Mourning Becomes Miller’s Elektra

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This one’s been on the to-do list for years, but I’ve been putting it off because I was anticipating it becoming another epic piece, akin to my Gwen Stacy Murder Case post. Now, however, since I’m currently stuck at home in quarantine lockdown, I figure there might never be a better time to try and tackle this monster. So here I am, taking a look back at one of my favorite storylines ever, the original Elektra arc as done by Frank Miller in the pages of Daredevil across 1981 and 1982.

The story of Frank Miller’s Elektra is a tragedy in more than just one sense of the word. It’s also a long and meandering odyssey, one that takes place over the course of more than a dozen years. In order to avoid becoming another 20,000-word opus, I’m going to try and tackle this one in fairly chronological order without too much digression.

Having said that…

Fun Fact: My first encounter with Elektra was on the cover of Daredevil #174 (Sept. 1981), which I first saw on the spinner rack in the Village Smoke Shop in South Orange, New Jersey, in the early spring of 1981. At the time and at first glance, I assumed she was a female version of the super villain, Electro, based strictly on the name. I didn’t recognize the ninja trappings of her attire because I knew nothing of ninjas at that point. I was still a year or two away from junior high Spanish classes, but I did live with an Italian grandmother who often spoke in Neapolitan dialect around the house, so I guess I absorbed enough of it to know that in Latin languages, male names ended in “o” and female names ended in “a.”

I also didn’t buy the issue at this point, though that cover did stick in my brain. It must have been a month or two later that I picked it up in a trade with a friend of mine that lived down the street. As I recall, I also got the previous issue, DD #173, in this same swap.

“Elektra”

That issue of Daredevil (#174) served as Elektra’s reintroduction to the ongoing plot. Her first appearance took place more than six months earlier in Daredevil #168 (Jan. 1981), in a tale simply titled “Elektra.” It was Miller’s first issue as both writer and penciler (after a year and a half of penciling scripts by Roger McKenzie), and boy did he kick things off with a bang.

“Elektra” opens with Daredevil on the trail of Alarich Wallenquist, a man needed as a witness in a murder trial. Unknown to Daredevil, there’s also a bounty on Wallenquist’s head back in Europe. Early in the story, DD is injured as a result of a nitroglycerine explosion, though this merely slows his pursuit, it does not stop him. What stops him is the well-placed butt of a sai to the back of his head, courtesy of a bounty hunter named Elektra, who’s also seeking Wallenquist in order to collect the price on his head. Before passing out, Daredevil recognizes her voice. This leads into a flashback revealing who this woman is and what she means to Matt Murdock.

The flashback shows us Matthew Murdock and Elektra Natchios meeting at Columbia University when Matt is nineteen (and I’m guessing she’s the same age). He’s Pre-Law, of course, while she, the daughter of a Greek Ambassador, is majoring in Political Science. Though blind and thus unable to see her beauty, Matt still finds himself drawn to Elektra after he and Foggy Nelson literally bump into her on campus.

After being rejected upon his initial request for a date, Matt does something beyond bold: he reveals his hypersenses to Elektra. He chooses to do this because he thinks his blindness is the reason for her initial rejection of him (though as a reader I disagree with this conclusion). “I-I’ve never talked to anyone about all this, Elektra,” he confesses. “Not even Pop. I’d like to talk again… please?”

So not only is Elektra his first real love, she is also the first person Matt ever revealed his powers to. This is BIG.

Naturally, Elektra agrees to the date after this, but not (I believe) for the reasons Matt thinks. Matt’s male ego requires that Elektra’s rejection and/or acceptance of him has to be all about him and has nothing to do with her. In reality, the opposite is true: it has nothing to do with him. In fact it’s pretty clear, based on their initial encounter, she likes him and that the attraction is mutual, to at least some extent. I believe the truth is revealed by Elektra’s dialogue earlier in the conversation: “I rarely get to meet other students because of Athos [her bodyguard]. Since we left Greece, I have not made a single friend. Oh, I am sure Poppa is right in protecting me. An ambassador’s daughter is a likely target for terrorists. Still, it does get lonely.”

