Frank Miller Week: Reading Elektra
There is really no analogue for Frank Miller's Elektra anywhere in mainstream comics. She isn't a superhero, though neither is she a villain, in the strict sense of the term. Her origin, as it were, is rooted in familiar generic tropes, and yet these lead her along a very different path than that followed by the typical costumed warrior. For most of her appearances, she is inextricably tied to the psychic narrative of Daredevil/Matt Murdock, but you just have to read the exceptional Elektra Assassin to understand that this Hellenic pugilist has plenty of her own shit to deal with. Indeed, while there are a few definitive things that can be concluded about the impact of Miller's Elektra tales, it is just possible that her most profound significance is her intoxicating inscrutability.
In considering Elektra, particularly her initial appearances in the mainline Daredevil book, it is important to remember that Miller began writing these stories some five years before Alan Moore's purportedly ground-breaking Watchmen hit the shelves. I mention this because if you consider Moore's stated intention in composing Watchmen—to show just how batty superheroes would be if they lived in the 'real' world—you have to conclude that Miller had already been doing exactly that (and doing it in a much more affecting and believable way than Moore ever would) half-a-decade before Moore's self-involved buffoons were even a twinkle in their creator's myopic eye.
Lest you think I'm simply taking an opportunistic swipe at Watchmen, I think this is a really important point. It is clear that like Moore, Miller believes that someone would have to be batshit crazy to be a superhero—or super-assassin, in the case of Elektra. But unlike his British counterpart, Miller reasonably surmises that there would likely be some overwhelming psychic trauma as the underlying cause, rather than olympic-level self-involvement.
What separates Elektra from Daredevil, what leads her to become an assassin, rather than a hero like her irrepressibly moral lover, is the fact that the death of her father triggered a collapse of her world view. While I don't think it is particularly useful to linger over the specifics of superhero origins, it is important to recognize Elektra's transformation as the slide toward nihilism that it is. For one thing, it is humanly more understandable—at least for me. But even more importantly, it helps to demonstrate that Daredevil and Elektra are two sides of the same coin—or at least suffering from the same philosophical misconception.
What I mean by this is that both characters are hampered—in a way, both are ultimately doomed—by their failure to recognize the constructed-ness of their respective world views. For Daredevil, this is the source of his crippling obsession with Elektra, both before and after her death: committing himself at once to saving her life, imprisoning her and ultimately relentlessly reliving his 'guilt' over her death. Of course the consequences for Elektra are more profound and ultimately more tragic, but this is what makes reading Elektra so rewarding.
The best literary creations are those that transfix despite our ability to recognize their flaws. I am not comparing Elektra to, say, Milton's Satan, but I am suggesting that they operate on the same principle. I am haunted by Elektra, whether it is the living assassin from Daredevil, or the hallucinatory specter of Elektra Lives Again, or even the batshit apparatchik of Elektra Assassin, the same way Matt Murdock is haunted by Elektra.
And this is a pretty important observation because most of the time that Murdock dwells on Elektra in the stories she is absent. Thus, in a way, Murdock is 'reading' Elektra, in much the same way that I am reading her. While this is certainly the case before her death at the hands of Bullseye, this notion of Murdock interpreting Elektra takes on added significance after her demise.
Nowhere is this more important than in Elektra Lives Again. In typical Miller style, the reader (and Murdock, for that matter) is initially left guessing as to whether the reappearance of Elektra is genuine or if it is a figment of the lawyer/hero's tortured mind. But this is just a ploy and the real significance of this superb story is in Murdock's painstaking insertion of himself into the moments of Elektra's life from which he is most alienated. Thus, while Murdock may see himself as somehow protecting his departed former lover, what he is really doing is 'reading' the gaps in her biography so that he can ultimately let her go.
One blogger has suggested that Miller only knows how to write two sorts of female character: the woman who is created to be killed, and the woman who is really a man. While Miller may have known that Elektra would die when he first introduced the character, I do not think that this in any way lessens the significance of the character. In a way, Miller's Daredevil is more defined by Elektra than the other way round, or at least this is so in my reading of the stories. However you interpret her, though, Elektra is clearly one of Miller's most inspired creations.