Mourning Becomes Miller’s Elektra

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Tidying Up

Frank Miller had one more issue in this particular run. As much as ending on that last issue would have been perfect, #191, “Roulette,” is still a damn fine tale, as DD plays a dramatic game of Russian Roulette with a paralyzed Bullseye. There’s no Elektra here, but she does cast a shadow over the proceedings. She’s the reason Daredevil is pointing that gun at Bullseye’s head, as it’s clear her loss remains an open wound for DD and probably always will be. The story is also a commentary on how kids are affected by the violence they’re exposed to, and leaves the reader with a lot to think about.

Prior to this, Miller did offer fans a rather special gift in the pages of What If? #35 (Oct. 1982), “What If Elektra Had Lived?” The answer to this question is almost precisely what I speculated it would be, earlier—she and Matt run away together and (possibly) live happily ever after.

This new reality breaks off from ours when Bullseye is killed during his attempted escape from prison. Without him, Elektra refuses to kill Foggy just as she did in our reality, but now has to face the consequences for failing the Kingpin. After barely surviving an encounter with Eric Slaughter’s crew, she shows up at Matt’s brownstone, echoing the events of our own reality.

Just as I speculated, he can’t bring her in.

The two end up “half a world away”—Elektra’s native land of Greece, perhaps?—happy and together.

What If? had this nasty habit of giving us awful endings, as if to send the message to Marvel fans that any alternate endings to the stories they gave us had to be much worse than what we actually got. But Miller, refreshingly, bucked the trend and gave us the happy ending every fan had been rooting for. Yeah, it wasn’t “real,” but it still offered some solace prior to the joyous triumph of “Resurrection.”

Millermania

In The Comics Journal #81 (May 1983), R. Fiore’s review section, “Funnybook Roulette,” opened thusly:

In response to many, many requests, the editors of The Comics Journal, in conjunction with the Semantics Department of the University of Pennsylvania at Germantown, have synthesized a Journal article without a single reference to Fr*nk M*ll*r. The project was given added impetus by the Midwest outbreak of M*ll*rphobia, a syndrome marked by screaming fits whenever the name is seen in print. The professors would like to emphasize that M*ll*rlalia is a disease and should he treated as such. In advanced cases victims tend to gravitate toward long rooms with louvered windows, disused warehouses, and the roofs of pre-war tenements, and can fully recover from impalement through the midsection within a month. (p. 25.)

Fiore proceeded to offer (fairly) calm and measured reviews of Obnoxio the Clown vs. The X-Men #1, Strange Brew #1, U.S. 1 #1, Camelot 3000 #4, Scorpio Rose #1, and Amethyst #1, before finishing with a review of Fantagraphics’s own Hugo #1. Before he could complete this review, however, Fiore suffered a breakdown as “Millerlalia” appeared to have claimed another victim.

The basic situation has the kind of simplicity that sugg I CAN’T STAND IT! Frank Miller Frank Miller FRANK MILLER! Frank! Frank! Frank! Miller! Miller! Miller! You can’t expect me to give it up just like that! You don’t know what it’s like! Here, just let me write a little about the influence of martial—

At this point the experiment was suspended as a failure, and Fiore was taken to County USC Medical Center for observation. Frankly, (beg pardon) specialists are unsure what course to take next. Some have suggested a kind of Miller Methadone program, in which the participants would not be allowed to mention the artist in question, but would be allowed four references per article to Will Eisner or Harvey Kurtzman. Most doctors, however, maintain that this is just substituting one addiction for another, and insist on a search for a full cure. For the time being, our only course is to ask an already burdened public for forebearance. (p. 27.)

The fact that Fiore cut short a review of a Fantagraphics book to indulge in this silliness just might have been a tweak of Gary Groth.

This was the spring of 1983 and Miller hadn’t had any work published in nearly half a year. The last issue of his initial Daredevil run, the aforementioned #191, with its Feb. 1983 cover date, was released in the late fall of ‘82. The Wolverine limited series Miller did with Chris Claremont had cover dates ranging from Sept.-Dec. 1982, and that issue of What If? came out around the same time, summer of ‘82.

