When an artist carousel actually works: Review of Moon Knight (2016) #6-9

These four issues constitute a story arc of their own (titled “Incarnations”), the end of which is also marked by Greg Smallwood’s return as the sole artist from the next issue on, so it makes sense to review them now.

Language: English
Authors: Jeff Lemire (writer); Greg Smallwood, Wilfredo Torres, Francesco Francavilla & James Stokoe (artists); Jordie Bellaire & Michael Garland (colourists)
Publisher: Marvel
Pages per issue: 20
Price per issue: $3.99
Website: http://marvel.com/comics/series/20488/moon_knight_2016_-_present

Previously in Moon Knight: Moon Knight has escaped from the mental asylum but then met his patron god Khonshu, fell out with him, jumped from a pyramid, passed out and awoke in his Steven Grant persona. He is producing a film starring his girlfriend Marlene as the female lead. Everything seems fine and the last panel of issue #5 shows a smiling Steven.

And here his troubles begin. Our protagonist keeps involuntarily changing in and out of his identities, and his surroundings change with him. Everywhere he is haunted by incarnations of his tormentors at the mental asylum, nurses Bobby and Billy and psychiatrist Dr Emmet. And also by werewolves from outer space.

Neither Moon Knight nor the readers know which reality is actually the real one. The guest artists reduce the subtlety somewhat, but it is also an interesting gimmick that each of Moon Knight’s personas/realities is drawn by different artists: taxi driver Jake Lockley by Francesco Francavilla, film producer Steven Grant by Wilfredo Torres and Michael Garland, and space pilot Marc Spector by James Stokoe.

So how exactly does this brilliant device of switching back-and-forth between identities work? Jeff Lemire employs a variety of ways to do this, but let’s take a closer look at the beginning of this arc in issue #6. The first panel (art by Torres and Garland) shows Moon Knight in his old cape fighting some villain in what looks like ancient Egypt. So far, this could be a classic Moon Knight story. In the second panel though, a speech bubble is partly obscured by a boom microphone, and on the following double page we learn that this was only a Moon Knight film being shot, produced by Steven Grant. The name of the leading actor though, whose face we never get to see, is Marc Spector – the real name of the real Moon Knight!

panel from Moon Knight #6

On page 5, Steven and Marlene enter a taxi and talk about a fundraising event at a mental hospital (because their film “explores some real themes… identity, mental illness”), which of course later turns out to be the hospital where Moon Knight was detained earlier. The last panel on this page contains a caption: “Steven Grant is too soft for what comes next…”, and on the next page (from now on drawn by Francavilla) their taxi driver turns out to be Jake Lockley! After he has dropped Steven and Marlene off, he meets his friend Crawley, who remembers the events from the first arc (the escape from the mental hospital) but Jake can’t.

Crawley tells Jake on p. 9, “You’re in the hospital right now”, then disappears. Jake opens the trunk of his taxi where he keeps his Moon Knight costume. The following page is drawn by Torres and Garland again, and on the first panel we see Steven Grant looking at his dinner suit (which looks not unlike Moon Knight’s ‘Mr Knight’ costume) on his bed from the same perspective. Apparently he and Marlene are getting ready for their fundraising party at the hospital. Steven is confused and says to Marlene, “I – I was somewhere else! I was in this cab and there was this man, this old man with white hair, and he told me – he told me I was in a mental hospital.”

2 panels from Moon Knight #6

Marlene answers, “Have you been taking your meds? […] You remember last time you got off, how you got.” So (according to this version of Marlene) Steven is mentally ill, which would explain the Jake Lockley scene as Steven’s delusion. But Steven doesn’t even remember being on medication at all.

And so it goes on. It’s a joy for the reader to gradually realise on how many levels the various realities are intertwined, and how they all contradict each other. Until issue #9 when Moon Knight, in his Mr Knight outfit and drawn by Greg Smallwood and Jordie Bellaire again, confronts his other three personas, defeats or makes peace with them, and they vanish.

The “Incarnations” story arc was one wild ride, and if Lemire, Smallwood and Bellaire keep up their good work in the next arc, Moon Knight will surely be the best current Marvel comic, now that The Vision has ended.

