By Owie 11 Comments
I want to address the question of whether Elektra: Assassin is canon within the mainstream Marvel continuity.
I don’t consider this to be a clear-cut situation. There are many who do not consider it canon, and others who do. I have had both opinions over the years. Here, we will look at the evidence on both sides.
WHY IS ITS CANONICITY IN QUESTION?
First, why the question of its canonicity? One reason is that Elektra displays powers beyond what people normally expect her to have—the silent shout, the ability to possess people, to create illusions, to deflect bullets off the back of her hand. To be clear, Elektra DOES shows psychic powers in many other 100% canonical comics—but usually not at this level. However, while these powers are of an arguably greater extent, they are not of a different kind. (Note: Elektra: Assassin usually refers to these powers as magic. In other Elektra and Hand-related comics, these powers are also sometimes referred to as psychic or chi-based. It may be a mix of all three. The magic in particular derives from the Beast, about whom more later, and may be either granted by the Beast directly or potentially learned as a ritual and thus within the character’s permanent power set, while the chi or psychic powers are more individually-learned abilities.)
Assassin has some slightly different historical details from the standard 616 storyline, in particular the circumstances of her mother’s death and her implied abuse at the hands of her father. However, Elektra’s early history has changed over time, so these differences in history are not necessarily damning in themselves. For instance, the Elektra Flashback issue had a clearly different story of her training from other current tellings, and the exact timeline of when she first met Stick, the Chaste, and her first sensei have all changed a bit over the years. Interestingly, Marvel’s various changes in history, like updating the invention of Iron Man from the Korean War to the war in Afghanistan, and the 2015 Secret War event, have made these minor continuity differences less important than they may have seemed a couple decades ago.
Another issue that that Elektra: Assassin is an Epic comic, and often—perhaps usually—Epic comics are not considered to be in the mainstream universe. For instance, in the letters page for Daredevil 322, the editor specifically says that Elektra Lives! was not canon and was thus put out by Epic.
However, Daredevil 322 is part of the Fall from Grace story arc, which specifically brings SHIELD agent John Garrett, a character from Epic’s own Elektra: Assassin, into the 616 continuity. Even more, the same letters page in 322 has a reader bring up Elektra: Assassin right before the reader who asks about Elektra Lives!, and the editor discusses Assassin without in any way demoting its canonicity. I would argue that if Assassin was also not canon, or not fully canon, then the editor would have noted that they were both not canon, instead of only saying that Lives! in particular was not canon—especially since the Assassin storyline was the basis for the storyline taking place in that very issue.
Bill Sienkiewicz has noted that Jim Shooter required Sienkiewicz’s and Miller’s Daredevil: Love and War comic to come out as a graphic novel instead of as a normal comic due to its experimentation and adult topics; it is possible that Assassin came out under Epic for those reasons, and not due to continuity.
Speaking of Garrett, this is how he is introduced in Daredevil 319. He is in a tank held by SHIELD, and is under the delusion that he is president, exactly he was when Assassin ended. The fact that this is a delusion makes it easier to explain how Assassin could fit in the real world, without all the nuclear Armageddon stuff or the Ken Wind candidacy, which are not mentioned elsewhere in 616. Agent Garrett is then released by the Hand, and acts in Daredevil just as he did in Assassin: obsessed with Elektra, and referencing Assassin events obliquely (although he usually does not reference specific events).
This is pretty good evidence that this Daredevil story arc took Assassin as canon—but it uses the cover of Garrett’s delusions to make it so anything that is a little too over the top could be explained away as the delusion. As far as I know, the end scene, where Garrett’s mind is transferred into Wind, is the only part of Assassin that has been explicitly retconned or discounted. He is, however, a somewhat unreliable narrator in regard to some topics due to Elektra’s psychic influence on him.
In addition to his appearances in Daredevil in and after Fall from Grace, Garrett has appeared in recent issues of Secret Warriors and Al Ewing’s 2015 Sunspot-led New Avengers so his continued existence in the 616 universe is not in doubt. (He also has an MCU existence in the Agents of SHIELD TV show.)
These kinds of nods to Assassin’s existence have shown up in a few other comics. Here in a Punisher comic, it refers to “telepathy, body-swapping, mind-control, and ‘for want of a better word, magic’” taking place in a “badly compromised SHIELD operation in the eighties”—i.e. the Assassin storyline. It makes it clear that Castle is suspicious of these powers, but then he also specifically buttresses the credibility of the sources, saying “these are Fury’s people talking, not some bunch of clowns.”
Here in Elektra: Dark Reign, a HAMMER interrogator makes the same kind of reference to these events and abilities, but again throws some doubt on them: “Your dossier is full of scary terms like ‘mystical mind transference’ and ‘possession.’ I’d assume the intel is apocryphal, but we’re not taking any chances.” In the same issue, Elektra heals herself through meditation, thus exhibiting her chi/magic/psychic powers directly and lending credibility to the very powers the interrogator is unsure about.
Root of Evil, an early miniseries, deliberately echoed and confirmed some specific scenes in Assassin when it had the young Elektra read Stick’s mind, and showed her ability to walk on snow without a trace (Assassin scene with snow and telepathy; Root of Evil snow, telepathy).
Since there’s no reason for writers and editors to bring up these Assassin powers and events at all if they’re not canon, these kinds of references make it clear that the events happened to some degree. At the same time, they give some cover to the idea that individual aspects of Assassin may not be confirmed, partially due to Garrett’s somewhat unreliable narrator status, allowing future writers to selectively use whatever parts of the story they want.
