Keith Silva: Few characters hang so gibbous, so ‘in between,’ in the firmament of the Marvel Universe than the vestigial Moon Knight. Even when Marvel pulled Moon Knight from pharmacy spinner racks and newsstands back in ’82 and began to distribute the title exclusively through the direct market this watchman of ‘overnight travelers’ keeps coming back. Does this make Moon Knight the patron saint of the LCS?
The two words often tagged to Moon Knight are ‘convoluted’ and ‘nuts.’ The character deserves each tag an each is dealt with in this issue, but none of that noise matters NOW (!) … Enter Warren Ellis, Declan Shalvey, Jordie Bellaire and Chris Eliopoulos with a high contrast and stylish take on the nearly forty-year-old creation of Doug Moench and Don Perlin. The goofy widow’s peak white hood and cape combo has been replaced, for now, with a three piece suit and loafers from the Elijah Snow collection along with gloves and a hood a sliver away from some S&M costume de rigueur. A bit of self-flagellation may be in order for taking time to lay out the changes the creative team makes to the costume of such a well-known (iconic?) character; however, how well Moon Knight’s new threads feel may determine if the reader sees fit to follow this series.
The ALL NEW (!) Moon Knight sticks out like a (pale) thumb. Ellis has three different characters, an employee at the Daily Bugle, a beat cop and the issue’s big bad, comment on Moon Knight’s turnout and each time it’s made plain, [clears throat] black and white, his look works as either a tool of intimidation, an indicator of his (in)sanity or both. As a design, it’s choice. Shalvey’s austere inks within the confines of the costume provide permanency, shape and a clean look. Bellaire becomes free to ‘noir-it-up’ with moodier color choices like taupes and gunmetal greys because she knows a white knight lights the way and leads the eye. With the exception of two splash pages and a much darker final sequence, all the gutters are white which allows for a sense of transference, less the clichéd ‘it’s-Moon-Knight’s-world-and-we’re-just-living-in-it’ and more like the page becomes the character, a outré silhouette — he, we.
Yes, the ‘white’ works as a gimmick, but Bellaire uses ‘the white’ as a character, descriptor and as exposition. In a flashback, Spector sits in a white room with floor to ceiling windows and looks out on a mountain range from The Sound of Music. He wears a white t-shirt and across from him is a white desk with a white chair. A woman enters the room, a doctor wearing a white coat (natch) and tells Spector his test results are back. She says ”the good news is that you don’t have Dissociative Identity Disorder,” and with that, Moon Knight is a ‘nut’ no more. Bellaire then turns the white down, way down. As the doctor explains Moon Knight/Spector’s convoluted past, Bellaire’s colors become silvery, ash and glaucous. It’s due to deceptive and subtle changes like this — how Bellaire treats color to tell the story — that ranks her as one of the best colorists in comics.|
Declan Shalvey draws sequential art as much from the perspective of what occurs in the panels as to how those panels suit the page. Each page of Moon Knight #1 reads like a map or guide book, a Baedeker for the eyes. Shalvey favors widescreen compositions which allow his figures to always have a sense of place (a ‘where’) and for the reader to know precisely what occurs in each frame. Line of sight is how a cartoonist directs action and Shalvey is a maestro. Where the story goes, panel to panel, depends on which direction Moon Knight’s cue ball like dome points, it’s like a game of follow the bouncing ball.
The best example of Shalvey’s prestidigitator’s-like skill happens before the big showdown scene. Ellis’s dialogue is used as a distraction, a trick which renders the confrontation that follows over before it begins. All of the action turns on a flick of the wrist and page; a credit to Shalvey’s talent as a cartoonist and as a storyteller. It would be a kick to read Ellis’s script to learn how the process — the ‘magician’s ugly truth’ — behind this comic sleight-of-hand was developed.
The repetition of plot points and the needless (yet necessary) clearing the continuity cobwebs aside, Moon Knight takes its place in Marvel’s (NOW) burgeoning boutique of second fiddles alongside Hawkeye, She Hulk and Ms. Marvel. It’s dismissive, not to mention insulting to the creative team, to christen this Moon Knight ‘a-superhero-comic-for-people-who-don’t-like-superhero-comics.’ Ellis, Shalvey and Bellaire have created a comic that stands out in every artistic way possible. Given Marvel’s penchant for universality, I wonder how long Moon Knight will remain a solo operator? Will ‘Marvel Comics’ allow Moon Knight to hawkeye? And is Moon Knight sustainable enough, on its own, to stay on the fringes or is it doomed to repeat its past of tics and superhero handouts?
Taylor Lilley: Oh great, Silva. Thanks. You get to rhapsodize over Shalvey and Bellaire, and I’m batting clean-up off a ‘sustainability’ hook? Next time, I’ll just smile and say ‘you look great!’
