Review: Elektra Assassin by Frank Miller & Bill Sienkiewicz

Elektra Assassin by Bill SienkiewiczFor those of you who have come to the conclusion that Frank Miller is crazy only after reading All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder or after seeing The Spirit really need to go back and read 1986’s Elektra Assassin.  According to Comicbookdb.com, the last issue of Miller and Mazzucchelli’s seminal Daredevil: Born Again storyline has the same cover date as the first issue of Elektra Assassin; both are dated August 1986.  Maybe that’s closer to the time when something just clicked in Frank Miller’s mind.  1986 also saw the initial release of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.  And before Miller and Bill Sienkiewicz finished Elektra Assassin at Marvel, Miller, again with Mazzucchelli, would begin Batman: Year One in early 1987.  Looking at that list of books, it’s easy to see why 1986 is regarded fondly.  The Daredevil story and the two Batman tales are considered some of the high points of comics in the eighties.  For better or worse (mostly worse I think we can say in hindsight,) they would influence superheroes for the next 10-20 years as writers and artists tried to recreate the look and feel of Miller’s tales without really understanding the heart or even the warnings of those tales.  Somehow, Elektra Assassin has been the forgotten Miller work of that time period.  While the other three books have been available pretty much since the day they were first published in some kind of affordable collected edition, Elektra Assassin has passed in and out of availability.  It’s currently regulated to being part of one of Marvel’s oversized and overpriced omnibus books.

The plot of Elektra Assassin is almost surprisingly simple; a United States Presidential candidate Ken Wind (“Not wind like a watch, but wind– like the air” is actually part of his campaign slogan) has been possessed by a ninja monster.  The first thing the monster plans to do when it wins the election is fire all of the nuclear missles it can at Russia, inciting Russia to retaliate and thereby destroying the world.  From a small South American country to Washington D.C. on election night, Elektra tracks down the monster, trying to get to it before it gets the little box with a big red button on it.  So there’s Elektra Assassin boiled down to a small handful of sentences.  Only that brief description tells you nothing about what Elektra Assassin really is.  This may be an honest case where the plot is secondary to Frank Miller and Bill Sienkiewicz’s vision of what this comic book should be.

Unlike Miller’s other work around this period, Elektra Assassin isn’t a tearing down and rebuilding of the character.  In his initial Daredevil run, Miller had already defined the character and then killed her.  And back in those days, “dead” meant “dead” so there was no immediate resurrection and continuing stories of the character.  Up until 1986, there had only been that Daredevil run and maybe just the short black & white story in Marvel’s Bizarre Adventure magazine which was a minor story at best.  Teamed with Sienkiewicz, a much more experimental and unrestrained artist than Miller or Mazzucchelli, we get to see Miller’s writing unrestrained by his own idiosyncratic artwork.  Springboarding off of Sienkiewicz’s painted art, Miller opens up his writing to be much more representational and abstract than he had before this.

Elektra Assassin by Frank Miller and Bill SienkiewiczLike most of Miller’s stories before and many since, Elektra Assassin is about power; who wants the power and who doesn’t.  The moral lines in Miller’s writing are very clearly drawn as he believes in good and evil and doesn’t leave much wiggle room for any shades of gray.  In Elektra Assassin though, he plays much more with satire than he had before, although we started to see his unique humor come out in Dark Knight Returns.  Paired with his own artwork on the Batman story, the satire isn’t quite as clear because Miller was still working in a very grounded, Will Eisner-by-way-of-Neal-Adams influenced superhero style.  It wouldn’t be until the 90s when we’d really see Miller push and exaggerate his own artwork in Sin City to add some playfulness to his own stories the way that Sienkiewicz did in Elektra Assassin where Sienkiewicz used any and every means available to illustrate Miller’s story.

