Elektra: Assassin & The Making of an Anti-Heroine

Miller & Sienkiewicz's ridiculous miniseries is essential reading for fans of The Defenders or Daredevil on Netflix.

Elektra is arguably comics’ most badass woman, and very likely comics’ first female antihero. But how did she get to that point? She showed up in fewer than 20 total issues across Marvel Comics in the 1980s. How did a character the reading public had seen so little of become an icon, a towering badass in a medium full of them?

It’s because Elektra: Assassin is bananas. No, I take that back. It’s like someone took a bunch of bananas, kept only the peels, filled them with cocaine, shaped the yay into bananas, then found a way to reseal the banana peels.

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Elektra: Assassin is the work of Frank Miller, the man who created her in the pages of Daredevil in 1981; his art partner Bill Sienkiewicz, famous at the time for his work on New Mutants and a talent the industry will never see the likes of again; and lettered by Jim Novak and Gaspar Saladino, who do a competent, industry-standard job for most of the series, but are given the opportunity to cut loose in later issues, and when they do, it looks like a ransom note scribbled in blood by an 8-year-old. That’s not criticism, by the way. It’s perfect.

Ascribing Frank Miller’s current political views to his past work has become something of comics internet’s national pastime lately. You see no end of thinkpieces about how Miller is a reactionary bastard who is on a single-minded quest to turn every comic character he touches into a broken, grunting murderer or place them individually on his own personal Madonna/whore spectrum, and how his earliest work – on Daredevil, The Dark Knight Returns and of late (because of her impending appearance on Daredevil) now Elektra: Assassin – fits into that continuum. I think this is a mistake. And quite honestly, they’re not entirely without merit: Miller does have tropes he falls into, and he certainly…dropped a lot of pretense when Holy Terror came out – pretense that likely would have prevented any collection of words that have fallen from his mouth or keyboard in the last 15 years from seeing the light of day.

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But applying that analysis to Miller’s earliest writing doesn’t work: in large part because I think he was restricted by collaborative work relationships that amounted to a hell of a lot more than “sure Frank, whatever you say if it lets us print money” (Lynn Varley and Klaus Janson were enormously important to the look of his art early on, and as we saw in the intro to Elektra: Assassin, Sienkiewicz had as much to do with the plot and direction of the book as Miller did).

It also completely misses an aspect of Miller that isn’t captured exclusively in what showed up on the printed page. He has always been one of the most vocal advocates for creator rights in the industry: he was there for the earliest meetings about forming a Comics Guild in the ‘70s; fighting for Siegel and Shuster’s rights in the ‘80s; and shredding Marvel for the way they treated their talent in the ‘90s (while publishing Sin City as a creator-owned book at Dark Horse). He was a troublemaker: anti-authority more than authoritarian, as ready to rip down iconic comic characters and tropes and “the old way” of doing things as he was to glorify them.

As a political ideology expressed through his work, mid ‘80s Frank Miller wasn’t a fascist or a reactionary. He was a pyromaniac. And in Sienkiewicz, he found a gleeful accomplice who used his distinctive style – collage, traditional penciling, filling his mouth with paint and screaming at the page (I’m not sure about the last part) – to torch everyone and everything, and to unite their two distinctive sensibilities in a way that I promise you did more for Elektra’s ongoing popularity than the 13 issues of Daredevil that comprised her entire appearance history to that date.

Miller’s Elektra had, prior to Elektra: Assassin, been known more for her death than anything else. She first appeared in Daredevil #168 as an old college girlfriend of Matt’s, the daughter of a Greek diplomat who in the years after his assassination became a deadly mercenary herself. She’s first shown trying to claim a bounty in Hell’s Kitchen, and she proves to be Matt’s equal at punches. At one point, she even takes a contract on Foggy’s life from the Kingpin before she decides she can’t betray Matt like that, and ends up helping him track the Hand through Hell’s Kitchen until finally, when Bullseye runs her through with her own sai, she crawls back to the offices of Nelson & Murdock and dies on Matt’s stoop.

