Thursday, April 05, 2007

Fist of Khonshu

I've always had a weird affection for second-rate Superheroes. Even third-rate, in many cases.
Well ok, not always: When I was a kid, Spiderman was easily my favourite character. I had Spiderman pyjamas, a pair of Spiderman slippers, several different Spiderman action figures (which were all crap, by the way, todays kids don't know how good they've got it), loads of Spiderman comics and annuals and loved Spiderman tv shows, both the animated ones and the lame live action one from the early 80s. One of my strongest childhood memories of cinema-going is to a film made up of two episodes of that Spiderman show, either "Spiderman : The Movie" or "Spiderman & the Dragons Challenge" - I saw both films at Dublin cinemas that no longer exist, and my Dad tells me that I was so excited he thought I might have a heart attack. I was serious about Spiderman as a seven year old.

Obviously I got a lot more into Batman, Daredevil, the Punisher and Wolverine as puberty grabbed hold. But I still loved Spidey best. Even today, the Spiderman films, which do about as good a job of honouring the original Lee/Ditko stories as I can imagine anything doing, they bring about a purely emotional reaction in me no other films ever do. They speak to the seven year old in me like nothing else. I have friends who feel the same about Star Wars and James Bond, but for me its Spiderman and nothing else really comes close. The first time I saw the trailer for Spiderman - the trailer! - I felt myself tearing up. To the trailer for a Superhero film. I watch those films and I know how much I would have loved them as a little kid, and even if they didn't work on all the other levels on which they operate, that would almost be enough for me.

Strange as it may seem, Spiderman's major rivals for my affections even then, as a kid, were small-timers in the Marvel Universe. Generally they were characters I knew relatively little about. I had seen them as guest-stars or seen adverts for their comics in other Marvel comics. One annual I had classified characters according to physical strength and posed them in casual line-ups, standing in little clusters. So the Hulk, Thing, Thor and Hercules were in the top group, as the mightiest. Wonder Man, Namor and Colossus may have been in the second. Spiderman may have been in the third rank, meaning he could pick up a car but not a building. But the characters I was most intrigued by were mainly in the next class - the humans who were lined up alongside Daredevil. They were mostly mysterious figures in masks and hoods, which only made them more appealing. The Black Panther, who at that time had no series of his own but appeared occasionally in the Avengers or Fantastic Four, for instance. He had a cool name, a great costume, a fantastic origin, and I loved him straightaway. Iron Fist. Did Martial arts, which was enough for me back then. Same went for Shang Chi, Master of Kung Fu. White Tiger, basically a Latino Black Panther who wore a sort of necklace of power - he seemed cool. Brother Voodoo. Captain Britain, before his costume and powers changed completely. But the one who intrigued me most of all, the one who looked the most impressive and whose adventures I wanted to read right then, thank you very much, was somebody I knew absolutely nothing about : Moon Knight.

But those were the days before there were specialist comic shops. Well, there was one in Dublin, but it was a little cult place and I wouldn't discover it for almost another 8 years. Back then I had to rely on a series of newsagents for my american comics, and they seemed to sell mainly Spiderman, the Hulk, the Avengers, Fantastic Four etc. Occasionally I'd stumble across an issue of ROM or Ghost Rider or New Mutants, but never any DC stuff, and never any Moon Knight. The first Moon Knight comic I was actually able to buy was a back issue - his title having been cancelled - in the brand new branch of Forbidden Planet which opened in Dublin around 1990. It was a mediocre issue, but I was intrigued enough to want more. Soon after, the speculator boom in the comics market meant that a few smaller shops opened in Dublin selling back-issues and lots of cheap second-hand stuff. My friends and I used to spend most of our money on saturday afternoons rifling through long-boxes looking for Deathlok or Silver Surfer issues we needed. We didn't know many girls at the time, of course.
I got a lot of Moon Knight that way. The early issues, the issues written by Doug Moench, who created the character, and with art by Bill Sienkiewicz, who visually defined him, were obviously the best. I bought the issues of that original series in a haphazard fashion, one from early in the run, one from late, one from after Sienkiewicz had departed, etc. Sienkiewicz' art developed and evolved as the series went on - he was still very much a Neal Adams clone for the first dozen issues or so, and then his own style began to emerge, with a much heavier, messier ink line and far more abstract, experimental compositions. Everything seemed to get bolder as he became more confident, and he played around with the storytelling. His covers late in that run are unbelievable (and are down at the bottom of this entry), but the interiors contain some of my favourite comic art ever.

