A woman sits on a toilet, pants around her ankles, and her mind deluged with a mess of jumbled, paranoia-induced thoughts about her latest misadventures. Several issues earlier, the same woman sits passed out at a bar, a still-smoking cigarette in one hand, and a glass of half-drunk liquor sitting near the other. Between these instances are moments that include a one-night stand with a guy from the bar, an online chatroom sting in which she pretends to be a gay man in order to investigate the infidelity of a client’s husband (she works as a private detective), and a police-detective accusing the woman of having multiple personalities (to which she responds by saying some variation of the word “fuck” no less than seven times). The woman’s name is Jessica Jones, and the comic book series is Alias, published from 2001 to 2004 as the first title under Marvel’s MAX imprint, meant for readers 17 and up.
The book, written by Brian Michael Bendis and drawn by Michael Gaydos, with covers by David Mack, amplifies the “realism” within the concept of gritty realism, though it’s mature rating certainly allows for plenty of grittiness. Until recently, this comic series, and the central character Jessica Jones, was not well heard of, fading into the background next to Marvel’s more colorful and family friendly characters and stories. Nevertheless, those who have read Alias tend to love it despite some potentially problematic aspects, and especially, they tend to fall in love with Jessica, despite her problematic aspects. After all, Jessica is a cynical, paranoid, chain-smoking alcoholic with a severe case of PTSD, a dirty vocabulary, and a quick temper. Her short-lived superhero career was not all that successful, and even her ability to fly is tempered by her inability to land. Still, people love her. The question then generally is why? Next to Marvel’s cadre of far more friendly (and capable) superheroes, Jessica generally seems like a dark, depressing character with far less opportunity for superhero spectacle.
All of this is true. And all of this is exactly why readers have fallen in love with the character from the very first panel. Jessica is real. Sure, she’s got super-powers, but she’s just like every other middle class person with a messed up life, and flawed personality. She’s got problems, just like every person has problems. Sure, hers tend to be of the super-villain variety, and perhaps sometimes a little darker and more intense, but there’s something to be said of the fact that much of her behavior is extremely accurate to that of real-life people with trauma and PTSD. Jessica makes mistakes, and when people wrong her, she swears and gets pissed. She gets frustrated and angry with society and expectations, and yet still falls into some of the roles and tropes expected of her. In one such instance, she criticizes a magazine cover in a gas station that offers tips on how to dress the right way to “keep your man’s eyes from wandering,” and eloquently responds with a mental “fuck you!” before thinking that things like this are why she always feels so bad about herself (Alias #16). And yet only moments later, she gets distracted by some quiz in the same magazine, and would have likely ended up purchasing it if her thoughts had not been interrupted by a gunman (whom she tries to stop by throwing a can of soup at, promptly missing him entirely). She does thankfully save face by tackling the guy.
In another scene, Jessica has one of her most realistic moments of the story when she explains to Captain America why she no longer works as a masked vigilante. Put simply, she doesn’t believe she has what it takes to be a superhero, and although Captain America (and the reader) tends to disagree, the lack of faith in herself is refreshing in just how realistic it is (Alias #5). This scene alone sums up what makes Alias great, which is that it’s a book with realistic (given the suspension of disbelief within the superhero universe) stories about a real character, not a caricature of one, and not some perfect role model that none of us could ever hope to be.