This is Why (Alias)

Seems odd that I haven’t done one of these columns spotlighting any of the acclaimed works of Brian Michael Bendis, doesn’t it?

Alias Omni

One of my favorite comics writers of all time, the only “problem” in regards to much of Bendis’ output is that the creative runs are either extremely lengthy, or are still very much in progress. I’m fairly certain that history will reflect kindly on his runs of Ultimate Spider-Man and Avengers/New Avengers, but without a definite ending to provide context, asserting that at this stage feels a bit presumptuous, even for me. Fortunately, a couple of the books he has been able to walk away from in recent years are holding up on my bookshelf remarkably well, as the writer’s approach to long-form storytelling thrives on being digested in this format. Some have suggested this is a glaring weakness in a lot of his work, but obviously, I think that criticism is pretty ridiculous. Bendis is a writer with a tremendous amount of foresight, and an ability to drive a story to its natural conclusion, without resorting to the kind of cheap shock tactics common in other people’s works. What I enjoy the most about his comics are their supreme commitment to building and evolving character above all else. Everything that happens becomes an opportunity to provide additional nuance, complexity, and dramatic tension, which serves to create a better sense of who these characters actually are, both in and out of costume. Such is the case with Daredevil, and with the title we’ll be discussing for the next two pieces—Alias, with artist Michael Gaydos.

Don’t know if the giant omnibus collecting the entire series is still available, but it’s a nice package that includes all 28 issues, plus the Jessica Jones-themed What If for good measure. If not, think most of it is available in a series of trades. However you can manage it though, this is another run of comics that everybody needs to have preserved on their shelves. As always, it’s best if we start at the beginning…

Take It There (Issue 1)

I remember this being a big deal when it was first announced. Launching Marvel MAX was naturally seen as a response to DC’s legendary Vertigo imprint, and whether or not that’s an accurate assessment, if one was attempting such a thing, this is the book you’d leave the starting gate with. It’s directly tied to the Marvel Universe, though it did feature an obviously darker shade of it, and it’s written by Brian Michael Bendis, who was quickly becoming the biggest writer in comics, after initially gaining prominence writing indy crime comics like Goldfish, Jinx, and Sam & Twitch. It was obvious this book about a former superhero turned private eye was a perfect fit for his sensibilities, and an opportunity to contribute another great character to the mythos, who is still as important and complex today as she was when this book launched.

Alias 1

You’re probably well aware of my continued appreciation for a well-written first issue, and Alias has definitely got one, especially when you have full knowledge of everything that’s coming next for her. But just so you realize how this is going to go, the first word that appears in the entire book is “F—!” Colorful language would quickly become a permanent staple of the title, but that’s not all you learn from this first installment. Her previous life as a costumed hero, and a connection to the Avengers is teased. As is a relationship with Luke Cage, which wasn’t what it appeared to be. We see the layout that Bendis and Gaydos will use to introduce new clients throughout the life of the series. And we get Jessica Jones finding out something she’ll wish she hadn’t. Put it all together, and you get a clear and unflinching statement about how far the creators are willing to push these stories and what the idea of Marvel MAX was all about. But honestly, we hadn’t seen anything yet, and that is the true mark of any great first issue—more than enough, but nowhere near too much.

Powers (Issue 3)

No one writes interrogation scenes like Bendis. His gift for dialogue turns what appears to be a fairly simple proposition—people sitting in a room and talking to each other—into moments packed with intense characterization, and genuine suspense. Often littered with word balloons and tiny panels, they take on the feel of a well-choreographed action sequence, the characters literally sparring with words until someone falls down. Obviously, a lot of these can be found in Powers, but this particular issue borrows a little of that flavor for a great scene between Jessica and a police detective trying to connect her to the murder of a woman she was hired to find.

Alias 3

Most of this initial storyline is about properly introducing Jessica, finding out what really makes her tick, and we learn a lot about her while she’s trapped in this room. From the things she says, to the things she doesn’t, to what makes her angry, etc., it’s all another brilliant exercise in building up a compelling, relatable character. It also features a nice appearance at the end from Matt Murdock, by way of Luke Cage. Another tiny detail that gently hints Cage and Jessica’s relationship is going to be much more…complex than it initially appeared in the aforementioned “controversial” sex scene.