An explanation for the smoothness of the evolution in his work - and also for Moon Knight's unique feel, especially late in that run - was that Marvel had made it one of their first direct-only comics. Meaning that they no longer made it available through news-stands and supermarkets, which had been the driving force for comics retail for 40 years, and instead only sold it through specialist stores. Comic shops, which had really only arrived in numbers enough to sustain an industry by the 1980s, were beginning to effect the nature of that industry. Moon Knight benefitted from this specific market, with Marvel allowing its creative team to tackle subject matter denied to Spiderman or even the gritty Daredevil. Sienkiewicz responded well to this freedom, and after the breakthrough represented by issue 26, where a story called "Hit It" dealt with the legacy of child abuse, his work began to grow and change at such a rate that the title could not contain him for long.

The basic appeal of the character is that he's Batman in the Marvel Universe. He's a millionaire, he has no superpowers, he wears a cowl and throws little sharp shuriken-like weapons and swings through the city on ropes and flies about in a hi-tech aircraft. So far, so Batman. But hes not quite as formidable as Batman. He takes more than his fair share of beatings. His rogues gallery is frankly quite shoddy. His reasons for fighting crime are totally different - while Batman seeks vengeance on all criminals for his parents murder, Marc Spector feels guilty for the crimes he committed in his years as a mercenary and seeks his own redemption. His origin actually bears more of a resemblance to that of the Shadow, since Spector wandered dying into a temple in Egypt and fell at the base of a statue to the Lunar God, Khonshu. Miraculously healed, he vowed to honour Khonshu for saving him by fighting crime. He has been left more than a little disturbed by all that has happened in his life - he is a functional schizophrenic. He has four distinct personalities - Steven Grant, playboy millionaire, is his public face, living with blonde bombshell Marlene outside New York. Marc Spector is the ruthless mercenary he is seeking atonement for. Jake Lockley is a jocular cabdriver he becomes when he needs some information on the underworld. And then there is Moon Knight himself.
He also has a strange little coterie of supporting characters. Aside from Marlene, who exists mostly to be rescued, there is Frenchie, his Alfred-figure, another ex-Mercenary, pilot of his helicopter (shaped like a crescent moon, of course) and a Frenchman, complete with little pencil mustache and zee regulation sillee accent. There is also Crawley, a long-haired alcoholic bum and major source of street gossip for Lockley, who is generally drawn with flies buzzing around his head.
His rogues gallery is feeble, with his arch-enemy the rubbish Bushman, an african mercenary-tyrant with a skull painted upon his face.

He also has that costume, which has always seemed to me to be ineffably cool. A great, simple piece of superhero costume design, it deserves to be worn by a hero of greater stature. And the vulnerability of the character is appealing - his humanity and goofiness, the fact that Moon Knight stories never used to feel like Batman or Daredevil stories. They were unique.
This all changed after that original Moon Knight title was cancelled and the character was homeless for a while, wandering through guest roles in various series before he showed up, significantly altered, in a new series, entitled Moon Knight: Fist of Khonshu, in 1985. He wore golden power bracelets and an amulet, all taken from Khonshu, which gave him increased strength and speed. His costume was slightly altered, too, with the Crescent insignia on his chest replaced by an ankh. This title was deservedly short-lived and he turned up again in West Coast Avengers, having apparently moved to Los Angeles. He was given little attention there, confirming his second (or even third) rate status. When he was finally granted a new series, in the early 90s, it was called Marc Spector: Moon Knight, and it represented a shift back to the characters basics.
It showcased the old costume, the old supporting cast, was set back in New York, but was also determinedly mediocre. Written by Chuck Dixon and pencilled by Sal Velluto, it read much like a series of average Batman stories, missing everything distinctive that Moench had brought to the character. This creative team survived on the title for two years, before being replaced by the slightly edgier J.M.DeMatteis and Ron Garney with issue 26. DeMatteis immediately began a story explicitly designed to recapture the tone and appeal of those Moench-Sienkiewicz issues, spread over 6 issues, focusing on Stained Glass Scarlet, one of their "classic" villains, and featuring Sienkiewicz cover art. But the story felt a little forced, the plotting dragged out and not all that interesting, and Garney was at that point still searching uncomfortably for his own style, meaning that his art was average.

