Last time I played at Sean Witzke's house we both had so much fun that we decided he should come over to mine some time! Sean is one of the best writers engaging the comics medium right now, a critic's critic with strong individual views and more than enough nuance and rhetorical skill as a writer to back them up. Here, we go in on a comic we both figured would be the perfect place to give with a little knock down drag out punditry. It's a long ride, so drop the needle on this and buckle up...
by Frank Miller, Bill Sienkiewicz, and the divine hand of the comics gods. Marvel/Epic, 1986-87.
MS: So this fuckin’ comic. Okay. I feel like there are so many books people see as being emblematic of 1980s superhero comics, but that’s only because the market went the way it did. Claremont’s X-Men into Watchmen... Simonson’s Thor into early Sandman... and for sure, Frank Miller’s own Daredevil into Dark Knight Returns. But those comics are just the threads people picked up on, and as the stuff was coming out none of it was really much more emblematic than anything else. It takes a lineage springing from a book for it to really leave a footprint in its time period like that, to mark a certain point in comics history as its own. Nobody picked up where Elektra Assassin left off. Really, nobody even picked up where it started, except maybe Miller’s opposite number Alan Moore in his own Bill Sienkiewicz collab Brought To Light.
This is kind of a weird thing -- but it seems to me that one of the reasons Elektra didn’t really get internalized by comics and end up marking its moment in time the way so many other “slightly mature superhero” comics of the ‘80s did is because it was already such a perfect encapsulation of the world that produced it, no sphere of influence necessary. I mean, cyberpunk weirdness, fully intense Reaganist political underpinnings, and god, the look of the thing! We’re at a moment in pop culture where me saying Bill Sienkiewicz draws hella ‘80s is something people will know I mean as a compliment, right? The pastel tones, the slightly washed-out cocaine focus, and man, the fashion! It’s just so right there in its time -- honestly, more than pretty much any other hero comic I can think of offhand is. In Watchmen, in Dark Knight -- and in the ‘60s-hip Marvel stuff and the flavor-of-the-moment ‘90s Image books too, there’s always these imagined trappings, this fantasy world keeping the world outside the window at bay. Here? No. This is a comic about a pretty crazy moment in modern America, and it’s just got all this super-weirdness thrown in to... to fuck with us, I think, honestly.
SW: Oh absolutely. And done for Miller and Sienkiewicz to fuck with each other, and each of them to fuck with their peers. There are definitely post-Elektra Assassin comics, though, there are big ones. And I think I read all of them before I read Assassin -- Joe Casey and Ladronn’s first story in their run on Cable, Sienkiewicz’s own Stray Toasters, every Dave McKean comic, every David Mack comic (both of those guys always felt like they were less enervating versions of Sienkiewicz once I got around to reading the real deal), and of course Alan Moore’s biggest failure Big Numbers. The encapsulation of the 80s - you could argue that the insane, 3-script process that created it, rewriting it twice then again when Sienkiewicz’s pages came in seemingly done from a completely different script. There is the Burroughs idea of the cut-up, and if it applies to any comic book it’s not going to be Morrison’s intentional attempts at it or Jim Woodring magically divining something through process. No it would be Miller and Sienkiewicz just struggling to work together, forcing unintelligible chaos into something that tells a story. So it being exactly what we’d want the time period it came from to be represented as? That makes sense to me.
MS: Word. And I’m glad you mentioned Burroughs, cause he’s so huge in this comic. More than his spirit hanging over the formal play, he really bleeds into Miller’s writing style to a pretty shocking degree. I mean, plenty of comics writers use lots of -- dashes, -- but in Elektra Miller seems to be specifically aware of the way Burroughsian interrupts could be used to push a comics narrative forward. He’s fully attuned to Burroughs, the same rhythms, the same tone. Which is quite shocking for a superhero comic, really. I mean, that’s the dude who does books about guys ejaculating and shit! But Miller just goes in there and scrapes out everything of Burroughs that can be rendered into comics form, and takes plenty of his piss and vinegar too.
People really seem to forget this period of Miller’s career because it was the time when he wasn’t drawing anything -- but I think that ‘86 to ‘89 or so is definitely when he did his most accomplished comics writing. His early-’80s stuff and of course his modern stuff are so jacked into that noir-y, Raymond Chandler voice that's gone into self-parody at this point. But on Assassin he’s just as focused on the blurry, abstract, razorblade Burroughs experimentalism, on chopping up his words and seeing how far into incomprehensibility he can go and still have it be a narrative at all. It’s one simple thing intertwined with the other simple thing in Miller’s writing, and the fusion comes out anything but simple. The narration, the dialogue -- I mean, forget plot, forget the pacing or anything more comics-native -- the words in the balloons and the boxes are right up there with the very best the medium’s put on offer.
SW: I always thought that there was something about Sienkiewicz that brought those influences out in writers - I have to admit I haven’t gotten further than 100 pages into Gravity’s Rainbow but I know that Miller is a fan, I actually have a copy of Rainbow with his cover. But in Big Numbers and I think in the first issue of Elektra (and DKR) there are blatant Pynchon references. There’s the strange literary side of sf that both of those writers grasped onto, exactly as they were working with the same artist.
I seriously think that post-Dark Knight, Miller decided that he was going to make his name as a writer, and actually took that idea to heart. Elektra, Born Again, Year One, Love and War, Give Me Liberty, Man Without Fear, Hard Boiled - until he got massively burned by Hollywood the first time and decided that he needed to re-affirm his love of drawing. For a short period, he could go toe to toe with any other writer in comics.
MS: Yeah, and then when he came back to drawing -- and you know, thank god he did, because that guy is the only thing mainstream comics have that can hold a candle to Gary Panter -- it was like he forgot he had been writing stuff with two stylistic aspects and went back to one-dimensional noir. Oh well. I honestly wonder how involved Miller was in the visual side of these comics -- any of his comics of this period, with Siekiewicz or Mazzucchelli or Gibbons -- because they don’t really look like Frank Miller comics, do they? I mean, Siekiewicz had obviously learned the same lessons about pacing and panel size used for effect from Dark Knight that everyone else did, but beyond that this book is his show. As Born Again is Mazzucchelli’s show, et cetera. Miller the writer did not have a lot of visual stylism to him, like the way Alan Moore sticks all his artists in those nine-grids and keeps them there. Maybe Miller understood that to make a comic that was truly visually successful you have to let the guy drawing it own it. Or maybe he knew all he can do by himself is that thuggish noir stuff, and when he wanted to make a different kind of comic he got different artists.
