Ambidextrous 312: Looking Back at Bendis' ALIAS
#312- This is Why (Alias, pt.1)
One of my favorite comics writers of all time, the only “problem” in regards to much of Bendis’ output is that the creative runs are either extremely lengthy, or are still very much in progress. I’m fairly certain that history will reflect kindly on his runs of Ultimate Spider-Man and Avengers/New Avengers, but without a definite ending to provide context, asserting that at this stage feels a bit presumptuous, even for me.
Fortunately, a couple of the books he has been able to walk away from in recent years are holding up on my bookshelf remarkably well, as the writer’s approach to long-form storytelling thrives on being digested in this format. Some have suggested this is a glaring weakness in a lot of his work, but obviously, I think that criticism is pretty ridiculous. Bendis is a writer with a tremendous amount of foresight, and an ability to drive a story to its natural conclusion, without resorting to the kind of cheap shock tactics common in other people’s works. What I enjoy the most about his comics are their supreme commitment to building and evolving character above all else. Everything that happens becomes an opportunity to provide additional nuance, complexity, and dramatic tension, which serves to create a better sense of who these characters actually are, both in and out of costume. Such is the case with Daredevil, and with the title we’ll be discussing for the next two pieces---Alias, with artist Michael Gaydos.
Don’t know if the giant omnibus collecting the entire series is still available, but it’s a nice package that includes all 28 issues, plus the Jessica Jones-themed What If for good measure. If not, think most of it is available in a series of trades. However you can manage it though, this is another run of comics that everybody needs to have preserved on their shelves. As always, it’s best if we start at the beginning…
Take It There (Issue 1)
I remember this being a big deal when it was first announced. Launching Marvel MAX was naturally seen as a response to DC’s legendary Vertigo imprint, and whether or not that’s an accurate assessment, if one was attempting such a thing, this is the book you’d leave the starting gate with. It's directly tied to the Marvel Universe, though it did feature an obviously darker shade of it, and it's written by Brian Michael Bendis, who was quickly becoming the biggest writer in comics, after initially gaining prominence writing indy crime comics like Goldfish, Jinx, and Sam & Twitch. It was obvious this book about a former superhero turned private eye was a perfect fit for his sensibilities, and an opportunity to contribute another great character to the mythos, who is still as important and complex today as she was when this book launched.
You’re probably well aware of my continued appreciation for a well-written first issue, and Alias has definitely got one, especially when you have full knowledge of everything that’s coming next for her. But just so you realize how this is going to go, the first word that appears in the entire book is "F---!" Colorful language would quickly become a permanent staple of the title, but that’s not all you learn from this first installment. Her previous life as a costumed hero, and a connection to the Avengers is teased. As is a relationship with Luke Cage, which wasn’t what it appeared to be. We see the layout that Bendis and Gaydos will use to introduce new clients throughout the life of the series. And we get Jessica Jones finding out something she’ll wish she hadn’t. Put it all together, and you get a clear and unflinching statement about how far the creators are willing to push these stories and what the idea of Marvel MAX was all about. But honestly, we hadn’t seen anything yet, and that is the true mark of any great first issue---more than enough, but nowhere near too much.
Powers (Issue 3)
No one writes interrogation scenes like Bendis. His gift for dialogue turns what appears to be a fairly simple proposition---people sitting in a room and talking to each other---into moments packed with intense characterization, and genuine suspense. Often littered with word balloons and tiny panels, they take on the feel of a well-choreographed action sequence, the characters literally sparring with words until someone falls down. Obviously, a lot of these can be found in Powers, but this particular issue borrows a little of that flavor for a great scene between Jessica and a police detective trying to connect her to the murder of a woman she was hired to find.
Most of this initial storyline is about properly introducing Jessica, finding out what really makes her tick, and we learn a lot about her while she's trapped in this room. From the things she says, to the things she doesn't, to what makes her angry, etc., it's all another brilliant exercise in building up a compelling, relatable character. It also features a nice appearance at the end from Matt Murdock, by way of Luke Cage. Another tiny detail that gently hints Cage and Jessica's relationship is going to be much more…complex than it initially appeared in the aforementioned “controversial” sex scene.
Large Hands (Issue 4)
Ahhh…and here we have an effective, creepy, though slightly misleading cliffhanger. After making her presence known to the man behind the curtain, Jones instinctively goes into stakeout mode, waiting for the guy to make the dumb move typical of many criminal masterminds that realize they’ve been found out. Instead, he sends “Man Mountain Marko” after her, who promptly yanks her out of her car and starts strangling her on the hood of another one. Since we don’t yet know Jessica’s exact power levels and abilities, we’re rightfully concerned for her, especially since this giant freak appears to be getting off on the whole thing, but Jones is quickly back in control and soon in the middle of another series highlight---asking Marko who sent him, and pounding him in the face when he doesn’t answer.
