When Words Collide: Frank Miller's Long Goodbye: "Elektra Lives Again"

Mon, December 2nd, 2013 at 2:58pm PST | Updated: December 2nd, 2013 at 2:58pm

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

FRANK MILLER'S LONG GOODBYE: ELEKTRA LIVES AGAIN

Elektra Natchios only lived for a little over a year, from her first appearance in 1981's "Daredevil" #168 until her death in 1982's "Daredevil" #181. But she made an impact. Maybe the character would have mattered just as much -- or even more -- if Marvel didn't insist on bringing her back in dozen of different reappearances and short-lived mostly-terrible comic book series and turning her into a property that would eventually spawn a nearly unwatchable Jennifer Garner movie, but it's impossible to know. Because Marvel wouldn't let the character stay dead. The company wouldn't let her rest. Even though, like Bucky Barnes or Gwen Stacy, Elektra's most essential character trait was her tragic death.

But Frank Miller, her creator, had one final chance to say goodbye to the character he once knew.

1990's "Elektra Lives Again" -- a hardcover graphic novel written and drawn by Frank Miller and painted by Lynn Varley -- was Miller's farewell to the character and it's an unusual book for a whole bunch of reasons: (a) it was published by Marvel's Epic imprint even though it's part of Miller's superhero saga begun in the monthly "Daredevil" comic book series, (b) the dusty, textured painted colors by Lynn Varley look like nothing else she's done before or since, (c) Miller brings Elektra back only to kill her off yet again in a hyper-symbolic-but-amplified replay of her first death scene, (d) unlike "Dark Knight Returns," Miller inks this story himself, and (e) out of all his major works, "Elektra Lives Again" is the book Miller talks about the least. There aren't any significant interviews with Miller since the book's release where he says anything substantial about this project.

And yet, "Elektra Lives Again" is important in the way that transitional comics often are -- its release positions it between "Dark Knight Returns" and "Sin City" in terms of comics written-and-drawn-by-Frank-Miller. And Frank Miller was a pretty big deal in those days, maybe the biggest deal in comics. It would be hard to argue otherwise, if you limited yourselves to guys who could write and draw their own projects and find success both in comic shops and in the beginnings of what would become the bookstore market for graphic novels. That's an exclusive club with a membership, in 1990, of Frank Miller and maybe no one else.

So what's the deal with "Elektra Lives Again"? Why doesn't Frank Miller talk about it in any detail? Why is it mostly overlooked by comics readers? Is it even any good?

The deal, as far as I can tell is, "Elektra Lives Again" was written and drawn as Miller was finishing up his first "Daredevil" run, around the same time as he was working on "Dark Knight Returns." Fanzines and in-house publicity at the time seem to indicate a planned mid-1980s release for "Elektra Lives Again." There was a sense, back in those days, that Miller's Batman series and his Elektra project were both coming out around the same time. That chronology fits with some of the plot details of "Elektra Lives Again." If it were written before Miller returned to the "Daredevil" series for "Born Again" in 1986, that explains why Karen Page is still in Los Angeles in the Elektra book and why Matt Murdock still has his nice fancy apartment. The Kingpin hadn't yet blown it all to bits.

The most Miller of Miller-drawn pages?

"Elektra Lives Again" also shares a visual aesthetic with "Dark Knight Returns," though Miller's own inking in the Elektra book pushes it closer to the starkness of "Sin City" than the scratchy roughness of the Klaus Janson lines of old Batman-vs.-Joker-punk-gangs. The Elektra volume is a bit more "designy," with European-style background details through which figures move as if staggering forward through time and a specific fascination with old world architecture and silhouettes contrasted with brightly colored panels of stained glass. But many of the "Dark Knight Returns" visual tropes are present here: the rhythmic patterning of small panels contrasted with large, nearly-full page spectacles; the noir-esque verticals of black that signify partially opened blinds and a troubled soul; the inset television monitors as exposition; and, of course, the iconic poses of mythic heroes in impossible action. That last trope is nothing unique to Frank Miller but he does it with his own distinctive flourishes.