SW: Well, in that big awkward Comics Journal Interview book Miller talks about how Sienkiewicz and Darrow kind of did whatever the hell they wanted to and Gibbons and Mazz were working pretty tightly close to his scripts. Visually, I don’t know, there are a lot of similarities in pretty much all of Miller's non-Sink/Darrow collaborations - you can tell that the same guy wrote the bathroom scene in Born Again and the fight with the dogs in Man Without Fear and the laser going off in Give Me Liberty, those scenes all operate on the same metronomic timing. But when he is given the chance to compete with an artist he does it, which is something that separates him from basically every other one of the “big” comics writers. He knows that he can draw this if he wants to, so he’s going to let his partner play, but he’s not going to make it easy for them. With Sienkiewicz, even more than Darrow, it’s a battle on the page.
MS: Yeah, he’s never written a straight out bad-looking comic, which is definitely not the case with Moore or Grant Morrison or Peter Milligan. He creates visually successful work, even when he’s not doing it with brush in hand. Though that said -- there are places in this comic where Sienkiewicz falls down and Miller himself would have been rock steady. I honestly feel the same thing with Sienkiewicz that we discussed about Steranko in our last thing, where he was just such a world-beating artist who doesn’t have too many direct descendants in modern comics. Like Steranko, he had a period of influence, no doubt -- the early ‘90s, with Sam Kieth and McKean and Simon Bisley. But none of those guys really lasted either, did they? (Unless McKean’s Fantagraphics book proves me wrong in a second, which would be sweet.) But anyway, I was thinking about why Sienkiewicz’s visual style hasn’t really survived in the way that say, Gibbons or Mazzucchelli’s has, and what hit me first while reading this was man -- Bill Sienkiewicz really can not block out an action scene that well! I’m thinking specifically of the first one in the book, with Elektra breaking out of a mental hospital and killing all the guards; the style of it is just so strong, that beautiful paint and this really stormy color. But the panel compositions themselves and the sequence they’re put in is -- gotta say -- kinda boring. And if you notice that, Sienkiewicz's problem with straight kinetic "comic book action" pops up again and again through the whole series.
SW: Oh man, don’t diss Simon Bisley. He’s so much better than McKean ever was, he just never gave a shit about anything like “art”. Put Slaine next to Cages and tell me which one is an unreadable piece of shit. Anyway, it is weird that he can’t pull that off here when his Moon Knight pages are super-kinetic, easily placed next to Miller’s own Daredevil pages. I think part of that was that Sienkiewicz placed more emphasis on the entire page looking good rather than panels, or even sequences. He is maybe the definitive pre-JH Williams artist for “page-as-unit”. Then again, there are panels like that sequence where Elektra pulls her hand just into frame and it’s covered in blood up to the wrist - which is maybe the most indelible Sienkiewicz image for me.
MS: Yeah, he gets the atmospherics of action no doubt -- and I mean, the guy is one of the most atmospheric artists ever to use the comics form -- but it’s the bangs and slams, the crude parts that Frank Miller himself does so perfectly, that he lets down on. Like, there’s this thing running through the book where talking heads describe the most bitchin’ action sequences possible. It’s totally hypnotic because Miller the writer is so on top of his game that you get pulled in and your imagination produces something deeply satisfying -- but the pages themselves? Eh, not all that much to look at. It’s like Miller wasn’t quite sure how to play to Sienkiewicz’s strengths when they started the series and took a while to really figure it out. By issue 4 or so they get going, with the chase scene through New York while everybody’s hallucinating at the same time. That’s where it starts to gel, because Sienkiewicz did impact with color changes, style changes, formalist tricks, not the typical way of drawing a really sick punching shot.
SW: Well I think that Sienkiewicz’s entire style changed between Love and War and the first issue of Elektra, and that might have caused Miller some trouble - it didn’t help that he was rewriting and resequencing the scripts without talking to Miller. I mean, there is a Jasper Johns tribute here for christ’s sakes, which isn’t something Sienkiewicz would have put in a comic even a year earlier, I don’t think. He was actually discovering how much more he could do with his skill set, and then Miller was handing him a script full of ninjas and Pynchon references. So the push and pull in those first 3 issues are definitely combative, which makes the sweet spots like Elektra’s childhood with Stick (featuring the most hilarious Wolverine cameo ever) are even sweeter.
MS: Oh man, I know. So bizarre, that whole scene. That mention of “what he could do” is important, because this comic is stuffed full of things you couldn’t ever have done in a serialized pamphlet before maybe 1986, 87. You mentioned how Sienkiewicz was doing pretty strong action sequences in Moon Knight, which was early ‘80s, heavy on the Neal Adams influence -- and printed on newsprint. Same with his New Mutants stuff a little later. The best he could do in that medium -- I’m talking medium as in "set of tools" here, not "art form" -- was get a little Ralph Steadman with his inking and keep drawing the same stuff otherwise. It wasn’t until the glossy white paper came into comics in the mid-’80s that he could do paint, do airbrush -- hell, just do raw pencils even. It’s weird; we see the “natural mode” of comics as inked Bristol with colors mechanically laid over, but how UN-natural is that laborious process? Sienkiewicz wasn’t a production man, he was an artist, and as soon as he could put raw material on the page, he did, in full effect. I mean, the originals for this comic must bear such a minimal difference to the printed product. The color is there, the pencils are there, and nothing stands between the artist’s hand and the completed piece.
Honestly, I think that puts Sienkiewicz in line way less with pretty much anybody working in mainstream comics (again, McKean and Bisley aside) and way more in line with the art-comix world, the raw-pencilers and the messy painters. CF does things with paint that remind me more of Sienkiewicz than anyone else. There’s that impulse toward purity, toward the medium on the page and nothing in the way of it. I read Stray Toasters as something that should have been published in Raw, you know? It’s deeply weird seeing that in a superheroic context, but it just barely works, this weird Frankenstein monster of a comic that doesn’t belong where it is but doesn’t quite have a way to be anything else figured out yet.
