Hi, and welcome to Comics You Should Own, a semi-regular series about comics I think you should own. I began writing these a little over fifteen years ago, and I’m still doing it, because I dig writing long-form essays about comics. I republished my early posts, which I originally wrote on my personal blog, at Comics Should Be Good about ten years ago, but since their redesign, most of the images have been lost, so I figured it was about time I published these a third time, here on our new blog. I plan on keeping them exactly the same, which is why my references might be a bit out of date and, early on, I don’t write about art as much as I do now. But I hope you enjoy these, and if you’ve never read them before, I hope they give you something to read that you might have missed. I’m planning on doing these once a week until I have all the old ones here at the blog. Today we take a look at Frank Miller and Bill Sienkiewicz’s brilliant fever dream of a comic. This post was originally published on 21 January 2007. As always, you can click on the images to see them better. Enjoy!
Published by Marvel/Epic, 8 issues (#1-8), cover dated August 1986 – March 1987.
One of the reasons I object to All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder [Edit: Well, that dates this!] is because Miller has done it all before, and better. If he’s going for sheer insanity on ASB&RtBW, he doesn’t reach what he did 20 years ago. Elektra: Assassin is The Dark Knight Returns on crack. If you complained that Batman didn’t kick enough ass in that book, this is the comic for you!
I suppose this should be called a guilty pleasure, because there’s only a little in these comic books that is socially redeeming in any way. From the first few pages, Miller and Sienkiewicz grab us by the throat and refuse to let go. It’s impressive, when you read these in one sitting, how the creators keep the high level of energy over eight issues. There’s very little fluff here, which is amazing, considering the padding we often see in comics today. Even the “down time” in this book is packed with little details, both in the writing and the art, that doesn’t leave us much time to catch our breath. Which is just fine and dandy.
The story, which in a plot-driven comic like this seems to be important, isn’t actually. Elektra needs to kill the presidential candidate because he’s a servant of the Beast, an ancient evil that controls the Hand, that Marvel ninja clan that pops up every so often. The Beast is planning to use the candidate, Ken Wind (that’s “not wind like a watch, but wind … like the air,” as the innumerable political ads throughout the book remind us), to start a nuclear war and cleanse the Earth of humanity. Elektra has to stop him.
This is just the frame on which to hang the plot, however, while Miller and Sienkiewicz rip apart everything they want to tackle. This is a vicious satire, and even though it’s not terribly deep, you have to admire the commitment of these two gentlemen to the cause. Take Ken Wind. He’s proud of the fact that he’s a liberal Democrat. His campaign ads read like a liberal’s wet dream – “He lit his candle in the rain at Woodstock … spilled his very own blood at Altamont … burned his draft card at Berkeley … marched on Washington, shoulder to shoulder with his brothers and sisters … carried our banner of peace through the bullets at Kent State … and yes, he cried – for John … for Martin … for Bobby … His is the soul of the Love Generation – the Spirit of Sixty-Eight.” It’s very funny partly because it’s so very earnest. Wind continues to gain momentum throughout the campaign, even though he spouts platitudes the entire time. Contrasted to the incumbent, a thinly-veiled Nixon substitute (as the president in DKR was a Reagan substitute), Wind seems like the perfect candidate. The President is a pathetic bully with serious issues, as he caresses “the box” – the nuclear button – throughout the book like a mistress. He clings to the notion that he’s the president and that Wind is a “faggot” – which of course drives the gay vote to Wind – and that no matter what happens, he has “the box.” These two candidates are Miller’s ideas of not-terribly-deep political commentary, but in Sienkiewicz’s hands, Ken Wind becomes a far more sinister figure than Miller makes him in the text. Wind’s face is a cypher, hardly ever changing expression from his tacked-on smile, and Sienkiewicz places him so that he’s always facing the reader – meaning the audience – no matter which way his body turns. It’s a slightly creepy effect, but it works. Ken Wind is the man of the people, but he’s always playing to the crowd. Very rarely does his smile crack, and never when the cameras are on. In the last issue, when rogue S.H.I.E.L.D. agent and Elektra accomplice John Garrett has been switched into Wind’s body and has become the president, the smile becomes even more disturbing, because Garrett is pretty much a psychopath, and the final shot in the book, with him sitting at the desk in the Oval Office with a machine gun and “the box,” is a perfect ending, really. Miller and Sienkiewicz aren’t breaking any new ground here, but the portrayel of the three men – the President, Ken Wind, and John Garrett – points out the utter depravity of political machinations. The President is clearly nuts, but he is also honest about his peculiarities. As he goes down to defeat in the election, his advisors need to wrest “the box” from his hand, lest he take the world with him. Ken Wind is also clearly insane, but he’s smart enough to cloak his insanity in political clichés. Finally, Garrett, who is also unhinged, plays politics in the final issue and wins – he bluffs the Soviet Premier into negotiating, and therefore accomplishes more than the President or Ken Wind, with their dreams of nuclear annihilation, could have.
