Abuse survivor's other superpowers

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As I wrote in July, the makers of 2015's Ant-Man missed a golden opportunity to reflect upon one of the most notorious incidents in Marvel Comics history: the moment in 1981 when the original Ant-Man, Hank Pym, struck his wife, fellow Avenger The Wasp/Janet Van Dyne.

To be fair, the 2015 Ant-Man was one of the most kid-oriented of the Marvel films, so was perhaps not the place to tackle such dark material. Still, the fact that Marvel president Kevin Feige literally laughed off the prospect of spousal abuse being touched on did little to dispel the entertainment juggernaut's reputation, well and truly entrenched by the whole Black Widow slut-shaming debacle, as a boys club.

If the buzz and the source material are anything to go by, Marvel may go some way to rehabilitating this aspect of its image with its new series, Jessica Jones, which hits Netflix this week.

The series, which stars Breaking Bad's Krysten Ritter and 'the Tenth Doctor' David Tennant, is based on Brian Michael Bendis' early-2000s short-run series Alias.

Later released as a four-volume graphic novel, Alias is one example of a modern day comic set within the Marvel continuity that, in the words of pop culture critic Roz Kaveney, offers a 'rebuke to the convenient pieties of the comic book', by proving that comics can be thematically rich, and can take serious issues — such as the physical and sexual abuse of women by men — seriously.

The Secret Origins of Jessica JonesThe protagonist is Jessica Jones, a former costumed superhero who has traded in her tights for a job as a private detective. The character was new to the Marvel continuity, but Bendis ret-conned her into the fabric of that universe: she is a former classmate of Peter Parker (aka Spider-Man), and narrowly avoids being struck by a truck during the incident that turned Matt Murdock into Daredevil.

Other major and minor Marvel characters show up as significant figures in Jones' past and present life, including Avenger Luke Cage and, as it happens, Ant-Man Scott Lang, with each of whom she has complicated romantic and sexual encounters.

The story has Jones investigating a series of cases — including rescuing Mattie Franklin, one of the incarnations of Spider-Woman, from a low-level gangster who has been sellling her blood as a performance-enhancing drug — while coming to terms with a horrific ordeal from her own past.

We don't find out the exact source of this trauma until volume four, titled The Secret Origins of Jessica Jones, whose narrative arc appears to be the main source of the Netflix TV series. Without going into detail, it concerns sexual and psychological violence of a kind that would only be possible in a world of superheroes (and supervillains), but which is nonetheless all too analogous to human experience.

Indeed, Alias is essentially a story about surviving abuse, and treats the lived experiences of the abuse survivor with utter seriousness and respect. Furthermore, fundamental to the story's portrayal of Jones as a strong and complex female character is that she is shaped but not defined by her victimhood. As Kaveney observes, 'Part of the heroism of ordinary lives is simply this: to survive experience.' 

In other words, Alias is the antithesis of Marvel's hedging over the whitewashing of Hank Pym's moment of disgrace. Hopefully the Netflix series, in the hands of showrunner Melissa Rosenberg (of Twilight fame), is allowed to pay due respect to the rich themes and characterisations of the source material.

Not only will this give a powerful story the treatment it deserves, it might go a long way to helping draw the Marvel Cinematic Universe out of the boys club and into an authentic rather than marginalising and condescending engagement with women.


Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Jessica Jones, Alias, Brian Michael Bendis, Krysten Ritter, David Tennant, Ant-Man, Marvel



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Existing comments

Thanks, Tim, for this heads up on ' a story about surviving abuse [which] treats the lived experiences of the abuse survivor with utter seriousness and respect'. You inspired me to catch the first three episodes of the Netflix series last night; it's vivid storytelling with nicley timed reveals. Kudos !

Barry Gittins | 23 November 2015  

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