“The Assassination of Matt Murdock”
With the aforementioned Daredevil #174, “The Assassination of Matt Murdock,” Elektra returns to the book full time. In fact, she damn near takes over the title entirely. As mentioned back at the beginning, this would be where I originally came in.
We open up in Europe, where an assassin with a crossbow cheats Elektra out of collecting a bounty. Tailing the assassin, she quickly recognizes him as a ninja—and not just any ninja, but one of the Hand, her old order.
…I just realized this would be the first appearance of the Hand. Sweet Lord, there was so much happening in the pages of Daredevil during this period, I really feel sorry for those out there too young to have experienced this for themselves firsthand. What a great comic book this was. I can’t even capture in words the excitement of seeing a new Daredevil on the racks back then.
So Elektra winds up listening in on their meeting and discovers that the Hand has been hired to kill both Matt Murdock and his client, Melvin Potter. (We’ll later discover that the Kingpin is the one that hired them, via a proxy. His aim is to pit a potential rival in the Hand against one of his enemies, Daredevil, in an attempt to weaken them both.) Elektra tells herself she’s not going to get involved in this, but… you can probably guess how that turns out.
This was an absolutely superb way to reincorporate Elektra into the main narrative. And in the process Miller introduces the Hand, a group of ninja assassins who would become staples of the Marvel Universe going forward.
The Hand launch their initial assault against Matt Murdock in his brownstone apartment. He fights them off, naturally, but finds one in another room, already disposed of. He wonders who could have helped him. Standing atop the building across the street, Elektra muses, “Let him wonder.” I feel like I know the character so well at this point I can hear what she’s telling herself in her head: Let’s see your precious little Heather protect you like I just did.
The Hand’s second assault meets with greater success, as Elektra is unable to stop them from tossing an explosive into the law offices of Nelson and Murdock. Her expression after this failure is absolutely heart melting.
Turns out the blast robs Matt of his radar sense.
The Hand’s next target is Potter. Elektra’s there to protect him and even supplies him with his old Gladiator armor, but it’s no use—he’s lost all his old skills, along with his taste for violence, entirely. Luckily, Daredevil shows up in the nick of time to help protect Potter while Elektra runs off the remaining ninjas. Matt doesn’t even realize this at first, initially believing he miraculously held them off on his own, sans radar sense, before Potter tells him about the “lady… with the sai.”
The story ends with the introduction of a new, REALLY BIG ninja, who’s assigned the task of killing Elektra.
Frank Miller was already on fire at this point. By the end of the year he’d be a comics god and he was just twenty-four years old. Everyone was singing his praises, with one notable exception: Gary Groth, editor of The Comics Journal.
For those unfamiliar, Groth was like one of history’s first trolls—a proto-troll, if you will. He was the editor of a magazine about comic books, but held nothing but contempt for the dominant comics genre, superheroes. So while everyone else was going ga ga over Miller’s Daredevil, Groth took a position diametrically opposed to this view.
Now I love The Comics Journal. I love discussing the artistic merits of comics. But the response of the Journal to certain comics was so predictable it was positively robotic, and this could be maddening at times. Generally anything that had the slightest whiff of superheroes to it HAD to be bad, with the rarest exceptions. More broadly, anything put out by the corporate giants of Marvel and DC had to be bad. Conversely, any comic put out by an indy company or felt “underground” would be considered good.
In The Comics Journal #71 (Apr. 1982), Groth wrote a column, “Recycling the Old, Searching for the New,” wherein he juxtaposed Miller’s work on Daredevil with Art Spiegelman’s Maus (talk about your apples and oranges). His main criticism of Miller is that he was a manipulator and not an artist. Now this gets into very subjective territory, as you have to have some idea of what’s inside the artist’s head/heart when he or she was doing the work to categorize it as pure manipulation. From this perspective, since none of us are mind readers, any art can be accused of being manipulative. (I just went over this myself in reviewing the Watchmen television series about six months ago.) The more practical approach would be to seek what substance there might be beneath any surface manipulation, regardless of whether said manipulation is real or perceived. In the case of Miller’s Daredevil, I personally see a hell of a lot. (In HBO’s Watchmen, not so much)
Then Groth gets into other criticism that I find utterly ridiculous. For example, he notes that, “Daredevil doesn’t have any qualms about driving an airplane into a pier full of people [issue #168]” (p. 45). This calls to mind Alan Moore’s “last” Superman story, “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” At one point in the tale, Superman creates a super-magnet out of the planetary sculpture atop the Daily Planet building to capture a group of Metallo robots. Lois Lane recalls: “I remember hoping he hadn’t made it [the magnet] strong enough to lift the cars from the street below, but I needn’t have worried. He got everything just right. As always.”