It would remain that way after the departure of DeMatteis and his replacement by Terry Kavanagh, whereupon the title and character utterly lost their way, weighed down by a series of crossovers, guest stars and uninspired storylines. This coincided with the period when Marvel felt the need to give all of their characters armour, and Moon Knight (like Daredevil) was not exempt, donning armoured shoulder pads, boots and gauntlets from issue 37. This would later be explained away by the fact that Moon Knight had contracted a demonic infection from the DemoGoblin during an earlier storyline and needed the armour to stop his body from falling apart. Oh yes. What gave the title a slight boost - commercially, at least - was the arrival of artist Stephen Platt with issue 55. Platt, though a terrible artist without any idea of the basics of proportion, perspective or
sequential storytelling, quickly became a fan favourite (this was the Image era, after all) and once he was working on Prophet for his mentor, the even more talentless Rob Liefeld, his early issues of Moon Knight began to sell for silly amounts. The series had ended at issue 60 with Moon Knight's self-sacrifice in a battle with Seth, yet another mediocre villain, and the character, after being resurrected by Moench in a mini-series, began a decade of homelessness, appearing in another Moench-penned miniseries and guest-starring in various titles.

He would not really be revived until 2006, when novelist Charlie Huston and artist David Finch launched a new Moon Knight series. It seems to have been a commercial success - Finch is a popular artist, for some reason - but it is a terrible comic. Huston's storytelling has obviously been planned with a collection in mind - indeed, the first volume, collecting the first storyline, is already available - and so everything is extended and dragged out, indulging Finch's weakness for big splashes and shoddy storytelling. The series has updated Moon Knight and explained his absence from the Marvel Universe, but it is self-consciously gritty, mistaking ultra-violence and miserablism for the adult sensibility it seems to aim for. Moon Knight kills Bushman by cutting off his face with a crescent dart. He is then haunted by the ghost of faceless Bushman - though he interprets it as Khonshu speaking to him - in a leaden attempt to take an interesting look at Moon Knight's eternally fagile mental state. Is it even good to have Moon Knight back, if hes back in such an awful book?

One benefit of his return was the publication of a collected volume of his earliest appearances, including the Moench-Sienkiewicz work on Moon Knight 1-10, in the Essential Moon Knight. Even in Black and white (perhaps especially in black and white) the work of young Sienkiewicz looks great and develops with shocking speed from clumsy Neal Adams knock-off to expert Neal Adams knock-off, with hints of the genius to come in the messiness of his line and the almost expressionist looseness of his inkwork in the last few stories. But generally speaking, genius has been in short supply in Moon Knight over the years. Perhaps second-rate characters get the treatment they deserve. Which is why covers like these are meant to be cherished :



Blogger beezer said...


I could do a similar post on Black Panther, and I may do. If you love a minor character to tend to wait ten years between decent series or even decent issues.

Moon Knight is cool though I've only ever read that first mini series I think. The late Scienkiewicz stuff looked so cool but I've not read it.

Moon Knight was in the Defenders at one point right? I've also got it in my head that he had a Marvel Knights title at some point. Is that just my imagination?

1:21 am  
Blogger David N said...

He was in the Marvel Knights team with Daredevil, Punisher, Cloak & Dagger and Shang Chi. One of the two mini-series before the current series may have been on the Marvel Knights imprint, too. Hes always crowded out in team books, though. Doesn't seem distinctive enough unless you go into detail.

Hes in the current Ultimate Spidey storyline, too, though Bendis' version is a flat-out insane pseudo bad guy.