Miller had taken this time to work on Ronin, a six-issue prestige series for DC that would be released in drips and drabs across fourteen pub months, from July of ‘83 to August of ‘84. Then Miller would disappear for several more months as he worked on a handful of Daredevil related projects and one big Batman project. (I’ll let you guess which one the latter was.)

So Miller withdrawal would continue to some degree or other for another year or so after. The effects of this syndrome would manifest itself on the comic book business in some incredible and startling ways.

“Black and White and Dead All Over”

Ever hear of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? Well of course you have—for a time, they were the hottest creative property on Earth. But do you know how they got their start? They started out as a comic book in 1984; a comic that was really just a cheap joke, inspired by Frank Miller comics.

Much of this comedy was ridiculously obvious. Miller’s Daredevil had a mentor named Stick; the turtles had Splinter. Daredevil fought the Hand; the turtles fought the Foot. Their origin, with the kid saving the blind guy from the truck—that was taken directly from DD’s origin. Even the cover of their first issue was a riff on the cover of Miller’s first issue of Ronin.

Covers to the first issues of both Ronin and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Like I said, the whole project was just a goof. The first issue (and I’m not sure there was even serious consideration when they started out that there would be any further issues beyond the one) was printed on the cheap, in black and white, and had a very low print run. Then insanity struck. This silly comic with the goofy name blew up beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. That first issue went back for a second, third, fourth, fifth, even a sixth printing, demand was so high. And if you were lucky enough to have picked up a copy from that first printing, it was worth a relative fortune.

Now… you ever hear about the black-and-white boom of 1986? How about the black-and-white bust of 1986? Well, if you’ve heard of one, you’ve heard of the other, because they’re actually the same thing. What happened was that the market went so Ninja Turtles crazy that almost every other comics publisher tried to publish a knock-off. And here’s where the story gets beyond insane, because you know what happened next? These cheap knock-offs (of a comic that was never intended to be anything more than a joke itself), their sales went through the roof too. And when I call these things cheap knock-offs, I’m not exaggerating. Just look at some of the titles:

Adolescent Radioactive Black Belt Hamsters

Pre-Teen Dirty-Gene Kung Fu Kangaroos

Mildly Microwaved Pre-Pubescent Kung Fu Gophers

Geriatric Gangrene Jujitsu Gerbils

Adult Thermonuclear Samurai Pachyderms

Cold Blooded Chameleon Commandos

Naive Inter-Dimensional Commando Koalas

…All of which led to the inevitable:

Boris the Bear Slaughters the Teenage Radioactive Black Belt Mutant Ninja Critters

I know there are people out there who will not believe what I just wrote, but I swear to you, all these titles are real. All were printed cheap, in black and white, and marked with inflated cover prices. Nearly all of them were first published in or around 1986, and people were gobbling them up like mad. I’ll confess I was one of them, however briefly. I bought that first issue of Adolescent Radioactive Black Belt Hamsters and it was one of the worst comics I’d ever seen. Thankfully, I had the good sense to stop there.

Gary Groth covered all this in a scathing editorial titled “Black and White and Dead All Over” in The Comics Journal #116 (Jul. 1987):

The most plausible theory I’ve heard is that speculators, a notoriously slimy lot, realized that the press run of black-and-white comics was consistently smaller than that of color comics. Since the market value of a comic is at least partly based upon its scarcity, it followed that a comic that printed 10,000 to 15,000 copies will be scarcer than a (color) comic that prints 100,000 to 200,000. So speculators descended upon black-and-white comics, previously anathema to speculators because of their minority status, and started buying multiple copies. Multiple copies may mean three copies of a title or 300. No one knows. This probably took place in the late spring of ‘86. A few comics achieved a success similar to that of the Turtle Boys (Fish Police, for instance).

Here’s where it gets interesting and where motivational greed will eventually have to backfire. The speculators’ scheme was to buy up huge quantities of black-and-whites because there were fewer copies of a black-and-white comic printed than that of a color comic. But, if the speculators themselves were driving up the print runs, from 10,000 or 15,000 to 50,000 or 100,000, they were cutting their own throats because the audience for black-and-whites was never that large to begin with and it wasn’t likely the audience would grow exponentially just because a gang of speculators started buying up tons of the stuff.

