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Sunday Slugfest: Moon Knight #1 (2011)

Posted: Sunday, May 8, 2011
By: Thom Young

Brian Michael Bendis
Alex Maleev (with Matthew Wilson, colors)
Marvel Comics
Wolverine, Captain America, and Spider-Man call on Moon Knight to tell him to get busy in his new home of Los Angeles, so he does.

Rafael Gaitan:
Shawn Hill:
Dave Wallace:
Thom Young:

Rafael Gaitan:

Say what you will about Brian Michael Bendis, the man knows how to write a first issue. Springboarding off of the superlative Scarlet debut, the creative team of Bendis and artist Alex Maleev kick off Marvel's BIG SHOTS relaunch campaign with everyone's favorite Egyptian god-possessed vigilante, Moon Knight.

Personally, I haven't followed Marc Spector's adventures since my dad bought me my first issue at age five (I probably thought he was a fresh-white version of the Bat-Man,) so I went into this latest Moon Knight #1 only knowing:
  • Moon Knight is crazy,

  • Moon Knight is violent, and

  • I was assigned to write this review.
Bendis and Maleev have constructed a fun little action comic featuring Bendis's love of metatextuality and that is more akin to a neo-noir than to a typical cape-and-tights tale.

The issue opens with two mercenaries banging it out in the desert, and we discover it's a re-enactment of Spector's Moon Knight origin. We find Spector at the premiere of his new television show, when suddenly he's tapped by the Avengers to take point in investigating a smuggling operation.

Moon Knight has the distinction of being one of the West Coast's few superheroes in the Marvel universe, and Bendis and Maleev create some great set-up for potential adventures. While New York is always going to be the central focus at Marvel, this story does smartly address the idea that other locales need oversight as well.

More than anything, Bendis should be commended for resisting the urge to resurrect the West Coast Avengers, but his treatment of Moon Knight is exactly what he needs. Bendis writes him as a hard-nosed, violent type when he's in costume, and as a smooth-talker when he's Marc Spector.

Maleev's pencils are fascinating, as usual. Having been introduced to the artist’s work during Bendis's Daredevil run, I've been a huge fan of Maleev’s jagged, almost impressionist drawing style. Colorist Matthew Wilson also nails it on this issue--illuminating every scene distinctly and making Maleev's art even more impressive. A fight with Mr. Hyde on a tanker is simultaneously brutal, clever, and an exemplary piece of coloring--the blue/ green palette that Wilson employs makes it look exactly like a nighttime fight would on film, and he shows his versatility by coloring scenes like the Hollywood premiere with a warmth that practically makes the chatter and congratulatory talk jump off the page.

Having always shown a talent for pace and suspense, Bendis's reveal on the final page is dynamite, especially when the signs come together on a re-read. The immediately preceding pages have Maleev penciling a significant object as negative space in the forefront, which creates an awesome MacGuffin sequence that is visually stimulating and very film-like. Bendis and Maleev have a superior grasp of comics layout, and Moon Knight #1 is a fantastic debut issue; it's smart, it's funny, it's action-packed, and it sets you up for more.

The BIG SHOTS campaign is a re-launch of some of Marvel's heaviest hitters, and this issue is a potent volley.

Shawn Hill

Is the Heroic Age already over? That didn't last very long. Here we have Moon Knight in LA, carrying on the work of the Avengers on the other coast--under the fashionable no-brainer cover story of being a Hollywood television star--which is good because that means the extra-cheesy version of Moon Knight’s origin story that opens the issue was meant to be filled with clichés and overwrought dialogue.

That opening origin story is a television series trailer being shown at a fancy party in Marc Spector's honor, and it is the first of several levels of ambiguity that are intriguing (but also confusing) about this re-launch of a character that I have always found visually striking, if rather derivative (he's like Batman with some Hawkman mumbo jumbo thrown in).

It's hard to get a bead on whether the Egyptian stuff is even relevant anymore, as Spector might now just be a guy in a white costume with some cool weapons. He certainly doesn't seem to have much motivation, as the altercation he gets involved in with Mr. Hyde in this issue results from going out and looking aimlessly for some sort of criminal activity.

Bendis stages a series of sequences that may or may not add up to a bigger picture. In one sequence, Spidey, Wolverine, and Cap enlist Moon Knight's aid--rather it’s more like they're talking a reluctant child into coming in for dinner. Then we get a long and rather harrowing sequence involving two mob types from central casting trying to work a deal with Mr. Hyde--one that they are completely unprepared to back up.

