Jessica Jones Subverts Noir Conventions to Find Hardboiled Perfection,
by Michael Panush
These days, you are more likely to find a Hardboiled Private Investigator who is part-demon, from another planet, or lives in an alternate reality than your standard Noir gumshoe - and it’s easy to see why. The Detective’s career is the perfect excuse for an interesting character to engage in an intriguing investigation, come up against odd and dangerous characters and situations, and put their lives and morality on the line in a story that hints at deeper themes. It’s no wonder that modern authors, TV writers, and filmmakers have mixed up Noir with various other genres to create a library’s worth of First-Person Narrating, wise-cracking shamuses with fantastic twists.
The Dresden Files and the Sandman Slim series mix Hardboiled tropes with fantasy to create larger-than-life Noir adventures with beyond life or death stakes. Blade Runner and it’s cyberpunk followers crossbreed Noir with Science Fiction by having a weary, trench-coated PI in the grimy super-metropolis of the future. Now Marvel’s new TV show, Jessica Jones, mixes the PI and Superhero Genres to great effect. But while other PI Pastiches keep the Hardboiled tropes - the hard-drinking, ass-kicking flatfoot, the Femme Fatale, and the grand conspiracy - largely intact, Jessica Jones puts them through a funhouse mirror, twisting the Noir Conventions in wild ways. In doing so, it creates a story that speaks to modern concerns - and one that is every bit as Hardboiled as the classics by Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Mickey Spillane.
Classic Noir is in Jessica Jones’ DNA. The creator of the comic series, Brian Michael Bendis, is so deep into Classic Film Noir that the villain of his creator-owned comic Goldfish is literally named Lauren Bacall - both a fun reference and a very cool name. And at first glance, it seems that Jessica Jones is following in those hallowed hardboiled footsteps. Jones herself, played with Bogart-worthy toughness by Krysten Ritter, at first appears to be a note-perfect copy of a classic detective. She’s narrates in a sarcastic, darkly witty first-person, she drinks way too much, she’s got a prickly but ultimately honorable personality, a dark and violent past, speaks in arch wisecracks that Phillip Marlowe would enjoy, and - thanks to her superpower - is a bruiser who can beat the snot out of thugs with the same brutality as Mike Hammer. But her show skews all of this to create something uniquely original, starting with something as simple as gender. Jessica Jones’ femininity perhaps shouldn’t be so unique in the modern age, but it certainly is, and it opens the genre to explore gender dynamics in ways that the often misogynistic pulps of ages past could never imagine. The inherent violence of the private detective gets subverted as well. Jones could wallop all her foes like Mike Hammer, thanks to her strength, but because many of them are innocent civilians being mind-controlled by the villain Kilgrave (more on him in a bit), Jones can’t go around shattering their jaws. In fact, the one time she did kill (under Kilgrave’s control) is a major source of guilt. You can’t imagine Mike Hammer ever feeling that, but in today’s trigger-happy world, Jessica’s non-lethal approach makes her far more endearing.
That twist on Noir extends to the Femme Fatale of the series, Kilgrave - the Purple Man, played by David Tennant. Or maybe that should be Homme Fatale, given Kilgrave’s gender? Still, he’s got all the hallmarks of a classic female noir villain, such as I, The Jury’s Dr. Charlotte Manning or The Maltese Falcon’s Brigid O’Shaugnessy, only viewed through a super-villain lens. David Tennant may be very good-looking, but while the Femme Fatale uses her sexuality to manipulate others around her for evil (remember what I said about Noir’s misogyny?), Kilgrave uses his superpower to bend anyone, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, to his wicked will. It’s another excellent twist on a genre standby, and one very suited to the modern age. The Beautiful, Evil, Manipulating Woman with Agency is so ingrained in popular culture that it’s become a cliché, but the Evil Manipulating Men of the world have rarely been taken to task. Just look at our culture’s disbelief, shock, and shaming of victimized women, from Bill Cosby to GamerGate, for recent examples. Kilgrave’s nasty ruining and obsession of Jessica’s life provides a fitting evil scheme connected to a real-life issue.
The plots of Jessica Jones do the same thing. The innocent ingénue corrupted by the big city is another noir standby and forms the core plot for the first episode - only to get murderously twisted at the end. While the Femme Fatale usually seduces in service of a grand and far-reaching conspiracy, Kilgrave’s motivation is intimately personal. The show proves that simply putting devil horns under the fedora of a fictional Private Eye isn’t enough. The genre’s conventions need to mixed up as well to create stories that have that Classic feel, but are still undeniably modern, and undeniably worth watching.
Twenty-Five years old, Michael Panush has distinguished himself as one of Sacramento’s most promising young writers. Michael has published numerous short stories in a variety of e-zines including: AuroraWolf, Demon Minds, Fantastic Horror, Dark Fire Fiction, Aphelion, Horrorbound, Fantasy Gazetteer, Demonic Tome, Tiny Globule, and Defenestration. He published his first novel, Clark Reeper Tales, for his high school senior project. A graduate of UC Santa Cruz and Loyola-Marymount University, Michael currently works as an educator in Sacramento. His books with Curiosity Quills include The Stein and Candle Detective Agency, Volume 1: American Nightmares, Volume 2: Cold Wars, and Volume 3: Red Reunion, all featuring a pair of occult detectives in the 1950s, Dinosaur Jazz— where The Great Gatsby meets Jurassic Park — a story about a Lost World battling against the forces of modernization; El Mosaico, Volume 1: Scarred Souls, Volume 2: The Road to Hellfire, and El Mosaico, Volume 3: Hellfire, a Western about a bounty hunter whose body was assembled from the remains of dead Civil War soldiers and brought to life by mad science; and Dead Man’s Drive, a 1950s urban fantasy about a hot rod-riding zombie. Read excerpts from his work at http://curiosityquills.com/published-authors/michael-panush/ and follow him on twitter at https://twitter.com/Michael_Panush
Michael began telling stories when he was only nine years old. He won first place in the Sacramento Storyteller’s Guild “Liar’s Contest” in 2002 and was a finalist in the National Youth Storytelling Olympics in 2003.
In 2007, Michael was selected as a California Art’s Scholar and attended the Innerspark Summer Writing Program at the CalArts Institute. He graduated from UC Santa Cruz in 2012 and recently attended the School of Education at the Loyola-Marymount University.