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.
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.
The 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.