I love Black Panther, too. I even like the way hes relatively recently been sorta Batman-ised into an always prepared, ridiculously intelligent strategic genius with unlimited resources and his own set of moral principles. But mainly : cool costume.

Where is this Black Panther post gonna happen, then? When we gonna see your blog?

1:38 am  
Blogger beezer said...

Probably this week.
It's just that I was focusing it on records but then found that I wanted to post about comics, or films or games or whatever so I'm just gonna do that anyway I think and fuck the fact that the name is really record-y.

I've just noticed I've got a random issue of the Defenders with Moon Knight in. He looks rubbish in it though.

I'll do a Black Panther post after I get round to reading the Reggie Hudlin issues.

1:05 pm  
Blogger beezer said...


7:39 pm  
Blogger Monsterwork said...

It's Spider-Man. There's a hyphen, isn't there?

I liked Deathlok. And I remember picking up a few of Iron Fist, drawn by Jae Lee in those 2-in-1 comics. Think Ghost Rider or Wolverine was usually the flipside. Maybe with Sam Keith on art, so both sides were awash with scratchy inky spaltter panels.

8:44 pm  
Blogger Ross said...

I'm sure I bought the first issue of the 90s Moon Knight incarnation.

Around that time I went through a phase of buying first issues, admittedly in part over the comics-as-investment boom, but mostly because I hated coming into the stories part-way. This is why to this day I prefer to buy graphic novels/TPBs/whatever you call them.
Hence I never really got into comics in any big way, unlike a number of my friends who got into the superhero stuff and piled straight on through to the indies.

The only number one I remember getting now is one with characters based on the elemental table or something.

This keyboard has no hash key.

10:49 pm  
Blogger David N said...

It is Spider-Man. And I know the hyphen may actually be important etc etc because of the division between his humanoid and arachnoid sides but I just can't be arsed. So its Spiderman. You know who I'm talking about.

Thoes Jae Lee Iron Fists were pretty terrible. As was the entire lets-bring-Deathlok-back series. The second or third tier Marvel heroes suffered worst during the dark ages of the 90s, I think, because the company could really put them through the wringer without a care. Which it did.

Was that the Elementals, Ross? The original run of Elementals by Bill Willingham from the 80s is great and anticipates a lot of the movements in the super-hero (or is that superhero?) genre in the next decade. But it can't be that. So what was it, eh?

11:30 pm  
Blogger Mr A. P. Salmond, esq. said...

I too was a Spidey baby. Star Wars was always just "okay" to me, and it was Spider-Man that really resonated for me as a kid. Hell, even my favourite non-Spidey characters, such as Cloak & Dagger, were spin-offs. That held true through until I was 13 or 14 and went a bit X-Men crazy.

I'm looking forward to the Roger Stern Visionaries collection coming up. The Stern/Romita Jr run is where I started, and I still think it's the finest run on the title outside of Stan'n'Steve.

8:17 am  
Blogger David N said...

I'd agree with that. Stern is maybe the most underrated writer in comics and that was Romita just beginning to find his line in terms of style but displaying all the elegance and storytelling skill he would maintain. It has most of the classic villains and well-handled angst in Parker's personal life. And the Hobgoblin storyline, which kept me rivetted through what seems like a great proportion of my childhood.

I also have a good deal of affection for the generally less well-remembered DeFalco/Frenz run which followed. The Black costume etc. Where the Hobgoblin storyline was finally resolved, too.

5:29 pm  
Blogger Mr A. P. Salmond, esq. said...

Yeah, the DeFalco/Frenz work still holds as the best work either of them did. To be fair, when I was a kid reading the stuff, I didn't really notice the change in creators. It's only going back later that I really noticed that the best stuff from that period was the Stern material. But DeFalco certainly penned his share of memorable stuff.

9:01 am  
Blogger daveysomethingfunny said...

I've never read any Moon Knight stuff, but I can relate to the affection for supporting characters.

It's why everyone likes John C.Reilly, and why Ben Affleck is universally despised.

Boom. 11.

8:53 pm  

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