"The Underneath" (part 4 of 6)
Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Artist: Michael Gaydos
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Jessica Jones continues to search for teenager Mattie Franklin, aka Spider-Woman. Following a lead Jessica tracks Mattie to a New York nightclub where she discovers the latest designer drug and the horrifying way in which it’s created.
Brian Michael Bendis is the illegitimate child of Stan Lee. I am probably not the first to suggest this possibility. In Alias, Bendis is truer to Lee’s enduring premise of exploring the inner lives of superheroes than has any Marvel book since Amazing Fantasy #15. Granted this is only issue nineteen, but Bendis has instilled more character and personality into Jessica Jones than all 480 issues of the Avengers put together – and I’ve known those characters for thirty years. In his prime Stan Lee was a highly prodigious writer, crafting no less than six different comics per month. Bendis does not quite equal that output, but his skills more than match those of his patriarch. With all due respect and admiration, Stan Lee is no Brian Bendis.
Alias’s Jessica Jones is the epitome of the 1940’s hard-bitten, pulp detective. Bendis has sent her to poke into all of the grimy cracks and sketchy corners of the Marvel universe – and she hates it. Jessica has a painful past, a bitter present and fears the prospect of her future – but she is not without hope. Through her we care about lesser characters like Ant-Man and Spider-Woman as well as her own bizarre life as a private detective with super strength.
“The Underneath” storyline presents an incredibly dark idea. A violent subculture is preying upon lower tier heroes and dealing synthesized drugs made from their blood. Bendis touched upon the idea in the most recent issue of Daredevil, but explores it in excruciating detail here. In fact, subplots from Daredevil are weaved in and out of Alias such that it seems they are the same book, albeit with different artists. Matt Murdock is Jessica’s attorney in Alias and she is his bodyguard in Daredevil, Ben Urich is an investigative reporter in both comics while J. Jonah Jameson is a great big bastard – some things just endure. Yet, the crossovers are so subtle that you don’t have to read both comics to grasp what’s going on. Bendis never takes the easy road; you simply don’t know what to expect from him. When Jessica walks into a nightclub where drugs are being dealt we expect action but instead get two pages of intense inner dialog. When she lands up in the hospital we expect a doctor to spew meaningless medical terms describing her injuries, but instead the cops show up and ask if she’s been the victim of domestic abuse.
Bendis’ “hero-drug” plot device has great potential, one that must have repercussions elsewhere in the Marvel universe. Ben Urich explains the drug’s evolution in a brilliant 3-page sequence, so I won’t spoil it more than I already have. I am not so wealthy that I can read every monthly Marvel book, so I don’t know if this is a new idea – but it definitely has teeth. It makes me wonder why Spiderman and the Avengers aren’t swooping in to back Jessica up or take over the case – Mattie Franklin is a superhero after all, wouldn’t you expect heroes to protect their own?
Michael Gaydos’ style has grown on me since issue one, though I still don’t favor it. His action sequences leave me cold. He has just about abandoned perspective altogether. His backgrounds are often flat colors, devoid of detail. However, his inks are tighter than was true in earlier issues and I can’t gripe about his storytelling skills, as every page reads very clearly. Hollingsworth’s computer colors are much less murky and much more atmospheric than in the past – the higher quality glossy paper helps a lot! David Mack provides another sublime cover, where he finds his inspiration is anyone’s guess.
This is not the ideal place to jump onto Alias. However, this is outstanding work by Bendis, possibly the best pure writing anywhere in the industry and should not be missed. This entire story will make a tremendous, and very adult, collected edition.
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