And it's not like Moon Knight saves them. He's more about gathering intel, trying to figure out what's going on in LA and whether he even needs to be involved. As the skulls of the two mobsters crack, Moon Knight decides to do battle with Hyde--which involves boats (and maybe helicopters) and explosions and trucks being thrown into the ocean. It’s all very big budget action film, and Maleev's work is dramatic and moody. However, his illustrations put us far from the action sometimes.

At crucial moments, we get a lot of suggestive word balloons bobbing about--attached to long-shots with no actual people visibly speaking. It's very frustrating--more of a way of ensuring mystery rather than building it up gradually. And then to have the whole thing boil down to a character that Bendis does not write particularly well but one that he can't seem to stay away from.

This is the book that Bendis and Maleev truncated their Spider-Woman re-launch for?

I mean, I can see it, how could Bendis possibly write a heroic Spider-Woman?

For him, she's the most compromised of all heroes--born out of parental abuse, seduced by Hydra from childhood, and so bereft of a moral compass that she's usually a triple agent unsure of her own loyalties. The version of the character he made briefly famous turned out to have been a Skrull impersonator. Her work in Madripoor involved getting vengeance on some Skrull stragglers before having the Avengers drag her back to the light.

So, had her series continued under Bendis (without that nice Avengers welcome mat), she'd probably still be on the run, betrayed, nude, and stalked by murderous family members. Moon Knight is more of a loner; he just has to contend with his own mental instability, and a self-destructive urge to test himself against stronger foes. I guess that passes for heroism now, but this book is going to need a bigger agenda to really make it worthwhile.

Dave Wallace:

If there's one other character that Moon Knight reminds me of, it's . . . Wonder Woman.

No, wait. Hear me out.

Both are second-tier characters that feel like they could (and should) be a lot more than that, but which seem to struggle to capture readers' imaginations in the same way that the likes of Batman, Spider-Man, and Superman do so effortlessly. As such, they've been subject to more than their fair share of re-launches and reboots over the last few years--none of which has really stuck, for various reasons.

So, the cycle repeats itself and we find ourselves with yet another “#1” issue for Moon Knight, yet another new creative team handling the hero, and yet another new direction for the character.

However, unlike the cycle of “all-new directions” and resetting of the status quo that our Slugfest editor and reviewer Thom Young talked about in last week's slugfest review of Action Comics #900, a successful re-launch for second-tier characters like Moon Knight that aren't also timeless flagship company characters like Superman (or Wonder Woman, for that matter) actually has a chance of sticking.

It's for that reason--coupled with my general enjoyment of most of Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev's past collaborations--that I decided to check out this new series to see if these creators have managed to crack the formula that has eluded those who have handled Moon Knight over the past decade or so.

On the strength of this issue, it's a “maybe” at best.

This issue opens with a fun bait-and-switch that actually had me fooled for a minute. The reason the cheesy, cliché-ridden opening scene works is because it's actually fairly plausible that a re-launched Moon Knight title would open with a recap of the character's origin--and, unfortunately, it's equally plausible that Bendis would turn in the kind of workmanlike, derivative dialogue that we see in that opening sequence, which is eventually revealed to be a TV pilot about Moon Knight's life.

(The plausibility of Moon Knight revealing so many details about his secret identity and origin story in a syndicated TV show is another matter, however--but the twist of the issue's last page provides a possible reason why it might not be such a problem, so I won't make too much of that here).

We quickly switch from that cheekily misleading opening to the real new status quo for Moon Knight's alter ego, Marc Spector, who appears to now be a successful television executive based in Los Angeles. I haven't read a Moon Knight book for a good few years (not since the Charlie Huston/David Finch run, I think), so if this new status quo was set up in previous books, I'm not aware of it.

Still, Los Angeles is a distinctive setting with which to establish Moon Knight as a title that is different to all the other New York-based superhero titles in Marvel's stable--and I guess the world of show business offers up some possible avenues for crime-fighting stories in future. All of which would be all well and good if Bendis didn't use this distinctive setting and new status quo to tell a story that it feels like we've seen a hundred times before.

Don't get me wrong, I've been a fan of Bendis's street-level, crime-oriented superhero work in the past. His Alias and Daredevil smoothly married the gangster noir that he clearly loves with the more colourful world of the Marvel universe; they're among his best works. The trouble is, having read those two books, Moon Knight just doesn't feel like anything new.

We get a gritty superhero tracking down hoods in the dark-and-dingy underbelly of society, we get a deal-gone-wrong involving regular criminals and a super-villain, and we get a mystery involving a shadowy criminal Kingpin and an illegal underground trade in super-villain equipment. Again, all of these elements have been employed before, several times, in a similar fashion--often in Bendis's own titles.

