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Aug 12

Moon Knight vol 1 – “From the Dead”

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.

Bring on the comments

  1. halapeno says:

    Hmm… interesting. Think I’ll give it a look.

  2. Taibak says:

    So random thought experiment: it seems like Marvel keep launching these somewhat obscure characters in the hopes of finding the next X-Men or Daredevil. What properties, if any, do you think would have the greatest chance of being turned into a huge success like that?

    Or does it really just come down to the creative team?

  3. joseph says:

    Chalk up another success for Marvel alongside Hawkguy, She-Hulk, Silver surfer, and Superior Foes, all books with unique identities and coherent designs. I suspect this run will be like Gillen and McKelvie’s Young Avengers, and should have just come to an end, though there’s no reason it can’t find its footing with the next creative team, not unlike Daredevil. The 4 page preview didn’t convince me, but I’ll give the issue a try when it cines out. Really this was quite good.

  4. halapeno says:

    @Taibak – Even though it’s never been a hugely successful comic series, I think I’d try to put Power Pack up on the big screen. I think it’d play well with the G-rated crowd.

  5. The right creative team with the right idea or the right cachet at the right time will always score big. Sometimes the character can get in the way, though.

    I imagine Moondragon will be back in some shape or form – in her Peter David/Pascal Ferry Captain Marvel-era outfit! – in time for GraunGraunGrootahootiehoo 2.

    Somebody’ll want to dust her off for a comic first, no doubt. Probably minimal Earth time, probably a new girlfriend (or no girlfriend to begin with), certainly tied to the Graunagal comic. She’s a tough sell.

    Apart from her…the world is literally tumbling out of its bed for a Squirrel Girl comic. gurrrr

    In all seriousness, so many potential movietic properties (boak) are likely to end up pantsuited into the SHIELD show with all the Kirby washed out of them, it hardly seems worth digging them out. But a Mockingbird book seems likely. Madame Web, maybe, seeing as the Spider-Man universe is so woefully underpopulated.

    Once again, having to serve the needs of the shared, and now the movie universes will likely get in the way of this and that. But hey, as long as we get some kind of Great Lakesy Defenders book out of it, who cares, right?

    //\Oo/\\

  6. Luis Dants says:

    @Taibak – it is only common commercial sense to make those attempts. The risk is minimal and the potential benefits are huge.

    As it is, Marvel and DC both need a bit more of variety in their lines. Too much reliance on increasingly bloated and redundant franchises. If Batman ever falls from popular acceptance in the way Spider-Man did due to the Clone Saga, DC will be in dire straits.

    Personally, I think Morbius could work well, particularly as a movie. Runaways is somewhat spent in the comics, but the original series would still make a killer movie or even TV series. Doctor Strange is in a similar situation: pretty much depleted as a solo character in comics, but lots of potential as a TV or movie character. Black Panther can work in both media, IMO. Comet Man is yet another character that could make a fine movie, as well as a dark horse addition to the GotG.

  7. Suzene says:

    @halapeno – I was actually a little surprised that there was nothing aimed at a younger audience among Marvel’s upcoming block of Netflix programming since 1) Netflix has mentioned more than once that they’re looking to beef up their selection of children’s viewing and 2) you can get away with lower production values in kids programming than you can with something made with a more critical audience in mind, so it’s a slightly lower risk for Marvel/Disney. Power Pack, Runaways, Her-oes, Exiles (obviously you’d have to redo the cast unless you went with an animated series, but Sliders with superheroes is still a fun pitch), Devil Dinosaur etc. have the potential to snag a younger viewing audience. But it’s possible they already feel that their current approach offers the broadest appeal; it’s not like Avengers merchandise isn’t being bought for the tween and under crowd, after all.

  8. halapeno says:

    @Suzene – I think you might be right about them perhaps not wishing to deviate from their current approach.

    It also just occurred to me that, since the studio is very focused on the shared universe concept, then having properties that fall under different MPAA ratings could be problematic if you wanted to have the properties interact at some point.

  9. Paul says:

    The problem with Power Pack is that you need really good child actors, which is easier said than done in terms of both casting and production schedule. I’ve always loved the concept, but I think it would only work on TV as an animated series where you could use older voice actors.

    More generally, in terms of the potential diversity appeal of things like Power Pack and Runaways, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that Marvel is now part of the Disney empire. Perhaps uniquely among major media conglomerates, Disney’s audience already skews disproportionately young and female. Disney bought Marvel precisely because it appealed to a different audience that they weren’t currently reaching. Marvel’s diversity priorities have to be seen in that light.

  10. Omar Karindu says:

    They’ve already turned Big Hero Six into a totally unrelated “family” animated film, which suggests that they;re experimenting with folding some of the kid-friendly Marvel properties into their existing branding, separate from the MCU brand.

