So a couple of weeks ago, I really trashed Brian Michael Bendis’ new Defenders series, calling it the worst comic I had read in a while. But I’m hardly a knee-jerk Bendis hater, so I thought it was only fair to look at a Bendis comic I actually DO like, just for a balanced view of the man and his work, circa 2017. Not that I’m going to pull any punches; 2017 Brian Bendis is not the writer that 2007 Brian Bendis was. But every once in a while, he still plays in interesting territory…
Jessica Jones 8-10
by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos
When I say that I like this book, I mean exactly that. I like it. I don’t love it. It still makes me think that Bendis could stand to take a few months off from the corporate funnybook grind. Recharge his batteries. And cut back on the amount of work he’s doing when he does come back. Because even on this book, where his stuff reads a lot more like the Bendis whose work I used to enjoy so much, it sometimes feels like he needs to take another pass over his scripts. His dialogue, which has always been one of his real strong suits, sometimes trips over itself.
Here’s both a positive and a negative example from issue eight. Former SHIELD director Maria Hill has shown up in Jessica’s office, bleeding from a gunshot wound and high on the painkillers she took to keep herself upright as she removes the bullets from her own body. And “Stoned Maria Hill” is great.
That might be the first time I’ve ever actually liked the character. It makes her funny and human and kinda badass all at the same time, without breaking her established pattern of behavior. It’s entertaining. But the scene is not without a glitch or two.
That’s Jessica’s narration as she watches Hill tend her wounds. Sure, she’s got a little diarrhea of the mouth there, but that’s fine. That’s part of the fun of reading a Bendis book, especially when he’s got a narrator as compelling as Jessica Jones. Where he falls down is in how she says what she says. I’ll give him a pass on the mixed metaphor of puppets and chess, even though I shouldn’t. That, I can write off as “Jessica is awkward.” Because she is. I mean, this is a woman who was so nerdy in high school that even Peter Parker didn’t know she was alive. So, yeah. Her word choice isn’t always the best. It’s a character trait.
But right at the beginning of that diatribe (which is also the beginning of the issue), it’s “woman bleeding in my bathroom” and “woman bleeding all over my bathroom tile” when it should be “woman bleeding in my bathroom” in both sentences. The fancy writing term for that is parallelism, and it makes repetition sound clever and rhythmic instead of just, well… repetitious. It’s a trick Bendis has used a million times, and used quite well. He uses it well elsewhere in this very issue. But the way it saw print, it’s clunky and not-quite-right. And not in a “Jessica is awkward” way. It just kinda thuds.
Taking an educated guess, based on my own writing experience, it reads like Bendis changed his mind on how he wanted to word it and forgot to change both iterations. It’s a small thing, certainly. A stumble rather than a fall. But it makes the book seem sloppy and rushed, right on page one. And in a comic I’m paying four bucks for… I expect better.
I especially expect better in a comic that’s as content-light as your average issue of Jessica Jones. Because adding to that slap-dash feel I’m talking about is an approach to plot and pacing that comes off as flippant, at best. Bendis books these days don’t progress so much as they lurch from scene to scene, missing the small bits of connective tissue that make them flow into each other. Sometimes, it’s even hard to make sense of why one event follows the next. That’s fine when it’s supposed to be disorienting. Like, take this sequence in issue ten, where the Hobgoblin kills Maria Hill…
…only for her to turn up behind Jessica on the very next page.
See, that’s funny and weird. I could do without Bendis reducing the Hobgoblin (who’s actually a pretty cool-ass villain) to pathetic comedy relief. I mean, he treated D-Man with more dignity! And D-Man lives in the sewer!
But, still. The Life Model Decoy thing plays to the sense of disorientation Bendis is developing in the story. Maria Hill is a spy. Spies are tricky. Super hero spies are even trickier. And that’s keeping Jessica off-balance. That’s not the only LMD to show up, after all. Earlier, as Jessica mentioned above, another Maria Hill LMD tried to kill her. That one, presumably, wasn’t under control of the real Hill, but… How can she know? It plays to the overall tone of queasy uncertainty Bendis is developing in the series as a whole. It was just a couple of issues ago, after all, that Jessica was talking to a guy who murdered his family because he’d been slotted into this world from another reality, and realized that his family wasn’t actually his family.
On the one hand, that’s just Bendis having a bit of fun with the whole alternate Earths / super hero reboot thing. But it’s part of what gives this new Jessica Jones series its identity, and the crazy LMD stuff plays to the same themes. That’s good disorientation.
Issue nine, on the other hand, gives us a completely pointless and rather unconvincing five-page sequence in which Sharon Carter (Maria Hill’s replacement as top dog of SHIELD) tosses Jessica into prison. Why? Hell if I know. She wanted information on Maria Hill’s whereabouts, and Jessica made fun of her hair. And next thing we know, Our Hero’s sitting on a toilet at Ryker’s Island fending off an attack from a slightly out of character Typhoid Mary.
There’s some lip service paid to Carter’s motivations. The idea is floated that she’s trying to establish herself as the new boss by being extra hard-assed, but I’m not buying it. Tossing Jessica in prison on trumped-up obstruction of justice charges gains her nothing, except the threat of a lawsuit from Matt Murdock. And from a storytelling perspective, it makes her into the bad guy. If she’d just detained Jessica for questioning on the Helicarrier, it would play. If Jessica had actually done something (or even appeared to have done something) worthy of arrest, it would play. Hell, if we’d been given an inkling that Carter had hoped it would intimidate Jessica into talking, I might be okay with it. As it is, though, it comes off as pointlessly harsh, and poor leadership to boot. This is some crap Henry Gyrich would pull. Not Captain America’s super-spy girlfriend.
Worse, though, it’s a waste of five pages. It’s an incident that doesn’t make any sense, doesn’t develop character, doesn’t add to tone or theme, and takes us away from the story. Hell, if the scene was at least really entertaining, I could forgive it. But it’s not. It’s filler. It just feels like Bendis had five pages to kill before he could get to his cliffhanger ending, and that’s the best thing he could come up with. Hell, even that cliffhanger’s kind of a damp squib. Jessica looks at a piece of paper containing a shocking plot revelation, and seems mildly surprised. We don’t get to see what it is, and the scene conjures no real sense of urgency to find out.
Again, I expect more out of a four-dollar comic.
So why do I like Jessica Jones, then? Because, in spite of his haphazard approach to the actual storytelling, Bendis is doing something interesting here. He’s leveraging Jessica’s natural inclination toward self-doubt into a broader sort of doubt about everything to do with living in a super hero universe. Why does this world work the way it works? And considering that it does work that way, how can you trust anything? I direct you back to that business about the guy who killed his family because he realized that he was from another reality and nothing mattered anymore. And the business with the LMD. And this, from that extended Stoned Maria Hill monologue earlier:
So Jessica’s own client can’t trust her memory. And though she controls some of her own LMDs, someone else apparently has some, too. Unless Hill really is controlling it, and doesn’t know it because of some weird thing done to her brain by SHIELD’s psychic unit (and, yes, SHIELD does have a psychic unit. Because of course it does). She may have even ordered her own assassination.
And I dig it.
I just wish it was being written by a Brian Bendis who still had the dramatic chops to make it sing the way it deserves to.