Based on this picture she’s painted, this is a girl who’s accepted the fact that her circumstances will never allow her to have close friendships or go out on dates like her fellow students. She stopped trying a while ago because it always ended in disappointment for her. (As time goes on, we’ll discover that this is Elektra’s default position: she pushes everyone away, puts up walls, and avoids emotional pain at nearly any cost.) What changed her mind about Matt wasn’t that he was blind and then turned out to be super powered; it was that he opened himself up to her and shared something that he had never shared with anyone else before. By taking such a risk, he invites Elektra to do the same in kind, and she does so. She takes that leap of faith and gives their relationship a chance.

Miller the Writer

Frank Miller is a tremendous artist and an amazing creator, but he is also a great writer—or at least he was during this timeframe. Strong dialogue is one of the last things a fan would likely think of when considering Miller, but the fact is he was really good at it. Take this conversation Foggy has with a fellow student after Matt and Elektra have been dating for about a year:

Foggy: Look at all those cops. Wonder what’s going on?

Student: Like, there’s this rilly intense scene in there, y’know? There’s these guys holding hostages like in the administration building. Intense. Rilly intense.

This issue of Daredevil with its January cover date likely came out in October of 1980—years before the Valley Girl dialect had truly penetrated the public consciousness. Obviously, Miller’s ear for speech and dialogue were WAY ahead of the curve. This is in addition to the wonderful new character he had introduced with this story, to go along with a terrific plot. Speaking of which…

So Matt and Elektra spend a year blissfully in love while at Columbia together. Then one night, there’s a commotion around the administration building, at which point Foggy has that conversation with Valley-speak guy. Turns out Elektra and her father are being held hostage in the building. Matt goes into action to try and save them and Elektra’s father winds up shot by an overzealous cop and dies.

Elektra shuts down emotionally, not even crying at her father’s funeral, and abandons Matt. The two don’t see each other again until this rainy night when they both happen to be in pursuit of Wallenquist.

After the flashback, Daredevil awakens to find his injured shoulder bandaged—by Elektra—which “probably saved my life,” he muses to himself. “She’s a bitter, lonely woman who’s striking back at the world that robbed her of her father. Yet she’s still a woman– the first woman I ever loved…. But it doesn’t count. None of it. No matter how much it pains me, I must hunt Elektra down and bring her to justice!”

Meanwhile, Wallenquist has paid for the services of Eric Slaughter and his thugs to protect him. Elektra falls into a trap at the docks set by Slaughter, but is bailed out by Daredevil, who rams the dock with a seaplane. After it’s all over, as he’s untying her hands, Elektra finally realizes that Daredevil is Matt. They kiss; then Daredevil departs with Wallenquist slung over his shoulder as Elektra breaks down.

Note that despite his earlier, emphatic insistence that he must “hunt Elektra down and bring her to justice,” Daredevil simply walks away and lets her go.

Also of interest: Who initiated the kiss here? We can’t really be sure, and I think the ambiguity is well done, giving the reader a lot to think about.

It needs re-stating that Miller is a great writer. The task is greatly aided by the fact that he’s also the penciler, so he trusts his pictures to tell the story when they can and doesn’t clutter the panels with redundant text. And in this one issue, we sorta get Elektra’s entire arc in miniature. She starts out mistrustful and keeping a tight lid on her emotions, then it ends with years of those pent-up feelings bursting forth, much like the rain falling all around her. Just beautiful.

Sand Saref

In a 1981 interview with The Comics Journal, Dwight R. Decker asked Frank Miller to explain his reasoning in creating Elektra. He responded, “I wanted Daredevil to have a female antagonist, like Sand Saref in The Spirit. In fact, I ripped off the first Sand Saref story to do the first Elektra story. Rather than just regurgitating it, though, I put a harsher edge on the conflict. I had there be more consequences to the fact that he was living with a contradiction in that he loved a woman and she was his enemy.” (“Frank Miller,” The Comics Journal #70, Jan. 1982, p. 77.)

Will Eisner’s two-part tale “Sand Saref”/”Bring In Sand Saref” originally ran as a newspaper supplement on January 8 and 15, 1950. The emotional core of the story is largely the same as “Elektra,” in addition to several of the more superficial trappings.

Sand Saref was the childhood sweetheart of Denny Colt (the Spirit). While they were still quite young, Sand’s father, a good and honest cop, was shot and killed during an altercation involving Denny’s uncle, who was Denny’s guardian at the time. Sand becomes possessed by bitterness and rage and ends up acting out by stealing.

