I just finished reading Brian Michael Bendis’ Alias, vols. 3 and 4, and found out that for some odd reason, I’d never written up vol. 2. Well, here I am to rectify that oversight in a way that involves no extra work on my part.

I was well-pleased by the first volume of Alias, but mostly because it was a well-told story in the Marvel Universe, rather than because it was a well-told story full stop. After reading the next three volumes, I’m upgrading it to just plain good. It really excels in every aspect of the graphic novel game:

  • The art is great. It’s distinctive, attractive, expressive, and varied (flashbacks to the heroine’s superhero past are done in a more conventional comic book look; flashbacks to her teenage years are done in an old-school Steve Ditko look) without being gimmicky. I don’t notice much comic book art, so the general serviceability of it is fine by me; but here, the art is noticeably and obviously an asset.
  • The dialog is great. Bendis is one of the best dialogists working in any medium right now; at his best, he’s Joss Whedon crossed with Aaron Sorkin, and his best is on display in Alias.
  • The macro-structure is great. My single favorite structure is relatively short story arcs that build up into a larger, more diffuse, character arc. The obvious example of this in the comic book world is Gaiman’s Sandman, but you also see it on Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer DVD boxed sets or Bujold’s Vorkosigan books (though Bujold’s character arc feels a bit too just-in-time to make it a great examplar; ideally, the hints about back story and fate should have been placed volumes in advance).
  • The atmosphere is great. Detective sleaze-noir mixed with superheroes didn’t work well for Kurt Busiek in the “Tarnished Angel” arc of Astro City, but Bendis makes it work. In retrospect, Busiek’s mistake was making the tone too superheroey; Bendis lays on the grime a bit thicker, so is more convincingly able to integrate the elements.

Alias is, along with Busiek’s Marvels, clearly atop the “read this if you’re a Marvel fan” list (way above Gaiman’s 1602), but I think it should actually work reasonably well for non-Marvel fans, as it’s just a plain ol’ good comic.


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