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28.1.05

Comics you should own

Alias by Brian Michael Bendis and (mostly) Michael Gaydos, with occasional art by Bill Sienkiewicz, Mark Bagley, Art Thibert, and Rick Mays, and covers by David Mack
Marvel, 28 issues (Sept. 2001-Nov. 2003)

I love Marvel MAX. I love the idea of it, and think it's a shame it hasn't been more popular. The idea that Marvel characters curse and fuck was, apparently, too much for some hardcore Marvel fans, and these days we just have The Punisher and Supreme Power in the MAX line, and Supreme Power doesn't actually exist in the Marvel Universe. A grand idea, created mostly for Brian Michael Bendis so that Marvel could give him the keys to the kingdom, which they now have (he writes every Marvel book not connected to the X-Men, doesn't he?).

Alias is the crown jewel of the MAX line, and although it just ended a little over a year ago, it reminds me of a time when Marvel truly was churning out some of the best comics around. Alias, Morrison's X-Men, Bendis's Daredevil (which he still writes), early issues of Ultimate X-Men, the X-Factor mini-series, Busiek and Perez's Avengers, Straczynski's Amazing Spider-Man -- from about 2000 through 2003 or so, Marvel was really publishing some good stuff. Now? Eh.

So. Alias. The story of a superpowered private investigator (Jessica Jones) who gave up the superhero life because she wasn't really suited for it. She still has powers, but doesn't use them. This series is a way for Bendis to do what he does best, write noir crime fiction, but in the Marvel Universe (and, presumably, for more money than he got working for Image). Bendis made his name writing Powers, which I don't like all that much, and before that he wrote such non-superpowered stuff like Jinx, Torso, and Goldfish. Alias follows along from those titles.

Before I examine this and tell you why you should own it, I'll break it down into its component stories (it ran 28 issues, after all):

Issues 1-5: Jessica is tricked into filming Captain America when he changes from his civilian identity into his costume. Murder, frames, appearances by Luke Cage and Matt Murdock, and presidential politics are involved. It set the tone for the series with a brilliant concept, gritty art, Jessica making bad choices, and the story not really ending satisfactorily. Bendis seems to have a problem with ending his stories well.

Issues 6-9: Jessica is hired by Rick Jones's wife (and it's not Marlo!) to find her husband. She tracks him down in Greenwich Village playing guitar at small clubs. Mayhem ensues, especially when he thinks she's a spy sent to kill him for his role in the Kree-Skrull war.

Issue 10: A hysterical stand-alone issue in which J. Jonah Jameson hires Jessica to find out Spider-Man's secret identity and gets more than he bargained for. Funny stuff -- the best issue of the run.

Issues 11-14: Jessica is hired by a woman in upstate New York to find her daughter, who has disappeared. The girl, a high-schooler, was giving everyone the impression that she was a mutant, and in this God-fearing community, mutants are an abomination. The girl's not dead, but Jessica doesn't expect what she gets when she finds her.

Issue 15: Another stand-alone issue, as Jessica argues with Luke Cage (with whom she had a memorable one-night stand in issue #1) and goes on a date with Scott Lang. Another very good issue, as it allows Bendis to do what he does best -- write lots of revealing and realistic dialogue.

Issues 16-21: A story about a girl dressed in a Spider-Woman costume who shows up in Jessica's apartment one night. She disappears, but Jessica feels obligated to find her. Drugs, sex, a desperate J. Jonah Jameson (the girl's guardian) and a fighting mad Jessica Drew (the original Spider-Woman), plus an appearance by Speedball, of all people (if you don't know who he is, good for you -- a totally lame Marvel hero who was once in the New Warriors).

Issues 22-23: The Secret Origin of Jessica Jones. Not a bad story, but kind of pushing the coincidences of the Marvel Universe. Jessica has a crush on Peter Parker, but he doesn't notice her before he wanders into a science experiment. She almost gets run over by a truck carrying radioactive material, which has a date with destiny (and Matt Murdock). She's in a coma and wakes up just as Galactus arrives the first time. Cute, but a little too cute.

