Welcome back to the Alias re-read!
Previously in Alias, superhero-turned-private-detective Jessica Jones hunted for a missing teenager via collage art and slam poetry, hooked up with a small town sheriff, became a bodyguard for Matt Murdock after he was outed as the vigilante Daredevil, repaired her friendship with Luke Cage, and started dating Ant-Man.
Alias: The Underneath (#10, 16-21)
J. JONAH JAMESON: What’s a Knightress?
JESSICA JONES: It’s about the only name that wasn’t taken.
This is one of the weirder one-shot issues of Alias. It’s published in the third trade instead of in numerical order, because it makes more narrative sense that way—it’s set after the news broke about Matt Murdock being Daredevil in Alias #14.
Instead of traditional comic book format, this issue is presented in script form, illustrated with soft paint-style images of the relevant characters and settings. The overall effect is surreal and alienating.
Jessica Jones is summoned to the offices of J. Jonah Jameson, iconic publisher of the Daily Bugle, famous for (a) hating Spider-Man and (b) using his position as newspaper publisher to destroy the reputation of superheroes.
Jameson introduces Jessica to his editor as someone who “used to dress up like a superhero.” He not only knows about her time as Jewel, but also has clippings about her later stint as Knightress. He wants to hire her to find out Spider-Man’s secret identity, with reporter Ben Urich tagging along to crack the case.
After a whole bunch of personal insults (Jameson) and deadpan dialogue (Jessica) our hero agrees to take the case. Which seems… wildly out of character, but okay.
Two months later, we discover the twist. Jessica (and by extension, Ben) has been “following leads” from “reputable sources” which involves visiting AIDS wards, volunteering at soup kitchens, and reading to orphans, all on the newspaper’s dime.
Two hundred dollars an hour, all day every day. Plus expenses.
The best part is there is nothing Jameson can do about it. Rake her over the media coals for reading to orphans? Sue her for breach of contract? He can’t prove she’s scamming him, and she has a great lawyer.
Jessica Jones is an evil genius.
The final shot of the comic is an iconic painting of Jessica in her office with her arms over her head, utterly content as she smokes a cigarette, listening to the sound of J. Jonah Jameson having a meltdown over her answer machine.
CLAY QUARTERMAIN: Are you shtupping Ant-Man?
A mugging at a convenience store forces Jessica to be a super hero for two seconds, which is just long enough to remember why she doesn’t do that any more. She doesn’t even get rewarded in cigarettes.
In the middle of the night, she is surprised at her flat by a teenage girl version of Spider-Man who freaks out at her because she appears to have the wrong Jessica. Spider-Girl then takes a header out of Jess’s window, leaving behind nothing but her mask.
Scott Lang proves he’s a good guy by supporting Jessica after the break-in, even though they’ve only dated a few times. The cards are on the wall that he’s a sweet innocent cinnamon roll, too good for Jessica’s world—he keeps pressing her to inform the police and can’t understand her cynical attitude.
He obviously hasn’t been reading the same comic we have.
Still, we get to see Jess’s rare happy face as she realises she now has the kind of stand-up boyfriend (he uses the b word!) who will come over in the middle of the night to board up a window and take her back to his place after a home invasion. Sweet.
Jessica reluctantly gets in touch with her friend from SHIELD, who identifies her intruder as Mattie Franklin, the third Spider-Woman.
Jessica promptly goes to stalk her recent nemesis, J. Jonah Jameson, who brushes her off until she mentions Mattie, his foster-daughter.
The use of Clay Quartermain in Alias is one of several key relationships that makes it feel like Jessica’s history has always been entwined in the Marvel Universe. Quartermain is a SHIELD agent who used to hang out with white Nick Fury in the 1960’s, and was a recurring character in Hulk comics in the 1970’s and 1980’s before being killed off. We still haven’t seen his face in Alias, but he came to Jessica’s rescue back in Issue 7, tidying up after the Captain America conspiracy, and made a throwaway comment that if she had taken the job offer with SHIELD, this sort of thing wouldn’t happen.
Here, the banter suggests a friendship with a side of ex-boyfriend, with him giving her hell for only calling him when she needs something (and for flaunting her relationship with Scott at him).
Mattie Franklin’s Spider-Woman series ran a couple of years before being cancelled in 2000, two years before this issue of Alias was published. Once again, Bendis is recycling characters who have fallen out of prominence, and giving them a new lease of life on the grimdark side of town!
JESSICA JONES: Such a guy thing to say! A girl has a secret in her past — she must have been raped!
Jessica’s head is full of J. Jonah Jameson, so she shouldn’t be trying to have sex with her boyfriend. Cue a super awkward scene between her and Scott in which she stops the sex halfway through because she’s really not feeling it.
Bonus points for showing two adults negotiating sex and consent by using their words!
