Moon Knight 9

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Today, Spencer and Drew are discussing Moon Knight 9, originally released December 7th, 2016. As always, this article contains SPOILERS.

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Spencer: One of the greatest things about superhero comics is how thoroughly they live in the realm of metaphor. The limitless possibilities provided by the Marvel and DC universes mean that creators can take the most abstract of concepts and make them literal, physical threats for our heroes to face head-on. Sometimes this can oversimplify things, sure, but under the pens of the best creators this provides an opportunity to explore complicated subjects in a more straightforward manner. That’s certainly the case with Moon Knight 9, where Jeff Lemire and his murderers’ row of artists tackle Marc Spector’s mental illness in a way that’s simultaneously realistic and about as sci-fi as humanly possible.

Ever since Spector stood up to Khonshu, Moon Knight‘s narrative has been split three ways: between movie star Steven Grant (illustrated by Wilfredo Torres and Michael Garland), taxi-driver/vigilante Jake Lockley (illustrated by Francesco Francavilla), and space pilot Marc Spector (illustrated by James Stokoe). Now that all three have come face-to-face with the original Marc Spector (illustrated by Greg Smallwood and Jordie Bellaire), they’re getting to the truth of the matter: they’re all disassociated personalities of the original Spector, and if he’s ever going to regain control of his life, he’s going to have to reign them in.

How Marc does so says a lot about his life and state of mind. Space-Knight Marc Spector is a new personality that hasn’t fully integrated with Marc-Prime’s psyche, which is why he fades away on his own as soon as he’s confronted with the truth (much like how Wile E. Coyote can only defy gravity until he acknowledges it). The fact that this new personality was based on such a wild, far-out sci-fi premise, at least to me, seems like Marc’s mind struggling to comprehend the threat of Khonshu and New Egypt that he faced in this series’ first arc. The street-level, vigilante reality of Jake Lockley, meanwhile, seems like a response to Marc’s original tenure as Moon Knight — that he can only be reasoned with through violence suggests that the superhero lifestyle might not be the healthiest for someone already struggling with mental illness.

The most interesting relationship here, though, is the one between Marc and Steven Grant.

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A lot of times when I see Dissociative Identity Disorder discussed in popular media, it’s triggered by some traumatic incident (hi, Niki/Jessica!), so I appreciate that Steven didn’t arrive in Marc’s life because of any trauma or dysfunction, but simply as the first sign of his mental illness. Unlike the other personalities, Steven isn’t destroyed or defeated; he fades away as he and Marc embrace. It’s a truly bittersweet moment; Marc’s losing something that’s been with him his entire life. But Marc’s embrace of Steven isn’t just a goodbye to his oldest friend — it’s him embracing change, and a future where he can learn to cope with and manage his mental illness instead of using his alternate personalities as a crutch or hiding behind a mask.

That’s really what Marc’s story this month is all about: learning to cope with his mental illness in a healthy way.

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From how he tells it, Marc wasn’t really treating his illness; in fact, it seems that he refused to acknowledge it at all. At best, he was self-medicating via Moon Knight. Confronting his alter-egos and putting them in their place, then, is the comic book equivalent of entering treatment. In real life, Marc would be seeing a therapist, working out an action plan together, and implementing it over an extended period of time, but since this is comic book, we can turn that process into something physical and tangible, into opponents for Marc to defeat and triumph over.

Either way, the effect is the same: Marc’s acknowledging that he’s ill, finding a healthier way to deal with his illness, and making the needed changes. I appreciate that Lemire has Marc acknowledge that he’s never going to be cured; in most cases, you can’t “cure” a mental illness, you can only find the healthiest way possible to live with them. That’s what Marc’s doing, and I’m surprisingly proud of him.

Moon Knight 9‘s various artists also help to highlight Marc’s new coping mechanisms. In previous chapters of this story, each artist tackled the scenes that took place in their assigned personality’s “world,” but in this issue, all the characters are together in a shared space. Instead, each artist takes over when their personality is the primary player on a page, but the difference is that we’re no longer seeing these scenes through the personalities’ point of view; we see this entire issue, no matter the artist, from the original Marc’s perspective.

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Take this first page. It’s all about Space-Knight Marc, and he’s looking directly at the camera, at the reader, but he’s talking to Marc-Prime. We’re seeing Space-Knight Marc through Prime’s eyes, a not so subtle way of aligning the reader with Prime and letting us know that this whole issue is going to rest heavily on his perspective. Throughout the issue, Marc has to enter each personality’s world/art style in order to tame them; it’s Marc no longer letting his multiple personalities control him, but instead taking charge and taking control of them. That the art can tell the same story as the words, but in an entirely different fashion, is astonishing, and a sign of how talented this creative team truly is.

