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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Friday, September 23, 2016


“Let mind and soul give way to bone and blood”—Jonin of the Hand

“You only want to fire that very large gun of yours”—Elektra

With the possible exception of Dave Sim, there’s no one that ideological critics, ranging from Gary Groth to Whatisname from Seekfart, have disparaged more than Frank Miller. Sim tended to get castigated for having renounced his comparatively liberal early tendencies in favor a conservative, religiously informed stance. However, critics may have most disliked Miller for his tendency to take ideological concerns lightly. In other words, Robert Crumb was always funny because he took his biggest shots at the Right. Miller took shots at both Left and Right. Clearly that made him a reactionary, and reactionaries can’t be funny.

But though Frank Miller is best known as a maker of hardboiled crime tales and wild superhero adventures, he's much funnier than almost all of the underground cartoonists put together (except maybe Gilbert Shelton). ELEKTRA ASSASSIN, appearing about three years after the culmination of the “Resurrection” arc in DAREDEVIL and in the same year as THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, proves this by taking a quirky ironic take on one of Miller’s signature characters.

Readers of this blog will know that I never use the term “irony” in a casual manner. Although all previous stories with Elektra resonnate with the dominantly serious mythos of adventure, this eight-issue “limited series” aligns with the ludicrous mythos of irony. It is not a comedy, in which silly things happen to people in a more or less normal world. In an irony, the whole world is fundamentally crazy, no matter how characters try to make sense of it, or how they may strive to be heroes.

That said, ELEKTRA ASSASSIN is not nearly as dark an irony as some. Miller’s sardonic tone is well complemented by his collaborator, penciller Bill Sienkiewicz. If I had to compare the Miller-Siekiewicz collaboration to that of the preceding Miller-Janson work on DAREDEVIL, it might be that while one is slightly expressionstic within a cosmos dominated by realistic representation.
ELEKTRA reverses the formula. Siekiewicz began his career emulating the extreme “photo-realism” of Neal Adams--

--but he quickly moved toward an expressionistic mode, with more affinities with Surrealist Art than with the “house style” of Eighties Marvel Comics.

Like the Sienkiewicz art, the story behind ELEKTRA ASSASSIN is just as subversive of “the Marvel style," though without any of the posturing self-importance of Crumb and his ilk.  In all eight issues the internal title page supplies the series with the subtitle  “The Lost Years.” Thus the series purports to tell the inside story of what happened to Elektra between the period of the character's college years, when her father’s death caused her to leave Matt Murdock, and the period in which she came back into the life of Murdock / Daredevil in the persona of a bounty hunter who eventually becomes a paid assassin.

But the subtitle is a clever hoax. In terms of tone alone, ELEKTRA ASSASSIN exists in a different world than DAREDEVIL. Yes, most of the boxes are duly checked off. Elektra as a child experiences an erotic fixation upon her father, which will later make her incapable of dealing with his death. She seeks out a substitute father in Stick, the same mentor who trained Daredevil, and he rejects her. She tries to infiltrate the criminal ranks of the Hand, and they turn the tables on her, enhancing in her the potential for evil action. But Miller has no interest in dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s of Elektra’s continuity. Even though Miller mixes in a few standard Marvel support-characters—notably Nick Fury and his SHIELD agents—the author also elevates a reprobate to the position of the President of Marvel’s United States of America.

The cult of the Hand is very different here than in their DAREDEVIL appearances, as well. They register as little more than garden-variety “bad ninjas,” who seem to operate with no particular end except to do bad things. Here, Miller and Siekkiewicz posit that they have always been servants of a demonic figure, “the Beast,” who plots the destruction of Earth. The Hand’s leader says, “No one is innocent,” and it’s no surprise to hear a villain make this sort of pronouncement. When Elektra herself echoes it, it’s plain that the traditional superhero ethic of protecting innocents doesn’t apply in this world.

Perhaps because of the Hand’s magical influence upon her, this Elektra is not just a skilled martial arts fighter, but a super-woman, capable of punching through metal or emitting sonic screams. In other words, this is an Elektra who could never have been slain by a mundane opponent like Bullseye—but more importantly, she is Frank Miller’s meditation on the unholy joy of super-humanity.

To be sure, Elektra is still an emotional basket case, and her meditations make her sound more than a little insane. Yet, because it’s an insane world, this proves to be an asset in battling the Beast and its adherents. By dumb luck Elektra forms a mental link with the aforementioned reprobate: a ruthless, hard-ass SHIELD agent named John Garrett.

