This collection, which compiles all eight issues of Elektra: Assassin, is a difficult piece to review, because I think a lot of what may have brought people to this series in its initial release is lost when divorced from its original context. That is to say, it cannot be overstated how hot Frank Miller was in the eighties.
After writing for Daredevil and releasing the trippy cyberpunk love letter that was Ronin, right after the release of The Dark Knight Returns and shortly before Year One, Frank Miller revisited Elektra in this miniseries drawn by Bill Sienkiewicz. Though the miniseries was well-received in those days, it’s hard not to look at it now and see the beginnings of the kind of writing that would make Miller infamous in the modern day.
I’m no prude, let that be stated off the bat. The problem is that the book seems to be completely unaware of how clumsy it is in its attempts to be edgy and dark.
Elektra: Assassin is when the writer’s hallmark Millerisms began to take hold. All women are referred to as crazy or whores, every character in a position of power is a thinly veiled satirical representation of a real celebrity, with the jokes and commentary not being even a fraction as clever as Miller seems to think they are. The lead character has sexual issues with her father. There’s a Russian general literally named Vladimir Jakoff. What is this book?
The only tonal constant here is Bill Sienkiewicz’s artwork, a wild fever dream of splotchy colors, unorthodox panel layouts, and explosions of grim, disorienting violence. Sienkiewicz’s illustrations pair particularly well with the first half of the series, which are purposefully disjointed and told out of sequence, pulling the reader in and out of Elektra’s fractured memories and assorted nightmares. These sequences take on a horrific childlike quality, with Elektra’s more logical side trying to cope with her early memories.
The story follows Elektra’s efforts to stop a politician who is being controlled by an ancient evil called the Beast from bringing about a nuclear holocaust. Along the way, she must contend with rival factions who want her dead, including the ninja clan known as the Hand and a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent named Garrett, who talks like every toxic cliche you’ve ever heard in a bad action movie (or a Frank Miller comic).
I know it sounds like I’m really dragging on Miller, but I’m I don’t dislike a book simply based on who wrote it. When the guy was on his game, there was nothing better. He’s given us some of the most iconic Batman moments in the character’s history (and some of the worst, but whatever). What ultimately hurts this book is that it’s clearly meant to be a satire of comic book and action tropes.
Where it falters is that it does so by embracing these same ugly aspects. Characters constantly use homophobic slurs and women are treated as less than objects. One character realizes he wants to sleep with Elektra while holding a gun to her head. Elektra is hinted to have had a strong Oedipal complex, and then turns around encourages the characters around her to speak of her in degrading tones, as though she wishes to be subjugated. Characters try to draw attention to how ridiculous the plot is by pointing it out aloud. Again, there’s a character named Vladimir Jakoff. It’s an ugly, mean-spirited mess.
That’s not to say there aren’t bright spots. Again, the artwork is exceptional. One sequence in particular marries the writing and the illustrations wonderfully, wherein a fight between Elektra and some opponents is broken down, moment by moment. The panels are arranged in a grid, a trick Miller would return to with The Dark Knight Returns, and the way the fight is described gives you more of an idea of how capable Elektra is than anything else to that point. The book also makes frequent use of Elektra’s psychic abilities, which aren’t touched on quite often in the comics.
Overall, though, there’s not much here to recommend for folks who haven’t read this miniseries before. I may just be in the wrong headspace for a series like this, but I can’t help but feel that even though Miller created Elektra, she eventually (thankfully) outgrew him.