Daredevil is a superhero with superhuman powers. If he flies a seaplane into a dock, he does so because his hypersenses tell him there’s no danger of anyone getting hurt. It’s a conceit you accept before you even sit down to read a superhero comic. This would be akin to criticizing a fantasy novel for having mythical creatures and monsters because such creatures aren’t real. If this is something you can’t accept, there’s no point in reading or writing about anything of said genre. Your issue is with the genre itself, not any particular example of it.
But the primary reason I bring up Groth’s article at this point is because of some specific critiques of the next story on the docket.
Fun Fact: Daredevil #175 (Oct. 1981), story title “Gantlet,” came to me through the state of Alaska. Someone my father worked with at the time was visiting Alaska, bought this issue there, brought it back to Jersey and passed it on to me through him. Don’t ask me how or why I remember this. So while I’ve never been to Alaska myself, I do own a comic book that’s been there.
“Gantlet” opens with Elektra doing some exercising/stretching/meditating. Then Daredevil enters and the two proceed to have one of the best exchanges of dialogue I have ever read in comics. Incredibly enough, as great as this sequence is, Groth still finds fault with it. Let’s have a look at the second and third pages, where all of the dialogue takes place (and where Groth’s criticism is centered):
So Elektra does a reverse roll and comes up throwing a sai. Right off the bat, Groth has a problem. “Anatomy is not a Miller strong point,” he says, “but this is ridiculous: On the first figure of Elektra the legs are reversed, right on left, left on right. And where did those sais come from?”
Ugh. Clearly she twisted sideways as she rolled backward. If that seems impossible to you, remember that Elektra is essentially a superhero herself, capable of fantastic feats of agility and athleticism. As for the sais, obviously they were on the floor nearby, either hidden or not readily visible. This is really nitpicking. But it gets worse when he talks about the dialogue.
“The dialogue is disconnected,” Groth grumbles. “Daredevil doesn’t even respond to Elektra when she says, ‘In college we were lovers. Now we are enemies. It is that simple.’ Clearly she was addressing the reader, not Daredevil.”
Yikes, Gary, have you never heard of subtext? Inference? When she says that to Daredevil—and yes, she is most definitely addressing Daredevil, not the reader—she is inviting him to confess his true feelings to her, and DD totally misses it. The proper response from him, the one she was looking for, would have been, “you’re not my enemy, I love you.”
Want to know why I think so highly of this exchange? Because it’s just so real. I’ve been there. Most of you out there have been there too, I imagine. Let me ask: have you ever been in a relationship and you’re neck deep in your own feelings and trying to communicate with your partner and failing because you can’t get out of your own way? Like you’re both talking but neither one of you is listening? Really, who hasn’t experienced this at least once? That is exactly what is going on here.
Let’s start with Elektra’s point of view. They were suddenly, surprisingly reunited on the docks that rainy night after many years. They shared a kiss, after which DD walked away without a word, just leaving her there, crying. She later goes to his apartment and discovers he has a girlfriend. With this revelation, she leaves the country and goes back to Europe. There, she stumbles onto a plot against him and returns to New York to help protect him, saving his life at least twice, clearly demonstrating how much she still loves him in the process. Now he shows up at her apartment, unannounced, without so much as a “thank you”? Just whining to her about how he lost his radar sense? Offended and hurt, she claims not to care about him—clearly a defensive response—to which he counters rather arrogantly, “Don’t you?” Hell, if I had been in her position, I would have kicked him out the window too!
