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.

Geez, I had totally forgotten about these

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.

Awe. Subtle as a two-by-four, but not a stupid syllable in there.

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.

LMoon Knight 10-21For 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.

Crescent Darts

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.

This totally traumatized me as a pre-teen (RE)

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.

moonknightBSODBut 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.

Links: CSBG Archive

Next: Against the Establishment

Advertisements

About Ron Edwards

Game author and publisher via Adept Press / Biology author and former professor

Posted on March 17, 2016, in Heroics and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. Moon Knight is one of those characters who I’m surprised has endured. He’s one of those characters like Deathlok and Morbius who debuted in the mid-70’s and still putters around, sometimes in his own title . . . whereas other characters from the same era, like Werewolf-by-Night, the Living Mummy, the Torpedo, and the Sons of the Tiger went nowhere. I’m guessing this is because at one point, Moon Knight’s series had a top-notch creative team (Deathlok’s too) that earned him a lot of fan-pro’s a generation later.

    Like

  2. Also:

    “Most important though is the vigilantism, and I submit with a lot of these characters, that [Moon Knight’s] 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. ”

    To me, vigilantism is pretty easy to see when you look at it: the use of disproportionate force. That can cover either side of the self-defense aspect. When the Punisher uses a high-caliber rifle to blow open a gangster’s head from a block away, that’s not self-defense: that’s just plain murder. But also, there’s the notion that if you’re going to defend yourself (or others) you shouldn’t go batshit insane with it. So: Rorschach completely scalding a dude to death with hot cooking fat, when it was totally within his means to incapacitate the dude with less lethal methods, is also vigilantism.

    Batman is very seldom a vigilante in this sense (DKR being a possible exception; Year One he’s really more of a terrorist). Spider-Man never is, pretty much by definition.

    Like

    • I’m struggling to skirt the pit that lies beneath every thinking person’s chair, that of pedantry. When I type “the definition of vigilantism is …”, am I raising the bar of what we may discuss next, or casting you into the pit only to discover that I’ve tossed myself down in there too?

      Not exactly the drama found in the pit that Batman “walks on the edge of every night” according to Alfred in Mask of the Phantasm, but such is the relationship of my tawdry life to fictional power fantasy.

      The definition I’m using isn’t vague, it comes in two parts, and it’s very different from yours. I’m talking about the relationship of a person to institutionalized law. The first part of the definition means conducting the activities of that instititution without its support.

      By that definition, all “masked crime-fighters are vigilantes!” Yes, they are. Also by that definition, a cop who murders someone isn’t a vigilante if the department and the general justice system supports him. This part of the definition is flatly amoral.

      The second part brings in the common feature, for many terms, that assigning the label is part of the definition. If someone can make the label stick, on for example the murderous cop, then whoopsie, he is a vigilante and outside the law. Which is of course reversed in reality from how we say it, meaning if the law as an institution doesn’t support him (and brazen out the accusation, effectively saying “whaddaya gonna do about it, he was cleared,” then he’s a vigilante.

      So yes, all costumed crime-fighters (which is not all superheroes; Thor isn’t, for example) are potential vigilantes insofar as the label sticks. And it’ll stick if they lose the public trust. The first 100 issues of Spider-Man are an exquisite, beautiful portrayal of every side of this argument, including its limitations. And before you say “Spider-Man never does,” consider the drug pusher beatdown and the time when he frightens Jameson into a heart attack. Neither is played for laughs in the slightest.

      There’s a larger picture too which helps to establish a much more coherent matrix to include the Dark Knight in the same set of questions. It is when the entire legal institution is considered by the populace, or a great deal of it, to be inadequate – whether “not enough” or “illegitimate.” In this case the term vigilante takes on its root meaning, from vigil, to take on the actual role of desired/real/legitimate law enforcement in terms which either cannot be acknowledged by the overt institution, or are treated by it as raw anarchy and rebellion.

      To separate those two branches:

      The first goes like this: (i) the legal institution is hobbled or weak and needs the people’s help, (ii) a bunch of us will help it do its job or do the job that it is too weak to do at all, and (iii) some of us are insiders in it and thus make the rest of us doing is “real” anyway = the Klan.

