Elektra: Assassin
Medium: comic
Year: 1986
Writer: Frank Miller
Artist: Bill Sienkiewicz
Keywords: superhero
Series: << Elektra >>
Format: 8 issues
Website category: Comics
Review date: 18 October 2021
It's amazing, brave and different, but I don't think it works.
I'm not bashing Bill Sienkiewicz's art, by the way. It's wild, psychedelic, fully painted and extraordinary to see from the American comics industry. From Europe or the UK, sure. It's a trip and not always about traditional comics virtues, but that's okay. Sienkiewicz can do those when he wants, but sometimes he's more interested in stylistic juxtaposition and laugh-out-loud caricatures. Garrett and Perry must have been a blast to draw, while I love the cut-and-paste method by which Sienkiewicz makes Ken Wind seem like something less than human. An AI, perhaps. A product of publicity machines. Even Autons have more individuality than Wind.
In other words, the art is what it is. What I'm not wild about is the scripts.
It's the second of Miller's three Elektra series, but she barely counts as a character in it. She's the narrator in the disjointed, fragmented issue #1, but thereafter she becomes an Act of God. Oh, she's still present. She does things. She fights, kills, etc. However she's inscrutable and we might usually as well be watching natural forces at work for all the character insight we get. She's not a character. Except in issue #1, she has neither characterisation nor relatable motivation. (She is, though, cool.)
The main character is John Garrett, who's getting drunk in South America and not worrying too much about his partner Perry torturing and killing people. Maybe he works for a local death squad, or the CIA, or... no, wait, we eventually learn he's an agent of SHIELD. He uses racist and homophobic language and he's known to have groped female colleagues. (Her name's Chastity.) He has a colourful criminal past, including statutory rape. He does, though, give the storytelling focus after the fog of issue #1. He's quite a fun character, in principle, but he spends a lot of the story under Elektra's psychic control (either knowingly or otherwise) and you couldn't say that he's driving the plot. He's a big, violent lunk. He's the reader identification figure, believe it or not, and actually does quite well in that role, but he's still too much of a plot passenger for me to feel entirely comfortable calling him a protagonist.
And that's sort of it. Elektra and Garrett annoy SHIELD, Nick Fury and assorted agents. They try to kill a U.S. Presidential candidate, although alas because he's been possessed by a demon rather than on general principles and/or for kicks. There's a certain amount of action and violence, but the whole thing's too distant and abstract to be engaging. (For me, anyway. The series has fans, including Garth Ennis.) I don't really care whether or not the "heroes" are in danger, even without all the narration (sometimes months later), reports to Nick Fury, glacially slow pacing and other devices that often reduce the immediacy of the events being described. Elektra isn't going to die and is too remote and superhuman for this to seem even like a theoretical possibility. As for Garrett getting shot, my attitude to that would be "sure, if he likes". Apart from anything else, SHIELD in this book has access to resurrection-level cyborg technology, so even death isn't necessarily permanent.
Plus, of course, Sienkiewicz's style creates distance too. I admire it and sometimes it made me laugh, but it does.
As in Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, the ultimate fear appears to be of nuclear annihilation thanks to USA-USSR rivalry. Was that a particular worry in 1986, or something? In hindsight, the timing couldn't be worse since that was the year Mikhail Gorbachev introduced glasnost. The book's cynicism about politics and U.S. presidents, on the other hand, has aged like fine wine.
(There are similarities with Miller's Ronin from three years earlier, incidentally. A ninja or samurai wanders a bit aimlessly through modern America and its resurrection technology to assassinate a political leader who's been possessed by a demon. This ninja/samurai is stoic, inscrutable and a bit boring, but will acquire a more engaging sidekick of the opposite gender.)
I have a theory that this probably felt less shapeless as individual issues. As a collected volume, it feels like mush. I don't care. Our anti-heroes don't seem to be in danger. There are, though, clear differences between the issues and I'm sure it reads better in smaller chunks. There are places where the narrative comes more alive, e.g. Elektra-as-Sandy, or Terminator Perry. The ending's quite funny. Essentially, though, for me it's a graphic novel that's dead.