Mourning Becomes Miller’s Elektra

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“Spiked!”

The Elektra plotline is resumed in full with “Spiked!” from Daredevil #179 (Feb. 1982). Narrated by Bugle reporter Ben Urich (a superb writing choice by Miller), the reporter and Daredevil both continue their relentless pursuit of dirt on candidate Cherryh, while the Kingpin’s new chief assassin, Elektra, is determined to stop them. Along the way, Urich snaps a photo of a seemingly typical bag lady—not a big thing this issue, but it will be huge when we get to the next one.

We end this particular story with the long-brewing confrontation between DD and Elektra. She generally kicks the crap out of him until finally, unable to take anymore, DD reluctantly slugs her. They both appear momentarily startled by this act, then Elektra informs DD that she’s “tricked” him; “trapped” him. At which point DD steps into a bear trap. Elektra gloats, then appears to hesitate just a second… before kicking a brick wall down on top of him.

Then Elektra hears a cough—it’s Urich. Earlier in the issue, Daredevil offered a prophetic warning to Urich that his cigarette habit would kill him, now it looks like the prediction is about to come true. Urich tries to run, but Elektra throws a sai into his back. Urich’s narration ends with, “Lousy cigarettes…”

Miller would later recall that, “Ben Urich got skewered and I got a flood of mail from people who were furious at me for killing him. The only reason for that flood of mail was because I had spent an entire issue getting the reader to know him. He was not a popular character before that, although he was a favorite of mine. By letting the reader get to know him and then taking him away I got a strong emotional response and was able to turn them against Elektra.” (Peter Sanderson, “The Frank Miller/Klaus Janson Interview,” The Daredevil Chronicles, Feb. 1982, p. 26.)

“The Damned”

Urich wasn’t dead though. He turned up in the next issue, #180, “The Damned,” very much alive, which left many readers feeling betrayed. Personally, I always took the fact that he was narrator of the story to mean that he survived somehow—the fact that this could have been a Sunset Boulevard-type scenario never occurred to me. (Probably because I hadn’t seen nor heard anything of Sunset Boulevard at that time.) The events of the previous story still had consequences though, as Urich has dropped the Cherryh investigation and Daredevil’s got his right leg in a cast and is using a crutch.

Despite all this, circumstances are going to push Cherryh back into the orbit of both characters. When Urich gets his film developed, he notices something familiar about that bag lady. Turns out she’s Vanessa, the missing-and-presumed-dead wife of the Kingpin. Daredevil ventures into New York City’s literal underworld to retrieve her, then trades her to the Kingpin in exchange for Cherryh’s figurative head on a plate.

Elektra’s only got two brief appearances in this one. In the first, she stands silently in the background while the Kingpin praises her work in silencing Urich. In the second, after he’s suffered this tremendous setback with Cherryh, Kingpin is pissed. “I cannot allow this serious a defeat to pass without some gesture of retribution, however small. Someone must die.” He doesn’t even give a f*ck who at this point, his pride just demands blood; anyone’s blood. After listing a few candidates he can’t consider for practical reasons, he settles on one of the Bugle’s lawyers: Franklin Nelson. Again, Elektra does not utter a word as the Kingpin informs her that her next assignment is to kill Foggy.

“Last Hand”

Do I even need to recap “Last Hand? If you’ve got a pulse and you’re a comics fan, you should know this one forward and back. Still, I’ve come this far, so I’ll fill in the broad strokes.

First, it’s another brilliant creative choice on Miller’s part making Bullseye the narrator. Our resident sociopath is cooling his heels in the joint, on his best behavior as he anticipates the Kingpin helping him break out any day now. Then Frank Castle, a.k.a. the Punisher, behind bars himself now after the events of the 1981 Amazing Spider-Man Annual (from the creative team of Miller and Denny O’Neil), strolls up to him to let know that no one’s busting him loose anytime soon, as the Kingpin has replaced him and no longer needs him. Thus Bullseye begins planning to break out on his own. He takes a booking on Good Evening, New York with Tom Snyde and pulls off a dramatic escape on live television.

Meanwhile, Elektra’s got a job to do. She picks up Foggy in a Taxi, disguised as a hack, and brings him to a parking garage. After she coldly and calmly explains to him what’s about to happen, Foggy starts blubbering before inevitably recognizing her.

