It never helps when a comic begins with a scene so foolish that the reader can't help but silently scream, "really?!?"
Not "really?!?" as in "I can't believe he's trying to pull that off, because that is such a dangerous, brilliant idea!" but "really?!?" as in "wow, that's not a great way to start this particular comic at all…"
Because while this first issue (of a five-part series) depends upon Elektra being strapped into H.A.M.M.E.R. restraints just so she can inevitably break out and cut a swath through the agents who kept her there, it needs to get her into that situation in the first place.
And here's how Zeb Wells does it: First, Elektra staggers out of the Skrull ship after the events shown in the finale of "Secret Invasion," then a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent says to her, and I'll quote this exactly, because this is the silly part, "Excuse me, Ma'am? No need to be skittish. The fight's over."
Keep in mind, this "ma'am" he's talking to is dressed like Elektra, whose exposure as a Skrull started this whole Secret Invasion business, so you'd think he'd have been briefed about her a bit in his training as a, you know, S.H.I.E.L.D. agent. And then there was that time not so long ago when she worked with S.H.I.E.L.D. in Mark Millar's "Wolverine: Enemy of the State" and was killed and resurrected and…
Well, you'd think this agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. would know that Elektra is one of the deadliest assassins on the planet and she's not just some old lady who needs a hug. But because Wells doesn't give him enough of a brain to realize who he's dealing with, we get a fight and a collapse and pretty soon Elektra is in the hands of the government, locked up and tortured because Norman Osborn really needs to find out how those Skrulls did what they did.
The story gets better from there, and if we excuse the ridiculous opening as just an example of the incompetent hiring practices of S.H.I.E.L.D. (no wonder Obama got rid of Tony Stark in a New York minute), then the story becomes not a question of whether Elektra will escape from her imprisonment, but when.
Unfortunately, this story is structured in a way that recalls a far better story, recently released in a budget-priced reprint. In Alan Moore, Steve Bissette, and John Totleben's "The Anatomy Lesson," from "Saga of the Swamp Thing" #21, we get a haunting sense of dread as the creature thought captured and stored away slowly begins to fight back against its captors. Now it's not exactly fair to compare this Elektra comic to "The Anatomy Lesson" -- almost every single issue ever published pales in comparison to that classic comic book story -- but the parallels between the two issues pit them against each other. And at almost every step, "Dark Reign: Elektra" #1 shows its deficiencies. Norman Osborn lacks the four-color tragic life of Moore's Jason Woodrue, and even when Wells brings Paladin into the mix, it's not enough to save the story. Paladin is given more characterization here than in all of Andy Diggle's "Thunderbolts" issues so far, which is nice, but the way he's dispatched is more laughable than inventive.
And none of this is helped by Clay Mann's artwork, which alternates between post-Michael Lark gritty realism and thin backgrounds and awkward character work that looks like it came from an issue of Malibu's "The Ferret," circa 1993. It doesn't really matter why the art looks this way -- perhaps he completed some pages in more of a hurry than others, or maybe he used reference for some panels and not for others -- but it does matter that the art is jarringly inconsistent and often ineffective at giving this story any kind of visual weight.
I won't spoil the ending for you, but it certainly finishes a lot stronger than it starts. It may yet turn into a series worth reading, but that all depends on how much Mann's art improves and how many ridiculous contrivances Wells abandons along the way.
(Check out CBR's preview of this issue to see Clay Mann's art is more to your liking.)