Every month we take turns to delve into our trusty longboxes, pluck out a dusty back issue, and give you our thoughts. We’ll also try and place it in the context of the time it was originally published.
Despite the vast success he’s enjoyed over the past decade, reader opinion continues to be split on the subject of Brian Michael Bendis. For many, though, he’s earned the right to have stumbles such as Secret Invasion overlooked in perpetuity, courtesy of his top-end work on the likes of Ultimate Spider-Man, Powers and – perhaps most notably – Alias. A quite superb fusion of Bendis’ knack for crime fiction and characterisation, and his knowledge and grasp of the Marvel universe, the twenty-eight issues for which it ran represent one of the most consistently excellent comics runs of the past decade – and in the shape of failed superhero turned private investigator Jessica Jones, it introduced by far the publisher’s most compelling new character since… well, since I can’t remember when, quite frankly.
Something of a format breaker, this standalone issue is presented, rather than in standard comics format, as scripted dialogue alongside uncharacteristic painted art from Michael Gaydos – and one can’t help but wonder whether this was planned all along, or if the issue was forced into this style after Bendis realised he’d written too much dialogue. Either way, it somehow works perfectly, and is exemplary of the book’s wit and characterisation at its finest.
The story is a fairly straightforward one – Jessica is hired by J. Jonah Jameson with a view to uncovering Spider-Man’s secret identity, but disliking both the assignment and the editor’s attitude, pulls something of a fast one on him. There’s nothing more elaborate than that, but what makes this a real joy – aside from the reveal of the precise nature of Jessica’s clever trickery – is, quite simply, the way Bendis plays with character. Quite aside from the ranting of Jonah (of which more shortly), there’s a nuanced precision to his handling of Ben Urich, Robbie Robertson and even Betty Brant, and more specifically the dynamic within the Bugle offices. This particular corner of Spider-Man’s supporting cast has always been one of the MU’s strongest assets, and Bendis gets that, just as he gets how to write fluid, believable, characteristic and downright hilarious JJJ dialogue. More than that, he gets to the nub of the neuroses that lie at the heart of Jonah’s anti-mask paranoia, as well as exploring the more active side – from hiring Jessica to compiling a “Spider-Man map” of repeated sightings around Queens and ESU – of his Spider-hatred campaign.
Michael Gaydos’ art throughout the series was as consistently excellent as Bendis’ writing, but here he breaks out of his comfort zone somewhat to illustrate Bendis’ dialogue with a succession of paintings – and while it wouldn’t necessarily have worked every month, it’s fair to say he outdoes himself on this occasion. Stylised and yet with a tangible realism, they’re an aid to immersing the reader in the immediacy of what are, essentially, a pair of single-set, real-time scenes (split by two months). I’m not sure they could really be described as “storytelling” in the purest sense, but from an absolutely lovely Spider-Man panel (which I think I’m right in saying was the webhead’s only in-costume appearance in the series) to a superb two-page vista of Jonah looking out over the city, the entire issue is a visual delight.
Aside from setting up the later plot element of Jonah’s distrust of Jessica (not to mention a neat touch that jumped out on re-reading: an early mention of Jessica’s “Knightress” identity, a backstory thread that wouldn’t be picked up until long after the series had finished), this doesn’t do a huge amount to move the series along. But as an amusing standalone piece, it’s lovely – and nothing short of superbly crafted. Modern mainstream comics honestly don’t get much classier than Alias, and if you’ve never read it, you could do yourself a hell of a lot worse than starting from the beginning the next time you’re down the LCS.