Marvel’s Netflix series Jessica Jones (dropping Friday, November 20th) has already generated significant buzz and anticipation, remarkable for a character whose name recognition was Wasp-sized two years ago. But the attention has been galvanized by the quality of the Daredevil series, smart casting of lead Krysten Ritter, David Tennant as Kilgrave, Carrie-Anne Moss, Mike Colter, and Rachael Taylor, and the dawning realization that the character’s established but relatively unknown comic book back-story is great source material for a contemporary TV series. These heart-pounding trailers help too.
We went back to the source, re-read the original 28-issue run of the Marvel MAX comic book Alias (2001-2004) where Jessica Jones was imagined and introduced, and discussed how the book reads today, its legacy, and what we hope to see in the Netflix show.
(Warning: Minor Spoilers for the 2001-2004 series, which can be found in reprinted in Omnibus and Complete Collection volumes. Reading our conversation won’t ruin the comic book or TV show for you, but be forewarned we touch on a few major plot points.)
Paul: I was intrigued that Marvel launched its mature MAX line in 2001 with a new character like Jessica Jones in “Alias,” rather than the likes of later MAX headliners Wolverine, Daredevil, or Punisher. I feel like it was a signal that their “adult” line placed at least as much emphasis on the creators—and their creative “freedom”—as on the characters. Marvel Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada tasked Brian Michael Bendis, up to that point largely known for independent, noir-ish crime and police procedural comics like “Powers” and “Jinx,” to script and originate the series. “Alias” feels like an invitation to import that certain edgy, indie vibe to push the boundaries of the universe, a sort of funhouse mirror contrast to the “Ultimate Spider-Man” birthed by Bendis and Bagley around the same time. Michael Gaydos’s plainclothes interior art and David Mack’s psycho-impressionistic covers reinforce the Sandman sophistication and Sopranos savviness of the book.
It also said something to me when “Alias” was running concurrently with Grant Morrison’s “New X-Men,” Milligan and Allred’s “X-Force,” and the Ultimate Marvel universe, which produced this feeling that Joe Quesada’s editorial position would bring about a diverse modernizing of the whole Marvel line. That was exciting to me, maybe the only thing interesting me in superhero comics at a time when alternative comics and graphic novels seemed so much more important. The longer Quesada’s run went on, the more Marvel seemed to regress to the mean of mainstream comics, but I still have a special fondness for work like “Alias” and the significant experimentation it seemed to represent.
Jess, Matt, how did you encounter Alias, and what were your initial reactions?
Jess: My first reading of “Alias” didn’t happen until about 2008. I have only been reading comic books since high school so when I decided to re-read this for a third time, I didn’t have a 14 year gap, but I did have a completely different experience reading it this time around.
My first reading happened early in high school, my second happened right around my first year of college, and my third reading of this series happened over this weekend. When I first read the series in full, I was a teenager and didn’t yet have any of the kind of serious life experiences aside from some bullying during middle school. I was still very young and was misinformed about a lot of things so when I read this, the biggest appeal then was Jessica’s attitude. She was tough, drank, smoked and had sex with fellow superheroes. Teenage me was very into that.Continued below
My second reading was when I began college and it was then that I learned to appreciate Jessica Jones as a character. She’s imperfect and that’s a huge part of why I like her. As much as I love someone like Wonder Woman and Batgirl, I can connect to Jessica Jones on a much more personal level because she doesn’t have her life totally together. This series made me love Jessica Jones and it made me seek out classic “Heroes For Hire” stories because I wanted to know more about Luke Cage. This then led to me becoming a huge fan of Luke Cage, so long story short, “Alias” had an impact on me when I started reading comics. Not as much as some other books, but an impact nevertheless.
Matt: This was the first time I’ve read this series, and I definitely wasn’t in the scene circa 2001, so I can’t really offer up a lot about its cultural significance. Honestly, I don’t why this would have been included in their MAX line of titles, apart from the persistent foul language. Was the level of violence and grit or sexuality pretty intense for 2001 Marvel?
Ultimately, I don’t think the stories were that well suited for a comic book, though. Like, it was actually kind of boring as a comic? It felt to me as if Bendis had a TV script that he reworked to put some Marvel characters in, so there’s a lot of pages where people aren’t really doing anything except standing around and talking to each other. I watched this video essay recently from Matt Zoller Seitz and Chris Wade about “cinematic TV“, and a lot of their points about what makes TV TV seemed to be all over this comic.
