Jessica Jones was one of the genre-redefining characters born during my hiatus from regular comic reading. Created by Brian Michael Bendis (writer) and Michael Gaydos (artist), she first appeared in Alias #1, released in November 2001. Coincidentally enough, I spent that fall falling for another Alias – J.J. Abrams’ cliffhanger and slow-mo running loving spy show starring Jennifer Garner. At the time, I had no idea another Alias existed. Once I saw (and enjoyed!) Jessica Jones on Netflix, I kept my eyes peeled for her comics. Alias isn’t on Marvel Unlimited and I’d never seen the collected trades below $25.99 apiece (which I’ll spend but it’s a risky move without reading a single issue). But then magic struck! I found Jessica Jones: Alias Vol. 1, 3, and 4 (of four!!!) as I strolled Ollie’s Bargain Outlet last week! I tracked down Vol. 2 as well, and then…well, you know how some books are overhyped? It turns out, even after the endless praise I’ve heard about Jessica Jones as a character and Alias as a comic, it ended up being better than I imagined.
I can’t remember the last time I read a book I had this hard a time putting down. It’s that good! It’s one of those stories which make you forget all the other times you’ve lived completely within a narrative because you can’t think of anything but this story. I devoured those four trades, simultaneously envious of everyone who got to read Alias monthly as it came out and grateful I could read it like a single novel instead of waiting for the story to unfold over two years. To echo what I’d wager everyone who’s ever read or written about Alias has said, I’ve never found a comic book like this. And while I’m always hesitant to talk about the art in a comic as I feel I lack the qualifications, what Michael Gaydos and colorist Matt Hollingsworth do here is brilliant. The raw, honest feel of the story is very much grounded in and grows from how they render Jessica and her world. And they weave dialogue and image together in a way that feels as medium-redefining as the story itself! Everything about Alias feels unique.
Part of what makes it so very different from many comics is Alias was part of Marvel’s MAX Imprint. As Jeph Loeb describes it in the introduction to Jessica Jones: Alias Vol. 1, “To put it simply, just as there have been G-rated and PG-rated movies in the United States for years, there are also R-rated films. These are more adult in nature, both in theme and in language. They are intended to reach out to an older audience; over 17 is the idea. Welcome to MAX, the comic-book line for over-17-year-olds. Alias heralded the coming of MAX and remains, in my opinion, the best of the bunch.” Finding swearing, sex, and some very adult conversations in stories isn’t unusual. Plenty have them. But finding them in a Marvel comic book, which traditionally uses “#$%@&” for swearing and only implies sexual relations at best, is far from what’s expected.
What I found in Alias was honest and certainly not gratuitous. My frustration with the “adult” stories (all overly eroticized fantasy sex, violence, misogyny, and masochism) I found with Richard Morgan’s Black Widow in the “mature” Marvel Knights Imprint was nowhere to be seen here. Jessica swears (a lot). But it feels organic and familiar (I’m a casual swearer and use “fuck” like others use “the,” much to Mom’s chagrin XD). She sounds like people I know and hang out with all the time. Jessica has sex, too. The sex scenes in Alias aren’t pornographic and you don’t see anything other than bare backs and tight shots of her or her partner’s face. People have sex and Alias navigates consensual sex between adults with varying degrees of commitment in their relationships honestly, too. Jessica drinks (although not as self-destructively as she does in the show) and sometimes makes bad choices when she does. The comic explores those consequences as well. All this is to say, if Morgan’s Black Widow read like a teenage voyeuristic vision of an “adult” story, Alias is a comic story authentically written for adults. I was impressed.
On the subject of the adult themes Alias covers, perhaps none is more widely discussed than Jessica’s connection with Killgrave, the Purple Man. In Alias, Bendis takes this Daredevil villain (first appearing in 1964) with the ability to control the mind of anyone who hears his voice and uses him as a powerful and disturbing (in its honesty) means for discussing sexual assault and emotional abuse. I’m not going to explore that here. Reading these comics and experiencing the serious rendering of such an intimate form of violation in those scenes…it just feels like it’s not for me to analyze or discuss. Others have done it and others have done it better than I could.