Garrett starts out as a human being, and is turned into a Six Million Dollar Operative after Elektra almost kills him. Yet because Elektra now has vast mental powers, she can dominate Garrett, virtually enslaving him as the Hand tried to enslave her—and in time, he comes to take a quasi-masochistic pleasure in her dominion. Romance as such is impossible between two such amoral, messed-up characters. However, faced with the threat of worldly destruction, they do become one of the foremost examples of the “oddball partners” trope.

The series’ closest link to DAREDEVIL is that the combination of sex and guilt follows Elektra wherever she goes. Yet in ELEKTRA ASSASSIN, their confluence is not tragic, but ironically humorous. A psychologist examining Elektra concludes that she had a “stringent Christian upbringing,” which she rejected in favor of Eastern mysticism: all of which sounds like Miller dissecting his own character as a “lapsed quasi-Catholic.” For good measure, Miller also introduces a supporting adversary, SHIELD agent Chastity McBryde, whose very name denotes sexual ambivalence, and who appears at one point dressed as a sexy nun. 

In addition, one telling exchange strongly suggests that none of Elektra’s Asian disciplines have vanquished her Christian demons. Some time after escaping the Hand, but before launching her campaign against the Beast, the lady assassin meets with a client who wants her to kill a South American president. The client comments that the official has invited in so many outside interests that he’s made the country “as a popular as a two dollar whore.” He then asks Elektra what she wants to assassinate the President, and she answers, “Two dollars.”

I mentioned the storyline’s many satires of Left and Right, but I won’t cover them in detail. I must, though, allude to the visual absurdity of American Presidential candidate Ken Wind, who has the face of a Kennedy newspaper-cutout but who secretly serves the Beast. Political passions, as much as sexual ones, are a morass of delusion-- and even an individual's attempts to dispel delusions just lead to other delusions.

To be sure, Miller and Sienkiewicz mount a lot of violence-scenarios to please the fans who expect them from a Frank Miller work. But even these are often a little off-kilter compared to action-scenes done through a representational lens. The explosions and gun-battles here have the same cartoonish intensity as Elektra’s distorted memories.

 Early in the first issue, Elektra mentions that at some point she conceives of her mother—slain by terrorists long before her father’s death—as Clytemnestra, and her father as Agamemnon. Since the mother-figure dies first, Elektra’s backstory can have no direct points of comparison with the initiating action of the Greek Theban Cycle, as this starts off with wife Clytemnestra slaying husband Agamemnon, and so incurring the wrath of Elektra. But one other parallel suggests itself. In the Greek cycle, daughter Electra dominates her brother Orestes and guilts him into doing the dirty work of killing their murderess-mother. In essence, Garrett is as much a pawn to Elektra  as Orestes was to his sister. However, Orestes’ reward for following his filial duties was to be pursued by the Furies. Garrett may not get any romance from his harsh mistress, but he does reap a much more pleasant reward than Orestes. In the world of ELEKTRA ASSASSIN, even though no one is innocent, the people who get the best toys are the ones who are in on the whole cosmic joke.


A. Sherman Barros said...

Hello Gene.

What a great trip down memory lane. At the time I didn't much appreciate the art of Bill Sienkiewicz. Although I had flipped with it the first time I read DAREDEVIL: LOVE AND WAR (the first time I really took notice of Sienkiewicz as someone apart from comic's normal way of depiction), I found her Black Widow (wiry and short-haired) not to my 15-years-old-in-love-with-Pérez's-Black-Widow's tastes.

Not so with ELEKTRA ASSASSIN. Despite the ultra-stylised art,Sienkiewicz's Elektra was strangely fascinating and irresistably erotic. I haven't reread the mini-series since the first time it came out in Portuguese (I guess around 1987 or 1988), and it was great to revisit its pages through your illuminating post.

And I say illuminating, for also I find it very strange that people don't recognize Miller's superb irony and dark sense of humor. I always felt that his kind of dark mirk was something of a roller-coaster ride that threatened to veer into insanity at any moment. But it never does. He's too sure handed for that.

I hope I am not the only one to find "Roulette" in DAREDEVIL #191 as a wonderful instance of dark ironic humor, as much as of existential horror. Along with being one of the great - if not the greatest - comic book scripts of all time.



Gene Phillips said...

I regret delaying comment to your post so long, but before I did so I wanted to locate my cop of LOVE AND WAR for purposes of myth-analysis, which I've now done here:


I remember enjoying the "Roulette" finale as Miller's perceptive take on how intensely and personally the hero took in, knowing that Bullseye had killed people because he Daredevil had earlier spared the villain's life. I'm not sure how well received it was in its time. I mainly seem to remember fans grousing about DD setting a bad example for kids. By that time, I would've thought everyone who'd read the title would've realized that Miller had made it over into an adult-themed title, but it seems that was not the case.