Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Bill Sienkiewicz, and the issues are Elektra: Assassin #1 and 8, which were published by Marvel and are cover dated August 1986 and March 1987. Enjoy!
By 1986, Sienkiewicz was almost at the point where he really couldn’t do mainstream superhero comic anymore, as he had moved so far beyond the sensibilities of the superhero audience that the two sides couldn’t see each other any longer. Obviously, he still drew some “mainsteam” books – The Shadow is sort of a mainstream superhero book – but he was reaching a point where unless he pulled back, he wouldn’t really be suitable for it anymore. Elektra: Assassin is, in many ways, the apotheosis of his superhero work – it’s absolutely gorgeous, it features a very mainstream character and a mainstream organization, it has a lot of fighting, but it’s also where Sienkiewicz showed that he was too “weird” to do normal stuff for the Big Two. We’ll see below what I mean!
As Sienkiewicz became more avant-garde, he also started showing a sense of humor, even in places where you might not expect it. Elektra is reminiscing about her life, and she thinks about before she was born, when she was still in her mother’s womb. Sienkiewicz draws a relatively simplistic, child-like version of pregnancy, as Elektra is sitting in the womb, waiting to be born. We get a simple sun, with thick yellow spokes showing its magnitude as it beats down on the Greek islands. Elektra’s mother lies supine on the sand, and Sienkiewicz uses lighter pencils on her and the hand in Panel 1, separating her from Elektra a bit and making her mother slightly less of a presence (considering that she’s about to die, that’s probably what’s going on). Sienkiewicz, keeping with the child-like drawing (as Elektra is remembering this, so it’s filtered through her childhood memories), gives both her mother and Elektra rosy cheeks, simply using red circles to show it. In Panel 1, notice that he uses heavier lines for the star of the story, while also opening her eyes wide, implying the fear she feels from being all alone in a scary place. When her father touches her mother, we get Panel 2, where Sienkiewicz draws her happy, a good shift from the scared girl in Panel 1. All of this is done very simply, but it’s still very powerful.
This is the next page, and it’s a good indication of the kind of stuff Sienkiewicz was doing at this point. In the present, Elektra is getting tortured, and Sienkiewicz draws two evil dudes who are really caricatures of evil dudes. Yes, there are some very realistic-looking evil dudes in this comic, but Sienkiewicz was starting to become more cartoony in his figure work even as he was becoming more avant-garde with everything else. It’s a weird tension that tends to work pretty well. In case you didn’t know, Elektra: Assassin is written by Frank Miller, and it’s interesting to read it knowing that he was doing The Dark Knight Returns about the same time (the final issue of DKR arrived in shops about three weeks before issue #1 of this series), because Elektra: Assassin is satirizing the very ultra-violence that Miller proudly displays in DKR, and Sienkiewicz’s depiction of the evil characters is part of that. They’re cartoons, sure, but they still do horrible things. In Panel 1, we get the electricity flowing all over the panel, as Sienkiewicz paints in the current and adds the herky-jerky sound effects as Elektra gets zapped. Then she flashes back again to her dad getting shot on the day she was born (obviously, he didn’t die). Sienkiewicz changes his style back to the simplistic, child-like recollections of Elektra, using big, basic shapes, abstract figures, and notes to explain what we’re seeing. He even makes sure to imply that Elektra is an unreliable narrator, as in Panel 4 (if we count the inset panel of her face as Panel 2), she says that her father was shot multiple times, then corrects herself in Panel 5. It’s a clever way to show that we might not want to believe Elektra in this story.
Elektra, of course, trains with Stick and his other students, and Sienkiewicz does an amazing job with this flashback. Again, he uses basic shapes to simplify the art, even though the movement within each panel is very nice and the painted background is beautiful. He uses bold lines to make both Stick and Elektra more clearly defined, as they’re standing in a bleak landscape that leaves no room for subtlety. He paints them blue to match the frigid setting, making the scene even cooler, and he doesn’t use red from the fringe on Elektra’s robe and on Stick’s sash, dulling the hue down to pink to make it a bit cooler. Elektra has a shaved head, of course, which allows Sienkiewicz to infantilize her a bit, as she’s unworthy in Stick’s eyes, but it also makes her less of a human, even, which is how Stick sees her. In Panel 3, we can see her eyes (we see them better on the next page), and Sienkiewicz makes them cartoonish, with the irises filling up the entire socket, much like we see in cartoons when someone thinks something is unbelievably cute (I’m looking at you, Mabel Pines!). This creates an impression of utter innocence, which makes Stick’s treatment of Elektra even worse in the reader’s mind and makes her eventual “corruption” even sadder. The roughness of the art also implies that it’s a memory – Elektra remembers this in raw form, and that’s what we’re seeing.