It’s worth noting here that while we still have yet to see Elektra’s evolution into the unstoppable murder machine she would become, these issues are invaluable in tracking Frank Miller’s artistic evolution. It’s a mistake to dismiss her appeal as a character at the time of her death because, while I’m being flip about the content of these stories, you do watch Miller and inker Klaus Janson’s art progress from trying to hew closely to Marvel’s early ‘80s house style in Daredevil #168 to something much closer to the blocky-but-graceful flowing noir that made him one of the greatest ever to work in comics a few years later.

However, that doesn’t change the fact that she’s only around for less than 18 months before Bullseye fridges her with her own sai. And because of a tacit agreement between Miller and his editor at the time, she stayed dead and unused for the next four years (Note: if you want to be really cute about it, she stayed dead until Secret Invasion twenty years later, where it was revealed that the Elektra who showed up after she “died” in Daredevil #180 was a Skrull impersonator. In reality, she only showed up when used by Miller in Daredevil stories until about 1993).

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So when she died, Elektra is a trope-bending ass-kicker. There’s been a bit made lately of female anti-heroes, but I think the term “anti-hero” has lost a lot of meaning, and loses even more when people try to talk about women anti-heroes. An anti-hero is the character the audience is meant to root for who does noble things for ignoble reasons, not someone who does horrible things for noble reasons – V or Magneto, for example. Nor are they someone who’s broken but still fundamentally a hero – Starbuck from the Battlestar Galactica reboot and Jessica Jones are often cited. And they’re certainly not guys like Walter White or Dexter – those two are just likable villains.

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No, an anti-hero is someone like the Punisher or poorly-written-post-Frank-Miller-Batman or The Man With No Name from the Dollars trilogy – terse, over-the-top badass, unconcerned with the carnage left in their wake as long as they’re content with the job they did. In 1983, Elektra kind of fits that mold, with one big problem: despite the distinctive sais and the fact that she was dressed and moved like a murderous ballerina, she died to motivate Daredevil. Stripped of agency, she has less in common with the Saint of Killers than she does with the Saint’s wife.

It wasn’t until Miller returned to the character in 1986 for an eight-issue limited series that she evolved into the icon we know today. He was joined by Sienkiewicz to create a limited series for Marvel’s Epic line. Distributed directly to comic shops (and thus a harbinger of the doom of the industry), Epic books shipped with no Comics Code approval on them, and were thus freed from its constraints. Miller and Sienkiewicz were free to draw whatever they wanted, and holy shit they did.

Elektra: Assassin is the first appearance of SHIELD Agent John Garrett, who you might remember from not shouting “GAME OVER, MAN, GAME OVER” on Agents of SHIELD It takes place in the years between when Elektra left college and Matt and when they reunited and she was eventually killed, so while it was published in 1986, it was a retcon, rather than a reemergence.

In the book, Elektra discovers a plot by The Beast, the primordial demonic force that allows The Hand (a group of ninja – think AIM or Hydra but Japan) to resurrect themselves and potential allies, to take over America by infecting a Presidential candidate, where he will then launch all of the nuclear weapons ever and destroy the world. She figures that out, deals with SHIELD, fights off a rogue SHIELD cyborg, and beats The Beast on election day, before he can take office.

That’s pretty straightforward, right? That’s because describing the plot isn’t the same thing as experiencing the teeth-gritting insanity of a comic where Elektra psychically possesses more people than she does say words (as far as I can remember, she possesses at least 4 people; not counting narration, she says a total of 3 words out loud); where if you were only paying attention to Garrett’s narration, you’d think the comic was about Magnum P.I. wanting a cigarette very badly; where Elektra blocks a bullet by making a fist and giving it a hard stare; and where the protagonist heads to the climactic battle riding in the sidecar of Garrett’s giant, flame-spitting, penis-shaped train/motorcycle.

