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Prequel Problems: Brian Michael Bendis' Shared World Adventures

By Gary Oswald

Brian Michael Bendis is an American Comic Writer who has written and drawn numerous comic books over the last 30 years. He started with Caliber Comics, than Image Comics but for the last 14 years he has worked primarily for the big two American Comic Companies, Marvel and DC.

The sprawling Superhero Universes that both of those companies produce are full of prequels and retcons and moving timelines. There’s many a comic written with the aim of making sense of existing backstories and many more which happily ignore what has been written and rewrite them with something else. And Bendis, like most superhero comics writers, has done his fair share of introducing new elements in character's backstories.

His most famous creation within those universes is probably Jessica Jones, the ex-superhero alcoholic private detective who had her own TV show where she was portrayed by Krysten Ritter. Jones, we were told, had once been a minor unsuccessful Superhero called Jewell, who had never previously been mentioned but who we later see in flashbacks. Moreover we later learn that she had gone to the same school as Peter Parker, her father had worked for Tony Stark and she had been rescued from the supervillain who ended her superhero career by Carol Danvers and Jean Grey. These ties were partly Bendis having fun and allowed him to bring in famous marvel characters, but it also allowed him to portray Jessica as an underdog. She was portrayed as a forgotten washed-up never been whose greatest trauma was to Captain Marvel a quick encounter she solved off page and who was never important enough for the readers to be shown.

The joy of shared worlds is to show characters from different angles as they turn up in different books and are seen from different points of view. And Jessica Jones’ series ‘Alias’ portrayed the heroes like Spider-Man, who are hard luck underdogs in their own books, as powerful success stories in hers. It worked as a way of making her a sympathetic and interesting character who is now much loved and who bought a different viewpoint to the Universe.

But this article isn’t about Alias. The Marvel Universe was not the first shared universe Bendis wrote in. Back in 1993, Bendis began his first work with his own characters, a series of neo-noir comics for Caliber and in those he sometimes reused characters. That series of comics became known as JinxWorld, though most of them are clearly set in different universes, and includes the United States of Murder Inc, an alternate history in which the Mafia are ceded Nevada by the US government which might be of some interest to the readers of this site.

The second story in that line was called A.K.A Goldfish and is a story about two ruthless criminals, Lauren Bacall, introduced shooting one of her underling’s brother dead to teach him a lesson, and David Gold (also known, much to his annoyance, by his nickname Goldfish) who is introduced by beating up one of his old friends, on a collision course.

Younger versions of Lauren and David would late reappear in another one of Bendis’s neo-noir books, Jinx about the Bounty hunter Juliet ‘Jinx’ Alameda. Jinx herself would reappear in a Bendis written issue of Sam and Twitch, an Image comic starring two supporting characters from Spawn. But trying to tie this into Spawn is a case of overthinking things, it was a throwaway cameo. We’ll stick with just A.K.A Goldfish and Jinx, two stories in which David Gold is one of the two main characters. And I will be spoiling both of them so be warned.

A.K.A Goldfish is explicitly a tragedy. Lauren and David are both awful people who destroy the lives of pretty much everyone around them. The only genuine innocent in the story, Lauren and David’s young son, ends up dead thanks to their plotting and everyone else is worse off than when the story started. David is more sympathetic than Lauren, in that his goal, rescuing his son, is a noble one, but that is undercut by the way he treats other people and you feel the writer is deliberately making him hard to root for.

The story is interspersed with flashbacks to Lauren, David and some other characters as young thieves and con men and these flashbacks have them as friends and lovers as if to make the total hostility of ruthlessness of their present day interactions feel even worse. We’re not entirely exactly told what went wrong then, we’re told Lauren asked David to use a gun in a robbery, and when he didn’t, she felt betrayed and set him up and burned him down, at which point he left town for ten years and she later found out she was pregnant and never told him. But we’re never told exactly how that betrayal went down.

So there is theoretically room for a prequel to fill in that gap, but well David and Lauren both seem to have grown little over the last ten years emotionally, the fight is still fresh, it’s what motivates them, it still angers them. David is far more violent and angry than he is in those flashbacks but that is linked to the fight not to what happened afterwards in those ten missing years. Any prequel thematically would have to involve them not growing at all because they clearly see things as unresolved ten years later.

But the prequel Jinx, which came out two years later, is, as the name suggests, less interested in David’s relationship with Lauren and more interested in his one with Jinx, who isn’t in A.K.A Goldfish. Jinx is a bounty hunter and the book is about her looking for a way out of a life that is killing her. It is, in my opinion, the much better book, it was also more popular in terms of sales and it is in tone far more hopeful and playful. It’s still a story about criminals, and it’s still dark but it can also be funny and romantic, in a way A.K.A Goldfish never allows itself to be.