“Matt’s girl.” That’s all it takes to shatter Elektra’s surface defenses. She orders Foggy to “get out of here,” but she’s not left alone in that garage, as Bullseye is there (as you can see, above). They fight. Elektra loses. As she’s bleeding out, she somehow finds the strength to make it to Matt’s brownstone and dies in his arms.

Then Daredevil and Bullseye have a final showdown of their own. It ends with DD dropping Bullseye from a great height, breaking his spine and leaving him a quadriplegic. It’s little consolation for the loss of Elektra.

I remarked earlier on the juxtaposition of Elektra and Bullseye throughout this storyline. Peter Sanderson expanded on this line of thought in a contemporaneous article for The Comics Journal:

When confronted by Snyde with his real name, Bullseye simply rejected it. Elektra, on the other hand, cannot wholly divorce herself from her former identity, her former ties, or her former humanity, all of which are summed up in Foggy’s unintentionally (on his part) inspired phrase, “Matt’s girl.” He identifies Elektra as someone whose life centers not on killing but on love, and the word “girl” must remind her of her former youthful innocence. Perhaps Elektra’s rage at Nelson comes from a realization that her last, vicious battle with Daredevil had not buried her love for him as she must have thought. Her humanity, repressed as it has been, is obviously still important to her, and she finds she cannot kill someone who can still recognize it within her. Does her defeated stance as Nelson flees signify remorse over her “weakness,” then, or an attack of remorse over her wasted, twisted adult life? If the latter, then it comes too late, for the next panel, showing her in the same position, frames—and entraps—her between the black wall and floor and Bullseye’s hand and gun. (Peter Sanderson, “Elektra-Shock Treatment,” The Comics Journal #70, Jan. 1982, p. 105.)

Daredevil #181 (Apr. 1982) came out at the same time (or nearly the same time) as Amazing Spider-Man #227 (Apr. 1982). I remember reading both of them right around Christmas Eve, 1981, and the stories each hit me like a ton of bricks. Both heroes lose their lady loves: Daredevil loses Elektra, and Spidey the Black Cat. It was a blue Christmas for yours truly that year.

Characters Writing Themselves

Elektra was probably Marvel’s second most popular character (after Wolverine) when she was killed off. Think about that for a second; think about the commercial suicide of throwing away such a character. But I can understand the artistic reasons behind this choice. From the beginning, Miller made no secret of his intentions in creating Elektra. As quoted from that 1981 interview with the Journal earlier, he wanted to put Daredevil in a situation where “he was living with a contradiction in that he loved a woman and she was his enemy.” In this same interview, Miller went on to say:

MILLER: Well, the feeling I’ve been trying to get across is that she’s betrayed something. She was meant to be something better than she is…. I find what her existence does to Daredevil particularly fascinating, because it puts him in a position of having heart and head against one another.

DECKER: Can you love someone who has betrayed her own principles and stands against yours?

MILLER: And can you control your reaction? That’s another question.

DECKER: Would it tempt him to give up his principles for her sake?

MILLER: This is all stuff that I’ve tried to use. Questions I’ve tried to bring up. That’s where stories come from. I think that putting her into the book did the book quite a bit of good because it helped me define him. (“Frank Miller,” The Comics Journal #70, Jan. 1982, p 77.)

This was Miller’s thinking in terms of plot and just Daredevil’s character, not anyone else’s character. In other words, Elektra was originally created to be a prop, existing only to serve Daredevil’s characterization.

What I imagine happened next is something that happens to many writers, myself included: his characters began asserting themselves as if they had independent personalities of their own; personalities that contradicted his plot plans. In Miller’s own words: “What happened is that in the course of the first few issues that I plotted I set up a number of elements that deserved further exploration. The Kingpin, Elektra, and Bullseye became three elements that developed very quickly and I felt that I wanted to take that group somewhere.” (Peter Sanderson, “The Frank Miller/Klaus Janson Interview,” The Daredevil Chronicles, Feb. 1982, p. 17.)

In a separate interview with Richard Howell and Carol Kalish, Miller revealed:

Miller: It just occurred to me as I worked on the “Bullseye” story [Daredevil #169], for instance, that certain issues were at work here that could really define Daredevil.