Following a number of blood soaked panels, the guy gives it all up, as it becomes obvious that Jessica could really do this all day. But I’ve always loved the brutality and physicality of this little scene, as it’s something usually reserved for male characters.
That’s The Stuff (Issue 5)
The approval of Captain America means everything in the Marvel U, so the significance of his appearance here at the close of the first arc shouldn’t be lost on anyone. And though it lacks the shock and awe of attack helicopters and sniper fire, Steve Rogers’ visit marks the true conclusion of the first story. For five issues, we’ve been learning all about Jessica Jones, and really, she’s a bit of a mess throughout, but if Cap goes out of his way to find her and personally thank her, then obviously she’s the real deal. It’s also teased that they’ve met sometime in the past, which is an important bit that plays out near the series’ ending.
Chat Room (Issues 6 & 9)
Anyone familiar with Bendis' now-legendary Powers letters column knows that the dude can be pretty funny when he wants. Hell, most of his books are funny, but there's something about the unrestrained nature of the column that gives his unique sense of humor an additional bite. And as mentioned before, this book is all about a lack of restraint, while peeking into the darkened corners of the Marvel U. So knowing that, their is no doubt in my mind that Bendis was sitting at his keyboard giggling while scripting this scene of Jessica going undercover in a gay chat room. As she points out, probably the first time in history that a guy is talking to a girl online posing as a guy. The user names by themselves make the entire scene worth it, to be honest.
One exceptionally clever turn is having the subject of this “sting” turn into an important presence and voice at the end of the story, answering some central questions about the arc that just was. This would be right before Jessica tells him to come out of the closet and stop lying to his wife of course, but it was a great final touch. It would’ve been just as effective as a one-off joke, but weaving it into the main story made for a fantastic ending. And ya’ll know this about me by now…I just love it when everything is all connected.
The Peasants (Issues 7-9)
To anyone with a passing familiarity with Rick Jones, it’s pretty obvious that the young guy Jessica meets here isn’t the genuine article. What is interesting though is how completely he’s embraced this facade, and how easily he’s convinced the people around him that it’s true as well. You can’t help but be a little impressed at the little details of his story---the bounty placed on his head by the Skrulls, why Captain America is upset with him, how the thought of giving up his performing is just too much for him, etc. There will always be something strangely compelling about someone so skilled at convincing people that something is true, when it’s so obviously not true.
I mean sure, in this case “Rick Jones” has probably memorized every single line of the real Jones’ autobiographical book, the integration of which into the narrative was yet another in a series of great ideas, but it appeared at times as if he might actually believe the crap he was selling to everyone. And to keep the con going for any amount of time, it would seem that would be a necessity. He kept his game face on for an entire night with a professional investigator, who actually knew the people he was pretending to have associated himself with. That’s just kind of impressive no matter how you look at it…as was Jones’s reaction after receiving her call from Jarvis. Even I, as a longtime connoisseur of excessive profanity, have never actually said (or heard) anyone say, “God! F____...s__ of all s__!”
The Client (Issue 10)
Fantastic standalone issue that sets up a number of interesting things down the line, and proves that the only thing more awesome than J. Jonah Jameson is J. Jonah Jameson in a book where people can swear at each other. He actually doesn't use much profanity, but there's an additional edge and larger degree of crass in all of his dialogue here, that Bendis obviously wasn't allowed to use in JJJ's portrayal in places like Ultimate Spider-Man. At least I'm pretty sure he never said, "don't toss my salad" to someone in that book, but you know, there have been a ton of issues of that book. For the sake of argument, let's assume it never happened before though.
But how great was it that Jameson came to Jessica Jones in an attempt to "out" Spider-Man and do the job the Daily Globe didn't with Daredevil? The very same person who put her butt on the line to protect Captain America's identity just two storylines ago? Yes, yes, I'm also attracted to irony, and the fact that Jess takes his money and donates it to a soup kitchen, a couple orphanages, and a hospital is really just icing on the cake. As is Jonah's incredible tirade once he realizes exactly what she's been doing. Another in a laundry list of great moments for Jessica Jones that makes it impossible to do anything but love her character and perspective.
And this is where we’ll conclude the first installment of this look back at Alias from Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos. Next week we talk much more about the series, with closer looks at the return of JJJ, the increasing importance of Luke Cage, and a terrible secret involving a dude with purple skin. If I missed anything from these first several issues, don’t hesitate to let me know below. Thanks, and back soon.