Elektra: Assassin (Epic Comics, 1986-87)
Writer: Frank Miller
Artist: Bill Sienkiewicz
The usual order of relations between writer and artist in comic books runs something like, “Here’s fifty bucks, now draw this, monkey.” And that’s where it ends. But sometimes, that rarest of sometimes, artist and writer fall into a creative feedback loop whereby the work of each challenges the other to figure out new ways of pushing the boundaries of their storytelling craft. We comic readers live for that dizzying Sometimes, and few books provide as constantly satisfying a ride as Elektra: Assassin, an eight part mini series emerging from the heart of Eighties Experimentation.
Epic Comics was an offshoot of Marvel which split itself pretty evenly between challenging, cutting edge work (DeMatteis’s ethereal Moonshadow) and less challenging, quite-a-distance-from-the-edge work (Steelgrip Starkey and the All Purpose Power Tool). And while for most the name Epic might bring memories of ElfQuest and Groo, it was Elektra: Assassin that has earned it a small patch of publishing immortality.
It’s a difficult series. Characters switch bodies and link minds, resulting in a chaotic intermingling of internal dialogue boxes that respect the normal narrative strictures of neither space nor time. Miller offers only the most occasional of anchor points to orient yourself by before springing off into another dizzying fugue of actions and pre-actions and long foreseen consequences. Elektra is less a character than a force, driven by almost genetic psychoses to complete her mission while ripping apart the lives of the mortals who happen to catch a glimpse of her. She’s a Greek god, and woe betide those who glimpse her.
Theoretically, the story is simple. A demon is plotting to take over the US presidency to start nuclear war, and Elektra has to stop it. But what it’s truly about is ordinary people following helplessly the path of an extraordinary creature, never sure if she is brilliant or utterly mad, and too enthralled to care. The second character, a SHIELD agent named Garrett whose body is destroyed and replaced, piece by piece, over the course of his entanglement with Elektra, is an utterly doomed man who provides our main perspective on how she works.
He sees patches and snatches of her in action, trying to piece together the big picture of what she’s up to as she laughingly dismembers him and slowly gains control of his mind. He hates her and is infatuated, and the great fun of the book is trying to determine which of his actions are those of an independent subject and which are the mental manipulations of Elektra, planned fourteen steps in advance.
Miller’s Elektra isn’t just a Very Good Fighter. She has the ability to switch consciousnesses with people, to invade and control their minds, to deflect bullets, to alter seemingly the fabric of reality, a product of a brain chemistry that she willingly and devastatingly alters in order to know the plans of her adversary, The Beast. And throughout the story, Sienkiewicz does everything he can to make you feel unsure of your vantage point, glimpses of Elektra coming in visual slashes and lurid stills that entice and baffle and unground whatever grip you thought you might have had on this character. The twisting unreality of his visual method put the challenge to Miller to make a story that refused all traditional comfort, and Miller, in the heart of his prime, responded with a sure brilliance that dazzles.
Elektra: Assassin takes a character we thought we knew and pushes her into the realm of unfathomable legend, such that by the end of the book, you feel a visceral fear whenever she crosses the page. And to make the reader actually fearful by abusing their sense of narrative perspective and continuity is a masterstroke that comes but once each comic generation.
It is not Ninja, it is Powerbar.
Fierce: 10: So fierce you almost physically tremble when she puts in an appearance, so unsure are you of the limits, if any, of what she can do and where she falls on the spectrum of madness versus dedication. She’s a Force.
Smart: 10: We’re told she’s a genius intellect, and see that in action as she uses humans and organizations as pieces in plans that are never succeeding so well as when they appear to have utterly failed. She’s well-nigh omnipotent in this title, and the psychological intelligence with which her fragmented story and mind are portrayed is staggering.