SW: Yeah, but it's so much better than anything that came out in Raw (Stray Toasters, I mean). There is definitely a post-David Lynch need for Sienkiewicz to not only go as weird and personal as he could but also pursue the mainstream of the medium, and that makes Stray Toasters so much more interesting as an object to me. Here’s this incredibly fucked up CS Lewis tribute about child abuse and we’re going to sell it next to Moonshadow and Grendel. There’s nothing like that when you discuss Spiegelman for me because it’s a far more fucked up, quixotic endeavor from the start. That’s what we call failing BIG.
MS: Ha! Well, there’s always that one Alan Moore Raw story about how inhuman Japanese people are, jeez. But yeah, I get you. I think you’re onto something when you talk about Sienkiewicz’s impulse toward the mainstream, because why the hell else would an artist like that have ended up as an inker of third-tier Marvel comics? For God’s sake! But yeah, I think you’re right. He likes drawing this stuff. You know, his career as an inker is so interesting to me, the way he just tears inferior pencillers’ stuff to shreds with that line, just slashes the christ out of them. I always thought it was out of frustration that this is where he ended up. But maybe... in a way inker is the perfect way for him to do both things -- he’s deeply embedded not just in mainstream content, but in the mainstream comics production process, and yet he still gets to put a substance down on the page and not see it messed with no matter how weird and over-regimented the coloring gets. They don’t fuck with the black. It remains.
SW: He definitely loves it, him and Frank Miller were both teenagers who showed up at Marvel and DC with their portfolios begging for jobs. But he had an aggressive growth pattern that lead him to literally outpace entire schools of comics production. He was lucky that he was working at the time he was. And I think it helped that Miller had fought so hard with printers on Ronin to get the colors right that when they got around to Elektra, Sienkiewicz knew he could force technological changes if he felt the need to. It is the definition of “cutting edge”.
MS: It’s weird that only the most advanced production process of the times could capture something way simpler than most comics art, just raw material on paper. The comics medium has grown such a bizarre, byzantine artistic process out of acquiescence to printing methods that haven’t existed for a few decades now! You can feel the friction of it in Elektra though, like there are places where Sienkiewicz will draw something that looks a little more typical of ‘80s action comics but it still just pops off the page because the paper’s so white, the painted color is so fresh. He was breaking the chain that held the look of the hero genre to what had come before, but he’s still pretty visibly indebted to it in places. Kinda cool.
SW: Did you read that interview with Kyle Baker that Seth Kushner did? Baker talks about how weird it is that thick brush line evolved in comics and how harshly people reacted when he tried to break out of that. The raw pencil moments are just amazing - the black and white photo of Elektra on Garrett’s desk? It’s the perfect application of that technique.
MS: I really do wonder how much non-superhero artists look at Sienkiewicz, because given how locked into that same antiquated production process today's genre comics are, there’s such a limited space for their artists to apply any of the stuff that really makes Elektra such a fabulous visual experience. I feel like the guy’s got WAY more to teach everyone working outside that bubble, but he’s kind of undiscovered as an influence. I see a lot of him in Frank Santoro, but then Santoro is a history guy, and part of the older generation too. I feel like when the younger art-comix kids discover Sienkiewicz he’ll just be HUGE, up there with Kirby. I really do think he’s got a moment in comics art to define that’s still waiting to happen. There are so many possibilities that only he explored. Hopefully the Kyle Baker wave that’s just starting to hit leads people in the right direction.
SW: Baker’s a little easier to grasp for a lot of people because he’s such an anarchist, and the humor influence. In order to get into Sienkiewicz when you’re young, you really need to be into the subject matter to latch on completely -- you need to be a fan of Miller or Moore basically.
MS: That’s interesting. He might be the most innovative artist to have worked almost exclusively with writers. Stray Toasters is basically an invisible book at this point, and yeah that shit is great but it doesn’t really read as well as Assassin or Big Numbers (also tough to get ahold of themselves, now that I think of it). Yeah, I always look at the guy’s career and think it really is pretty similar to Steranko -- such a massive talent, and yet he never quite put it right there for people to absorb. I mean, this comic is a masterpiece, undeniably, but it’s a collaborative masterpiece rather than Sienkiewicz at full bore.
SW: So do you think that’s a lesser thing than a solo masterpiece?
MS: Oh boy, ummm... argh, I gotta say yeah. As a comic maybe not, as long as it’s a story that tells itself well it doesn’t matter how many people work on it, but as an artwork, as the expression of a unique aesthetic, the collaborations are pretty much always going to be lacking something. Like, imagine if we only had the Lee/Kirby collabs and no Fourth World. It would still be one of comics’ most incredible bodies of work, but we’d be missing the purity of Kirby. Like we’re kinda missing pure Sienkiewicz. Not that I’d even trade this book for eight issues of a Sienkiewicz solo miniseries done at the same time or anything, because there’s so much Miller greatness in Elektra... but hypothetically, if there were a pure Sienkiewicz comic that I knew was as good as this one I’d take that over this because I think -- the interesting intersections collaborations can lead to acknowledged -- that individual expressions almost always go deeper.
SW: Yeah, but “purity”? Not as interesting to me as a true collaboration. Which this is, it isn’t a script illustrated by Sienkiewicz, it’s two artists struggling to both make their statements together. The same way that I’d say From Hell is more interesting than anything Campbell did on his own or Moore wrote for someone else. I don’t always subscribe to the idea that everyone has something to say, you know? (Even though I know Sienkiwicz did) It may seem like a strange point to make, but an artist making a pure expression isn’t always going to be their most interesting or vital work. And... Elektra is a more “Sienkiewicz” comic than Stray Toasters. Hell, there’s one better, “Hit it!” is a better Sienkiewicz comic than Elektra even.