This juvenile delinquency eventually leads to adult criminality. After several years away she returns to town and, much like Daredevil, the Spirit finds he cannot bring himself to arrest her. Also much like Daredevil, the story ends with a seaplane on the docks.

One big difference, of course, is that Sand Saref flies away at the end of her story, while Elektra remains in town—at least for now.

The Name

Naturally, Miller was never going to use the name “Sand” for his new character—as open as he may have been in his admiration for Eisner, he’s not going to swipe from him that shamelessly. But why “Elektra”?

A page from Miller’s “Call It Karma,” 1975.

Turns out this was a name Miller had used before, back in his fandom days, when he did a story titled “Call It Karma” for the fanzine APA-5 in 1975. He spelled the name with a “k” even then, as opposed to the more traditional “c.” Obviously, Miller found a lot of power in the mythology behind the name and its Freudian implications.

“This particular character was designed around her name,” Miller said, “the name Elektra has come to represent an entire psychological phenomenon. She was a young woman who had her sexual interest centered on her father, and just as she was transferring this to another man, her father is killed.” (Peter Sanderson, “The Frank Miller/Klaus Janson Interview,” The Daredevil Chronicles, Feb. 1982, p p. 27.)

Double Dare

Another purpose behind the character was literary doubling. Elektra’s path appears to mirror that of Matt Murdock, with the key turning point in both their lives being the deaths of their fathers, after which Matt turned onto the path of justice while Elektra took the path of revenge. Or most simply, Matt chose good while Elektra chose evil.

But Miller wanted to deepen the conflict by having the two characters genuinely love each other. In discussing the Daredevil-Elektra relationship during an Amazing Heroes interview, Miller stated: “In any form of fiction, when you want to have a good conflict, you put two things the character loves against one another.” (Michael Catron, “Devil’s Advocate,” Amazing Heroes #4, Sept. 1981, pp. 51.) The “two things” here would be Matt’s love of Elektra and his love of justice/the law.

Now this certainly succeeded in making the story deeper, but it also muddied the waters as far as how truly evil Elektra might have been. In order for Matt to fall in love with her, that meant there had to be some good in her, right? How could he have ever truly loved her otherwise?

Then there’s Bullseye, whose presence in the storyline muddies the waters even more, because in Bullseye we get a portrait of true evil. Elektra shows mercy and regret, but not Bullseye, who just might be the purest sociopath ever depicted in comics. The Joker finds murder amusing, at least, but Bullseye? Bullseye seemingly feels nothing when he kills. It’s like other people don’t truly exist in his mind, they don’t even matter. The entire external world exists strictly for Bullseye’s sake, for whatever he wants, for his own selfish whims. Other people aren’t even human beings to him, just playthings.

For all the murder and mayhem she causes, Elektra does not match the evil depths of Bullseye; not even close. So while Elektra certainly commits evil acts, is she herself irredeemably evil? Muddying the waters still more is the fact that she also does a number of good things and reveals her humanity—again, in stark contrast to Bullseye, who has no humanity at all. Note that in her very first appearance here, she tends to Daredevil’s wounds after knocking him out even though she does not know he’s Matt at that point.

A Word (or Two) About Retcons

The word “retcon” is verbal shorthand for “retroactive continuity.” This is when a story published in the present day adds, subtracts, or otherwise changes something in the past history of a fictional property. So technically, Miller’s insertion of Elektra into the backstory of Daredevil/Matt Murdock qualifies as a retcon by the strictest definition of the term, as she’s inserted into Matt’s past when said past is well back in the rearview mirror by the time the story takes place.

But in recent years, the word “retcon” has been more largely taken to mean that something has been altered or erased from a fictional history/backstory. The biggest example of a comic book retcon (as the term is used today) would be DC’s original Crisis on Infinite Earths, which brought huge changes to their entire DC line and wiped out giant swaths of previously published stories and their characters. Therefore, in the more modern, accepted use of the word, Elektra is not really a retcon. Miller’s introduction of her in the pages of Daredevil #168 was strictly an addition to the Daredevil mythos, one that did not erase or undo anything that came before.