    If Bug Hero 6 succeeds financially, a loose adaptation of Power Pack would be another logical choice. It already has horse-y aliens begging to be rebranded as Disney’s answer to MLP, for instance.

  11. Jeremy says:

    I have zero intention of following this book into #7, and I know I’m not alone. This worked for me, but only when this specific creative voice is doing it. No offense to Greg Smallwood, cuz I like me some Dream Thief, but no thanks.

  12. Neil Kapit says:

    Out of curiosity, did anyone here read either of Warren Ellis’ crime novels, Crooked Little Vein and Gun Machine? Those books kind of killed my interest in Warren Ellis doing a noir story, even a superhero one. But the reviews have been good, so has anyone who’s read both Ellis’ novels and his Moon Knight found a way to reconcile that?

  13. halapeno says:

    “Disney bought Marvel precisely because it appealed to a different audience that they weren’t currently reaching.”

    True enough, but there’s gotta be considerable overlap between the two audiences. I can scarcely believe that Avengers and GotG would have done the box office figures that they did if the audiences for those films was comprised largely of filmgoers who wouldn’t ordinarily go see a Disney flick.

    But, yeah, a cartoon might be a better idea. I really have zero interest in Power Pack myself, but it just strikes me as something that could be a huge hit with the kiddies if delivered to them in the right package.

  14. Neil: I read Crooked Little Vein, and really didn’t care for it; it kind of felt that Ellis was just tossing all the “gross” things he could think of to make a rather heavy-handed point. In contrast, Moon Knight subscribes to almost minimalism rather than excess–it’s a highly stylized approach for the maximum effect.

  15. Neil Kapit says:

    Thanks Person of Con. I was a little amused by Crooked Little Vein but ultimately unimpressed, not just because of all the fetish stuff (which just struck me as Ellis showing off all the research he’d done on weird fetishes), but because it didn’t have any interesting characters to go with the mystery plot. Gun Machine had similar problems, focusing on plot over character while not having a particularly compelling plot but for the research Ellis had done. It was frustrating, and made me lose a lot of interest in Ellis’ work in a context without great artists to back up his work, or even tired old franchise superhero characters to make his ideas seem better by comparison. That’s why I didn’t bother to get Moon Knight when it first came out, because I feared that it’d be just more unnaturally sarcastic dialogue and showy author research. Fortunately, it sounds like I’m wrong and this is a return to form, so I’ll check it out.

  16. Chris Arndt says:

    I like the idea of what Warren Ellis and Declan did…. it’s exactly how television pilots and initial runs on tv series work. Some creators set a tone, pattern, premise, and those that come later follow it with episodes that are similar after the original writers leave.

    Unfortunately this is comic books so the creators will throw in their own bit and we’re going to lose the Planetary aspect.

    I really really really liked every issue.

    Especially issue 5. Old school Moon Knight in a new style.

    Although for a few weeks now I wish you’d deviate and review Iron Patriot…. which I think is RUBBISH.

  17. K says:

    Planetary really is the blatantly obvious comparison, isn’t it? His Hellblazer run is comparable as well, complete with begrudging ally on the police force.

    I appreciate it when Ellis goes back to that minimalistic approach. The difference is that Planetary read like it needed character arcs, but never had any. This, on the other hand, does not need them at all.

  18. Thom H. says:

    @K: “Planetary read like it needed character arcs, but never had any” is the perfect way to sum up the problem with that book.

    Also, has anyone here read Ellis’ first issue of Supreme: Blue Rose? It also benefits from a lighter storytelling touch (e.g., no big infodumps, no super-sarcasm), and the art is gorgeous. I picked it up on a whim, and I can’t believe how much I’m looking forward to the next issue.

  19. joseph says:

    @Arndt I may be the only one, but I really appreciated what Kot was trying to do with Iron Patriot. That splash page in issue two of Rhodey sinking underwater was fantastic. The book seemed timely, to me, in its focus on domestic issues,the experience of black Americans, the bits about New Orleans, the nature of the villain. It’s a shame they couldn’t have been given at least a second arc to help find an audience.

  20. Chris Arndt says:

    That depends on how you use the word “appreciate”.

    I understand what he did. I understand the intention. I thought it was rubbish.

    Five goshdamn issues for a single story in a brand new series that desperately needed to lead off with one quick story to establish the necessity of the series beyond “we love Rhodey”.

    And for the life of me, an “African-American more-down-to-earth version of the A-level hero plus plucky niece and older family members” is Steel. IT’S STEEL.