Rating: ● ● ● ● ○


The best Moon Knight ever? Review of Moon Knight (2016) #1-5

One of the many series recently rebooted by Marvel was Moon Knight, and as Moon Knight is a character I tend to follow (see my previous reviews of his series: Moon Knight (2011) #6-8 and #9-12, Moon Knight (2014) #1-3 and #4-6), I thought I’d give him another try.

panel from Moon Knight #1Language: English
Authors: Jeff Lemire (writer), Greg Smallwood (artist), Jordie Bellaire (colourist)
Publisher: Marvel
Pages per issue: 20
Price per issue: $3.99
Website: http://marvel.com/comics/series/20488/moon_knight_2016_-_present

Previously in Moon Knight: No idea what happened at the end of the previous series, because I dropped it when Warren Ellis left after only six issues. (Maybe I should have stuck to it, because it turns out Greg Smallwood’s artwork is almost as striking as Declan Shalvey’s who left the book shortly after Ellis…)

One of Moon Knight’s/Marc Spector’s defining characteristics is his precarious mental health, so it makes sense for Jeff Lemire to start the story with Marc being a patient – or should we say ‘inmate’? – in a mental hospital. Marc has these memories about being Moon Knight, but none about how he got there, and the hospital psychiatrist tells him that he has been there since he was twelve years old. Then again, he has these visions of his Egyptian patron deity, Khonshu, which suggest to him that the hospital staff are in fact other, evil Egyptian mythological beings.

Mental asylum break stories (if that’s a thing) are powerful when they manage to convey the feeling of despair in the protagonist: he or she is the only one who knows what’s really going on, but everyone else thinks he or she is just crazy (think Terminator 2: Judgment Day). This Moon Knight series adds the thrill of leaving the reader in the dark, at least initially, about which is the truth and which is Marc’s imagination: we are shown both the hospital staff and, alternately, the Egyptian gods, but only one of the two can be real (think David Cronenberg’s Spider).

One of the few things in which Ellis didn’t succeed in his run was the handling of Moon Knight’s backstory. Lemire achieves this by including several of Moon Knight’s supporting cast, and by putting more emphasis on his different personas (the millionaire, the taxi driver).

And then there’s the art. Often there are only few panels on a page, of different size and horizontally centered so that there is a lot of white space, giving a massive, iconic, grave and simply powerful impression. Some guest artists were involved in issue #5, which makes sense because each draws a different scene in a dream (?) sequence. Alas, from the solicitations it looks like Smallwood leaves the series after #6.

If there’s one thing I don’t like about this Moon Knight, it’s that the Egyptian gods often don’t talk like one would expect gods to talk, thus appearing less awe-inspiring than they could be. Granted, deities in the Marvel Universe are more mundane beings than the omnipotent gods from ‘real’ mythological tradition, but still…

All things considered, this might indeed be the best Moon Knight series ever, and (together with The Vision) the best Marvel book right now.

Rating: ● ● ● ● ○

Politics in Warren Ellis’s Moon Knight

Depending on where you live, May 1st may have some connection, historically or actually, to labour and workers’ rights, or even socialism and class struggle. On this occasion I thought I’d write a little blogpost about politics and comics. Some years ago at a conference, I attended a talk on a certain political or ideological stance in the comics of Warren Ellis,¹ which made me wonder what stance, if any, can be found in one of his latest comics, his short-lived Moon Knight run from 2014.

Each of the 6 issues is beautifully illustrated by Declan Shalvey and Jordie Bellaire, and tells a largely self-contained story. I have already reviewed issues #1-3 on this weblog, so today we’re going to look at the second half of the run, which consists of the stories “Sleep”, “Scarlet”, and “Spectre”.

Politics is sometimes defined as “beliefs and attitudes about how government should work” (Macmillan), and that is the definition with which we’ll work here. At first glance, there seems to be nothing political about these typical masked vigilante stories: Moon Knight comes to the scene of the crime, confronts and eventually defeats the criminal(s). (At least in “Sleep” and “Scarlet”, whereas “Spectre” is told from the antagonist’s point of view, but the result is the same.) On closer inspection, though, society and government appear in all three of the stories.

