Posted on Tuesday, August 12, 2014
by Paul in reviews
There weren’t any X-books to review last week, so let’s take a (belated) look at another title that did complete its first trade paperback.
Moon Knight is the sort of bubble character who hasn’t really been able to sustain an ongoing title in years, but who keeps getting relaunched regardless. This happens partly because of Marvel (and DC)’s conviction that everything in their back catalogue is a masterpiece merely awaiting the right take, but also because people look at Moon Knight and think to themselves, surely this ought to work. It’s the book Bill Sienkiewicz made his name on. It’s been interesting in the past. Surely it can be interesting again.
Enter Warren Ellis and Declan Shalvey, to kick off the latest relaunch with six issues – before handing over to a different creative team entirely. It’s a very good six issues, well worth picking up. Whether it provides something that Brian Wood and Greg Smallwood can usefully build on is another matter entirely, as I’ll explain. But that’s not Ellis and Shalvey’s problem.
The temptation in relaunching a series is to search for a fresh angle. This is presumably how we previously wound up with “Moon Knight thinks he’s the Avengers”, which is a cute gimmick, but ultimately just a gimmick. Ellis quietly writes it off as a passing phase and says no more about it.
Ellis establishes the set-up for an ongoing series, and tinkers a bit with the character. He’s back in New York. He patrols the city in a drone helicopter (in his traditional costume) and in a white limousine (wearing an all-white suit and mask). He’s got a police contact, Detective Flint, who turns a blind eye to the rules and calls him in when he’s needed. And he’s styling himself as a protector of travellers by night, since that’s one of the roles of his sponsor god Khonshu.
But there are no radical new ideas here. Rather, this relaunch is all about rearranging existing elements to maximum effect, and stripping the character back to a central palette of core ideas that all work together to the same end. (Flint is not a new character; he’s an obscure supporting character from the 1980s run.) A long running problem with the series has been that while writers can all agree that Moon Knight needs to be something more than just the Batman knock-off he’s often accused of being, they can’t quite agree whether this is a comic about a mercenary touched by an Egyptian god, or a comic about Batman with multiple personality disorder. Ellis neatly squares that circle by tying Moon Knight’s multiple personalities (in whatever iteration) to the aspects of Khonshu and the phases of the moon, so that both ideas are pulling in the same direction.
More fundamentally, what Ellis and Shalvey are doing here is to come up with an aesthetic for Moon Knight stories, and to make that aesthetic the point of the book. This is not a plot-heavy comic. The six issues are self-contained – issue #6 springboards off a minor character in issue #1, but the stories aren’t linked beyond that. What’s more, viewed purely in plot terms, the stories are extremely minimal. Issue #5 is an extreme case, with a plot that pretty much boils down to “Moon Knight fights his way through a building to rescue a girl; she comments that his mask is really his face.” Vastly more sophisticated plots can be found in the typical episode of Waybuloo. But that’s not the point.
The minimalism works; it’s part of the package in itself. In this interpretation, Moon Knight is essentially a nocturnal comic. It features weird things happening in the dead of night. A certain dream-like isolation is precisely the desired tone. They shouldn’t be busy. There shouldn’t be anything around, besides what is truly essential to the plot. (Issue #6, again, is the exception here, because it’s told from the perspective of an outsider trying and failing to become Moon Knight; and so it needs to break the tone for part of the issue.) By keeping the plot mechanics extremely basic, the series leaves itself plenty of space to tell its stories with maximum effect, and allow them to be subtly off-kilter. And it often is subtle; it’s easy to write Moon Knight as a raving maniac, but he’s all the more effective when, as here, he’s 90% calm, level-headed and rational.
There’s memorable artwork in these issues. A measured pace and generally subdued colours establish a baseline that other moments can stand out against. When the visuals turn lurid in an extended dream scene, it’s all the more effective thanks to the book’s prevailing air of restraint, at times even a deliberate over-formality in Moon Knight himself. Moon Knight is a slightly weird presence on the page generally; not only is his costume white, but it seems to be completely without shadow, making him stylistically at odds with the art around him. If you want to be literal about it, this might be intended to indicate that the suit is not merely white but actually luminous; but it’s the sense that there’s something slightly off in the way that it’s rendered that makes the real impact. Few creators these days can pull off an issue long fight scene such as issue #5 and make it work; this book does. The first half of issue #2 (which follows eight characters at once, their panels vanishing as a sniper picks them off) is a truly excellent use of the medium – albeit that the second half comes as a bit of an anticlimax after such a bravura display.
So this is very good. But it’s also very difficult to carry over to another creative team. The idea of not merely establishing a plot set-up, but defining an aesthetic for others to follow… it’s not something we see often these days. The modern assumption is that creators are supposed to bring their own style to a title. It might be influenced by an earlier run, but it’s not likely to be an outright imitation. The big idea of these six issues is not a plot set-up but an aesthetic for Moon Knight stories – but “incoming creative team X do Ellis and Shalvey’s Moon Knight” is not an easy sell. Unsurprisingly, the preview pages for issue #7 show a comic that looks entirely different, with angular panels quite unlike anything in Shalvey’s work; it’s a different comic working within the same basic plot set-up, which is to say, it’s a different comic in every respect that really matters. So we’re not going to get a modern experiment in trying to define a house style for later creators to emulate. I suspect it would have been a tough sell even if the creators had been up for it.
That makes the presentation of these six issues as the start of an ongoing series – rather than a self-contained mini – more than a little awkward. But they are worth your time, simply as a highly successful display of how to strip a concept down to a set of core ideas – not just plot ideas, but storytelling ideas – that are all working in harmony to an extent we rarely see in superhero comics.