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Elektra Assassinates Marvel Comics

by louis whiteford on March 25, 2015

When somebody tells me they had a hard time reading an older comic, I assume the datedness of the comic got in the way of the story. Dialogue and art can age a book and create a stiffness a new reader might never get into the groove of. Almost nobody has trouble with a comic because it was a challenging read, so when a comic actually is a challenge, it can really, really throw the reader for a loop. Elektra: Assassin is just that comic. It certainly isn’t the most intelligent or insightful story ever written, but the abstract nature of the art and writing make it a challenge fir for its medium. It’s all about Elektra trying to kill a presidential candidate possessed by the Beast of The Hand, but it’s advanced comic books. A causal superhero fan looking to expand his or her Daredevil coverage is going way beyond the deep end of the pool with this one. They’re gonna need scuba gear for Elektra: Assassin. This comic stretches the definition of superheroics as far as it’ll go, tears it in half due to strain and keeps on pulling. It might be the weirdest, artiest Marvel comic ever made.

Released over the course of 1986 and 87, Elektra: Assassin was published through Marvel’s Epic line, which allowed for comic-shop only distribution so the little kids in grocery stores wouldn’t have their minds warped. Each issue was longer, more expensive and more skillfully printed than the typical Marvel fare. If all of that wasn’t enough to warn causal readers that this series wasn’t their standard bread and butter, the comic itself does a great job shooing away any traditionalists. Elektra: Assassin shifts the tone immediately. A typical superhero comic might open with a splash page of the hero in action. Each issue of Elektra begins with a splash page too, but they’re all establishing shots, usually of nature. Issue #1 starts with a sickly neon painting of a beach. Over the next four pages, the reader is treated to a smorgasbord of Seinkeivicz’s tricks. The reader is shown a cartoon girl sitting inside a realistically drawn pregnant woman. A palm tree rotates around a helicopter. Notes are scribbled over the top of art. panels drawn in crayon, un-inked pencils, doodles layered on top of already-finished art like a child’s textbook, even lace pasted over the page. He hits you with a barrage of techniques, and never stops. It gets more abstract at times, and less at others, but Seinkeivicz never stops experimenting, and neither does Miller. Miller’s story employs a fractured timeline, always leaving Elektra one step ahead of the reader, as we try vainly to track her down with SHIELD agent Garrett.

Elektra: Assassin could possibly take place inside the Marvel universe, but a continuity-hound would go nuts trying to pinpoint how it fits into the grand scheme of things. Frank Miller’s elastic script incorporates elements from his prior Daredevil stories, most significantly Elektra’s history with The Hand, but it also rewrites Elektra’s history as it sees fit, and makes up more than a few elements as it goes along. Nick Fury plays a large enough role, but he’s a pompous caricature, and Matt Murdock appears in maybe one or two panels. Elektra functions best as its own weird, sci-fi-espionage-mind-control comic.

Elektra the comic works best as it’s own self-contained bit of art because it’s barely about Elektra the character. Sure, she’s the protagonist of the story, but she rarely speaks, and she narrates with a mechanical efficiency befitting the world’s deadliest assassin. Elektra’s struggle is the struggle to assassinate. She’s here to get a job done. It’s not her fault that SHIELD agent Garrett’s competing narration has so much more personality. Frank Miller’s scripting shows no restraint, repeating phrases and chopping sentences up like drunken poetry.  He gets mileage a plenty out of Garrett, who Miller uses to fill the comic with bureaucracy jokes and lewd commentary. It’d be overbearing if Bill Seinkiewicz’s wasn’t so perfectly in tune with Miller’s sense of satire.

The bureaucracy jokes are pervasive, but even more hilarious is the comic’s commentary on cyborgs. Agent Garrett never stops narrating, and if he’s not obsessing over Elektra, he’s moaning about how he never should have signed the release forms to join cyborg-division. The SHIELD we’re shown in Elektra: Assassin is maybe a step closer to the government we’re used to. SHIELD still makes use of helicarriers, hover-chairs, and ridiculous looking helicopters, but it’s also a government agency like any other, and Agent Garrett’s superiors never miss a chance to threaten him with budget cuts or chastise him for not properly filing reports. We’re shown dangerous, psychotic field agents who somehow skipped their background checks. We’re shown a power struggle between the head and the hand, as SHIELD agents and SHIELD scientists become increasingly out-of-step with each other. Nick Fury has a stationary pistol the size of a giraffe he uses for target practice, but the machine that stitches Agent Garrett back together looks like it was built in the Victorian era. Sienkievicz even draws a smokestack on top. He goes out of his way to make the machinery look painfully arcane. We’re never shown the gory details of any operations, but the way Sienkiewicz draws the before and after tells us that the details were in fact very gory. It’s all part of the joke.

Did I mention this comic is a farce? Miller and Sienkievicz are having a great time skewering the clichés they, or at least Miller, helped establish. In 1986, Miller already knew ninjas had run their course. He’s using Elektra to tear down the same house she built. It’s a loud, angry comic book, impaling every target in sight. It has almost nothing to do with Daredevil, it has almost nothing to do with Marvel. Sometimes it even struggles to be about the title character, but a better Elektra comic you will not find. Elektra: Assassin is one for the ages, a real lightning-only-strikes-once type of book. It’s got some of the funniest writing Frank Miller’s ever done and some of the best art to see print in a Marvel comic book. No collection is complete without it.



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