27 April 2012

Faster than a DC Bullet: Jessica Jones, Part I: Alias: Ultimate Collection, Book 1

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2009 (contents: 2001-02)
Borrowed from the library
Read March 2012
Alias: Ultimate Collection, Book 1

Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Art: Michael Gaydos (with Bill Sienkiewicz, David Mack and Mark Bagley & Rodney Ramos)
Colors: Matt Hollingsworth
Letters: Richard Starkings & Wes Abbott, Oscar Gongora & Jason Levine

Not only have I read a lot of superhero stories by this point, I've read a lot of "deconstructions" of superhero stories, stories where the tropes of superhero stories are turned on their head in some way. Sometimes this is done to make a clever point (i.e., Watchmen), but sometimes you wonder why the writer bothered. "Oh, you've proved that it would suck to be a cop in a world full of superheroes. Congratulations, so has everyone else who's written this story."

What differentiates a good deconstruction from a bad one, I think, is doing more than simply subverting a genre convention, but understanding what a genre means. Alias is, thankfully, one such book. It stars Jessica Jones, a former superhero, now a private investigator, and her cases take her into the dark underbelly of the Marvel Universe, as she crosses paths with Daredevil, Captain America, Ms. Marvel, and J. Jonah Jameson. But why bother showing what the Marvel Universe would look like from this perspective?

What writer Brian Michael Bendis understands is that the superhero story is a power fantasy-- and Alias is a story about powerlessness. It tells the tales of people who were superheroes, or can't be superheroes, or have had brushes with superheroes, and contrasts the superheroes against their sheer inability to do anything whatsoever. Jessica Jones is a woman with low self-confidence who very rarely gets what she wants. Nothing can exacerbate the feeling that you can't control your own life like putting you next to people whose lives are magnificent. There are a few sequences in this book where Jessica tries to get in contact with the Avengers or the Fantastic Four, and she can't even get past the phone menu or the receptionists. She's completely powerless.

In her cases, she encounters a number of others trying to find power of various sorts: politicians, an ex-sidekick, a teenage runaway who might be a mutant. They're decent mysteries, but they're even better explorations of what it's like to amount to nothing, and what you might do to amount to something, anything. I particularly enjoyed the story where Jessica was trying to track down Rick Jones, who has been a sidekick to Captain Marvel, the Hulk, and Captain America at various times, which presented a very funny flip-side to the superhero archetype:
"This fucking guy doesn't shut up about the -- about the fucking -- what is it?"


"Kree-Skull War. And I have no idea what the fuck a Kree-Skull War is! Some big space war and he saved the planet and shit."
And of course, we're all powerless, right? At least that's what Bendis convinces me of by the time that the first volume of Alias is over. He's used the superhero genre to say something interesting and with thematic depth, and though I like a story where Superman-2 fights the Anti-Monitor just as much as the next guy, I like this a whole lot, too.

Bendis is aided in his "deconstruction" by the excellent artwork of Michael Gaydos. I mean, serious excellent. Gaydos as a very realistic style, suited to a grounded story like this, but what's best of all is Gaydos's masterful command of facial expressions. You always know exactly how Jessica (and all the other characters) are thinking and feeling. The art and dialogue move slow at times; there are two-page spreads that include 34 panels, continuously flipping back and forth between two characters. You really feel immersed in a scene and a conversation.

There's a lot of nice, little touches too, and big ones. I like Jessica's not-quite-trusting relationship with Ms. Marvel, and her own "sidekick," and her brewing relationship with nt Man, and every line of dialogue spouted by J. Jonah Jameson (seriously, give that man his own series).

Not to mention that it is the only superhero comic I have ever read where someone sits on the toilet.

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