Jet and silver
You might have missed Moon Knight along the way, vigilante-wise. Let’s make sure that doesn’t continue – and if necessary, Steve Long will make sure I will face midnight justice later in the post. We’ve been doing these tandem posts about vigilante comics heroes for a while! So far: Eat hot lead, comics reader, What was the question again?, The Big Bang, Wicked good, Vigilantes R Us, In Darkest Knight, The not so secret cabal, and A pretty butterfly.
In the shadows at Marvel
Just like the Punisher, Moon Knight emerged as a composite with a certain ongoing influence from Marv Wolfman. I like the original a lot: an unmitigated bad-ass, a cynic discovering his humanity, walking the line of not wanting to be the bad guy. He’s mainly the action spy-merc, coming from the cinematic Bond of course, but also the contemporary investigations into the CIA, and fiction in which the disillusioned agent becomes a whole new hero. You can see a lot of comics influence from Goodwin’s and Simonson’s Manhunter.
His four-year march through secondary Marvel titles is dizzying: Werewolf by Night, Defenders, Peter Parker the Spectacular Spider-Man, Marvel Two-in-One, Marvel Preview, and Hulk! magazine. A lot of it is utterly incidental, including Bill Mantlo at his most ordinary, but there’s a single-issue contribution by Gene Colan on pencils which establishes volumes of visual design that would come to signify the character.
Along the way Doug Moench and Bill Sienkewicz pretty much adopted and owned the character, as he acquired his famous triple secret identity, got a bit of episodic soap opera like an evil brother, turned out to be sorta super-powered in that a bite from the werewolf gave him extra strength relative to the moon’s state, and started to hint that “violent costumed crimefighter” is a morally ambiguous thing to be. Then in 1978, Denny O’Neil oversees this team for the series. (I don’t know whether he came in on the Hulk! stories; I can’t find editor info for them.) From the start, there is a definite feel of “it is on, pal, it is on!” perhaps indicated by the occasional “warrior in jet and silver” catchphrase.
If you read my post focusing on O’Neil’s role among the full run of seminal vigilante-gritty not-too-super heroes, consider the simultaneous Daredevil / Moon Knight runs to be at least as important as anything with a bat in it. They definitely read as a thematic whole in tandem. As I mentioned earlier too, Moon Knight was sold only in comics retail stores and had no ads and no Comics Code. However, the two titles’ content didn’t contrast much, as “no Code” in Moon Knight didn’t really free anyone from their habits and standards, and Miller was pushing the Code in Daredevil for all it was worth. [The later stages also fit the tight-knit creator history, with Moench going over to Batman before Miller does, and Sienkiewicz joining Miller for Elektra.]
You can see the O’Neil priorities kick in, integrated with Moench’s specific skills as a writer: Moon Knight becomes a New York crimefighter, he gets a developed supporting cast including the rarity of a rather well-written female lead, the werewolf-encounter origin is totally rewritten to include the semi/ambiguous Khonshu god business including death or near-death, and his killer background is rejected as much as possible including a lot of implied negativity to the Marc Spector persona in favor of the Bruce Wayne-like Steven Grant one. The original gun-heavy paramilitary features vanish completely.
So what is there? Practically an essential picture of what this sort of hero is supposed to be like. The first biggie is mental instability, as resisting and critiquing the Spector identity turns out to be a thing – which is disturbing when you realize that the other two personae are the made-up ones. Issue #10 nails down that this is a mental issue rather than an affectation, but during the whole Moench/Sienkiewicz/O’Neil run, it’s always explicitly manageable, never taken to a clinical split-personality level. That only happens later under other authors, especially the coincidentally-named Steve Grant. The character’s real mental problem is anger management, upon which the various identities act as riffs.
