From Alias to Screen: Comic Book Adaption in Marvel’s Jessica Jones

In November of 2015, Marvel Studios joined forces with Netflix to release their second in a planned series of five 13-episode television series.  The show, Marvel’s Jessica Jones, was to be based on the 2001-2004 comic book Alias, and it’s central character, Jessica Jones.  Alias, written by Brian Michael Bendis and drawn by Michael Gaydos and David Mack, was the first title in Marvel’s new MAX line, meant to be darker, more adult reading; the R-rating of comic books.  For many, Jessica Jones was a strange character choice for front-lining a television show to take place within Marvel’s Cinematic Universe.  She wasn’t particularly well-known — despite excellent reviews, Alias was not widely-read — and in fact, much of the response to the announcement of the show was along the lines of, “who is Jessica Jones?”  She wasn’t even a super hero, the character having retired from vigilantiasm after a tragic incident, and turned to being a private eye.

Despite the doubt regarding the show, it was upon its release received extremely well, garnering almost nothing but praised from critics and viewers alike.  The adaption was a resounding success, not only because it transposed the tone, realism, and characters from the original comic incredibly well, but because it managed to both take the original material seriously without taking it too seriously, and because it kept itself apart from the commercialization that has occupied much of the rest of Marvel’s cinematic fare.

A large part of Jessica Jones‘ success has to do with its “efforts to translate the form along with the content of the comic books . . . whether that be in the form of visual transposition (of a comic book panel into a cinematic shot) or something more complicated that evokes the readerly experience of the original comic books” (Jeffries, 266-7). One example of such efforts finding success took place in one of the first scenes of the show, in which early Alias panels were not only inserted essentially word-for-word, but much of the tone and feeling evoked from the graphic novel were also translated to the television scene.

Alias #1

 

Part of the reason that this part of the adaption was so successful was because “both comic books and film communicate primarily through image-based storytelling that is more visual than verbal, and as such the process of adaptation from one medium” made it easier for such aesthetically based feelings and narratives to translate (Jeffries, 266).  Furthermore, Jessica Jones did an excellent job of “taking the iconic still images from the book and bringing them ‘to life’” (Jeffries, 268).  One such example of this is pictured below.  In Alias, the books’ realism often came through in scenes of Jessica completing everyday tasks in rituals, such as sitting on the toilet.  These scenes came to be much appreciated by readers, as such normal scenes and tasks rarely ever receive portrayal in fiction media.  As such, when the show too pictured Jessica on the toilet, it was a clear transposition of that same image and idea from the book.

 

Alias #1
Alias #1
Jessica Jones 1x01
Jessica Jones 1×01

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jessica Jones is certainly not anywhere near the first on-screen media to be based on graphic novels.  Superhero movies, and in particular Marvel superhero movies, have become extremely common in recent years, but not all have received the literary and critical acclaim the Netflix show has garnered.  “One common criticism” of these adaptions are their “conformity to an oft-cited shortcoming among blockbusters: [their] emphasis on explosions over character development” (McAllister, 108-9).  This is a trope that Jessica Jones avoids entirely.  There is a total of one actual explosion throughout the course of its 13 episodes, and the same numerical equivalents to other dramatic, loud scenes.  The character development, however, takes center stage, with the show borrowing the same character-driven narrative that was central to Alias.  This was often illuminated most clearly in scenes such as the one pictured below, with Jessica passed out on her desk.  In each portrayal, the image/scene is clearly focused on the character and on establishing her personality and habits.  Certainly, such a scene would not be likely to appear in the more commercialized portrayals of graphic novels such as Marvel’s The Avengers.

 

Alias #1
Alias #1

 

 

Jessica Jones 1x01
Jessica Jones 1×01

Although Alias was never exceedingly well known amongst comic book fans, there were still large numbers of viewers who had read and enjoyed either that comic, or other ones starring the same characters as portrayed on the show.  In these cases,  “audiences appreciate adaptations precisely because of the mass of existing pop-cultural knowledge they bring to them” (Murray, 7).  For example, Jessica Jones stars one popular Marvel character, Luke Cage, who in the comics had a catch phrase ‘Sweet Christmas.” That same catch phrase was used twice in the show purely for the appreciation of prior fans of the comics.  Similarly used was the scene below from the comics, in which a conversation between Luke and Jessica is translated to the show nearly word for word, and followed soon after by a one-night stand that was also taken right from the pages.

