Investigating Alias #22-23

Alias23CoverInvestigating Alias is a weekly issue by issue look at the source material that inspired the popular and critically acclaimed Jessica Jones Netflix show.

In this installment of Investigating Alias, I will be covering Alias #22-23(2003) written by Brian Michael Bendis, drawn by Michael Gaydos, and colored by Matt Hollingsworth.

In Alias #22-23, writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Michael Gaydos channel their inner Stan Lee and Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby respectively and give us the “Secret Origin of Jessica Jones”. Bendis’ plot manages to put Jessica Jones adjacent to many of the major events of the Silver Age Marvel Universe as she turns into Marvel’s equivalent of Forrest Gump, but she can fly and has a penchant for dropping f-bombs. However, he and Gaydos also lay the foundation for many things in her future, like her problems controlling her powers, issues with superheroes in general, and her lack of fear in publicly calling out horrible people. (It’s truly a crowning moment of awesome when she calls Flash Thompson “a fucking repressed dickhead”.) And along the way, Bendis and Gaydos don’t shy away from showing her difficult childhood with a heartbreaking scene where the head of the children’s home tells her it’s a “miracle”.

Alias #22 opens with a note that Gaydos is doing the art in the style of Steve Ditko, whose stories in Amazing Spider-Man portrayed Peter Parker as a social outcast by day and fighting animal themed villains by night before John Romita Sr turned the book into a romance comic with tights. (For the record, I enjoy both artists’ work.) Jessica Campbell (later Jones) is a student at Midtown High and is an even bigger outcast than Peter Parker, who she has a huge crush on. She finally gathers her courage to ask him out, but then he gets bit by a spider and she almost gets hit by the radioactive waste truck that gives Daredevil his powers. The scene turns to Jessica’s home life as her bratty little brother catches her masturbating to the Human Torch in his Fantastic Four comic. As her parents argue about her dad not standing up to his boss on a family road trip (He works for Tony Stark.), Jessica and her brother get into a tiff, which leads to her dad not looking at the road and crashing. Her entire family dies, and Jessica is left in a coma. In another crazy coincidence, she wakes up during Galactus’ invasion of Earth in Fantastic Four #48-50, and after a stay in a group home, gets adopted by the Jones family.

Alias #23 is all about Jessica Jones getting used to her new powers. She returns to Midtown High because her adopted family lives in Queens as well, tells off Flash Thompson, and runs away from Peter Parker, when he says that he “pities her”. This combined with the grief over the loss of her family causes her to fly for the first time and fall in the water and almost drown. Then, Thor saves her, and she thanks him by swearing and puking on his boots. She then has an insightful talk with her adopted dad about superheroes, and how that how they come across to society is why certain ones are loved and hated. Basically, the Fantastic Four are popular because they don’t wear creepy masks and are a nuclear family. The issue and short arc closes with Jessica testing her strength and flying and stopping a Z-level supervillain. It’s a traditional superhero deed done in a non-superhero way because she has no costume or codename.

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In “Secret Origin of Jessica Jones”, Brian Michael Bendis finds a happy medium between the deconstruction of superheroes in the work of Alan Moore and Frank Miller in the 1980s and the reconstruction of them in the work of Kurt Busiek and Mark Waid in the 1990s. However, Bendis is more concerned with laying the first stones of Jessica Jones’ character arc than making any sweeping statements about superhero comics as whole although he makes an excellent in-universe statement about why the Fantastic Four are beloved, and Spider-Man is feared towards the end of the story. Alias #23 ends on an up note as Jessica Jones has taken down her first supervillain with her flying, but not landing powers, but it’s no one big time just a guy, who looks the like love child of the Scorpion and one of the Serpent Squad’s groupies. It’s a glimpse of hope after the death of her family, her coma,  bullying at school, and failed attempts to fly. Bendis also finds some humor in the straight laced nature of the Silver Age by contrasting Jessica Jones’ speech pattern with Stan Lee’s dialogue, which he even takes word for word from Amazing Fantasy #15, a comic he adapted in the first arc of Ultimate Spider-Man as well as her puking all over Thor’s boots, which works really well because Gaydos draws him just like Jack Kirby’s Thor.

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In fact, the visual evolution and progression of Michael Gaydos’ art style from straight Ditko to a hybrid Kirby meets his own style towards the end of issue 22 and 23 is the most fascinating thing about his arc of Alias. Gaydos’ initial conception of Jessica Jones is Ditko meets Daniel Clowes with Jessica being lonely, alienated, and at the margins while sporting the glasses, freckles, and almost the hairstyle of Enid Coleslaw from Ghost World. Colorist Matt Hollingsworth gives the pre-coma scenes a four color feel with bright yellow buildings, blue shirts, and green grass. The reading experience is like finding a forgotten comic from the 1960s, but unlike Stan Lee, Bendis lets the art breathe without overwhelming the page with narrative captions and constant expository dialogue. A six panel grid showing Peter Parker getting in a car while Jessica silently blinks her eyes showing that she is smitten with him before tracing her hand on her diary. The scene where she masturbates to the Human Torch, and where her family dies are also silent as Gaydos’ art and Hollingsworth’s colors chronicle Jessica’s sexual awakening and the most tragic moment of her life through their art and colors. Nothing else needs to be said.