This series is also about shredding comics themselves, as Elektra: Assassin begins the parody parade of books mocking the “grim-‘n’-gritty” comics that Miller himself pioneered on Daredevil, Ronin, and The Dark Knight Returns. I’m not sure when exactly this came out in conjunction with DKR, but he may have been writing them at the same time, and may have decided to tear down the ultra-serious take on superheroes that he gave us with Batman before anyone else inevitably did. So he gives us two heroes, Elektra, who’s a ninja assassin, and Garrett, who’s an ex-con. He turns these two loose and splatters S.H.I.E.L.D. agents and Hand disciples all over the pages. It’s a creepy thrill we get as we watch Elektra carve her way through her enemies, and watch Garrett get blasted over and over again, yet continue to function thanks to S.H.I.E.L.D.’s cybernetics division, ExTechOp. By the end, Garrett is little more than a brain and a robot body, and his physical destruction is not unlike Herr Starr’s in Preacher – played for laughs even as we cringe. Miller goes even further with Perry, Garrett’s partner, whom Elektra kills early on in the book by shoving a bayonet into his, well, sphincter, and whom ExTechOp later turns into a pure killing machine, even though his soul now belongs to the Beast. Perry is even crazier than Garrett, and Miller pulls out all the stops with him. The final two issues of the book, when Perry gets loose and goes to kill Elektra, while she tracks Ken Wind, is a glorious orgy of over-the-top violence, even more than in the first six issues, which are pretty bloody.
By using these practically inhuman cyborgs along with the always-enigmatic ninja, Miller is also mocking comic books in their incessant recycling of ideas. Again, Miller pioneered the use of ninjas in comics, but by 1986, they were clichés, and he recognized that. Therefore we get an attack (in issue #5) by ninjas who work at Ken Wind’s campaign headquarters. Elektra and Garrett have been thrown into the Potomac, and the ninja follow. In one of the funnier scenes in the book, they are dressed in suits and are still carrying their suitcases. Garrett voices what we’re all thinking: “Six of them, baby — they only look like accountants –” The absurdity of this scene highlights the silliness of ninjas altogether. Even though Miller continues to use them, he has recognized that they’ve passed from the realm of the threatening to the realm of the absurd. There’s nothing wrong with using ninjas in comics, but they must be done with appropriate irony these days, thanks to scenes like this. Garrett continually comments on the surreal nature of the adventure he’s mixed up in – even when he sees them, he can’t believe ninja assassins are coming after him. But Garrett himself is a comic-book cliché, and Miller uses him to the hilt. The idea of cyborgs was well established in comic books by 1986, and Miller shows the weirdness of a world where men could be rebuilt as robots and sent out into the world. Garrett is constantly being rebuilt, and each time he loses more of his humanity. Perry is the ultimate expression of this, as ExTechOp brings him back from the dead, where he has become a servant of the Beast. They are very proud of the fact that they have breached the void and brought a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent back from beyond. Like all Doctor Frankensteins, they didn’t consider the cost.