 

Alias #1
Alias #1

 

For the sex scene, “the transposition of a panel from the graphic novel to the film version, including its composition, light, color, texture, mise-en-scene, as well as other visual elements that can be produced in either medium, establishes a direct intertextual relationship between the referent and the original” (Jeffries, 268).  This relationship, this respect and homage paid to the successful original material is a huge part of the shows success, as it manages to honor rather than alienate the fans of the comic while utilizing those aspects that made Alias so well-received.

Alias #1Alias #1

Panels from Alias #1

Jessica Jones 1x01Jessica Jones 1x01Jessica Jones 1x01

 Screencaps from Jessica Jones 1×01

 Part of Jessica Jones‘ success too, is how entirely different it is from most of the rest of Marvel’s on-screen fare.  This is especially true because “Marvel’s plan [was] to maximize box-office marketing and predictability by making the central characters as commercial as possible, which may not be critically aligned with character complexity,” and while such a strategy might be successful in two-hour long films or for some casual viewers, it does not translate so well to more serious television far (McAllister, 111).  The show managed to avoid this problem by making character complexity its very focus, offering complicated insight and backgrounds not only to its lead hero and villain Jessica and Kilgrave, but also to side characters like Luke Cage, Trish Walker, Jeri Hogarth, and Malcolm Ducasse.

This holds true for the scene below, in which Jessica tries to bullshit certain enemies into believing she is bulletproof to keep them from shooting at her, establishing her as a sarcastic woman who’s not afraid to lie, but also more overly concerned for her physical well-being than typical superheroes seem to be.  This scene, too, was translated to the screen.

 

Alias #5
Alias #5

 

 

“By adhering to the visual style of the graphic novel, the film version recalls not only the text being quoted from, but also a cultural and artistic tradition in which live performers engage in re-enactments of still images” (Jeffries, 269).  Despite the adherence, however, the show manages to take the original text and style while perhaps making it more successful through the realism of Jessica’s ploy failing to work, resulting in her being shot while still keeping the references and respect to the original text.

This same pattern is continued in the clip below, which, taking place in episode five of the series, was the first on-screen reference to the superhero costume and alias from the comic book.

 

Alias #25
Alias #25

 

 

Once again, the show, while paying homage to the comic book, kept from taking the original medium too seriously while also ensuring that she show itself was both serious and realistic, and providing something of an “aesthetic division between” the show and Alias,” which despite its own realism still held onto some of “the ‘desert of the real’” that so often defines comic books (Murphy, 31).

 

Alias #3
Alias #5

 

The scenes above from the comics and show, while not quite directly related, as the dialogue and plot-related content of each scene have nothing in common, do still have some clear similarities.  With the show, in fact, it seems that the creators “are trying . . . to evoke something in their [show] that is . . . particular to comic books,” and specifically, to Alias (Jeffries, 266).  For despite their many differences, both scenes have extremely similar dark tones, with Jessica’s character clearly in a very dark place as she yells at the cop in each scene.

 

Alias #22
Alias #22

 

Alias #22
Alias #22

 

 

The pattern of translating more realistic versions of comic-book scenes to Jessica Jones, is kept above, in which the comic book scene of the car crash that killed Jessica’s family is transposed onto the show.  In each scene, there is conflict between Jessica and her younger brother that distracts her father, who is driving the car, leading to him failing to see encroaching vehicles that result in a crash.  In each scene, there is a clear opening for Jessica to feel guilt and responsibility for the crash, though the show kept away from the cliche of involving military trucks carrying hazardous material that would grant Jessica her powers.