When Jessica wakes up from her coma in Alias #22, the art looks more similar to Gaydos and Hollingsworth’s usual style. The colors are muted, and Gaydos’ style is more realistic than the Ditko style cartooning of the earlier bits of the issue. However, whenever a superhero shows up, like the Silver Surfer or Thor, the designs and movementsare pure Kirby magic with the Silver Surfer soaring through the sky as Galactus blasts him with the digital equivalent of Kirby krackle. This contrasts with Jessica’s awkward moments as Gaydos cuts up the page into multiple panels to show her failed attempts at flying and flailing around in the water. She is different from the smooth moving, lantern jawed heroes of the Silver Age mainly because she’s an awkward teen. Bendis and Bagley did some similar things with Peter Parker in Ultimate Spider-Man showing him “spazzing out” and breaking desks when he nodded off in class and making him not the most competent fighter in some of the earlier arcs of the comic. Superpowers are definitely a great metaphor for growing up, and this is why teen superheroes continue to be a draw with Bendis still writing about the teen hero Miles Morales in 2016.

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The most revolutionary moment in Alias #22 and perhaps in Marvel Comics history is the teenage Jessica Jones touching herself as she looks at pictures of the Human Torch. This is probably the first time someone has been showed pleasuring themselves in a superhero comic, and Neil Gaiman wasn’t allowed to use the word “masturbate” in The Sandman because apparently no one in the DC Universe in the late 1980s masturbated. (This explains so much about Batman.) But what makes this scene so important is that Bendis and Gaydos are showing that women can be sexually attracted to superheroes (and superheroines) just like men are. Gaydos’ art evokes the female gaze as he cuts between the picture of the smiling Human Torch, and Jessica slowly putting her hand in her underwear. In that moment, he exists for her own pleasure, and Bendis doesn’t commentate on that scene showing that it is just a natural human function. Of course, her little brother bursts in, and this sets up the antagonistic relationship between them that leads to their squabble in the car and possibly the fatal crash. However, although she is a part of the fantastic Marvel Universe, Jessica Jones has perfectly normal sexual urges and can have an orgasm by herself.

Silence continues to be golden in another important sequence in Alias #23, which is when Jessica’s powers gottenJessFirstFlight through the time honored Marvel way of something nuclear, atomic, or radioactive activate. (Even the X-Men, who are born with their powers, are called the “Children of the Atom” because some of their parents, like Hank McCoy’s, worked around nuclear power plants.) Gaydos creates a concentrated emotional burst cutting between Jessica’s crying face, horrible things from her past, and shots of her shoes as she wobbles into the air. Hollingsworth overlays the past panels with yellow to differentiate between them and her current situation. Getting a pity talk from Peter Parker is the impetus for her taking flight for the first time, but it’s really more complex than that like her guilt over the car crash, Flash Thompson’s bullying, the woman at the group home say that it’s miraculous she could find foster parents for her, and her coma. Her flight gets a full page splash, but she’s no Superman and doesn’t strike an iconic pose. Her profanity as she falls into the water is how someone might actually react to having superpowers instead of finding the nearest crashing plane and catching it. (I’m really throwing shade on Supes in this paragraph.) The faux-Shakespearean English/Asgardian dialogue that Bendis writes for Thor is some of the funniest writing Bendis has ever done.

And even though she doesn’t don a costume, and her first heroic deed is saving a laundromat from being robbed, Bendis finds time to comment on the superhero genre. He does this in a conversation between Jessica and her foster dad Mr. Jones when she asks him the age-old question of why Spider-Man is hated and feared, and the Fantastic Four are beloved by the public while her future employer J. Jonah Jameson pontificates in the background. Mr. Jones nails the difference in one word, “image”. In the Marvel Universe, Spider-Man is a freaky, mysterious looking guy (Even though he has become the mascot of Marvel in real life.) while the Fantastic Four are a family sitcom with superpowers. Jessica’s dad says that he would pick a better costume and style than Spider-Man if he was a superhero and doesn’t say that he would 100% be a hero if he had special powers. This line of dialogue creates a little tension in Jessica between doing heroic things and just living a normal life and paying the bills that is explored throughout Alias from her hesitating to stop the robbery of a convenience store to trying to help Captain America keep his secret identity. She doesn’t want to be a superhero in the comic, but keeps getting caught up in that word through her cases, work as a bodyguard for Matt Murdock, and even her love interests, Scott Lang and Luke Cage.

This complicated relationship with superheroes stands in contrast with her antagonistic relationship with superheroes in the Jessica Jones TV show. Her origin in the show involves a similar non-superhero costumed wearing exploit as she stops a mugger, but then Kilgrave shows up immediately. Also, she is completely opposed to the Jewel costume that Trish Walker makes for her unlike in Alias where she wore it to fight crime for a while. The Jessica Jones TV show’s lack of connection to the Marvel Universe made it a refreshing break from the Easter Egg and teaser-laden Marvel Cinematic Universe films, but it loses a chance to explore her place in the superhero genre. But this is a smart idea because Fox owns the Fantastic Four, and most of Marvel’s big guns, like Captain America, Spider-Man, and even Carol Danvers and Scott Lang, are basically exclusive to the films.

Jessica Jones has a very Marvel and a very un-Marvel origin in Alias #22-23. Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos make her connected to major figures and events of the Marvel Universe, like going to the same school as Peter Parker and waking up from her coma the same night as the Galactus trilogy, as well as making her an orphan and getting her powers Atomic Age style. However, there is still the same emotional nuance and realism found in the previous 21 issues of Alias even though Gaydos’ art style is similar to Steve Ditko’s and Jack Kirby’s in many places as Jessica deals with her crush only talking to her because he feels bad for her, feels unwanted as one of the older kids at the group home, and takes the masturbation subtext present in Spider-Man’s powers to the bright light of day.

“The Secret Origin of Jessica Jones” is my personal favorite arc of Alias as Bendis, Gaydos, and Hollingsworth pay tribute to the Marvel Age of Comics while not being weighed down in nostalgia and use its visual styling through modern storytelling tricks like silent pages and decompression to give Jessica Jones a strong foundation as a character.