There's one scene -- featuring a series of half-page panels depicting Matt Murdock and Elektra battling ninjas in a snowy graveyard -- that seems to have influenced the entirety of the Brian Michael Bendis/Rob Haynes "Daredevil: Ninja" miniseries of the early 2001s and the Kaare Andrews pastiche of Frank Miller in 2006's "Spider-Man: Reign" is almost exactly the Frank Miller we see in the fight scenes of "Elektra Lives Again."

In other words, this graphic novel is probably the most Frank Miller-esque of all the Daredevil books, even if he's better known for a bunch of not-as-well-drawn issues of the ongoing series from years earlier.

So why doesn't Miller talk about it much at all, and why is it not placed higher in the Miller pantheon by readers?

Possibly because of the story, which is a melancholy tone poem of loss and suffering, and probably because Miller doesn't want to talk about Elektra anymore and so he doesn't. That's just a guess, but there's certainly something important in the betrayal Miller must have felt when he was promised that Elektra wouldn't be used in the Marvel universe except when Miller was ready to return to the character, and then the news that Marvel was going to use Elektra regardless of what some of the editors may have promised in previous years. "Elektra Lives Again," possibly meant as a cathartic epilogue for a character Miller birthed into the world instead became a tombstone in a neighborhood tainted with memories of broken promises and fractured relationships.

None of that means that "Elektra Lives Again" should have any of the same kind of baggage for readers. It's easy enough to forget every non-Frank Miller Elektra story, since most of them aren't worth reading (are any of them worth reading? ), and even if "Daredevil: Born Again" is more honestly Frank Miller's coda on the character of Matt Murdock and his world, then "Elektra Lives Again" can be seen as a fascinating experiment in storytelling within a closed universe where grief is symbolized by punching the heavy bag and murdering ninjas in self-defense.

The trouble with the story, and maybe one of the reasons it isn't heralded as a Miller masterpiece, is its dream-like quality. The book begins with a mournful Matt Murdock dreaming about Elektra -- first in reference to the Elektra-resurrected-in-white image that Frank Miller included back in "Daredevil" #190, though Murdock wouldn't have seen that image at the time, so his dreaming just reinforces the question "did she come back to life, or was that a dream sequence?" -- then other dream images appear in the graphic novel, with Murdock imagining Elektra chained and running for her freedom, chased by those she killed years before. Then she's naked with a crown of blades and snakes enveloping her body. Then she's chased by police, just as she was chased by her victims.

"Elektra Lives Again" is recursive storytelling, with Miller alluding to past events but also repeating visual patterns and narrative moments with different nightmarish interpretations.

It's not a straightforward superhero tale, as Matt Murdock spirals into despair and confusion, wondering if Elektra is really alive or if he can finally let her memory rest in peace.

Ultimately, the book continues in that vein, with plenty of incredible-looking pages –Lynn Varley's painted colors give almost everything the appearance of wood and stone, even the human figures, and I think the lack of bright colors hurts the immediate appeal of "Elektra Lives Again," even if the palette matches the themes of the somber story -- and it's half revenge fantasy with the yes-she's-resurrected Elektra getting back at Bullseye in the most lethal way possible, and half-Boschian-nightmare-of-pleasure-and-pain as Matt Murdock reunites with his beloved only to lose her again, as she dies in his arms.

Or, more specifically, as she dies in his arms while dressed all in white in a nun's habit.

It's symbolism, friends, and the book is filled with Catholic overtones and the trials of Matt Murdock's tortured soul. But he lets her go, realizing not the she had been haunting him, but that he had been haunting her. Miller gives Matt Murdock the agency to move on and live without Elektra in his life.

And maybe Miller gave himself that freedom as well. And maybe that's all there is to it.

Though what's left behind is a gnarled, beautiful piece of work. Imperfect, troubled, but not lacking in ambition. Isn't that just about right for an Elektra story by Frank Miller?

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

TAGS:  when words collide, frank miller, marvel comics, daredevil, elektra lives again, elektra

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