It Came From The Bargain Bin: Elektra Assassin

This weekend, I fought a bus load of customers (quite literally) to get to the graphic novel section of Half Price Books. In particular, a man and his two children seemed bound and determined not to let me get to the clearance graphic novels. But after spying a collected edition of Elektra Assassin among the discounted books, I was not about to give up.

Frank Miller and Bill Sienkiewicz’s Elektra Assassin is one of my favorite comic works of all time—and one of the most influential upon me as a comic book reader. I was around 12 when I first discovered this series. It was during a shift in my comic readership; while still being attracted primarily to superhero comics, I was starting to explore darker and more mature works. As well as reading longtime staples like the X-books, I was also taking in works like David Mack’s Kabuki and Frank Miller’s first Daredevil run.

Elektra Assassin is a remarkable work, one that holds up to the test of time quite well. Both Miller and Sienkiewicz were at their best here. Perhaps that is, at least in part, due to the creative process the two used to create this book. First published under Marvel’s Epic line in 1986-87, each issue of Elektra Assassin was scripted three times by Miller. Miller completed an initial script and re-write before completing a final script based upon Sienkiewicz’s artwork. Essentially, the completed product was the result of a tug and pull between two great artists, pushing one another to bring out the best they each had to offer.

Frank Miller wrote this book around the same time he wrote The Dark Knight Returns, Born Again and Love and War. The late eighties saw the publication of, arguably, his best work. Elektra Assassin seems to be often overlooked in this midst of these peer works, but definitely deserves some love. This book explores Elektra’s past (prior to her previously-published demise in Daredevil) in which she is on a quest to assassinate democratic Presidential candidate Ken Wind, who is possessed by The Beast, a dark force associated with Marvel’s ninja clan The Hand. But plot is far from the focus of this tale. Indeed the true meat and bones of Elektra Assassin is the character work and the actual storytelling techniques themselves.

Miller injects this series with the usual grit and drama he is known for. A lot of Miller staples, like the deconstruction of the notion of the superhero and thinly veiled political commentary, can be found here. Miller produces a hyper violent, frenetic stream-of-consciousness narrative that plays perfectly into Sienkiewicz’s strengths. The experimentalism of Bill Sienkiewicz’s artwork is mirrored by experimental narrative techniques by Miller himself. This series is far from linear, akin to a Tarantino film in structure, and employs captions in a unique way. Throughout the series, dashes and multiple captions overlaid upon one another help to frantically move the narrative forward. And Miller satirizes and parodies superhero comics in a way that is dramatic and grand without being full-on ridiculous (All-Star Batman and Robin anyone?).

Bill Sienkiewicz turns in some of the finest art of his career. His blending of techniques is astounding, captivating and extremely well-suited to this story. Thanks to improvements in production processes, Sienkiewicz is able to employ a lot of techniques previously unseen in comics. The majority of the series is fully painted, but also utilizes raw pencils, heavy inks and innovative page layouts. The art contained in this work clearly paved the way for artists such as David Mack (whose Kabuki, particularly Metamorphosis, is highly influenced by this series) and J.H. Williams (the modern master of the double page spread).

Collectively, these two artists craft a highly experimental tale that even today influences the comic book as a medium. Miller gives us a hyper-violent commentary that definitely edges out All Star Batman and Robin and arguably surpasses The Dark Knight Returns. And Sienkiewicz refines and masters the multi-faceted artistic approach that we’ve come to know him for. Sadly, nobody has really managed to succeed either of these artists; we’ve yet to truly see the next Miller or Sienkiewicz. Nor has anyone really managed to produce a book quite like Elektra Assassin. Superhero comics have attempted to replicate what was done here, but typically with far less charm and success. And just as Miller attempted to point out through this very book the lack of creativity and innovation in superhero comics, no one has really attempted a book as experimental as this.

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