Paul: When I read Alias in 2001, the F-bombs were definitely a shock to expectations. This book felt very adult to me, not for comics generally, but for Big 2 characters like the superhero whose compromising situation charged up the first story arc.
And I think it wasn’t the graphic nature of the violence but its very real contextualization, not in superhero fights, but in realistic pain and sometimes abuse and human exploitation, that made it distinctly adult. Here were stories dealing with drug abuse, trafficked people, infidelity, all in a universe governed in its other streets by the Comics Code Authority. But that stuff didn’t feel cheap when I read it at the time, the same way the language, violence, and sexuality of HBO shows like Oz and Deadwood didn’t feel cheap, but certainly felt like a departure from the other TV I’d see.
The other comparison to TV that made it feel fresh in its time was Bendis’ writing, which felt like it took some inspiration from the kind of repartee in shows like The West Wing or The Wire, where high drama was played through fast banter. That felt very different in superhero comics. Jessica overlaid a PI’s tough narrative voice with dialogue that felt at home in detective fiction.
Jess: I’m not a huge Brian Michael Bendis fan but I do think “Alias” is the strongest thing he’s written. It’s the most fully realized despite having a bit of an abrupt finale. “Powers” could have taken this title but as that series went on, I think delays and general inconsistencies hurt the series. “Alias” in terms of story has a format that works. I enjoyed reading Jessica handle different cases while dealing with her departure from the superhero life while still being a part of that world.
Her relationships with Scott Lang, Luke Cage and Carol Danvers were highlighted just enough but not without problems. Jessica and Scott was a weird pairing. Their first date was entertaining but the two of them never fully clicked. Jessica and Luke are arguably my favorite comic book couple ever but I think “The Pulse” does a better job at making you root for Jessica and Luke. Near the end of “Alias” you want these crazy kids to make it but you don’t feel as emotionally connected just yet.Continued below
From what I’ve read over the years, this was very different from other superhero stories being told because the MAX line was intended to be a much more mature line for Marvel characters. Mature doesn’t mean lots swearing and sexual activity but I do think “Alias” does some things that you wouldn’t have seen in other Marvel titles at this time.
Matt: Bendis is a super decompressed comic writer and I can’t say that I’m a fan of anything he does. I think his dialogue is snappier and fresher and more interesting here than it’s been in “Guardians” or whatever “X-Men” book he’s doing even though almost all the secondary characters come off as sounding the same, but his plotting and storytelling are sort of rote and basic. The mysteries didn’t strike me as interesting or engaging — often they felt like they were drawn out because Bendis is in love with his own dialogue, so the scenes go on for dozens of pages –and I don’t know if Bendis was as interested as engaged in them as he was about moving Jessica Jones through the different locations.
This structure does lend itself well to characterization however, and I think that’s probably the most engaging aspect of this series. And in the grand scheme of Bendis comics, this is probably one of his successful ones, because Jessica Jones herself is so interesting. While the mysteries themselves are boring, her reactions to being in a situation and her way of processing all this information kept me turning the pages. Her voice and personality are super clear, and for a book that rarely strays from her perspective, I think it helps keep the story engaging.
Michael Gaydos, for his part, does okay in breaking the page apart to make it visually interesting as Bendis delivers dialogue, but the art is messy and I thought kind of lazy, and he’s only really showing two or so people talking to each other. I get they were trying to establish an Aaron Sorkin rhythm, but the copy-and-pasted repetitive facial reactions didn’t strike me as clever but just half-assed.
Paul: It’s Bendis’ old saw, probably the thing his artists are most relieved to get from him (Imagined script: “This page has eighteen panels, but don’t freak out— nine of them will be EXACTLY THE SAME IMAGE and the other nine will repeat the same face with slightly different expressions. You’re welcome.”) I call it “Bend it Like Bendis” because the trope gives artists only the minimum of contrasts to show off their stuff but lets the spicy dialogue and pacing do most of the work. In some of Bendis’ early books, where he actually did the art as well, I felt like the style spared him from having to draw so much as design, but it does feel like a shame to have forced his artists into the same limitations, if you think of it that way.