Miller also has fun linking sex and violence and even religion. Garrett is mesmerized by Elektra, and constantly tries to get her out of his head. She has learned with Stick and his acolytes and also the Hand, so she is able to control people telepathically, and Garrett has no defense. Early in the series, she toys with him, until he comes closer to her orbit, and then she seizes control. After she kills Perry and blows Garrett up, she is captured by S.H.I.E.L.D., but Garrett can’t stop thinking about her. The way Miller describes her is interesting: Garrett thinks, “I’m going … to kill that bitch … that god damn … doesn’t even look that good … too long and stringy … too damn many muscles for a woman …” Elektra, interestingly enough, does not conform to the standard stereotype comic book readers have of women. She is attractive, sure, but she is a weapon, and therefore, her body is lean and ready for fighting. Despite this, Garrett is mesmerized, and in issue #4, when he finally meets Ken Wind and realizes that Elektra is right about him, he goes over to her side and incurs the wrath of his employers. From then on, they’re the perfect couple. Elektra, interestingly enough, does not forget his service, and saves his life at the end when she could have left him. This “romance,” if it can be called that, is set against this backdrop of violence, and Miller has a great deal of fun with the idea of Elektra using her sexiness to get into places where she can then wreak havoc. Garrett, too, always has this idea in his head that the more violent Elektra gets, the more beautiful she is. Sex and violence have always been linked, not only in comics but in much of pop culture, and Miller does a nice job holding it up for ridicule even as he indulges in it himself. When it becomes clear that Garrett has gone rogue, Nick Fury calls in one of his top agents – Chastity McBryde. Chastity is a wonderfully over-the-top character, wearing a huge cross earring and telling her men to watch their mouths as they head into battle. At the end of the book she even shows up in a nun’s habit, perhaps as repentance for her failures in protecting Ken Wind. Chastity, of course, is sexy as hell, with big breasts and flowing blonde hair and tight clothing. But she’s taken – even her last name implies that she is a “bride” of Christ. She channels her sexuality into slaughter in the name of God and Country. Chastity is actually one of the more heroic figures in the series, which is interesting. Elektra and Garrett, for all the good they do, can’t really be considered heroic. I’ll get to Fury in a bit. Chastity, despite fighting for the wrong side, is honorable and not at all psychotic. Garrett fools her in the last issue because she wants to believe that the President is not a mass murderer, even though she knows that the Beast exists. It’s interesting to read the last issue, in which Chastity comes in contact with the Beast but refuses to believe it. Hard-boiled Garrett sees the evidence of the Beast and believes. Spiritually-minded Chastity sees evidence and refuses to believe.
Despite the parody, Miller has an interesting point to make regarding politics. At his worst, Miller’s political thought veers toward fascism, as I’ve argued before (to much opprobrium, to be sure, but I’m sticking to it!). At his best, like here, he lauds libertarianism, and it’s interesting to look at how he does this. Every single organization in this book is corrupt. This begins in the first issue, which is partly Elektra’s origin, and begins with her own family. There is a slight implication that Elektra’s father molested her, but Elektra herself dismisses it, and I’m glad, because that’s a stupid thing to introduce here. The corruption lies in the fact that her mother died in an attack on the couple while she was still pregnant, and Elektra had to be taken from her cut-apart body. Then, of course, her father was killed while she was in college, driving her from Matt Murdock and into the arms of the Hand (so to speak). Her family is shattered, and this is the impetus for her own destruction. Prior to her father’s death, she studied with Stick and his disciples, but even though she loves Stick, he still abuses her and destroys her, and ruins any hope she has of a normal life even before her father’s death does. The Hand, obviously, is a corrupt group, and nothing more needs to be said about it. Then Elektra comes into the orbit of S.H.I.E.L.D. when she kills the President of the Latin American country of San Concepcion, Carlos Huevos (ironically, perhaps the only incorruptible government official in the series). S.H.I.E.L.D., in this book, is riddled with corruption, from ExTechOp down through the regular ranks. Surprisingly enough, Miller writes Nick Fury as largely ineffectual. He’s still a cigar-chomping tough guy, but he doesn’t see the horrors that ExTechOp is building until it’s too late, nor can he play politics all that well. It’s an interesting portrayal of him, because it doesn’t really violate the way Fury has been written in the past, but we understand that he’s better as a soldier than an administrator. The government of the United States, of course, is corrupt, and the fact that the Beast gains a foothold in it when a general almost sets off a bunch of nuclear missiles just makes its corruption worse. Ken Wind, we’ve seen, is also corrupt, and he wins the election in a landslide. Miller’s statement at the end, when a psychotic Garrett is now running the country in Ken Wind’s body, is his take on authority figures – better a crazy person who’s not corrupt (Garrett is many things, but he’s not corrupt) than anyone else. The Beast, who controls the minds of men, has been defeated, and although things aren’t really all that better, at least the people making the decisions are free. It’s this subtle praise of libertarianism over totalitarianism that makes Elektra: Assassin more than just an interesting orgy of slaughter. Miller, more than a lot of comic book writers, is concerned about politics, and although he goes off the rails sometimes, in this series his concerns are valid (if we see the Beast as a metaphor for lobbyists, big business, special interests, what have you) and he attempts to come to a conclusion. He’s still cynical, but at least, for the time being, men can make their own decisions.