Large Hands (Issue 4)

Ahhh…and here we have an effective, creepy, though slightly misleading cliffhanger. After making her presence known to the man behind the curtain, Jones instinctively goes into stakeout mode, waiting for the guy to make the dumb move typical of many criminal masterminds that realize they’ve been found out. Instead, he sends “Man Mountain Marko” after her, who promptly yanks her out of her car and starts strangling her on the hood of another one. Since we don’t yet know Jessica’s exact power levels and abilities, we’re rightfully concerned for her, especially since this giant freak appears to be getting off on the whole thing, but Jones is quickly back in control and soon in the middle of another series highlight—asking Marko who sent him, and pounding him in the face when he doesn’t answer. Following a number of blood soaked panels, the guy gives it all up, as it becomes obvious that Jessica could really do this all day. But I’ve always loved the brutality and physicality of this little scene, as it’s something usually reserved for male characters.

That’s The Stuff (Issue 5)

The approval of Captain America means everything in the Marvel U, so the significance of his appearance here at the close of the first arc shouldn’t be lost on anyone. And though it lacks the shock and awe of attack helicopters and sniper fire, Steve Rogers’ visit marks the true conclusion of the first story. For five issues, we’ve been learning all about Jessica Jones, and really, she’s a bit of a mess throughout, but if Cap goes out of his way to find her and personally thank her, then obviously she’s the real deal. It’s also teased that they’ve met sometime in the past, which is an important bit that plays out near the series’ ending.

Chat Room (Issues 6 & 9)

Anyone familiar with Bendis’ now-legendary Powers letters column knows that the dude can be pretty funny when he wants. Hell, most of his books are funny, but there’s something about the unrestrained nature of the column that gives his unique sense of humor an additional bite. And as mentioned before, this book is all about a lack of restraint, while peeking into the darkened corners of the Marvel U. So knowing that, their is no doubt in my mind that Bendis was sitting at his keyboard giggling while scripting this scene of Jessica going undercover in a gay chat room. As she points out, probably the first time in history that a guy is talking to a girl online posing as a guy. The user names by themselves make the entire scene worth it, to be honest.

Alias 8

One exceptionally clever turn is having the subject of this “sting” turn into an important presence and voice at the end of the story, answering some central questions about the arc that just was. This would be right before Jessica tells him to come out of the closet and stop lying to his wife of course, but it was a great final touch. It would’ve been just as effective as a one-off joke, but weaving it into the main story made for a fantastic ending. And ya’ll know this about me by now…I just love it when everything is all connected.

The Peasants (Issues 7-9)

To anyone with a passing familiarity with Rick Jones, it’s pretty obvious that the young guy Jessica meets here isn’t the genuine article. What is interesting though is how completely he’s embraced this facade, and how easily he’s convinced the people around him that it’s true as well. You can’t help but be a little impressed at the little details of his story—the bounty placed on his head by the Skrulls, why Captain America is upset with him, how the thought of giving up his performing is just too much for him, etc. There will always be something strangely compelling about someone so skilled at convincing people that something is true, when it’s so obviously not true.

I mean sure, in this case “Rick Jones” has probably memorized every single line of the real Jones’ autobiographical book, the integration of which into the narrative was yet another in a series of great ideas, but it appeared at times as if he might actually believe the crap he was selling to everyone. And to keep the con going for any amount of time, it would seem that would be a necessity. He kept his game face on for an entire night with a professional investigator, who actually knew the people he was pretending to have associated himself with. That’s just kind of impressive no matter how you look at it…as was Jones’s reaction after receiving her call from Jarvis. Even I, as a longtime connoisseur of excessive profanity, have never actually said (or heard) anyone say, “God! F____…s__ of all s__!”

Most impressive.

The Client (Issue 10)

Fantastic standalone issue that sets up a number of interesting things down the line, and proves that the only thing more awesome than J. Jonah Jameson is J. Jonah Jameson in a book where people can swear at each other. He actually doesn’t use much profanity, but there’s an additional edge and larger degree of crass in all of his dialogue here, that Bendis obviously wasn’t allowed to use in JJJ’s portrayal in places like Ultimate Spider-Man. At least I’m pretty sure he never said, “don’t toss my salad” to someone in that book, but you know, there have been a ton of issues of that book. For the sake of argument, let’s assume it never happened before though.

But how great was it that Jameson came to Jessica Jones in an attempt to “out” Spider-Man and do the job the Daily Globe didn’t with Daredevil? The very same person who put her butt on the line to protect Captain America’s identity just two storylines ago?  Yes, yes, I’m also attracted to irony, and the fact that Jess takes his money and donates it to a soup kitchen, a couple orphanages, and a hospital is really just icing on the cake. As is Jonah’s incredible tirade once he realizes exactly what she’s been doing. Another in a laundry list of great moments for Jessica Jones that makes it impossible to do anything but love her character and perspective.

