Phases of the Moon Knight: How Marvel’s Mentally Ill Vigilante Became its Best Character

Comics Features Moon Knight
Phases of the Moon Knight: How Marvel’s Mentally Ill Vigilante Became its Best Character

Moon Knight, the Marvel vigilante who suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder (or does he?), has endured a good creative run in the last few years. Ever since his 2014 “reactivation” from writer Warren Ellis, artist Declan Shalvie and colorist Jordie Bellaire (with editors Nick Lowe and Ellie Pyle), the character has enjoyed newfound relevance and a sustained series of mind-bending adventures. Under the new stewardship of indie darling turned Big Two stalwart Jeff Lemire, and returning Moon Knight artists Greg Smallwood and Bellaire (with new editors Jake Thomas and Kathleen Wisneski), what might have once been an anomaly for Moon Knight is now an established pattern of excellence.

Moon Knight Interior Art by Declan Shalvey & Jordie Bellaire

Ellis’ Moon Knight arc—a 6-issue, ghost-punching, tower-ascending action masterclass—was arguably the best superhero comic to come out in 2014. Ellis boldly announced himself in his first issue by dividing the character into a clear trinity of split personalities, while Shalvey and Bellaire gave each facet of the hero a visual identity all their/his own. The personality triptych’s first persona consists of the Moon Knight familiar to the Marvel Universe since his creation in 1975, a brutal vigilante who likes his adversaries to see him coming—hence the stark-white outfit. Ellis then honed in on a second aspect, a more refined, vaguely British Mr. Knight, a semi-detective dressed to the nines in an all-white three-piece suit. Finally, the book presented the bird-skeleton-wearing Fist of Khonshu—a mascot for an Egyptian (possibly alien) deity, and puncher of the aforementioned ghosts.

Moon Knight Interior Art by Declan Shalvey & Jordie Bellaire

Each issue featured Moon Knight donning the appropriate garb for the task at hand, which varied along the street-crime-to-supernatural-crisis spectrum. Our hero threw down with a spectral band of punks, investigated a brutal murder, went one-on-one with a malformed S.H.I.E.L.D. combat castoff, battled a fungal-dream monster (you read that right) and finally faced off against a dark mirror of Moon Knight himself. Nothing truly great ever lasts, and after six issues of bone-crunching madness, Ellis and Shalvey left the title to work on Injection, their creator-owned sci-fi collaboration at Image. Writing duties transferred over to Brian Wood with Greg Smallwood on visuals, and the series finally ended with a five-issue arc by writer Cullen Bunn. After the concluding 17th issue, eight months would pass before Moon Knight returned to the stands.

Moon Knight Interior Art by Declan Shalvey & Jordie Bellaire

The three-characters-as-one schtick goes back to the very beginning of Moon Knight’s publishing history, and originally consisted of retired mercenary Marc Spector (the “anchor” personality), cab driver Jake Lockley and millionaire playboy Steven Grant. But Ellis and co. were not the first to upend the triplet model. In 2012, Brian Michael Bendis—master of the talking-heads superhero subgenre—and frequent collaborator Alex Maleev attempted to recast the Moon Knight personalities as a troika of A-level Avengers mimics (Captain America, Iron Man and Wolverine). Though born of an interesting concept, the book never took hold of audiences.

In other iterations, the character was not beholden to dissociative identities, but rather wore them like costumes. In those outings, creators opted to move Moon Knight under an ambiguous umbrella of schizophrenia, where frequent conversations with his god Khonshu never reveal themselves to be either reality or hallucination.

Several years before Bendis and Maleev’s take, Moon Knight had been a regular cast member of the Secret Avengers, playing the role of socially awkward “white” Batman. Years earlier, he was the subject of pulp novelist Charlie Huston and grim ’n’ gritty artist David Finch’s bloody revenge actioner. The character has bounced around self-titled series and co-starring roles in a variety of books since his creation, but wasn’t a force to be reckoned with until Ellis, Shalvey and Bellaire got their hands on him.

Moon Knight Cover Art by Greg Smallwood & Jordie Bellaire

This is all to say that Lemire and Smallwood simultaneously had a lot to live up to and the expectation of blazing a different trail altogether. But by honoring what has come before (with special consideration to the 2014 series and some of the character’s earliest outings) and taking a more psychological approach, they’ve managed to show just why Moon Knight is one of Marvel’s greatest toys in the street-level sandbox.

In this new series, the first collected volume of which hit stands today, Marc Spector awakens from a dream and finds himself imprisoned inside a psychiatric hospital, with no memory of how he arrived. It’s a well-worn fiction staple, but one that allows Lemire and Smallwood to bring new readers along for the ride; they learn as Marc learns. In these disorienting opening pages, Smallwood proves himself a worthy successor to Shalvey by crafting Spector’s dream sequence as a callout to the unique style of illustrator Bill Sienkiewicz (a seminal artist in the Moon Knight publication mythology). Smallwood goes on to switch deftly between this style and his own throughout the series. This is by no means a simple visual trick, but rather the first hint of the metatextual narrative that awaits the reader in subsequent issues, a structure that utilizes the entire 40-year history of the character.

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Moon Knight Interior Art by Greg Smallwood and Jordie Bellaire

For fans of Batman (and let’s face it, the similarities are too obvious not to mention), this meta-historical approach may seem familiar. It was employed with great success by Grant Morrison during his seven-year tenure on the Bat-books. The technique really takes off, however, when Smallwood is joined by artists Francesca Francavilla (a creator also familiar with the Caped Crusader), Wilfredo Torres and James Stokoe. Marc Spector, having finally escaped the mental facility, discovers the architect of his current predicament, and it’s also the point where the narrative splits off into—you guessed—three different sections, drawn by three different artists. The reader is reacquainted with old friends Steven Grant—who’s directing a Marvel Studios Moon Knight adaptation and using “the superhero genre to explore some real themes”—and Jake Lockley, who’s still driving a cab. We’re also introduced to an all-new, all-different Marc Spector: fighter pilot of the Moon Knight One, and nemesis to General Lupinar of the Space Wolf fleet.

Flashy artifice, such as the multiple artists/character gimmick, can serve as a cover for bad writing. But the core narrative underpinning this branching path adventure—a man under siege by his own fractured psyche—is strong. Moon Knight is among Lemire’s best mainstream superhero work to date, mixing his penchant for introspective moodiness with a briskly paced, yet satisfying, plot. Lemire creatively weaves threads from Moon Knight’s past, present and future into a tale that not only celebrates the character but comments on him—putting him through the ringer not just as a protagonist, but as a concept. In doing so, readers are treated to an action-packed Moon Knight vision quest, and given yet another reason to put the Fist of Khonshu at the top of their pull list.

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