[10 March 2014]
PopMatters Associate Comics Editor
Call it off-beat. Call it postmodern and ironic. Whatever it is, Marvel has captured a tone that emphasizes the day-to-day nuances of superheroes juxtaposed with the craziness of super heroics. Hawkeye, Black Widow, She-Hulk, etc – It’s a rejuvenation, reinvention and recontextualiztion of tired characters or characters who have never been able to take the spotlight for whatever reason. And the trendiness of the books certainly puts the now in the Marvel NOW! tagline. Then comes Moon Knight, and for better or for worse, the new series in my mind is lumped together with the other off-beat Marvel books. Maybe because the tone is so vastly different from other superhero books? Maybe because, while playing to the roots of comics, it is very much a NOW! title? Whatever the reason, Moon Knight is the dark end of this off-beat trend, and it’s a place where the character can find some footing but certainly not any peace.
On the surface, Moon Knight is another Batman clone but with an emphasis on the multiple personalities that a vigilante-type has to take on to do the work that he does; the playboy or normal enough man hiding the night stalker hiding the broken shell. In this case, the multiple personalities were incorporated to the effect of Moon Knight having a disorder, clinically now known as dissociative identity disorder. And while that gave him a layer of depth, the cape, cowl and gadgets only emphasized the connection to one of the original superheroes.
With this new volume of Moon Knight, writer Warren Ellis embraces the characters communality, refocuses the criticism, and recasts him in a modern pulp noir crime book. At least in this first issue, the series seemingly has more in common with a title like Ed Brubaker and Sean Philips’ Incognito – itself a wholly pulp noir influenced book – and the previously mentioned Marvel NOW! titles than any current Batman title.
Ellis, as writer, creator and possibly visionary, is able to create an opening narrative that reflects on the past, embraces the present and longs for the future. It’s a tight rope to walk, but Ellis in quick succession gives us the bullet points on Moon Knight’s past, where he is now and what might happen to him in this evolving narrative. It’s evolving in the sense that Ellis reworks the mental disorder into something that evokes both the pulp and noir aspects at play. His art cohorts Declan Shalvey and Jordie Bellaire take those cues and run with a refined yet muted visual. Possibly one of the best coloring choices here is not to color Moon Knight, allowing Shalvey’s suited rendering to standout purposely, the effect emphasizing that he is out of touch yet very much within his environment. As the dialogue says at several points, Moon Knight wears white because “He likes people to see him coming,” and that’s the basic mission statement for this issues’ presentation of the character. It’s the complimentary tandem of the written and the drawn that puts this Moon Knight #1 over more recent installments.
And yet Moon Knight owes a great debt to the mildly autistic super detective TV trope. Monk, Sherlock, Elementary, Perception, a myriad of broadcast and cable shows feature lead characters on the disorder spectrum having amazing deductive powers. While Moon Knight claims much of his expertise from his previous mercenary life, you cannot help but view the crime scene investigation in terms of that procedural device. NBC‘s sitcom Community makes a point about this trope in their David Fincher send up episode “Basic Intergluteal Numismatics,” but unlike that show’s thinly veiled criticism of some very painful writing, Ellis’ use of the trope allows for a deeper tonal connection to both the recasting of the character and larger pop culture world.
His procedural (or possibly framing) device is perception: public perception in the form of the blogger who opens the book, professional perception in the form of the police he works with, clinical perception in the form of the new diagnoses, and personal perception in the form of the book’s closing pages. “Pay attention to Mr. Knight,” the Commission Gordon stand in says at one point. That we must do because the focus in every aspect of this issue is on Mr. Knight. Not the disorder or the brain damage, and not the Batman commonality. This character has unique traits and those come into focus very clearly in this debut issue.
It’s an extremely strong debut, one that works in standalone fashion but also offers an enticing, if low-key opening salvo for this new volume. Fully completing the reworking of Moon Knight in a postmodern pulp noir crime series will take more than one issue, but all the evidence points to a reworked concept that doesn’t need to abandon its entire history to be rejuvenated. It’s capturing the now, and that’s very refreshing.