The City is The Thing.
If you’ve ever read any of Brian Wood’s books, especially his Creator Owned Comics – because those are the best kind of comics, natch – then you know that the writer fiercely loves New York City, and the city tends to pervade the work.
In books written by Brian Wood (Channel Zero, The New York Four, and DMZ probably serving as the best example), New York City transcends its status as mere metropolitan setting and becomes a thematic undercurrent, if not one of the characters outright. That’s certainly the case with his inaugural issue of the new Moon Knight, a character which has sort of shifted recently from his convoluted continuity roots to embody that new ideal.
If Wilson was “The Ghost Protector of Chinatown” in DMZ, then I’m gonna’ take some liberties with Brian Wood’s writing and go ahead and go on record and say that Moon Knight is “The Ghost Protector of Marvel’s NYC.”
For this run on Moon Knight, Brian Wood is collaborating with Greg Smallwood (ok, go ahead and get all of the “Big Wood” and “Small Wood” jokes out of your system, you idiots, I swear I’ve heard them all during my LCS shifts, and I’ll wait for you to compose yourself, because this book is more important than that vapid nonsense), along with Eisner-Winning Color Queen Jordie Bellaire. In a nod at providing consistency with Warren Ellis’ approach on the title, Declan Shalvey remains on cover art duty, Bellaire’s coloring itself is a welcome holdover, and Greg Smallwood brings a similar intent to the creative team.
Smallwood’s sense of purpose is all about layout fluidity and panel ingenuity. As was the case with Shalvey, there’s deliberately a sense of experimentation at play, but Smallwood puts a lot of his own English on the ball, if you’ll pardon the pool term. If you caught his captivating work on Dream Thief with Jai Nitz, then you’ll particularly notice his superb use of sound effects as panels. You’ll notice small flourishes like the manga-inspired visual symbol for a dead cell battery. It adds so much life to such a throwaway moment when you consider what the alternative might have been. What, a little red battery icon that said 0%? C’mon. What we get instead is a memorable moment instead of a flyover panel. When you understand and have mastered the fundamentals and then selectively break those rules, you know what that’s called? That’s called style.
I’ll draw your attention to two additional pages that’ll allow me to sing the praises of Greg Smallwood. On page 8, he uses the first of two 15-panel grids(!) contained in the issue to illustrate an urban blackout. This design punctuates the proceedings with a manic sense of claustrophobia and lurking danger. It’s just beat after beat after beat selling you on what it feels like to be in this dark city with a vigilante waiting in the shadows. I’d be remiss in not also calling out Jordie Bellaire’s lighting on this page, which sort of works its way up the side of the sequence, ignoring panel borders and inconsequential gutters to illuminate the area where your eye needs to eventually arrive. If you liked stuff like David Aja’s work with Matt Fraction on The Immortal Iron Fist, or their later collaboration on the popular Hawkeye for something slightly more contemporary, then Moon Knight is the place you need to be.
For the coup de grace to all of the lesser artists out there (sorry to be so direct, but y’all need to step up your game after this page), I’ll direct your attention to page 20. Moon Knight calls his Wing in for an emergency airlift. Simultaneously, this inventive page layout: A) provides a very cool panel-busting reveal for his aerial gadget, B) moves your eye down the page, falling with gravity in a series of inverted trapezoids, which C) bring you to your final destination, looking into the scope of a rifle, unwittingly carrying all of the storytelling action without any pesky dialogue, and D) pull back and the entire fucking page forms an exclamation point which punches you in the face while it punctuates everything I just described! That’s some multivalent shit happening right there. This is the kind of original art piece that people lust after.
Brian Wood’s script also deliberately pays its respects to Warren Ellis and what came before. It captures the perfect blend of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” while still putting his stamp on the work for discerning readers. There’s an effort made to capture the elusive feel of what Ellis instituted, not just the look. The book continues the use of the same intro text. There’s the same inclusion of forward-thinking technology that futurist fiction writers love to dabble in. It works as a done-in-one, but now connects to a larger narrative arc. Moon Knight’s sense of humor has that deadpan voice to it, evidenced by lines like “Carry on.” Moon Knight might be a raving loon. Everyone else he encounters might think he’s a raving loon (albeit with moments of stark clarity). But, Moon Knight doesn’t think he’s a raving loon. He’s quite serious. He doesn’t exist relative to anyone else’s perception of him. The best villains and anti-heroes are always the protagonists of their own narrative. It’s that juxtaposition that allows this brand of straight-faced humor to work.
It may be a little early to posit observations like this, but I do think this could function as one of Brian Wood’s “New York City Books,” because of the way the city already seems intent on establishing itself as a fundamental element. Moon Knight says as much, that this is his city, protecting the city is important, the city is a living breathing organism that’s just been knocked unconscious, the city is something more than the sum of its constituent parts. Wood also laces the script with some of his trademark moves (DMZ again service as a good example), like the newsfeed used as a contextual backdrop, the awareness of global political tension, or the sense of social unrest that seems to be bubbling just below the surface.
The Wood and Smallwood Moon Knight strikes me as slightly less the offbeat psychological recluse of the Ellis and Shalvey Moon Knight, a necessary adjustment reflecting the proclivities of (primarily) the writer. If the Ellis Moon Knight was half Suited White Knight Detective (subverting its roots as Marvel’s own Dark Knight derivative), and half, I don’t know, Doctor Strange, then the Wood Moon Knight is portrayed as more half Suited White Knight Detective, half “Ghost Protector of NYC,” and that’s just fine for the more grounded sensibilities.
Brian Wood and Greg Smallwood’s Moon Knight is a strong continuation of the Warren Ellis and Declan Shalvey incarnation, one which adds their own unique characteristics, both aesthetically and thematically. It’s delightful, refreshing, and just plain cool. I think that Wood may have finally found his home in the Marvel Universe, applying his outsider ethos and indie voice to a property with mainstream appeal and rich potential. Warren Ellis and Declan Shalvey would have been a tough act for anyone to follow, but Brian Wood and Greg Smallwood have done it with grace and style.