MS: Well, sure. I’d rather Morrison’s Animal Man over a solo Chas Truog comic, ha. Yeah, From Hell, there’s a collaboration I’d take over anything else either guy’s ever done. I guess Miller and Sienkiewicz just don’t fuse as perfectly, which is interesting since they both came out of the same milieu, both with a lot of the same aesthetic concerns. I’m trying to think of why... and I guess what I come up with is that even at his most abstract and experimental Miller was interested in creating a series of hard, percussive hits -- the stabs of that cut-up style narration, the brutal action sequences that the art doesn’t always sell -- whereas Sienkiewicz was so tonal, so lush and spread out and atmospheric, with a forte in subtle shifts, extended periods of harmony and dissonance, and formalist exploration that didn’t necessarily further the plots but just nuanced them deeper and deeper. It’s really different ways of making comics, and a perfect fusion of them like Moore and Campbell get in From Hell would have been amazing, but the breach is just a little too wide....
SW: Let’s talk about the narration -- that was Miller’s style as he was leading into the book. I think when pared with Sienkiewicz, who was moving away from Miller’s syncopated style with the information shown, the narration creates this amazing version of the classic Marvel comics internal heroic monologue and actually brings it closer to both novelistic convention and human thought. I like to think that if Elektra Assassin never happened (and Love and War), if the two of them ever collaborated, I don’t think that Born Again and Year One would be as amazingly narrated as they are. For something that is Miller’s strongest proficiency as a writer, it is forged in this book.
MS: Yeah, because he had to work so hard with Sienkiewicz to sell that style, it was such a stretch -- and I don’t want to tear it down at all, they do an incredible job of bending radically different aesthetics into a collaboration that works. After the challenge of Sienkiewicz, working with Mazzucchelli, who’s really a much more like-minded artist, must have been just so easy and instinctual for Miller. This comic, though -- it’s like “Sister Ray” or something, isn’t it? Two guys with different styles blasting away as hard as they can in their own voices, halfway looking for them to intersect but also just vibing off how dissonant it can get, how actively they can work against each other.
Miller’s narration almost feels like an attempt at making comics with words alone, it’s so imagistic and punctuated, it lives so vividly within each individual panel and then moves on to something equally vivid in the next. And that’s where those talking-head action sequences are so great, because Miller’s trying to pull your mind into this visual sequence he’s obviously blocked out in great detail inside his head, and Sienkiewicz just has these caricatures on the page talking at you. It’s so head-spinning, so disorienting, you just have to surrender to the comic and let it take over. Which of course is perfect for the weird, abrasive, confrontational story that Elektra is. Ha -- when I was at the release show for the new Brian Chippendale book I heard some kid saying about Maggots, “I wanted the book to make me sick, and it never quite did.” He shoulda locked into some Elektra Assassin!
SW: If you wanted to you could say that Miller wasn’t a great writer until he worked with Sienkiewicz and he wasn’t a funny writer until he worked with Darrow. That would be mean, though. Fucking hell, it is like “Sister Ray”... Miller had this fixation in this time period on narrating from inside a diseased mind too -- so you are being constantly screamed at by someone you know is untrustworthy, which just adds to the dissonance of the words and pictures. Even when you are being told what is happening as you see it - the horrible crutch of 70s Marvel writing -- you are experiencing it from two different perspectives in-story, as well as the way the people telling the story. The two of them are turning the horrible weaknesses of the way comics are made into strengths. There is real sickness in this comic -- like, the longrunning description of Miller as anti-feminist gets super-complicated once you bring this book up because it is everything horrible about his depiction of women often on the same page as everything that is amazing about what he could do. It can accurately be described as confounding. It’s seasick, reading this book, and often you are with the characters as they are disoriented by the plot or their own thoughts.
MS: And Sienkiewicz adds so much to that with the bits of pure prettiness he lances through it. Miller’s so good at ugly -- except Ronin that’s basically his whole career, gorgeous comics about ugliness -- but Sienkiewicz, with that outside-comics aesthetic history he brings onto the page, enhances Miller’s basic template so much. The Egon Schiele pastiches in the mental institution, the scattershot greeting-card style images Elektra hallucinates as she gets kidnapped by the Great Beast, it’s never just one thing, always a combination of factors that never quite lock together. As a piece of straightup art that might be problematic, but as the outre, disturbing experience it was obviously intended as, there’s no beating it. Even the prettiness adds to the dissonance when it’s not in tune with the words.
About the truly weird misogynist aspect of the book -- yeah, it’s definitely the most complex thing Miller’s done with one of his female characters. I was realizing as I was reading it last night -- ok, the main crux of the plot involves this semi-buffoonish SHIELD agent named Garrett sort of stumbling into this psychic connection with Elektra, right? For most of the series they can hear each other’s thoughts, or more accurately they find themselves thinking one another’s thoughts. And godDAMN if “Garret” (with one 'T') isn't a cryptogram of “Miller”! He’s even drawn to LOOK like Miller in a couple panels! So even the female character Miller went deepest into, and was obviously most passionate about, never really had subjectivity as a character -- here because she’s literally having a man’s thoughts PUT INTO her head! Probably Miller’s ultimate, most conspicuous failure as a writer -- of movies, of comics, of anything -- is his inability to really write that many different characters, to differentiate his voice convincingly. This, then, is like his autocritique, a commentary on how he KNOWS he’s filling the heads and mouths of these automatons on the pages with his own psychology and words -- but dude, he’s writing them! He can’t help it! Can a man become a woman, even on the pages of a comic? Not if he’s Frank Miller!
SW: Also Miller and Sienkiewicz stop showing you the interior of Elektra’s head after the first two issues. She becomes this force of unpredictable actions, and sometimes you are told her motivations. So what you are dealing with in the beginning, which is a character piece with access into Elektra’s mind, becomes a useless priority. Because I think that Miller feels okay that he’s defined that her mind is in a lot of ways broken. So the introduction of Garrettr creates this dramatic tension that what Elektra thinks is going on may or may not actually be going on.
The autocritique -- YEAH, it is right there. There’s this weird thing about Miller where the earlier his work is the more complex it is - Ronin is totally a deconstruction of his own love of juvenalia and then there’s Assassin, where he gets to take apart the very basic element of his style, which is CHARACTER. That’s not even there in Born Again/Year One/Give Me Liberty, which are more story-focused. And then the Sin City period to now, he’s artistically maturing towards simplicity not complexity. He’s the anti-Morrison. Honing in on what he loves rather than adding to it. The weird thing about Miller is that his most fuck-you, worldbeating angry young man work is also intensely aware of it’s own rationalizations.
