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Marvel’s Jessica Jones, explained

Jessica Jones.
Jessica Jones.
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Jessica Jones is a terrible superhero by superhero industry standards. Her name is forgettable; she sounds like a girl from your third-grade class. She's just another brick — a term assigned to the plethora of superhumans with super strength as their primary power. It's easy to see why she isn't popular or why many people, even some comic book fans, were puzzled by Marvel and Netflix's decision to give the character her own TV show (which debuted on Netflix on Friday).

But even though Jessica Jones is a terrible superhero — something she would be the first to admit — that doesn't mean she's unworthy of her own show or that her story stinks.

Jones's origin story is actually one of the more daring arcs Marvel has published in the past decade. Wrapped around themes of abuse and the struggle of rehabilitation, it's one of the most painful tales put into the pages of a comic book (and now a live-action TV series). Ultimately, it isn't about portraying heroism as most people imagine it. It's about survival, which is its own type of heroism — perhaps the truest kind.

Jessica Jones's story is about being forgotten

When we first meet first Jessica Jones, she has already lived a full life.

It's an atypical introduction. Consider the first appearance of heroes like Spider-Man (Amazing Fantasy No. 15), where you're looped into Peter Parker's origin story — via a chronological account of Parker's nerd status, the spider bite, and his Uncle Ben's death — right from the start. Jones's story picks up much later, in that we meet her when she's a burnt-out husk of a superhero, a former Avenger who's given up that life to become a private investigator.

Alias No. 1. (Marvel)

Writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Michael Gaydos created Jones in a 2001 comic book called Alias, a nod to the name of Jones's private detective agency. The book was published under Marvel's Max imprint, a branch of Marvel that deals with adult themes — think darker, sexier, bloodier, more violent stories. Gaydos's art reflects this.

Alias is set in an ugly, lightless world populated with characters whose dead eyes are so shadowed that you can't see their sockets. Flesh droops. Expressions are stoic and morose. The place looks like it smells like skin after a binge of brown liquor. And Jones, a tormented soul, lives in this purgatory.

In the opening issue, Jones is working as a private detective, and after threats from a client and a disagreement that ends with her throwing him through her office window, she's talking to the cops. It's an ultimate exercise in futility for someone gifted with super strength. And then both the cops and readers find out, by way of an old photo in Jones's office, that she used to be a superhero with a huge grin and pink hair who fought alongside the Avengers:

Alias No. 1. (Marvel)

There's a silliness to the image, because Jones's brightness is flanked by brownness and mordancy. The bright hair, the dumb smile — it drives home how out of touch that world of superheroes is, relative to the depressing reality Jones now inhabits. Meanwhile, the cops illustrate how out of touch we are with Jones's life by serving as the lens through which we learn her backstory; just like us, they had no idea she was a superhero.

Even though we've only just met Jones, Bendis invents a lush history for the character, explaining that she was doused with power-granting radioactive chemicals as a girl and ended up with super strength, flight, and limited invulnerability; she attended school alongside Peter Parker at Midtown High, and ultimately went on to join the Avengers.

Thus, thanks to Bendis's retroactive reveals, we find out that Jessica Jones has always been around — we'd just never seen her prior to Alias. But her life, and more specifically how she got to this dark place, quickly becomes a bigger mystery than the ones she investigates.

Bendis wants to imagine what the world of superheroes is like for those who are trapped in the margins between flashy heroics and the lives of regular people. Even though Jones is part of this fantastic universe where people are capable of the impossible, and she's friends with some of Earth's mightiest heroes, at some point something went deeply wrong. And whatever that something is, it's ruined so many of her personal relationships, to the point where private investigation is the only thing she feels she can do right.

For a long time, we don't know what's changed in Jones's life since her costumed days as a hero named Jewel, but we do know it was painful enough to make her pour herself into this new identity and leave the past behind.

The mysterious aspect of Jessica Jones's past that she can't forget

Jones's life as a private investigator tracks pretty closely with the shopworn archetype of a noir detective. She's a heavy drinker. She's a slob. She can't get close to anyone. Her dark, dingy apartment inspires a yearning for the suburbs and fresh air.

