Jessica Jones, which comes to Netflix on Friday, is a game-changer for Marvel. She’s a different sort of hero than anyone we’ve seen thus far, and ventures into darker territory. But long before Jessica Jones was changing Marvel on screen, she marked a whole new day in Marvel Comics.
Almost 14 years ago to the day, Marvel launched its new Adult imprint MAX—and with it came Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos’ Alias, the story of ex-superhero-turned-Private Investigator Jessica Jones. Alias was hugely successful, but also massively important: It totally changed Marvel’s approach to serious, adult storytelling.
In 2001, both Marvel and the comics industry at large were at a turning point: the outlandish excess and “extremeness” of the 1990s was fading out of fashion. The edginess that could only be buoyed by having a million pockets on your supersuit gave way to a desire to tell grittier stories that actually played with serious adult content—rather than reveling in “gritty” angst for its own sake.
And in 2001, Marvel broke away from the Comics Code Authority, the governing body that had closely regulated its comics for nearly half a century in order to avoid books becoming to violent or inappropriate for children. The lingering CCA and the 90s tone had combined, to create a perfect storm of immaturity—comics were blunted to avoid gore and sex and swearing, but the obsession with “gritty” edginess demanded at least some oblique references to those ideas.
But once the CCA was being phased out, you saw a lot of adult comics thatfeatured endless streams of curses and sex acts, without the actual substance to match. Because they could be violent, show explicit sexuality, and include cursing, it was all they did. They weren’t really adult stories—just stories that appeared superficially adult, because of their graphic tone. (At the same time, despite Marvel’s break from the CCA, the company was still hesitant to feature graphic content in their books—most of their series still censor swearing to this day.)
But Alias was different from most “mature” comics—even though it literally opens with a character screaming “Fuck!”
Alias was firmly rooted in the underbelly of Marvel’s New York, giving it the freedom to distance itself from the capes and splendor of superhero comics and instead tell a shockingly personal story about moving on from trauma.
Yes, Jessica drank, had sex—its first issue ends with an infamously graphic moment between herself and Luke Cage—and swore blind, but that edge never felt like it was used just because it could be used. All of the adult material was in service to telling a realistic, tragic, and dark story about an incredibly emotionally damaged woman (who just happened to have superpowers), to add a real core to truly believable protagonist.
There’s a famous story about the commissioning of Alias, told in the letters page of the comic’s 28th and final issue, where Marvel’s Publishing President Bill Jemas read the draft of Alias #1, saw the first curse word, and then asked “Why couldn’t we publish this?” The actual adult content or the tone never really mattered for once. It was the fact that this comic told an adult story with a deep, layered protagonist.
Each of Jessica’s cases as a P.I.—all tragically real, stories of missing people, cheating spouses, and so on—peeled back that rough outer layer on the character and exposed her emotionally damaged core. Although it still frequently turned graphic, Alias became more and more about an exploration of how Jessica’s nightmarish past formed the woman we met at the start of the series.
Alias creates a puzzle for its reader to solve, that slowly reveals a tragic, dark, but understandable and psychologically grounded protagonist. This comic rarely pulls punches, both literally and emotionally. And the series rarely allows itself to be hopeful—many of Jessica’s cases end in failure, or pyrrhic victories that leave her with just as many questions about the world and herself as she had when she began. Alias channels its adult content, and its bleakness, into a fantastic subversion of what it means to be a superhero, and live in a world where these godlike beings exist.
It leads to this famous, amazing scene between Jessica and Steve Rogers, aka Captain America:
But likewise, Alias never falls into the trap of believing that an “adult” tone and complex characters means that everything has to be awful. As more layers to Jessica are revealed and her background uncovered bit by bit, she’s shown to be picking up the pieces of her shattered life more and more. Alias grows from a series about a damaged woman in a hopeless world into the story of a woman who could move on from all that tragedy and forge a new life, just as she had moved on from superheroics but still help people in her own way.
When Jessica’s past is ultimately laid bare in the book’s final arc, “The Secret Origins of Jessica Jones”, we get to see Jessica at her most damaged, under the control of the Purple Man, contrasted with the Jessica of the present day, a woman who’s moving on—and actually recovering from that trauma. Her arc in Alias’ 28 issues was brutal, but ultimately forms a complete story of recovery rather than endless, juvenile grief porn. Jessica grows up, just as Alias does, and becomes a better person for it. Its adult approach to that storytelling and characterization is what makes the series so engaging and compelling to read.
Even in terms of Gaydos’ art—wonderfully colored by Matt Hollingworth, with muted palettes echoing the worn down and “lived in” tone of the book itself—nothing is glamorous or exaggerated (without intention). These are real people, and they look real—rather than being all ripped men and pin-up women. Its default tone is one of hum-drum realism, which is so refreshingly banal, in comparison to what else was on the market, that it makes the moments of actual clashing between Jessica’s “real” world and the world of Marvel’s superheroes all the more impactful.
And yet, even when it’s dealing with superpowers and people in spandex suits, Alias never strays from that adult approach. Even the Avengers are brought back to Earth in their brief appearance, with a shocking moment of violence, and they’re viewed through the lens of Jessica’s complicated feelings about them. It never feels tonally dissonant, because instead of bringing Jessica to their world—the world you still saw in Marvel’s regular comics—Alias brings them to Jessica’s. In so many ways, Alias offers a reversal of your typical superhero story, and not in the lazy manner of just having them swear or have sex. Instead, this comic takes that colorful world and made it as real, as depressing, and ultimately as human as it could, all through the eyes of Jessica Jones.
Although ultimately Alias would suffer a strangely inverse fate—the comic’s massive success led to Marvel taking the character away from the MAX imprint and bringing it into the fold of the main Marvel comics, with a series called The Pulse. You could argue this move, and the removal of some of Jessica’s adult edge that came with it, knocked the character about a bit. But the legacy of Alias still courses through Marvel today, both in the comics and in its adaptations.
The DNA of Alias runs through much of Marvel’s movie universe, in how it tempers and balances its gleeful embrace of comic book shenanigans with human drama. It runs stronger still through series like Agents of SHIELD and Daredevil—shows that try to look at the darker edges of the world below the Avengers. Everywhere in Marvel’s output, there’s a commitment to exploring the reality of its world, among the outlandish, bombastic stories of superheroes.
Even as we wait to see Jessica Jones come to life on Netflix, Alias’ standout realism, and its embrace of a more adult side of superhero storytelling, still feels alive and well in comics, all these years later.