Matt: As I flip through the book again, Paul, I’m beginning to wonder if Bendis wanted to bring a TV mentality and structure to the comic book world. In better, tighter writers, much of this would have been condensed. I’m sure you could argue that this scene is showing how much people tend to underestimate Jessica Jones and how perfectly capable she is of talking circles around them, but this kid is an incidental character at best and to have this take up so much space sort of undermines the times we do need to see her talking around people. (I’m thinking of the Purple Man interview near the end.)
Again, you can see Gaydos narrowing down the tiers in a sort of upside down pyramid, but the scene is kind of boring. And yeah you need boring and expository scenes, but this series struck me as almost entirely like this.Continued below
That being said, one of my favorite issues involved J. Jonah Jameson trying to hire Jessica Jones on to track down Spider-Man. That whole thing was told with big illustrations and in a movie script format. Maybe it was because Bendis didn’t need to worry about panels or pacing when he was going through this sequence, or maybe Jameson is just a super fun character to write, but I did think that one was sort of fun.
Going back though, all these sequences do help us get Jessica Jones a lot better. We’re watching her and that’s where the most entertaining moments come out. I wonder if the TV show is going to go in the opposite direction and have her punch out more stuff or if it’s going to maintain the snappy back-and-forth for its runtime. I think the series was built for the latter.
Jess: One of my longest standing complaints about this series is that Gaydos is not allowed to do much storytelling because of the script. It’s a lot of telling, not showing because at times, the script is over written. I tend to like the dialogue of Bendis even if I don’t end up liking the story being told. “Alias” has some sharp, sarcastic moments and for the most part I like the dialogue but it can be heavy handed. Examples of this come from the scenes where Jessica is talking to a potential client and everything gets explained in great detail.
Some of it could have been stricken and Gaydos could have been allowed to do more with the grid layout. I usually enjoy when that is used but when it’s used for something more than just an almost recycling of expressions. When Gaydos is at his best, he adds a great level of added expression that makes the dialogue click a bit better. When I read this through for the third time I wondered how an “Alias” novel would feel. Hollingsworth typically does a great job with moody, dark colors but “Alias” at times bordered on muddy. When it was good, it hit the tone perfectly but when it was bad, it was a bit messy.
My biggest issue with Bendis’ writing is that he includes some troublesome lines. There’s a pretty off-putting period joke at one point and Scott’s immediate “did you get raped” question didn’t work when Luke later on approaches that issue in a far more reasonable way.
Paul: Yeah, those are parts that definitely remind me that we’re in the early 2000s, when the doors of the Comics Boys Club are prying open but writing like this can still be jarringly tone-deaf. It’s meant to be tough and tongue-in-cheek, but it comes off as juvenile. On the other hand, some of the darker aspects of Jessica’s history, which seem like they’re going to be a major part of the Netflix show, are similar in tone, and maybe similarly problematic, on a plot level and thematic scale.
With that in mind, and with hindsight’s benefit, do we judge this book to have a legacy in comics today? What do you think about this book’s significance in view of the mainstream comics after it?
Matt: It’s almost like a precursor to Fraction and Aja’s “Hawkeye” run, isn’t it? I did like that there wasn’t a lot of punching, and when Bendis did shut the characters up, it focused mostly on Jessica Jones investigating her case. But it’s a quieter comic, more focused on her personal drama and I think it’s one of those things that people read and wish more of, but always get pushed aside and forgotten in favor of cataclysmic apocalyptic events.Continued below
Jess: “Alias” is obviously a precursor to “Hawkeye.” I’m not the only one who has or will make that comparison but it still should be said. “Alias” did not make Jessica Jones an “A-lister” but I think the show will definitely raise her visibility. I don’t know if I’m comfortable saying that “Alias” had an impact on the kind of books we’re seeing at Image right now but it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine a story like this published by them. One of it’s biggest legacies is definitely the Luke Cage/Jessica Jones coupling. They had a child, got married and have been featured in many team books since then.