Howell: You hadn’t plotted those scenes in for that purpose?

Miller: Well, I plotted them out completely, but I allowed myself enough room so that when an inspired moment came along, I have the room to turn a scene, to do a thing with a character. That whole Kingpin sequence was affected by the Bullseye story and was changed by it, by the bonds I was setting up between Daredevil and Bullseye. I’m doing a scene and something will occur to me, and I’ll put it down, and it will affect the next one—so that allows for a certain degree of spontaneity. (“An Interview with Frank Miller,” Comics Feature #14, Dec. 1981, p. 25.)

By the time we got to Daredevil #181, Miller found that the “tension” he created in the Daredevil-Elektra relationship had to reach some kind of conclusion:

She was the first woman he ever loved, which makes it difficult for him to treat her as an enemy, but he has to because she is an enemy. She’s a mercenary; she’s a killer. And he’s stuck with the problem of how to resolve his feelings toward her and his duty to bring her to justice. She has more or less the same conflict. It’s a very mixed-up love/hate relationship. But it should become clear as the storyline progresses that she’s not one of the good guys. She was introduced as a fairly ambiguous character, but I’ve been unveiling her step-by-step as one of the bad guys. It’s the kind of tension that can’t exist for too long. (Michael Catron, “Devil’s Advocate,” Amazing Heroes #4, Sept. 1981, p. 55.)

In his head, I think Miller’s original plan was that Daredevil would eventually bring in Elektra to face justice. But then as he was writing these characters and their stories, this rang more and more as a false note because DD loved her too much to do that to her. So then what? If Daredevil can’t bring Elektra in and turn her over to the proper authorities, where can we go? Well, in this scenario, Elektra would have to end up killing him, right? But no, this doesn’t ring true either—she would never kill him, she loves him. The only plausible scenario left is that the two confess their feelings to each other and run away together. Re-posing Decker’s question earlier, “Would it tempt him to give up his principles for her sake?” The answer reveals itself to be “yes.”

But this doesn’t work either. First, because it would effectively end the Daredevil comic, and we can’t have that. Second, Elektra has committed acts of violence and murder that demand a karmic payoff. She has to pay for her crimes somehow, much as Phoenix/Jean Grey did in the pages of X-Men a little more than a year earlier. And since the characters of Daredevil and Elektra can’t resolve things between themselves, an outside element— in the person of Bullseye (and to a lesser extent the Kingpin)—has to be brought in to resolve it.

As unfortunate as this was, both commercially and perhaps even personally (for Miller and certainly for me, as a reader), it was dramatically necessary.

“She’s Alive!”

“She’s Alive!” from Daredevil #182 (May 1982), continues to build the case for the characters writing themselves. Circa mid-1981, Miller told Amazing Heroes that, “This issue [Daredevil #182] is the first of several which will take DD out of the U. S. and send him on a series of globetrotting adventures, during which he will encounter several new villains.” (Michael Catron, “Devil’s Advocate,” Amazing Heroes #4, Sept. 1981, p. 55.)

But this isn’t what we got.

After telling the story of Elektra’s death through Bullseye’s point of view, Miller must have realized that he needed to get deeper into how Elektra’s death affects Matt Murdock; that failure to do so would be a gross oversight. So with this issue, he dives right into it.

It kicks off with Matt suddenly jolted awake in the middle of the night, possessed by the idea that Elektra is somehow still alive. He goes out into the night as Daredevil, rousts some underworld flunkies, then returns to the law office as Matt and has Becky read back the coroner’s report on Elektra to him. When he reveals he’s searching for clues that might prove Elektra could still be alive, Becky points out how crazy this is. Matt muses that they may have had the wrong body—just as Heather enters. And I only picked up on the potential symbolism of this line as I was typing just now.

This is the first time Heather has heard the name “Elektra.” She has no clue as to who this might be or who she is to Matt. As if this wasn’t enough, you can see by the way Matt treats her here where this relationship is headed. Though she first appeared in Daredevil #126 (Oct. 1975) and immediately assumed the position of primary love interest, Heather Glenn remained a sparse and undeveloped character, even after nearly seven years. Miller expressed interest in making better use of her in a few interviews, but obviously he never went down any such road. Yet again, whatever plans the writers may have had, the characters had other ideas.