Overall, Jessica Jones pays clear homage to the comic book, but also makes sure to include changes both to ensure realism, and to help include the messages the show intends to portray in order to focus on “edginess and character complexity” rather than being hypercommercial (McAllister, 114).  This much is clear with the comic panels and clip shown below.  They in fact show a major difference between the book and show, although the clip, gives a slight reference to the comic book storyline to show that it is self-aware.  In Alias, the main villain, Killgrave, held Jessica captive for months, psychologically torturing her, but never actually raping her, instead rejecting her in the fashion referenced in the clip.  Despite this, the comic establishes a clear parallel of what Killgrave did with rape and sexual assault, with Jessica suffering much of the same aftermath as survivors.

Alias #25
Alias #25

 

The show, however, while referencing the book, skips over the metaphor and outright involves rape and sexual assault not only to be “psychologically/thematically interesting,” but to establish the conversation it clearly wants to hold about toxic masculinity, misogyny, victim blaming, and sexual violence and the disbelief that often comes along with it (McAllister, 113).  This decision plays a huge part in what makes Jessica Jones a huge success, including sexual violence without visually showing it and without glorifying or eroticizing it, providing a much needed conversation that was hugely appreciated by viewers and critics alike.

 

Alias #28
Alias #22

 

Jessica Jones, as an adaption of the graphic novel Alias, has established a new form and genre of comic book adaptions that has not only “made manifest the legitimacy of the comics as an autonomous structure,” but has proved that both comic books and their on-screen adaptions can include dark, gritty realism, and important conversations about difficult topics while still being critical and numerical successes (Horn, 65).  The show also manages to prove that adaptions are entirely capable of paying real homage to comic books, taking entire lines and scenes from their pages while still retaining the seriousness and realism that today’s audience has come to prefer.

 

Artist’s Statement

With this project, I really wanted to explore Marvel’s television show, Jessica Jones, and just how its portrayal of the comic book Alias managed to keep true to the material while still becoming its own show and being so critically acclaimed and successful.  I did this by sorting out scenes from the show that mirrored, borrowed, or strayed apart from those in the comic, and analyzing how those choices made the show successful .  In this, I especially focused on the translation of aesthetics, tone, character, and dialogue, to see just how the show succeeded in its respect to its source material while at the same time going far deeper than the comic book was able to.

 

Works Cited

  1. Bendis, Brian Michael, and Michael Gaydos. Alias. Direct ed. New York, NY: Marvel Comics, 2004. Print.
  1. Horn, Maurice. “Comics And Cinema: The Beginnings (1896-1913).” International Journal Of Comic Art 9.2 (2007): 58-67. OmniFile Full Text Mega (H.W. Wilson). Web. 9 Dec. 2015.
  1. “If The Characters On “Jessica Jones” Looked Like They Did In The Comics.” BuzzFeed. BuzzFeed, 7 Dec. 2015. Web. 9 Dec. 2015. <http://www.buzzfeed.com/andyneuenschwander/if-the-characters-on-jessica-jones-looked-like-they-did-in-t#.jfWkMPKMxy>.
  1. Jeffries, Dru H. “Comics At 300 Frames Per Second: Zack Snyder’s 300 And The Figural Translation Of Comics To Film.” Quarterly Review Of Film & Video 31.3 (2014): 266. Publisher Provided Full Text Searching File. Web. 9 Dec. 2015.
  1. McAllister, Matt. “Blockbuster Meets Superhero Comic, Or Art House Meets Graphic Novel?: The Contradictory Relationship Between Film And Comic Art.” Journal Of Popular Film & Television 34.3 (2006): 108-114. Humanities Full Text (H.W. Wilson). Web. 9 Dec. 2015.
  1. Murphy, Mark. “Superheroes For Perverts.” Film International (16516826) 5.2 (2007): 30-42. OmniFile Full Text Mega (H.W. Wilson). Web. 9 Dec. 2015.
  1. Murray, Simone. “Materializing Adaption Theory: The Adaption Industry.” Literature Film Quarterly 36.1 (2008): 4-20. Academic Search Complete. Web. 9 Dec. 2015.
  1. Rosenberg, Melissa. Marvel’s Jessica Jones. Netflix. 20 Nov. 2015. Television.

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