Spencer: I’ve always struggled with ambiguity; as a child I was more concerned with knowing the “correct” answer or meaning of something than finding my own interpretations, and though I’ve mostly moved past this due to growing up, becoming (slightly) more emotionally stable, and especially due to my writing here, occasionally I still come across a piece of work that’s so ambiguous that I just have trouble dealing with it. Moon Knight is one of those books; it’s so opaque that any number of possible meanings could be applied to its story, leading me to wonder if there’s actually any meaning at all.
The actual plot of Warren Ellis, Declan Shalvey, and Jordie Bellaire’s Moon Knight 3 is deceptively simple: Ghost-Punks are terrorizing the city, and when Moon Knight tries to take them down, he can’t even touch them! The skeleton-bird creature (Is this an incarnation of Khonshu? A hallucination? One of Spector’s alternate personalities?) reminds Spector that he has Egyptian artifacts that would allow him to touch the ghosts. Moon Knight armors up, finds the ghosts, destroys one, and follows the rest to their hideout. There he discovers that those four punks were killed by a fellow gang-member facing a pang of conscience.
The killer has a music box, likely a childhood gift from his mother, reminding him that he’s “good”, and Spector dumps it into the ocean, which struck me as a particularly ambiguous action. It could be Moon Knight’s way of honoring a violent punk who could no longer ignore his conscience, or it could be a way of putting the guy’s spirit to rest, but that second reading doesn’t quite hold up because we never see his ghost, only the spirits of his victims; strangely enough, his spirit is the only one that seems to be at peace. The Ghost-Punks themselves are a loose end; Spector points out that punk gangs are old fashioned, so why did they wait until now to resurface if they’ve probably been dead for years and years? Moreover, Moon Knight only destroys one, and he leaves the others hiding in a closet; even if they’re too scared of him to attack the city again, they’re still just kind of there, not defeated, not at peace, just Ghost-Punks Spector stuffed in a closet and forgot about.
Perhaps I’m thinking about the actual specifics of the plot too much, though; it seems obvious that Ellis’ interest doesn’t lie in the plot as much as the themes carrying it, and as always, he allows Shalvey and Bellaire to do most of the heavy lifting in this regard. Shalvey’s incredibly clear style makes the intricate design of Moon Knight’s new armor shine without ever letting it become too complicated, and Bellaire’s colors are especially rich, bringing a remarkable amount of depth to the world that just makes Moon Knight’s lack of depth and color stand out even more.
We’ve spent a lot of time talking about what Moon Knight’s impeccably white uniform means, but I doubt we’ve even come close to saying everything there is to say about it. We’ve discussed how (like in this image) Spector’s uniform makes him stand-out, sets him apart as something separate from the rest of the world he inhabits; we’ve also pointed out how it connects Moon Knight to the gutter, the very same gutter we saw as a representation of death in issue 2. This issue takes all of those ideas and makes them obvious, using them to draw a solid comparison between Moon Knight and the Ghost-Punks:
When Spector and the ghosts clash the background fades away completely, becoming nothing but sparks of green and white. Moon Knight is just as supernatural, just as much an otherworldly force as the ghosts themselves, and his collection of Egyptian artifacts that allows him to touch the ghosts (he should have just found a Silph Scope) further shows that Spector has an inherent connection with death in one way or another.
What am I supposed to do with this information, though? I’ve known that Moon Knight has some sort of connection with death for a while now, and while this issue certainly reinforces that, it doesn’t really use that information to further explore Moon Knight as a character, and the link between Spector and the Ghost-Punks also feels like a narrative dead-end; I can see that they reflect each other somehow, but again, I’m not sure what that means for Moon Knight as a character.
I have a feeling that this is probably more my fault than the book’s itself, but there’s just so much going on here that I’m paralyzed by the possibilities, and more than a little frustrated by my inability to draw any solid conclusions out of the information presented. I certainly don’t dislike Moon Knight; the one-and-done stories are refreshing and usually clever, and Ellis knows when to step aside and let Shalvey and Bellaire’s gorgeous work carry the story, but this might not be the most optimal title for my particular reading style.
Drew, this does strike me as being right up your alley, though. Were you able to draw any sort of conclusions from the points I raised, or did you run into some narrative frustrations yourself — or perhaps you have your own observations I overlooked completely?
Drew: Spencer, you know me so well. I hate to turn this into an essay on why I like ambiguity so much, but as someone who enjoys cloud-watching and staring at the ocean, I can tell you that I’m not particularly daunted by the absence of artistic intention. That said, I actually think what’s so intimidating about this issue in particular is that it seems to be overloaded with intention. Ellis, Shalvey, and Bellaire all find themselves adding touches of specificity to what has heretofore been a remarkably ambiguous series.
Take the gang, for example. Spektor mentions that the idea of a punk gang is “kind of vintage,” but even without the nod, the image of a violent, thematically costumed gang roving the streets of New York is enough to evoke The Warriors. Of course, there also were punk gangs at some point, which may make the message on the music box all the more significant.
The choice of name and imperative to “be good” almost certainly seems designed to evoke “Johnny B. Goode”, as if Johnny’s crisis of conscience were as much about Rock’n’Roll philosophy as it is about morality (note the “History of Punk” book amongst the wreckage where Moon Knight finds the bodies). It’s an absurd idea, but it gives power to the idea of the music box as a totem of values. Music pangs our nostalgia in the way few things can, so whether that box is playing Brahms or Berry doesn’t really matter — it represents some piece of Johnny’s innocence that he regretted losing.
In its own way, the art begins to shade in more specifics as well. I’ve already referenced Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics when formulating my readings of the first two issues, but it’s newly significant here. McCloud suggests that the axis of abstraction — from pure representation through cartooniness, all the way to language — is one of the key considerations of comics. Representation, he argued, fixes meaning, where abstraction leaves much of that meaning in the mind of the audience. In that way, all of the extra details of Moon Knight’s ghost-punching suit seems intended to fix his meaning. Perhaps more important to our discussion, it makes Moon Knight specifically not us. McCloud also points out that the more abstracted a face becomes, the more people it can be said to represent, suggesting that a less abstracted, more detailed rendering of Moon Knight more firmly “others” him.
Then again, Bellaire’s color work has always made Spector otherworldly. Here, however, we see a breach of the white and black rule, as the ghosts draw blood.
Does this bloodying humanize him in a way that makes him more relatable, or in a way that makes him more specifically an individual who is not us? It certainly breaks the illusion that he is of the gutter (or of death, as Spencer pointed out) — for all his magic and pristine whiteness, he’s still just a man under that mask.
For me, the real magic of the issue is that scene with Khonshu (and Spencer, I think the question of whether that’s really a manifestation of Spector’s psychosis will be central to this series), which is tantalizingly rendered in grayscale, with the notable exception of the blood. The Moon Knight uniform is still strictly black and white (again, with the exception of the blood), but everything else — Spector’s skin, Khonshu, the other two men shown in that scene — is awash in cool grays. My read is that that scene takes place in Spector’s head, as the very next scene finds color creeping back in, suggesting that these harsh black and whites only exist on the page — we’re quick to find the gray area once it enters the realm of the mind.
Ultimately, that ambiguity is still the thesis statement of this series, this issue just went about evoking it in surprisingly specific ways. Three issues in, and this series has already established itself as one of the most rewarding, dense reads out there. Every line, every panel, every gutter, every bleed is pregnant with meaning. We may not always be able to unpack the meaning of that meaning, but it’s always fun to try.
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?