The Secret Origins of Jessica Jones: Multiplicity, Irony and a Feminist Perspective on Brian Michael Bendis’s Alias
By Karen Healey
Originally presented at WisCon, May 2006
By Karen Healey
Originally presented at WisCon, May 2006
In chapter one of Wonder Women: Feminisms and Superheroes, Lillian S. Robinson points out that the comics have been slow to receive critical attention and particularly that “the general critical silence around the comics is only deepened when it comes to feminist criticism” (6). Robinson’s book was intended to “begin the work of examining the comics from a feminist perspective” (7) and it is in the spirit of contributing towards that work that I present this paper. It is also because, much as Robinson cheerfully admits her fascination with Wonder Woman, I am – not uncritically – enamoured of Jessica Jones, the protagonist of Alias. I read her ironic, meta-narrative of her multiple secret origins as an intriguing performance of feminist historical reconstruction, and I admire her eventual triumph over her nemesis, the Purple Man, who, with his massive sense of entitlement and casual brain-washing, can be read as the perfect embodiment of the patriarchy.
Jessica’s origin as a comic book character began when writer Brian Michael Bendis was refused permission to write about Jessica Drew, former Spider-Woman and then private eye. In response, he created Jessica Jones, a New York City private investigator and former superhero prying into the”dark underbelly of the Marvel Universe” (back cover copy, The Secret Origins of Jessica Jones). Though retired, for reasons which at first remain vague, Jessica retains her fairly standard super powers, which include super-strength, increased durability and toughness, and flight. Like the classic noir stories it mimics, Alias is tightly focused around Jessica’s perspective. She narrates large sections of story to the reader and we never see anything she doesn’t. Alias is the first title of Marvel Comic’s MAX adults-only line and Jessica’s story is specifically and deliberately not for kids. The first word of the series is “fuck!” and by the 11th page of issue one she’s having sex on-page with superhero Power Man (1, no.1).
Alias began publication in 2002 but Jessica is not presented as a new hero, but as an old one no one had hitherto mentioned. She evidently already knows Power Man, she has a complicated friendship with Carol Danvers (also known as Ms Marvel or Warbird) and in the first arc Captain America remembers that they’ve met. Unusually for a comic book, Jessica’s secret origins remain secret until the final arc of the title’s run, although speculation and hints about her secrets were common both inside the pages of the comic and outside it. In that final arc, published in trade paperback as The secret origins of Jessica Jones, we discover that Jessica’s connections to the heroes of the Marvelverse are even deeper than she herself suspects.
We are first introduced to her as teenager Jessica Campbell, who has a crush on Peter Parker. In fact, she is about to ask him out when he is bitten by a radioactive spider: walking home from school later that day, Jessica narrowly escapes being run over by a out-of-control truck carrying radioactive canisters (6-7, no.22). Those familiar with Marvel canon know, though Jessica doesn’t, that this truck is fated to take the eyesight of young Matthew Murdock, giving the world Daredevil. The multiple secret origins of Jessica Jones thus also include the secret origins of two of Marvel’s most popular heroes, even though examining the early pages of their own books will give you no indication of her presence.
Jessica’s own secret origin is appropriately tragic. On the way to Disneyland, the family car crashes when a radioactive canister slips from a truck in an army convoy and smashes through the windshield. Jessica’s mother, father and younger brother are killed, and Jessica wakes from a coma some months later. She is then adopted and returns to her old school as Jessica Jones. It is not, however, until another encounter with Peter Parker that she discovers her powers. Running away, from him and all her painful memories, she suddenly discovers she’s flying. Later she takes out Spider-Man foe the Scorpion, and decides to become the superhero Jewel.
Most of the first issue of the arc is rendered in a style deliberately reminiscent of Steve Ditko’s early work, near the beginning of Marvel’s history. The secret origin of Jewel consciously replicates the standard, even cliched elements of the non-mutant heroes of this era. It is her exposure to radioactive materials that sparks the change and she is an orphan. Also, when she becomes Jessica Jones, her first and last name start with the same letter. This is not as trivial as it seems, but follows the approved Marvel method; just like Peter Parker, Bruce Banner, Reed Richards, Sue Storm and Matthew Murdock. Jessica Campbell becomes Jessica Jones – which is one of the many secret origins of the title – and then Jessica Jones becomes Jewel, which is another.
On one level, we can regard Jessica’s Silver Age style secret origin as an artificial insertion into Marvel continuity. However, this process can also be read not as Jessica being written in, but as being discovered. If we suspend our disbelief, the narrative assures us that Jessica was there all along. She was hidden in the spaces between the panels, slightly off to one side, there just before the comic began, roaming free and foul-mouthed in the margins of Marvel’s history. This resonates as an echo of feminist efforts in history and biography, where the real women whose historical roles were often discarded or downplayed have recently been uncovered and brought to the light. In Alias, Jessica is brought from the margins to the main pages. Furthermore, the style codes her as a Marvel Silver Age solo hero, a distinction hitherto preserved for men, with the possible exception of her best friend Carol Danvers.
