Nov 9, 2015

Jessica Jones: From Marvel Max to Netflix Star

Jessica Jones: From Marvel Max to Netflix Star
Ben Smith

Around 2001, I had a relapse. After years sober, I succumbed once again to the sweet intravenous addiction that is comic book fandom. Much like heroin, they say you don’t ever quit comics, you just take breaks. I was lured back by the frankly unfair combination of the first Spider-Man movie, and a new Transformers comic that was setting the comic book world on fire. But I wasn’t just hooked by new Transformers and G.I. Joe. Ultimate Spider-Man was an early book I gravitated towards (the 13th issue proved to me that this was a new type of comic book storytelling, far different than anything I had remembered). X-Statix, Morrison’s New X-Men, and Daredevil were other books I made sure to pick up every single month, along with a dirty little book named Alias. Since Alias is about to make its debut as Marvel’s second Netflix series, I figured it was time to dip back into the book.

Alias was part of a new line called Marvel Max, dedicated to presenting explicit “adult-only” comic book stories featuring Marvel characters. Brian Michael Bendis had made a name for himself at the time on self-published books like Torso and Jinx, and based off of that talent earned jobs with Marvel on Ultimate Spider-Man and Daredevil. Alias had originally been his pitch for a Jessica Drew (the original Spider-Woman) private eye series. Marvel apparently liked the pitch, but not for Spider-Woman, so Bendis created a new character, Jessica Jones.

Along with artist Michael Gaydos, they created a fascinating look into a deeply flawed character with a mysterious past. Jessica Jones had a mouth like a sailor, a drinking problem, and a self-destructive tendency. As the series goes on, she slowly but surely begins to rebuild her life, culminating with a fantastic storyline where she confronts the architect of her downfall. Now, it would be easy to dismiss this series as the worst kind of fanboy catering with its cuss words and sex, proving how adult it all is, but it’s actually one of the best examples of long-form storytelling and character progression that comics has. The cuss words are a part of it, but they serve a purpose and aren’t just there for shock value.

One of the great things about the series, is the way it weaves in and out of the dirty underbelly of the Marvel superhero universe. In the opening story arc, Jessica is hired to find a woman’s missing sister. When Jessica tracks her down, she is shocked to discover that this woman might be romantically involved with the one and only Captain America.

That’s only the beginning of her problems, as her investigation has her cross paths with minor Spider-Man villain Man Mountain Marko, and uncovers a conspiracy to discredit the President of the United States.

As the series goes on, it has more and more ties to the larger Marvel universe. Matt Murdock becomes her lawyer after the Captain America case lands her in some trouble. There’s also the infamous sex scene with (future Netflix star) Luke Cage. During the series she reacquaints herself with (former Ms. Marvel and current Captain Marvel) Carol Danvers, who becomes a close friend and confidant. Carol sets her up with Scott Lang, star of this year’s hit movie Ant-Man (it would be a pleasant surprise if Paul Rudd showed up for a few episodes in the series).

For the second case of the series, a woman claiming to be the wife of (former Avengers mascot and professional sidekick) Rick Jones, hires her to find him after he disappears. She finds him, only to discover that he is a bit of a paranoid lunatic, certain that the Kree and/or the Skrulls have placed a bounty on his head.

In a particularly funny issue, J. Jonah Jameson (inspired by the recent outing of Matt Murdock in Bendis’ Daredevil run, happening at the same time) hires Jessica to uncover the secret identity of Spider-Man. Instead, she uses her “leads” to volunteer at an orphanage, candy stripe for AIDS patients, and feed the homeless. Since the media would have a field day if Jameson sued her for essentially feeding the homeless and reading to orphans, he has no choice but to suck it up and accept the loss.

Her next case takes her out of the city, to a small town with a missing teenage girl. A one-night stand with the local sheriff turns out to be a bad experience when she wakes up in the local jail (he didn’t want her sleeping at his place).

Her investigation leads her to the local church, where she finds out they aren’t very tolerant of people that are different, especially mutants. It’s an ugly case, in an ugly town, with an ugly ending that hits Jessica pretty hard.

Jessica finally finds time to go on that date with Scott Lang. It’s going really well (and showcases the best use of Bendis’ trademark dialogue) when they’re interrupted by a Spider-Man fight.

Leading to this funny exchange.

A few days later, Jessica returns home to find a girl dressed as Spider-Man in her apartment. The girl is clearly confused and dazed, and leaves abruptly. The situation leaves Jessica a little freaked out, but winds up accelerating her budding relationship with Lang.

After she calls her contact at S.H.I.E.L.D., Clay Quartermain, she finds out that the girl is Mattie Franklin, the third Spider-Woman. This forces her to talk to Jameson again, because he is Mattie’s guardian, which does not go well. A subsequent encounter with Madame Web gives the readers a hint about a terrible tragedy in Jessica’s past, something Jessica isn’t too happy about anyone knowing.

Jessica tracks down Mattie, who’s drugged out and in the hands of a couple of wannabe mobsters. They’ve been stealing her blood and tissue to make MGH (mutant growth hormone) a drug that gives normal people powers for a short amount of time. (I believe this is the first appearance of MGH, a plot device which would expand into the larger Marvel universe.)

The drug dealers, hopped up on MGH, hurt Jessica and get away. After a quick visit to the hospital, Jessica is visited by that other superhero private eye, Jessica Drew.

They team up to find and save Mattie (no thanks to Speedball). A few weeks later, Mattie visits Jessica to thank her for what she did, in what is a pretty touching scene.

Next up, Jessica’s origin is revealed. In a funny twist, it’s revealed that she was a classmate of Peter Parker, and actually had a crush on him.

A car accident with a military vehicle carrying experimental materials killed her family and left her in a coma, but when she woke up she discovered that she had super powers.

Jessica did what everyone else does in comics, she got a costume, and started a short career as the superhero Jewel. However, her career came to an abrupt and horrifying end when she crossed paths with the Purple Man, in one of the darkest and most disturbing stories in comic book history. It closes out the series, and is highly recommended (if you can handle it).

Alias was Bendis at his absolute best. His trademark Mamet-influenced dialogue can sometimes seem a little out of place on longtime characters like the Avengers, but it worked perfectly in this series. Gaydos might not have the prettiest style, but his character acting is top-notch, and the dark noir atmosphere was essential for the series.

The book definitely went to some dark places in the Marvel universe, as well as some dark places in the life of the titular character, but it also maintained a dark sense of humor throughout. It’s got some of the funniest moments I’ve seen in any comic. They definitely used the explicit rating of the series to their advantage, in that respect.

Alias remains one of my favorite books that Marvel has ever done, and I’m looking forward to seeing what Netflix can do with the material. Well, looking forward to, and a little apprehensive, because boy, is that Purple Man stuff disturbing.

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