I like that the art often frames Scott’s body as something nice to look at, while being a lot more discreet about Jessica—there’s one scene in particular where the whole page presents a naked, kneeling Scott Lang listening to Jessica talk. The sheet completely covers her except for her arms, while barely keeping him from a full frontal shot. Uncensored adult comics don’t have to be gross about women’s bodies! Equal opportunity gaze!
As Scott listens while naked, we get the full story of the intense and antagonistic exchange Jessica had with the editor of the Daily Bugle, a man who hates her with every fibre of her being.
Jameson went ballistic, assuming Jessica was trying to blackmail him over Mattie for some reason. He’s desperate to find his foster daughter, and it’s pretty clear he thinks Jessica involved in the girl’s disappearance.
Jessica went back to Alias Investigations and did her private detective thing, researching known associates of Mattie and compiling a report of the story so far. She left messages for known associates of Spider-Woman including a Madame Web and a private detective called Jessica Drew.
She even let her teen fanboy stalker in on the case, promising him a part-time job if he came through on Mattie’s whereabouts.
Madame Web turned out to be a complete weirdo who has visions of the future (or possible futures) and predicted that Jessica would fight and/or kill Mattie. She made some dire comments about Jessica’s terrible past, implying she saw them telepathically. Jessica freaked out, screamed “Fuck you” several times, and fled the scene.
Back in bed, Scott asks what Madame Web saw in her head that so upset Jessica, and Jessica is unable to answer him. When he asks if she was raped, she blows up at him, because of course that’s the go-to assumption about a woman’s dark secret.
This is an important point, because of the extreme and gratuitous use of rape as ‘tragic backstory of female action heroes’ in comics as well as media in general. The over-use of sexual assault as a motivation for a female character to be broken and/or capable of extreme violence means that it loses resonance as a trope. As with the depiction of female bodies in Alias, Jessica’s history of trauma does not follow gendered defaults.
Jessica storms out on Scott after the rape question (which touched a nerve, though not the one he thinks) and heads back to her creepy ‘someone broke in and now the window is boarded up’ apartment, only to get a message from Carol who has already heard about the fight from Scott. (Her reaction is “What the hell did you do?” which is infuriating. Oh, Alias Carol, your friendship model is flawed.
Jessica returns to her paying dayjob the next morning—playing super bodyguard to her friend Matt Murdock. There’s a lovely monologue in her voice about the assholes who outed him as Daredevil, and how Matt is suing everyone instead of being bullied into admitting the truth.
Jessica regrets that he hasn’t confided the truth to her, as it’s now kind of obvious. Her minor revenge is to stand outside instead of ringing the bell every morning, challenging his superpower.
Matt, at least, is a friendly ear to confide in about the Mattie Franklin case. If Jameson formalises his accusations against Jessica after all, Matt will have to bail her out again.
To Jess’s surprise, it’s her fanboy who breaks the case, bringing her the younger sister of Mattie Franklin’s current boyfriend, a junkie drug dealer called Denny Haynes. Cue the strip panels of Jessica listening to a witness with a whole lot of info to share!
Club 616 is the place to find Haynes, but Jessica’s usual uniform of leather jacket and baggy trousers can’t get her past the velvet rope. After muttering “God forgive me for what I am about to do” we get a montage of Jess glittering herself up for a nightblub including boots, midriff-baring tiny clothes, mascara, teased hair, the works. It totally works.
JESSICA JONES: Fuck me. We are a doomed society.
After batting her eyelashes and acting dumb in the ladies room, she gets a direct introduction to Denny—and finds him in a back room, with the slumped, strung-out figure of Spider-Mattie in his lap.
JESSICA JONES: All the things I’ve done, and I’ll be remembered as the broken-down super hero that killed a teenager in self-defense.
Jessica smiles at Denny, but she’s freaking out internally—she thinks Mattie on heroin (she looks terrible) and this is the scene that Madame Web predicted, in which Jessica fought Mattie, and one of them died.
Her thoughts keep coming back to how mad Matt Murdock would be about her doing this, and she has a frantic revelation that she might be in love with him.
Jessica is pulled into the party, and realises in a surreal haze that their drug of choice is flesh cut out of Mattie’s arm, then smoked/inhaled crack cocaine style. She completely loses it, and Denny turns on her. Despite her super strength, Jessica is beaten and bloodied, then chucked into the alley.
Ben Urich—the reporter from the Daily Bugle—finds her there. He’s been following her on Jameson’s orders. She tells him everything, and is stunned that the drug thugs were able to hurt her so badly. It sounds like they’re on MGH—Mutant Growth Hormone, a street drug that messes with your genetic makeup and causes super strength as well as violence and aggressive mood swings.
Jessica checks herself into emergency, feeling stupid about it, but manages to get a doctor who is at least vaguely sympathetic to the fact that she has super powers. The police are way less sympathetic, so she fakes a mugging story for them, then drags herself home, angry at being patronised.
At home, Jessica is attacked by another intruder—a woman with taser-like powers and a foul attitude.