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Someone (Kieron Gillen, I think) says that when you’re reading a comic, you have to assume that everything in it was a deliberate choice by the creative team, and the introduction to Elektra: Assassin backs that up. Written by Jo Duffy (who is and always shall be incredible, and was an original editor of the project), it details the creative process on the book:

“Frank actually wrote every issue of Elektra: Assassin at least three times. First, after going over his plot ideas with me, he’d turn in a full script, which, after further discussion, he always rewrote. Then, after Bill had finished painting the issue, and the pages were all assembled with whatever color photostats, xeroxes, doilies, staples or sewing thread Bill felt was needed to give them the right look, Frank would do a final draft, taking full advantage of whatever new and unexpected touches Bill had incorporated into the artwork.”

It’s the deliberateness that everyone misses when trying to reanalyze what the hell happened in the book. That deliberateness is what took Garrett from an ‘80s stereotype (that mustache, sweet lord it is the ‘80s-est thing that ever existed) to direct criticism of comic book audiences at the time: he spends the entire book maybe-brainwashed by Elektra, bewitched by imagining sex with her.

There’s also criticism that it’s portraying liberals in an unflattering light, which is ridiculous, since it isn’t portraying anyone anywhere in the book in a flattering light: the man Ken Wind, the liberal presidential candidate who’s a stand in for the Hand’s Beast, is running against is a small, chattering, shriveled Richard Nixon, itching to “push the button” to “show them,” or where the Soviet spokesman denying the attack on the President of San Concepcion is named Vladimir Jakkoff. Also, I might still accept that it’s mean-spirited criticism of the Left if it wasn’t Bill Sienkiewicz’s own photograph used for Wind’s head through the entire story.

SHIELD is beset with incompetence and male insecurity – Nick Fury telling Garrett he doesn’t like him while he fires his giant gun that Dirk Anger and H.A.T.E. failed to replicate certainly doesn’t betray any concerns about his job performance, but meanwhile he’s got an entire rogue cyborg division operating under his nose that he doesn’t know about. Meanwhile, even within that rogue cyborg division, Miller and Sienkiewicz are mocking bureaucratic rigidity: Dr. Beaker, the head of ExTechOps, at one point sits on top of a speaker that amplifies him yelling at Garrett, while the monitors tell Garrett what an “inept yoyo” he is.

The copious use of anti-gay slurs is definitely offensive, and likely was at the time, but I don’t think the parody aspect can be dismissed out of hand – it does feel like the slurs, like the fact that everyone gets turned evil by drinking the Beast’s satanic mayonnaise or the fact that there are so many giant violent phalli in the book, are over the top jokes about toxic, ‘80s action hero masculinity, especially in light of the fact that the hero of the story maintains a taciturn femininity throughout the story, that because of her skill and knowledge and moral compass, she is the only one making a conscious effort to prevent the end of the world.

And even still, Miller and Sienkiewicz juxtapose Elektra with SHIELD agent Chastity McBride, a woman constantly telling her colleagues to tone their language down and heads to the final battle of the series undercover as a nun. She’s treated as a bit of a scold and a counterpoint to the over the top sexuality that is foisted on Elektra throughout, but she also happens to be the second most competent person in the book, figuring out early on that Garrett was being mind controlled and surviving two attacks by Perry, the evil cyborg.

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The point of this isn’t to try and redeem present-day Frank Miller or throw shade at folks writing about their own experiences with his work. The point is that I think in the ongoing project to reframe Miller’s comics against how he’s chosen to present himself in the last 15 years, we run the risk of losing touch with what made some of that work unbelievably influential: I do think, though, that Elektra: Assassin is a seminal comic book, crucial to understanding Elektra’s place in culture, to understanding her enduring appeal and why people are so excited about her showing up on TV. At the very least, the book is good for a couple of maniacal giggles after seeing the creators make fun of everyone and everything in its pages.