In 2001, Brian Michael Bendis, the writer of Marvel’s probably most kid friendly title Ultimate Spider-Man, was tasked with penning the title that launched Marvel’s mature readers’ imprint, or MAX. This was the equivalent of the Vertigo imprint for DC Comics and ended up encompassing many other titles, including Garth Ennis’ critically acclaimed runs on The Punisher and Fury and Rawhide Kid, the first Marvel book to feature a gay lead. He was joined by interior artist Michael Gaydos, who was coming off a short run on the Image Comics incarnation of the cult vigilante The Crow, prolific colorist of dark and gritty comics Matt Hollingsworth (Preacher, Death: The Time of Your Life), and talented cover multimedia artist David Mack (Kabuki). Gaydos has the bar trivia worthy distinction of being the artist on the first Marvel (Alias #1 in 2001) and Archie (Black Hood #1 in 2015) comics to have the word “fuck” in them.
The basic premise of Alias is that Jessica Jones is an ex-superhero, who is now a private investigator and keeps getting drawn into the world of superhumans, mutants, and Avengers even if she just wants to catch cheating husbands, pay her bills, and smoke and drink in peace. Alias is another example of Brian Michael Bendis bringing his interest and background in crime fiction and comics into the Marvel Universe, but while his work on Daredevil is a sprawling, semi-operatic saga, Alias is a more personal work even if its first issue contains an excellent hook for a conspiracy involving one of the Marvel Universe’s most revered figures: Captain America. It reads like a creator-owned comic nestled in the street level corner of the Marvel Universe that is fast becoming the source material for their Netflix shows, like Daredevil, Luke Cage, Defenders, and Jessica Jones herself.
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On a formal level, Alias #1 uses a combination of different storytelling styles in its writing, art, and lettering. There are the long Bendis dialogue scenes like Jessica’s client pouring her heart out to the PI about needing someone to find her missing sister even if Jessica doesn’t really seem interested in the case until Gaydos shows the reader the client’s wealth through inset panels of her jewelry, pearls, and manicured nails in a wonderful interplay between words and images. This follows a nifty, silent sequence from Gaydos and Hollingsworth, who highlights the client’s bright red sports car in the morning before returning to his usual murky, desaturated color palette. It has the visual effect of an uber-chatty person in the morning at work or school when you’re trying to nurse a hangover, which makes sense after Jessica returns from a night of drinking alone and fun/guilty sex with Luke Cage, who is as bouncy and confident as a character that is bulletproof and used to fight crime in an afro, yellow vest, and big gold chain.
The bar chat and sex scene between Luke Cage and Jessica Jones is the big character beat in Alias #1 and gives readers a well-rounded picture of Jessica as a character before setting up the first case and star spangled twist. Gaydos opens things up with a well-timed self swipe as Jessica transitions from slumping with a drink and a smoke on her desk to the same pose at Luke’s bar. Because Luke and Jessica are friends, Bendis uses this as an opportunity to let Jessica vent about how bad she feels about her life filled with throwing sexist men through glass door and getting complaints from police officers, who poke fun at her old life as a superhero and can’t take the well-timed snarky shade that she throws right back at them.
This scene is also groundbreaking because it’s a nuanced portrayal of sex between two consenting adults that isn’t necessarily good or necessarily bad. Jessica feels sort of guilty about letting Luke Cage have his way with her, but she enjoys it too because she wants to “feel something different”. Her narration captions fill in the blanks of their relationship showing that Luke also has a complex relationship to this sex because he cares about her, but also wants to have some fun. This series of pages grounds Jessica Jones as a realistic, down to Earth character in a world that has her continually looking up to (or leaping up) buildings like when she films her client’s sister boyfriend change into his Captain America suit at the issue’s conclusion. It also shows that she doesn’t have any super defined direction or life philosophy, which is refreshing in a universe where heroes can sum up their motivation in a catchphrase or life quote. (I turn you to Gert’s deconstruction of “With great power comes great responsibility” in Runaways #11 to holes in this sort of this thinking.) Jessica Jones just wants to pay the bills, stay out of trouble, and feel something at the end of the day, which is incredibly relatable like early Stan Lee and Jack Kirby issues of Fantastic Four where their building got repossessed and they couldn’t pay the rent. But with more swearing, drinking, and smoking, of course.
Along with her grounded relatability, Jessica Jones’ dark and sassy sense of humor makes her an endearing protagonist in Alias #1. There is her hilarious commentary as he goes on stake-out to find her client’s sister and observations about how she gets most of her She also gets some whip smart comebacks early in the issue, like when she tells a cheated-on-husband sporting a ratty white tank top and spouting “Bitch” every other word (Gaydos doesn’t do pretty or stylish in his figures, and it works for Alias.), “I can’t imagine why your wife would have a tough time communicating with you.” Her words are hurtful, but they’re hurting the right people, and Jessica even gets to throw her violent, misogynistic client out the window of her office and still bill him for expenses. It’s a moment of empowerment not out of place with other superhero comics, but leads to her smoking silently at her desk because she doesn’t have a Tony Stark or Bruce Wayne to pay for collateral damage. Just like in real life where if you break it, you pay for it.
Michael Gaydos’ rough hewn pencils and hand held camera style panel layouts and Matt Hollingsworth’s moody colors give Alias #1 a naturalistic feel and a high level of storytelling sophistication while differentiating it from the slick superhero noir work of Alex Maleev and later Michael Lark on Daredevil. These are people, who cry, curse, drink, fuck, and live, and when Hollingsworth turns up his colors to show Jessica Jones with the Silver Age era Avengers, it’s a wistful kind of nostalgia that you don’t want to talk about even if it’s shiny and pretty on the surface. Bendis’ dialogue captures Jessica Jones’ sharp, observant wit tempered by ennui and frustration along with the halting, emotional speech patterns of her clients and Luke Cage’s sweet, badass confidence.
Alias #1 is a real gamechanger when it comes to Marvel and superhero comics in general as it depicts the life of a superpowered character, who acts, feels, and talks like an actual human being while still dipping into some superhero and detective story tropes along the edges to keep the plot moving.