Alias No. 2. (Marvel)

But in spite of both her personal demons and her messy life, she gets the job done.

Alias sees Jones track down missing people, out cheating husbands, figure out Spider-Man's identity, and even uncover a big, swirling conspiracy involving Captain America. And with each new case, Bendis, Jones's writer, gives us little fragments of the Jessica Jones who lives beneath the scar tissue.

Bendis himself is a polarizing figure in the comic book community. There's a general feeling that he excels at street-level books — about heroes who clean up crimes in their cities rather than saving the world — but struggles with the plotting of bigger, team-oriented stories. Alias, which wallows in neo-noir, is very, very different from his work on the X-Men, and it allows his strengths — dialogue and character interaction — to shine without getting caught up in different tangents.

He also nails Jones's psychology. She tries to find solace at the bottom of liquor bottles and with rough sex, but any resulting peace is always temporary. There's a hollowness to her that makes you feel uneasy, but Bendis also instills in her a fading humanity that feels very real:

Alias No. 1. (Marvel)

It isn't until the last seven issues of Alias that we start to learn Jones's full backstory. Beginning with issue No. 22 (of 28), Alias flashes back to Jones's early life as a young superhero. The art changes: It's brighter, the pace is quicker, there's more wonder to it. There are moments that evoke the hope and humor of Peter Parker as he started to test his newfound abilities:

Alias No. 23. (Marvel)

But that brightness dies after Jones meets a character known as Purple Man, the figure who will push her to her limits and spur her evolution into the cold, distant woman we know her to be in the present day.

The villain at hand is a sadist named Purple Man

Though he isn't depicted on Netflix's new TV show as having purple skin, Purple Man, a.k.a. Zebediah Killgrave, is indeed purple in the Alias comic books. His power is that he can influence the people around him into acting certain ways through pheromones. And while he isn't the only person in the Marvel universe with this ability — heroes like Wallflower and Stacy X also have pheromone-based powers — he is the most barbaric one. He's fine-tuned his pheromone control to operate as a form of mind control, and he exerts his will upon Jessica Jones.

Physically, Jones is much stronger and more durable than a regular human — but her mind is a different story.

What makes Purple Man so sick is the way he psychologically torments her. He makes her use her powers for evil. He makes her watch him use his powers to convince women to have sex with him against their will. He makes her beg for sex. He makes her try to kill other superheroes:

Alias No. 25. (Marvel)

But the most damaging thing he does is psychologically violate Jones to the point where she can't tell the difference between what he made her do and what she willingly did. It isn't until Jones is beaten within an inch of her life by the Avengers — a team that didn't even notice she was missing and mistook her for an enemy — that Purple Man loses his control over her. However, even after he's finally out of her head, the psychological wounds she's left with are life-altering.

Jessica Jones's story is ultimately about the demon of abuse

Alias No. 26. (Marvel)

Jones's story, at its core, isn't really about her powers or her detective work but rather the pathology of human resilience. Lots of superhero television shows (see: The Flash, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) and comic books (see: The Avengers or X-Men) inspire envy, but there isn't a single moment in Alias that makes you want to be Jessica Jones. She's got too much raw, pure pain to work through. Reading her story is a dark experience.

Watching Purple Man take advantage of a regular human isn't as affecting as watching him break down and control the superpowered Jones. Frustration is inevitable, because you just want to see her break free — you know she can. But you're just a helpless bystander.

By the end of Alias, Bendis and Gaydos have shined a light on abuse and the pain they see its victims suffer. A posse of superheroes and enough strength to crush cars like candy wrappers don't really help when the damage is personal. Recovery is a lonely, unyielding process.

That's the uneasiest part of Jones's story.

In a world that knows death and destruction on a grand scale that's inconceivable in real life (see: alien invasions, Ultron), Jones's story is terrifying because of how relatable it is, how weak we can be when fighting personal demons, and how helpless we often feel as we watch someone try to beat and recover from their own. Even though Jessica Jones — in her comic book and her new Netflix show — is technically a superhero who's capable of grand feats, her story is really about the vulnerability of being human. No matter how strong you might be, how carefully you protect yourself, or how much you heal, people — even superhumans likes Jessica Jones — can and will be hurt again.