Feeling the Pulse is a weekly issue by issue look at the follow-up series to Alias featuring Jessica Jones and a team of reporters at the Daily Bugle, who investigate and report on superhero related stories.
In this installment of Feeling the Pulse, I will be covering The Pulse #8-9 (2005) written by Brian Michael Bendis, pencilled by Michael Lark, inked by Stefano Gaudiano, and colored by Pete Pantazis.
In The Pulse #8-9, writer Brian Michael Bendis and artists Michael Lark (Daredevil, Gotham Central) and Stefano Gaudiano tie up the “Secret War” arc with an air of measured cynicism as the Daily Bugle decides to not print the story of Nick Fury sending superheroes to fight an unsanctioned war on foreign soil. And it’s not because they’re afraid of Nick Fury, who shows up all grandfatherly in a hologram to Luke Cage and Jessica Jones towards the end of The Pulse #9, but because they don’t have all the facts in a story that could lead to World War III. But these issues aren’t all down in the dumps as Jessica Jones resists HYDRA interrogation (Pretty damn easy after all those cops in Alias and an earlier issue of The Pulse) and shows her love for Luke by looking for him all over the state of New York before having an emotional reunion involving the words “I love you”. It’s sweet, well-earned, and adds humanity to the conspiracy and journalism plots. However, The Pulse #8-9 isn’t without its flaws even though Lark, Gaudiano, and colorist Peter Pantazis evoke Michael Gaydos’ style on Alias when drawing Jessica Jones and the various supporting characters. First, there is Wolverine yelling about being raped in front of Jessica Jones, who has been forced to watch young women being sexually assaulted by Killgrave. This isn’t mentioned at all, and Bendis just uses it to make Wolverine seem really crazy when Pantazis’ blood red colors do an even better job of showing him that he’s not in his right mind. There is also Danny Rand (aka Iron Fist) acting completely mean and cold around Jessica and not letting her see Luke thinking she’s just another Power Man groupie. Night Nurse comes out and blames it on insomnia, but it’s a little sad that Luke’s best friend and girlfriend get off on the wrong foot for seemingly no reason.
The Pulse #8 opens with several silent pages as we get to see the supervillain attack Luke and Jessica’s apartment in Harlem and explode (Another great use of red from Pantazis.) before coming to the present day where HYDRA is giving her the old sales pitch appealing to her outsider nature, talking about S.H.I.E.L.D.’s corruption, and promising money and support for her and her baby. At the Bugle, Ben Urich is desperately trying to find Jessica and get to the bottom of this Nick Fury story when he gets a call from a retired S.H.I.E.L.D. agent named Al McKenzie, who corroborates Jessica’s story about Nick Fury doing something seriously wrong, and tells him that the attack on the hospital was technology themed supervillains taking revenge on Fury for invading foreign soil without the sanction of the U.S. government or U.N. McKenzie says that Urich should print this story even if Fury’s activities have been off limits in the past. Urich has his usual argument with Jameson, but the story’s still in play as Agent Clay Quartermain and S.H.I.E.L.D drop in and save Jessica after she tells a HYDRA agent to stuff thousands of dollars in cash up her ass. The issue ends with Jessica acting Quatermain about the “Secret War” and S.H.I.E.L.D’s illicit activities, but he doesn’t say anything.