This only goes so far in explaining why any configuration of ink on paper, placed between two irrelevant covers and badly printed in black-and-white, would sell. If a relatively small gang of speculators had instigated this lunacy, reason would tell us that it couldn’t last; they would wise up and slow down their purchasing, or get into some other line of exploitation—become arbitragists or something. But, the boom not only continued, it skyrocketed. Here’s where the consensus theory ends and the Groth Theory begins.

At some point during the speculator frenzy, some weird, inexplicable consumer contagion took over, and buying black-and-whites, for whatever deranged and irrational reasons, became something of a fad. So your average fan got hooked on the idea of buying B&W comics, collecting for no other reason than they were collectable—not unlike collecting seashells, except that there were more B&W comics than seashells on any sea shore. (Gary Groth, “Black and White and Dead All Over,” The Comics Journal #116, Jul. 1987, p. 8.)

Groth noted that beyond the collapse of the B&W market, a “ripple was felt in the market for color comics and other formats, too.” Overall, from December of 1986 through April of ‘87, “publishers have reported a drop in sales from 15 to 50 percent across the board.”

This was the first economic collapse of the direct-sales comics market. There have been a few more since, but this was the first, and it all goes back to the market’s seemingly bottomless appetite for Frank Miller-style comics.

The Elektra Saga

DECKER: There have been comments that the book has become Elektra, Co-Starring Daredevil.

MILLER: The reaction has generally been very good to that, as far as I’ve been able to tell. Still, even if she were to appear for 19 pages out of the 22 in the book, her character is of interest only as she relates to him. On her own, she couldn’t support a feature.

DECKER: But you did do an Elektra solo story for Bizarre Adventures.

MILLER: Yeah, and if you’ll notice. I kept it very, very simple. It was mainly a storytelling exercise for me. It was an exercise in several ways. I wanted to do a story without any thought balloons or captions. It was also a way to make use of techniques I’d absorbed while going over Japanese samurai comics. (“Frank Miller,” The Comics Journal #70, Jan. 1982, p 77.)

This is what Miller told the Journal in ‘81. Three years later, he clearly changed his mind, as Miller devotees got this one tiny morsel to chew on in the early winter of 1984: The Elektra Saga. In the words of Miller’s editor, Denny O’Neil, from the inside back cover of The Elektra Saga #4 (May 1984): “Frank convinced me that he could extract the Elektra story from the larger continuity it was embedded in and, with some additions and a little rewriting and a lot of restructuring, it would stand by itself. The four volumes of The Elektra Saga—this is the last of them—prove Frank right.”

It was a four-issue series, 48 pages per issue, high-grade paper, no ads, reprinting all of the Elektra material from Daredevil in chronological order. The only thing missing was that brief interlude where she broke into Matt’s apartment in DD #169: otherwise all of Elektra’s appearance are collected here, including her tale from Bizarre Adventures #28 (Oct. 1981), along with five pages of all-new material detailing her break from the Hand in the first issue of the series. (This section also revealed the roots of the enmity between Elektra and her old jonin—essentially, it centered on sexual harassment in the ninja workplace.)

There was also one other slight addition. When reprinting the material from “Spiked!” (DD #179), Miller adds this triptych to the bottom of that scene where Urich is stabbed:

So for those of you still wondering how Urich could have survived, there’s your answer: Elektra saved him. Demonstrating yet again that she was never completely evil.

From this point forward, Miller’s got three more Elektra projects in him, most of which have little to do with character as we previously knew her—particularly so with the final one.

Elektra: Assassin

The eight-issue Epic limited series Elektra: Assassin was released over the course of the last eight to nine months of 1986. Written by Miller with art by Bill Sienkiewicz, it’s something of a surrealist tale, with an almost Dada-esque interpretation of Elektra. Set in her past, in that time between breaking with the Hand and reuniting with Daredevil in New York, there’s very little mention of Matt Murdock and nothing of Daredevil. One such instance where Matt’s name is invoked, however, still proves revealing.