At times, it feels as though the writer isn't even trying to make things interesting. An extended fight sequence between Moon Knight and super-villain Mr. Hyde degenerates into a long back-and-forth of over-the-top grunting and groaning, coupled with some occasional overblown sound effects to keep things ticking. And a low-key conversational scene in which two underlings discuss their place in their criminal organisation feels more like a pastiche of the dialogue found in Bendis's past work than it does a fresh offering from the writer.

Where Bendis does try to break new ground is with his treatment of Moon Knight's multiple-personality disorder. Since advanced interviews and promotion have already given the game away, it's not much of a spoiler to say that the cameo appearances from Captain America, Spider-Man, and Wolverine in this issue aren't quite what they seem--and whilst we don't get any explanation for why that is, it's at least a fairly original way of handling such a key character trait as multiple-personality disorder.

It also might indicate that not all is as it appears with that opening scene involving Spector's status as a TV executive, too--which might help to explain away the implausibility of a superhero televising his own origin story.

I always enjoy seeing how writers use the device of the unreliable narrator (and Bendis has recently covered similar ground in his creator-owned title Scarlet--also with Maleev--to great effect). I just hope that there's a reason for Bendis's choice to make Spector's alternate personalities such recognisable characters, above and beyond the extra sales that Marvel can expect from featuring such well-known characters in a second-tier hero's book.

Either way, I remember Bendis handling Moon Knight's multiple-personalities very effectively in the pages of Ultimate Spider-Man, so I'm interested to see what he does with them here, even if much of the rest of the book's story feels uninspired and derivative.

Finally, I should mention Alex Maleev's artwork, which skews closer to his Daredevil run than anything else he's done more recently in terms of the bold, thick, rough and angular linework he employs. This roughness suits Moon Knight well. In places, it comes close to emulating the great Bill Sienkiewicz's work with the character. There are also some neat little touches, such as the use of negative space to signify certain elements (like a certain character's helmet in the closing scenes), which help to keep things visually interesting.

The book might lack the detailed textures or experimental colouring techniques that we've seen used by Maleev in titles such as Scarlet, but it's an effective approach for a grittty, street-level superhero book, and if a slight simplification of Maleev's style here allows him to keep working on both books simultaneously, so much the better.

If there's one place in which the art lets the story down a little, it's during the climactic action sequence set on board Mr. Hyde's boat--a sequence that is pretty important to the plot of the story, unfortunately. It's not immediately clear what is lifting the boat out of the water at a crucial moment, or even that a new character has entered the story. As a result, I had to re-read the sequence in light of dialogue in the following scene, and work things out for myself.

That sequence aside, Maleev's work is pretty good here--if not quite as great as it is on Scarlet--and combined with Bendis's twist ending (which isn't much of a twist if you've seen any of the advance promotion for the series) it's probably enough to encourage me to come back for at least another issue. However, this first issue isn't the runaway success that it could have been, and I wouldn't be surprised if we see another re-launch of the character within a couple of years.

Thom Young:

I am not a regular reader of Marvel comics, but there have been characters and runs by certain creators that I have been interested in over the past 35 years--and Moon Knight is one such character. I remember when I first encountered him.

Way back in 1978, I went into my local comic book shop and the owners, who knew I was a huge Neal Adams fan, showed me the most recent issue of Marvel’s Hulk magazine (issue #13). Specifically, they showed me the back-up story that featured an obvious Batman-like character named Moon Knight. They asked me to identify the illustrator. I looked at one page and said, "Neal Adams."

One of the owners thought the story was illustrated by Adams using a pseudonym, but the other owner thought it was a new artist doing a very good imitation of Adams’s style. I sided with the owner who thought it was Adams using a pseudonym. Of course, we all know better now. That Moon Knight back-up story was illustrated by a young Bill Sienkiewicz.

I bought that issue of Hulk along with each subsequent issue in which Moon Knight appeared. I don’t recall a thing about any of the Hulk stories in that magazine-sized series; I was collecting those magazines solely for Moon Knight--not just for the work that I believed at the time to be by Neal Adams, but also for the engaging stories being written by Doug Moench.

Later, I followed the character to his own series--Moon Knight #1 (volume one) in 1980.

Back then, Moon Knight had three secret identities (and not necessarily due to a multiple-personality disorder). He was initially Marc Spector, a mercenary who was resurrected by an Egyptian god to be Moon Knight. Using his money (I no longer recall how he became wealthy), Spector created the identity of Steven Grant as a millionaire playboy (the Bruce Wayne to Moon Knight’s Batman). He also created the identity of Jake Lockley as a taxicab driver who could have access to street-level crime (akin to Batman’s Matches Malone persona).

