Phases of Moon Knight

by Matthew Derman

5 March 2015

Last month’s Moon Knight #12 saw the conclusion of the second arc of the book. But with two different creative teams and two different approaches, is this even the same book? Or an under-the-radar reboot?

The current volume of Marvel’s Moon Knight series is trying something that, if maybe not 100% original, is at least interesting to watch unfold. Rather than being an ongoing narrative in the strictest sense, the title is split into six-issue arcs, with a new creative team for each one. With last month’s Moon Knight #12, the second arc concluded, so it seems like a good time to take a step back and look at this structural approach to see how well it’s doing so far. How much does the Warren Ellis/Declan Shalvey Moon Knight from issues #1-6 share with the Brian Wood/Greg Smallwood version from issues #7-12? Are they even the same character; does it still feel like the same book? Or, instead, is this a weird case of Marvel trying to have its reboot cake and eat it, too, where two wholly different interpretations of the same character share one volume of a comic when they might make more sense starring in two distinct six-issue mini-series? I don’t think things are quite as disconnected as all that, but there’s no denying some sizable differences between the first and second arcs of this book. Then again, I’m not convinced that those differences automatically mean this strategy is a failure, either.

I should mention up top that the opening six issues of this series, written by Warren Ellis with art by Declan Shalvey, were some of the best superhero/action comics published in 2014. They were hard-hitting and fast-paced, and the titular hero was ever the stoic badass, arrogant but able to back it up by consistently being one step ahead of his opponents. Even in those rare instances where his enemies do get the upper hand (like when he tries to fight a bunch of ghosts in issue #3), he quickly recovers and returns to defeat them handily (in this example, by donning a suit of armor and using weapons specifically designed to battle the dead). Despite its brutality, there was an underlying fun-loving spirit to the Ellis/Shalvey run, where the creators and their main character were all thoroughly and unashamedly enjoying themselves, constructing this cryptic, intimidating, forceful persona to fight crime with extreme determination and efficiency.

The pacing of those issues was flawless, with Ellis seemingly doing his damnedest to use as few words as possible, stepping aside so that Shalvey’s art could take the reins and tell the bulk of many of the stories. This allowed for an abundance of awesome action sequences and other visual delights, and it kept Moon Knight in the role of the inscrutable mystery man, his internal life always obscure, but his external goals as easy to see as the various bright white costumes he wears. Each issue was also completely self-contained, six full narratives told from start to finish in 20 pages each. It was tight storytelling across the board, and while some issues were definitely stronger than others, none of them were flops, all of them looked gorgeous.

Point being, that first arc of Moon Knight was a tough act to follow, and would’ve been no matter which creators came on next or what they tried to do with the character. I am not here, then, to compare Brian Wood and Greg Smallwood’s subsequent run based on quality, or at least not based on that alone. There’s no doubt in my mind that Wood and Smallwood’s issues are not as good, not as enjoyable, not as energizing as Ellis and Shalvey’s, but that’s ok. With these six-issue arcs, some are doubtlessly going to be better than others, and though in an ideal world they would maintain the exact same level of excellence, that seems an unreasonable expectation. Different creators are going to handle things differently, and not everyone’s tastes are the same, so while I see the first six issues as far above the second six, other people are bound to disagree, and that’s fine. That’s maybe even one of the biggest potential benefits of this set-up—if you’re not a fan of a given creative team’s work, you know you only have to wait six issues for them to be replaced. The constant cycle of fresh blood makes even the worst stuff more tolerable.

What’s more interesting and important to examine is how connected the arcs are to one another in terms of tone, character, values, and atmosphere. Do they come across as two parts of the same project, or are they their own, separate things that merely happen to share a title? In the case of Moon Knight’s first twelve issues, there is no immediately apparent answer to that question, because Wood and Smallwood pull directly from Ellis and Shalvey in some respects, while outright ignoring them in others. The end result is a second arc that’s more of a reimagining of the first than a logical continuation of it, even though it wants to be both.