Now Daredevil’s point of view. Though they call him “the man without fear,” he’s clearly scared to death here. He wants to tell Elektra he loves her, but he wants her to say it first. So he dances around the elephant in the room, talking instead about why the Hand targeted him and losing his radar sense in that explosion. When she tells him she doesn’t care, he’s too close to the situation, too emotionally invested, to see she doesn’t really mean it—he’s hurt by it. So he lashes back with, “Don’t you?” Again, he needs her to say it first. He goes on: “Whatever has happened… no matter how many years have passed… you saved my life. You risked it all… for me.”
He’s just begging her to admit she loves him at this point, just so he can confess the same to her in return, but to Elektra’s ear it sounds like he’s rubbing her face in it; it sounds more like a taunt. So naturally, Elektra gets pissed off and responds with violence. But notice her words: “Do not let it go to your head.” That’s certainly not a denial. But DD can’t hear this, as his own insecurities overwhelm him. “She hates me,” he tells himself. “She hates me!”
Once more, this just feels so real and so relatable to me. How many relationships have been ruined by childish, stupid, REALLY STUPID failures of communication like this? I don’t know about you, but for me, the answer is a hell of a lot. Maybe all of them, in fact.
Honestly, Elektra’s in the right here; Matt’s wrong. She put herself out there in coming back to New York to help him, and considering how difficult it is for her to open up, this was an immense gesture on her part. After this, it’s Matt’s turn to put himself out there in return—he has to tell her he loves her. He needed to go to her apartment with gratitude, with words along the lines of, “I owe you my life, Elektra. Your coming back to New York to protect me means everything to me. I love you.”
Internally, Elektra’s heart would have soared at such words, but there’s no doubt she’d still be slow to openly return the sentiment at this point. Her first instinct would be to keep a lid on her feelings and protect herself, so she’d probably come back at him with something like, “And what about this Heather woman?”
To which DD should respond, “She’s a good person but I don’t love her; I love you. It’s always been you, Elektra, and it always will be.”
Her walls might not come down immediately, but they would have crumbled eventually if DD just asserted his love for her. But of course, he didn’t do this. He tries too hard to protect himself and instead winds up hurting both of them so much more. It’s one of those self-fulfilling-prophecy situations, where you’re so obsessed with preventing something from happening (in this case, rejection), you wind up causing it to happen.
It’s absolutely heartbreaking, but it’s also note-perfect storytelling.
Back to the Valley
After she kicks Daredevil out the window, both our heroes, separately, get right back on the trail of the Hand. This leads them to cross paths again right after Daredevil discovers a business card on one of the ninjas he’s just neutralized. Elektra whacks him in the back of the head with the butt of her sai (a habit at this point) and takes the card, which points to an exotic weapons store on Canal. An obvious trap, but one that necessitates investigation. Elektra gets there first, in a clever disguise. Just a reminder, I got this issue before I tracked down Daredevil #168 in the back issue bins later, so this was my first brush with Miller’s use of Valleyspeak. He mixes it here with touch of a Queens accent to great comedic effect.
As mentioned earlier, this is 1981 and we were still a ways away from Valley Girl speech being a well-known thing (though most kids my age were aware of it—there were already some older girls in my elementary school that sounded like this, even then). Moon Unit Zappa’s eponymous song would not be released until June of ‘82…
And the eponymous film would not be released until the late spring of 1983.
My friends and I found this hilarious. Elektra’s reference to throwing stars as “them there falling stars” was just as amusing as the accent. There was actually a lot of humor in Miller’s work at this time—he was certainly not a one-note storyteller. I’m not recording every example in this post, as I’m trying to concentrate on Elektra’s character arc, but trust me, it’s there.
After Elektra takes the ninjas by surprise, Daredevil quickly enters the fray. Just as quickly, however, Elektra breaks off to take on that big ninja from the end of the previous issue. Turns out he’s this legendary Hand badass named Kirigi. She slams each of her sais into his chest, one right after the other, each one a “killing blow” for any mortal man, but Kirigi is just momentarily stunned. Then he pulls both sais out of his chest.
Japanese Language Lesson Sidebar: The scrubs DD is left fighting are genin. The guy calling the shots, the one who brought in Kirigi to kill Elektra, is the jonin. Jonin is Japanese for “appointed one”—a person invested with authority; essentially a leader. A genin is a commoner, someone of low rank.