In Elektra: Assassin #4 (Nov. 1986), Elektra is going to pull a ninja mind-swap with this nineteen-year-old girl named Sandy who’s a hopeless, sappy romantic, “filled with this wish” for love. This initially startles Elektra, but then she steels herself. “No,” she tells herself. “I am no college girl. The past is dead. You will not defeat me, Matt. I am not afraid. Not of Matt and the childish thing we shared. Not of this stupid girl and her stupid wish.”

Naturally, Sandy’s youthful passion eventually overwhelms her. Matt remains Elektra’s one soft spot—then, now, and forever.

In discussing this series, Miller observed: “I think that’s what makes her a painful character. There’s no way you can condone what she does in any given story. But there is an underlying nobility. She’s not as rotten as she wishes she was.” (Peter Sanderson, “Elektra Assassin,” Amazing Heroes #99, Jul. 15, 1986, p. 31.)

There’s also another useful revelation early on in the first issue of the series: Elektra’s mother was shot by terrorists very late in her pregnancy, leaving Elektra to enter this world from the womb of a dead woman. This explains why Elektra’s father was so paranoid about terrorists; and also why father and daughter clung to each other so fervently.

Elektra Lives Again

You cannot imagine my anticipation for this project prior to its release in 1990; nor can you imagine my disappointment upon reading it. Much as with Elektra: Assassin, Elektra Lives Again has an air of unreality running through it. Miller described the tale as “unearthly,” an “exotic, horrific, dark romance,” a “ghost story,” and a “nightmare love story” that “scared” him. (Peter Sanderson, “A Frank Miller Triptych,” Amazing Heroes #69, Apr. 15, 1985, pp. 19-20.)

A page from Elektra Lives Again.

Despite the title, the story is all about Matt Murdock. In a paradoxical shift from that initial Daredevil run, Elektra is rendered the prop she was originally intended to be when Miller first introduced her. In a project named for her, she essentially does not exist as a character of her own.

I was anticipating a joyous reunion between Matt and Elektra, a couple I had rooted for and ‘shipped for nine years at that point, but the two barely interact before Elektra’s murdered by Bullseye YET AGAIN and dies in Matt’s arms YET AGAIN, with an all-too perfunctory “goodbye.” In fact this is the only word we hear her speak in the whole book. It was a very different flavor of heartbreak for me compared to the last time I watched her die.

It begs the question: Why? Why would you bring Elektra back just to tell the exact same story as “Last Hand”?

And was this story even real? Or was it all just a nightmare of Matt Murdock’s? I’m not even sure. (It was certainly never in continuity, as Bullseye is killed here, yet remained very much alive in the mainstream Marvel Universe.)

One thing that is certainly worthy of praise is the art. Miller did full pencils with painted finishes by Lynn Varley and it’s breathtakingly beautiful. I just wish such artistic effort hadn’t proved itself so damn pointless in story terms.

Daredevil: The Man Without Fear

Now we reach the point where it all went off the rails completely.

A page from Miller & Romita Jr.’s Man Without Fear.

The 1993-94 miniseries Daredevil: The Man Without Fear, written by Miller and penciled by John Romita Jr., retconned Elektra into always having been a psychopath. From the moment they first meet in college, she’s committing random acts of violence and pointlessly risking both her own life and Matt’s just for kicks. It was a true retcon in the more contemporary sense of the term, erasing what had gone before and replacing it with something else.

Suffice it to say, this was horrifying.

As Paul Young put it in Frank Miller’s Daredevil and the Ends of Heroism: “This later incarnation of Elektra was not the demure, trusting persona that dies along with her father. Instead, she begins The Man Without Fear as an Amazon, bounding around Manhattan from building to building wearing a maniacal grin, nearly killing people just for the thrill of it, while Matt, mesmerized by her prowess, mostly goes along for the ride.” (p. 110.)

The original Elektra stories formed a classic character arc of perfect beauty. What Miller did in Man Without Fear went beyond merely tampering with this arc and lessening it; he annihilated it, leaving no arc of any kind. It’s literally just a flat line now—she starts out irredeemably evil and finishes irredeemably evil; the end. What the hell?

The worst part of it all is that this appears to have become canon now. The Elektra with that perfect character arc no longer exists in Marvel’s history. Talk about a waste. And Miller did this to his own work.

