I first read Marvel Max’s Alias eight months ago. Partly out of curiosity. Partly out of having nothing else to read at the time. And partly out of the same reason why everyone else this year probably read it – because I heard Netflix would be releasing a 13-episode series titled Marvel’s Jessica Jones, out today.
Half an issue into Alias, I was hooked. Two issues in, I grabbed my cell and urged as many people I could to drop everything they were doing and read. Now. Three issues in, Alias firmly cemented itself as one of my favourite comics of all time.
To say that Alias is simply “good” would be doing it a disservice. Alias is important. Its portrayal of both women and mental illness is important. The message its hero’s narrative sends is important. After reading, it’s hard not to judge other female leads on how they measure up to Jessica Jones.
Some background: Alias, written by Brian Michael Bendis and illustrated by Michael Gaydos, launched in 2001 as the flagship title for Marvel Max inprint, the publisher’s first foray into R-rated work. These comics were not only allowed to ramp up the bloody violence, uncensored swearing, and sexual content, they could also provide more serious, in-depth explorations of adult themes like drug use, sexual violence, and human trafficking.
Alias follows Jessica Jones, a woman who turned to private detective work after a brief, disastrous stint as a superhero. At its heart, it’s a fairly simple detective story, with superpowers and caped heroes replaced by the struggle to find another client so the bills get paid.
The comic represents Bendis at his best. The dialogue is snappy and realistic (never overwrought or obnoxious), and punctuated Gaydos’ chunky, semi-realistic art, beautifully rendered with an appropriately heavy use of shadow. Jessica suffered some painfully real trauma in her lifetime, but the story always handles her experiences with respect and grace. Bendis refuses to hold her accountable for the abuse she suffered at the hands of the Purple Man, never implying that she could have done anything differently to prevent it. That’s huge, and it made for an incredibly impactful read.
Jessica embodies many of the traditional trappings of the “macho man” archetype. She smokes, she drinks, she kicks teeth in when needed. But none of this is portrayed as cool or healthy. While it’s never explicitly stated, Jessica seems to be suffering from heavy post-traumatic stress disorder, and the comic never lets you forget that. In this, Alias serves as a harrowingly accurate portrayal of mental illness, and even over the course of the comic the heroine never really heals… she just learns to adjust. Jessica made for a terrible superhero, as she admits herself, and despite possessing super strength and the rudimentary ability to fly, she rarely uses her powers. Not because she could hurt someone with them, or because she doesn’t know her own strength. She just doesn’t particularly want to.
Jessica’s appearance itself also proved remarkable. After years of seeing Teen Titans’ teenaged Raven in a thong and Emma Frost’s various fashion disasters, her baggy jeans, worn white sneakers, and trusty leather jacket seemed as fresh as it did familiar. She flat out doesn’t care about her appearance, eschewing makeup and hair styling altogether, offering an alternative to the oh-so-many superheroines who always look like they hit the salon before hitting bad guys in the face.
None of this to say the comic is faultless – its dark content, while relatively refreshing at the time, is now exhausting after years of Nolanized and Millerized dark, brooding heroes. Its cast, Luke Cage aside, is glaringly white, and Bendis’ popular criticisms rear their head when characters are shown in the same position for panels on end. When Alias ended, Jessica’s story continued in The Pulse, a mainstream Marvel title that went back to censored swears and lighter content. It was an all-around solid read, but its focus was on – spoilers! – Jessica’s relationship with Luke and the subsequent pregnancy, not her job. From there, in her brief appearances in New Avengers, Young Avengers, and a few other titles, her role mostly devolved into standing in the background holding a baby. Alias remains Jessica’s only real time to shine as her own character, not Luke Cage’s girlfriend/wife.
While I was ecstatic over the announcement of Jessica Jones‘ official air date, I admit I also felt a tinge wary. There’s a lot of room for the show to miss what really made the comic special. Jessica in the comics was pretty, to be sure, but actress Krysten Ritter wears perfectly-fitted jeans and a leather jacket that looks like it was tailored to her – not like she might have picked it out of a thrift store bin. It’s Hollywood, so we all expect that to some extent. But the welcome difference of Jessica’s apathetic aesthetic was my favourite aspect of the comic, and it’s disappointing to see it won’t be represented on the screen.
Despite my nitpicking about clothes, and some other small concerns (Jessica Jones’ trailers revolve heavily around her powers and fighting, which was not a focus in the comic. I’m hoping that was just to grab audiences.), earlyreviews indicate they’re going to stay true to the tone and message of the comic. The Netflix series has a chance to shine a spotlight on women with mental illnesses making their own in the world, and it will be a real waste if they don’t use it.