It is fitting that Moon Knight, known for his multiple alter egos, should have had so many relaunches with differing titles. There’s been Moon Knight – Fist of Khonshu; Marc Spector: Moon Knight; and recently Vengeance of the Moon Knight. Brian M. Bendis’ latest revamp of the character, reviewed by my colleague Colin Bell here, is simply titled Moon Knight without any addendum. Although, given the final panel, I wonder if the subtitle ‘Schizophrenia is Awesome’ should have been added. Spoilers Ahoy!
For Moon Knight #1 is quite an unusual departure for the character, embracing the populism of the early issues of New Avengers with Marc Spector, now a Hollywood movie producer, rubbing shoulders with heroes/film icons Spider-Man and Wolverine (Captain America too, but the jury is still out on how successful that pic will be). As to the exact nature of his fellowship with these ‘A Listers’ well it turns out they are the latest manifestation of his often hinted at multiple personality disorder.
Bendis has finally crossed the Rubicon. Mental illness is officially a superpower.
In the interest of full disclosure the issue’s opening struck me as familiar, with Moon Knight’s origins being recapped as a television show, for a very particular reason. Back in 2003 I submitted a script to Marvel featuring MK himself as part of their Epic imprint push. While no doubt an amateurish submission, it did open with the idea of Moon Knight fighting thugs on a roof-top, only for it to be revealed to be taking place on a film set. I guess it is a fairly obvious idea, symbolic of the character’s loose grasp on reality, but interesting to see a different take surface here.
Overall the issue sets about establishing a new status quo for Moon Knight, with the alter egos of Steven Grant and Jake Lockley apparently gone, replaced by Cap, Wolvy and Spidey. There’s a plot involving stolen Ultron parts, an unseen superhuman villain and of course Bendis’ own patented banter, drawing attention to the divide between his preferred street-level vigilantes and the godlike ‘Powers’ they coexist with. To be honest I was actually relieved with the new set up for MK, because after I first saw that cover preview the terrifying thought that this was going to be yet another Skrull with identity issues struck! Thankfully not.
Still there is a familiar sense of disappointment hovering over this latest attempt to revamp MK. Marc Spector’s mental instability is trumpeted from the very first page. Along with the popular perception of the character as Marvel’s Batman – an obvious conclusion which Jeph Loeb ran into the ground spectacularly in Red Hulk by assembling a proxy ‘Trinity’ of MK, the Sentry and Ms Marvel – Moon Knight is also written off as ‘the crazy hero’. Evidence presented is his use of multiple alter egos, three distinct personalities that he uses to gather information for his vigilante activities.
When Doug Moench graduated the hero from Werewolf-By-Night antagonist in 1976 he did allude to the possibility of Marc Spector’s psyche having become fractured by his encounter with the Egyptian god Khonshu. However, Moon Knight’s activities in his various guises was not intended as a precursor to When Rabbit Howls. He is not mentally ill, he is instead a literal everyman! Lockley, Spector and Grant do form a symbolic trinity of personalities – the Id, the ego and the super-ego? – but the more obvious conclusion is that Moon Knight utilizes these personae to be able to investigate all walks of life.
In this interview Bendis predicts that he will draw less flack for his depiction of mental illness and more for his dropping of the character’s mystical origins. It is a shame that he has, because once again the resurrection of Marc Spector by an Egyptian god is easily interpreted as a symbolic event. Khonshu has been referred to as a god of vengeance, with Moon Knight his avatar, but he has also been described as representing scribes. In bringing this callous merc back to life he gave the dead man meaning, a purpose – a story. The mystical elements of Moon Knight are merely a device to establish the end of Spector’s cynicism – he was, after all, a man who killed for money – and his return to America as a socially concerned crime fighter.
In fairness those early adventures by Moench do read today as overly earnest, with plenty of heavy-handed social commentary. Bendis would do well to avoid that aspect of the character’s history, but the strength of the story concept has been weakened.
By contrast Gregg Hurwitz and Jerome Opeña‘s prematurely cancelled Vengeance of the Moon Knight does an excellent job of referencing the multiple takes on the eponymous hero throughout his thirty-six years. The very first issue opens with Spector narrating over a Point Break style bank robbery – the criminals are all wearing Barack Obama masks – delivering a rousing declaration of intent:
Screw the D-List. Screw the B-List. Like the song says: I’ll make a brand new start of it.
Hurwitz riffs extensively on the Marvel Batman reputation of the hero, but does it in a far more entertaining and witty manner than Loeb. There is a similar sequence with Moon Knight facing off against the Sentry, calling attention to how Marvel heroes tend to be more psychologically frail than their DC counterparts, except of course these two blokes are popularly thought of as completely crazy. When the inmates of a local asylum are unleashed it all gets a bit Arkham, but the story stays on the entertaining side of pastiche.
With Khonshu Hurwitz manages to deliver a gripping mixture of humour and disturbing detail, the god reduced to the state of a gnat thanks to Spector’s refusal to kill. Blood-thirsty and vengeful, Khonshu’s remonstrations with the hero to take a life can be seen as a manifestation of his own homicidal tendencies. Vengeance manages to appeal to the smart ideas behind the character as dreamt up by Moench, but avoids the heavy-handedness. It is a shame that Hurwitz did not get to continue on the book.
I disagree with Bendis’ belief that mysticism is what has held the character back. If anything, Moon Knight began life as a horror character and given the current popularity of all things supernatural – which Marvel is of course well aware of given how many vampires they have stuffed into most of their books of late – it is to horror that he should return. This is not even a new conclusion. Tony Isabella flirted with a horror-oriented revamp, featuring a proxy Crypt-Keeper in one issue named ‘Scorecard’ and even later again Moon Knight was invited to join Night Shift, which had his lupine friend Jack Russell as a member. It is a strange irony that the Punisher should become a monster masher before Spector, the dead man who fights crime dressed as the avatar of an Egyptian god! What is stopping Marvel from refashioning Moon Knight as the protagonist of an urban horror series? Offer a writer like Holly Black the chance to dream up some supernatural gumbo with lashings of sex, violence and demons.
That could work. The MU is filled with heroes who have troubled pasts, or suffer from insecurities. Moon Knight shares this qualities, but to the tenth power, which is why he can be such an interesting superhero. See past the proxy Batman reputation and ol’ MK becomes a fascinating take on the tenuous grasp superheroes have on reality itself.