But we’ll get back to the twists and turns of the Heather relationship later—right now, it’s all about Elektra and Matt’s inability to let her go. After chasing down every possible crazy lead, Matt ends up at the cemetery, digging up her grave. When he discovers the corpse is truly Elektra, he finally breaks. Foggy finds him there, sobbing, and offers to take him home. All Matt can bring himself to say is, “Foggy… she’s dead… I loved her, Foggy. I loved her.”

This was some powerful stuff, particularly for a kid my age at the time. After the previous issue broke my heart, this one breaks it again somehow. It didn’t help matters that my first dog Ginger died around this same time.

As an adult, I can better see all that’s going on here. Matt is wracked with guilt for failing to prevent Elektra’s death, but feels worse guilt over the fact that he never told her he loved her. In fact he wasted most of his breath on how he was going to bring her in—these were probably the last words he spoke to her.

There’s also something semi-meta going on here, as Daredevil might not know he’s a comic book character like Garry Shandling knows he’s a TV character on It’s Gary Shandling’s Show, but he does know the rules of his universe. He knows Elektra was trained as a ninja and that such superhuman characters can cheat death. He knows that supernatural forces exist and that people can even come back to life.

But not this time. No, Elektra is dead forever and she’s never coming back. The end of the issue makes this crystal clear. Matt’s going to have to make his peace with it just like us fans.

…Right?

Toxic

Miller continued to write Daredevil for ten months, though he did less penciling on the book. First, issues 183 & 184 featured re-purposed pencils from a drug-themed story that was killed by the comics code almost a year earlier. After this, Miller starting doing loose layouts and left more of the visual burden to fall on Klaus Janson’s shoulders. These were generally fine stories, with some being very light-hearted fare, including tales centered on Foggy Nelson and another featuring Turk as the Stilt-Man.

One serious development was Matt’s proposal to Heather Glenn, which took place as the cliffhanger of issue #183 (Jun. 1982). This is just one issue removed from when he almost crushed her hand. “I need you,” Matt tells her. “Only recently I’ve come to realize how much I need you.”

Note his use of the word “need” and the complete absence of the word “love.”

“There’s a hole in me,” he goes on. “A great, black hole that you could fill.”

A hole, yeah. An Elektra-shaped hole.

Heather may not be the brightest bulb in the box, but she’s smart enough to recognize that there’s something wrong here. She doesn’t respond to the proposal right away, instead throwing herself into the problems she’s having running her deceased father’s business. When she reaches out to Matt for help in this regard, it seems he’s always preoccupied with something else. After learning about the company’s criminal operations, Daredevil gathers and delivers evidence to help prosecute the company out of business. Then, as Matt Murdock, he puts together an incompetence defense to keep Heather from going to jail. Browbeaten into submission by the last page of Daredevil #186 (Sept. 1982), Heather relents at last. “All right, Matt. All right. I’ll marry you.”

They wouldn’t use such terminology at the time, but today we would call this a toxic relationship. Mature readers that have been paying attention know what’s going on here (just as Foggy Nelson seems to know), but when are Matt and/or Heather going to wake up and acknowledge it? By the time one of them does, will it be too late to prevent the obvious disaster of a bad marriage? It certainly made for compelling reading.

On the superhero side of the ledger, Daredevil runs into trouble with his hypersenses again, only this time, instead of losing them, they’re overpowering him. Exposure to a radioactive isotope has increased them to the point where a whisper becomes deafening and simple cigarette smoke is enough to choke him. Just like last time, he looks to find Stick, seeking his aid.

In the meantime, while working for S.H.I.E.L.D., Natasha Romanova, a.k.a. the Black Widow, runs afoul of the Hand and is poisoned by their tetsubishi (caltrops). We also learn the Hand is gunning for Stick as well, along with some newly-revealed compatriots of his, all of whom wear white ninja clothes. Oh yeah—and Kirigi’s back. The Hand have somehow managed to restore him to life.

It all comes together at Matt’s brownstone in issue #188 (Nov. 1982). There, Daredevil overcomes the issues with his hypersenses and is introduced to Stick’s crew of white-robed ninjas just as Natasha comes stumbling in and falls down dead, courtesy of the Hand’s poison.

If things seem to be moving a bit fast for you, buckle up, because this ride’s just getting started.

