Written by O'Brian Gunn
It’s simultaneously frustratingly difficult and ridiculously easy to find new, exciting ground to explore when it comes to superheroes. Popular comic book publisher Marvel has explored every origin story from scientific experiments gone wrong and mutated genes to gods on Earth and super soldier serums. What about the characters who are granted superpowers and find the life of superheroics just isn’t for them? This is the question Brian Michael Bendis tackles with Jessica Jones in Alias, which originally debuted under Marvel’s MAX imprint in 2001. It’s also been adapted into a Netflix show, which premiered in 2015.
Alias is the story of Jessica Jones, a one-time superhero who went by the codename Jewel. After being kidnapped and psychologically tortured by mind-controlling Zebediah Killgrave, also known as The Purple Man, Jessica hangs up her costume and opens Alias Investigations. Rather than starting with either of Jessica’s origin stories (her start as a superhero or her start as a detective), Bendis instead jumps the series off with Jessica flinging an unruly client through a door window. This is the perfect intro to Jessica and her world.
From there, the narrative is built from several different cases that Jessica takes on. A woman goes missing, and Jessica finds herself involved in conspiracy. A missing young girl and possible mutant is wanted back in her small town home. Jessica finds a disoriented Spider-Woman (Mattie Franklin) in her bathroom. The Purple Man returns. Jessica handles it all with a little help from the bottle and a few visits to (and from) The Avengers.
This book simply sings in gritty five-part harmony. Rather than go large scale and put the entire city, world or universe in peril, Bendis brings the story down to the cracked and crime-riddled streets of New York City. I enjoyed how small blips of standard superheroics were scattered about in panel backgrounds with small details like an Avengers hotline. I also liked the generous amount of text on the page and how Bendis captured the nuances of how people talk, such as pauses and scrambling to find the right words and phrases. The panel arrangement makes great use of the page and became almost like a signature of the story.
As for the parts I felt could have been done better, the way the Purple Man/Killgrave storyline wrapped up left a bit to be desired. I won’t ruin anything, but I will say that Killgrave was set up to be a menacing character and a huge part of why Jessica is the way she is when we first meet her. I didn’t expect a knock-down, drag-out fight across the city that leveled buildings and left titanic craters in the pavement, as that wouldn’t have matched the story’s tone. That said, I do prefer a more fleshed out resolution. Then again, I guess the TV show took care of that.
So how does the TV show compare to the comic book series? Krysten Ritter does a fantastic job of balancing the grit, vulnerability and smarts of Jessica Jones. One thing I like more about the comic book is how The Avengers and a few other aspects of the Marvel universe are sprinkled throughout the narrative. It would be great to see Ant-Man and Jessica go on a date, or Black Widow come to Jessica for help tracking down a criminal organization. But who knows how the MCU and Marvel Netflix shows may change in the future?
One interesting tidbit I learned about Alias while preparing this review is an interracial sex scene between Luke Cage and Jessica Jones was deemed “offensive content” for Marvel’s then-printer in Alabama (my home state). Bear in mind that the scene isn’t overtly graphic and doesn’t go on for several pages (only five total panels). It’s important to note the panels suggest anal sex, which may have been what the original printers took issue with. While the creative team could have changed the suggestive pose, Marvel instead switched to Canadian printer Quebecor Printing, which has since become a major publisher for big comic book companies. I can see why Bendis and the others didn’t budge to appease the original printer, as the position and the suggestion it makes provide the reader with a deeper insight into Jessica’s personality and how she operates as a character. She’s anything but vanilla in more ways than one.
Alias makes for the perfect break from typical superhero stories, and it’s a great pick for those who’d like to see a different side of Marvel. This was my first time reading the famous/infamous (depending on who you ask) Brian Michael Bendis, and I can say I’ll be open to picking up anything else he writes, no matter what alias he uses.
Page Length: 720 pgs
Recommend Buy New, Buy Used/On Sale, or Skip: Absolutely buy new (look into the Ultimate Collection Books 1 and 2 if the hardback omnibus version is out of your price range)
Next Up: Luisa: Now and Then, drawn by Carole Maurel and translated from French by Mariko Tamaki. Much like Alex Robinson’s Too Cool to be Forgotten, Luisa is the story of adult Luisa coming face-to-face with a younger, queerer version of herself. Find out how the Paris setting, gender switch (in character and in writer) and queer main character differentiate from Robinson’s exploration of the same concept.