I’ve mentioned here and there Sienkiewicz’s artwork, which is stunning in this series. Many people have pointed out that Sienkiewicz was ripping others off, but there’s still no denying that he is very influential in today’s comics world, even though he rarely does much work anymore. As his style evolved, from early to late Moon Knight, through New Mutants, to this, he experimented much more with multimedia effects and painting. His styles changed depending on whether he was illustrating something from the past, when his figures would become much more surreal, as they would in memories, or in the present, when his people wouldn’t so much become more “normal” as they would become less stylized, or if he was working in a metaphorical world, as when Elektra imagines that she is a turtle attacking a rat. I mentioned his drawing of Ken Wind, which is a nifty little symbol of corruption and political smarminess. It looks as if he drew a face of Wind and then photocopied it over and over, simply changing the mouth from a smile (which Wind is usually doing) to a line (he does get angry occasionally). Therefore, Wind’s face never really changes, plus it’s in black-and-white in a field of color, which makes it stand out even more. I’m not sure how he did it, but the effect is marvelous. There’s a lot of touches like this in the book, and Sienkiewicz is up to it. This is really his first full-fledged masterpiece, even though his previous work was nice, and also the beginning of his withdrawal from “regular” comics. He’s done a little full-time work since this – the first few issues of The Shadow, Stray Toasters, Big Numbers – but nothing long-term, and now he’s doing covers and inking people. The nice thing about Sienkiewicz is that no matter how many times you look at his art, you can always look at it again and see things you might have missed. He’s a true collaborator on this book, bringing Miller’s insanity to life with aplomb. Nothing in Miller’s feverish imagination is too wild for him, and that’s why this book goes as far as it does.
Elektra: Assassin came from Marvel’s Epic line, and it shouldn’t surprise us that Archie Goodwin gave the greenlight to this, despite its rather mature tone. This came at a time when Marvel, through Epic, was really experimenting with what comics could do. Both Miller and Sienkiewicz are at the top of their game in this book, and together they give us a classic, doing things with “regular” Marvel characters (Elektra and Nick Fury) that couldn’t be done in the “regular” Marvel U. (I have no idea if this book is “in continuity” or not; Miller sets in the years between Elektra’s college days with Matt Murdock and her return to his life later on.) This series is available in trade paperback, where it’s packaged with the Daredevil graphic novel Miller and Sienkiewicz did at about the same time, which is definitely worth your while. It’s a dynamic, brilliant series, and it reminds us why we love comics in the first place.
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[Well, dang. I could have sworn I wrote more about Sienkiewicz’s art in this post, but I guess I didn’t. This could easily be twice as long if I wrote it today, because I could write quite a bit about the amazing artwork. Back in ’07, I wasn’t terribly confident writing about art, but I know what I like, and Sienkiewicz’s work on this book remains a career peak for him (although I’m not sure if it’s the absolute best work he’s ever done). So I apologize for that. This series, which stirred up a small amount of controversy when it was released and which some people thought I was nuts to extol, seems to have a better reputation now than it did 13 years ago, but I could be wrong. Marvel does keep it in print, it seems, which is keen, and I linked to the nice trade below. I mean, it’s Miller and Sienkiewicz at the top of their game! How can you go wrong?!?!?!?]