The Pulse #9 amps up the drama and opens with Jessica Jones berating J. Jonah Jameson for being a terrible person and letting her get kidnapped by HYDRA. As she runs off to look for Luke, Urich follows her and tries to help when Al McKenzie (who looks a lot like Donald Sutherland) shows up, applauds Jessica for not joining HYDRA, and then gets punched by her. She lets him go after he gives her an address where Luke is in upstate New York. Urich knows he’s lying, but Jessica goes into a nearby dive bar any ways and runs into a drunk, rage filled Wolverine. Wolverine hits on her, then gets angry when she mentions S.H.I.E.L.D., and talks about Jessica was probably set up so he would get angry enough to kill Fury on behalf of S.H.I.E.L.D. Wolverine says that Luke Cage is a good guy, and Urich suddenly has an epiphany that Luke is staying with the Night Nurse to patch up his wounds. (He knows about her because he’s friends with Daredevil.) Luke is being heavily guarded by several martial artists, including Misty Knight, Shang Chi, and Iron Fist, but after a super emotional jarring conversation with Danny Rand, Jessica finally gets to see him and sharing a touching moment. This is ruined by a hologram of Nick Fury showing up and saying he cares about them, but doesn’t give any details about the Secret War. (Jessica totally tells him off.) The issue ends with Jameson and Robbie Robertson deciding not to print a story about Nick Fury’s illegal activities and going with their usual “Spider-Man: Menace” headline.
Pete Pantazis really punches up his colors in The Pulse #8-9 in ways both subtle and bombastic. As I mentioned earlier, he uses red during moments where Jessica Jones feels her life or her baby’s life is being threatened. The two page opening scene of The Pulse #8 is very powerful because Bendis lets Lark and Pantazis do the heavy lifting with plenty of shadows overlaid by red and by showing the scene from Jessica’s POV as her apartment crumbles all around her. It’s a visual representation of how terrible she has been feeling throughout the arc. This red comes back when Jessica runs into Wolverine at the dive bar where he is drinking away his trauma of being used as a human weapon yet again by S.H.I.E.L.D. in a similar manner to the Weapon X program. He flashes his claws as Lark breaks up the page, but relents just before the killing blow as Pantazis relaxes his colors from scarlet red to just a general dark palette.
This is a strong way to show Wolverine’s berserker rage as well as his humanity, but Bendis kind of ruins it by having him yell, “Stop raping me” over and over again in regards to secret government organizations manipulating him. Comics is a medium that prides itself on economy of storytelling, and the best comics use a well-placed facial expression or use of color to convey meaning instead of dialogue. But Bendis won’t let Pantazis’ excellent color work stand for itself, or even Lark’s panels of Jessica Jones looking terrified as Wolverine pops his claws. He has to have Wolverine go on about being a rape victim in front of someone, who was actually sexually assaulted. Of course, he’s not in his right mind, but usually when Wolverine goes feral, he’s non-verbal or monosyllabic. (See the laconic killing machine when he was brainwashed in the “Enemy of the State” from Mark Millar’s run on Wolverine.) So, this is both out of character, insensitive, and just plain takes me out of the story. Luckily, Bendis course corrects by the end of the scene with Pantazis returning to a neutral palette, and Wolverine saying that Luke Cage is one of the four good guys he knows. (Who are the other three, I wonder? Maybe Bendis expands on this in his New Avengers run that I’ve only read in bits and pieces.)
Along with Wolverine, Bendis’ characterization of Iron Fist is inconsistent in The Pulse #9. It’s perfectly understandable that he, Shang Chi, and Misty Knight (We could have used a pointless ninja brawl with those three in the same panel.) are protecting Luke Cage, whose injuries were considered life threatening back in The Pulse #6. However, Danny acts very rudely towards the mother of his best friend’s child. It isn’t like he doesn’t know who Jessica is and tersely acknowledges her presence and pregnancy in their first interaction. However, then he goes on a long diatribe about how he and Luke have had many enemies since their days as Power Man and Iron Fist, and how does he know that she’s not one of them. Then, he closes by claiming that Luke might not be the father of her child. (Lark nails Jessica’s anger in this scene with a subtle zoom towards her bloodshot eyes and bandaged face.) But before he does or says anything, Night Nurse and Misty Knight shut him up, and we finally get some payoff to Jessica’s breathless search throughout New York that included enduring a HYDRA monologue, calling in a favor from an ex-boyfriend, and having adamantium claws a couple inches from her face.