Once more, the question is begged, “Why?”

One can only speculate. Miller created Elektra under the then-standard, work-for-hire system that gave Marvel full ownership of the character, so is it possible that Miller wanted to destroy his own work, consciously or unconsciously, since he wasn’t allowed to own it himself anyway? I don’t know. But there are times when this explanation is the only one that seems to make any sense at all.

Other Versions

Man Without Fear has proven to be, at least to this point, Frank Miller’s last dance with his creation, Elektra. Unsurprisingly, Marvel hasn’t let that stop them from continuing to try and milk the character.

She returned to the pages of Daredevil in the early to mid-90s for a very brief run, then spun off into her own series multiple times in 1996, 2001, 2004, and 2017. There was also a version of her in the “Ultimate” line. None of these portrayals ever really aligned with the original Miller version.

A version of Elektra showed up in the Affleck Daredevil film in 2003, but again, this was not our Elektra. As I’ve discussed on this blog before, I always felt that Jennifer Garner was miscast as the character—not that Garner is a bad actress, she just wasn’t a fit as Elektra. The story also messed things up by having Elektra meet Matt during the film, rather than having them be the lost loves of each other’s youth.

They got the casting right for the Netflix series, as Elodie Yung was an excellent fit, but this was clearly the Man Without Fear version of the character, not the true Elektra.

In a 1986 interview with Amazing Heroes, Frank Miller said, “I’m a believer in magic in real life. People are capable of amazing and wonderful things, few of us consistently. I have seen moments of pure magic in people. In heroic fantasy, you try to consolidate those little moments of magic that happen in real life into a character who represents all of them, who is magical.” (Peter Sanderson, “Dark Knight Revisited,” Amazing Heroes #102, Sept. 1, 1986, p. 33.)

Elektra was certainly one of those magical characters. Maybe that magic was simply never meant to last forever.

All You Need Is Love

One of the dead end side roads Groth went down in that article from TCJ #71 was becoming preoccupied with moral ambiguity, particularly as it related to Daredevil’s reverence for the law versus Elektra’s disdain for the law, as if this was the main point of the original Elektra storyline. Now granted, it was one of the themes Miller was playing with, and probably the primary theme Miller was aiming for when he started, but then the story clearly took a turn at some point early on and became about something else entirely. And Groth never so much as touched on this something else in his review.

Students of literature will sometimes find that an author might have intended to write a very different story from the on he or she has just read, and perhaps such is the case with me here. Regardless of whether it was Miller’s intention or not, the original Elektra arc was, for me, all about love. I know it’s cliché and maudlin and, for some people, stupid, but even now, going back and re-reading it all these years later, it’s still all I see. It’s still all about love. About how love can be terrifying. About how love can be dangerous. About how love can make you stupid; drive you mad. About how the more you love someone, the more power you give them to hurt you.

And how even in the midst of all this, the worst thing you could do would be to push love away.

Serendipitously enough, just as I started work on this post, Emily VanDerWerff, a trans woman, posted a column reflecting on her old Community reviews during the Golden Age of The A.V. Club. With the benefit of hindsight, she saw that much of what she wrote in those reviews was really about herself:

I remember badly wanting to be somebody else but not knowing how to say that. That quote above is not about Community; it’s about gender dysphoria. But I just realized that a few days ago when it swam up into my vision again.

Now I find myself asking what’s really in my heart while I’m putting this blogpost together. Am I projecting too much of myself onto Elektra’s story? Too much of my own wishes and beliefs and desires?

Maybe.

But if you go back to the beginning of this blogpost and read it all over again, I’m confident you’ll find I make a strong case for the validity of my interpretation.

The Mountaintop

I don’t know how long it had been since I last read the entirety of the original Elektra arc, but it was probably a significant length of time. In revisiting it now, a lot of emotions came back to me rather forcefully, none stronger than how much I miss the true Elektra. She’s still up there, resurrected and redeemed, on that mountaintop, and has remained unmoved from that spot since 1982. Thirty-eight years and counting. I’m still waiting for her descend from that divine summit and return—to both Matt and to us.

 

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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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