Friday, 22 November 2013

Essential Moon Knight volume 1

Essential Moon Knight volume 1 collects a mixture of the character's earliest appearances, tryout spots, backup strips in other titles and then the start of his first series. Included here are Werewolf by Night #32-33, Marvel Spotlight #28-29, Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man #22-23, Marvel Two-in-One #52, The Hulk! magazine #11-15, #17-18 & #20, Marvel Preview #21 and Moon Knight #1-10, plus Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe entries for Moon Knight, his helicopter and his mansion, plus also the covers of the reprint series Moon Knight Special Edition #1-3. (Contrary to some early reports and many online listings, Marvel Team-Up Annual #4 is not included.) That's a lot of material but amazingly almost all of it is written by Doug Moench except for the Spectacular Spider-Man issues by Bill Mantlo and the Marvel Two-in-One issue by Steven Grant. The main artist is Bill Sienkiewicz, who draws everything on the above list from The Hulk! magazine #13 onwards. Don Perlin draws the Werewolf by Night and Marvel Spotlight issues, Mike Zeck and Jim Mooney the Spectacular Spider-Man issues, Jim Craig the Marvel Two-in-One issue, and Gene Colan and Keith Pollard the first two The Hulk! magazine issues. With a lot of titles and many creators I've once again had to resort to a separate labels post.

The concept of the back-up strip featuring a different character or genre altogether is familiar to many but rare in Marvel US comics with title characters save for occasions when storylines are formally split in two or supporting characters and/or background events are given a special focus. But the idea of featuring a totally different character in a different genre is more unusual there, so to see Moon Knight get his first ongoing feature in the back of The Hulk! magazine must have been quite a surprise to readers. The two characters' paths cross just once when twin stories are set during a lunar eclipse but the Hulk and Moon Knight only literally bump into each other in the darkness without realising who each is, and otherwise they separately handle thieves who came to steal from an astronomer's lonely country house.

Reading through the stories all at once, rather than over a period of six years as at publication, it transpires that a lot about the character was developed on the hoof and the result is some pretty fundamental elements are only introduced midway through the volume. Just like the character, the Moon Knight series doesn't really know what it wants to be. It has a vague aim at being a hard edged crime-fighting series and it's hard to avoid assuming Moon Knight was moulded to allow Marvel creators to do Batman-esque stories. Initially Marc Spector is a mercenary for hire brought in by a criminal organisation known only as "the Committee" to capture the Werewolf and given the initial costume; however upon discovering the reasons for the capture are to use the man as a trained killing animal he turns and allies with the Werewolf instead. It's a short tale that establishes Moon Knight as an mercenary anti-hero with honour, but it also clashes with the way the character would subsequently be portrayed and the origin given in the first issue of his own series. Issue #4 explains how this was all a ruse to infiltrate and bring down the Committee, with Frenchie posing as a industrialist, but it's a very awkward retcon to explain away a tricky first appearance. We don't get the character's new origin until issue #1 of the series and it's convoluted by the need to explain his history with both Frenchie and Marlene, plus it adds a mystical element to the series by showing how Marc Spector apparently died in Egypt but came back to life in front of a statue of the moon god Khonshu and was apparently now filled with the spirit of Khonshu, something that feels totally at odds with the tone of the rest of the series.

Then there's the multiple identities adopted by Moon Knight. Marc Spector, a mercenary, appears to be the original but this isn't explicitly confirmed until an encounter with his brother. Steven Grant (named after the writer?) is a millionaire (using the money Spector secured in his activities) living outside of the city in a mansion that has secret passages leading to his helicopter launchpad. Jake Lockley is a New York cab driver who roams the streets and frequents diners in search of information. But rather than just maintaining permanent aliases to cover different aspects of information gathering, Moon Knight at times speaks and thinks as though the identities are separate individuals sharing a body. And just to add to the mess of it all, every one of his non-costumed identities has the same face, at least until Jake Lockley adds a false moustache towards the end of the volume, and he's not taking strong steps to hide the connections between the two, to the point that several in the underworld are aware of the connection between them all.

But adding to the problem is the limited attention given to some of the more mystical of Moon Knight's powers. Occasional mention is made of his enhanced strength under moonlight, and even less to his having obtained it as a consequence of his fight with the Werewolf. By the end of the volume it seems as though the power is fading away. It would be hard to miss such an obscure power but the last couple of issues in the volume seem to be tidying up some of the more awkward points about the character. The story also tackles the question of whether there ever was a possession by Khonshu or not, and whilst it's not decisively confirmed if this ever did happen, the strong impression is given that by the end Moon Knight certainly isn't possessed now. The statue of Khonshu is stolen and destroyed, contributing to a nervous breakdown as Moon Knight reflects upon his apparent failure and the chaos of his multiple identities, but Marlene stated the destroyed statue was just a public fake and unveils what she says is the real one. Moon Knight recovers his confidence and takes down the Bushman, but wonders at the end if the surviving statue is real or a copy made afterwards. Doubt is also cast upon whether Marc Spector ever did die in the desert and get resurrected, or if in fact he just imagined it. Whatever the state of affairs, Moon Knight is no longer dependent upon a supposed spirit of an Egyptian god within him, and some of the baggage has been cleared out, leaving the character more viable for future adventures.