What I will explore is how fascinating it is to read a comic book about someone with superpowers living within the superhero-filled Marvel Universe that is in no way, shape, or form a “superhero comic book.” In twenty-eight issues you can count on one hand (with fingers left over) the number of times Jessica uses her powers. When we meet Jessica in Alias #1, it’s established she runs Alias Investigations, she’s a private eye, she has powers, she used to be a superhero but isn’t anymore, and she has no desire to ever go back to that life. No capes. No costumes. No battles that level city blocks. She’s paying her bills by finding out if spouses are cheating or tracking down missing persons and she steers the conversation away from her powers as quickly as possible whenever anyone asks what she can do or why she no longer lives the superhero life.
Alias thus raises a brilliant question for contemplation. Comic books are FILLED with people with powers, all superheroes or supervillains. But what if you had superpowers and didn’t want to be either?
This is Jessica Jones. She has powers. She knows superheroes. Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel is the closest thing she has to a best friend. She and Luke Cage have sex a lot when she’s had a rough day. Matt Murdock/Daredevil is her lawyer. Carol sets her up with Scott Lang/Ant-Man. She had a costume and a codename – first Jewel, then Knightress. But she has absolutely zero interest in the superhero life anymore.
As I read, I kept wondering…would I become a superhero if I had superpowers? Or at least try to be a hero? Or would I just want to figure out a way to live my own life?
In my superheroes and social justice class I give my students a writing assignment where I ask them what they’d do if they woke up with the specific power set I outline in the prompt. Many discuss costumes, names, secret identities, and what sort of crime/injustice they’d focus on and why. But many – what I’d wager would be a surprising amount for anyone raised on a steady diet of superhero stories where getting powers automatically translates into a life-defining crusade against evil – say they’d rather just go about living their lives, maybe using their powers in little ways to make their lives easier. Many openly say they don’t have the disposition and/or desire to fight crime as a superhero and/or they’d question their own moral right to make unilateral decisions for people the world over on large scale issues of what is “acceptable” and what “must be stopped.” This makes me think there is far more truth and relatability to Jessica than there is with the majority of superhero characters.
There are many factors that shape Jessica’s decision including the trauma she’s experienced (both as a child and as an adult), her tenuous one-time connection to the superhero community, and her own personality (which I don’t mean in a negative way, not all of us would want or feel comfortable in that life). I think many of us, if we woke up with superpowers, would be more inclined to follow Jessica’s lead than say, Captain America or Spider-Man’s. Imagining yourself as a superhero is one thing but actually living that life is something else entirely. Jessica’s reasons for walking away from the superhero life are her own and I grant none of us, as we imagine how we’d handle life with powers, have the same emotional landscape. As characters go, Jessica Jones is so unique. But that doesn’t mean our own experiences wouldn’t lead some (many?) of us to the same decision.
While she is an incredibly unique character – especially within the superhero genre of comics – Jessica Jones, in the way all great literary characters are, is also so very familiar. Part of why I read these comics so quickly was because it seemed like I knew Jessica. And I don’t mean because I watched Jessica Jones on Netflix (although I did hear Krysten Ritter’s voice in my head whenever I read Jessica’s dialogue or inner monologue). At many points over those twenty-eight issues I could see myself, my family, my friends (both those in my life now as well as those separated by time many years ago), in Jessica – in her humor, in her pain, in her thoughts and in her words, in her choices, in her resolve and in her wavering. I’ve read a lot of Brian Michael Bendis comics and the man deserves the reputation he has. But the honesty and the authenticity with which he renders Jessica Jones is a thing of remarkable beauty, unique even across his entire brilliant and varied career.
She is so human. Something I heard often (but not universally) about Jessica Jones before I read Alias was that her life was kind of a shit show. The drinking and the sex and the open discussion of uncertainty and emotional turmoil and the struggle to figure out where you set boundaries and where you drop your walls, I think, led certain readers to presume her life was a catastrophe. And I do grant, in a superhero comic book, all those things are jarring and it can lead someone to see her character as particularly damaged and/or struggling to hold her life together.