Most important though is the vigilantism, and I submit with a lot of these characters, that his isn’t the main topic. His chosen degree of lawlessness, like Batman’s and Daredevil’s (and Spider-Man’s) and with a rueful glance at casual assault as a means of interrogation, skirts the edge of being pretty lawful. That interacts powerfully with characters who have stepped quite deliberately across the line. Moench’s scripts struggle with this because unlike Miller, he apparently really likes his heroes to defeat evil. The whole title has a problem with establishing and maintaining villainy, repeatedly giving someone lots of buildup (Bushman, Black Spectre) only for Moon Knight to take him down and for it to be over when in terms of story potential, it had barely begun.
There’s one exception, is there ever – possibly the finest straight-up sympathetic vigilante bad-guy-killer around, plus the oddest most unmarketable name ever, speaking here of course of the inimitable Stained Glass Scarlet. She’s a case study of how much awesome there’d be in simply throwing the knightly virtue of the O’Neil template aside and embracing both its sentimentality and its force: the righteous justification of rage, the sadness and complete awareness of her own loss of humanity, the perfect targeting of those responsible, without a smidgeon of “oh no collateral damage what have I done,” the cool dismissal of Moon Knight’s “I understand but what about right and wrong” appeal to her, and the fine, fine absurdity of just punching crossbow bolt after crossbow bolt through people while wearing some kind of overpoweringly red evening gown.
The art! Track if you will Sienkiewicz’s full transition from a solid Neal Adams style (people talk about this as if it’s a bad thing …?) to panel experimentation and “hey I can draw anything” and finally to expressionism. I like all of it – perhaps even the fascination of watching the development as much as enjoying any particular result.
For example: check out this page from issue 10, in the context that the entire issue is designed in this four-panel pattern, with a very few expansions and subdivisions. So, you ask? Well, this pattern isn’t an easy read. It doesn’t go whip-whip left-right-right, down, left-right-right like the classic six-panel spreads (either 3-row squares or 2-row vertical bars). If you don’t get the in-panel space and action right, it’s unreadable. You can’t just point a camera any which way, you have to consider which way the things in the shot are moving, and you have to consider in each panel what the reader knows from previous panels. There’s a reason you go from Bushman’s punch to his second punch, not down to the kick, despite the confusing detail that he’s using the same side with its implied loss of visual time. A lot of Moon Knight issues are like this – taking one single design concept and then working it really hard for all 22 pages. The default is a combo of long vertical and long horizontal panels (again, a lot like what Miller was doing with Daredevil), but there are plenty of others.
The breakthrough moment from journeyman experimentation to “I got this, mother fucker,” comes in the #20s, especially with “Hit it!” which is more of a beat poem than a comics story. By complete coincidence, I just ran across a bit of interview in which Sienkiewicz cites that issue as his favorite moment of writer-artist synergy. If you, like some, think he lost his mind with the New Mutants, then at least here you can see those techniques working with the traditional action rather than replacing it.
The Moench run also illustrates a fascinating tandem development between more and more focus on ethics and yet more and more intrusion of 1980s political motifs which, in their characteristic inaccuracy, muddy the possibility of ethical coherence. I’ll hold off on this until our further posting, but here I’ll contrast it again with Miller’s Daredevil, which manages more stark dramatics but less meaningful outcomes. You can bet the upcoming Daredevil post won’t let you down in specifically contrasting the Jewish Spector and the Catholic Murdock in terms of focusing unfocused rage. Moon Knight is, if you will, murkier in style and story, but clearer in its morality – at least until that weirdness kicks in very late in the process.
So: Moon Knight. Very much its own thing, creatively and economically, but also probably the actual groundbreaker and refining venue for the thing we’re writing about.
I’ve loved Moon Knight ever since I first saw him (in Peter Parker The Spectacular Spider-Man, when the two of them take on Cyclone, I think) — so much so that I once walked ten blocks in 20 degree weather to buy the issue of Amazing Heroes that featured MK as the cover story. (I realize that those of you unfortunate enough to live in the godforsaken north may scoff at this feat, but for a kid born and raised in the south, that is cold. It was not a pleasant walk… but it was worth it.)