In Wonder Women, Robinson points out that the trademark postmodern irony of Marvel comics often obscures the need for a feminist activism by describing a world where “the move has been from prefeminism to postfeminism, without a stop at feminism” (125). However, in the case of Alias, I read the ironic, self-referential pastiche of Jessica’s origin as neatly performing the feminist process of recovering marginalised, hitherto unspoken, female narratives. It isn’t overt and it may well not be intentional, but this reading is certainly enabled by the presentation of Jewel as a real hero whose secret origin is simultaneously both postmodern and contemporaneous with that of the Golden Age Marvel heroes.
However, the retired superhero Jessica Jones who guides us through the main story of Alias is very different from Jessica Campbell, the teenage Jessica Jones and the superhero Jewel – and her secret origin can also be read through a feminist lens. In the next part of the Secret Origins arc, Jessica tells occasional lover Power Man her “big secret”, which is that in the pursuit of her activities as Jewel, she was captured by Killgrave, the Purple Man (6, no. 25). Killgrave, who acquired his powers through accidental contact with an experimental gas, can make his victims do whatever he wants. He is, among other things, a serial rapist and mass murderer – he once ordered 34 people in a restaurant to stop breathing because he wanted to eat his meal in peace – and he had Jessica under his control for eight months.
The Purple Man did not employ physical sexual abuse as a weapon against Jessica, although he raped other women under his power, ordering Jessica to watch. However, he instructed her to love him, then to beg him for sex, and, as she grimly recounts, “I would beg him to fuck me - I would beg him ’til I cried” (14, no. 25). Jessica’s slavery is total: “I lay at his feet. I slept on his floor. I bathed him” (ibid). Despite the horror of this, it is Jessica’s description of how this false consciousness feels which may be the most disturbing aspect of this story: “In your head – it doesn’t feel any different than when you think it yourself, you see? It’s almost soothing. In my mind, I can’t tell the difference between what he made me do or say and what I do or say on my own” (16, no. 25). This particular false consciousness is chemically induced, but this could easily be a description of the patriarchially imposed ideological false consciousness, with Killgrave as its smirking representative. The sexual aspect of Killgrave’s verbal abuse enhances this reading of him: he addresses Jessica variously as a “stupid fucking slut”, “stupid little bitch”, and a “whore.” Even Jessica’s eventual escape from Killgrave was not through her own agency, but through his. He ordered her to fight superheroes, and she did so, attacking Avenger member the Scarlet Witch. The other Avengers reacted to this attack by beating Jessica badly, and she went into a second coma. When she woke, with the aid of X-man Jean Grey, she was offered a role as co-ordinating the Avengers –earth’s mightiest heroes! – but turned it down,saying “I’m done with all of this anyhow. All this costumes and shit- no- I’m done” (19, no. 26). This is why she retired: this is the final secret origin of Jessica Jones.
However, this is a comic book and no villain is gone for ever. In the last two issues of Alias, Jessica is forced into another confrontation with Killgrave. On behalf of her clients, she visits Killgrave in prison, where he addresses her as “my favourite comic book character of all time” (23, no. 26). Killgrave, we learn, is aware that both he and Jessica are in a comic book. He uses this knowledge to further discomfort her: “Something really bad is going to happen to you, Jessica. I wouldn’t turn to the end” and describes her narration technique as “beg[ging] for their love while you act like a whore in front of them” (2, 5, no.27). He also derides her metaphorical recovery from the margins: “One day you’re a high flying super hero no one’s ever heard of, the next you’re the center of the world. Continuity inconsistencies be damned. It’s all about you.” “Don’t contradict the continuity! They’ll eat you alive” (3, 5, no. 27)
After she leaves, Killgrave escapes from prison and finds Jessica, making her walk with him while he creates mayhem in the city. When this draws the attention of the Avengers, he gleefully instructs Jessica that “this is why I brought you, whore. I want you to fly up there and I want you to kill one of them” (15, no. 28). However, unseen by Killgrave, Jean Grey has appeared to Jessica in astral form. Jean, who has been mind-controlled by evil a time or two herself, reveals that during Jessica’s recovery from her second coma, she set up a psychic defense trigger in Jessica’s brain which would prevent Killgrave from controlling her ever again. The choice to use the trigger must be Jessica’s own. “The good news is, you don’t have to be under his control anymore. If you don’t want to. But you have to make that decision,” Jean says (12, no. 28). Jessica does. When Killgrave instructs her to break Captain America’s back, yelling “do it now, whore!”, Jessica punches him full in the face (15,16, no. 28). No longer smirking, blood flying from his mouth and nose, he lands in the windshield of a cab, echoing the accident that gave her her powers and bringing us full circle through the secret origins of Jessica Jones.
Jessica’s final triumph over Killgrave is enabled by Jean’s act of sisterhood and activated through her own agency. Moreover, Killgrave’s prophecy that “something really bad will happen to you” is denied. Jessica’s secret origin insertion into continuity is not punished, but redeemed by her win. Jessica’s victory, then is not only satisfying in the comic book terms of good triumphing over evil, but a symbolically feminist blow against the controlling, all-knowing patriarchy in suitably superheroic terms.
Copyright Karen Healey 2006
Girl-Wonder.org thanks Karen for graciously allowing us to reproduce her paper.