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Year of the Artist, Day 350: Frank Miller, Part 3 – Elektra Lives Again

by  in Comic News Comment
Year of the Artist, Day 350: Frank Miller, Part 3 – <i>Elektra Lives Again</i>

Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Frank Miller, and the issue is Elektra Lives Again, which was published by Marvel and is cover dated March 1990. Enjoy!

By 1989, Miller had gotten his messy phase out of his system … for the time being, and he was ready to move on to more concrete, hard-edged, ultra-modern/ultra-noir kind of artwork, which reached its ultimate expression in Sin City. But first he wanted to bring Elektra back to life. You know, because why the hell not? Elektra Lives Again makes very little sense, but damn, the art is stunning. Let’s see what’s what!

In this comic, Miller tends to use thinner, crisper, and more precise lines, but we’ll begin with the first scene, in which Matt talks to a priest, to show that he was still perfectly willing and able to use a lot of blacks. Of course, the highlight of the page is not Matt confessing, but the amazing stained glass that Miller uses to really hammer home the Catholicism of the scene. He does superb work with the lines, making sure they’re thick enough to remind us of wrought iron while remaining delicate enough to create the wonderful scenes depicted on them. Lynn Varley painted this, and she’s as responsible for the amazing art as Miller is. She uses beautiful blues and greens to allow Jesus to shine in the center of the window, and the effect is magnificent. Miller’s use of contrast certainly isn’t subtle, but it works well.

Matt dreams of Elektra, and Miller gives us a scene of her victims chasing her down and doing horrible things to her. He still uses a grid well, as the page is balanced nicely, with the eight small panels in the center with the two larger ones forming a roof and a base (yes, I know the “roof” is two panels, but the effect is of one wide panel mirroring the one at the bottom). In panels 3-6, Miller gives us one wide drawing of the mutilated corpses staggering after Elektra, but like he’s done often in the past and like many other artists have done, he splits it up into four panels. This is to keep the balance of the page but also to force the reader to linger on the corpses a bit longer – for some psychological reason, a gutter makes us stop and consider things near that gutter, so if this were one panel, we might miss the figures in the center of the panel and concentrate on the ones nearer the edges. Why is that? Am I just full of shit? It’s certainly possible, but I have to think that the gutters are there so we notice the dude carrying his own head, for example. That’s pretty neat, isn’t it? Would we have lingered there if the panel hadn’t been broken up with gutters?

Notice, too, that Miller drops Matt into the dream in Panel 8. He does this a lot, too – juxtaposing images simply by using one or two panels to break up a longer scene. As this is a dream, he wants to remind us of that visually as well as with the clipped narration. Obviously, Varley does her part, too, by painting Matt with duller colors, making that panel stand out a little from the brighter blues and whites of the dream. Miller, meanwhile, is still transitioning from the mid-1980s look to his 1990s look, as his lines are thinner than they were yesterday, but he still uses a lot of them in places to make things bunch up a bit – Gillon’s clothing is a good example – and he still uses some rougher blacks to add a bit of shading, as we see on the corpses. Gillon, in fact, could easily have stepped right out of The Dark Knight Returns, with that face. Miller, however, is becoming much more precise with his line work, which makes his figures look far more posed. As I noted, he was never the most fluid artist, but as many artists do, he began to move past motion lines, which is fine, but when your style becomes more formalized and less cartoonish, you get panels like the first one, which is a very nice drawing but doesn’t give us too much of a sense of motion. The final panel is also very nicely drawn, and both Gillon’s and Elektra’s faces are wonderful, but there’s not much of a sense that either of them is running. But maybe that’s just what I see.

Obviously, Matt lying in bed is not the most exciting page in the world, but Miller makes it absolutely stunning. He gives us Matt’s loft, with the slats on the window forming both a pathway right toward Matt and a cage to trap him, and Miller’s use of the black and light is yet another precursor to Sin City. In the small third panel, he leads us onto the next page with the hands banging the drum. The starkness of the hands coming from the blackness and the paleness of Varley’s paints is supposed to unnerve us, as the “savagery” of that small panel is in contrast to Matt’s luxurious bedroom, but when we take in the whole page and infer that Matt is trapped, the drums become both terrifying and exhilarating, as they seem to promise something beyond his circumscribed world. Of course, what they promise is horror, but a different kind of horror than Matt is currently experiencing.