MS: Right. Caricature.
Annnd, that seems to me like a pretty good place to bring up politics. Miller’s always referred to as a hardline, quasi-nuts conservative, but -- I dunno, maybe it’s just that I haven’t read a whole lot of interviews with him where he speaks directly to it -- but I always felt like his politics came across as a lot more complex than that in the comics, anyway. There’s certainly no Steve Ditko agitprop, no sense of a clear right and wrong. In Elektra the same grainy, xeroxed heads stand for both the left and right of American politics -- one’s a grotesque mask of Richard Nixon, one’s a twisted JFK lookalike. And there’s certainly no attempt made to present one as better than the other. Let alone good. I think a lot of that is just the zeitgeist this comic taps into, the total hopelessness of the late ‘80s -- the crack epidemic, the bad economy, the military interventionism that somehow never made it to full-blown war but always threatened to, the creeping knowledge (in the US and UK at least) that the people who’d been put in charge were in all likelihood legitimately insane. There’s SO much paranoia to the world this comic sketches out, such a trapped feeling of hopelessness. Voting a Democrat into office just ain’t gonna do it when said Democrat is possessed by the Great Beast. And it’s not like the situation on the ground is any better.
SW: Dude, did you know that Ken Wind xerox is a self-portrait by Sienkiewicz?
MS: Whoa, I did NOT! Fuck!
SW: It’s fucking crazy because I was reading how Marvel got hate mail because people said it was a photo of Dan Quayle and Sienkiewicz had to say “no, that’s me”. Anyway, yeah - my whole thing is that Miller clearly never had a hardline pov on his politics, and you can see it shifting and becoming more of a right-wing position as he’s gotten older. Because yeah, post-9/11, the guy who created Nuke? That guy is totally going to go hawk, the guy who has spent his career struggling with that side of patriotism and reconciling that with his personal politics suddenly in a situation where he can see an identifiable “good” and “evil”. Not a surprise to me at all.
MS: I can see that. Maybe it’s just because I grew up in the GW Bush era that I so strongly identify conservatism with a pro-government view, even though historically it’s been more the opposite. Miller definitely went hawk post-911, but he was still making as much fun of the idiots in charge as he’d made of Reagan, and that was just such an offbeat stance in like 2002, 2003. God, what weird times!
Anyway, I wanted to say -- what really strikes me about Elektra is that it’s probably the place where Miller goes in hardest on politics. Martha Washington has more of a plot basis in it, but it’s... I dunno... cartoonier there? Or something. In this comic it’s just so goddamn raw and twisted and ugly, so brutal. And what stands out to me is that Miller’s able to maintain his stance, his -- honestly, nihilistic -- reserve of judgment. It’s all fucked, there’s not any right to the wrongs. Which, when the wrongs are this front and center and this disturbing, is really horrible. And more than that, there’s absolutely no sense of moral outrage at the innocent lives lost or the manipulation and lies, the threats of mutually assured destruction. It’s just fact, and Miller’s too... too something to put forth anything but reportage on it. On one hand that’s a pretty admirable instance of narrative restraint, like can you imagine say, Clowes or Crumb or any of the other “culturally relevant” mass market cartoonists holding back and just presenting this black a view of America without condemning it? But on the other hand it’s so cold and futile that it becomes meaningless, just bodies and not lives. I don’t know if Miller was truly that unsentimental about humanity, if he was fucked up on a shit-ton of drugs, if he was just totally shellshocked by the times he was living in -- probably all three at once -- but it’s riveting, and very uncomfortable to read.
SW: That stance is really what I love so much about this book - which, even in these two guy’s body of work, is the most nihilistic, most ginger about the matter-of-fact position of “we’re all fucked” they put forth. I don’t know, sentimentality in satire is poison in everything that isn’t Twain or Vonnegut, right? Elektra Assassin is really the Dr. Strangelove of the 80s for me - I mean that last page is so giddy and amazing. I’d rather laugh at this stuff, I guess.
MS: Than feel it? I guess the book’s creators would too, and I mean... I think it’s probably only in looking back that the inability to process one’s times from a humanistic standpoint, as opposed to Miller and Sienkiewicz’s sarcastic one, looks like any kind of a failing. (I wonder how Chappelle’s Show is gonna seem in 2032?) But the fact is that we -- or I, anyway -- look at the middle bits of the comic, the really nasty spy-game, nuclear-threat, splatterpunk scenes that just compound and compound for hundreds of pages before they get any kind of resolution and feel like it’s all just...
I dunno. I think some things demand a moral compass -- not saying that there’s one correct one, but I think that’s an important element to a fully rounded story that countenances the kind of deep-black realities this one does. Without something “good”, or at least “acceptable” or “worth preserving” or “appealing”, all the fighting is really exhausting. Not to say it’s valueless -- I like a good workout as much as anybody -- but there is something it lacks, something that could have made it a better or at least a more ideologically full work.
SW: I don’t know, I’d say that meaner, dismissive approach is sometimes the best hot knife to the point - (and Arrested Development? Totally the best critique about the Iraq War. Not joking) - I’d make the argument that in not taking a moral outlook, that is a moral outlook. Like... Alex Cox’s work, where he will go out of his way to thwart the emotional reward because the point is absolutely horrible and by frustrating the audience he’s drawing attention to it.
MS: I get it. I mean, this is a subjective problem I have as a reader, not something I can even make a case for as an objective problem with the work. It’s great satire, and who sez it has to be more? Not me. I mean, you won’t find a bigger Dada fan than I am, and that shit is all about meaninglessness, the human right not to take a stand but for destruction. BUT, Dada was about destroying until even destruction had been wiped from the earth, while Miller and Sienkiewicz show no such sophistication of ideas. They’re just in it for the fire. Which, again, is fine, and hey -- all action comics should carry such directness of precept! That said, though, when the literal END OF THE WORLD AND ALL HUMANITY is the logical conclusion of the fire you’re playing with -- and it is here, that’s a scene we see happening -- it’s too adolescent for me, too “clueless teenager” to just flip your hair back and rail another line and go fuck it, maybe we should all just die then.
