An hour ago, she was a prisoner. Bound to a man, to his city, shackled by a love she had tried to kill. Now, she is free. She is beyond her pain, her need, beyond her self. Yet, even as she swims deeply in meditation, a part of her remains alert. She feels a breeze where none should be . . . hears a curtain rustle lightly, briefly. In an instant, she is ready. For she is Elektra–mercenary, bounty hunter, assassin. Mistress of the deadly art of Ninjutsu. She is Elektra–and she is no man’s fool. –“Gantlet,” Daredevil no. 175, October 1981
In the early 1980s, one of the hottest young comic artists on the scene was Frank Miller, who beginning with issue no. 158 had taken over Marvel’s Daredevil. Blind lawyer Matt Murdock by day, radar-enhanced superhero by night, Daredevil is a prime example of the ability of a strong artistic team and bold direction to lift B-list characters to popularity and make them relevant. With Miller both writing and penciling, and inking duties given to Klaus Janson (with whom Miller would have a long professional relationship), Daredevil went from an also-ran to a must-read, a moody, complex urban gothic melodrama, the lead character closer to Batman than to Spider-Man (to whom he had usually been compared).
Most Marvel comics were centered in New York City, and for Daredevil’s rough Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood Miller provided a gritty, ground-level texture, drawing from his own experience as a newcomer to the city in the Taxi Driver era (compare these depictions of New York to the descriptions in Eric Van Lustbader’s contemporaneous novel The Ninja), full of local color and making the city backdrop an essential part of the atmosphere. Miller shifted the viewpoint between different characters, framed the action in visually striking ways, and tightened the screws on Murdock/Daredevil to make his choices more dramatic and compelling. Ultimately he would put his own stamp on all future depictions of the character. In doing so he showed the influence of Will Eisner and Neal Adams, among others, but he was also vocal in interviews about his enthusiasm for the classic manga Lone Wolf and Cub by Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima, at a time when Japanese comics were barely present in the American market. His interest in Japanese culture also found its way into the pages of Daredevil, which became one of the key avenues for the influx of ninjas into American comics.
In issue no. 168, dated January 1981, Miller introduced one of his most enduring creations: Elektra Natchios, once the great love of Murdock’s life (revealed in an extensive flashback to the pair’s college years) but who, after the death of her Greek diplomat father, had become first a ninja and then a freelance bounty hunter. They cross paths while both searching for the same criminal: Daredevil to save an innocent man on trial, Elektra to collect a bounty on the criminal’s head. The delicate dance that ensues over the next year’s worth of issues, with Elektra unable to kill Daredevil and Daredevil unable to save Elektra from her choices, plays on the conflict between the heart and one’s duty and the inescapability of the past. (True to comic book practice, Elektra would die and be resurrected several times over the years.) Elektra was immediately popular; in addition to the action and Elektra’s undeniable sex appeal, the soap opera elements (never far away in Marvel comics) and the strong depiction of Elektra’s side of the story drew in female readers as well. Readers loved Elektra. (It’s also worth noting that while Miller was one of the main creators responsible for the increasingly dark tone of comics in the 1980s, these stories don’t feel gratuitously bleak or shocking like so many later “grim and gritty” comics, including many by Miller himself. Perhaps it was the influence of the still-active Comics Code, or that Miller’s mindset hadn’t turned quite so dark yet himself, but these issues still feel fresh and vibrant, with the joy of a maturing artist discovering new possibilities in his medium.)
The Elektra arc makes for an interesting study of the ways ninja lore and traditional martial arts storylines could be blended with larger-than-life superhero concepts. Indeed, in its more fantastical form the ninja movie is already a kind of superhero tale, with ninjas and martial arts masters engaging in superhuman acrobatics and demonstrating seemingly magical powers. Daredevil’s super-sensitive hearing is well-established, able to detect people hiding just by listening for their heartbeat; the ninja, able to slow his heartbeat and go for long stretches without breathing, remaining perfectly still, makes for a formidable challenge. And Miller clearly enjoys choreographing fight scenes that pit Daredevil’s acrobatic fighting style against the ninjas’, using his billy club much as the ninjas use bo, bokken, or nunchaku. It’s a good fit.