      The second goes like this: (i) the legal institution is nothing more than organized crime and victimizes us, i.e., we are subject to banditry and abuse and there is no actual law here; (ii) a bunch of us will police our own community as it needs, and (iii) we act in direct defiance of the Law-in-name when we can and with no apology for using force = the Deacons for Defense.

      Each of them purports to represent the real Law in the absence of institutional integrity.

      Like

      • Just want to say – that’s a very useful context, definition and discussion. Acknowledging that the Klan and Deacons for Defense are WAY more legit examples, I find myself wanting to put the Guardian Angels into those branches and subheadings. Mostly branch one, but some blurring from branch two, and huge added dollop of pure PR …

        Like

        • You’ve mentioned the Guardian Angels a few times and I remember media mention of them from, I guess, their early days. But only as “these guys are doing this or that way over there” and I don’t know anything about their ethnic or political or economic identity, or recall any specific events or incidents, or how the whole thing eventually turned out.

          Like

        • Yeah, I have mentioned them a few times – I guess the question is “why?” Growing up/living in the “NY Metro Area” through the 70’s and 80’s, I certainly saw a fair amount of media coverage on ’em, and I’d assume the same was true for NY-based comic writers. I have one tiny touch of personal “inside story” experience, but everything about Curtis Sliwa and the GA’s probably needs to be considered as possibly-manufactured for public consumption. There oughta be a book that tries to sift reality from tall tale from flat-out self-serving lie, but as far as I can tell (from looking just now), there isn’t. The wikipedia entries for Curtis Sliwa and the GA’s give some basic info, but – who knows what to trust? Sliwa faked his own kidnapping several times, and then apparently was really snatched and shot by the mob for insulting John Gotti.

          Caveats in mind, it seems to me the story is fully enmeshed in the 70’s-80’s tropes of the blog, NYC-flavor. “Problematic.” Vigilantism, obviously. Martial Arts – take a look at the Black Belt Magazine article (https://books.google.com/books?id=jNsDAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA28&lpg=PA28&dq=harrowing#v=onepage&q=harrowing&f=false).

          This is the are of my “inside story” – at my one tournament in my brief (< 2 years) Shotokan training, I heard the story that the REAL precursors to the Guardian Angels were NOT Sliwa's "Magnificent Thirteen", but rather the "Shaolin Defenders" of Jeff and Jerry Monroe, the Black/Apache "twin dragons" (really, you can't make this stuff – unless someone did, as I suspect was the case with "Black/Apache"). (http://www.therightperspective.org/2009/07/13/the-true-origins-of-the-guardian-angels/)

          Unexpected politics – the Angels marched from NYC to Albany to support gun control. (http://1981.nyc/rise-guardian-angels/) I just noticed http://1981.nyc/ is connected to the film A Most Violent Year, which I recently watched and found an impressive evocation of the era. Not a bad story, either. Hey, there was a mini-documentary on the disk with Sliwa/the GA's – maybe that's part of why they've been on my mind.

          Women's issues – apparently, the real skilled martial artist and maybe real organizational expert in the Sliwa family was his (first) wife. (http://www.people.com/people/article/0,,20081394,00.html)

          Take a look at the photo with Robocop at http://narrative.ly/twilight-of-the-guardian-angels/.

          More links for the interested:
          https://books.google.com/books?id=VuUCAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA14&lpg=PA14&dq=#v=onepage&q&f=false (The Guardian Angels: Help – or Hype?)
          http://www.popcenter.org/library/scp/pdf/146-Pennell.pdf (208 pages of scholarly study that, to be honest, I barely glanced at)

          Then there's the Clash, with "Red Angel Dragnet" (yup, that's the red berets of the Guardian Angels, per http://consequenceofsound.net/2009/04/rock-history-101-the-clashs-red-angel-dragnet/)

          "All the animals come out at night.
          Queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick venal.
          Some day a real rain will come and wash all the scum off the streets.

          Thank god for the rain to wash the trash off the sidewalk. Listen you screwheads:
          Here is a man who would not take it anymore.
          A man who stood up against the scum, the filth.
          Now I see clearly."