SW: Well I think you’re getting at a good point there -- which is that (transition gears squealing) Elektra Assassin is a good example of Best Broken Comic Ever Made. Where it works as a whole because of how disjointed, stilted, mid-growth-spurt a work it is. Totally an adolescent approach to most of the material, even as scene-to-scene it hits these amazing heights of sophistication in storytelling or even character, but there is no consistency. Not of tone, not of perspective - which is probably because of the insane process of making it but also it has to be that this a comic that was “about” something but they weren’t quite sure what until the very end. The politics don’t just shift over Millers career - they shift from issue to issue, slowly becoming a bigger element where in the other stuff he did at this time period that element was either there or it wasn’t. Here it’s showing up like a spasm eventually overtaking the text.
MS: That’s a really interesting thing to bring up, because it’s like the flawed side of something we were praising about the comic earlier. That tonal inconsistency that works so well as the inside-psyche impressions of a mental patient or a paranoid spy at the end of his rope -- it just doesn’t work to deliver a message, does it? It’s not focused enough. This comic is a raging success as an aesthetic object, and even as something totally black and wrong and nihilistic... but it really really does want to say something more about the world it lives in, and it just can’t do both things at once. You need legitimate hope for the future to even bother about imparting any message, and if Miller and Sienkiewicz have any, they’re certainly not putting it on display here. Even Sienkiewicz’s art changing issue to issue, sometimes evolving between the beginning of one issue and the end -- there’s no solid footing for readers to stand on, which is both a great virtue and an ultimate failing.
SW: It is total chaos. Which is why I think that it’s so vital and alive because it’s like the ghost of the creator’s attempt at a much better comic that would have been less of a mess but also less engaging. Its aggravating a lot of times to read this comic, but it’s also shocking at how certain scenes or layouts are still cutting edge 25 years later, and I don’t think that you can get one without the other. It needs to be a failure.
MS: Yeah, and in a way that’s where the very humanity of it comes through strongest. The inability to process any of it into a real engaging answer, or even an appropriately indignant question. In life there are heroes who can do those things, but most of the humans end up doing exactly what Miller and Sienkiewicz do and just give up, play some video games. (Does this comic remind you of shit like Doom and Metal Slug too?)
SW: Not really, but that’s because my video game history begins and ends with Street Fighter. I always thought of it as like a Shinya Tsukamoto/Takashi Miike movie, just noise and fucked-up kinks. Or maybe Mr. Freedom (which is maybe the ultimate take on political nihilism), but I don’t think that Miller was directly influenced by that until Dark Knight Strikes Again.
MS: Yeah, though who knows? That guy brought more of the arcane into American comics than just about anybody else. Manga? That shit was not on the shelves at Borders when Ronin came out.
SW: Corto Maltese in DKR!
MS: I know! And nobody gets that even now!
Talking about politics, it is really interesting -- especially given where the guy ended up, and the lack of hope or future this comic presents so strongly -- how ambivalently Miller treats “traditional values” in this comic. There’s that whole long scene in issue 3 where the golden dream of house and kids and family is visualized as the literal psychological domination and brainwashing of a woman by a man, and the opening scenes in Latin America are hardly set in the idyllic land of banana pickers who just want democracy that Reagan had sold just enough of the populace on. It’s like Miller knows all the “American Dream” stuff that basically forms the backbone of a lot of rightist thinking is built on the back of exploitation and CIA skullduggery. That scene with the institution of the American family being dragged through the mud is the most combatatively “liberal” thing Miller ever wrote in a lot of ways.
SW: Well, it is interesting that he tackles all the major points of classical American institutions - Hollywood, institutional medicine, religion, family, politics in control, politics in electorate, and the C.I.A. (which is shown through the ultra-cartoonish ultra-techy SHIELD), organized crime. And each of them to a one are dismissed quickly and then either left by the wayside or mocked for the duration.
MS: Or -- as in the case of SHIELD -- presented almost exactly has they had been before, in this superkool cartoon version of reality that takes on a more sinister cast only because it shares pages with all this political horror. Just as Max Fleischer animation starts looking really grotesque when Sienkiewicz’s protege Al Columbia holds it up next to some terrifying bad-acid monsters in Pim and Francie, so does Jim Steranko’s awesome techno-fetishism look almost ridiculously simplistic and naive when Miller simply juxtaposes it with the political reality of actual nuclear weapons, actual military bureaucracy, actual death.
SW: I think that juxtaposition is what creates a lot of the best moments - the “childlike” style of Elektra’s flashbacks in the first issue only work because of how Egon Schiele the rest of the issue is, and a lot of the humor in the last couple issues comes from Sienkiewicz’s realistic draftsmanship applied to death dwarfs in Fantomas masks and a guy walking around with a bloody knife in his face.
MS: God, this is such a surrealistic comic book. It’s always so strange to me when Miller goes in on some humor, because it’s... I mean, I never laugh at that stuff. It’s like his humor just lays down this layer of weirdness under the plot mechanics, it’s so byzantine and strangely written all the time.
SW: Oh yeah, byzantine is a perfect word for this book. I dunno, I do think Miller can be funny but in this book it’s totally a morbid sneer. Like, DKSA is pretty damn funny. The first Sin City is INSANELY funny.
MS: It’s that dissonance between Miller and Sienkiewicz’s intent again. I bet Miller would have caricatured those weird dwarves really differently.
SW: The question comes up - did Miller even write them as dwarves? That’s a Sienkiewicz thing, or at least it feels like it is. But I see what you’re saying - I don’t think 75% of these scenes could have ever been drawn by Miller. They just wouldn’t work because of that element of bigfoot in his work, that weird physicality to the Daredevil stuff would have ruined even the characters. Garret needs to be that static figure.
MS: Yeah, totally; because this comic is in large part about the beauty of violence, both in terms of the in-story stuff like the elegance and refinement of Elektra’s ability to kill, and in the larger sense that in this world, getting pissed enough to blow things up is basically the only real act of humanity one can take. Sienkiewicz sells it so well -- and that really is not an easy thing to sell. It couldn’t hardly have been anyone else drawing this book. I feel like even the most elegant black-line artist, like even if Hal Foster had drawn this stuff, it would have just been too crude, too simplistic, too monstrous. With Sienkiewicz you end up just looking into the dull, smeary orange explosions and cutting blue laser beams and the content just slips away, and you can contemplate something really beautiful, something incredibly pleasant and soothing to the eye.
And then you take it in as story again, and oh shit! It’s dudes in jet packs getting their hands chopped off!
SW: Well, even if you just want to think about the other collaborators Miller had - Darrow on this book would have been too much, like a sandblaster telling you a story,and everyone else is too damn clean and consistent. Philosophically, it really does strive for that Sam Peckinpah, Bruce Lee, “violence is the only expression of life” point. Totally over-grasps for it a dozen times over, but it is really rare for an action comic to come out and take that position instead of the Kirby school of violence-as-a-problem-we-love-to-watch. That’s not a position that even the most cavalierly violent storytellers like to make, let alone embrace the way that this book does.
MS: Yeah, Miller is one of the very few superhero creators who isn’t ashamed of violence in some way or another, who truly seems to understand its power AND not really be interested in fighting against it. (It seems to me that perspective’s way more common in alt-comix, actually -- when guys like Johnny Ryan or Ben Marra or even Clowes do violence they just DO it and there’s no apology.)
But there really is another aspect to a lot of it, places where the intersection of Miller’s cut-ups and Sienkiewicz’s tendency toward pictorial abstraction create something that really takes an effort to view figuratively, to look into and even see as human-on-human violence. A lot of the less physical fight scenes, stuff like the helicopter chases, are really more like comics tone poems than anything else. Like meditations on violent themes rather than actual action comics. Just these hot colors and razor words spinning around not doing anything but existing, and the specifics of what’s going on are very tenuously weaving in and out of focus.
SW: I think with those guys it is abstracted just a little bit more? Maybe not Marra. Like I think Johnny Ryan is more interested in the act of drawing violence than the violence itself. “Meditation on violent themes” is spot-on, I’d say. They are totally set pieces in the classical action sense but they are disconnected from their conventional delivery.
MS: Yeah, I think that’s why Sienkiewicz can’t really nail any of his big fist-to-fist fight sequences, and probably even why he uses more typical Marvel blocking in the overt non-fighting physical-action material. He isn’t really interested in the choreography or adrenal feeling of violence, the things that obsess Miller. It’s a much broader, more abstract impression he’s going for, and the meat and impact that obsess just so many action cartoonists aren’t really even in his headspace very much.
SW: Yeah, Miller is a very physically concerned guy. He’s the guy who's drawn a twelve page car chase for fun (which for me means that he could do interviews draped in an American flag and spewing racial slurs and I’d still be a fan. THERE’S A FUCKING 12 PAGE CAR CHASE IN FAMILY VALUES), and Sienkiewicz was done with that stuff after all those years on Moon Knight and New Mutants.
MS: Talking about Sienkiewicz’s intent -- I’m kind of wondering if he ever wanted to draw something in this comic that was just ugly, you know? Something with no redeeming aesthetic value whatsoever. Because even though the HR Giger pastiches and the weird truncated action make you feel kinda strange inside, they’re still very beautiful to look at. But then there are panels where it really is just this dull paint smearing all over the place, and matched with some of the basest, cruelest and most nihilistic satirical writing comics have ever seen. Do you think he ever just wanted to make something that looked bad? And if so, did he succeed at any point?
SW: I don’t know, that seems like it’s mis-representing Sienkiewicz a little bit. If it’s meant to be ugly I think it would feel more intentionally destructive to any attempt reading - which I think is something you can say about Sienkiewicz’s other comics. I really do think that all of the ugly panels and odd tones - I think that those panels still convey exactly what you need in that moment as a reader. For a comic that the go-to descriptor is “fragmented” each page is absolutely crystal clear to what is happening.
MS: I guess that line of questioning really brings us into this whole academic-arts thing about aesthetics and “what is beauty”, “what is ugliness” too, huh? Like, you’re totally right -- Sienkiewicz, for all that his art might strike odd tones and harmonize with Miller’s writing strangely, never goes totally off the script into incomprehensibility. I mean more like, did he ever just draw a panel thinking man, I really want this panel to look like a piece of shit, you know? But then it’s the kid-drawing style and the impressionistic color stuff... and that stuff does kinda look like shit out of context, but it just makes this book richer. And even further out of context, when we’re just talking about visual work outside of the mainstream arena or the genre arena, there’s plenty of good comics art that looks like kids’ drawings, honestly. But Sienkiewicz using that style INSIDE the mainstream is interesting, and it seems like it has a lot greater potential to be “ugly” or “wrong”. I bet a lot of Miller fanboys bought this book and thought that it was ugly!
SW: Maybe a better word is “grotesque”? Because while it’s sometimes visually grotesque it’s also a grotesque satire on Miller’s part - the two of them together has a lot of similarities to editorial cartooning as much as it has with Terry Southern.
MS: Sure, that works. And that’s a word that gets at both Miller’s hardheaded nasty approach and Sienkiewicz’s grander and more rarefied way of doing things. They can both definitely be called grotesque. The comic’s whole world -- the fashion, the A-bombs, the mind control, the slightly skeezy experimantation... I mean, even its identity as a part of corporate comics... it’s all grotesque!
Probably the capper to that grotesquerie is the last few issues, where one of the Bad Super Spies actually gets the kind of enhanced-humanity superpowers that are so casually presented in all the other Marvel comics. Even Miller himself has worked on characters with these godlike abilities and done it pretty straight (as in his Wolverine series) but here it’s this truly terrifying thing, like it is in Alan Moore’s Miracleman. It’s interesting because there’s the long sequence pretty much smack in the middle of the comic about the total destructive power of the atom bomb, and after that everyone running around on the pages seems so small for a while... but then at the end everything kind of gets reoriented with the introduction of superpowers. Suddenly the fight scenes really matter, because they involve the same kind of apocalyptic destructive force as the scenes about the Bomb do.