Actually, rather than Batman, the original version of Moon Knight was more akin to the various identities employed by The Shadow. That pulp hero was initially a mercenary named Kent Allard who later borrowed the life (and wealth) of a millionaire playboy named Lamont Cranston.

The Shadow also created numerous other identities that allowed him access to different segments of society. While one of The Shadow’s identities was NOT that of a cab driver, he did employ a cabbie named Shreve who was clearly the basis of Moon Knight’s Jake Lockley persona.

In this latest revival of Moon Knight, Jake Lockley is the name of the protagonist in the television pilot that opens the issue. Here it is Lockley who is the mercenary that is resurrected by the Egyptian god Konshu (actually, Lockley doesn’t appear to die in this television pilot, but that’s another matter entirely).

Anyway, in their reviews, both Rafael and Dave mentioned that the final page of this first issue of Moon Knight reveals a twist that they both understood to some degree. However, while I realized that the final page was significantly different from the page the preceded it, I had absolutely no idea what I was supposed to understand about that significant difference.

After reading Dave’s review, I now realize that for me to understand the significance of the final page I was supposed to have read the pre-publication promotional material that Marvel had released--such as interviews with Brian Michael Bendis about his plans for Moon Knight.

Unfortunately, I didn’t read any promotional material about this re-launch of the character. In fact, until this issue turned up at the comic book shop this week, I had no idea that the character was being re-launched. However, once I saw that there was an all-new Moon Knight #1, I knew I had to buy it. After all, I still have fond memories of those Moench and Sienkiewicz stories from 30 years ago.

As Dave mentioned, Alex Maleev does a good job of evoking Sienkiewicz’s later, post-Adams style that was inspired by the impressionistic work of British cartoonist Ralph Steadman. However, evoking Sienkiewicz’s own impressionistic line work is where the similarity ends. Maleev’s layouts are different from the Adams-inspired layouts that Sienkiewicz continued to use even after he changed the style of his lines.

I mostly liked Maleev’s work in this issue. However, I had a problem with the action sequence that Dave mentioned in his review--the sequence set on the boat. As Dave noted, it is unclear what is happening in the scene. In Maleev’s defense, though, some of the blame for that confusing sequence surely falls on Bendis as the writer.

In fact, nearly every problem I had with this issue has to do with the way it was written. Not only was I unable to understand what supposedly happened on the final page without first having read the promotional material for the series, I also cringed upon reading most of the dialog in this issue.

This issue contains the typical Bendis dialog that is meant to convey verisimilitude through the choppy, back-and-forth banter that the characters engage in. I normally enjoy such attempts at conveying verisimilitude through dialog--such as the banter between Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield in the opening scene of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, or the overheard dialog that Harvey Pekar would write as vignettes in his early issues of American Splendor.

However, while Bendis is obviously going for verisimilitude with his style of dialog, he doesn’t succeed in reaching that goal. Instead, his dialog comes across as highly stylized. It’s more of an idiosyncratic affectation rather than an effective conveying of natural speech patterns.

Finally, even if I now accept that the characters of Wolverine, Spider-Man, and Captain America were not actually in this story--that they were used here as additional aspects of Marc Spector’s multiple-personality disorder (which answers the question I have about why it appeared to be Steve Rogers who was Captain America in this issue since he has not yet resumed that identity in the rest of the Marvel universe)--I still have a problem with a plot that involves these three colleagues/sub-personalities telling Spector that he needs to get off his butt and search for an ambiguous mob kingpin who represents a “substantial migration of criminal activity” from the East Coast to the West Coast.

Of course, the only reason I know that Moon Knight’s colleagues were not actually in the story is because I read my own colleagues’ reviews as I edited this Sunday Slugfest. I can appreciate that Bendis was going for ambiguity, and that all would be revealed if I kept reading the series. I normally applaud writing that requires the reader to wait a while before the pieces start falling into place.

However, on its own (separate from promotional material), this issue gave me no reason to consider coming back for a second issue. While I recognized that some ambiguity was being employed intentionally as part of the story, I was not aware that the entire story was meant to be ambiguous from the first page to the confusing revelation of the final page. I believe the only readers who could enjoy this first issue are either regular readers of Bendis’s work in the Marvel universe or who read the promotional material for this series. I fit into neither of those two sets of readers.

Instead, I found this first issue to contain several clichés, a weak and nebulous plot catalyst (Spector is told by three other heroes to go do something about someone who is active somewhere in the area and then report back to us), and a confusing action sequence. Now that I know that the entire issue may (or may not) have been the equivalent of a dream (yet another cliché, albeit one with a multiple-personality twist), I am still not going to return for the second issue.

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