And this is how it should be done. The same way Moore’s “Anatomy Lesson” fundamentally changed Swamp Thing without undoing anything that came before it, creators should be encouraged to add and expand instead of changing and replacing and deleting. If there’s something a creator doesn’t like about a character’s backstory, rather than go out of your way changing, rearranging, or otherwise undoing something, just ignore it. Again, this was how Miller did it. As he discussed it with Dwight R. Decker in 1981:

DECKER: Do you feel weighed down by the accumulated baggage of the Marvel Universe?

MILLER: I’ve found that I can ignore most of the Marvel Universe painlessly. It’s really up to me to define where Daredevil happens and who he runs into.

DECKER: Wasn’t there a scene where a despondent Daredevil looks out the window at a happy couple and it’s Mary Jane and Peter Parker?

MILLER: Oh yes, but that kind of nod is bit different from having to explain where Daredevil is when Galactus shows up, which I’m really not going to bother with.…

DECKER: Would you prefer to work on a book that doesn’t depend on a 20-year continuity?

MILLER: Well, Daredevil really doesn’t. That’s something a writer chooses to do or not. I’ve done several things that were set up three years ago. I try to keep it consistent over a certain amount of months and certainly within my own work on the title. But I’m not going to be explaining what happened to Mike Murdock, or explaining why Daredevil doesn’t have a flare gun in his billy club anymore. That’s all excess weight. I build what I do on a fairly simple outline, Daredevil being 30 years old and having been Daredevil for about four years. Whatever else has happened in the series is available to me but I don’t have to pay attention to it. I’m not handcuffed to the fact that Gerry Conway did a bunch of science-fiction stories….

DECKER: So what do you tell the continuity buffs who want nearly 20 years of material integrated into a seamless whole?

MILLER: Forget it! [Laughter] (“Frank Miller,” The Comics Journal #70, Jan. 1982, pp. 83-84.)

“Devils”

Daredevil #169, “Devils,” focuses on Bullseye, who just escaped from a hospital where surgery was about to be performed to remove a tumor on his brain. This tumor is the source of severe hallucinations for Bullseye, causing him to see everyone around him as his nemesis, Daredevil. During their climactic battle in a subway tunnel, Bullseye is left lying on the subway tracks and Daredevil is sorely tempted to leave him there to be run over by a train, as he knows he’s going to kill again if he survives. And as a lawyer, he knows Bulleye’s attorney will argue that the tumor was the cause of all his criminal behavior and that he will likely be set free even if he brings him in.

Of course Daredevil pulls him off the tracks and brings him in.

At the hospital, Lieutenant Manolis repeats the same argument Daredevil just had with himself back to him. “He’s gonna go free,” he tells DD. ““He’s gonna kill again. And next time it’ll be your fault.” Daredevil walks away without responding. Over the speaker we hear the surgeon announce, “Gentlemen, the operation is a success. The patient will live.”

While this story was primarily about Bullseye and his relationship to Daredevil, Elektra does show up briefly for a one-page-plus-one-panel cameo. It ain’t much, but it’s still kinda important. She breaks into Matt’s brownstone, carrying a figurative simmering cauldron of unresolved feelings after their impromptu reunion the previous issue. Though Matt is “the only man she has ever loved,” she still tries to convince herself that, “there should be nothing left of that,” even as she’s smashing a small sculpture when she sees it marked as, “To Matt, All My Love, Heather.”

The sound of the sculpture breaking brings Heather to the doorway, prompting Elektra to jump back out the window before she can be seen.

Again, Miller was still sort of following Eisner’s lead here, as Sand Saref enjoyed a similarly-quick return to the pages of The Spirit, coming back after just six weeks for “Blood of the Earth” on February 26, 1950, and sticking around through “Rescue” on April 9. During this storyline, Sand finds herself briefly stranded on a desert isle with the Spirit. One night, she cozies up to him as he’s sleeping and he mutters “Ellen,” the name of his regular girlfriend back in Central City, which naturally shatters the moment for Sand and causes her to stomp off in fit of jealousy. Elektra’s reaction to the discovery of Matt’s girlfriend Heather echoes this very closely.

Comics Journal writer R. C. Harvey also offered the following hypothesis on Elektra’s character development to this point, which I found rather compelling:

Her personality bears all the scars of an idealist turned cynic through disillusionment. The cause of her disillusionment—the killing of her father—is insufficiently developed, true; but Elektra’s subsequent behavior is thoroughly consistent with that of the disillusioned idealist. Such a personality will never quite give up all idealistic hopes. Cynicism is a pose, a defense mechanism that masks repeated disappointments. But the idealistic hopes that are disappointed never fade away.