Whatever We Want (Issue 12)

You could see this coming from the minute Jess drove into town and met the kindly sheriff wearing Luke Wilson’s face. Stir in a little alcohol, a flashback drawn by Mark Bagley, and you ultimately get Jessica waking up in the town jail, put there by the kindly sheriff who was a little freaked out by something presumably extra freaky that Jessica did when they were gettin’…freaky. Ouch. Yet another emotional battering for Jones, who’s starting to realize exactly why a girl would want to run away from this strange, hick-infested town.

Alias 13

You Know I’m Right (Issue 14)

After spending a few issues in this town with Jessica, it’s pretty easy to understand why Rebecca Cross would want out. And following Rebecca’s impassioned rant about why she had to run away from home, and what incredible things she realized after doing it, there’s a big part of you that wishes Jones would just take her back to where she found her, presumably to live out this more enlightened existence she’s discovered. Or that Rebecca will make good on her threat to leave home again the minute Jessica brings her back to her parents. Yet despite all that, the fact remains that Rebecca leaving home the way she did fractured her already dysfunctional family, culminating in the murder of her father by his own sister-in-law. All because everybody in town is convinced he had something to do with Rebecca’s disappearance in the first place.

For all of Rebecca’s keen observations about the people in her backwards town, a certain level of immaturity prevented her from really thinking about the possible consequences of her decision. So now she’ll have to deal with that on top of all the other problems she had before she ran away. More than a raw deal for her, and it ensures this story ends on a bit of a down note, but this is another clear strength of Bendis’ stuff. Not everyone gets a happy ending, and not everything is tied up perfectly in a neat bow by the final scene. Sometimes things turn to crap and there’s no immediate fix for it, just like in real life.

Cape Chaser (Issue 15)

Great scene between Jessica and Luke Cage that nearly overshadows Jess’ first date with Scott Lang, which comes shortly after. Because of its effort, I’m pointing it out here, as it provides some indication of how these two interacted before they eventually got together. Despite some hurt feelings on Jessica’s part, you can tell there’s a lot more going on here than was suggested in that first issue. These two people (both adults as Cage points out) obviously know a good deal about each other, to the point where Cage knows exactly where Jessica got this whole “cape chaser” thing from. Also very interesting was Jones’ “I hate when you talk like that” line, which stood out as something a guy would hear from a girlfriend (or wife), and not from some random work acquaintance. Funny Iron Fist joke at the end of the scene too.

Eight Dollars (Issue 16)

This little bit is just too funny, something that could easily happen to Spider-Man…if he smoked cigarettes anyway. But Jessica Jones is in a convenience store reading a stupid magazine when a guy with a gun shows up to rob the place. Despite a complete lack of aim, she takes the guy down and convinces the store’s owner to call the police (there’s a good chance he’ll shoot him instead of that), and for her impromptu moment of selfless heroism, the storeowner still charges her for cigarettes. That’s some classic Parker luck on display, which will soon become a little funnier and a little more ironic given Jessica’s upcoming origin story.

Language Mask (Issue 17)

We knew it was bad…this big, terrible secret that forced Jessica out of a life of costumed adventuring…but in just a couple of pages, near the close of this brilliantly framed issue, we get a feel for just how terrible the truth really might be. And it’s more than the stammering words coming out of an embarrassed Madame Web, whose powers accidentally ripped the truth from Jessica’s mind, it’s Jessica’s reaction that sells it. Feeling completely exposed in a way we haven’t seen her exposed before, she resorts to screaming and cussing at Web for what is obviously an intense violation, which should’ve been a tiny clue to what happened in her past. But I just took it as a really nice moment of foreshadowing, and was instantly left with a sense of dread at what this revelation would ultimately be.

Alias 18

You Called Me (Issue 20)

This is yet another weird, random thing about me, but anytime I see someone get electrocuted, I always think of Return of the Jedi. Could very well be one of those childhood things that’ll stay with me until the end of time, but Palpatine setting Luke’s skin on fire with the coolest looking fingertip shot lightning bolts possible in the mid-80’s was the first thought I had when Jessica Drew attacks Jessica Jones in her own apartment. Second thought is that Jessica in general needs an ADT system or something, because the ease at which people gain access to her place and office is now bordering on the absolute embarrassing. Third and most important though, is that this is undoubtedly going to lead to a cool little team-up between two former superheroes on the trail of another former superhero.

The series nearly featuring Drew in the lead role instead of Jones is just another reason this particular pairing was so interesting. It did follow a familiar formula—Drew’s electric fingers followed by a punishing right cross to the face from Jones, followed by reconciliation and then finally cooperation. But a brief, yet important appearance by J. Jonah Jameson, an unexpected cameo from Speedball, Jessica dropping a TV on a guy’s head, and a high flying rescue, combine to make for some of the best moments of the series. And make you a little grateful that Bendis went ahead and created an entirely new character to base this series around, because Marvel probably wouldn’t have let him get away with half of this stuff if it was happening to the former Spider-Woman. Whose character arc started in New Avengers and now continuing into her own series was a better fit anyway.

