Jessica Jones is My Hero

This post originally appeared on my blog in July 2015 when I first started getting excited about the upcoming Jessica Jones TV series, but it also works as a coda to the Alias Reread posts, covering Jessica’s appearances in comics after the original run on Alias ended. This post contains spoilers for Alias, and therefore might spoil the upcoming Jessica Jones TV show if it follows any of the same storylines. Who can say?

So, I’m pretty excited about the upcoming Netflix series of Jessica Jones. Everything I hear about it suggests that it’s a solid adaptation of the brilliant, highly original Alias comic that allows Jessica to be the angry, flawed character that she is. And they’re doing a scene where Luke Cage is on fire (actually showing off his powers!), so that’s pretty great. I’m cranky that so much of the publicity is pairing images of Krysten Ritter with comic-art-Jessica-as-Jewel rather than comic-art-Jessica-as-Humphrey-Bogart but I have confidence that doesn’t reflect the priorities of the show.

Jessica Jones is a hard drinking, chain-smoking, angry private detective who delves into the darker, murkier side of the Marvel Universe. She’s a classic noir hero with a 21st century edge, and it’s amazingly empowering to see a female character who’s just—so—well, flawed and mean and grumpy.

Grumpy female characters are my favourite thing.

She’s also a former cheesy superhero, who defines herself by having walked away from that life. Her social ties, friends and former friends and people-who-hate-me-now are mostly connected to the Avengers in some way.

After Alias ended, Jessica took on the role of superhero reporter in The Pulse (written by her creator, Brian Michael Bendis), in order to work through her pregnancy in a (slightly) less dangerous job. Her relationship with Luke Cage then brought her to the New Avengers title (also written by Bendis) despite her being a non-combatant and it’s there that I became even more attached to Jessica.

She is fantastic as a grumpy noir detective, but I like her even more as a new mother struggling with the expectations and needs of that very uncomfortable role. I love it when fiction acknowledges that pregnancy and childbirth don’t automatically make you inhale the Perfect Mother Handbook and that a lot of the basic work required of early parenthood is less than romantic or fun.

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Jessica pointing out to Luke that she doesn’t magically have any better idea what to do with a baby than he does simply because she’s a woman is one of many, many great scenes between the two of them.

One of the biggest, most anticipated coming events in the mighty, apparently-unstoppable Marvel Cinematic Universe is that the next Captain America movie is going to cover the Civil War storyline. Fans of the MCU are preparing themselves for Cap/Bucky feels, and Cap/Tony feels, and being outraged at favourite characters acting wildly out of character because of political violence and betrayal, which is pretty much what happened in the comics.

Fans have also been side-eyeing the long list of actors/characters appearing in that overstuffed movie. I’ve read fan critiques on how there are too many characters for one movie, and how there aren’t nearly enough to get across the epic nature of it, and is there going to be enough Cap/Bucky with everything else going on? I’ve heard analysis about why the story won’t work with or without Spider-Man, or why we won’t be seeing The Wasp in costume, or how everyone’s really worried that Chris Evans might not have signed up for enough movies and maybe they’re going to kill off Captain America…

I’m thinking about Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. Because for me, while the central Civil War storyline was indeed terrible and relied too heavily on superheroes being awful to each other because Tony Stark told them to, the comic that I felt dealt with the emotional and professional fallout most effectively was New Avengers, and the pivotal characters were not Captain America or Spider-Man or Iron Man.

For me, it was all about Jessica Jones and Luke Cage.

The central conceit of Civil War is that a Superhero Registration Act is brought in, demanding that all costumed vigilantes (and crucially all people with superpowers regardless of their vigilante status) register their legal identities with the US government. The superhero community falls into two sides—that of ‘law and order and paternalistic safety’ led by Tony Stark (Iron Man), and that of ‘freedom, privacy and fuck directly off’ led by Steve Rogers (Captain America).

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The problem with the story is that the pro-registration side is impossible to sympathise with. The government does not merely demand that all superheroes give up their names and other private information into a database (which is in itself made of suck but vaguely defensible). They require that every registered superhero/costumed vigilante work for them, arresting friends and colleagues and doing anything else that the US government requires of them.