Government is always present in the struggle between police (i.e. enforcement of the law made by the government) and crime (i.e. defiance of the government and its law). The New York Police Department is portrayed in an unfavourable light: unable to solve the crimes themselves, they rely on Moon Knight, who works outside of the law. Unlike in other superhero stories where police officers try to solve the crime themselves, overextend themselves, get into trouble and need to be rescued by the superheroes, the NYPD in Moon Knight doesn’t even try. Moon Knight does their work for them, and he does it in a way police couldn’t (or shouldn’t), killing, maiming and unnecessarily hurting his opponents instead of arresting them.

There's absolutely no reason for Moon Knight to do this. (from #4 "Sleep")

There’s absolutely no reason for Moon Knight to do this. (from #4 “Sleep”)

The criminals, on the other hand, – including Ryan Trent in “Sleeper” who starts out as one of the ‘good guys’ but ends up killing innocents – are basically given free rein in this New York City. In all of the three stories, their crimes are ultimately avenged by Moon Knight, but only after they were able to placidly commit them. Moon Knight is not one for preventing crime.

For all we know, this corrupt policemen never gets caught. (from #6 "Spectre")

For all we know, this corrupt policeman never gets caught. (from #6 “Spectre”)

Warren Ellis has created a world in which government has failed. To maintain order, it takes a force – Moon Knight – that has the necessary financial and physical power, without being controlled by the government. This is a political vision that has little to do with democracy, in the sense that the people had any control over Moon Knight’s ‘work’. But it has a lot to do with ‘might makes right’ and the ‘longing for the strong man’ – ideas more closely associated with dictatorship. Granted, many superhero comics operate within a similar mindset, but in Moon Knight these ideas are particularly noticeable.

¹ This blogpost has very little to do with that conference paper and I don’t mean to evaluate (or even paraphrase) its hypothesis; as far as I know it hasn’t been published anyway. But just for the record, I’m referring to “The Paranoid Style in Warren Ellis’s Comic Book Politics” by Christian Knöppler, presented at the 2012 ComFor conference in Freiburg, Germany.

Review: Moon Knight (2014) #1-3

I’ve already reviewed the previous Moon Knight series from 2011-2012 on this weblog (in two posts, covering #6-8 and #9-12), so I thought I’d say something about the current one too.

Moon Knight (2014) #3Language: English
Authors: Warren Ellis (writer), Declan Shalvey (artist), Jordie Bellaire (colourist)
Publisher: Marvel
Pages: 20
Price: $3.99
Website: http://marvel.com/comics/series/18467/moon_knight_(2014_-_present)

Previously in Moon Knight: In the series written by Brian Michael Bendis, Marc Spector was working on a TV show in Hollywood, although on the last page Spector already announced he’d leave Los Angeles. He also was the masked vigilante Moon Knight, plus he had a split personality disorder.

In the new series, very little of that remains. All these things are briefly referenced, but why exactly Marc Spector has moved to New York, and why he isn’t imagining talking to Spider-Man, Captain America and Wolverine anymore, isn’t really explained. Rather than one continuous story, the new narrative structure is more like a series of one-shots: in each of the almost self-contained issues, Moon Knight fights a different villain.

Moon Knight is now more than ever a kind of Batman – a detective with high-tech gadgets and impressive martial arts skills, and not much more. It’s a pity that his mental illness isn’t as much the focus of this book as it was before. On the other hand, Warren Ellis introduces (in #3) something the previous series was lacking: the mystic aspect of Moon Knight being the incarnation of the Egyptian god Khonshu.

The larger story aside, both the writing and the artwork are a huge improvement over the Bendis/Maleev run. The dialogues are now smart and almost funny, and the drawings by Declan Shalvey and Jordie Bellaire, particularly the smart layouts in the second issue, are stunningly slick. Still, my overall impression is that Ellis is trying too hard to make a fresh start with this character and sever all ties to the 2011 series. If there’s one justification for the continued existence of monthly comic book series in the universes of Marvel and DC, it’s the continuity – readers want to follow one big story that goes on and on. By largely ignoring the old Moon Knight comics, Marvel sabotage their own format.

By the way, the series ends this month after only six issues. Warren Ellis writing an ongoing Marvel book? That would have been too good to be true.

