Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Moon Knight and justice

His life as Marc Spector, mercenary veteran of multiple engagements in Africa and Central America, changes when he watches their leader, Bushman, bite the throat of an archeologist they wish to rob. Already put off by Bushman’s extreme cruelty, he nonetheless tips his boss off to Dr. Arlaune’s pre-emptive assassination attempt, only to watch brutal murder. The dagger in Arlaune’s hand suggests the nearby dig has the kind of gold Bushman needs to run a small country; his thanks to Spector is to beat him and leave him crawling the desert to die. But he doesn’t; he finds himself at the feet of Arlaune’s daughter Marlene, the person Spector had warned to run, incurring Bushman’s wrath.

In the shadow of the statue of Khonshu, Egyptian deity and Taker of Vengeance, Spector’s revitalized. The cloak of Khonshu becomes his...as does revenge against Bushman. With his partner, the pilot Frenchie, and Marlene Arlaune, Spector establishes a new life in America, parlaying his copper mine findings from Africa into a fortune, directed under his alias, Steven Grant. One final identity, a fourth phase, like the moon: Spector begins masquerading as Jake Lockley, a cab driver who frequents Gena’s Diner and talks often with Crawley, a loquacious informant. The hero with four lives in one: Moon Knight.

One doesn’t have to believe in supernatural intervention; that ambiguous point becomes crucial to a story about just who Spector is, now. The cases are based on realistic crime and espionage, more hard-boiled Dashiel Hammet than Tolkein; the criminals don’t have powers, but the quality of their modus operandi doesn’t disappoint.

Moon Knight is a costumed vigilante, an unpaid A-Team, but the idea of him as a super being is dispensed gradually, in favor of naturalistic characters, a kind of magical realism. The supporting cast doesn’t develop very much in the stories presented in Moon Knight, Essentials, Vol. 1, but Marlene, Frenchie, butler Samuels, Gena and her sons, and housekeeper Nedda all actively support the plot and reveal facets of Moon Knight’s thinking, especially once he reveals his identity and recruits everyone actively into his network.

Marlene is particularly effective counseling her love, a sardonic and tough yet elegant lady in her own right, and it’s a fantasy for those who love a story at street level. Her appearance at his origin, published about four years after his first appearance (with a ret-conned origin) in WEREWOLF BY NIGHT #32, establishes her as part of Moon Knight from the start; it’s safe to say while Spector is already playing four roles, it’s really a multitude of people that solve these cases together.

The one supporting character who grows the most in dimension is Crawley, the derelict with the affinity for booze and horses, who finally reveals something of the life he drank away in MOON KNIGHT #2. This is also the issue where Grant/Lockley/Spector shares his mode of operation and actively incorporates the characters still as yet in the dark.

Already, creator and writer Doug Moench busies himself with things that distinguish this comic from its super hero brethren; one werewolf and one outlandish trap after his first appearance, Moon Knight gets passed around for a run of DEFENDERS (#47-50) and PETER PARKER (#’s 22, 23) then settles in as a back-up in the more adult-oriented RAMPAGING HULK magazine, a long story arc tying one crime into the next, culminating in a terrorist nuclear bomb plot (followed by a “meeting” with the Hulk under an eclipse).

Realistic criminals and Robert Ludlum/ Richard Marcinko style operations establish Moon Knight as an action hero, but not a super-hero (though he plays upon superstition in a way Batman would applaud). Once his origin is told in the first issue of his new ongoing series, however, Moon Knight’s world begins to fill with glimpses of real people and problems and dialogue.


It’s when a slasher begins murdering derelicts on the Bowery that we get a glimpse of Moench’s ability to tie social commentary and forgotten people in life into a comic book published alongside space adventures and gods. We get a view into Crawley’s real life, as well as an observation from a police officer, after Crawley’s barely escaped the slasher, that these men, these bums, are the lowest priority in life, and not even a serial murderer can make people really care.

Crawley’s past life of mistakes comes back to haunt him in a way that just steps the line of impending irony, but the tragedy of a broken family and a broken man comes through, unmarred by the slasher, who is not a typically absurd antagonist and has a frightening desperation in his seemingly aimless plan. It’s the most downbeat of the Moon Knight stories, perhaps even an outlier that made Monech think of how to keep the plots full of action and intrigue, as opposed to miserable characterizations. Still, when Spector takes everyone to Haiti in #6, he revisits the theme of economic oppression, the concern over protecting business and pretty white people over any sense of justice for all.

Sometimes the point’s made in passing, which is a less heavy-handed approach that still makes a reader think of what’s happening out there on the street. But real life is neither as dark and sad nor swash-buckling romantic as in these early Moon Knight comics. It may be one of the reasons it’s so satisfying to read. It’s rather similar to contemporary work done by Frank Miller in Daredevil.

When Moon Knight got his series, Bill Sienkiewicz was tapped for art chores, along with classic, moody inker Klaus Janson to embellish. Bill’s style is perfect for the realism here, even while he serves the action with interesting perspectives and solid anatomy skills. He does develop as a story teller right before your eyes, and while he is still in a photo-realistic mode similar to Neal Adams in these early stories, it’s charming to follow in black and white, as found in the Essentials volume. (The HULK magazine issues are reproduced from color in grey tones.)

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