Elektra weeps when Daredevil saves her life on the pier in #168 at the conclusion of a scene that parallels their youthful attempt to save her father. She cries because this time her hopes were not disappointed. The cynic is prepared for anything except the gratification of her hopes: caught unprepared, her emotional control breaks down.

Just as she never quite abandons idealistic hopes, Elektra never quite falls out of love with Matt. She even makes a sentimental visit to his apartment. And there the idealistic yearnings are once again shattered: she finds Heather there. Matt is therefore unfaithful to her. Okay, it’s expecting a bit much of him to imagine that he’s still pining away for her, but the idealist is capable of some pretty extravagant hopes. And the disappointed idealist is also capable of seemingly irrational and disconnected behavior—all inspired by a desire to strike back at the one who has injured her by so deeply disappointing her hopes. (R. C. Harvey, “Special Blood and Thunder Edition: Forum on Frank Miller,” The Comics Journal #77, Nov. 1982, pp. 37-38.)

Not a Digression

Issues #170-172 featured the Kingpin’s return to New York City and crime, at which point the book went monthly. Here’s an example of my avoiding digression with this post, as Lord knows I could go on at great length about the Kingpin’s star turn here, but I’m going to resist that temptation, as Elektra does not appear in these issues and thus they’re not very germane to the discussion. Suffice it to say, under Miller’s hand the Kingpin goes from a comic book character to a cinematic character—picture Michael Corleone, only possessing massive size and enough strength to literally rip a man in half.

A quick recap though, just so we all remain up to speed: The “retired” Kingpin, now living in Japan, wants to cut a deal with the feds and turn over evidence on his former mob lieutenants, who happen to be the guys currently running organized crime in New York. Those former lieutenants put out a contract on the Kingpin to keep him quiet. Kingpin’s wife Vanessa gets caught in the crossfire of their conflict, disappears in a collapsed building, and is presumed dead. (Spoiler alert: she ain’t.) Kingpin’s thirst for revenge leads to him disposing of his former lieutenants and re-taking control of the New York mob.

In the middle of it all is Daredevil and Bullseye—who, as predicted, is a free man and back on the streets in Daredevil #170, just one issue after his successful operation. At first, Bullseye finds employment with the Kingpin’s rivals, but by the end he’s switched sides and works for the Kingpin. (Bullseye knows a winner when he sees one.) At the storyline’s conclusion, Daredevil has Bullseye tied up and ready to take back to prison—a “courtesy” the Kingpin allows him. He’s the king of the New York mobs again, so he can afford to be generous.

Issue #173 (Aug. 1981) featured the weakest story of Miller’s tenure, “Lady Killer.” Again, no Elektra. It’s a formula, TV-movie-of-the-week type tale, where this freaky dude in BDSM gear is terrorizing New York by attacking women. Turns out, by amazing coincidence, underneath that leather mask of his, he’s an EXACT lookalike of Melvin Potter—a reformed super villain previously known as the Gladiator and now a client of Nelson and Murdock. Yeah, like I said, this was bad.

But no worries—the BEST, literally, is about to come.

NEXT: “The Assassination of Matt Murdock”

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2 thoughts on “Mourning Becomes Miller’s Elektra”

  1. Much enjoyed reading these posts, Curmudgeon! Great insights on MIller’s work, when he was new and growing by leaps and bounds in talent — alas, that he later significantly declined in that talent. I also started reading the Comics Journal back in the early ’80s and recall reading both Groth’s take down and Fiore’s column. I liked that although Groth was the publisher/editor of the magazine, he did include points of view that didn’t match his own, and the letters section, if I recall, was called “Blood & Thunder” due to the divergent opinions and sometimes outright nastiness in expressing them. Overall, the magazine expanded my knowledge of the current comics scene as well as significant aspects of comics past. I did get into Cerebus in that time, but skipped the Turtles mania and saw the whole mania for the B&W mags riffing on the popularity of Miller’s DD run and the Claremont & Byrne’s X-Men as ridiculous.

    1. Groth did include other points of view, but as editor he always got the last word in any debate/discussion, which could be a bit frustrating at times– particularly so in this case, when his point of view did not feel fair or reasonable to me.

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