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○

Other people seem to be quite fond of the new Moon Knight, though; see e.g. this review by Joshua Rivera at The Beat: http://comicsbeat.com/one-and-done-it-doesnt-take-much/

Was Moon Knight worth the publishing effort? Review of #9-12

cover from Moon Knight #10

Language: English
Authors: Brian Michael Bendis (writer), Alex Maleev (artist)
Publisher: Marvel
Pages: 20
Price: $3.99
Website: http://marvel.com/comic_books/series/10639/moon_knight_2010_-_present

Shortly after my previous review of Moon Knight, I learned that the series was going to be cancelled with issue #12. Which wasn’t much of a surprise, given the low sales figures: the first eight issues are estimated to have sold little more than 30.000 copies on average. This review will cover the last four issues.

Previously in Moon Knight: Issue #8 ended with a cliffhanger suggesting that Count Nefaria, the villain of this series, was going to attack Moon Knight and his sidekick/love interest Echo.

Issue #9 indeed delivers this fight, and not much else. But contrary to what might be expected, this is a really good issue – easily the strongest of the series, and even generally speaking a fine comic book. This is due to a simple but striking concept: in flashbacks, we see his employee Buck Lime equipping Moon Knight with new weapons that imitate the fighting techniques of his multiple personalities (Spider-Man, Captain America and Wolverine). Following each of these flashbacks, Moon Knight puts his new tools to use against Nefaria. In the end, Nefaria kills Echo (talk about women in refrigerators), but is himself defeated by Moon Knight. What makes this comic book stand out from most others is that it is almost self-contained, and could probably be enjoyed without any knowledge of past (or future) issues of the series.

However, issue #10 isn’t half as compelling. The villain Nefaria is replaced by his daughter, “Madame Masque”. A lame introduction of a lame character (apparently also created in the 60s by Stan Lee).

Issue #11 basically consists of the fight between Moon Knight and said Madame Masque, giving Alex Maleev ample opportunity to display his knowledge of female anatomy. One of the low points of this series.

In the final issue, Nefaria is back to fight Moon Knight, but finally, the Avengers come to the rescue. In an unassuming and somewhat awkward scene, Nefaria is knocked out by Thor. In the end, we get three more pages of Moon Knight as his alter ego Marc Spector, the TV producer, saying “I’d rather die in a robot holocaust than spend another second in Hollywood.” This is the kind of media satire I would have liked to see more of. The series ends with the announcement, “Moon Knight will return in… The Age of Ultron”, which sounds like another “event” that I can’t say I’m excited about.

So what to make of this short-lived series? Was it something worth reading, and thinking and blogging about, or will it go down as merely a footnote in Marvel publishing history? Within the oeuvre of Brian Michael Bendis, who is currently shaping the Marvel universe in the current Avengers VS X-Men crossover, it surely isn’t more than that. For Alex Maleev, who doesn’t seem to have been doing much else apart from Moon Knight lately, this commercial (and, let’s face it, artistic) failure could be more severe. Some of his panels and pages in this series betray an unacceptable sloppiness, though others show a great deal of talent. I guess we haven’t seen the last of this artist yet.

Still, this series has something going for it: it is very much self-contained and will be collected in two trade paperbacks, and the creative team of Bendis and Maleev stayed the same throughout the entire twelve issues. That makes this series a compact, homogeneous work – an almost closed system still rooted in the Marvel universe that could thus lend itself to scholarly analysis. I even believe that these two Moon Knight volumes might be a suitable introduction to the world of superhero comics for someone who has seen a recent Marvel film and now wants to give a Marvel comic a try. However, fans of the Moon Knight character will probably find it hard to see this series as anything other than a step backwards from the previous Moon Knight series.

Rating: ● ● ○ ○ ○

Review: Moon Knight #6-8

Language: English
Authors: Brian Michael Bendis (writer), Alex Maleev (artist)
Publisher: Marvel
Pages: 20
Price: $3.99
Website: http://marvel.com/comic_books/series/10639/moon_knight_2010_-_present

Issue #9 came out this week, but I won’t get it until the end of the month, so here’s a review of issues #6, #7 and #8.

