The Return of Jessica Jones

jj2I’ve been a little behind in my comic reading, so I’ve only just gotten current on the run of Jessica Jones that’s going on right now. This was a title that I had (and to an extent still have) high hopes for. Jessica Jones is an interesting character and, Brian Michael Bendis (who wrote the original Alias series of that title) is running the show again, and it comes with a reader’s advisory tag, which at least means that people confronting life threatening emergencies won’t respond by saying “oh darn.” Having gotten through the first arc I will say that, although I enjoyed it, the presentation of Jessica Jones has, once again, not quite lived up to the excellence of Bendis and Gaydos’s original.

 

Ok, I’ll admit it, I’m kind of obsessed with Jessica Jones. I blame my pal Meredith, who first turned me on to Brian Michael Bendis’s original arc from Alias that ran from 2001 to 2004. When I got done with it I was pretty much ready to give up reading comics because I wasn’t sure there was anything better left to do. Bendis’s arc had an undeniable brilliance. It combined elements of continuity and discontinuity to tell a compelling story. For instance, the creators used collage in a way that I have not seen very often (especially in Marvel-linked titles). They also brought in J. Jonah Jameson in just about the most interesting way I’ve ever seen. There’s a seriously hilarious sequence in which Jessica Jones is out on a date with Scott Lang. They’re having dinner at an outdoor restaurant when Dr. Octopus rolls by being chased by Spider Man. They spend a moment considering whether they’re going to do something about it, and then Scott Lang says something like, “I don’t really have my gear with me” and they go back to their date.

 

Jessica Jones is interesting because, and precisely to the extent, that she doesn’t fit the traditional mold of the comic book super hero.  Bendis created a character that is an expression of the complex web of agency and fallibility in which human beings live their lives. She was an Avenger, but decided that she didn’t really fit in there. Instead of going out as a solo costumed hero, she chose the more low key life of a private investigator. This is clearly meant to be read as an outgrowth of her will to define and defend her own agency. Being part of the Avengers means compulsory teamwork. Being an individual costumed hero also means being beholden to others, perhaps to the public at large, but at least to screwball pseudo-populists of the like of J. Jonah Jameson. Working as a private eye allows her to control the obligations that she takes on.

 

And therein lies a further point of interest. Although Jones is a reluctant hero, she also feels a certain obligation to help people who are vulnerable. While this sort of duality in terms motivation is not entirely unheard of in the world of superheroes, more often than not it is rendered in the key of macho which effectively drains its emotional force, at least for readers older than about 12. Bendis has really done the world a service by presenting us with a female superhero who doesn’t have to be perfect, who gets drunk sometimes, who fails sometimes, and who is still dead set on living her life on her own terms and no one else’s.

 

The central event in the Bendis narrative is Jones’s encounter with Zebediah Killgrave (alias the Purple Man), a deeply nasty individual capable to compelling people to unquestioningly obey his commands. There’s a lot of backstory to this guy, the essential points of which can be picked up here, but suffice to say that this former Daredevil villain is seriously horrifying. Jones’s interaction with him is particularly grim because he takes from her the one thing that she views as most essentially hers (agency), turning her into a weapon for the accomplishment of his ends.  Ultimately, Jones is able to free herself from his control (and breaks his neck) because Jean Grey had implanted a psychic defense trigger in her mind after an earlier encounter with him. Once she knows she has a choice, the reclaims her agency, dispatching Killgrave in the process. The panel below is one of my favorite ever:

jj1

Needless to say, I was really excited when it was announced the Marvel was going to be partnering with Netflix to bring out a full fledged Jessica Jones series. I didn’t know much about Krysten Ritter at the time (although I’ve since watched Don’t Trust the B**** in Apartment 23 and quite enjoyed it), but it seemed to me that casting David Tennant as the Purple Man was a pretty good sign.

 

jj4Sadly, the end product didn’t quite live up to expectations. Partly it had to do with some unfortunately plot decisions. At one point, Jessica Jones decides that the way to show people Killgrave’s power and criminality by getting herself thrown in a supermax prison. Ok, clearly it’s very difficult to demonstrate mind control to people, but this is a plan that couldn’t possibly work, and, although I think it was meant to reflect her desperation, it ended up making her seem stupid. Later on in the show, Jessica Jones manages imprison Killgrave in a room where his voice is muted (his power is based on the interaction between his voice and some sort of microbe that he exudes). She comes up with a plan that involves introducing Killgrave’s parents into the room. Shockingly, this plan also goes horribly, horribly wrong and anyone who thought about it for around two second beforehand would have been able to predict this.

 

At a more general level, I really wish that we had gotten to see a bit more of the Jessica Jones PI aspect of things. Killgrave was made creepier by his absence. In fact, his proxies were much more frightening than he was when he was actually on screen. Although Tennant played him to nauseating perfection, it would have been better if we’d seen him less. But there was simply no way to do that given the fact that they had cast a big name like Tennant. It wasn’t his fault, and in a way it wasn’t fault of the people producing the show, since I’m sure that they reckoned (correctly) that Tennant’s name would draw viewers who might not be all that interested in the character of Jessica Jones. Still, it meant that they had to turn him into a middle of the screen type of villain, which didn’t really do the overall atmosphere of the show any favors.

 

jj3I had high hopes for the new comic version, and these hopes may still be fulfilled, but I’m afraid the first mini-arc hasn’t quite filled the bill. We start with Jessica Jones having just gotten out of prison, for what we are never actually told, but it’s something that compromised her relationship with the Avengers as well as with Luke Cage, the father of her child. The arc starts off strong, with some interesting interplay between Jones and Cage, and with some of the kind of JJ as detective material that one really wants to see. But then it spirals off into some weird things that don’t seem to develop JJ’s character very much. Worse yet, from my perspective anyway, is the connection that it forges with the Civil War II arc which a) went of for too long already and b) wasn’t all that interesting to begin with.

 

One of the things that the comic version has going for it is that, unlike with the MCU and their Netflix partnership, it’s possible to include some other superheroes  without paying whatever gigantic sum it would cost to get Chris Evans or Robert Downey Jr. (to say nothing of Scarlett Johansson) into the action. So it would have been nice to see some other superhero type interactions over and above the obligatory stuff with Carol Danvers and a somewhat entertaining Jessica Drew cameo.

 

What the original comic series has going forward that this new version seems to lack is a kind of emotional depth. It’s not as if the story isn’t entertaining, but there doesn’t seem to be the same collage-like approach to creating the character that made the first iteration so entertaining. Admittedly this isn’t entirely the fault of Bendis and co. In the first place they did create a very high bar. And in the second, they were very much working with a tabula rasa in terms of Jones’s character, since she hadn’t been developed very extensively at all up to that point. Still, it would be nice to see a bit more of the little story pieces that add up to something more than the sum of the parts.

 

Just so we understand each other, I think this is worth getting. The artwork is dark and beautiful and sometimes almost looks like woodcuts. They’ve had a series of covers done by David Mack (who also did the covers on the rerelease of the original series), predominantly in watercolor (or at least so it looks to me) and those are really beautiful. Given the creative team involved and the willingness of Marvel to put money into this title (since there’s going to be a second JJ series after she appears in The Defenders later this year), there’s every reason to believe that they can up the level of quality to what it was in the original. But it hasn’t quite gotten there yet.

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