Moon Knight 4

Alternating Currents: Moon Knight 4, Drew and SpencerToday, Drew and Spencer are discussing Moon Knight 4, originally released June 4th, 2014.

Drew: The etymology of the verb “to haunt” isn’t entirely clear, but it likely stems from the Old Norse heimta “bring home”, which is itself derived from the Proto-Germanic  khaim- or “home”. That is to say, while we commonly refer to people being haunted by thoughts and ideas, “haunting” originally referred rather specifically to spirits being brought to or trapped in ones home. But are those actually different things? I tend to think of the idea of ghosts as vengeance-seeking beings as a manifestation of guilt, whether that guilt be the killer’s, or just of those lucky enough to still be alive. That is to say, I don’t think the spirit of Banquo actually visits MacBeth — he’s more powerful to me as a representation of MacBeth’s guilty conscience than of any supernatural power. Ghosts are our tell-tale heart, figments of our imagination that drive us mad. Unless, of course, you don’t have a conscience. Then Moon Knight might need to be driven mad on your behalf.

Issue 4 finds Moon Knight being enlisted by a somewhat skeptical sleep researcher whose subjects are experiencing inexplicably identical, profoundly disturbing dreams. Moon Knight agrees to assist, volunteering to sleep in the facility in hopes of encountering whatever it is that is causing these dreams. Sure enough, he’s treated to a psychedelic trip that seems to be infused with mushrooms in more ways than one.

'shroomsWe’ve been praising Jordie Bellaire’s color work on this title from the start, but while earlier issues reveled in her restraint, this issue embraces her full palette, lending some eye-popping brightness to Declan Shalvey’s intricately detailed fungus-scapes. Moon Knight is still rendered as stark black and white (with grey highlights when in his superhero digs), which only becomes more striking here, surrounded by full four-color madness.

Indeed, the colors are much brighter and more vivid in the dream than they are in Moon Knight’s reality. This suggests an intriguing philosophical dilema abou reality, but it also cleverly hints at the origin of the dreams: the enhancement and contrasting of colors is a famous effect of psychedelic mushrooms. Moon Knight goes on to suggest that the reason these dreams are seemingly communicable is that they are the result of a sporulated brain — grains of dreams that can be inhaled.

It’s a poetic idea, but Moon Knight means it literally: the researcher had killed a patient accidentally and stowed the body between the floorboards of his lab. That victim died of a fungal infection while dreaming, somehow keeping him in that dream state while allowing the spores of that fungus to infiltrate the dreams of the other patients. We don’t need to understand the exact mechanism — though Warren Ellis does go out of his way to explain that the researcher never sleeps at the lab, and that sleep is a process meant to detoxify the brain — we just need to know that there was a victim between the floorboards that was literally haunting the lab.

So where does that fit in my estimation of “hauntings”? It seems Ellis is subverting our own expectations. The parallels to The Tell-tale Heart are obvious enough, but what’s lacking here is any feeling of remorse on the part of the killer. He isn’t driven mad by the thought of an innocent man rotting beneath his feet — heck, he can’t even be bothered to do anything about the smell. Without absorbing those feelings himself (because he doesn’t sleep at the office), he’s left his test subjects (and eventually Moon Knight) to absorb them for him, driving them utterly insane for reasons they can’t possibly understand. It’s a supernaturalized extension of my totally non-supernatural explanation for ghosts, meeting me halfway, while also producing an even more implausible explanation about brain fungus.

I have a friend who recently started a gourmet mushroom business (seriously), so I probably know too many facts about mushrooms, but one of the most curious is the notion that they grow by moonlight. That is, the moon is to mushrooms what the sun is to plants. It’s pure folklore — biologically speaking, the mushrooms are just the reproductive organs of a much larger and more diffuse organism — but it ties in with Moon Knight’s purported expertise of all things moon-related.

Precisely qualifiedOr maybe it’s just that mushrooms are associated with death and decay — an intriguing mirror image of the dry mummification we associate with Egypt.

But for all my talk about Ellis’ ideas, this issue really belongs to Shalvey and Bellaire, who top themselves yet again, finding a gear that’s not only new to this series, but new to their creative output in general. I’ve long associated Shalvey with this kind of impeccable staging, but the level of detail in those dream sequences took me by surprise. Similarly, Bellaire’s color work has always been stunning, but I’ve never seen her break out into full-blown candy colors like this before.

Basically, everyone is on their game here, carrying this series to ever more daring heights. It’s absurd how much I’m enjoying this series — I’m ready to make hyperbolic claims about our year end “best of” lists — and each issue just seems to be better than the last. Spencer, I hope you enjoyed this one as much as I did. It sporulated my brain!