Registering means signing up to be a government-controlled weapon with no freedom to quit, to look for employment elsewhere, or to make your own ethical choices as to how your powers are utilised.

Bendis’ New Avengers came into its own as a comic during and after Civil War, ostensibly because it was “Cap’s team” but in reality because of the Luke and Jessica story. Parents of a new baby, neither of them want to register, and so they end up living as criminals on the run from their own government and some of their closest friends. They both have strong political and personal reasons not to register—Jessica quit costumed vigilantism years earlier, and just had a FREAKING BABY. She doesn’t want to (a) be a superhero under any conditions, (b) be forced into employment as a superpowered government enforcer, or (c) trust her government to decide whether there is a maternity leave option.

Both of them struggle with life on the run from the Registration Act, and the constant guilt at the situation for their baby daughter, at the danger and the risk. But what I love most about this story is that we are shown all the awkward parts of the constant negotiation—how Luke and Jessica feel differently about the political vs. personal, and how they bring different baggage to the situation. Luke’s political idealism vs. Jessica’s pragmatism causes tension—Jessica’s role as primary caretaker of their baby compared to Luke’s relative freedom of movement takes a toll on their relationship as her energy levels falter and eventually crash. Oh and Jessica’s best friend, Carol Danvers, is the poster woman for government compliance during the Civil War storyline, so their friendship is strained as well.

There is no easy or right choice Jessica and Luke can make to keep their family safe, or to stay out of the fight, which make their agonies all the more credible. In one crucial scene, Luke Cage is arrested for breaking the law by being an unregistered superhero while buying baby formula. Parenting during a political apocalypse is hard work, y’all. Three destroyed safe houses later, Jessica cracks and yells at her judgmental, conservative mother, pointing out that she knows they are raising Dani under awful conditions, but that they have never had any better options. They’re doing the best with what they can, and that’s such a powerful message to see.

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Being both white and completely outside any US cultural context, I’m not the best person to analyse the racial implications and tensions of Luke Cage’s role in the post-Civil War fallout (though I would love to read any analysis others have done on this topic) but it’s hard to miss the visual imagery of Luke Cage as a large, physically intimidating black man with superpowers, being treated as a public criminal by the authorities for trying to protect his family in non-violent ways. His rage and frustration with the situation is an important through-line of New Avengers, and he has so much more at stake than the various white superheroes who are generally talked about as the main characters in the Marvel Universe.

We’re not going to see any of this in the Captain America movie. Which is a shame, because the central core of the Civil War storyline featuring the ‘big hitter’ famous dudes in the comics was the least interesting and least effective part of it. (We’re also not going to see Sue Storm walk out on her husband and children because she’s tired of being on the wrong side of history.) But I’ll be interested to see if the movie ‘event’ filters into the TV series that follow. Less so with Agents of SHIELD—because Civil War in the comics basically gave us a year or two in which all SHIELD agents were suddenly hugely unsympathetic assholes with a really creepy fascist agenda yes even Black Widow—and certainly not for Season 1 of Jessica Jones which will be out well in advance of Captain America 3, but for the Netflix original series to come next year, and the year after. Daredevil Season 1 showed the economic hardships that the poorer corners of New York City were still suffering years after the destruction caused in the original Avengers movie. Perhaps we’ll get Jessica Jones vs. Civil War in a year or two…

Superhero comics are normally not the medium to find interesting, nuanced stories of early parenthood. But New Avengers gave me that. Jessica Jones is my hero because it feels marvellously subversive and exciting to read about an un-romanticised female noir detective. She is my hero because she brings sarcasm and crankiness and pragmatism where ever she goes, all essential survival traits in a superhero universe. She is my hero because she stood up and said that being a superhero is a terrible job (knowing when to quit is in itself a superpower).

Jessica Jones is my superhero because she represents one of the most realistic depictions I’ve seen in pop culture of a woman dealing with with new motherhood and all the weird identity-shifting mental gymnastics that comes with that job when it’s never something you really imagined for yourself (or even if it was).

Stay cranky, Jessica! I’ll be watching.

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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.

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