But I didn’t get that when I read it, though. Yes, Jessica’s life sucks at times. She carries many deep wounds within herself and she struggles and she doesn’t always know what to do and she doesn’t always make the best or even the right choices. But who among us isn’t like this? Yes, Jessica can be kind of a hot mess…but we’re all kind of a hot mess! That’s what it means to be human. We all have our own wounding and we are all shaped by those wounds! We all struggle! None of us always know what to do and we sure as hell don’t always make the best or even the right choices! Jessica Jones isn’t a particularly damaged character. She’s a remarkably human character.
And I love her for that! There is so much for all of us to relate to in her and there’s so much she opens the door for us to consider outside of our own lived experience as well. While he gives us something to aspire to, we’re never going to be Captain America. And I hope we’re never Spider-Man because that guy has some seriously unhealthy issues with trauma and guilt in his own life. But Jessica Jones is real. She’s broken and a little battered but she laughs and she gets up and she goes on and she gives life the finger when it deserves it. And while Jessica has no interest in being a superhero, that doesn’t mean she isn’t trying to help people in her own way. What more can we ask of ourselves? We may not have mystical, mind-blowing abilities or snappy Lycra jumpsuits, but we can all strive to make our little corner of the world better, owning and accepting our brokenness along the way. Jessica Jones gives us a model of what being a “superhero” would look like in our very real, daily lives.
The cases Jessica investigates – most involving missing children, spouses, or siblings – are written with the same sort of realism that shapes her character. As a result, these stories feel quite scary at times. They touch our most vulnerable parts, calling us to imagine the desperation of losing someone so close to us. What would it feel like to have no idea what happened to a child? A lover? A friend? Our point of view being shaped by Jessica, the stories also let us consider the emotional toll of trying to find someone’s lost loved one. While something like Unsolved Mysteries (which, full disclosure, I do love) presents these sort of stories with a thrilling tone, Alias cuts away all flash and pretense and drops you in the midst of those raw emotions. And OH MY GOSH THE TWISTS. As if everything else I’ve already discussed didn’t ensure I’d read issue after issue late into the night, the fact that Brian Michael Bendis ends so many of these comics with some mind-blowing twist I never saw coming meant I wasn’t putting this down until I was too tired to follow the plot XD.
I first read Jessica Jones as a character in the pages of New Avengers (also by Brian Michael Bendis) when I was researching a piece about Spider-Man joining the Avengers. I really loved her there, too, but I am so happy I finally met Jessica Jones here, in the pages of Alias, where her character was born. And ok, yes, because I can get excited about things I MAY’VE purchased the complete run of The Pulse on eBay (for a super reasonable price!) and I MAY’VE purchased the Jessica Jones Vol. 1-3 collected trades at my local comic shop’s member’s sale (for another super reasonable price!) because I MAY’VE needed to see Jessica Jones’ solo story to the end of Brian Michael Bendis’ time writing for Marvel (with Michael Gaydos as the artist for Jessica Jones and Mark Bagley handling The Pulse). But whether or not I bought all those comics after reading Alias isn’t really the question here. The real question is how could I not keep following Jessica’s story?!?
Brian Michael Bendis, Michael Gaydos, and Matt Hollingsworth’s Alias is one of the best books – comic or otherwise – I’ve ever read. I missed Jessica Jones when she first debuted, busy reading other things like the texts for my freshmen year of undergrad :P. But meeting Jessica has become one of the many, many reasons I am eternally grateful Kalie gave me G. Willow Wilson’s Ms. Marvel Vol. 1: No Normal and Gerry Duggan and Brian Posehn’s Deadpool Vol. 1 for Christmas in 2015, opening wide the door to superhero comic reading for me once more. Jessica Jones is a character I needed to know. She is an authentically human character. She’s kind of a mess but she tries her best anyway and, if we’re being honest with ourselves, we’re all trying to do the same every single day. The world of literature is better for her existence as are the readers fortunate enough to meet her.