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Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev’s Moon Knight (Review/Retrospective)

This March, to celebrate the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, we’ll be taking a look at some classic and not-so-classic Avengers comic books. Check back daily for the latest updates!

One of the more endearing aspects of comic book publishing is the way that the “little guys” occasionally get a shot. There are mountains of titles published each month featuring iconic characters like Batman or Wolverine, but the major companies are occasionally willing to check chances on more quirky and unknown characters using top-tier talent. One of the big surprises of DC’s “new 52” relaunch was the decision to put superstar writer Geoff Johns on pop culture joke Aquaman.

Despite the fact that he has never quite set the world on fire, Marvel seems willing to invest in repeated attempts to launch the character of Moon Knight. Most recently, writer Warren Ellis has launched a new volume of the comic with artist Declan Shalvey. However, before the latest relaunch, Marvel tried another high-profile take on Moon Knight written by Brian Michael Bendis and illustrated by Alex Maleev, the duo responsible for one of the best-loved runs ever published on Daredevil.

The series made it to twelve issues, before Marvel cancelled it due to disappointing sales. Bendis has insisted that it was always the plan to end the series after twelve issues, but it seems strange that the series was not announced as a miniseries. Still, it’s easy to understand why Moon Knight struggled to find an audience. It’s great to have Bendis and Maleev crafting an on-going street-level comic book, but the series seems almost at war with itself, struggling with the difficulties of fitting this character in this particular role.

Oh what a knight...

Oh what a knight…

Moon Knight is, on many levels, a problematic character. There are a wealth of hurdles that any creative team seeking to write for the character must mount. The most obvious is that he feels very much like a rip-off of Batman. There’s the “knight” in the name, the billowing cape, the fact that he’s just mortal, the fact that he’s rich and possibly insane. Indeed, the most influential Moon Knight writer remains Doug Moench, who is probably most famous for several extended Batman runs.

This aspect of the character doesn’t bother Bendis and Maleev that much. Maleev is an artist who has a lot of experience illustrating Batman and Detective Comics, so he knows how to model this sort of character very well. Under Maleev’s pencil, Moon Knight looks beautiful and atmospheric and grim and gritty. Bendis taes great care to distinguish Marc Spector from Bruce Wayne, moving the character to Los Angeles and making him a television producers as opposed to an eccentric rich dude.

A quick Buck...

A quick Buck…

So, while Bendis and Maleev don’t work as hard to push Moon Knight out of the “seems like Marvel’s Batman” category as Ellis and Shalvey would, that isn’t the big problem here. The big problem is that Moon Knight is not a healthy person. Moon Knight is a superhero with a variety of mental health issues. This is where the character can get very difficult to write in a modern context. Marc Spector suffers from Hollywood versions of multiple personality disorder and disassociative personality disorder.

This is something that Ellis works quite hard to get around when he takes over Moon Knight. Media has often struggled with the portrayal of mental illness, and it’s very easy to turn something that is a legitimate psychiatric complaint into a gaudy spectacle for the audience at home. This has always been the case; it’s not new. Quite a lot of the past interpretations of Moon Knight have also been somewhat awkward in their portrayal of Marc Spector’s issues.

He's got the matter in hand...

He’s got the matter in hand…

However, Bendis is writing the character in the twenty-first century. So there is an extra onus on him. He has to figure out how to address the fact that Marc Spector is legitimately unhealthy. And that’s the big problem with Bendis and Maleev Moon Knight. It turns Marc Spector’s mental health into the elephant in the room. This isn’t an issue akin to Matt Murdock’s mental breakdown that is handled logically and organically. Even during Murdock’s darkest moments, the character was not receiving advice from three figments of his imagination.

There is a way to write around this – to centre the story on the more mystical and spiritual aspects of Moon Knight, rather than the character’s psychosis. Bendis isn’t interested in that. He consigns the character’s origin story to an excerpt from a television show. He draws attention to Moon Knight’s more absurd adventures by writing them in as episodes of this television show. Bendis and Maleev’s Moon Knight is not interested in the more ethereal world of Egyptian gods and ancient spirits. It very much wants to be an urban thriller. Given how well Bendis and Maleev do “urban thriller”, this is a good thing. Still, it is problematic.

Well, this is confusing...

Well, this is confusing…

Essentially, Moon Knight is focused on how “crazy” Spector is. The term is thrown around a lot, and casually. And this becomes problematic when Bendis tries to deal with this broadly-defined “crazy.” When Buck turns Spector in to the Avengers, Spector tries to justify his own mental issues. “Did you really think I was normal?” he asks, rhetorically. “Do you think that any of us… any of the costumes are normal? We’re all crazy.” 

This is fine, if he’s using the term in a loose and colloquial sense. After all, anybody dressing up in spandex night after night to engage in that sort of conduct has to be a bit outside the normal range of behaviour. The obvious point of reference here is with matt Murdock, as invited by the creative team on the book, but also by the text itself. “How do they find me?” Echo asks herself. “All the crazy boys.” She is obviously referring to Daredevil. Similarly, Spector dresses up as Bullseye to torture Buck Lime.

Knight time...

Knight time…

The problem is that Bendis never really deals with the fact that Spector’s issues are much more “Hollywood” than those that affected Murdock. As much as Spector might try to cast his mental health as akin to that of other heroes, it isn’t convincing. Spector has a typical Hollywood version of a psychiatric condition. It’s something that should be handled with more car than Bendis affords it.

At one point, Spector even tries to cast his mental health issues as comparable to those of other superheroes. “I hear voices,” he explains to Buck at one point. “What do the… voices tell you to do?” Buck asks. Spector replies, “In general… make the world better.” It’s hard not to feel a pang of sympathy for Spector in that moment, but it still feels somewhat disingenuous. It’s alarming how readily Captain America allows Spector to organise and direct the investigation in Los Angeles.