You guys, it’s Jessica Drew!
Like Clay Quartermain, the original Spider-Woman had fallen out of use in the Marvel Universe by the early 00’s, and was therefore a perfect character to bring into Jessica Jones’ gritty world. Since her original series launched in the 1970s, Jessica Drew had been a SHIELD agent, a Hydra double agent, a bounty hunter and a private detective. She had a fizzled re-launch in the 90s, and then turned up as a non-powered supporting character in the Mattie Franklin run of Spider-Woman.
Brian Michael Bendis obviously had a soft spot for the character, as he would go on to feature her strongly in his New Avengers series from 2005 (as herself as well as her own Skrull doppleganger), and she’s been an active player in the Marvel U ever since.
She’s kind of awesome, just so you know.
MRS JAMESON: They warned us. Everybody warned us that taking in an orphan was going to be trouble. She could run away, lash out at us… the anger, the hostility… not understanding who you are or why life has dealt you a shit hand.
JESSICA JONES: I’m an orphan.
The two Jessicas face off, and ours slugs Spider-Jessica in the face which, fair enough, really. They are interrupted by Ben Urich summoning Jessica Jones to a meeting with J. Jonah Jameson, and she tells him she won’t be coming alone.
Cue an awkward 6 panel sequence of Ben and the two Jessicas sitting opposite Mr & Mrs Jameson on a couch, with no words spoken. J. Jonah tantrums away, leaving his wife to do the traditional ‘Jessica listens to a client’ strip panel scene.
Turns out JJJ had no idea Mattie had super-powers. Mrs J knew about the powers, but didn’t know Mattie wore a costume. They’re both feeling betrayed.
Mattie has been missing for weeks, though both foster parents work long hours and they can’t be sure when she actually left. They have not called the police.
Back at Alias Investigations, Jessica and Jessica bond over what a “buncha fuckin’ frat boys” the Avengers are. They make a good team, as they locate Denny Haynes’ home address and break their way into his apartment, then track him to the Matador hotel.
Breaking out the midriff tops again (I cannot emphasise enough my joy at the calculated and very specific use of midriff tops in this storyline), they giggle their way up to Denny’s room where they find a freaky superhero costume party going on, and Mattie unconscious on the bed.
Their arrival sparks off a multi-coloured bubble explosion which has a hallucinogenic effect, sliding Jessica Jones out of the shadowy, hyper-realists artwork of Michael Gaydos, and into the technicoloured superhero artwork of Mark Bagley.
Jewel flashback, y’all!
Jewel, pink-haired and glowing with happiness, is drawn into the arms of a shadowy figure we can’t entirely see (but his skin is purple—remember that). We see her facing a group of superheroes including Doctor Strange, the Hulk, Namor and Valkyrie, who attack her. The fight becomes more surreal, with Jewel suddenly wearing Jessica’s leather jacket, and staring in horror at Thor.
She is hit on the head, she is scared, and Jessica Jones awakes back in the hotel room, surrounded by bubbles and freaky sound effects and people swearing at her.
This fight scene, she can handle. She and Jessica Drew fight off the bad guys, and when she goes against the dude who beat her bloody in the club, she gets to hit him in the face with a television.
Speedball (yes, really), the former New Warrior superhero responsible for the creepy bubble attack, was trying to take down the drug ring from the inside—but he can’t control his powers, hence the bubblesplosion. The cops bust through the door before Jessica and Jessica can escape with Mattie. Jessica Drew uses her spider-bite on the police, while Jessica Jones takes Mattie out the window with a flying leap that smashes them all the way across in to the building opposite.
(She can, as previously established, mostly fly, but sucks at landings)
Six weeks later, at Alias Investigations, Mrs Jameson brings a cleaned up Mattie Franklin to thank Jessica for saving her life. Jessica identifies strongly with Mattie’s garbled explanation about the experience of being long-term roofied by a guy she trusted.
They made the papers, in a rare Daily Bugle story to present vigilante justice in a positive light: SUPERHERO TEAM UP TRIO SAVE MYSTERY TEEN FROM DRUG DEALING PARASITES.
Scott Lang turns up, after giving Jess the silent treatment for six weeks because she yelled at him when he was trying to be sensitive about her past trauma (hmm, so is he a nice guy or a Nice Guy?).
She’s mad because he never gave her a chance to apologise, and he blurts out that he loves her then backtracks and tells her all the things that make her great even though he promised himself no more crazy.
Jessica reluctantly agrees to give him another chance.
Tansy Rayner Roberts is a Marvel Comics tragic, and a Hugo Award winning blogger and podcaster. Tansy’s latest piece of published short fiction is“Fake Geek Girl” at the Review of Australian Fiction, and she writes comics reviews on her own blog. You can find TansyRR on Twitter & Tumblr, sign up for her Author Newsletter, and listen to her on Galactic Suburbia or the Verity! podcast.