SW: And Miller goes out of his way to tell the reader that these powers are in the hands of dangerous, violent people. Perry is explicitly mentioned as a rapist, pedophile and murderer even before he makes his deal with the devil. There is a good argument going on in the Extechop characters that the kind of capacity to kill is given to only the most monstrous people - which is exactly the kind of intelligent thinking that Miller and Moore would put into their “grim+gritty” material that eventually became a shorthand - you know “team of mercenaries/criminals” is totally a 90s thing when it was originally introduced it had a specific job to do.
MS: That’s a really interesting point about the way it became shorthand -- usually when I think about that happening in comics it’s on the visual end of things and it kinda evolves the form, like how Kirby dots code for this whole manner of comics nowadays. But when you turn the writing Miller and Moore were doing in the mid-late ‘80s into a shorthand it just doesn’t work. Comics like this one (and like Miracleman, Big Numbers, et cetera) really can’t be “shorthand-ed” because the thing that makes them what they are is their concerted, long-form, deep-focus exploration of character and symbol. You can’t make a shorthand, an ideogram, an icon out of this stuff to code for what it is -- because what makes it special is the complexity, the irreducibility. Take even half an issue of character development and metaphorical progression away from this comic and it becomes a vastly inferior thing.
SW: I think the big problem with creating a shorthand out of the best 80s work - particularly Miller, Sienkiewicz, Moore, etc - is that the developments they made are stylistic developments, but they are also the expansion of earlier shorthand. Try and progress it further and it comes to a creative dead end -- reading any interview with Miller or Moore circa 89-90 and you can see they’re looking for ways out of the corner they’ve painted the industry into. For Miller it was simplifying what he did and for Moore it was dodging the question completely for half a decade and falling in love with the Silver Age again.
MS: Yep. And the way the industry did end up getting out of that painted-in corner, I think, was slowly creating a new mainstream, the bookstore-market graphic novels that everyone’s realized have now in turn created their own trap for themselves, their own overreachings and decadences. Now as then, we’re past the height of a boom time, locked into a shrinking market, and nobody really knows where to go. This is a comic that really speaks to what we’re in right now, because -- though Grant Morrison may possibly have made them more avant-garde and entertaining -- superhero comics have never, for two decades of trying, gotten to a higher level of sophistication than this one did. It took something new to reach beyond. This comic here is really the capstone of the Dark Knight/Watchmen era: the most writerly scripting, the meanest satire, the most innovative artwork. And then to get better comics had to go somewhere else entirely. I gotta say, pal -- here we are again.
SW: Which is great because it’s such a crude fuck-you to everything. I don’t really know if you can use this as a capstone to an era of superhero comics, though, any more than you could use American Flagg or Ronin as the start of that era - it is barely a superhero comic. Being published by Marvel and having an appearance by Nick Fury, yeah kinda. I mean, Born Again is a superhero comic, even Martha Washington is a superhero comic, but Elektra Assassin is absolutely not. The shrinking martket aspect - well it’s hard to argue but I think it’s a whole new place for comics because there is no Image boom around the corner, there is nothing to replace the vacuum.
MS: How the hell can we know? I doubt anyone though action comics would ever break out of the Big Two hegemony in ‘89, but it happened! As to whether or not this book is superhero comics -- that’s kinda what I mean, actually. Like, Watchmen and Dark Knight were undeniably expanding the sphere of what that genre could do and be, and then Born Again maybe expands it a little further, and the end of Moore’s Swamp Thing a little further, and on and on, and then we get this, and it breaks. Or the elastic that forms the boundary snaps back. What took the form, the medium itself father than this, was the stuff that took up the intelligence and innovation but dropped even the pretense of superheroism. Hell of a lot of ‘90s alt-cartoonists mention Sienkiewicz as a big early influence. I mean, Big Numbers came after Elektra and it’s a lot closer to what the comic actually was than any black-ops hero book that hit in the early ‘90s. Within hero comics I really do think this is the ending of something because from American Flagg to Ronin to Watchmen to this... the flow is so organic, but like we talked about before there isn’t really any superhero stuff that takes up where Miller and Sienkiewicz leave off. After this everything goes either Image or nostalgist for five years.
SW: I dunno man I really think anything I’m going to say about the “future of comics” is going to be stupid. I hate this line of thinking because cramming this stuff into a narrative always has to do backflips to ignore so much in order for it to make sense.
MS: Sure, but at the same time everybody was and is out there at the stores (or on Amazon now, I guess) reading each other’s comics, getting pumped on what their contemporaries put on the page and then making work to speak to that raised bar. That’s one of the things about comics that’s so beautiful -- it’s so easy to see that kind of narrative progression because we know Miller WAS looking at Kirby, and then he DID see Moebius, and then Sienkiewicz saw Miller and upped his game from Neal Adams ripoffs... it all really happened that way, you know?
SW: Yeah, and Alan Moore and Mike Allred both read Love and Rockets and learned completely opposite lessons from them. I just think that whenever you start doing that Beatles Begat Stones Begat blah blah of comics it’s too easy to forget that The Arealist exists. It’s too easy to say that all these things happened in a row and so it could happen again. Basically, I think that no one is going to drop an Elektra Assassin at the big two (or anywhere) anytime soon, because it’s not a scientific process. I don’t want to say “fluke” because that’s stupid but I’m 100% sure that something this chaotic isn’t going to magically appear now that mainstream comics are in a bad place again. I think there’s something unique to the way that this book was made that’s close to that famous, kind of stupid assessment of how to break into the comics industry (by Denny O’Neill? I have no idea) that once someone figured out how to make an Elektra Assassin they made sure that no one could ever do it again because it shows a flaw in the construction of the place as a whole.
MS: Totally. Everything that’s interesting in this book is born of frustration -- with politics, with fashion, with art, whatever -- but most specifically, the frustration of two creators whose ambition and abilities were straining against the final point at which that the milieu they were working in could contain them. There’s such an overflowing wealth of innovation in Elektra, but none of it has the glowing, positive “creating new languages” feel of prime Kirby/Steranko Marvel innovation. It’s two guys pacing around a rat trap and screaming different incantations at the walls, fuming about how they can’t get out. And it’s so beautiful and so powerful, but I have this comic on fuckin’ Baxter paper in stapled pamphlets with an Epic/Marvel logo on them, and I keep them in bags and boards in a longbox. They wanted to be so much more than that. But what else can I do with the things?