So clearly, Elektra’s got her work cut out for her with Kirigi. At first it appears she has the upper hand, strategically, but she then realizes he has baited her and has her where he wants her. Not only is this great action, but Miller supplies a primer on ninja tools and technique in the captions.
All the while, the jonin taunts her, saying that while she once laughed at him, he now gets to laugh at her. There’s some ugly history between these two, and Miller won’t reveal the specifics until years later, but for now it’s enough to know they deeply hate each other.
At last, Elektra manages to grab hold of a katana and runs Kirigi through with it. STILL, the monster ninja does not die. She tries to strangle him with her head scarf, but he breaks away, goes tumbling down a stairway and is gone. If this brings back memories of the original Terminator film, I’m right with you. That film would be released three years later, in 1984, and even if they didn’t swipe the concept of an unkillable monster from Miller, the fact remains it was Miller’s idea first.
Meanwhile, Daredevil managed to beat back the remaining members of the Hand, but not without cost—remember he’s lost his radar sense, so he’s operating far below peak efficiency. He stumbles into the room, just after Elektra has dispatched Kirigi and killed the jonin, swearing to bring Elektra in before passing out. The narration notes: “Passed out… and losing a dangerous amount of blood. Left here unbandaged, he would surely die. And Elektra would finally be free of him.”
The next panel, Matt Murdock is showing up late to court. Once again, Elektra has saved him, despite any “freedom” it might cost her. Over and over, Elektra keeps saying she doesn’t love Matt anymore. Yet over and over, her actions betray the truth.
Daredevil #176 (Nov. 1981), “Hunters,” begins with Kirigi meandering around the slums of the lower east side with a katana through his torso like some monster-ninja version of Steve Martin. He eventually finds an abandoned church, pulls the katana out, and begins meditating and healing.
Days later, back at his brownstone, Daredevil is still struggling to figure out a way to restore his radar sense. At last he determines that must seek out his old teacher, Stick. Once again, this is the introduction of a character that will go on to take up huge space in Daredevil’s backstory. As he leaps off to begin the hunt for his old teacher, Daredevil almost slips and breaks his neck. Heather is left terrified at this, unaware that DD is being shadowed by a guardian angel. Guess who?
As the story progresses, four separate parties are looking for Stick: Daredevil, Elektra, Heather, and Turk. Much comedy ensues as a result. Finally, just as Daredevil is reunited with his fabled mentor, Kirigi moves in on Elektra. It’s another wild fight between the two, as Elektra resorts to running him over with a truck and setting him on fire. The conflict comes to a permanent end when Elektra decapitates him with his own sword. “God or demon, Kirigi had a neck that was human enough.”
The issue ends with Elektra indulging in deep reflection, wondering how she can ever resolve her conflict with Matt and, if it comes to it, “will she be able to kill the only man she has ever loved?”
The following issue, #177 (Dec. 1981), “Where Angels Fear to Tread,” is almost entirely about Daredevil recovering his radar sense with the aid of his old teacher, Stick. All we see of Elektra is on the final page, where the Kingpin’s minions are filling him in on Elektra’s résumé. Kingpin instructs these minions to “find her.” This thread is picked up immediately the next issue, #178 (Jan. 1982), “Paper Chase,” with Elektra being tested by some of the Kingpin’s thugs. Passing the test, she finds a note inviting her to meet him, with the issue ending on this meeting.
In between, Nelson and Murdock have been hired by The Daily Bugle to defend them in a defamation lawsuit after running an exposé on corrupt mayoral candidate, Randolph Winston Cherryh, puppet of the Kingpin. There’s a key witness with evidence that needs to be found and protected, which ropes Power Man and Iron Fist into the story, which leads to much fun and mayhem. The story continues over in the pages of Power Man and Iron Fist #77 (Jan. 1982), and though this particular tale does not need to be read in order to keep up with the goings-on in Daredevil, you should read it anyway because it’s done by Mary Jo Duffy and Kerry Gammill and their run on Power Man and Iron Fist was pure gold.
As I said, this was a ton of fun—but the fun would not continue much longer, as things were about to take a dark and serious turn back in the pages of Daredevil.