The first time I tried to read “Alias,” I didn’t get it. It was a comic set in the Marvel Universe, but it didn’t look like a Marvel comic. Michael Gaydos’s art was all thick wavy lines over a muted color palette, and even when I recognized characters, I didn’t ‘recognize’ them. The writing style should have seemed familiar — I’d read plenty of Brian Bendis’s New Avengers comics by then — but the dialogue was liberally spattered with F-words. The main character had superpowers but she never used them, and she always looked a little cranky. I thought I was looking at a superhero comic that was trying too hard to be ‘edgy’ and ‘dark.’ I put the book away.
Eventually, recommendations from friends convinced me to give “Alias” another try, and they all gave me the same reason: Jessica Jones. The woman who always looks cranky, swears too much, and has super powers but never uses them? Well, yes. It turns out, that’s what’s so great about her.
Once I overcame my negative first impression of what I thought “Alias” was doing, it turned out that I really loved Jessica. I read all 28 issues in a big chunk — practically in one sitting — and found a complete, fascinating story of a thoroughly believable woman. Jessica was a high school classmate of Peter Parker and, like Peter, was involved in an accident that gave her superpowers. Also like Peter she decided to use her powers to fight crime but — it didn’t go so well. So when we meet Jessica, she has hung out a shingle to work as a private eye and leave her superpowered past behind. Of course, it isn’t that easy. Jessica swears a lot, she drinks too much, she makes questionable romantic decisions. When we see what she’s been through, a story slowly unveiled over the course of the series, it all makes sense.
The story Bendis tells in “Alias” walks a very fine line. In some ways, Jessica’s backstory isn’t what we expect, but in other ways it’s all too predictable. The destruction of a female protagonist’s agency that we so often lament; the aura of sexualized violence that is all too familiar from “gritty” superhero comics — it’s all at work here. I sometimes feel odd raving about “Alias” when it contains so many troubling elements.
Yet in the end, I love both Jessica and the series that introduced her. Because what is essential about Jessica’s history is that she has survived it, and that every day she goes forward she keeps on surviving it. She’s grown; she’s changed. These days she’s a mom and a wife and a mentor to younger heroes; occasionally she’s even been an Avenger. I miss Jessica’s private eye days, and I hope that Marvel’s series deal with Netflix takes off, so that we see Jessica in live action. Maybe we’ll see her back in her own comic book one day.
In my heart, though, I know who Jessica will always be: the hero of her own story.