Frank Miller & Lynn Varley
Yes, I understand that I'm about ten years too late for this party, but I was inspired to pick this up at a used bookstore after reading David Brothers's excellent Frank Miller pieces on 4th Letter. Say what you will about Frank Miller (I'm sure some variations on "racist" or "misogynistic" are included in there), but the man has had a long career filled with A LOT of comics that have done a significant amount of work to move comics forward (and also set it back, sure). His work can't be ignored.
Anyway, I was pleasantly surprised with this book. Miller's work with Elektra is very well-regarded, and much different from the "whores whores whores" kind of mentality that's been so commonly associated with Miller in the past few years. What we’ve got here is about seventy-five pages of watching a man work through the grieving process. Elektra is dead, and Matt Murdock is having a hard time sleeping. He’s being kept up by dreams of his assassin girlfriend being chased down and killed by the ghosts of everyone she’s ever murdered. In order to deal with it, Matt goes down all the dead end roads of calling an ex-girlfriend, working out, confession, and general brooding. One morning after having coerced grievance/pity sex out of a client (just another, more unethical, dead end road), Matt wanders over to Elektra’s grave, and because this is comics, he gets attacked by a group of ninjas demanding he tell them where Elektra is. Before he can even think to be like, “Did you even read that issue where Bullseye stabbed her through the chest with her own sai?” Matt has to defend himself from a ninja assault. Which he does, because he’s Daredevil, and beating up ninjas is kind of his thing. Captain America has Nazis, Spider-Man has muggers, Thor has frost giants – Daredevil has ninjas. The battle’s in full swing, and Matt’s probably just happy to have a problem he can hit when Elektra explodes out of her own grave, killing something like at least thirteen ninjas in the space of about seven panels before she stares down Matt and knocks him out with a poison throwing star.
Let’s take a second to appreciate the art here. One thing I love about Frank Miller’s art is that it’s so heavy and bold. Everyone looks like a physically strong person. Miller makes everyone look just the right combination of ugly and hard, but it works for the characters and the stories he puts them in. One thing that is especially good in this book is how big and open the art feels. Elektra Lives Again is mostly composed of very large, wide panels, giving Miller’s art some space to breath, allowing for some very beautiful scenery. The pages where he chooses to use many smaller panels are perfect for those pages where Matt is alone, crowded by his own thoughts, the many small panels reflecting Matt’s immersion and entrapment in the space of his own introspection. Miller is incredibly skilled at using his panel layouts to best reflect the pacing of his stories, and this panel where Matt and Elektra see each other for the first time since her death is a perfect example of Miller’s great sense of rhythm and pacing. The previous seven pages are set at two panels each, creating a very steadily paced action sequence. Each panel is a steady beat of Matt’s heart as we see the violent snapshots between Matt’s controlled heartbeats. When this panel comes up on the eighth page of the scene, there are no borders, meaning this panel is meant to be big, something that will force the reader to stop and breath it all in. Matt sees Elektra, and his heart stops cold. His reflexes are quick though, so it doesn’t take him an entire page to get back into it. Within the space of the same page, Matt’s regained his footing, and we’re back into it with four quick panels, four quick little heartbeats, bringing the action to an abrupt halt with the help of a poison throwing star. It’s a thoughtful layout that really works to pull you in deeper to Matt’s confused and grieving mind.
And this is where the comicbook does what all good comicbooks do – this is where Frank Miller uses the art of the superhero story to present a hyperbolic look into our own lives. The best superhero comicbooks are the ones in which we see ourselves. We see our heroes, idealized and exaggerated versions of ourselves or at least who we want to be, tackling our own problems and our own emotions that have manifested themselves on the comicbook page as alien invasions, tyrant gods, and resurrected ninja ex-girlfriends. Elektra Lives Again is a story about facing the pain and the grief of loss, and this is where it comes out to face our hero.
Except at this point, Miller’s been at it for a while, and subversion is a fine tool at his disposal. This is not to be confused with subtlety, which is a tool that Miller may have lost at the bottom of his toolbox since forever, but if there’s a place where a lack of subtlety is at least a little bit acceptable, it has to be superhero comicbooks, right? What sets apart Elektra Lives Again from all those other hyperbolized confrontations on the comicbook page is that while Miller does give a tangible form to the confrontation of grief and loss in the form of a resurrected Elektra, it’s not something that Matt can flip around and billy-club into submission. This is because Matt is never really let in on the more fantastic, comicbook-y elements of this particular story. Elektra is back from the dead, she’s being hunted by The Hand, and Bullseye is killed and resurrected to be more powerful than ever, but for all his determined bluster and skill with a billy club, Matt Murdock is set apart from the inner workings of the mysticism centered around Elektra’s resurrection, and he doesn’t get a lot of answers. Sure, we get some hints as to why all of this resurrection and murder is happening, and Matt has to deal with some ninjas trying to kill him, but the central conflict exists between Elektra and The Hand – Matt is just an incidental inconvenience. However, because Matt is the main character that we are following around, the last half of the story is not about Elektra vs. The Hand, but rather it is still about Matt’s dealing with the pain of losing Elektra, although now with the added element of unanswered questions about how and why Elektra is back. Matt’s futile investigation and bath tub introspection about Elektra’s resurrection acts as a version of our own search for meaning behind our own pains of loss, be it from losing a loved one or a relationship ending.
By the end of the book, we have a big Elektra vs. Bullseye rematch that doesn’t end well for either party, and as Matt looks into Elektra’s eyes as she once again dies in his arms, we realize along with Matt that the only way to deal with grief and loss is to move on. It’s difficult to say goodbye, but it’s something that must be done if Matt is ever to continue his life. When Elektra says goodbye before dying, we get Matt’s pain and acceptance of letting go, and maybe further, we see Frank Miller saying goodbye to his time writing Elektra. He’d created a great character and he’d told some great stories, but it was time to move on and make something new. His determination to push his art further and his willingness to lay his bare emotions on the page are why, even if I may not much care for certain items in his catalogue of work, I will always have respect for Frank Miller.