Jessica and Peter Sitting in a Tree (Issue 22)

This is the type of stuff that drives continuity nuts up the wall, but I thought it was a fairly clever way to stitch Jessica Jones into the permanent fabric of the Marvel Universe. And to once again emphasize that Peter Parker has the worst luck of any superhero ever created ever. Sure it was a tad convenient that the first day Jess works up the nerve to speak to Peter is the same he meets a certain irradiated spider, however something about her secret crush is charming, and well…well, just sweet really. And up to this point, we’ve seen Jessica Jones as many things, some of them pretty negative, so it’s fun (and necessary) to see this side of her before we learn her secret origin and what took her out of the superhero game.

Plus, and who knows if Bendis intended this from the beginning, it’s making for some great stuff between Jessica, Spidey, and her husband Luke Cage in New Avengers. That kinda retroactively makes the whole thing cool, even if you weren’t initially crazy about it.

Accidents Are Accidents (Issue 22)

Far as comic book origins go, this is a pretty traditional one, which of course is the whole point. Jessica came from the same humble, awkward beginnings that many superheroes do, and was driven into the life by a combination of fate, guilt, and responsibility. Before learning the worst thing that’s ever happened to her, it was important to have this foundation clearly established here. What happened with the Purple Man didn’t have anything to do with her specifically, or the kind of person or hero she was or wasn’t, it basically amounted to an accident, a horrible twist of fate that put her in the wrong place at the wrong time. It could’ve happened to anyone, and at the end of the day, she just got a raw deal…just like she did when she got her powers in the first place. Everything is connected really, and again, I just love that whole concept in practice.

Also nice to see Gaydos kickin’ it old school.

Purple (Issues 24-28)

As strong as this series began, the ending eclipses almost everything about it, bringing every major plotline, thread, and character crashing together in an excellent five-issue frame that closes the book on this chapter of Jessica Jones’ so-called life. For two years, Bendis has been building up to the dramatic revelation behind Jessica hanging up her superhero suit once and for all, and the untold story is as terrible as he’s been suggesting, possibly even more so. Thankfully, it doesn’t involve rape, and I say that for obvious reasons, and because that’s become something of a horribly common cliché in the realm of female characters in comics. Hell, Jessica even says it as much in a great scene between her and Scott Lang, which is yet another reason her character is so fantastic.

Alias 28

Having said that, what happened to her at the hands of the Purple Man is still particularly awful, and I went from having no clue who Killgrave even was, to wanting to see his face pounded flat in a rain of unbreakable Luke Cage fists. Which became a distinct possibility after he escaped from The Raft and went on a little rampage, but as cathartic as that would’ve been, this was a personal victory that Jessica needed to win on her own, and she did so in grand fashion. With the game on the line and all of her guy friends either disposed of or just plain away, she took down the Purple Man, with a little help from Jean Grey. Great, great moment to reinforce the idea that females (superheroes or otherwise) don’t need to wait for the male hero to swoop in and save the day. They can whup that ass all on their own and look damn cool doing it.

Another huge development is Jessica finding out she’s carrying Luke Cage’s baby, and the two of them realizing maybe there’s a little something there. It speaks volumes that when she finally reveals what happened between her and Killgrave, Luke is the one she tells, and the one who knows just what to say to be comforting and supportive, without being condescending. And when he crosses the line, she tells him to stop and he does. Their final scene on the steps of Cage’s apartment is great, both of them doing their best to both express and conceal their emotions, which all falls away when Cage breaks into the Kool-Aid smile after learning she’s pregnant and that she wants to keep it. Last two lines that close out the series are, “Alright then. New chapter.”

Classic.

I’d also encourage everyone to read The Pulse, which was the series that followed this one, and continued the story of Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. It lacks the same type of singular focus of this series (due to a couple artistic changes along the way) but it does have several great moments of its own, including but not limited to a can’t miss encounter between Ben Urich and Peter Parker on the Bugle’s roof, Cage taking down Norman Osborn for attacking his pregnant wife, Jessica rejecting a big-time offer from Hydra, Danny Rand making a complete ass of himself, the Jones/Cage baby finally being born, and the story of how Jess and Luke met in the first place. Nice work throughout, and Gaydos returning to draw the last arc was a treat and proof that he played a huge part in Alias’s success, if you hadn’t already figured that out.

Alias, by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos—this is why I love comics.

Originally published as Ambidextrous 312 & 313 on Newsarama.com

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