Moon Knight: Agent Of (A Moon) God

When I first heard about Marvel’s re-launch of the Moon Knight solo, I was not immediately frothing at the mouth, given that I was largely unfamiliar with the character. Reading a little closer, I noticed the names attached; Warren Ellis, Declan Shalvey and Jordie Bellaire. Shalvey and Bellaire were just coming off a great run on Deadpool’s “The Good, The Bad And The Ugly” arc. Shalvey also worked on Venom with Cullen Bunn, which I deeply love. Eisner-award-winning colourist Jordie Bellaire colours about 80% of my favourite books. So Moon Knight’s potential was already looking up. And then I realised I hadn’t read any new Warren Ellis stuff in a good while. I mean, definitely, I had reread FreakAngels earlier in the year because when do I not want to be reading FreakAngels? I just hadn’t read anything fresh off the assembly-line new. Suddenly, there was a little bit of excitement building for the book. It helped that my local comic book shop was doing a signing, just for the added poke in the right direction.

Moon Knight is not a character I had read a lot of. He had popped up in Bendis’s Ultimate Spider-Man, so I had a vague sense of the gist of his backstory; mental health issues, white suit, moon-adjacent, bit punchy, that sort of thing. I have heard him referred to as Marvel’s “Batman” which is true enough, in that he assumes the night-stalking, crime-fighting elements of the Batman motif, while Tony Stark does the “genius, playboy, philanthropist” world saving stuff.  The actual history of Moon Knight and his origins is a little involved, much like any superhero who has been around for a few decades, but basically Mark Spektor, an American veteran turned mercenary, dies in an Egyptian temple and is resurrected by Khonshu, the Moon God, ostensibly as a spirit of vengeance. Spektor manifests secondary personalities, suggested to be related to his service to Khonshu. As Ellis has veteran Marvel reporter Joy Mercado put it in the first issue, “Now, Khonshu, he has four different aspects.  So the mercenary, he comes back to the States, becomes the Moon Knight, and two other people.”

Warren Ellis plays loosely with the material, essentially cutting out the skeleton of the established myth.  If there were one word, in fact, to describe this run, it would be “minimal”. Everything is pared back, reduced to the bare minimum. The backstory exists in hints, some from Spektor, much of it from Mercado and Flint – “L.A. There’s footage of him standing in the middle of Sunset shouting at Wolverine, Spider-Man and Captain America”, “Cut off a guy’s face once”, “One of the first cases we ever worked together was a slasher”. Ellis treats the audience like they are smart enough to figure out who Moon Knight with as little direction as possible. In the first pages, we learn a little of the Khonshu tale, that he’s possibly unstable and definitely dangerous, and that he rocks a spiffy suit. The opening issue actually makes a point to discuss his look, pointing out that the glaring white gear is not particularly circumspect for a night-stalking vigilante. As both Joy and Moon Knight note, he enjoys that his targets see him coming. “Because he’s crazy.”

Given that Moon Knight himself has such a distinctive look, it seems only appropriate that the artwork itself would be so meticulous and engrossing. His runs on Venom and Deadpool certainly showed me that Declan Shalvey does creepy well, but the artwork he’s produced on these six issues of Moon Knight are a level above. Added to that, the scrupulous attention to detail in Jordie Bellaire’s colours and you have a dream-team book. The decision to keep Moon Knight himself uncoloured is inspired, granting a visceral contrast between Moon Knight and the world he stalks through. It is particularly effective when the Moon Knight mask is removed and the “real” face of Spektor sits imposed above the ethereal suit. There is a fantastic moment where Moon Knight enters the den of the murder, you seen a throwing-moon in his hand, and then it is gone with a small, innocuous movement line on the page. Some fourteen panels later, the pay-off comes, when Moon Knight informs the villain, “I killed you two minutes ago. Look down.” You can find the little blade peeking out of the bad guy’s side in two panels before the reveal, not buried by any stretch, but carefully placed within the context of overtly detailed shots examining the broken, ravaged physique of the ex-soldier antagonist.