Paul: Yeah, I feel like lots of aspects of the book that might’ve been posited as progressive or in some sense forward-thinking in some prior era (the independent female lead, mature subject matter, cross-racial coupling, gritty crime storytelling) were kind of placed in the book matter-of-factly. That’s actually what I think Alias’s legacy is: not that these things are transgressive, but that they are just normal. Albeit in a MAX title, for adults only, on the fringes of the universe. But I feel like our ability to believe there’s storytelling that’s as appealing at those fringes as there is in the PG-rated center owes something to “Alias.” Could we imagine a Marvel Netflix universe to accompany the Agents of SHIELD and mass-appeal Avengers if we didn’t have experimentation like the MAX line?
Which leads me to ask, does reading Alias whet your appetite for the show? What elements or themes from the comic run do you anticipate showing up in the show, based on trailers or otherwise? What pieces do you hope to see, or hope NOT to see?
Jess: Since I was such a big fan of this series and the character, I was excited for the show the moment it was announced. That was only amplified after I saw Daredevil and realized these Netflix series weren’t going to be the films.
What I would like to see retained are the cases. The cases help establish Jessica’s personality and her world so those need to stay, but I’d like to see them be a bit more compelling. I’m eager to see how her origin is told in the context of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Will she have ever been a full on costumed hero or are they erasing that part of her due to the constraints of what’s been established? The romantic side of me is hoping that her relationship with Luke Cage comes off very well but my biggest concerns are with Killgrave.
I do not want Killgrave to become Loki. I don’t care how charismatic or attractive David Tennant is, this character cannot become the sensation that Loki became. We need to hate Killgrave but there’s a way to handle what he does. His powers allow him to do horrible things and I don’t think the series should fully shy away from it but it does need to tread lightly because it won’t want to take things too far. I do not believe that things are fully off limits but not everything needs to be gratuitously shown. In Mad Max: Fury Road we know what Immortan Joe did to the wives but we didn’t see it and it became easier to take in. In the comic book, Jessica tells Luke a lot of what happened without us seeing it. Through her reaction and the way she tells the story we get enough to feel it.
The last arc of the series is uncomfortable. There’s no question about this but I do think the show can learn a little something from the book. For the issues the book has, it doesn’t go out of it’s way to show sexual abuse even though we know it happens. This will be a show that triggers people but it can take care with how it approaches this abuse. I do want to see Jessica struggle with PTSD and the trauma she’s been through but I want to see it done in a way that feels respectful to real issues that people go through.Continued below
With all this, I want to also see a Jessica Jones that overcomes all this. She is the hero of this story and it’s important to let her feel what she’s going to feel but also display her toughness and courage. Furthermore, I don’t want Killgrave to be all that matters in the narrative. It should be a big part of this in the later half but I do want the show to have something else going for it. Tennant is not new to playing a villain. I’m a Potterhead so I know that he portrayed Barty Crouch Jr., but this is different. This is something on an entirely different level. I equate it to him switching sides and playing The Master after playing The Doctor. I think it will work out but I have my concerns.
Paul: That’s really well-said, Jess. Matt?
Matt: I honestly wasn’t planning on watching the show, but reading this has made me more willing to give it a chance. The comic’s main arc involved Jessica Jones learning to trust other people and kind of come to terms with who she wants to be around them, but the trailers make it seem like that Purple Man storyline is going to be the overarching narrative. Also, she beats up a lot more things in goofy slow-motion. I like Krysten Ritter — I think she has some strong dramatic chops (Breaking Bad) and strong comedic chops (Don’t Trust the B- in Apartment 23), so she has the capability to nail this character. I’m sure they’re going to tone down a lot of the sexual stuff and probably focus on how she’s damaged rather than how she deals with being damaged.
Paul: For my part, one of my fascinations with the Marvel films and TV shows has been how they’ve been genre-meshing. Captain America as superheroes-slash-war-movie or superheroes-slash-spy-thriller. Guardians of the Galaxy as superheroes-slash-space-opera. In addition to the concerns and curiosities you two already mentioned, I’ll be interested in how the private eye genre, which is well-tread but fruitfully remixed, finds a superhero manifestation.
And for that, I think it had to be the first set-in-modern-times, superheroic female lead. Agent Carter could poke ironically at its gender politics by playing up the misogyny Mad Men-style, but I feel like in light of what you two have already mentioned, Jessica Jones is going to have to address Marvel’s post-Perlmutter politics with a lot more subtlety and savvy.
Matt and Jess, thanks for the smart conversation and your sharp takes on the book. And Jess, we’ll look forward to your coverage of the show here at Multiversity!