Funny: 8: As you can imagine, it’s not a real ha-ha book. But the moments of humor are legitimately great. The sitting president is a Nixon-ish character who goes to sleep next to his immense wife, cuddling the button that will trigger nuclear attack while mumbling his campaign catch phrases to himself. His challenger, whose total insincerity is captured via a purely visual humor that I won’t even try to describe, is capped by the worst slogan ever.
Art: 10: Perfect. Miller and Sienkiewicz are tossing the ball back and forth to each other, gleefully finding new ways to make us feel not at home in the story, and each time they pull that off, it deepens our mystic dread of their central character, and heightens the tension of each interaction she has with the world of mere people.
Jem (IDW, 2015).
Writer: Kelly Thompson
Art: Sophie Campbell
Jem was my secret delight as a child. It came on irregularly, but whenever it did I was hooked. It had rock stars, who were also superheroes, who had a hologram projecting supercomputer that could do basically anything, and featured three music videos each episode, one of which was generally an awesome evil song by the Misfits. Glimmer and glitter, fashion and fame.
The young boy who used to shout at his screen, “Have Jem use Synergy, Kimber! Use Synergy!” is now a jaded adult, and the announcement of a new Jem comic book put me in a trepidatious state of being. After seeing the trailer for the upcoming Jem movie, which has nothing discernibly Jem about it, I was expecting the worst and in fact bought the first issues without reading them, too afraid of having childhood memories besmirched.
Which, it turned out, was dumb, because Jem is just about perfect. It’s difficult to describe, just how satisfying this book is. Giving old cartoon characters new and fully developed voices is a mine field trod warily by the best of writers. Between old fans seeking authenticity and new readers seeking believability there are a lot of places to misstep, but Thompson’s sense of character and voice is, in a word, flawless. To take just one example, my favorite character from the original series, Kimber, is portrayed as a driven, rather unreliable, but loving and quirky ball of pure kinetic energy who is working on developing a relationship with Stormer of the Misfits, all of which, once you see it played out on the page, makes sense to a “It couldn’t possibly have been otherwise” degree.
And it’s not an isolated incident – each character, from the leads to the secondaries, is an update that reads totally true. Jerrica’s crippling fear of public performance. Pizzazz’s steady rage. Rio’s easy charm and disarming curiosity. Thompson even nailed Clash. Clash, guys. The Music Video pages are raw bursts of classic MTv intensity, with the Misfits lashing out in poisonous green and black while Jem and the Holograms are wrapped in outrageous pinks and purples.
And that’s not having mentioned yet Campbell’s utterly charming visual sense, which captures Kimber as a sort of punk porcelain doll, Jem as a space age rocker, and Pizzazz as an arch reptilian anger platform. But what I like best is that the bands are not composed entirely of Idealized Body Shapes sporting different clothes and skin tones. Stormer, Shana, and Aja all have body positive character designs that suggest (finally) to young readers that you can be artistically successful without being anorexic.
The stories are comfortably familiar to fans of the cartoon – Jem and the Holograms try to use their music to do some good in the world, while the Misfits do what they can to sabotage their plans. But the freshness of the characters, and especially the Kimber-Stormer dynamic which, let’s face it, we’ve wanted to see for three decades now, have made these old stories new again.
“Try and Keep Up, Slow Powerbar in G”*
Fierce: 8: If the Misfits aren’t all the punk Eighties fierceness you can handle, then you are either George C. Scott or a machine built only to Thrash.
Smart: 5: We’re told that one of the band members is a mechanical genius, but otherwise, this book is about people with good hearts, not necessarily brilliant brains, and that’s perfectly fine.
Fun: 10: I wish these books were released weekly so that I’d have that regular infusion of fun and whimsy to inject between the dull bricks that are The Rest of the Comics I Buy. The characters are Frothy, the hair and clothes are sensational, and the splash panels are pure Eighties rock.
Art: 9: Campbell has done a fantastic job updating the distinctive flair of classic Jem into a hyperkinetic, manifold-influence modern context. It’s bright and alive and should keep the name of Jem alive for another generation at least.
* If you chuckled at this reference, then I love you.