The book opens with Jinx catching a bail-jumper and David, four years after the break up with Lauren and six years before the events of the previous book, running a con with his new partner, Columbia. The two go to the same café and David hits on her, in the books first extended dialogue scene between the two leads. David has already been introduced as more intellectual and kinder than his partner and the book starts as a romantic comedy, with the wrinkle, that as we know but the characters don’t, the two are on a collision course due to their careers.

But then we get the plot hook. Their first date is interrupted by Columbia, who tries to kill him, and while fighting the two stumble upon two dying men who have stolen 3 million pounds from their gangster bosses and hidden it. Columbia, David and later Jinx go after this money in order to make a new start and leave their violent miserable lives behind them. And David and Jinx bond based on that motive, it becomes an action romance as they have to fight much more ruthless people than them for the money.

Just as a story I think Jinx is great. It’s not perfect, there’s some experimental sections with background conversations and flashbacks that are tedious and the dark art style and heavy dialogue means it’s often not clear who is saying what. But I like that it’s a story about two members of the underclass, the beaten down and messed up who had to fight for anything they had and it's about their growing trust and attraction despite their problems. The climax is these two flawed people giving up on the money, the easy score and attempting to become something better together. Getting out of the brutal world they live in and seeing if they can find something together that'll make them happy after they gave up on that ever being possible. It’s a romantic and hopeful story.

Which is kind of the problem when it’s a prequel to a story which isn’t either. A.K.A Goldfish is set six years after Jinx and it shows a ruthless criminal David with no hope or kindness left in him. A good prequel would show us how he got there, it would end on a despairing note. Jinx instead ends on a note that implies otherwise. To make the two fit together, you have to completely undermine the happy ending of the prequel and assume it get undone off screen and didn’t amount to anything.

The two fit together so badly in terms of tone that some people wonder if the two Davids are even meant to be the same character, except they obviously are. Jinx’s David hates being a criminal but he also hates working for a living so he keeps coming back to it. He’s used to violence but reluctant to use it himself and is kind to strangers if unkind to people he doesn’t like. He’s more likeable than the David of A.K.A Goldfish but you can recognise him as the same person from the flashbacks in that book. It’s just that book implies that he’d stopped being that person four years before Jinx is set.

David also tells Jinx his backstory when she arrests him, and it fits what we know. He was a small time grifter whose girlfriend killed a cop and then framed him for the crime by throwing the gun at him. This is the betrayal Lauren and David discussed in A.K.A Goldfish and like in that book David views that betrayal as a revenge for not using a gun, the gun Lauren frames him with is the one he refuses to use and in the present of Jinx we see David carries a gun with no bullets in it.

This is very good prequel stuff, it expands on a pilot point from the first book in a way that doesn’t contradict anything (though David's deal with the Police to bring down Lauren at the climax of A.K.A Goldfish is somewhat harder to swallow if he's a wanted cop-killer) but still adds new information and reframes it. What fits in less well is that the money turns out to belong to Lauren and she confronts David and Jinx to get it back at the climax of Jinx. This also doesn’t strictly speaking contradict anything in A.K.A Goldfish, it’s implied they haven’t seen each other in ten years but not actually said. David hasn’t been in his home town for ten years and they haven’t talked about their problems since then but the scene in Jinx where she basically robs them at gunpoint doesn’t contradict that.

But I kind of wish that it did. I don’t like imagining the David from Jinx becoming the one from A.K.A Goldfish. I don’t like imagining that his promise to grow up and get a real job and try and work out a romance with Jinx doesn’t stick. That he loses his kindness and humanity. And for that matter I hope Jinx stops being a bounty hunter given how much she clearly hates it and doesn’t go back to it like she apparently has done in the Sam and Twitch comic

I prefer ignoring the other stories these characters appear in, or being able to pretend they were alternate versions of these characters. That way I can enjoy the hopeful ending we get without it being undercut by the other works. The emotion intended there works so much better if this is the first book starring David Gold you have read even though it wasn’t the first written.

The thing is ultimately I don’t really see what Jinx the story gains from being a prequel. In every way if David and Lauren were the same characters but with different names, and so there was no overt connection to Bendis’ previous work it would be stronger. And the tone is different enough that anyone who wanted more of A.K.A Goldfish would be disappointed.

Often with prequels I wonder why it was a prequel and not a sequel, here I wonder why it was even set in the same universe. If Bendis ever answered this question, I can't find it. It's possible that David and Lauren had been received well and so, early in his career, he'd felt that including them would bring back readers. It's also possible that he simply liked writing them and wanted to reuse them in a different context.

It was only really when Bendis' career took off and Jinx became popular as a collected paperback, that the marketing emphasis on the shared world happened in order to attract people to the earlier book. Artistically I think it's better to ignore that marketing and the shared elements and treat the books as entirely unrelated. In this way it is perhaps a counterpoint to Farthing Wood: The Adventure Begins which Tom Anderson concluded was a good prequel but a bad book, this is a good book but a bad prequel and that perhaps underlines how difficult it is to be both.



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