So far, I’ve said a lot of negative things in this article, but The Pulse #8-9 does an excellent job with its characterization of Ben Urich as well as creating some genuine emotional catharsis in Luke and Jessica’s reunion scene. These issues incorporate the Daily Bugle reporters into the narrative nicely while showing that Ben Urich has had to compromise in the past to get stories and has connections other than the ones who wear red and run or swing from rooftops. Bendis and Lark use the illustrated script format to make the extended conversation between former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Al McKenzie and Urich easy on the eyes as well as pulling a twist that, yes, S.H.I.E.L.D. is okay with the Bugle printing a story showing Nick Fury in an unfavorable light. Lark’s art shows how restless Urich is as he shifts from side to side and looks over his shoulder, especially after McKenzie says the call has been “monitored”, which is different from being “bugged” and what the government does to all major media companies in an post 9/11/NSA/Patriot Act world.
And in this short exchange, we drift away from the world of superheroes to explosions and to a world where people who leak government secrets are literally stuck in Russia. This fear of retaliation from an organization that can send a full squad of agents based on a cellphone call from three days ago (Jessica freaking out and calling Agent Quatermain with no result before she fainted and was scooped up by HYDRA agents.) is truly frightening, and the HYDRA agent’s words about S.H.I.E.L.D. now being extralegal terrorists kind of rings true in the light of these events. Espionage is one thing, but this is covering up a military engagement against the sovereign state of Latveria. (These details actually don’t make it into The Pulse, and not reading the actual Secret War adds to the suspense and makes the ending doubly bitter.) The “Secret War” arc ends in bitter resignation as Urich types up a story about the Secret War even though he knows Agent McKenzie is manipulating him to take down Nick Fury, but it’s Robbie Robertson, the idealist and proponent of news journalism as truth, who doesn’t decide to print it, not the pragmatist J. Jonah Jameson. He realizes the messiness and potential gravity of this situation and decides to protect his readers (and the United States by extension) by not going forward with a story that relies on an unnamed source. It would be thrilling to read about the Daily Bugle taking down a corrupt S.H.I.E.L.D. All the President’s Men style, but Bendis and Lark give us a story that rings true to the 21st American surveillance state albeit in the heightened world of the Marvel Universe.
The short, quiet scene that Jessica and Luke share towards the The Pulse #9 is a heartwarming to the cold dose reality served up by the Daily Bugle deciding not to print a story about Nick Fury and Secret War. Lark uses a nine panel grid to isolate the focus on Jessica and Luke’s feelings while Bendis easily conveys their chemistry together by having Jessica’s confession of love stem from a witty retort to a good natured quip from Luke saying she used to be a “tougher broad”. But, of course, Nick Fury shows to ruin the mood, but letterer Cory Petit turns thing up to eleven when Jessica tells the hologram to “Get the @#$% of our lives”. Like, in Alias, where she just wanted to make ends meet, Jessica just wants to keep her child and Luke safe and not have to deal with random explosions and S.H.I.E.L.D cover ups. Her anti-superhero/anti-establishment attitude serves her well in this situation.
Some issues with his writing of Wolverine and Iron Fist aside, The Pulse #8-#9 is a strong ending to Brian Michael Bendis, Brent Anderson, Michael Lark, and Pete Pantazis’ “Secret War” arc, which acts as the darker counterpoint to the investigative journalism triumph that was “Thin Air”. Lark was a good choice of artist for this story compared to Mark Bagley because he is known for doing stories that are more street level and cynical of costumed heroes, like Gotham Central or Daredevil. He also works well in the shadows, which really shows in the climactic scene in the dive bar with Wolverine or even the HYDRA warehouse. “Secret War” is overall a better arc than “Thin Air” because it also focuses more on Jessica’s and Ben Urich’s story than Spider-Man’s grudge with the Green Goblin and gets bonus points for shedding new light on Secret War from a different perspective.