Spencer: I did enjoy this quite a bit actually, although it didn’t quite sporulate my brain — I’ve never seen my brain on mushrooms, and I never plan to. That said, I do feel privileged to have seen this poor dead man’s sporulated brain on mushrooms, especially as illustrated by Shalvey and Bellaire. Drew, you’re right to say that this issue belongs to them; so much of it is devoted just to basking in their artwork, but it never feels self-indulgent or like filler. When I talk about the art carrying a story I’m generally referring to using the art to express character motivations or emotion or even plot beats without the use of words, but in Moon Knight the art carries the story to the extent that so much of the book is filled with gorgeous art for us to appreciate even if it doesn’t necessarily add much to the story (and I’m not referring just to the acid trip in this issue, but also to moments like the extended chase sequence in issue two or the fight scenes in issue three).

Devoting so much space to mostly silent, art-heavy scenes in each issue gives Moon Knight a strange feel and pace, but just like its titular hero, in this case strange is good. In that vein, I find it interesting that after all that fuss, the issue ends with many plot thread still left dangling; we never see how Moon Knight deals with Dr. Skelton, for example, and we never see if he’s able to end that poor corpse’s suffering. I can see how that could be frustrating, but I suppose the answers to those questions are ultimately irrelevant to the story at hand; this whole issue builds up to the wham line of that final panel, and man does it pay off. “You’ve been breathing in his dreams” is such a powerful concept — one which Drew explored much better than I ever could at this point — but the way this issue builds up to it is ingenius in its own right; the clues have been staring us in the face the entire issue, but with that one line suddenly they all make sense, all click into place in the most devastating of ways.

This issue is about so many different things that there’s very little opportunity to explore Moon Knight himself, but I still managed to find a few juicy tidbits to sink my teeth into. Exploring the connections between Moon Knight and death has kind of been my pet theory as I’ve talked about the last few issues, and this issue continues in that vein. Drew mentioned how mushrooms are often associated with death and decay, but sleep itself is also often equated with death, and thanks to Khonshu, Spector is not only able to go to sleep on command, but to navigate through the corpse’s dreams without losing himself to them. As Drew pointed out, in many ways this corpse is just another kind of ghost, and just like in last month’s issue, Moon Knight is proving himself a champion of the ghosts, the dead, those who travel at night. I’m still not sure what to make of these connections or even if we’re supposed to take anything away from it, but I still feel like it’s an important connection to acknowledge.

Still, Moon Knight’s largely been a silent, grim protector, so I was excited to see some legitimate emotion from him this time around.

sit-up kingIts incredible that Shalvey is able to depict such blind panic and sheer rage through Spector’s mask, but it’s even more impressive that Spector lost his cool this way at all; it’s the first time since this volume began that I can remember him lashing out like this, and it speaks to how grim and immoral Dr. Skelton’s acts truly are.

might as well be wearing a targetI also thought this was some rather smart, concise characterization here. There’s a Marvel character named Taskmaster who has the ability to learn and use the skills of anybody he sees; Taskmaster has access to Moon Knight’s fighting skills but never uses them because, I quote, “He’d rather take a punch than dodge one.” Back in issue one Moon Knight confirmed that he wears all white because he likes it when people see him coming. This is a pattern, a pattern of putting himself in danger with no real way out, and it somehow working out for him anyway. Again, I’m not sure what conclusion exactly to draw from it, but this a pattern that I think will probably be important to keep in mind; even if it never amounts to anything, I certainly think it’s a rather charming quirk from an otherwise morbid character.

I’m also interested, as always, in Moon Knight’s various uniforms. When I first realized that he would be switching between several costumes, I thought they’d perhaps represent Moon Knight’s various personalities, but so far that doesn’t seem to be the case; Spector wears the all-white suit when he’s taking cases for Detective Flint (so that it can’t be said that Flint is working with a “vigilante”) and the more superheroic outfit when he’s doing more superheroic deeds. So what’s the significance of Spector switching outfits as he enters the dreamworld? Does Moon Knight like that uniform better? Is the superhero persona how he primarily sees himself (compared to any other personas)? Is it a matter of aesthetics, or something deeper?

It really can be difficult to evaluate this book without knowing what sort of stories Ellis has coming down the pipe — are we going to continue on these one-and-dones indefinitely, or will these disparate stories eventually build into a grander narrative for Moon Knight? The direction this title goes in the future will probably determine whether any of the points I just raised turn out to be significant or not, but no matter what Ellis, Shalvey and Bellare do next, it will certainly be nuanced, thought-provoking, and absolutely stunning to look at, and I’m not going to complain about that.

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?

8 comments on “Moon Knight 4

  1. So bad news, Drew: It seems like Ellis and Shalvey are done with this book after issue six, if the brief interview I read with Ellis is to be believed. Ellis just wanted to reestablish Moon Knight as a book and character people cared about. Looks like Brian Wood is taking over with issue 7; no idea who the new artist will be. Bellaire is sticking around.

    • Shoot! You beat me to the punch! I saw this news yesterday (it looks like Greg Smallwood is the new artist), but neglected to mention it in the lead. It’s a bummer, for sure, but if it means that this creative team never turns in a dud issue, I think it’s totally justified. I’ll gladly take six near-perfect issues over an ongoing that’s only occasionally brilliant. I realize that’s a false dichotomy, but, hey, I need some kind of silver lining here.

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