It’s been 14 years since the first issue of Alias by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos was released in comics shops. I was taken with the book immediately, which came as no surprise, as I was hungry for anything Bendis penned at the time (and I continue to follow some of his mainstream Marvel work today). When an adaptation of that series was announced as one of the TV series to be developed by Marvel and Netflix, I was pumped and eager to see what would arise.
Jessica Jones, the said streaming TV show, was released a week ago, and like so many others, comics lovers and non-readers alike, I binge-watched my way through it fairly quickly. What I found was something that, in terms of plot, was quite different from the Bendis/Gaydos source material, but thematically and tonally, it was consistent and just as compelling. The story is different, but the subject matter is the same.
Something else has changed, though, and that’s cultural context in which I experienced this adaptation of Alias. The comic series was a compelling character study, but Jessica Jones strikes me as much more, mainly due to recent developments in North American culture and news that were far beyond the control of any creative force involved in either Alias or the Netflix hit.
With Alias, Kilgrave was also a key antagonist, but in the context of Marvel’s comic-book universe, he was an established threat. Better known as the Purple Man, his crimes and power were well known in the world in which he found himself. Furthermore, the notion of a man who could control those around him with the mere utterances of words doesn’t seem so far-fetched in the same universe in which one could find Professor X, the Puppet Master and so many other figures with similar abilities.
But with Jessica Jones, Marvel’s cinematic universe offers a completely different backdrop, with only a handful of established superhuman figures. Kilgrave, in that world, remains an impossibility, or at least an implausibility. And therein lies the key to the power of the TV show’s storytelling.
Jessica is haunted the trauma of her time as Kilgrave’s victim. She was violated, but she’s stuck in a situation in which no one would believe her if she spoke out about her ordeal or her fears, about the danger that lurks out there or the damage that’s been done.
She feels powerless to change anything. She was manipulated by a man with power over her. She blames herself. She thinks no one will believe her.
What struck me the most about Jessica Jones as I was watching it was how it was an allegory for the insidious and socially systemic issue of sexual assault. But more importantly, it’s an allegory for the growing shift in attitudes about it and the empowerment of victims to speak out, to do something about it.
Intended or not, I couldn’t help but see TV Kilgrave as Bill Cosby and Jessica as an initial victim speaking out, only to gain more power and more traction as she became aware of more victims and as she gathered them together to heal from one another.
There’s been a powerful and pronounced swing of the social pendulum in the last couple of years when it comes to sexual assault, at least when it comes to accusations against public figures. Cosby is the most prominent example, but he’s hardly the only one. Here in Canada, radio host Jian Ghomeshi is in the midst of being prosecuted for several alleged sexual assaults.
There’s a greater tendency now to believe potential victims, at least in some circumstances. While the central tenet of the criminal justice system of being innocent until proven guilty is still in place (as it should be), victim blaming, while still occurring, is being rejected and denounced more and more. Society hasn’t completely arrived at a proper balance between the rights of the accused and accuser, but there have been a number of encouraging signs that the proper balance can be achieved.
Given that the Cosby story really started to snowball long after Jessica Jones was pitched, I doubt there was any overt intent to touch upon that real-world drama in this fiction. But the subtext is certainly there. That subtext — combined with the context of which the audience would be aware, at least on a subconscious level — seems undeniably a factor in the success this latest Marvel/Netflix partnership has enjoyed for the past week.
While the predominant sentiment that Netflix’s take on Daredevil was a bit better than Jessica Jones, I’ve seen commentaries that have deemed Jessica Jones the best thing to come out of Marvel Studios. Honestly, I thought JJ was quite superior to DD (which I thoroughly enjoyed). Jessica Jones may or may not be the best other-media project Marvel has produced, but it’s definitely the most relevant and important one.
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