Title: Jessica Jones: Alias Volume 1
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Artist: Michael Gaydos (“Sidekick” art by Bill Sienkiewicz)
Colorist: Matt Hollingsworth
Letters: Richard Starkings and Comicraft’s Wes Abbott & Oscar Gongora
Cover Artist: David Mack
Spoiler Warning! This review talks about the plot of the graphic novel being reviewed. Read at your own risk!
Nothing says “marketing synergy” like a reprint or new trade to coincide with the release of a live-action comics adaptation. In anticipation of the release of Jessica Jones on Netflix, Marvel has reprinted Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos’ acclaimed Alias. It’s also the latest in the rebranding strategy that brought us the switch from Cable and Deadpool to Deadpool and Cable, increasing Jessica’s media visibility by calling it Jessica Jones: Alias. I’ve heard a lot about Alias over the years, always good things, but the collections have been out of print for some time. Now that I’ve gotten the chance to read it for myself, it lives up to its reputation.
Alias sets itself apart from other Marvel comics from panel one, starting with a client shouting the f-word in large letters from behind the front door of Alias Investigations, Jessica’s private investigation business. The series was part of Marvel’s Max Comics imprint, which allowed for explicit content. It would have been easy for Bendis and Gaydos to exploit their license for mature content, engaging in juvenile revelry of expletives and sex because they can’t do it in mainstream Marvel comics. However, they approach their mature themes with, well, maturity. The swearing doesn’t feel gratuitous, which it might if, say, Captain America cursed a blue streak when he appears in the first arc. He doesn’t, but he’s still able to coexist with Jessica’s personal universe of hard-drinking noir.
I think this is one of the best points of Alias. It is very firmly situated in the Marvel Universe, and even though Jess, Carol Danvers, and Luke Cage can swear up a storm, we can still see Thor or read Rick Jones’ autobiography without tonal dissonance. It’s more Starman than Sandman. Starman primarily existed in its own little pocket of the DC Universe, but all of the history and heroes were explicitly there, whereas in Sandman, while the series ostensibly also takes place in the DC Universe, the creators largely ignore this after the first story arc in order to better tell their story. Bendis and Gaydos, on the other hand, cannot tell their story without being in the Marvel Universe and extensively interacting with it. The first arc is about Jess catching Steve Rogers changing into his Captain America costume on video, part of a set-up involving shady backroom political favors. This is before Steve’s identity was public, and Jessica has to figure out what to do with the tape. The second arc in the Volume 1 collection is about Rick Jones’ wife hiring Jessica to find him after he goes missing, and when she finds him, he’s worried about being hunted for what he did years ago in the Kree-Skrull War. They’re superhero problems a normal person might face, especially if they’re trying to escape from their own history as a superhero.
This is the other great strength of Alias: the sense of Jessica’s prior history in the Marvel Universe, which was created wholesale for Alias. Jess is introduced as having been an Avenger named Jewel, who never existed prior to this series, but because there have been so many Avengers, why shouldn’t there be at least one whose entire tenure happened off-panel? Before I knew she was created specifically for Alias, I myself had thought Jess was an obscure character Bendis took out of limbo. Bendis and Gaydos construct a friendship with Carol Danvers that feels like it’s existed for a long time, an implicit former romantic relationship with Clay Quartermain of S.H.I.E.L.D., and a one-night stand with Luke Cage. Nothing feels forced, and all of her dynamics are very natural. Jess herself is a strong character who takes no guff, but she feels alienated, lost. She learns the Rick Jones she met isn’t really Rick Jones; he’s just a young man who has convinced everyone around him that he is. But she doesn’t find out until after she tries to have a vulnerable discussion about Rick’s book, revealing the anxiety attacks she would have after being around superhumans and superhuman events. Even though she herself has super strength, she left the Avengers because she still felt like a regular person, which is a great hook for a superpowered character.
Gaydos’ art has rough lines that, with Matt Hollingsworth’s colors, evoke Alias’ noir tone. The inks are thick lines with uneven edges, and shadows are deep. Even brightly-lit scenes are murky, dull. While the superheroics aren’t incongruous, they certainly stand out. Jewel, for example, wore bright pink hair that cuts through the murk. David Mack’s covers are fractured collages that add to the atmosphere. The letterers follow the tone, as well, with a slightly uneven semi-serif font. Gaydos’ layouts make even static, one-location conversations seem dynamic. Jessica’s interrogation by a police detective feels particularly tense. That said, there are a lot of repeated perspectives and identical or near-identical panels, which I’ve found is a common trope in Bendis comics. It irritates me a little, as does Bendis’ habit of having characters repeat words at each other over and over. It’s not enough to seriously diminish the book’s quality, and your mileage may vary, but it can make me grit my teeth.
My minor quibbles aside, Alias deserves all of its praise. I look forward to the release of the remaining trades, and I’ve enjoyed the Netflix series. Alias demonstrates why Bendis is one of the star creators of modern comics, and it also makes me wish Gaydos had more work.