Mental illness can be a sensitive subject, and hard to depict, but by using exaggeration and metaphor, Lemire and company are able to explore Marc’s illness in a creative, entertaining, heartfelt, and surprisingly complex way. I’ve always found this volume of Moon Knight a bit hard to connect with — more experiment than story — but I’m blown away by how hard this issue hit me, how well it works on just about every level. How about you, Drew? Did this issue work for you as well as it did for me?

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Drew: Absolutely. There’s so much going on in this issue, it almost feels wrong to bring in this comparison, but I just finished Westworld, so the show is very much on my mind as I read this issue (don’t worry, I’m not going to spoil anything). One of the key refrains of the show — indeed, one of the first lines of the first episode — is “I am in a dream,” though the characters that speak it do not fully understand what it means. As audience members, we’ve been trained to be wary of dreams as a cheap means for writers to have their cake and eat it, too. That is, drive a story well beyond the point of no return only to magic it away with the assurance that “it was all a dream.” The unfairness of that twist is voiced on the very first page (the page of Space Knight speaking directly to camera that Spencer included), only he’s objecting to a much bigger twist. For these characters, it really was ALL a dream — their very existence was a fiction that is now to be brushed aside.

As with the hosts on Westworld, calling these experiences dreams is more than a little misleading. These aren’t dreams, but identities, partially fictitious, but also partially cobbled together from Marc’s memories. It’s possible the adventures we’ve been reading for the past few issues are part of a dream, but it’s also possible they’re snippets of actual events filtered through these identities. Or, at least, it’s possible Jake’s story largely happened — unlike the Space Knight story, which takes place in the future, or Steven’s, which requires that a massive film production is being produced and directed by a person that doesn’t exist, Jake’s story was strictly street-level, and followed key pieces of continuity from the previous arc. If, upon escaping from the hospital, Marc reverted to his Jake Lockley identity, the events might have largely resembled the bits we saw of Jake’s story (not that I can explain everything; him suddenly having a vintage checkered cab seems unlikely). In that case, the Space Knight and Steven stories aren’t dreams, but delusions that would begin and change without warning.

Maybe I’m focusing too much on the provenance of these characters, but it seems that Lemire and co. have made parsing this detail particularly slippery. I find Spencer’s reading of Marc’s turn towards accepting and coping with his mental illness to be very compelling, and applaud Lemire for taking such a respectful stand on mental illness. But, at the end of the issue, it’s not clear how well Marc truly is coping. Much of the tension of the first arc was drawn from whether Marc’s visions of “New Egypt” were delusions, and that issue feels very much unsettled to me. The space where he meets and interacts with his various identities feels like it should maybe be a space inside his own head, suggesting to me that New Egypt may not quite be reality. In that case, I’m a bit worried about Marc’s resolution to kill Konshu. On the symbolic hand, this could be him slaying his demons, freeing him to better cope with his illness. On the other hand, it could be a wholly misguided choice made by a delusional man. Does “killing Konshu” look like getting actual help, or does it look like fighting what Marc thinks is Konshu?

I want to be clear here: I have every bit of faith in Lemire to pull this off in a responsible way that respects mental health and its professionals. Moreover, I can’t see Marvel publishing a story where the twist ending is that its hero was delusional and actually killed an innocent person. So I’m not worried about where this is going, but I think Lemire has very carefully kept us from fully grasping what’s going on, even as he gives us these emotional gut-punches.

As Spencer suggested, much of that is owed to Lemire’s artistic collaborators, whose sensibilities are forced to smash into one another directly in this issue. I’m particularly enamored of a little detail shared by all of Marc’s identities (at least, I assume it’s all of them — we never see Jake’s face in the issue): a scar through their left eyebrow. Here’s Smallwood’s version:

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If you scroll back up to the page of Space Knight Spencer included, you’ll see Stokoe maintains this detail, as does Frankavilla. Alas, it seems Torres missed the memo on that detail, robbing the issue’s emotional climax of the detail that most pleased my continuity-seeking brain, though that detail is obviously insignificant to the overall impact, which Spencer already outlined.

This should illustrate just how deliberate Lemire and co. can be with details, which I think emphasizes my points about the questions they leave dangling about exactly what is going on here. As Spencer said, they’re addressing the subtext very directly, but the nature of the text itself remains a bit ambiguous. It’s an alluring combination that truly distinguishes this series from anything else on the stands.

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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?

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