Today, Patrick and Drew are discussing Moon Knight 1, originally released March 5, 2014.
Patrick: What do we call what we’re doing here at Retcon Punch? Literary criticism? Art criticism? Pop psychology mixed with informed gawking? I like to think that we’re simply exploring narratives and what makes them interesting. No matter what you think we’re trying to do, one thing we end up doing a lot is explaining. Occasionally, we lack the tools to properly explain something we read — maybe there’s a character who’s history we don’t have an adequate handle on or maybe the cultural references fly over our heads — but we always need to attempt to explain the issue in front of us. Moon Knight is one of those characters I don’t know shit about, but it’s cool — writer Warren Ellis is counting on my ignorance, and is waiting in the wings to exploit my every assumption.
The series starts with one of those ultra-curt explanations of what you’re about to read:
Mercenary Marc Spector died in Egypt, under a statue of the ancient deity Khonshu. He returned to life in the shadow of the moon god and wore his aspect to fight crime for his own redemption. He went completely insane, and disappeared. This is what happened next.
Now, never mind that I don’t understand what wearing a god’s aspect would entail (what, is it like a honking clown nose?), the language here is obtuse to the point of being trite. Consider, for a second, just how dismissive the phrase “he went completely insane” is. We’re left with a more-or-less clean slate, all we know is that he died, lived again and went nuts. Then, just in case everything was going to start too smoothly, we get a little extra heresay about Moon Knight in the form of a gossipy conversation between… well, it’s hard to say. Cops and some superhero reporter? Their conversation reinforces the blurb above, which a little extra emphasis on crazy. So it’s a damn surprise when we get our first good look at Moon Knight, strolling on to the scene of a brutal murder, wearing the whitest, cleanest suite you’ll ever see. So clean and white, in fact, that there’s simply no color in it. Ever.
It doesn’t matter how much blood and mud and shit he walks through, and it doesn’t matter what light is being cast on this character, the suit remains uncolored. This allows Moon Knight to bleed into the gutters and the space between panels without it seeming obtrusive. But it also means that he is somehow not of the world we’re reading. Jordie Bellaire colors the issue with incredible subtlety, giving the world around Moon Knight shape and light and character, making the stark black and white of the main character all the more disarming.
Seemingly to ground what is quickly becoming the weirdest fucking thing I’ve read out of Marvel lately, this issue presents a simple mystery: there’s a body, so whodunnit? Knight helps the cops narrow down the type of suspect they’re looking for and then just goes into the tunnels beneath New York City to confront the dude himself. The killer is a former S.H.I.E.L.D. operative, harvesting parts of healthy, athletic individuals to repair his own broken body. The two men circle each other for a minute while the killer confesses and states his motivation. When it finally comes time to fight, Moon Knight has already won, having stealthily landed a killing blow the moment they met.
Moon Knight is so fucking weird. He’s a costumed superhero, but we don’t see him wear bright colors, we don’t see him skulk in the shadows, we don’t even see him throw a punch. “A superhero without punching?” you ask incredulously. It’s absurd, I know! It’s even stranger when so much of the whiteness of Moon Knight is explained away by people saying that he wants everyone to see him coming. That might be true, but he’s not charging headlong into a fight. After that first moon-erang lodges itself in the baddie’s bionic body, MK readies a second, but this one’s not for attack, but defense?
There’s even more beautiful color work here during the confrontation underground. The killer is in a room full of TV monitors, and they cast red and blue light on him, alternately washing him in those colors. It makes the play between color and whiteness a central method of displaying the conflict. Notice how the red on the left plays off the white on the right, with the explosive yellow uniting the two panels on the bottom. It’s a perfect graphic show-down, with a violent little conclusion. Plus, in his most badass moment (deflecting a bullet with a tiny moon counts as badass), the white gutters are almost overpowering everything else. When the action moves over to Moon Knight in therapy, the gutter fade to black — literally, they get darker the further you slide down the page — as Moon Knight is finally out of his element.
Though, should we be calling that “therapy?” The issue ends with the subversion of the repeated assessment that Moon Knight is insane. But that explanation… sounds an awful lot like insanity, right? Drew, I know we’ve been reading a lot of number ones, and know we’ve dinged them all for not presenting a clear image of who their hero is, and it feel like this issue is doing the same, but like, on purpose. Also, I didn’t say shit about Declan Shalvey’s pencil work, but holy hell can that dude assemble some effective images — that splash of Moon Knight descending into the underground is one of my favorites (again, the colors!). Are you as excited about this issue as I am?
Drew: The short answer is yes, but I think you’re right to call this title weird — it sets itself apart from the field at basically every turn. Indeed, much of its uniqueness comes from self-conscious affects that ultimately force us to reconsider our expectations of the medium. The coloration (or lack thereof) on Moon Knight is a great example. Sure, that he’s all white is striking, but it’s also saliently artificial. Lighting doesn’t effect his coloration (as it so moodily does for his opponent underground), making him seem almost not of this Earth. It also makes him look more like an inked line drawing, which draws our attention to his artificiality, but it also celebrates the medium. It emphasizes the incredible work Bellaire is doing elsewhere in the book while simultaneously offering an unadulterated showcase for Shalvey’s draftsmanship. It pushes us out while pulling us in, effectively forcing us to come at this thing sideways, which I think makes your read of Moon Knight as being related to the gutters particularly effective.
In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud argues that the gutter is the space for the audience’s imagination. Effectively, that interpretation and meaning happens in that space between panels. He also argues that abstraction — that is, affected artificiality — is directly proportional to how easily an audience can put themselves in the shoes of the character. That is, when art tends towards realism, the best we can hope for is to imagine what it would be like to be that character, but when it tends towards abstraction (especially cartooniness), we might actually imagine that that character is us. That Moon Knight is both gutter-like and self-consciously artsy makes him a total cipher — we’re effectively being challenged to color him in with whatever we want to project onto his blankness.
It’s an alluring idea, one that emphasizes the audience’s role in creating this story, but that it does so by calling attention to its own artificiality is why I love this issue so much. It draws us in and pushes us out simultaneously, forcing us to come at it sideways, giving us an easy fresh perspective on all of the tropes this issue trades in. My favorite has to be the “I stopped you two minutes ago” moment. The similarities to Ozymandias’ own “I did it thirty-five minutes ago” are obvious (and obviously intentional), giving Moon Knight some of that same detached ruthlessness that makes that moment so chilling. That it subverts the same “bad guy reveals their plan” trope in the same way that Watchmen did over 25 years ago speaks to the resilience of that scene. Indeed, in spite of all of the subversion going on elsewhere, I was completely caught off-guard by the reveal — even though Shalvey clearly shows every step of the process.
In my defense, the motion lines don’t really register when you don’t have any context for that motion. Shalvey is using the medium’s shortcomings to hide the action in plain site. He even shows the pure white crescent sticking out of the killer’s side on two separate occasions before the reveal. Sneaky or not, that’s just plain cool.
Taken as a whole, this issue is a celebration of comics — not just of genre fiction or colored line art, but of comics in general. Many series attempt this type of meta-commentary, but many get too distracted in details to say anything substantive about the medium. This isn’t that kind of winking nod to how campy Batman used to be, or to how clever the creators are, but a mature examination of both the nuts and bolts of how comics work, and the effect those parts have when they come together. This is fan service of a very different kind, and I absolutely love it.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?