FROM BILL’S MOUTH TO OUR EARS
I was lucky enough to talk with Bill Sienkiewicz, the artist of Assassin, at the New York Comic Con this year. I asked if he and Miller thought of Assassin taking place in the mainstream Marvel universe, or an alternate universe. He laughed and said that they saw it taking place in its own universe, and even had ideas for other characters to populate it with if they had been able to continue to work on it.
This is pretty straight evidence that Assassin was originally conceived as being out of 616 continuity. On the other hand, Miller had originally asked Marvel to promise that they would not bring Elektra back from the dead, and that no one could write Elektra other than him, but Marvel eventually broke that promise and brought her back in the Fall from Grace storyline. It seems reasonable to me that if Marvel reneged on keeping her dead and for Miller’s use only, they’d also feel free to change any previous appearances’ canonicity issues as well, especially since prior to Fall from Grace, her total appearances were very limited.
DETAILS FROM THE FRONT MATTER OF ASSASSIN
The Introduction from Assassin provides some further clues. First, it says that Miller wanted to write a book about her after she died. Presumably this is Lives!, although it didn’t come out until later. Then he wanted to write an early-days book—Assassin, which would avoid the issues being dealt with in the other graphic novel he was working on, and the fact that she was dead. This implies that it was meant to take place in continuity, otherwise why worry about contradicting anything?
The subtitle of Assassin is “The Lost Years.” This implies not only when it took place chronologically (before her first appearance in Daredevil) but that it was in continuity; if it was an alternate universe, why mention when it took place at all? The years of an alternate reality couldn’t be “lost,” because the rest of that reality would also be unknown.
COMPARISON WITH CANON FEATS
In Assassin, Elektra has a number of magic and other high-level feats. She blocks a bullet with the back of her hand, punches through people, uses a silent shout to knock a guy backwards and unconscious, switches her mind and body with other people on two occasions, creates illusions and controls Garrett’s mind, and switches Garrett’s mind into the President’s body.
Transferring Garrett’s mind into the President, as seen in Assassin, turns out in Fall from Grace to be a delusion she fed him: instead she made him think she switched his mind, an effect that lasted years, and (importantly) she also put a bit of her own spirit into Garrett. This “evil” side of her was then later used by the Hand to put into Erynys. When Elektra killed her, the evil side left Erynys and moved back into Elektra, sullying her previously-purified self (Daredevil had purified Elektra using Chaste techniques during her original “death,” after which Stone presumably resurrected her). Point being, the connection between Assassin and Fall from Grace proves within the 616 universe that she was capable of soul transfer and creating a lasting delusion in Garrett.
We have not seen her engage in possession or body switching since then, at least as far as I am aware.
For those who think the Assassin feats are far beyond the norm, it is helpful to consider what the Hand has done in the clearly-canon universe:
• The Hand worship the Beast, a magical being of great power, who for example was seen in Daredevil recently, where he was able to repeatedly bring Ten Fingers back to life (and was the source of Ten Fingers’ original stolen power), and it also did the same to Daredevil. It also created new eyes for Blindspot and could steal people’s souls. The Beast possessed Daredevil in Shadowland and gave him the power to defeat numerous other heroes. Earlier in Glimpse and Echo, it possessed a basketball player named Lyle, whom he also gave extra power (and whom Elektra defeated).
• The Hand has repeatedly resurrected characters, sometimes giving them superhuman stats in the process (as with Ghost Maker) and sometimes using mind control (as in the Wolverine Enemy of the State storyline).
• The Chaste also have various powers, including Stick’s radar sense, Master Izo’s longevity, and Stone’s invulnerability. Also, Master Izo has confirmed that he can do sense-clouding.
Elektra herself has displayed a number of powers in 616, including:
• Mind control of a number of Hand soon after she joined them (Root of Evil).
• Being able to use chi energy to shatter stalactites and make them fall (Root of Evil).
• Moving a roulette wheel ball into a different slot (Root of Evil).
• Making people unable to see her, or to implant false memories in them on multiple occasions (the 2001 Elektra volume; it is also a possible explanation for how she was able to take Punisher’s gun away from him without him noticing).
• Being able to walk in the dimension of the dead, and speak with the dead (Glimpse and Echo).
• Engaging in psychic conversations, from extensive conversations with an absent Stick while in the middle of fighting (Shadowland: Elektra) to the recent “talk” she had with Daredevil in Defenders.
So the psychic feats Elektra shows in Assassin, including possession, illusion-making, and bullet-stopping, are fully within the realm of possibility of Hand magic/psychic/chi powers in general, and her highest canon psychic feats are approximately the same level as her Assassin feats. The question is the degree to which she uses them consistently, which I would generally attribute to the degree different writers are interested in her mystic side. I would phrase it this way: her use of specific psychic powers is not consistent, but her use of psychic powers in general is consistent. For example, she has only used the silent shout once, and has only telekinetically pulled down stalactites once; but she uses psychic powers in general pretty consistently from Assassin onwards (especially telepathy).
Overall, I have come to the conclusion that Elektra: Assassin is largely canon: the story in general took place, but individual events within it cannot be 100% confirmed. However, I think we can generally assume feats are largely accurate, with anything narrated by Garrett, especially toward the end, being the least reliable.