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CSBG Archive

Comics You Should Own – Elektra: Assassin

It’s been a while since I did one of these posts, what with the vacation and the holidays and the Seven Soldiers stuff.  But if we’re going to jump back in, where better to start with the ultraviolent glory that is Elektra: Assassin?  It’s as if Miller and Sienkiewicz wondered if they could kill a different person on every single page!!!!

And I’d like to remind you: SPOILERS abound in these posts.  Just to warn you!

Elektra: Assassin by Frank Miller (writer) and Bill Sienkiewicz (artist).

Marvel/Epic, 8 issues, cover dated August 1986-March 1987.

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One of the reasons I object to All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder 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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 #6) 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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26 Comments

Tom Fitzpatrick

January 21, 2007 at 9:39 pm

I used to have this series, a long time ago.
I’d kill to see BIG NUMBERS completed!

Would someone tell Moore to finish that one off, please!!!

I couldn’t make heads or tails out of a single thing in that entire book. It seemed like an excuse for the Garrett character to use as much unnecessary profanity as possible, and not in any way that was even remotely interesting.

I thought it was so awful I’ve avoided Miller’s Daredevil run because of it.

1st off…sadly, it has been dragged into continuity, though the ending was retconned. D.G. Chichester dragged Garrett into his Daredevil run, but explanined that Elektra and/or SHIELD had merely plunged him into a fantasy world where he believed he’d gotten Wind’s body.

2nd…Miller was really at his best at this point, gleefully aware of the absurdfity of his own and others’ notions of politics, and saying the hell wth all of it in a refreshingly direct fashion. But at some point he started to become a true believer, after which it all went downhill.

I have this in the oversized hardcover that Marvel put out a few years back that contains Daredevil: Love and War and Elektra: Assassin and for one reason or another, it’s been sitting on my to-be-read shelf since I got it a couple years back. I got it, being a huge fan of Sienkiewicz, and read teh first collection in it, Love and War but haven’t gotten around to reading your recommendation here. Consider me properly admonished. I shall begin tonight.

Garrett shows up briefly in Miller and Varley’s Elektra Lives Again, too. Look for the scene in the prison when Matt is going up the stairs as Elektra descends (I believe). It’s just after Elektra enters the building and a man is trying to explain to her that he has no idea why the metal detectors went off when she passed through. Garrett is the guy ranting about being a SHIELD agent.

Elektra Assassin is great. TBH I’m completely lost for the first two issues, but from that point onwards it’s fantastic. One of the funniest books I own!

I’ve always believed that with Frank Miller in the 80s and early 90s there were projects that are clearly the work of Miller the writer–works that are meant to stretch the creative muscles of a writer and the effect he’s trying to achieve is more of a literary one. Daredevil: Born Again is a key example, so is Dark Knight. The Martha Washington stories would be a good example of one with another artist.

Then there are the projects that are clearly the work of Miller the artist–works that are more trying to stretch the creative muscles of an artist, and the toeffect is more about the power of the images than anything. Ronin is a good example of that. And Elektra: Assassin is a good example of one with another artist.

I’m amazed Greg managed to come up with such a lucid critique and analysis of it, because for me the story is so slight. It’s about Sienkiewicz’s images more than anything– it’s a visceral comic, more about the mood and impact the images have than any coherent plot. As such, at the time I read it I found it disturbing and put me completely off balance. It’s great stuff.

Oh, issue 4 where a lonely spinster’s fantasy world takes over Elektra’s mind is utterly brilliant.

I read an interview (years ago) in which Miller stated that he would get the pages from Sienkiewicz, then arrange them on the floor in different ways until he felt they made sense. Maybe Urban Legends could check that story out.

Elektra Assasin is one of my favorite comics, and it made me a lifelong Sienkiewicz fan. Anyone who likes his art should find Voodoo Child: the Illustrated Legend of Jimi Hendrix. The imagery (some of which is painted from iconic Hendrix photos and footage) is stunning, even if the biography (written by someone else) is slight.