Issues 24-28: The big fight with the Purple Man, who can make anyone do anything he wants. Jessica has big issues with him, and we find out what they are in a series of flashbacks featuring art by Mark Bagley, whose style jars with the serious tone of the flashbacks (which is the point). Jessica finds out she's carrying Luke's child, she has a big confrontation with the Purple Man, and Bendis engages in some breaking of the fourth wall that's not as effective as, say, Morrison's in Animal Man. Still, a good story and a good way to wrap up the series.

These are just short little overviews. Alias works so well because the general themes are present throughout the series without Bendis really beating you over the head with them. The major themes are identity and power. I'll get to identity in a minute (the series is, after all, named Alias). Power is always a trope in a superhero universe, and some writers handle it better than others (most writers of Superman, it seems, ignore it). Bendis does some interesting things dealing with how superheroes and people in general handle power. Jessica is a very strong individual who flies. She's a superhero. Throughout the book, "normal" people ask her why she's not a superhero anymore -- it's kind of a running joke. Bendis shows us the dark side of having power differently than some other writers. Jessica, simply, does not have a heroic personality, yet she has powers that enable her to be a superhero. People who have read the book might say, "Well, she's a good person," but that's not what I'm talking about. Of course she's a good person, or she would have become a supervillain. She's not heroic, which is different. She even admits she's not heroic. Bendis created a complicated person who smokes, drinks too much, has more than one one-night stand, and is rude to people who help her, and then gave her superpowers. This is much more interesting even than Peter Parker and his attempts to pay the rent and stay in school. Jessica rejects the lifestyle her power could give her because she's not that kind of person. In her own way, she is taking control of her life by refusing to use her power. The powerless in Alias don't, and can't, understand this.

Bendis contrasts her rejection of power with examples of others either rejecting it too or abusing it. Carol Danvers, Jessica's best friend, abuses her power as an Avenger in minor ways to help out her friend (and Jessica often treats her poorly). Clay Quartermain also abuses his power in SHIELD to help her out. Neither of these abuses is that serious, but it shows what connections in the world will get you. So much of getting ahead in life is based on who you know, not what you do (talent helps, but there are lots of talented people, and most are unknown), and Jessica has people who are willing to ignore her abrasive personality to help her. Matt Murdock gets her out of a murder rap in the first story. He later employs her as his bodyguard when he's outed by the media as being Daredevil (Bendis does this a lot -- uses continuity within the books he's writing). The "bad guy" in the first story abuses the power that he has to try and manipulate the presidential election. Of course, the Purple Man uses his power for cheap sex and humiliation. The relationships between people are often based on power, even in seemingly innocuous ones, and Bendis milks that dynamic fully. As you read Alias, it's interesting to note when Jessica has the power and when she doesn't. When she has power, she is often brutally mean -- and this is usually when she's dealing with men (but not Luke Cage -- damn straight!). She fucks a sheriff in the story about the missing girl, then treats him like dirt (true, he made her sleep off her hangover in a jail cell, but if that's as bad as she's been treated by a man, she's lucky). She gets real pissed at Scott Lang whenever he tries to help her, not trusting him even though he's given her no reason not to. She doesn't act this way only with men, but obviously the Purple Man and his lurid manipulations really did a number on her. When she doesn't have power in a relationship, she lashes out with anger or acts pathetic, trying to whine her way out of a problem. Soon after sleeping with Cage, she shows up at his apartment, but he's with another woman (Cage is totally a playa). She whines, he rejects her. Cool! Later, she gets in a big argument with Cage, but he points out that they're not dating, so she should shut it. Jessica comes off poorly in the whole thing, and Bendis again reminds us that when people don't have power, they act petulantly.