Three Avengers for the price of one...

Three Avengers for the price of one…

That said, outside of the specifics of Marc Spector’s mental health issues, Moon Knight works very well. This is Bendis writing a very gritty urban book – something that feels more inside his area of expertise than the high-profile Avengers events towards the end of his tenure. Moon Knight is a spiritual companion of Bendis’ work on comics like Alias or Daredevil, and not too far removed from his early work on New Avengers or his on-going writing of Ultimate Spider-Man. In fact, Bendis even find room for the old recurring “ranting person in superhero outfit at police station” gag that he used in Ultimate Spider-Man.

Indeed, a few of those recurring themes play out here. For example, the Avengers themselves come across as the same sort of distant demi-gods that featured in his Alias run. In Alias, they failed to notice that Jessica Jones had gone missing while she was brutally tortured by the Purple Man. Here, it seems that not every Avenger has noticed that Maya Lopez is no longer around. When Carol Danvers mentions her to the other Avengers, Spider-Man seems to recall her, “Hey, yeah, she used to be on the team.” Logan asks, “You just noticed she was gone?”

Boundless enthusiasm...

Boundless enthusiasm…

(It’s worth noting that Danvers – as well as being the most sympathetic Avenger to Echo here – was also the only Avenger who seemed properly sympathetic to Jessica Jones in Alias. One suspects that this might because of Carol’s own first-hand experience of the team’s self-centred disinterest. As Carol Strickland pointed out, the team’s history with dealing with absences of female members is hardly ideal.)

In many ways, Moon Knight is structured as a counterpoint to Bendis and Maleev’s Daredevil. It’s about a superhero going through a existential crisis, dealing with a Kingpin of crime. “I think it’s a problem a lot of people in our ‘line of work’ have,” Spector tries to assure Maya as everything falls apart. “From time to time.” Bendis and Maleev’s Daredevil explored similar thematic ground. The book even inherits the character of Echo, who originated in David Mack’s Daredevil work.

Stick a dagger in my eye...

Stick a dagger in my eye…

That said, there is one big difference between Moon Knight and Daredevil. Bendis cleverly structures everything so that his protagonist ends up with his back against the wall, just like Matt Murdock. There’s the same sense of things falling apart and spiralling outside of his control. However, Spector handles this spiral infinitely better than Murdock. Murdock’s biggest problem was pride and ego – an unwillingness to let others get involved and help him.

Moon Knight ends with the character calling in outside assistance to help with his problem. It’s not the most satisfying dramatic beat, but it’s a wonderful pay-off to the story. Marc Spector is a man who realises that he has support and friends who can assist him when he gets in over his head. He is not afraid to ask for assistance when things go too far. One imagines that Bendis’ impressively prolific Daredevil run could have been a great deal shorter if Matt Murdock felt the same way.

Knight time...

Knight time…

For its twelve issues, Moon Knight positively breezes along. Bendis has a nice knack for witty banter and dialogue – and it fits the world of Moon Knight very well. There’s a charming irreverence to Bendis’ writing, as the script repeatedly calls attention to the lower-tier status of the lead characters. “I’m not even sure which costumed jerk that was,” Mister Hyde muses after one confrontation.“I… I, uh… never heard of you,” Buck Lime remarks. After a moment, he clarifies, “Just messing with you.” Still, the fact that he can make that joke demonstrates how low Moon Knight is on the totem pole.

When Count Nefaria is revealed as the villain of the piece, he is less than thrilled with his dance partner. “Understand, Snapdragon: I’m not annoyed about this cat and mouse game… I’m annoyed that I need to play it with this Moon Knight.” There’s a sense that these people in silly costumes in Los Angeles are really just scraping the bottom of the superheroic barrel. “I was an Avengers for all of 44 seconds,” Echo introduces herself. During an interrogation of a captured supervillain, Detective Hall offers, “No one, and I mean no one, cares about you, Tick Tock.”

Busting on to the scene...

Busting on to the scene…

There’s something very charming about all this, particularly when Bendis splits his time writing various high-profile a-list books that shape and define the entire publishing line. Moon Knight is a book about losers trying to play a game above their level, a description that arguably applies to Count Nefaria as much as any of the other characters. After all, despite his posturing and ego, Nefaria is ultimately trying to curry himself some favour in Ultron’s soon-to-be-founded genocidal empire.

Still, it’s a bit of a shame that Bendis decided to kill off Maya Lopez. Echo is an interesting character – a superheroine who is a member of an ethnic minority and also has a disability. She was introduced in a solid story arc on a popular title, and got cycled into the Avengers. She’s not a big-name draw, but she’s a lot more diverse and interesting than many of Marvel’s strock characters. Killing her off in order to provide a dramatic character beat for Marc Spector feels like a very shallow move.

This would be so much easier if he had a "moon signal"...

This would be so much easier if he had a “moon signal”…

To be fair, it wasn’t as if Marvel was using Echo all that much – Bendis was probably the writer who had featured Echo most heavily during his work on New Avengers. So she’s arguably perfect cannon fodder for a story like this. Still, it does feel like a bit of a waste, particularly in an era where comics claim to be making themselves more diverse and accessible, breaking out of the stock character designs.

Moon Knight is far from Bendis’ strongest work, but it remains an interesting read. It’s flawed, but it’s also intriguing and distinct. Bendis works well with Maleev, and there’s a strong sense of the weirdness of the Marvel Universe flowing through this book, even though it may be set on the opposite side of the country.

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