Radiant Red Vol. 1 (#1-5)
- Writer: Cherish Chen
- Illustrator: Miguel Muerto, David Lafuente
Super villain origin stories are nothing new in popular culture, especially in the 21st century. Radiant Red had been set up early in Radiant Black’s run as the hero’s main antagonist, but Radiant Black #6 showed there was more behind the mask. Series writer Cherish Chen introduced Red’s backstory in #6 and was given the green light to expand the character for an initial 5 issue run, and the result is another solid entry in what has quickly become one of my personal favorite new superhero stories.
It’s striking how, when reading each of the series’ five issues at once, the plot doesn’t seismically upend the Radiant universe. Chen could have easily told a story with a kind of grand scale or a villain that threatened the world at large, but instead chose to focus on the characters and their struggles to adapt to their new reality. Better than anything, Radiant Red shows how hard it can be to pull yourself out of a hole, no matter how deep you think you’ve gotten. Satomi Shen, the woman who’s gifted the Radiant powers, is introduced as the series’ sympathetic protagonist: her good-for-nothing husband has pushed her into a life of crime because of his crushing gambling addiction. Beyond that, she’s become distant from her parents and sister, and simply wants to start over with a new life. She robs banks to try and save her husband from his debtors, but as anyone who’s watched Breaking Bad knows, a gigantic influx of cash doesn’t automatically solve your problems.
The bulk of Satomi’s arc as Red sees her recruited by a mysterious gang that wants her to steal an equally mysterious substance from an equally vague tech facility. She struggles to balance her guilt over her new criminal activities, her fragile relationship with her husband, and a snooping reporter that won’t stop asking questions about her previous dust-up with Radiant Black in Lockport. Despite all of this, Satomi still comes across as a good person, one that just seems to have found herself in a series of unwinnable situations. Chen even manages to make the series into a kind of Ocean’s Eleven or Heat riff, with the One Last Job angle dangled in front of Satomi. And she’s given a hell of an adversary in Shift, a fellow criminal who’s given a unique look and fits right in amongst the Radiant universe of villains.
I was initially skeptical about the look of Miguel Muerto and David Lafuente’s art, given its – for lack of a better word – simplistic style, especially when compared to the more detailed style of the Radiant Black series, but I was quickly won over by the inventiveness of its action. Several pages are composed of singular or large panels depicting dynamic action scenes. And Red’s powers – she can utilize whatever material she absorbs – are rendered nicely and with imagination each time, despite how little Satomi actually suits up throughout the series. I unfortunately tend to gloss over action-heavy panels when reading comics, but I found myself lingering on those panels this time around.
The Radiant Black series has thrived because of its focus on regular people and the choices they have to face after inheriting immense powers. That same focus can be applied to Radiant Red, and I can only hope that Chen brings the character back soon because of the intriguing place she leaves Satomi by the end of this volume. The key to writing a memorable villain is to make them believe they’re actually the hero. Satomi undoubtedly believes this, despite all the harm she’s caused to herself and to others. That we’re able to ultimately side with her and understand where she comes from is a feat that shows this is a series that has the potential to last a long time.