    The other thing is the nameless villain’s big deal is that he hacked and controlled Iron Man armor. Considering past Iron Man stories, Tony Stark should have shit himself in terror and then gotten directly involved because one of the ongoing themes for thirty years is that Iron Man is OCD about bad guys hacking Iron Man armor for the purposes of murder and death.

    and I’m always irked that what you can’t take out and withstand in Iron Man armor you can survive and win bare hand

  21. Chris Arndt says:

    So it ignores other better comics. And it’s probably one of the best comics ever if so many other comics do not exist.

  22. halapeno says:

    Never liked Rhodey as a superhero. He used to be a guy who once served the function of keeping Tony grounded in relative normalcy. The best friend who was just a regular guy and not also an armored superhero. This is one of the aspects of superhero comics that really annoys me. Some writer inevitably comes along and decides to stick a perfectly good supporting character in a costume (or armor, in this case) and make them a superhero as well.

  23. Chris Arndt says:

    Turning Rene Montoya into the Question really just destroyed two characters rather than developed one.

    I’ll buy Rhodey as a substitute Iron Man if the story demands it, or reinforcement Iron Man.

    For awhile I thought it was cool that the three prime Avengers had B-level substitutes.

    But Rhodey as a solo Iron Man superhero just rings untrue to me.

  24. Paul says:

    @joseph: The problem with giving a book more time to find an audience is that it never ever works. The pattern for years has been that books launch at their maximum sales and drop from there.

    A relaunch on the back of critical acclaim and online buzz sometimes works, but Iron Patriot didn’t have that. It’s possible that things may work differently with books that sell predominantly in digital but again those seem to be principally titles that are finding an audience outside the comic shop crowd; I’m unconvinced that the umpteenth Jim Rhodes comic was a candidate for that even if it was good. (For what it’s worth, I did read the first issue and I can’t remember if we even reviewed it on the podcast. It might well have been one of the occasional titles that we bought to review but decided was too boring to talk about.)

  25. Michael says:

    Between Iron Patriot and the current iteration of Secret Avengers, I’m beginning to think that Ales Kot doesn’t do much for me as a reader.

  26. Jamie says:

    “Turning Rene Montoya into the Question really just destroyed two characters rather than developed one.”

    Not even close.

  27. andrew brown says:

    I like Ales Kot’s zero, and loved his short run on suicide squad. unfortunately, all his marvel work has left me cold.

  28. Stuart says:

    Speaking of a lighter touch, this Moon Knight feels not so different than what Ellis did with Secret Avengers. Took advantage of having the perfect artist(s), simplified the concept down as far as it could go, and told a hell of a visual story every issue. That run was also well received with absolutely no attempted imitations following it, a shame since it set the book up for success much more than Brubaker’s opening run preceding it.

    Thom H – yeah, Supreme: Blue Rose felt quite like a breath of fresh air, unlike the already tiresome Trees. It is just a matter of him finding the right artist? Being forced by the concept of whatever work-for-hire book he’s doing to minimize his own overly elaborate sci fi tendencies? Caring less and therefore probably trying less hard on something he doesn’t own, allowing his natural elegance to take the spotlight?

  29. Thom H. says:

    @Stuart — I’m totally with you on Ellis’ Secret Avengers. The Black Widow issue alone was very close to perfect.

    I don’t really know what it is about Supreme that is channeling so many of Ellis’ good qualities as a writer. The art certainly doesn’t hurt the book. It’s not just gorgeous, but it really captures the dream-like quality of the new Supreme universe and the weird tech effects of Dax’s company.

    I don’t think you can explain it by saying it’s not his own creation. He was able to achieve a level of simplicity with Ocean back in the day, which he fully owns with Chris Sprouse. That story probably suffers from a little too much scientific exposition, but at least it makes sense given the premise.

    I think probably the biggest difference between S:BR and other Ellis work is how straight he’s playing things. Sure, there are some sarcastic character moments, but Ellis realigned the entire cast of Supreme so that it’s very much like Silver Age Superman. And we’re supposed to be taking it seriously, and (possibly?) rooting for the people who are usually heroes. Maybe he’s always wanted to write an homage to Lois Lane? Maybe he’s getting older and has become nostalgic?

    Or maybe the next few issues will consist of Diana Dane making quippy remarks about how superheroes are silly and Darius Dax expounding about the fascinating tech that proves some new quantum physics theory. You never know. I just hope the Saturn princess’s story is interesting — I already like her.

  30. Chris says:

    “Not even close.”

    Explain.

  31. Mark says:

    As a long-time Moon Knight fan (bought the first issue off a spinner rack in 1980) I liked Ellis’s run a lot–the only disappointment for me is that he never got around to really explaining Moon night’s relationship with Khonshu. Or rather, explaining how the insane cut off Bushman face-wearing Khonshu from the 2006 run fits with the Khonshu from this current run. Would have liked to see more of Spector talking to his psychiatrist too. i’m not at all convinced Brian Wood can pick up the ball and run with it but I’ll give him a couple of issues to convince me.

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