The major theme of Alias is identity and a person's quest for it. Again, identity is an important part of much of superhero comics, but it is rarely explored with such depth as it is here, and Bendis goes past even that to examine what identity means to each and every one of us. Jessica, obviously, rejected her former identity as a costumed hero. Before that, she rejected a chance at a "normal" life when she became a costumed hero in the first place. She is, of course, an orphan (her family was killed in the accident that gave her powers), and therefore a quest for "who she is" is part of her nature. Each story reveals a bit more about a quest for identity. Captain America's secret identity is a crucial part of the first story (later, of course, he revealed it himself). Jessica has a chance to reveal it, but doesn't. Steve Rogers yearns for a "normal" relationship, and he realizes that it might never happen. In the second story arc, Rick Jones is desperate to hide his identity, even though he's not actually Rick Jones. The idea of "becoming" a celebrity or someone else is explained at the end of the story by someone who is doing the exact same thing, but can't see it. Bendis springs stuff on us like this, highlighting the main storyline with small details. Issue #10, when Jessica is hired by The Bugle, is ostensibly about the search for Spider-Man's identity, but Jessica turns this on its ear and shows that identity might not be all that important. This is the first time in the title that Bendis introduces an element of doubt to his theme. How important is our identity? Jessica is searching for an answer to her life -- it didn't work as a costumed hero, and it's not working too well in her private investigator life either. Even as she discovers Captain America's identity, reveals that Rick Jones isn't who he thinks he is, finds a runaway who has changed (or finally understood) who she is, helps Maddie Franklin (the teenage Spider-Woman) break out of a spiral of drug abuse and more twisted things, and overcomes her past by confronting the Purple Man, she is always looking for an answer to her problems, despite avoiding them for most of the book. But how important is it? Bendis never answers this question, leaving it for us to decide. That's the way it should be.

Jessica is not necessarily a nice person. She's sympathetic, but with an emphasis on the "pathetic" part. She makes some good choices and some poor ones. Bendis doesn't ask us to like her, just understand her journey. This we can do. Bendis also wants to play with the Marvel Universe in a new way, and that's what the MAX line is for. This is a Marvel Universe where bad things happen, and the good guy doesn't always win. Jessica usually solves the case, but she doesn't always understand why things happened the way they did. Bendis ended the series with Jessica pregnant with Cage's child, setting the stage for The Pulse, which features Jessica going to work for Jameson at The Bugle because she needs health insurance (a great reason, by the way). The Pulse isn't as good as Alias, but it's interesting. Alias is a gem of a comic, and again, it's a shame that the Marvel U. can't stand up to this kind of scrutiny. Some of the title is out in trade paperback (I don't know if the whole series is out, because I bought the individual issues), and if you're a fan of the Marvel Universe, you should check it out.

Shoot, I didn't mention the art. Gaydos is rough and gritty. Very nice -- you get the sense that this stuff is actually happening. His superhero fights aren't terribly good, but luckily for us, Bendis doesn't write a lot of those. Still, it's a nice murky tone that fits well with the noir themes that Bendis has going on.

9 Comments:

Blogger Guy LeCharles Gonzalez said...

Great review! I like what I've seen of Bendis' work, particularly Powers, and I've been curious about Alias for a while now. Been eyeing the trades for a couple of months and will now pick them up thanks to you.

28/1/05 5:15 PM  
Blogger Greg said...

That's what I'm here for. I buy a ton of stuff, and sometimes I don't see explanations of why I should buy something. So I do it here, periodically. I hope you check back occasionally. Thanks for the kind words.

28/1/05 7:46 PM  
Blogger Guy LeCharles Gonzalez said...

I've added you to my Bloglines account. You can check out my reviews at www.comiccommentary.com

29/1/05 4:39 PM  
Blogger David said...

Great commentary, Greg; makes me want to go home and read the whole series in one sitting, which shows you've done a good job.

Nice analysis of the power and identity themes, which will probably colour my re-reading but in a good way.

Aside from Daredevil, Alias was Bendis' best contribution to the Marvel U, and The Pulse really hasn't filled the gap left by its absence.

Looking forward to more 'Comics You Should Own'

2/2/05 10:47 AM  
Blogger David said...

PS. I forgot to ask - why don't you like Powers? It's pure Bendis, direct to the veins!

2/2/05 10:55 AM  
Blogger Greg said...

David:

I don't know why I don't like Powers more. It's strange. I read the first arc about Retro Girl, bought it in single issues for a while, but it just never grabbed my interest. I always look at the trades and think, I should buy these and see if I like them. Maybe I will. I know one reason is that I just can't get into Oeming's art -- it's just too cartoony for me. I also think that Powers suffers more than Bendis's other comics with his problems with endings. The Retro Girl murder was just kind of eh. He had good set-ups but I didn't like how he wrapped them up.

3/2/05 10:48 AM  
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