Even in the first few pages of Elektra Assassin, it’s obvious that Sienkiewicz refused to be tied down to any hard and fast rules.  The bright and simple drawings in the flashbacks to Elektra’s violent and incestuous childhood quickly transform into Edvard Munch type paintings that show us Elektra trapped in a South American hospital.  Sienkiewicz varies his artistic approach as Miller’s story calls for it.  Unlike a lot of comic art, there’s no “one way” to how Sienkiewicz approaches the comic page.  If a page calls for humor, he goes for caricature.  If a page calls for drama, he uses a stylized realism in his painting.  If a page calls for action, he uses any and every means possible to create that action.  There are no obvious rules to his artwork; every page is an experimentation in style and storytelling that sometimes obscures Miller’s story.  Sienkiewicz borrows iconography Jack Kirby, Ralph Steadman, Richard Nixon, Bobby Kennedy Edvard Munch, Grant Wood, Frank Miller and anything else that will help him tell his story.  The blending of so many different elements, combined with his own style creates a dream-like feel to the whole story.

Elektra Assassin by Frank Miller Bill Sienkiewicz

To date, this may be Miller’s most political work, at least until we see his Batman: Holy Terror book, but it’s difficult to map out exactly where Miller’s politics lie.  Considering that here and in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, the American Presidents in power are clearly old, doddering Republicans.  In Dark Knight, an ageless Ronald Reagan orders Superman around to maintain a world-wide status quo that obviously benefits a pro-Reagan agenda.  Similarly, the sitting President in Elektra Assassin is Richard Nixon, who grips the doomsday nuclear button as if it was his own beating heart.  He vows that if he loses the upcoming election, he’ll push the button and end the Soviets now!  Miller’s Nixon is a doddering old fool who realizes that his time is over, shades of the way Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons used Nixon in Watchmen from around the same time period.

The Democrats get off no easier than the Republicans do in Miller’s story.  Ken Wind is the golden boy, a Kennedy-like Democrat who will breathe new life into an aging nation.  Of course, that’s the promise of Wind but Wind turns out to be merely a puppet of a monster as evil and corrupt as Nixon.  It’s funny that Nixon’s last planned act is the same as the monster’s first act as President: press the button and bomb the hell out of the Soviet Union.  In Miller’s view, we’re screwed either way, with the Republicans or the Democrats.  Look at the real Presidential candidates of 1988 and they almost all fall into a Nixon or a Kennedy mold.  In the end, Miller casts off these pre-made political candidates and gives us a look into the type of “real” man that Miller maybe wanted as President back then.

One way or another, I’ve had a copy of Elektra Assassin since it came out in 1986 but this may actually be the first time I’ve successfully read the whole thing at one time.  While every few years I pull out The Dark Knight Returns, Batman: Year One and Daredevil: Born Again, Elektra Assassin has sat on the shelf, the forgotten Miller book.  Reading it again 20+ years after it came out, it’s very much a product of its post-Kennedy Camelot/Cold War era creation, with the overwhelming fear of nuclear annihilation and mutually assured destruction.  But it’s also maybe one of the most beautiful of Miller’s stories, thanks to Bill Sienkiewicz’s gorgeous and surprising artwork.

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2 comments for “Review: Elektra Assassin by Frank Miller & Bill Sienkiewicz

  1. January 12, 2010 at 9:13 am

    Oh man, this comic is absolutely nuts; I loved it. The stuff where Elektra is trying to keep a grip on her mind, the agent who obsesses over her and falls in love with her, the bit where she infiltrates the headquarters and kills a bunch of agents, the underwater swordfight with robot ninjas, that unkillable assassin guy, Nick Fury’s gigantic gun, it’s just nonstop awesome craziness (crazy awesomeness?). It might be my favorite Miller work of all, and it’s what really made me think Sienkiewicz is a goddamn genius. Hell yes.

  2. February 11, 2010 at 4:42 pm

    Great review. This is my favorite of Sienkiewicz’s work. I reviewed it here. Also check out Sienkiewicz’s Moby Dick. He has a style like no other.

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