However he retains his supporting cast and they're quite a mix. Most prominent is Marlene, the daughter of an Egyptologist killed by Bushman in the incident that made Marc turn on him. Marlene serves as secretary and girlfriend to the Steven Grant identity, and shows a strong willingness to help Moon Knight in tackling crime, whether by going into action with a gun or disguising herself as a nurse to walk the streets and serve as bait for a serial killer. She sticks by Moon Knight even when she gets seriously wounded on one occasion, and she finds his multiple identities highly confusing. The identities are less of a problem for Moon Knight's helicopter pilot and aide, "Frenchie". Just in case anyone has any doubts as to what nationality he is, he has zees outrageous accent. Frenchie has been with Moon Knight since their days as mercenaries in Egypt, and also debuts alongside him in Werewolf by Night, and is highly resourceful. Back at the mansion Moon Knight also has the support of Samuels the butler and Nedda the cook, both loyal and understanding servants but neither is particularly developed. Perhaps it's fortunate that Frenchie first appeared before the introduction of the manor and the Steven Grant identity, as it means the butler never ends up playing an "Alfred" role and reinforcing the Batman influence. The Jake Lockley identity works at street level and builds up various contacts for information, particularly at a diner where he befriends waitress Gena, and later her two sons, and the destitute Bertrand Crawley who sets new records for making an individual tea-bag last on endless rounds of free refills of hot water.

Throughout the stories Moon Knight takes on a variety of foes but invariably they're at the down to earth criminal end of things. In his debut he first works for and then fights "the Committee", a crime syndicate who appear again when they hire several hit-men who soon turn on both their contractors and each other. Later on Moon Knight runs up against the equally imaginatively named "the Company", who are seeking to produce a perfect super soldier dubbed the Cobra (no relation to the better known Marvel villain.) Elsewhere Moon Knight clashes with the Conquer-Lord, a crime lord trying to install his puppet as Mayor by discrediting the incumbent though setting up a Watergate style burglary. The theft of the statue of Khonshu leads to a chain of criminals from insane museum curator Fenton Crane to Alphonse Leroux, the ambassador from Chile (during the Pinochet era) to the United Nations, to the terrorist Lupinar. Then there's the Hatchet Man, a serial killer stalking the streets of New York murdering nurses as revenge for a facial wound, who turns out to be Marc's brother, Randall Spector. Another serial killer is the Skid-Row Slasher, hunting the down and outs for his father for revenge for the treatment of his mother. Eventually the killer is revealed to be Crawley's son in a complex tale of personal and family breakdown. There's a further tale of a serial killer when the son of one tries to recover his inheritance with two other criminals and Moon Knight following; only to discover things are not quite what they seem. The art thief Midnight Man offers some more conventional action against a foe similar to the hero, whilst a trip to the Caribbean brings an encounter with the "White Angel" and his walking skeletons and "zuvembies" (the Comics Code Authority then didn't allow the word "zombie" to be used). In fact it's a plantation owner with thugs in costumes using slave labour to farm drugs. There are also many more generic thieves and thugs and a gang who try to extort Chicago by poisoning the water supply. Moon Knight's team-up with Spider-Man brings a clash with the Maggia, led from the shadows by the Masked Marauder, whose ranks include the Cyclone. Meanwhile the team-up with the Thing sees the two take down Crossfire, an ex-CIA brainwasher who now seeks to wipe out the entire superhero community.

But the most significant foe is Bushman. Once the head of the group of mercenaries Marc and Frenchie were part of, Bushman is fearsome to look at, with steel teeth and a death mask tattooed upon his face, and ruthless. Marc and Frenchie desert over Bushman's methods in ruthlessly killing innocents in Sudan. In revenge Bushman captures Marc and has him dumped in the desert to die of heat exhaustion, but Marc survives and becomes Moon Knight. In the present day Bushman resurfaces and clashes with Moon Knight twice in New York. Unlike several other foes, Bushman survives and so becomes the recurring arch nemesis.

Overall, Moon Knight is a rather confused strip. Breakout characters are far from unknown but usually they have some basics about their background and origin sketched from the start. Here we get a mess as a thug for hire in a fancy costume becomes a cross between Batman, as a millionaire fighting crime from a special mansion, and the Golden Age Hawkman, as a supposed reincarnation of an Egyptian deity. And we get awkward retcons to sort out the different elements (a good decade before Hawkman's continuity became near impossible to understand) with the result that the series is at times as confused as the lead character itself. Some of this would normally be down to a multitude of different writers and the lengthy time between appearances but here almost everything is written by Doug Moench who seems to have kept changing his mind on the character. This results in a confused, convoluted mess of a background to the series even if the individual stories are quite gripping and the magazine stories show more grittiness than could be done in the Code approved comics. There's strong potential here but it's not until the end of the volume that some of the problems are untangled to make the character more viable for the future.

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