It could be argued that Moon Knight’s second arc is a set of six self-contained installments just like its predecessor, because each issue does contain one whole event in the life of the title character. But there is also a very clear, strong throughline tying them together, an overarching narrative centered on a villain who, technically speaking, was introduced in Ellis and Shalvey’s Moon Knight #1. At that time, she was merely Marc Spector/Moon Knight’s unnamed psychiatrist, whom he referred to only as “Doctor,” and though the diagnosis she gave him wasn’t at all typical, there was nothing overtly sinister about her, save for her slightly creepy smile (which disappears when Smallwood draws her anyway). In the Wood/Smallwood era, she gets much more deeply developed, suddenly turning into the primary antagonist and, at the very end, getting named as Dr. Elisa Warsame. She and Moon Knight become enemies because Warsame obsessively tries to have General Aliman Lor assassinated. Lor is the leader of the nation of Akima, and Warsame claims to be from Akima and to have been the only survivor of a massacre executed by Lor and his forces, including the death of her family at Lor’s hand. Moon Knight never quite trusts this story or Warsame in general, but that doesn’t stop her from stealing his powers and having him arrested as a terrorist and detained in some kind of super-secret, high security prison in an airplane.

Each move Warsame makes occupies its own issue, but they are still very much a part of the same story, and they lead into one another more and more directly until finally, the first panel of issue #12 begins approximately ten seconds after the last panel of issue #11. That connectivity alone is enough to set these six issues apart, but the difference that stands out most is that Moon Knight has a noticeably different voice when Wood writes him. Ellis’ Moon Knight made succinct statements, always with a certain steady boldness, typically either about what he knew or didn’t know, or about what was or was not going to happen next. Also, he was quick to action, and all of his actions were highly violent. In Wood’s hands, Moon Knight asks a lot of questions. He’s also argumentative, trying to convince people of his rightness with words rather than physically shutting them down. He is able to be shaken, able to be tricked, and spends most of his time playing catch up with Warsame. This is the exact opposite of Ellis’ take, and while it’s certainly Wood’s job to make the character his own, it might be preferable if he did it in a way that didn’t so obviously clash with what came before. Then again, maybe not. Maybe Moon Knight’s history of multiple personalities and varied interpretations by different creators makes him the perfectly flexible character for a book that’s structured in these short sprints.

As amazing as Declan Shalvey’s artwork was, Greg Smallwood holds his own, offering a smoother, more ghostly-looking Moon Knight and a more human Marc Spector, both of which work quite well, especially in the context of Wood’s more personal narrative. One way in which Wood does emulate Ellis is by letting the words fall away sometimes so the art can have sections of silence in which to shine. Smallwood is just as capable of carrying things as Shalvey was, and many of the details Smallwood chooses to highlight are more intimate and thus more interesting. A lot of that is made possible by the shift in the writing, so there’s something to be said for letting each team transform Moon Knight into whatever they need him to be to tell a story or stories most suited to their respective strengths. Taken on its own, the Dr. Warsame narrative is a decent superhero political mystery-thriller, not astounding but far from terrible. Smallwood’s art is as impressive as Shalvey’s, but they focus on different things, and the bits that separate them are what make them both worth having in the same title.

Whatever success this Moon Knight experiment has, though, it all hinges on colorist Jordie Bellaire. She was a huge part of what made the Ellis/Shalvey era pop, and she helped tremendously in smoothing the transition into the Wood/Smallwood days. Not that she colors Smallwood the same way she did Shalvey; Bellaire is too talented to use the exact same style for any two artists. There’s something fuzzier and/or chalkier about the colors in the Smallwood issues, again matching the softer tone. Even so, Bellaire’s presence in both arcs does unify them, maintaining a crispness and clarity that enhance every page. Plus with Moon Knight in particular, the brashness of his all-white or almost-all-white outfits is key to his whole look. He’s brave and crazy enough to make himself stand out starkly, and the colors need to make that clear, without removing him completely from the rest of the world. Bellaire nails it, her Moon Knight fitting into gritty city streets, psychedelic dreamscapes, and high-tech prison cells with equal comfort.

While Moon Knight’s first two arcs don’t read like the same comic, they do find common ground, and they both represent strong creative efforts that produce solid results. Visually, they’re fantastic, particularly when it comes to Moon Knight himself. So why not just enjoy these two different takes on the character for what they each are and look forward to whatever the next one has in store? Besides which, who knows how long this volume of Moon Knight will even run? The character’s track record isn’t great in that regard, and after the upcoming third arc this series will be at issue #18, so maybe it’s the beginning of the end. Whatever comes of it, at least now there are two new, tidy little six-issue sets of Moon Knight comics in the world worth reading.


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