          As the article points out, there's theft and a namecheck on Travis (Bickle, from Taxi Driver). Could easily be Rorschach, right?

          I can't pretend to make sense of it all, but it sure feels like it fits in this mix.

          Like

        • Yeah, I have mentioned them a few times – I guess the question is “why?” Growing up/living in the “NY Metro Area” through the 70’s and 80’s, I certainly saw a fair amount of media coverage on ’em, and I’d assume the same was true for NY-based comic writers. I have one tiny touch of personal “inside story” experience, but everything about Curtis Sliwa and the GA’s probably needs to be considered as possibly-manufactured for public consumption. There oughta be a book that tries to sift reality from tall tale from flat-out self-serving lie, but as far as I can tell (from looking just now), there isn’t. The wikipedia entries for Curtis Sliwa and the GA’s give some basic info, but – who knows what to trust? Sliwa faked his own kidnapping several times, and then apparently was really snatched and shot by the mob for insulting John Gotti.

          Caveats in mind, it seems to me the story is fully enmeshed in the 70’s-80’s tropes of the blog, NYC-flavor. “Problematic.” Vigilantism, obviously. Martial Arts – take a look at the Black Belt Magazine article (https://books.google.com/books?id=jNsDAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA28&lpg=PA28&dq=harrowing#v=onepage&q=harrowing&f=false). This is the are of my “inside story” – at my one tournament in my brief (< 2 years) Shotokan training, I heard the story that the REAL precursors to the Guardian Angels were NOT Sliwa's "Magnificent Thirteen", but rather the "Shaolin Defenders" of Jeff and Jerry Monroe, the Black/Apache "twin dragons" (really, you can't make this stuff – unless someone did, as I suspect was the case with "Black/Apache"). (http://www.therightperspective.org/2009/07/13/the-true-origins-of-the-guardian-angels/)

          Unexpected politics – the Angels marched from NYC to Albany to support gun control. (http://1981.nyc/rise-guardian-angels/) I just noticed http://1981.nyc/ is connected to the film A Most Violent Year, which I recently watched and found an impressive evocation of the era. Not a bad story, either. Hey, there was a mini-documentary on the disk with Sliwa/the GA's – maybe that's part of why they've been on my mind.

          Women's issues – apparently, the real skilled martial artist and maybe real organizational expert in the Sliwa family was his (first) wife. (http://www.people.com/people/article/0,,20081394,00.html)

          Take a look at the photo with Robocop at http://narrative.ly/twilight-of-the-guardian-angels/.

          More links for the interested:
          https://books.google.com/books?id=VuUCAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA14&lpg=PA14&dq=#v=onepage&q&f=false (The Guardian Angels: Help – or Hype?)
          http://www.popcenter.org/library/scp/pdf/146-Pennell.pdf (208 pages of scholarly study that, to be honest, I barely glanced at)

          Then there's the Clash, with "Red Angel Dragnet" (yup, that's the red berets of the Guardian Angels, per http://consequenceofsound.net/2009/04/rock-history-101-the-clashs-red-angel-dragnet/)

          "All the animals come out at night.
          Queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick venal.
          Some day a real rain will come and wash all the scum off the streets.

          Thank god for the rain to wash the trash off the sidewalk. Listen you screwheads:
          Here is a man who would not take it anymore.
          A man who stood up against the scum, the filth.
          Now I see clearly."

          As the article points out, there's theft and a namecheck on Travis (Bickle, from Taxi Driver). Could easily be Rorschach, right?

          I can't pretend to make sense of it all, but it sure feels like it fits in this mix.

          Like

  1. Pingback: Red goggles at midnight | Doctor Xaos comics madness

  2. Pingback: Irish rage, Catholic guilt | Doctor Xaos comics madness

  3. Pingback: Justice is served! | Doctor Xaos comics madness

  4. Pingback: Lurking everywhere | Doctor Xaos comics madness

  5. Pingback: Actions have consequences | Doctor Xaos comics madness

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Todd's Blog

Todd Klein on lettering, literature and more

Longbox Graveyard

Marvel and DC comics and community

%d bloggers like this: