Elektra: Assassin – This should be your favorite comic


Over the years, I’ve enjoyed reading tons and tons of comicbooks, but only a few have had a meaningful impact on my life. Whether it’s because of the elaborate mythology they weave, or the novel point of view they impart, here are a select group of books that I have come to regard as required reading.

These are the comics that I treasure, I love them for giving me something that I otherwise couldn’t have experienced. One in particular is the first comic that I ran to buy. At one point, when I got sick, and I made my mum go pick up issue 7 (which, after much begging and cajoling she did, saying “Do you know, the comic shop was quite clean!” with this really shocked tone. I think that she thought comic shops would be like porn stores or something.) Anyway, this comic blew my mind. For years I based all of my art work on it (something my dad was pretty disappointed by when he recognized a poster of her on my wall, from a fabric print I’d done a month earlier). But this book didn’t just inspire my work, it inspired my life. Up until I read this, I’d never thought that I could be strong, I felt small and weak and often controlled by other people’s opinions. This book made me want to instill fear, it made me want to battle evil, or maybe just kill people randomly (I was an angry teenager after all). Most of all it made me believe that I could want to be powerful, and I finally had something to aim for.




ElektraElektra: Assassin

Originally published in 1986 as an 8 issue mini-series (soon to be available in an omnibus edition, but currently out of print). The story is written by Frank Miller, and follows on the heels of his Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. There are definitely shades of the same quality of central character; an uncompromising, brutal warrior. But this time it’s no grizzled veteran of the streets, but a highly-trained, disturbed, young ninja. Bill Sienkiewicz paints the comic in a previously unseen (remember, this was ’86) expressive, intense style, which does as much to tell the story as Miller’s words.

This is a back-story from Elektra’s early life. At this time she had been killed in the Daredevil comic, and Miller expressed a desire to write more about her, but did not want to see her brought to life (which at the time, showed an integrity and commitment to his creation that is sadly lacking in many other comics). Hence his decision to tell a story of her past.

Initially we join her confused scraps of random thoughts as she tries to unravel the mystery of who and where she is. Gradually she begins to figure it all out. She remembers the childhood that her father tried so hard to make her forget, the training that he sent her to when she exhibited her early skills.

Slowly she realizes that she’s been drugged and hospitalized after losing a battle with “the Beast”. The Beast fed her his mind-controlling, mind-altering “milk” – a sour, rotten liquid which seems to enhance the senses as well as damaging the minds of those who are forced to drink it. As the threads of her mind begin to come back together, she enacts a speedy and ruthless escape from the mental institution that she finds herself in.

Garrett then takes over the story-telling duties for the main. He’s a miserable, jaded, cyborg S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, initially working to track Elektra, but as soon as he encounters her, their consciousness becomes entwined and their thoughts shared (his; messy and emotional, hers; sparse and all business). Together (on Garrett’s part, often inadvertently), they encounter a deceptively vapid, two-dimensional presidential candidate, with shades of Kennedy-esque youth and verve, who is actually in thrall to the Beast and the destructive forces of the Hand, who’re hellbent on bringing about global nuclear annihilation through their network of vicious soldiers, hiding in all facets of the government.




Elektra issue 4The art is absolutely beautiful, even after 20 years, it has not diminished for me. At the time, the idea of an expressively painted comic was unheard of, and the various art styles used, paralleled and enhanced Miller’s dynamic story. Some readers were shocked and confusing by the echoes of Matisse, and Warhol, (the letters pages were hysterical as people struggled to understand). The only thing that really stands out as obviously of that point in time, is playing on the fear of nuclear war. It was a huge theme in the ’80′s, and seems rather extreme now. But at the time it seemed pretty reasonable, and compared to some evil villain’s domination fantasies, this one seems kind of do-able.

Throughout the book, Elektra’s story is told with a brutal lack of fluff or filler. Every character is dynamic and strange, perverse and disturbing in a slew of inventive ways. Even the smallest, most insignificant side-story is given weight and detail in the implications of the untold aspects. In one early example, we see Elektra at peace in her mother’s womb (probably the only sunny, bright drawing in the entire book). A frame later, she’s violently born from her murdered mother’s body. This could be horrific to read, but because the story is told from the point of view of an infant, the art is crude and simple, thus mitigating the disgust inherent in such a scene. Throughout the book, the art follows the point of view of the storyteller, or the mood of the moment, betraying the unsaid.