As I mentioned in discussion of Enter the Ninja, ninja movies rely on visual cues such as different-colored uniforms to distinguish combatants; in real life, the ninja’s need for stealth would rule out bright and flashy colors (and forget about Elektra’s long, flowing hair), but in fantasy the ninja gi is a “second skin,” just like a superhero’s costume, relaying something about the ninja’s character and narrative function. Ordinary rank-and-file ninjas (genin, or “agents”) mostly get plain black uniforms with little to distinguish them as individuals; important characters get different colors, or more elaborate armor, or at least an insignia. This is true in the comics as well as in the movies: Elektra, the former ninja, wears a red leotard and head scarf (when she’s not in disguise, that is). It is essentially her hero costume, putting her on the same narrative level as Daredevil, the villain Bullseye, or the other superpowered main characters. In addition to being visually distinctive, her red scarf connects to an early form of Matt Murdock’s Daredevil mask he wears in the flashback (and of course both their costumes are red); whether they like it or not, they are connected, their destinies intertwined. Finally, Elektra has a signature weapon, a pair of sai (swords with forked blades), although like all ninjas she is skilled with many different weapons.
By contrast, most of the members of the “Hand,” the ninja clan with which Elektra trained but which now hunts her as a traitor, are nondescript, standard-issue ninjas. There are several comic book touches in their depiction, however, the most startling of which is their tendency to dissolve into mist when killed, highlighting their uncanny nature. The ninjas’ habit of speaking as one, finishing each others’ sentences like Huey, Dewey, and Louie, also highlights the uniformity and groupthink the Hand requires of its members. Only one agent of the Hand gets the distinctive costume treatment: Kirigi, a ninja among ninjas and the boss whom Elektra must defeat, and whose superhuman strength and endurance is visually signaled by his large size and hooded purple gi. As with the lesser members of the Hand, the question of Kirigi’s humanity is left open, with suggestions that he is immortal, or perhaps a demon. Frank Miller would delve much deeper into the mystical dimensions of ninjutsu in later stories, but in this early stretch the Hand make for a colorful and slightly spooky set of antagonists. (The Wolverine limited series, a collaboration between Miller and Uncanny X-Men writer Chris Claremont, would also feature the Hand as a worldly rather than mystical force: in taking the clawed mutant Wolverine to Japan and suggesting that he had connections with the samurai in his past, Miller and Claremont made an essential contribution to the character’s depiction. In that particular story the Japanese ethos of bushido is a fresh lens through which Wolverine’s animalistic nature and personal code of honor could be examined.)
Epilogue: Just as Kurt Cobain said that he knew he had made it when “Weird Al” Yankovic parodied one of his songs, so the popularity of Frank Miller’s approach can be confirmed by an unlikely spoof that has turned out to be as enduring as Elektra. In 1984, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird produced a self-published 40-page black and white comic book. They dedicated it to their heroes, Jack Kirby and Frank Miller, and riffed affectionately on Miller’s style and themes. Miller’s ninjas were part of the “hand,” so Eastman’s and Laird’s ninja villains were the “Foot clan.” Their four heroes narrated their adventures in grim, self-serious monologues, playing an outlandishly cartoony premise completely straight; one of them even wielded Elektra’s weapons of choice, a pair of sai. Eastman and Laird hoped that their modest effort might sell a few copies and entertain their friends. Little did they know that their creation would become a smash hit in the indie comics world, inspiring their own knock-offs, and would even be adapted into multiple television cartoon series and feature films. The franchise they gave birth to is still known by the same title they gave their initial 40-page book: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
And, as Paul Harvey says, now you know the rest of the story. This concludes Ninjanuary and my biweekly exploration of the shadowy world of the ninja (as reflected in pop culture, at least). Thanks for reading and following along, and if you haven’t read my previous installments you can click on the “Ninjanuary” tag in the column next to this article to see all of them. I’ve got a few things planned for the spring, so check back here or follow me on Twitter for updates, but farewell for now, or should I say, Sayonara?