There are obvious parallels between Spektor and this unnamed ex-SHIELD soldier, who is at least partially a victim of the same systems that left Spektor dying in an Egyptian desert; Moon Knight, although the dialogue hints that he understands the soldier’s plight, does not actually feel any empathy, or sympathy for that matter, with the deranged, abused man – “You prey on innocent traveller’s at night. That’s all I care about.” This is the essential mission statement of Warren Ellis’s Moon Knight. It’s possible to suggest, even probable, that Marc Spektor is not even truly the lead of this book. Ellis’s primary concern throughout is Moon Knight, not as an aspect of the man, but as an agent driving the vehicle of Spektor. His take on the mythos of the character is not that Spektor is suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder, but rather that Spektor is a remnant haunting the body hijacked by Khonshu’s resurrection, becoming only an aspect of the God; “. . . Whether that be Marc Spektor, Steven Grant and Jake Lockley, or Wolverine, Spider-Man and Captain America . . . your brain has conjured them to explain what has happened to you. You’re not insane. Your brain has been colonized by an ancient consciousness from beyond space-time.”

The second issue, “Sniper”, is where we begin to see that this run is something unexpected. It is also the issue where you begin to feel like Warren Ellis might actually just be trying to slowly destroy Shalvey’s mind. It opens with an eight-panel grid, ending in a headshot. Next page only has seven panels, with another red-splashed kill-shot. Every turn of the page has another victim and one less panel, until there is the one page, one panel, red-splattered, exploding exit wound of the final headshot. It is a testament either to his intention to crush their spirits or to his trust in the team that Warren gives the seven pages which succeed this only one dialogue bubble. Between them, Shalvey and Bellaire are perfectly capable of carrying off the action and the storytelling without the crutch of text boxes everywhere to carry the audience. This is something they return to later in the fifth issue, “Scarlet”, where Moon Knight ascends a building to rescue a young girl. It is an issue essentially devoid of dialogue, bar a couple of key scenes. Most of the issue however, is driven by Moon Knight beating the crap out of people, counting the floors as he climbs. It, again, reinforces the central theme that Moon Knight is the divine vengeance (what the ancient Greeks referred to as nemesis) visited on those who would attack overnight travellers.

The metaphysical framework of any fantastical story tends to attract me; it is part of the reason I respond to the kind of stories of Stephen King, Neil Gaiman and Hal Duncan so particularly. Moon Knight draws deeply, but sparingly, on its own foundational myths. ”Box”, the third issue is perhaps the most expansive in terms of the mythological basis of Moon Knight as he takes on a band of ghost-punks who have been terrorising a small section of New York. Initially defeated (or rather, battered bloody) by the ghosts, Spektor sits in his home in sullen consultation with his other aspects. The grim, suited, bird-skeleton that represents Khonshu reminds him of the Egyptian fascination with the dead, points him towards artefacts he doesn’t even really remember buying. It is another hint at the lack of agency devolved to Spektor himself, further confirmation that Khonshu, and Moon Knight, have more dominance than might be suspected. Mystically armoured in ancient bones, the ghosts represent significantly less threat. And yet, Ellis doesn’t leave the story at that. Much like the previous issues, the audience are left mulling over the melancholy victimhood of Moon Knight’s antagonists. Certainly, they are rarely sympathetic, but there is some aspect of their story that we empathise with; we are left to contemplate the tragedy of that life, to consider what, if anything he deserves from us. Certainly, Moon Knight does not care. He only came to silence the ghosts, and achieving that, leaves their bones behind. He is, quite frankly, not a heroic character. He is a force, an agent. He does not do the things were necessary expect from our idols. He does not bury the bones, or lament the dead, he does not judge guilt or worth. He does save little girls. He saves them when it is his purpose, when divine laws of natural human interaction has been breached. He is not a crime-fighter, he is the punishment of a wronged God.

Moon Knight #4

The mushroom dreamscape, by Declan Shalvey and Jordie Bellaire, from Moon Knight #4

My personal favourite issue is the fourth, “Sleep”. Ironically enough, it was probably a nightmare to draw and colour. Just look at that gorgeous monstrosity there. What even? The imagery that Shalvey and Bellaire provide has an epic grandeur to it, matched only by the detail in it. In fact, it is almost as if the detail of the art exists in utter counterpoint to the minimalism of the dialogue. The combination paints a character who is laconic, while emphasising the Holmesian attention to detail in his detective aspect. He is a watcher, an agent of observation, as much as a vehicle of violence and vengeance, if only because he must see where to point himself, before unleashing.