Miller’s sense of design is tremendous, as this page shows. In Panel 1, he makes the cage imagery even more obvious, as Matt is actually striped by the “bars,” and in Panel 2, we see the look on his face that implies that he knows he’s trapped. Then he gets out of bed and walks down the stairs, and Miller does that amazing work with his brownstone. Miller’s details are terrific, as we get a good sense of what Matt’s interior life is like, as well as a good idea of how well-off he is – that place is pretty huge, and Matt owns the entire thing, which in New York is not a bad deal at all (notice there are stairs even going up, so he’s not on the top floor, unless that’s just the roof access). The Escher-like view Miller gives us also becomes somewhat symbolic, as Matt continues to spiral around and down into a miasma, never really getting anywhere (Miller’s commentary on superhero comics generally and Marvel’s obsession with Elektra specifically?). As usual, the colors are superb, with the soft light coming through the window in the lower left a particular highlight. I love this page. Yes, I’m weird.

In the middle of a longer fight, we get this two-page sequence, which I used for a few reasons, the most important is to show that Miller really knows how to lay out a fight. Despite what I wrote above about the posed nature of the figures, which is still evident here, he definitely knows where to put the characters in relation to the others, and moving from panel to panel does give us a decent idea of how they’re moving around. So in Panel 1, Matt is struggling with four ninjas. Below him, Miller poses one of them very strangely, in an extreme crouch where his knees are almost touching his shoulders and his right hand is underneath his butt. It’s possible Miller put him there solely to draw our attention to the sword rising from the snow, because that’s where Elektra is. Two ninjas disappear in the second panel, while Elektra leaps out of the snow (probably violating some law of physics, but it’s COMICS!!!!, so no harm, no foul) and starts slicing. Miller draws her sword having already sliced through the top ninja, which creates slack on the chain so Matt can break free, while crouching ninja rises a bit and gets his sword knocked loose by her knee. Her left hand throws a knife to the right and off-panel, leading us to the next page. Miller rotates the point of view so that Elektra is on the left, moving to the right and slicing her way through the ninjas. She has turned about 90 degrees to her left, because she’s looking directly at the dude who took his knife right in his face, as we see on the right side of the panel. She has hacked right through the staff of that central ninja and down through his head and almost to his waist, because she’s just that dang strong and her sword is just that dang sharp. Finally, Miller gives us a overhead view, so we can see that she is using the spear she took from the split dude (although the shaft looks longer than it was in Panel 1) and her sword and is spinning to deal with the ring of bad guys. It’s a wonderfully choreographed scene. Miller has always been quite good at making faceless bad guys, so the fact that he shrouds the ninjas in hoods isn’t surprising. As we see, he’s using very crisp lines, which helps show the precision of the movements, and the characters are more fluid than the page above, where Matt is dreaming. Not too much more, but Miller’s placement of the characters takes care of many of the issues with the stiffness of the figures. Meanwhile, Varley’s paints are superb, with the ninjas’ many gray tones helping them blend in, while Elektra’s bright red stands out. In Panel 2 of the first page, we get a beautiful explosion of paint as Elektra emerges from the ground, and instead of Miller drawing in spurting blood, Varley simply paints a slowly diffusing red onto wounds to show seepage. Miller smartly doesn’t complete the grave markers, either, as Varley’s paints indicate that the snow on the ground is fairly thick.

Well, this could be right out of Sin City. Miller was obviously fooling around with stuff like this and thought, “Why the hell can’t I do an entire comic like this? I’m the Goddamned Frank Miller!”

Yes, this could just be a poster, as it doesn’t really do much in terms of sequential storytelling, but it’s still pretty cool-looking, so I figured I’d show it. Elektra is disguised as a nun (let’s just not get into Miller’s complicated relationship with organized religion right now, okay?), as she dives forward to stop some priests and nuns (who obviously aren’t actual priests and nuns) from raising Bullseye from the dead. Miller draws those wonderful folds in the habit, which creates the breeze rushing past her as she plummets, and he creates a waterfall of arrows going down and up to form a nice column. Elektra is colored white so she stands out against the gloominess of the cathedral, which Miller draws with amazing detail, the vaults arching upward and each stone drawn in meticulously. On the columns, the capitals, and the ribs of the roof Miller draws unruly lines, implying dying weeds insinuated into the cracks in the rock, adding to the decrepitude of the church. It’s an actual subtle touch in a comic that doesn’t have many. Meanwhile, Varley continues to impress with the gorgeous paints.

After working for Marvel for most of his career, this comic seemed to bring that period to a close. Miller has done work for Marvel since, but in a very limited capacity. Around the time this came out, Miller turned 33 and he seemed ready to leave work for hire behind. He turned to Dark Horse, and there he produced Sin City. But you know what? You’ve seen Sin City. So tomorrow I’m going to show a few comics, one you might have missed completely, and one that might be Miller’s final masterpiece when it’s all said and done. Join me and check them out! And find more masterpieces in the archives!

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