Elektra: Assasin is the best thing Marvel has EVER published, no contest. Fucking genius stuff from start to finish – I read it once a year and always find something new. Of course it came out when I was an angry little 15 years old punk eager to soak up what crazy f-ed up shit I could find, so I may be biased.

Great critique Greg.

I find it hard to believe that Miller is deliberately ridiculing the grittiness and ultra-violence, rather than seriously taking them to such an extreme that they become absurd. Either way, Elektra: Assassin is worth buying twice over for the art alone. The first three pages – with words and pictures combined in such a bewildering array of ways – are a masterclass in graphic storytelling techniques.

I remember the ads for the TPB had a quote from somebody saying “I don’t understand what’s going on, but I think this is something we need to protect our children from.” or something to that effect.

I don’t know if it’s in contuniuty, but it was alluded to in Ennis’ Punisher run when Elektra made an appearance.

Mike, reading your little tidbit about the Miller interview finally gave me some insight into what the hell was going on with the second issue.

Great series. I can’t believe Marvel hasn’t reprinted this, it really is a brilliant creative team both at the top of their game.

Great series. I can’t believe Marvel hasn’t reprinted this, it really is a brilliant creative team both at the top of their game.

They have. It’s still available at Amazon here http://www.amazon.com/Elektra-Assassin-Frank-Miller/dp/0871353091/sr=1-1/qid=1169553060/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1/104-6070912-7584762?ie=UTF8&s=books

That said it was out of print for years and I wound up using a book finding website and paying £25 for my copy.

When Nextwave came out, I immediately thought that Dirk Anger was an homage to the over the top, ultra-violent, bombastic Nick Fury as he was portrayed in Elektra: Assassin, complete with the shot of him sitting astride the giant handgun.

From what I understand, Ellis actually wanted the Dirk Anger character to actually be Nick Fury, but Marvel balked at the notion.

I remember reading an interview with Sienkiewicz where he said that the images he used for Ken Wind’s face were actually two pictures of himself. That adds some interesting layers to it…

Probably my favorite comic ever, not least because it gave me something to say when people asked how my last name was pronounced.

One of the most underrated books ever. Also one of the comics that blew my mind.
I have to say the only edition for me is what I believe is the first trade paperback edition.The cover has Elektra shooting a balloon(with the face of Ken Wind on it) with a bow and arrow while standing on the shoulders of Garrett, who is riding a tricycle.
No other cover was able to capture the tone of the book so well.

And here was me thinking Ken Wind’s face was a photo of JFK

I had that first TPB (the one I spent loads of money on) but when I saw the opportunity to sell that and my copy of Daredevil: Love and War and get the oversized hardcover reprinting them both and make a small profit I took it. I’m still not sure if that was the right decision or not…

you have one very bad websit but it is funny my friend thot that the head pot off

they definitely should’ve based the movie on this. but you know Marvel, hey its Hollywood..LETS MAKE IT SUCK!

This HAS to be one of the best graphic novels EVER.
Having read The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, V for Vendetta etc I really thought that I would not be able to find anything better but this is right there with them.
If you have not got a copy …GET ONE!

Hi
any one have any info about how bill goes about his painting??
cant find much on the net
please email me
cheers
simon

I just bought all eight issues, originally to resell on eBay, but now I may just keep them and read them.

I’m getting this in a few days. How is this compared to Elektra Assassin?

hi… can anyone tell me if the tradepaperback has any extras in it?… i’m trying to make a decision on wether to buy the whole set or trade paperback form… thanks in advance!…

I absolutely must read this one.

Whoa, I didn’t know you did an article on this; I read it like 4 days ago, and haven’t been able to think of much else. I’m actually really surprised there were people who didn’t understand this series. I’m 17 and I understood it perfectly all the way through. Best thing Marvel ever put out, easily.

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