I imagine this is something I’m bringing myself, rather than a direct influence, but this issue seems to be some weird and delightful confluence of two particularly good Irish poems, Derek Mahon’s “A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford” in particular and the final lines of W.B. Yeats’s “Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven”. Mahon’s poem, envisioning the neglected, unremembered victims of death-camps and massacres, the abandoned of humanity, is perhaps easily understood within the context of this issue of Moon Knight. That opening line, “Even now there are places were a thought might grow – ” speaks quite directly to the events taking place in Moon Knight. With Yeats’s poem, the stretch is a little further, but consider that half-hopeful begging whisper of:

I have spread my dreams under your feet;

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

It seems almost a counter point to the urgent accusation levelled by Moon Knight, raging, “You’ve been breathing in his dreams.” Certainly, much of this is baggage and iconography I am bringing to the table, but any art is at least half audience participation. There are those who will never be able to think of mushrooms with considering Cordyceps-zombies and the Last Of Us. In a sense, what the issue plucks out of me is what I like best about it. Comics as medium is always working with shorthand, with a range of twenty-pages or so to tell a story, it almost certainly relies on the reader to provide some of the substance; the gross foetor stench of mould or head-ringing dizziness of a head-punch, we do not need every aspect of a scene described, only to have our thoughts directed to it.

Sadly, just this week, “Spectre”, the sixth and final issue of this team’s run on Moon Knight arrived. The series itself will continue with Brian Wood, Greg Smallwood and Jordie Bellaire, and I have every intention of continuing to read it; but that does not mean I do not lament the ending of such an intriguing take on the character. This sixth issue plays quite heavily with the opening of the series. The cover is an inverted reference to the first, depicting the Moon Knight antagonist Spectre. It opens in the alleyway where Moon Knight first takes on the “slasher” case, showing us a different side of the conversation. Following a disgruntled police officer, we see the origins of the opening dialogue which introduced us to Moon Knight, and follow officer Trent as he attempts to usurp Moon Knight’s position as nocturnal protector. It goes about as well as you can expect. It does, however, afford Moon Knight the opportunity to explain the difference between himself and others, those like Spectre who challenge him, those who would take up his position; “Let me tell you a thing about me. People who love me suffer and die. I never want to be loved. That’s why I always win.”

The purpose of this run, it seems to me, is to tell you who Moon Knight is. It is not so much a continuing adventure of, but rather an attempt to create a holotype example of the Moon Knight character and his mythos. It serves as a defining piece of mythology, six vignettes which set out that stall so to speak, giving us glimpses of the wider story, but plucking the most essential parts and reinforcing them, refining the Moon Knight archetype and laying it out for the audience, both new and old. I firmly believe that this is a book which will serve as the creative touchstone for future incarnations of the character, as well as for new readers who come to character. When people ask, who is that guy, people will point to this run for the answer.

Interestingly, not long after the new comic’s release, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, dropped a “man from Cairo” reference, that has led many to suspect it will be part of the Phase Three releases that lead up to the third Avenger’s film. Given the success of The Guardians Of The Galaxy in its first week, and that a Doctor Strange film is in the works, it does not seem impossible that Marvel could go with Moon Knight at some stage. Although, and I mean this quite sincerely, if the next film announcement from Marvel is not a female-led piece I am likely to lose my patience completely. They have made ten films, with three more in various stages of production, all of which have essentially been headlined by straight white men; it is very much past time to make one with a female in the lead. I still have my hopes pinned on either a Black Widow or Captain Marvel film (or both), but there are plenty of other characters for them to work with. That said, if a Moon Knight picture ever does come to fruition, the Ellis/Shalvey/Bellaire run will serve as a great introduction to the character for anyone who (like me) likes to get a little look at the source material before seeing the film.

For anyone else who is also sad to see the team go, there was good news out of the Image Expo a few weeks ago. While they won’t be working on Moon Knight, they will be launching a creator-owned book Injection in 2015. The Moon Knight trade paperback will also be available from all good comic book shops come October, and it will absolutely be getting pride of place in the over-stacked, bulging monstrosity that is my comic’s bookcase.

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