The Bendis finale train at Marvel continues on with this volume of “Jessica Jones.” She’s arguably the most important character the writer has created during his time at the company. Not just because of the pretty good Netflix series that was based on her, but mainly because Jessica’s original series did something that’s still relatively uncommon today. “Alias” showed that a grounded female-led mature readers superhero series could work at Marvel and while series like Kelly Thompson’s “Hawkeye” have done their best to run with that setup (minus the mature readers bit) we still haven’t seen that kind of breakout since. So it’s been good to read “Jessica Jones” and see that Bendis and artist Michael Gaydos haven’t really lost a step with the character in the intervening years. “Return of the Purple Man” is a worthy farewell to Jessica from her creators, so long as you can overlook the issue with how her nemesis’ powers are handled.
“Purple” the final arc from “Alias” explained a lot of stuff about Jessica that had only been hinted at before. We learned the reason she stopped being a superhero was after an encounter with Zebediah Killgrave, the Purple Man, where she came under his influence for several months before she had the chance to get away. She was traumatized by the encounter and spent the next several years trying to put her life back in some semblance of order after that. “Purple” was the first time she encountered Killgrave since then and it ended with her putting him in his place and achieving some closure as a result.
Yet after all that, Killgrave was still alive. Jessica knew that he could come back for her at any time, and she felt that time had come when Maria Hill told her at the end of the previous volume that he had escaped from prison and S.H.I.E.L.D. had lost track of him. This leads to Jessica trying to get those closest to her, daughter Danielle, husband Luke Cage, out of harm’s way and asking the most powerful friend she has, Carol Danvers, to help shut this psycho down once and for all.
Bendis’ original take on the Purple Man was that of someone who was so disconnected from reality that he believed everyone around him were merely players in some grand story that only he could perceive. It was pretty creepy, and that mindset along with his power to make other people do what he said went a long way towards making this C-list villain into a credible threat. How do you even begin to deal with someone that disconnected from reality?
For the Purple Man’s second major encounter with Jessica, Bendis appears to have taken some cues from the interpretation of the character on the Netflix series. While the version of the character on the series lacked his distinctive purple skin, he was very well-used as a literal representation of a psychologically abusive relationship. Even though his actions were utterly detestable, David Tennant still managed to find Killgrave’s sympathetic side in showing us a man who could never be certain any human interaction he had was genuine.
This is the version of the character that we see in “Return of the Purple Man” and seeing him interact with Jessica makes for some compelling drama. From the first time they meet, in person, there’s this awful uncertainty that permeates their conversation. Killgrave wants something from Jessica, but he knows he can’t use his powers to get it. Jessica knows this and pushes back as best she can, knowing that if she goes too far then he’ll just take her over. So she has to put up with his terrible abuser-speak as he claims that he made her more interesting when he captured her, that he knows her better than anyone else, and how he might be God.
To say that their conversations can be difficult to get through might be an understatement for some. Bendis taps into the abuser/abusee dynamic that has informed the entirety of these characters’ relationship with each other and it’s definitely unsettling to read. The reason you’ll want to keep going is because it’s not played for cheap drama and Jessica’s determination not to give in. All this leads to the kind of superhero story where the hero wins without even throwing a single punch. It’s as remarkable as it is satisfying.
It’d be even more satisfying if Bendis remembered how the Purple Man’s powers work. The previous times he’s written Killgrave, the writer has shown that he knows the character’s powers only work on a command level. He tells people to do something and they do it. Here, Bendis decides to give the character the ability to completely take over someone else’s mind and speak through them as well.
When did Killgrave get the power to do this? It’s never explained. Neither is a rather important detail like how far away does he have to be in order to pull off this kind of mind control. While I’m not against having a character’s power set changed like this, and this is something that would make for a believable upgrade to the Purple Man’s powers, it still needs to be explained. By failing to provide any kind of explanation I’m left with the feeling that Bendis decided to give the Purple Man this new power purely for dramatic effect.
At first glance, it makes for some very intense scenes. The first time we see this power in effect is when someone very close to Jessica is taken over, turning the scene into a kind of waking nightmare. The second is an “Oh crap!” moment to let you know that things just got that much worse. It’s easy to understand what the reader was meant to feel during these scenes. I couldn’t quite get there because my brain was going, “But Killgrave’s powers just don’t work that way!”
At least the final issue has no such problems. It’s a very satisfying done-in-one tale that reminds me of the good old days of “Alias” and how it looked at the rarely-seen corners and characters of the Marvel Universe. For this story, Jessica is recruited by a woman who is in a relationship with the supervillain known as Armadillo. If you’ve been reading Bendis’ recent comics, you might recall that he’s had everyone from Miles Morales to the Thing beat up on this guy whenever they get the chance. This story is the payoff to that as Jessica tracks down the Armadillo to find out why he’d rather get beat up by superheroes than be with the woman who loves him. It’s not a simple explanation, but it’s one what works thanks to the cynical edge Jessica brings to an encounter that could’ve easily turned maudlin.
It also helps that the series has an artist like Gaydos to sell cynicism like that and to give the series a grounded look while still allowing for superheroes to act like they belong in it as well. While his greatest strength has always been how he can make pages of conversation scenes look interesting, Gaydos also gets the chance to experiment a bit with this volume. The opening double-page spreads of expanding headshots really drives home Jessica’s fear and paranoia, while another spread of panels superimposed over faces taken over by Killgrave effectively conveys the feeling of mob panic. Gaydos will continue to work with Bendis for the future, they’ve got a new creator-owned title called “Pearl” coming out through DC, and the writer is lucky to have him.
Even if the title story doesn’t quite work as well as it was intended to, it still offers “Jessica Jones” a satisfying amount of closure to see her creators out on. Though this run hasn’t been a complete success it’s still served as a welcome reminder of what Bendis is capable of when he can focus on one character and parts of the Marvel Universe that no one is paying attention to. This does mean that now the door is open for other creators to offer their own takes on Jessica’s solo adventures for the future. It’s already been announced that the character will return in a new ongoing title later this year and I’d love to see another creator equal or even surpass what Bendis and Gaydos have done with Jessica over the years.
On that note, I hear that Kelly Thompson has some room in her schedule…