Previously in Moon Knight: Marc Spector is the incarnation of the Egyptian deity Khonshu… No, wait, that doesn’t play any role in this series. Clearly, Brian Michael Bendis isn’t interested in the mystical aspects of his character. So let’s just say Marc Spector is just like Bruce Wayne: a rich playboy who dresses in a cloak at night to beat up people, equipped with some technological gadgets, close combat skills and a mild psychosis.

It’s not a new idea to have the mentally unstable Marc Spector imagine people that are not there, but in comparison to the Huston/Finch run of Moon Knight (a.k.a. the 2006 series), these hallucinations are used in a lighter and sometimes even humorous manner here, and allow Bendis to constantly feature the high-profile superheroes Captain America, Spider-Man and Wolverine.

In issue #6, however, the real Avengers pay Spector a visit. This could have been a really funny scene, but Spector isn’t all that much confused about it. In the same issue, we finally get to see the villain  – a caped figure who has to wear a monocle to make clear he’s evil. He’s powerful enough to effortlessly burn the entire underling villain team Night Shift to ashes, which raises the question why he needed to employ them – or his sub-boss Snapdragon, or anyone – in the first place.

This villain is revealed to be Count Luchino Nefaria in #7, a somewhat ridiculous character that apparently was created by Stan Lee in the 60s, which explains why he seems so old-fashioned and out of place in this book. The colorist (previously Matthew Wilson) is Matt Hollingsworth now, but apart from that, the transition between #6 and #7 is seamless, so Bendis doesn’t “write for the trade” here.

By issue #8, Nefaria’s first name has changed from “Luchino” to “Lucino”. Maybe both Spector and Detective Hall, who say “Lucino” throughout this issue, got his name wrong. Either that, or it’s just sloppy scripting and/or lettering. In terms of the story, Bendis picks up two motifs here that probably both the readers and Bendis himself had almost forgotten about: Spector’s day job as a TV producer, and police corruption. However, the last page suggests there will be more fisticuffs again in the next issue.

So what else is wrong with Moon Knight? A lot. For instance, I’m tired at this point of Bendis’s dialogues, this blend of verbosity and shorthand, these confusing and annoying repetitions, e.g.: Echo: “Who’s this?” – Spector: “This is Buck.” – Buck: “I’m Buck.” (#8); or: Spector: “You have the whole damn Quinjet out there!” – Captain America: “It’s cloaked.” – Spider-Man: “We got our cloak on.” (#6) Then there are all those flat and dull characters, like Echo, whose superpower is to be a stripper and Spector’s love interest. Oh, and she’s deaf. But deaf in pretty much the same way as Daredevil is blind, i.e. her senses work just fine except when the writer wants to use their failure as a plot device. The following dialogue says a lot about the book’s attitude towards Echo’s deafness: Echo: “Take off your Mask when you talk to me, genius.” – Spector: “Deaf, right. Sorry. You just don’t act deaf.” – Echo: “Now what the hell does that mean?” – Spector: “It means either you can’t take a compliment or I can’t give one.” (#8) I can imagine Echo must be an insult for deaf readers, just as Spector must be an insult for readers suffering from real schizophrenia. As for the art: I do like Alex Maleev’s style, but he must be the laziest artist in the industry. I find myself looking for instances of copy-and-pasted panels in every issue, but Maleev doesn’t really try to hide it. In issue #8, there’s even a sequence of five photocopied panels, in which only the foreground and background are changed. I don’t know why, but somehow I feel cheated if not every single panel in a comic book is drawn individually.

On the plus side, Moon Knight is not only a typical (almost archetypical) superhero comic, it’s also often self-referential, both about Moon Knight’s place in the Marvel Universe (Snapdragon: “one C-list crazy super hero”, #6) and the genre in general (Spector: “Did you really think I was normal? Do you think that any of us… any of the costumes are normal? We’re all crazy.”, #7). I also like the fact that the series is self-contained. There are hardly any references to the crossover events going on in other Marvel books, so it’s easy to follow if, like me, you don’t read any other current Marvel titles. Is Moon Knight the best series to read if you want to know what a Marvel comic looks like in 2011/12? I almost hope I’m missing something.

Rating: ● ● ○ ○ ○