‘Elektra’ #1 Hits The Bullseye (Figuratively, Though Literally That Might Come Later) [Review]
Constructing a comic to be a direct reference to something else is always a tricky proposition. When it's done sloppily, it can take the reader right out of the story, like one of my least favorite Batman comics, The Cult, which is trying so hard to be the next Dark Knight Returns that you can see it straining with effort on every page. Even in the best case, if you're attempting to echo one of the greats, you're still reminding people that they're not reading the comic you're spending all this time calling back to, and it goes from being distracting to being frustrating for the reader.
It's the exact problem that W. Haden Blackman and Michael Del Mundo are grappling with in Marvel's latest relaunch of Elektra, but with the incredible, engaging storytelling that comes from both story and art, they do a solid job of it. Well, until the last page, that is, when it goes from "this might be a worthy successor" to "this is going to be incredible."
I normally wouldn't make such a definitive statement about the influences at work with two creators that I'm almost completely unfamiliar with, but there's really no getting around this one. Elektra #1 wears its heart on its sleeve, and that heart is trying its level best to echo Frank Miller and Bill Sienkiewiczs's Elektra Assassin. I mean, they have the word "ASSASSIN" written in bright red letters right there on the title page, and once you get in the story, it's about Elektra being an Assassin and taking a job Assassinating an Assassin who's been Assassinating Assassins. There is a theme going on here, is what I'm getting at.
And there's a good reason for it, too: It's really the Elektra story, the only one that really holds up as a classic in the handful of attempts at a solo series that the character has had -- even when the stories are good, they're still toiling away in Miller and Sienkiewicz's shadow, with a high bar to live up to. Assassin may not be the book that gets the most credit, but it's engaging, rewarding and weird on a level that holds up today, full of comics trickery and memorable moments.
So on one level, it makes sense that Blackman and Del Mundo would lean into that rather than running away from it, and they do a good job at it. It's particularly the art that does it, because Del Mundo has done an incredible job at making this book one of the most beautiful starts I've seen in a while.
Marvel's had a string of beautiful first issues over the past few months, each with their own style that makes just flipping through them a pretty incredible experience, but Del Mundo's is in a world of its own. It's just so pretty, and while the layouts and the color palette from Del Mundo and Marco D'Alfonso are clearly meant to echo Sienkiewicz's style, it feels like an homage rather than just aping an influential hero. It's beautiful on its own merits, and the way it joins with the writing to form the story being told is beautiful.
As for that story, it's fantastic. It's idiosyncratic to the point of being quirky, full of strange characters with strange names doing strange things. My particular favorite is the Matchmaker, a lady who looks like a New Yorker cover and speaks like a '20s flapper who sets assassins up with their targets, and who provides the first gear shift after the beautiful, flowing opening of Elektra's ballet dance of death.
This is where the Assassin parallel really crystalizes, and the scene that follows, of another assassin trying to assassin an assassin by assassining an assassin, takes another step further in those footsteps. It gets right to the point where you start to think you know exactly what's going to happen, and then you flip to that last page, where Blackman and Del Mundo suddenly flip you around one more time.
I almost don't want to spoil it because it is, by its very nature, a Last Page Surprise, but it's also one of those moments that I laughed out loud at because it was just so good that I wanted to tell everyone, so consider this your spoiler warning. In that respect, it actually makes a pretty interesting contrast to the first issue of All New Ghost Rider, where the last page was an inevitability, the title character finally showing up in the comic that has his name on the cover. As fun as that comic was, and as beautiful as those pages were, there was no surprise there. It was something that quite literally had to happen.
In this book, the last page is Elektra jumping out of a plane in a wing suit so she can glide to Monster Island, hunting down an Assassin-Assassin who has apparently taken refuge in the Mole Man's sovereign kingdom of giant lizards with names like GRUTO! and GARGANTUS! And it was amazing.
It's exactly the kind of twist that I want to see, the tweak to the formula that just cracks me up with how hard I didn't see that swerve coming. I mean, I love Monster Island. I love it. I don't know why it doesn't show up all the time in Marvel Comics, because it's this perfect acknowledgment of their history: An entire island where all those crazy Kirby monsters from the pre-Marvel days went to go live once superheroes became the dominant genre, from which they occasionally emerge to raise all kinds of hell. It's beautiful, and it makes me wish that there were other similar elements to the Marvel Universe, like Romance Town, the small city where all the '50s romance comics took place, just a suburb full of sad women and awful dudes. And if Elektra goes there in the second arc, I will go ahead and declare this to be the best new series of 2014.
For now, though, Monster Island is enough. I mean, I want to see Elektra starring in a beautiful, well-crafted comic, but I want to see Elektra starring in a beautiful, well-crafted comic about a deadly manhunt on an island full of kaiju even more. That's incredible, and it's exactly the kind of twist on the established formula that this book needed to push it over the top from being a really great cover band playing a song you already know to something exciting and new, dropping a few chords you recognize before blowing your mind with how they put it together.
Admittedly, they're not entirely blazing a new trail here. Assassin was, after all, full of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, LMDs and other weird pieces of the Marvel Universe, but c'mon. Elektra on Monster Island. If they'd put that on the cover, I wouldn't have even had to write this review because everyone would be buying it regardless. As it stands, it's one of the most promising, thrilling first issues in a long time, not just for what it does -- and what it does beautifully -- but for what it's building towards. It's an Elektra story that might seem familiar, but it's doing something I've never seen before, and that I never would've expected. And really, that's exactly what the character needed.