Daredevil #189 (Dec. 1982) begins with one of Stick’s men, a guy named Stone, laying hands on Natasha and bringing her back to life. Then the Hand moves in for the kill on all of them. Things are looking pretty bleak, as the good guys are badly outnumbered, but then Stick joins hands with a protégé named Shaft and they somehow drain the life of all the members of the Hand present—at the cost of their own lives, as all are blasted into nothingness. As Stone shields Daredevil and Natasha, he states, “The energies of two score human souls… could any man contain them?”

Afterward, Stone needs to meditate to regain his strength, so DD and the Widow go out to see if they can dig up any info on the Hand. After a while, they split up to cover more ground… but Natasha abandons the hunt for the Hand so she can talk to Foggy.

“I’m worried sick,” Foggy tells her. “I’ve never seen him act the way he’s been lately.” He drops Elektra’s name, filling in her history with Matt and that she died in his arms. “Since then, he’s been… well, scary!”

He goes on to relate how Matt ruined Heather’s business and bullied her into marriage. Natasha asks what they can do, and Foggy responds, “How are you at forgery?”

Cut to a scene of Heather reading a “Dear Jane” letter.

Cut to a scene of Matt with a “Dear John” letter.

Thus ends the toxic relationship between Matt Murdock and Heather Glenn.

Cut back to the brownstone with Daredevil, the Widow, and Stone. After his extended meditation, Stone has divined the Hand’s next move. After Stick’s squad offed Kirigi the previous issue and destroyed his body, the Hand’s plan is to raise another former member of their order from the dead to join them. Wouldn’t you know, there just so happens to be such a person buried right here in the city. “A mighty warrior woman indeed,” he informs them. Her name? “Elektra.”

We end with a full-page splash of the next-issue teaser.

There are certain things that set my whole body a tingle when I first saw them as a child and still manage to do so today. One is the scene from Empire where Darth Vader reveals to Luke, “I am your father.” This full-page teaser is another.

“Resurrection”

Much like her debut, this issue—Daredevil #190 (Jan. 1983), “Resurrection”—could be viewed as Elektra’s entire arc in miniature. First a flashback to Elektra’s first encounter with Stick and his order, where she attempts to climb the “wall that cannot be scaled” and fails. Though she spends a year among the “noble order,” they expel her because she remains filled with “pain and hate.” This leads her to join the Hand in an attempt to infiltrate their ranks, but in the end this only serves to further her corruption.

Back to the present day, where DD, the Widow, and Stone fail to prevent the Hand from absconding with Elektra’s body. This leads to DD asking for Kingpin’s help in discovering their hideout, and he reveals they’re hold up in an abandoned church. Our three heroes arrive to interrupt the resurrection ceremony just as it’s on the verge of completion. As they battle the Hand, DD thinks he hears Elektra’s heartbeat. This causes DD to abandon the fight and go to Elektra. Though he has no clue what to do, he did see Stone bring back the Widow and attempts to do the same with Elektra. He fails—apparently.

The Kingpin’s men then arrive, cavalry like, gunning down members of the Hand and helping DD and the Widow escape the church, which has caught fire and appears on the verge of collapse. Stone remains behind to destroy Elektra’s body to ensure the Hand can’t bring her back. As he’s about to do so, however, there’s a revelation.

“She… she is clean,” he realizes. “Somehow, in his futile attempt to revive her… he has purged her…. She is clean. And I… am weary…”

Daredevil and the Widow realize Stone is missing and run back into the church. Elektra’s body is gone. Natasha notices Stone’s empty robes, but tosses them into the fire, saying nothing to DD, who assumes Stone destroyed Elektra’s body and left. The two then exit.

Epilogue: “He must never know,” the narration informs us. “He must seek his own destiny, live the life he knows– and perhaps, in time, forget her. She seeks a destiny of her own.”

A figure scales the wall of a great mountain—“a wall that cannot be scaled.” Yet the figure does scale the wall. Upon, reaching the mountaintop, our figure stands revealed.

Thus we end on another full-body-tingling, full-page splash.

…Shut up! I’m not crying; you’re crying!

Sweet Lord, this was just so beautiful. No matter how many times I’ve read it, I remain deeply moved by it every time I go back and read it again. Every. Single. Time.

NEXT: Tidying Up

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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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