Much of what sets Moon Knight apart for me as a vigilante is his origin story. It starts out pretty mundane, but ends with a touch of mysticism and mythology (a side of the character that, despite many, many attempts, I don’t think was ever fully explored or employed the way it could have been). Even at its most basic, it sets Moon Knight apart from most of his compatriots. Batman, the Punisher, Vigilante, Daredevil, even Spider-Man — their origins all basically boil down to the same thing: the death of family. Some are inspired to use skills and powers they already have (Punisher, Daredevil, Spidey), others to train to gain such skills (Batman, Vigilante), but the basic pattern is the same. The only one who seems to come close to Moon Knight’s origin is O’Neil’s Question, but even that’s far from a perfect fit.
So, leaving aside some of Moon Knight’s early appearances (as cool, creepy, or occasionally silly as they are), what we’ve got is plenty to work with, definitely more than just “Marvel’s Batman.” It doesn’t take Moon Knight long to develop into a character who stands on his own. And I think you’re right, Ron, to tip the hat both at the art (which really contributes to the overall “feel” of the character and stories) and the weird rogues’ gallery (especially the intriguing Stained Glass Scarlet). Batman’s rogues’ gallery, as utterly amazing as it is, often has a touch of goofiness to it from the Silver Age that’s never entirely erased, no matter how many Killing Jokes or attempts to make me take the Penguin seriously occur. MK’s villains have no such baggage; they’re macabre and weird and “raw” in a way I thoroughly enjoy.
But I’d like to point the spotlight at another side of Moon Knight’s character that I think contributes a lot to his appeal: his supporting cast. Unlike all the characters mentioned above, he has a real supporting cast, not just allies and fellow travelers who help him with his war on crime (though they certainly do that): his old friend Frenchie, of more practical bent; the fascinating Marlene Alraune, lover and confidante but very much her own woman, and no shrinking violet; Crowley (an intriguing character whom, thank the gods, Moench didn’t ruin by trying to “explain” too much); Gina; even Gina’s kids. (In a sense you could even see Marc Spector’s three non-costumed identities as “supporting cast” too.) To a certain extent they remind me a lot of the Shadow’s group of assistants back in the pulps (and the Shadow Cabinet, a group of experts a later iteration of Moon Knight consulted via videoconference, even moreso). But what they really feel like — is a family. They all have lives when they’re away from Moon Knight; they all have problems that a vigilante pal can’t necessarily help them with. In short, they’re really well developed lesser protagonists, and they add a dimension to Moon Knight and his stories that so many other vigilantes pretty much lack.
He just wouldn’t die
Good call on the supporting cast. They start cartoonishly simple and get better every issue.
I’ve always thought Moon Knight did best when he was murky – neither he nor the reader quite sure whether the Khonshu, god or statue, means a damn thing, no real explanation for why this guy is happiest with three full personae (another good call from Steve about them being supporting cast), and little to no integration with the rest of Marvel. It’s almost a crime to imagine quantifying or clarifying him … there’s a bit along the way in the series when they specify how much he can bench press, and I winced at the thought of how it must have been written to correspond with the entry in the Official Handbook. Moon Knight belongs in the shadows, conceptually as well as in publication terms.
By “just wouldn’t die,” I’m referring to the Moench/O’Neil reinterpretation of his origin, which I think is inferior to the werewolf version, but serves nevertheless as a good metaphor for the character as a whole. Is he on a mission from (a) God? Is he even alive? It matches nicely with his transformation from a throwaway moment, one of an endless series of borderline-grotesque sadistic Wolfman villain-foes, into a recurring and eventually compelling presence. I’m not surprised he keeps getting rebooted – and for once, I even think it works for the Moon Knight publication history to be a series of reimaginings and unique visions, instead of an attempt at a continuous saga. Like the issue I mentioned, he works best as a poem, or verses by multiple authors on a half-seen theme.
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Next: Against the Establishment