Issue #8 features a lot of violence, obviously, and Sienkiewicz uses a lot of red paint and goes a bit abstract in places to show a more chaotic vibe. The explosion in Panel 1 is all paints, it appears, as the bleachers blow upward and Sienkiewicz uses a lot of red, orange, and yellow. The sound effect grows as it rises, buffeting the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicopter at the top of the page. Notice that the top of the explosion is black, as it’s the remnants of the “Beast” that Elektra has been battling throughout the book. Sienkiewicz’s odd design of the helicopter makes it look more menacing, as that tall section above the cockpit seems to fly in the face of physics. In Panel 2, Sienkiewicz draws Elektra using the force of the explosion to fly upward so she can fire her crossbow at the helicopter, which we see in Panel 3. The flames obscure Elektra and John Garrett in Panel 4, as we simply get an outline painted red, blending them into the background. Garrett still takes a round to the chest, but as he’s mostly robotic by this time, it doesn’t do much. The riot of hot colors in this sequence is nicely done, as it creates a storm of violence, at the center of which is our heroine.
There are people in this world who didn’t think Sienkiewicz could do beautiful artwork anymore because his style was too avant-garde. Those people, obviously, were wrong. ‘Nuff said!
As his style became more … stylized, Sienkiewicz didn’t draw action the same way he did earlier in his career, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t draw good fight scenes. Here Elektra faces off against Perry, another S.H.I.E.L.D. (or ex-S.H.I.E.L.D.) super-cyborg, and Sienkiewicz uses the old tools of the trade – pencil and ink. Perry is a bit abstract, with his hair standing straight up like that, which Sienkiewicz draws simply by using long line segments unconnected to a scalp, but his body his solid and his face, while a bit cartoonish, is cleanly drawn. When Elektra chops his head off, Sienkiewicz uses thick inking lines to create the violent collision of her sword and his cybernetics, and he draws pieces of electronics flying away on the arc of her sword, giving us an even better idea of the violence of her stroke. Sienkiewicz uses a sickly green for the background, as this book is partly about demonic possession, and this kind of green creates the feeling of nausea that Elektra feels when she confronts the “Beast.” Sienkiewicz doesn’t change the skin tones of Elektra and Perry, showing how invasive this feeling is but also making Ken Wind, the new president, stand out a bit more as his face is paper-white. We’ll get to Wind in a moment!
One of the satirical aspects of the book is Ken Wind, who wins the presidency in this series. Wind (not like the watch, but like the air!) appears to be the perfect 1980s liberal, and Miller opposes him with an incumbent who looks very much like Nixon. Both men are reprehensible, but it turns out that Wind is so because he’s a creature of the Beast, so when he wins the election, he immediately begins saber-rattling toward the Russians. One thing Sienkiewicz began to do as he experimented with his art is use more multimedia, as we see with Ken Wind, who is always just a photograph whose expression very rarely changes (when I wrote about this series, one of the commenters wrote that he heard it was Sienkiewicz’s own face, which would be hilarious). Wind is always facing the reader no matter how his body is arranged, too, which is somewhat disconcerting. Notice that in this panel, he’s not looking at Garrett and his expression is incongruent with his actions – it’s part of the satire, as he’s the consummate politician, never letting events bother his plastered-on expression. Even Miller’s dialogue is part of the joke, as Wind is always platitudinous even when he’s trying to kill you. Meanwhile, notice again that Perry is an evil cartoon, while Sienkiewciz takes some time to make sure Elektra looks like a real person. This continues the dichotomy I noted above, and it’s an interesting contrast. I’m not sure if Miller/Sienkiewicz is suggesting we don’t take actual evil all that seriously, but there’s something to it, I’d reckon!
Elektra: Assassin is a masterpiece, and it’s one of those comics that looks more interesting based on what happened subsequently with the creators. As unsubtle as this is, compared to later Miller works, it’s the most opaque satire you can get, and it comes at a point when Miller was still able to recognize when he had gone too far and needed to deflate his own ego (I’m not too sure he gets that anymore). Meanwhile, Sienkiewicz continued to experiment, and while the stuff he had done before this comic showed where he could go, Elektra: Assassin was really the break between his mid-1980s experimental work and everything that came after it.
Tomorrow … well, that’s a good question. I’ll get back to you. There’s so much it could be! Don’t fret, though – there are still plenty of comics to check out in the archives!
Comics Should Be Good accepts review copies. Anything sent to us will (for better or for worse) end up reviewed on the blog. See where to send the review copies.