While there are fantastic characterizations and machinations, this is a story about Elektra and it’s the depiction of her that is visually the most mutable. Portraying her as a child is where Sienkewicz really explores a broad range of visual techniques to express the full gamut of emotion. In one instance, (in only 3 panels), a 5 year old Elektra is raped by her father while supposedly safe in her bed. That, and the implication of her subsequent brainwashing to forget the ordeal is all told in those 3 frames. The fear and loss she experienced is obvious in her giant, terrified, cartooney eyes. The deep purples and blues show the depth of that night’s wounds. Like a Rothko painting the colors cut to the core, contrasting with the manga-esque, little girl cartoon, and the Peter Blake style use of collage for her sheets, conveying scrapbooks of ephemera of the past. Through all this, the total lack of comprehension that she had as a child, and the subsequent inability to acknowledge or deal with the experience as an adult, is all there in those 3 panels.

Sometimes in the book Elektra is shown from Garrett’s perspective; vampy and sensual as he fantasizes about her and lusts after her (with a resigned awareness that he’s never going there). At other times she’s depicted on the huge monitors at S.H.I.E.L.D. (in ineffectual reports to a scary, multi-tasking, gun-toting Nick Fury) looking like a wiry ninja warrior, brutally exacting her righteous indignation upon the world.

Throughout, there is an undercurrent of sarcasm and bitterness in Elektra’s voice, which speaks volumes about the walls of anger and vitriol, fostered to externalize her negative childhood experiences. This in turn enables her to become the violent, assassin that she is, taking small satisfaction from doing a difficult job well. She comes alive when she’s working, exercising her skills to their maximum potential. The frequent undercurrent of surreal, ridiculous humor only adds to the mood.

At a particularly confusing and melodramatic time in my life (being a teenager was so tedious and weird), I couldn’t imagine that anyone would ever understand what I was feeling. But this book encapsulated so much of that hunger for strength and autonomy. It’s taken me years to consciously understand why this book touched me so deeply when it did, but with hindsight I can see that I was correlating my position with Elektra’s, both literally and figuratively. I love her ability to escape from the institution, and thereafter to fight off and completely destroy her attackers. Her vision and ability to control the big picture, to create viable options, and create solutions was amazing to me. At the time I craved these things without knowing what they were. This comic gave me my first great female role model, and while she wasn’t the healthiest woman out there, she certainly was the strongest, smartest and most resourceful woman I’d ever heard of.



Sonia Harris and 2 of her copies of Elektra: Assassin live in San Francisco, the other 2 copies are in London, where her family still live. If anyone says anything negative about this book, she’ll be very disappointed. If you want to, you can email her at sonia@ifanboy.com.

Comments

  1. Chris Neseman ChrisNeseman says:

    For this I would match a:

    Sasparilla Assassin
    • 1 part Peppermint Schnapps –
    • 1 part Tequila
    • 1 part Whiskey
    • Top with Root Beer

    Oops. Wrong column…

    Great review of a modern classic Sonia!

     

  2. Tad Tad says:

    Wow, Sonia.  Quite a change up from your usual tone and you couldn’t have picked a better series.  Well done!  Sienkewicz’s art is so idiosyncratic and contains so much story material in itself, that it’s hard to imagine that someone else wrote the story.  I hope the Absolute includes the script, thumbnails and a long conversation about the working dynamic between Miller and Sienkewicz.  It will be hard for younger fans to realize how different a project this was at the time.

     Great write up. 

  3. areml areml says:

    yeah, the story and art in this book was quite ahead of its time. great choice!

  4. Going to read this at the library this weekend, it sounds great!

  5. Doctor13 Doctor13 says:

    Nice reveiw, Sonia. It’s been awhile since I’ve read this book, but I have fond memories of it due, mostly, to how far ahead of its time it was, radical even. I hope they put out an Absolute edition as it would be well worth it. This makes a great double feature with Sienkewicz’s equally wild-eyed "Stray Toasters" from the ’80′s. Have you read that one Sonia?

  6. Nate Nate says:

    When did Elektra "come back" to life and who was the creator that did it? Just curious. 

    Great column, it makes me really pumped for the HC that I’ve already preordered from Amazon.  

  7. xebix xebix says:

    Nice article as usual. After hearing you on this past week’s podcast, I now have a voice to put with what you write.

  8. gwiz gwiz says:

    I wish I owned a copy of this. i might or might not have downloaded it, but i have never gotten around to reading it.

  9. Every time I see Elektra, I think "eggbeater".  What a strange and awesome comic!

  10. lobo lobo says:

    Sienkiewicz’s work was great full of rich atmosphere, compare it to Larocca’s Electra and it’s like comparing diamonds to coal.

  11. Jim Mroczkowski Jimski (@jimski) says:

    @Nate, it looks like Elektra stayed dead for about ten years. She was brought back in 1993 by D.G. Chichester in a storyline called "Fall From Grace." Was this story good? I could not say; all I know about the name Chichester is Armored Daredevil, and I don’t know whether to blame him or the nineties for that.

