Who Is Jessica Jones? And Should I Watch Her TV Show?

Photo: Netflix, Marvel

The time has come! The wait is over! At midnight tonight, you can finally see Jessica Jones come to life in Marvel’s Jessica Jones on Netflix! What’s that? You haven’t spent the last 15 years eagerly anticipating a screen adaptation of this Marvel Comics character? You’ve never even heard of her? You have no idea what the show’s deal is? Don’t worry, we’re here to explain.

Can you give me an extremely quick rundown of what this show’s deal is?
Sure. It’s a noir-tinged psychological thriller set in the present day, about a hard-drinking, wisecracking, Manhattan-based private investigator named Jessica Jones. She’s got a tortured past, and she’s attempting to bring down the sinister dude who destroyed her life. The twist is that she has some very minor superpowers: She is stronger than most people, and she can jump pretty high.

Oh, so she’s a superhero.
Eh, sort of. She doesn’t wear a costume, and her arc doesn’t have anything to do with saving the world. In fact, the superpower stuff plays a pretty minor role (at least in the episodes they allowed critics to watch before the wide release). The bad guy’s powers are important to the plot, but they basically just make him a very effective con man. He can’t, like, shoot lightning bolts from a magic scepter, or whatever.

Okay, but this thing’s got “Marvel” in the title. Does Jessica Jones take place in the same universe as the Avengers movies and ABC’s Marvel TV shows?
Technically, yes, but that stuff plays barely any part in the show.

So do I have to watch the 50 gazillion other Marvel movies and TV shows to understand what’s happening in Jessica Jones?
Absolutely not. You need zero preparation or prior knowledge to watch this show. Jessica Jones is easily the least homework-requiring Marvel property we’ve seen since, like, the first Iron Man movie in 2008. Even Netflix’s Daredevil — which takes place around the same time and in the same neighborhood as this show — was more closely tied to the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe than Jessica Jones. Here’s all the background you need: People know superheroes exist (though they're fuzzy on details about them), and there was a big fight in Manhattan between the Avengers and some aliens a few years ago.

I’d heard of Captain America and Spider-Man before their movies came out, but I’ve never heard of this Jessica Jones person. Am I an idiot? Is she famous?
You’re most certainly not an idiot. Jessica Jones is someone who is virtually unknown outside of comics-geek circles. She’s also a very recent invention, having debuted in 2001 (for comparison, Captain America debuted in 1941, and Spider-Man debuted in 1962). Even within comics geekdom, she’s a niche interest.

Okay, so how did she come to be?
She was created to turn the superhero genre on its ear and to be a vehicle for cursing and boning. Beloved writer Brian Michael Bendis and distinctive artist Michael Gaydos created the character and introduced her to the world as the star of a monthly comics series called Alias (no relation to the J.J. Abrams show) in 2001. At the time, Marvel Comics was undergoing a massive overhaul of its creative strategy, and one element of that overhaul was a project called MAX (caps very much intended). The MAX line consisted of series that bucked decades of self-censorship by featuring sex, profanity, and graphic violence. Alias had all those in spades. Indeed, the dialogue on the first page of the first issue famously just consists of a man yelling swears, and that same issue features Jessica having extremely rough, doggie-style sex (the nudity is minimal).

The series, however, caught on not because it was raunchy, but because it starred a well-rounded lead with a fresh perspective on the Marvel universe. We were told she had once been a minor costumed hero going by the nom de guerre Jewel, and that she’d given it up to live like a normal civilian. That left us with something rare in the superhero genre: a lead who has powers but doesn’t use them to punch extradimensional gods or foil schemes to take over the city. Instead, she uses them sparingly during her efforts to solve her clients’ non-punchable problems, like infidelity and blackmail. But because she does have powers and did pal around with Avengers, she had all kinds of nasty and cheeky things to say about the way powerful people can mess up the daily lives of the powerless. Bendis loves writing crime fiction and satire, and Jessica allowed him to deploy both.

Jessica and Alias were pretty revolutionary in another respect: It was (and is) extremely rare to see superhero comics starring deeply imperfect women who aren't defined by their relationships to men. Superheroines tend to be eye candy, bait for villains, hypercompetent goddesses, or adorable goofs. Jessica was a casually dressed, wholly independent, substance-abusing train wreck. Marvel had never featured anything quite like her.

Is she a big deal in the world of comics?
Not anymore, unfortunately! Alias was a hit, but its follow-up, The Pulse, wasn’t as successful. Jessica was used in other Marvel universe series, but the character never worked as well when she was a supporting character next to a bunch of chiseled demigods. In a very questionable move, Marvel even had her briefly return to her spandex-wearing Jewel identity, thus straying from what made the character initially compelling. She’s still around in the Marvel universe but hasn’t played a major role in a while. Here’s hoping the success of the show changes that!

What are the major differences between comics Jessica and TV Jessica?
Comics Jessica can fly; TV Jessica can only jump a few building-stories high. Other than that, she's pretty much the same.

If I end up liking the show, should I read the comics stories about the character?
That depends on your knowledge of the Marvel canon. The big problem with picking up Alias is that it was intended for hard-core comics geeks who would appreciate dry humor about Carol Danvers’s dating habits or Rick Jones’s role in the Kree-Skrull War. If you don’t understand what I just wrote in that sentence, then be prepared: A lot of Alias will go over your head. But the core storytelling, dialogue, and characterization are top-notch. Wikipedia is your friend.

Is there an adorable short comics story about Jessica being a hip New York parent and offering relationship advice to another superhero couple?
I’m so glad you asked, because the answer is yes! This summer, Marvel released one of its most delightful single issues in recent memory, Secret Wars: Secret Love. It was an homage to the lost art of romance comics (i.e., comic books that were about kiss-kiss, not punch-punch) with cute vignettes starring an array of Marvel characters. One such vignette was a piece by writer Jeremy Whitley and artist Gurihiru about Jessica and her husband (whose name I won’t say for fear of spoilering the TV show) helping some friends figure out how to spice up a stale marriage. If you’re a Marvel zombie, I highly recommend the whole issue, which is as innovative as it is adorable.