian Michael Bendis faced when he first envisioned his creator-owned title Scarlet.
Scarlet tells the story of a young woman named Scarlet Rue whose life disintegrates when her boyfriend is murdered by a crooked cop. As she digs into his death, Scarlet unearths the corruption and gains public support. With the world watching, she storms City Hall, takes hostages, and makes demands. Scarlet's decision to push back results in violence and sparks a revolution that grows beyond anything she could have imagined.
DC Comics will relaunch Scarlet, its second Jinxworld title, this Wednesday with a new first issue, new story, and new direction. The launch of this new chapter builds off the events of the first 10 issues, but the Eisner-winning writer assures new readers that they'll be able to read "Season 2" of Scarlet like it's a new series.
SYFY WIRE spoke with Bendis about Scarlet, collaborating with his co-creator Alex Maleev, and his inspiration for writing so many diverse, strong women into his stories — including where Scarlet Rue falls amongst them. Also, see exclusive sneak peeks at six pages (two double spreads) of Maleev's unlettered art throughout this interview and in the gallery below.
Where does this new chapter of Scarlet begin?
Brian Michael Bendis: When we open Scarlet #1, we'll see the entire city of Portland has been shut down and surrounded by the U.S. Army as part of this American revolution. We're going to open a book where a United States city has taken upon the rest of the country to go f*** itself.
How big of a revolution did you have in mind when you conceived the book?
I thought we were many, many years away from reaching this point, so I felt I was approaching the story from a futurist point of view. However, the further I went, it became more of a cautionary tale.
This book was created in 2010 and it's not a surprise to anyone to know that the world has shifted, six or seven times since then. The real world has actually shifted its feet [around] a book that's telling the story of a world that's shifting. Yet… I've never been proven incorrect.
These are extreme situations. You might not always agree with your characters' decisions. Is that an added challenge is writing Scarlet?
I used to take breaks from writing the book because I was worried about the responsibility of what I was writing. Am I writing a how-to take over the world? That's not what this is. So I came to the place where I'm writing about something I don't want to happen. I really don't want this to happen. I'm writing a cautionary tale. But it may happen, so I wanted to talk about it and [that way of looking at it] blew the whole story open for me. Instead of writing it from a place where I'm worried about what will happen, I began writing it because I didn't want it to happen and I think that's a much healthier place for the story to be.
People think that Scarlet is a political book, but it's not. There is no specific political ideas that are brought up or pushed that's the cause of this revolution.
Yet it does allow the reader to internally think about if they're doing enough to prevent something like this. It's full of raw and complex emotions and big consequences.
It's about people being pushed by those who abuse their power and how far will someone go to push back.
Writing it has been a daunting task but I must say, [Scarlet] has developed into such a complex and real character that she often guides me to the truth of the story in ways that I may be incapable of making consciously. I've spent so much time with her and her transformation that now I have a good sense of her purpose.
Scarlet is currently being developed as a TV series for Cinemax. How has that helped the creative process working on both simultaneously?
Our showrunner and director Stephen Hopkins (24, House of Lies) have been inspired by the comics and they have been inspiring choices for us as well. We're making different choices in the comics than them, but we're way ahead of them in the story. However, the truth of the character is right there, every second of the day because of the comic.
From a collaboration standpoint, what does Alex Maleev do so well that often goes unnoticed?
His ability for subtext has never gone away. What I mean by that is that you look at Scarlet, she looks like she's thinking about other things than what she's saying. That is a very hard thing to do. He's enabled me to get rid of the basic storytelling and writing techniques and instead get into deeper stuff because Alex is already taking it to a deeper place.
He is a next level artist and is an amazing gift that I've been given my entire life.
When you read about great rock and roll bands, and the lead singer and guitarist came from completely different places, were raised differently, and brought their energies to each other — that's what me and Alex have. We come together, bringing completely different tools, completely different experiences and it comes out perfectly.
After 20 years of working together, what new things does Alex have up his sleeve for Scarlet and this new chapter?
When Alex is doing his black and white artwork, he takes total control of the blacks and designs the page that way. But for Scarlet, he's almost abandoned the black for colors. And the colors he's chosen are very unique to the comic book market. When you open the book, you [know] these are not mainstream comics, these are not even Vertigo books.
Alex makes some palette choices and you'll see it in the first issue [as well as in SYFY WIRE's reveal of his unlettered art]. Our director, Stephen Hopkins has not stopped talking about Alex's palette choices.
Counting Scarlet, three of your first four DC/Jinxworld books feature female protagonists. Why do you love writing women so much?
We know what makes dudes tick and on [a] base level [that's] not as interesting. In the most general sense, [if] you're talking about generalities, I'm not interested in the generalities of the sexes. I'm interested in the individual.
It's like a Venn diagram of humanity, where we are all connected, including these fictional characters. It's the areas of the diagram outside of the overlapping areas that interest me. That's where my characters are.
You're getting something out of it that's completely different from me, and I need to go explore that. I need to know why, and that's why I go chasing it.
You're surrounded by amazing women in your life. Do they inspire you to push further when you write a complex character like Scarlet?
When I look at the women portrayed in popular culture to the women I observe around me [in real life], there is a gap. So the older I get, the more truthful I try to be.
I have to demystify the fantasy.
People get so involved with the fantasy, they don't get into why, why do I like this? Comics are billed as a fantasy, and [comics like] Pearl and Scarlet are fantasies, but I think the stuff that people gravitate to, it's stuff that has a "why" to it. Harry Potter has a why behind it. A lot of the times, you figure it out when it gets to the end.
Below is a gallery of Alex Maleev's unlettered art and cover. Scarlet #1 comes out on Wednesday in print and digital formats for $3.99.