  12. UncleBob UncleBob says:

    I actually did enjoy FM’s Elektra Lives Again, with FM pencilling and LV coloring (which was the highlight).  The coloring made it seem like each panel was a painting.  Awesome confrontation with a Bullseye, murdered by and  brought back to life from the Hand.  Also showcasing DD’s ninja-mind skills against a representative against the hand (I think, hard to remeber).  I believe this will also be in the omnibus.

  13. I actually didn’t think the DD armor looked that bad, especially compared to what other heroes ended up wearing during the 90s.

    As for Chichester’s run.  Very confusing, but a lot of that was probably due to Scott McDaniel’s questionable storytelling.

  14. Good column this week Sis. It’s possibly because I grew up reading all your old issues, that I too have a slight obsession with this comic too.

    The only reason I don’t give my copy to people to read as their introduction to comics is because I think it has the ability to blow their minds. Which is why I start them on Dark Knight Returns. (Critisize any comic if you want, but these are the only two comics that I get personally offended by people talking ill of them.)

    It’s a sign of something truly special when something as simple as a comic book can make a 23 year old man(boy) feel like he’s an clinically unhinged, psychic, ninja, female assasin.

  15. tittom tittom says:

    A friend of mine found those in backissues in her basement and gived them to me (with the whole V for Vendetta and The Dark Knight Returns run). Imagine my surprise. Haven’t read it yet. Its really something I need to sit down and read as a whole. The art is gorgeous. 

  16. Diabhol Diabhol says:

    Great article, but this comic was not for me. "Messiness" in art and storytelling does not appeal to me. I’m narrow.

     

  17. Marbles Marbles says:

    I bought this in issues when it came out – loved it then and still love it now. Can’t wait for the Elektra Omnibus so it can take pride of place on my shelf.

     

     

  18. @Diabhol, I don’t think "Messiness" is the apt term for this work. Within the artwork at least, the "messiness" as you put it is the dramatic, chaotic, and at some times almost pyschotic work that drives this comic. It puts you on edge at some points, and intoxicates you at others… Sienkewitz’s work is immersive and evocative and I think allows you to be swallowed up by this truly great piece of comic genius. 

  19. sigridellis1 sigridellis1 says:

    Thanks so much for writing this up, Sonia.  This is still one of the best comics I’ve ever read.  It is not only a great story — with one of the few strong female role models on the 80s — it is a kind of story that cannot be told this way in another medium.  The shifting perspectives, the hallucinatory points of view, they way the narrative is upheld or belied by the art, all of these things make Elektra: Assassin one of the best comic stories I’ve ever read.

  20. I almost bought Sienkiewicz’s Stray Toasters trade.  It’s even more bizarre than Elektra: Assassin.

  21. Diabhol Diabhol says:

    @samisadesigner, call it whatever you like, but the storytelling style in this book doesn’t do it for me.

  22. soniaharris soniaharris says:

    @Doctor13 Yep, loved Stray Toasters.

  23. blross says:

    Sonia,  I’m a little late posting.  Sorry.  Great review of "Elektra:  Assassin."  Wondering if you have ever read "Daredevil:  Love and War" by the Miller/Sienkiewicz team.  I love this book!  For some reason, my favorite Miller books seem to be things he did in collaboration with others:  Batman:  Year One (which I think is stronger by far than Dark Knight, which feels "dated" to me on rereadings), Elektra:  Assassin, Daredevil:  Love and War, and probably my all time favorite comic, the "Born Again" storyline.

  24. @Diabhol… fair enough. to each their own. Definately don’t read Stray Toasters then…

  25. soniaharris soniaharris says:

    @blross: Thanks. Yes, Daredevil: Love and War was easily one of my favorite Daredevil stories (apart from anything with Elektra in it, heh). Batman Year one is good… but I still prefer Dark Knight Returns, partly just because a crabby old man Batman is so much more interesting to me. I don’t know about dated… maybe I’m too familar with the stories to judge, I really like old movies, so maybe I just like dated things.

  26. UncleBob UncleBob says:

    Bill S., awesome artist, no doubt?  How is his writing?  Is Stray Toasters good beyond the art?

  27. soniaharris soniaharris says:

    @UncleBob: I loved it, was poetic, surreal, upsetting, surprising, and disturbing.

    To address an earlier point you made; I liked Elektra Lives again too. As you say, LV’s coloring is quite lovely and really makes the art. I’m very sorry that FM and LV split up, as I felt that her work added enormously to every book they worked on (apart from DK2, which was just strange).

  28. Tork Tork says:

    @Nate and Jimski– If we’re talking the classic "killed by Bullseye" moment, Elektra was resurrected by the Chaste a good nine issues after she died.  I don’t know what happened during Fall From Grace but she comes back at the end of DD Visionaries: Frank Miller Vol 3.