Writer: Frank Miller
Artist: Bill Sienkiewicz
PLOT: Jon Garrett, a cyborg agent of SHIELD, becomes "involved" in Elektra's plot to murder a presidential candidate who's working for the Anti-Christ. Sexual violence, violent sex, nightmarish imagery, and numerous flashbacks ensue.
For me, this is the definitive Elektra. I judge every incarnation and variation of the character by the standard set here. Her first appearances in Daredevil were merely a watered-down version of what Miller later achieved in this work. The later stories, her return into Daredevil's life in Fall from Grace, the monthly series by Peter Milligan and Deodato, etc, they were all pale imitations of the true work. The Elektra presented here is complex and conflicted, a woman who is completely aware of her body and her power. By that, I mean she knows how sex and violence are often two sides of the same coin. And Elektra constantly flips that coin.
The story starts with Elektra in a South American mental asylum. She was sent there after local police caught her trying to murder the American ambassador. Elektra believes the ambassador to be in the service of the Beast, a being of pure evil. It was the ninja cult the Hand of the Beast (often just called "the Hand"), whom Elektra joined and tried to destroy from within. Elektra recognized the presence of the Beast by the presence of foul-smelling milk.
The first chapter is a complete summary of Elektra's life: The murder of her mother while Elektra was still in her womb; The night her father molested her, (an event not mentioned in any other story); Her time with the 7 "pure" ninjas; her joining of the Hand; and the events that led her here.
It's after her escape that he story really kicks into high gear. Believing the ambassador to be the Beast in human form, Elektra stalks and kills him. Only then does she realize the ambassador was only a servant. The Beast's true form is the young, charismatic, and liberal presidential candidate Ken Wind, (always depicted with the same photocopied smiling face of John Kennedy. The incumbent, an ardent conservative, is a midget hybrid of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.)
But the driving force of the story is Agent Garrett. Garrett, an ex-con turned cyborg prototype, is the narrator for most of the story. It's Garrett who investigates Elektra's last assassination, and finally tracks her down. But instead of turning her in, he falls under her "spell". Elektra's use of ninja mind control and old-fashioned "feminine wiles" slowly bring Garrett under her complete control. And as he learns more about Ken Wind, the Beast, and their plan for humanity, he submits to her more and more.
Garrett is a filthy, drunk, sexist dinosaur of a man who's more machine than man. He's a gross exaggeration of the classic "macho action hero" so prevalent in 20th century fiction. He's James Bond without the polish; Rambo without the honor; Schwartzenegger without the likeability. He's also the closest thing you'll get to a hero in this book.
Elektra: Assassin, combined with Miller's preceding work, The Dark Knight Returns, makes me wonder about Miller's politics. In both stories, liberals are presented as weak idealists who have no idea what "real life" is like. The use of a liberal candidate as a pawn for the Anti-Christ may say more about Miller's politics than anything else. However, traditional conservative values are not treated well either. The incumbent President in Elektra:Assassin is shown as a paranoid megalomaniac who's always 5 seconds away from pressing "the button". And institutions, such as SHIELD and the US Government are portrayed as large, heartless bureaucracies whose leaders aren't completely aware of what their subordinates are doing. Thus, these institutions violate the very ideals and subvert their intended functions. They become inherently corrupt and hypocritical. The use of a single, brash individual as the heroic lead is a frequent theme in Miller's work. Look at Miller's Daredevil, Sin City, and his Batman stories. I think you'll find many similarities of theme and subtext.
Of course, a comic book with a great story is less than half-done, (see my review of the first Elektra series for an example). The art of Bill Sienkiewicz is, in short, disturbing. It's difficult to describe, but Bill's art, (if I may call him Bill. "Sienkiewicz" is too hard to type), doesn't depict the action as much as it conveys the emotion. The art has an abstract quality. Faces and objects are exaggerated to heighten their impact or place in the story. When Nick Fury enters the tale, for example, we see him sitting in the chamber of a giant handgun. Fury then fires said gun at the wall when Agent Garrett reports to him. (Incidentally, Fury, the typical WWII hero, the loyal patriot, is also shown as being clueless to the workings of his own agency.) Another agent, a woman named Chastity, is often dressed in white with a large gold crucifix earring. She is portrayed as Elektra's opposite. Chastity gains strength through her purity, while Elektra's come from her inner darkness. Chastity is also seen dressed like a nun, even when not working undercover.
If this description seems overly long, it's because it's difficult to summarize the entire artistic style. I could site numerous other examples, but it still could not accurately convey how the art makes you feel. I can only say again that the art in this book is more abstract than what you find in other comics. Reality and fantasy become interchangeable, as emotions take the characters, and readers, from one to the other. The only other graphic works I could compare it to would be Neil Gaiman's Sandman, Moore and Campbell's From Hell, or David Mack's recent run on Daredevil, (Mack, I feel, is trying to imitate Bill's style. The cover of a recent Daredevil comic, featuring the masked hero and a young woman, is an "homage" to the cover of Elektra: Assassin issue #4). But make no mistake: Sienkiewicz's work is singular and unique. I have rarely seen comic art so powerful, so raw, and yet so subtle.
The only flaw in this otherwise brilliant work is Miller's frequent use of ninja skills and mysticism. Elektra's mental powers, her fighting prowess; All of this supposedly comes from intense training and certain chemicals gained during her training with the Hand. This stretches the credibility of the book. While the story does have the Anti-Christ rising, and men being rebuilt from their heads, it stays remarkably grounded in reality. I'd have an easier time with the story if Elektra's abilities were put down to some heretofore undiscovered mutant abilities, but I'm probably just splitting hairs.
On one level, the story works as an emotionally wrenching tale of conflict on the spiritual, political, and global scales. Every character is either fighting for or against demons, and you always get inside their heads.
On another level, this book fuckin' rocks! We've got blue midgets, talking severed heads, killer cyborgs, hot babes, huge guns, big 'splosions, and ninjas. Evil, hide-in-the-shadows and serving-dark-powers ninjas. It would take a Rob Liefeld to screw up a formula like that!
Seriously, it's a great book. Miller's writing had matured enough by this time to display his own unique "voice". And Bill's art is powerful, frightening, and weird; the stuff of great nightmares. This is one of a dozen books that SHOULD be on your shelf.
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