Sure, we can wonder whether Moonie’s latest title will stay solo, go Hawkeye, or ‘repeat its past of tics and superhero handouts’ (no, no, and probably), but that’s all way down the line. That’s all stuff we should discuss after Ellis/Shalvey/Bellaire/Eliopoulos leave, which I hope won’t be for a while.
I’m more interested in this book’s identity, because it has several. It is resolutely a Warren Ellis comic, from the near-future tech (Moonie’s self-driving limo, the S.H.I.E.L.D. Frankenstein upgrading himself in New York’s depths), through the algorithmic rationality of his hero’s voice, ”All I’m doing is stopping you, as simply and completely as possible”, to the Khonshu wiki copy and paste informing a newly ”outerterrestrial” origin story (Khonshu colonized Spector’s consciousness, rewiring/damaging his brain). Ellis can’t help himself. He’s preoccupied with technology, technologies even, including those from other planes. Anybody who’s read Planetary or Ellis’s Astonishing X-Men run will instantly recognize his signature angles of approach, the application of a focused, technophile intellect.
But Moon Knight is also, as you so lucidly conveyed, Keith, a Shalvey/Bellaire joint. Shalvey is a terrific storyteller, Bellaire is a wonderful colorist (in this issue taking flecking to new heights, especially on pages like the one below, invoking spatter and Life’s chaos of contact traces), but they’re artists beyond the limits of their disciplines and this book offers glimpses of that. The largely wordless fight climax is one example, as Bellaire bleeds a white wash diagonally across our Frankenstein’s panels, pale Death embracing him while Moon Knight becomes an even paler negative space, an intrusion of the gutters into a chapter closed. But my favourite page is Ellis’s manifesto, where he lays out his theory of Khonshu (via Spector’s neurologist) as Marc Spector cascades down the left hand side of the page on the skulls of his former selves, and in the background Khonshu looms, extravagant, enormous. As a single composite image, it’s remarkable. As storytelling and an exercise in eye-leading, it’s hallucinatory. But undercutting it all, foreshadowed by a panel one page earlier with the Doctor grinning over her shoulder like a half moon, is the question of whether everything Marc sees around him, Doctor included, is not in fact Khonshu’s will. Shalvey and Bellaire visually undercut Ellis’s narrative rationality, even as they deliver it, using layers of grey beyond the black and white foreground.
Of course, the other identity this comic claims is that of, well, Moon Knight. But is this really the character I fell for in Charlie Huston’s run, a guy who never met a punch he wouldn’t rather take than duck, who’d been filled with Khonshu’s power and crippled by its withdrawal? Or is he closer to Moench’s original? Perhaps one of the many other spins second fiddlers endure? Much as long-time Hawkeye fans may not recognize the ‘can’t keep his pants up or his friends safe’ incarnation currently enjoying wild success, does this Moonie work as Moonie? Is he being served by the creators involved, or utilized by them?
As far as the writing, little of column A, a little of column B… Moonie was never this precise in his put-downs: ”So… you kill them, take pieces of them down here, and paste them into your body with obsolete, exotic medical machinery. And you think this is the best use of their lives and your skills.” And I don’t recall him being so much a Sun Tzu devotee, a winner of fights without fighting. Ditto the tech. That’s all Ellis, if plausible as a late-stage tactical switch for a guy whose joints are complaining, and who, in this issue at least, seems to dislike being touched (I hope there’s more on that). Ellis has brought at least one fresh twist to the character, though, in that Spector and Khonshu now wrangle not as servant and Master, but as Son and Father, their tension no longer borne of ownership but of creation; a tighter, more tangled knot. Ellis has trimmed the fat elsewhere, too, so the old relationships with Frenchie and Marlene are absent, which means no more ”Take me back, Marlene, please!” or ”Just ready the copter, Frenchie!” to prop up the action. And after Marvel’s brief attempt to reassign Moon Knight to a team, he’s back in his dusty mansion with just his selves and his toys. Minimalist Moon Knight, perhaps.
Aesthetically, though, between the stark contrast of the new Moon-suit, the flecked and textured feel of city and psyche, and the resolutely non-superheroic, nuanced style, this is Perfect Moon Knight. Shalvey and Bellaire have built a world without the need for world-building. They’ve set the tone, established the different locations we’ll be visiting, made Moon Knight feel like no other comic on the shelves. If Ellis can stay on the book (but out of the way) and Shalvey/Bellaire don’t get cherry-picked for Batman or the next Sentry series (come on!), this could join Hawkeye in setting the tone for Marvel’s second string, the character-led titles that can take creative risks. Telling short-form tales from superheroism’s fringes, as Marc Spector winds himself ever tighter in his Creator’s cloth, Moon Knight could be the darker face of Marvel for those beyond the Wednesday crowd. That would please Khonshu.