Friday, 29 August 2014

Essential Moon Knight volume 2

Essential Moon Knight volume 2 carries issues #11-30 of his first series. Most of the issues are written by Doug Moench with some back-ups and/or fill-ins by Jack C. Harris, Alan Zelenetz, Denny O'Neil and Steven Grant. The art is mainly by Bill Sienkiewicz with other contributions, mainly on back-ups, by Denys Cowan, Jimmy Janes, Vicente Alcazar, Greg LaRocque, Keith Pollard, Joe Brozowski and Kevin Nowlan.

Issue #15 represents a minor landmark in US comics history as it saw the series shifted to become a direct market only title, also receiving an increase in both pages and price. Together with Ka-Zar and Micronauts, the title had experienced strong sales in comic shops but poor returns on the newsstands and this move allowed each series to survive and even specialise without the restrictions of the newsstands - for one thing the Comics Code Authority stamp disappears after issue #15. However it also made the title inaccessible to those without easy access to a comic shop (and there were several reasons why subscriptions weren't a viable solution for all) and it effectively marked the beginning of a slow market retreat to the ghettos of the comic shops. In cases where a book appealed primarily to the niche of buyers that had already moved over to the direct market it doubtlessly made more sense to do this than try to raise newsstand sales but in the long term it contributed to much of the industry deserting a broader market and making it harder to recruit new readers to keep up overall interest.

However the direct market switch brings with it a much more experimental approach. Story lengths now vary considerably, ranging from lengthy multi-part epics to stories that only take up part of a single issue. The rear of the issues are sometimes enhanced by features such as editorials, commentary by creators, guides to equipment, galleries of images and so forth. Even the covers experiment a bit including a striking black and white cover on issue #24, reproduced as the volume's cover. Only two guest stars appear in the direct market only issues and one is the Werewolf, appropriately returning after the conclusion of his own series to now encounter its breakout character. The character's intervening time is explained by having been on the run from a cult. The other is Brother Voodoo, stepping out of a similar limbo to appear in a story set in Haiti complete with zombies. Daredevil and his foe the Jester appear in one of the last issues also available on newsstands, and the Thing makes a two-page cameo billed on the cover of one of the first direct market only issues (an appearance probably planned when the series was still on general release) but otherwise the series keeps very much to itself. Again this makes sense given the direct market only format as it could needlessly annoy newsstand fans of other characters to deny them the chance to see a guest appearance. And the Micronauts and Ka-Zar, the only other characters for whom this would not be an issue, are not exactly naturals to appear in the grim and gritty world Moon Knight inhabits.

In contrast to the turmoil of the first volume, this one shows a remarkable degree of stability with a firm focus of the character's crime fighting side, with occasional dipping into his mercenary past but with the Egyptian deity elements largely confined to statues that may have powers or it may just be the beliefs of those around them. The supporting cast is primarily that already established albeit with the addition of Detective Flint, a police officer who regularly supplies Moon Knight with information. For the most part the supporting characters remain on the sidelines though the very first issue here deals with Frenchie's revenge when an ex-girlfriend reappears only to be murdered for failing to deliver a supply of cocaine.

Marlene is the main exception, with some prominent roles throughout the run and her continuing displeasure with the way Moon Knights various identities are becoming personas in their own right, feeling that she has helped create a monster. One storyline sees her brother Peter, a doctor, suffering at the hands of his patients who has been twisted by drugs into Morpheus, a being who cannot voluntarily sleep and who can project nightmares into others via a mental link with Peter. At first it seems that Morpheus could be a recurring foe but his powers are neutralised in his return appearance when Peter exploits the link to feedback psionic energy, dying in the process. Marlene's grief is wisely not dwelt on but it adds to her growing dissatisfaction with Moon Knight's approach and identities to the point where she decides to leave him. When new foe the Black Spectre turns out to be an outside candidate for Mayor, Marlene agrees to go under cover but comes to believe in Carson Knowles and sees Moon Knight's public accusations as persecution. She subsequently discovers the truth and returns to him but it's a reminder of how strong and independent she can be. In another storyline she winds up taking the job of bodyguard for a terrorist and the series all but shows her sleeping with him as part of her mission. The character is a far cry from the average superhero girlfriend.

And Moon Knight is not the average superhero. His identity crisis continues to bubble away, with ever increasing - and sometimes contradictory - insistence that he is any particular persona at a precise moment, to the confusion of those around him. During his second encounter with Morpheus he experiences a nightmare in which Steven Grant, Jake Lockley and Marc Spector all attack him, showing up his worst nightmare. Later on Grant is sitting at home when he witnesses a vision of Marc Spector angrily lashing out at others but unable to finish himself off, with Grant commenting that through Moon Knight they are all paying for Spector's sins. Of all his identities it's Marc Spector that he tries to avoid the most, yet Spector is his original persona. For the most part Moon Knight seems able to keep on top of the confusion but there are indications that he may eventually break down into a mess of contradictory and warring selves. Otherwise the character continues in what appears to be a Batman mould but coming out some years before Frank Miller reached Gotham City it seems the flow of inspiration was not all one way. Moon Knight continues to be put through a variety of problems both at home and abroad, including facing the loss of everything he has, but he manages to come through thanks to his guile and gadgets.

His Marc Spector persona is not completely sidelined as a number of issues carry back-up stories highlighting aspects of his career, including some set during his days as a mercenary - there's a particularly dark story where he's commissioned to steal a box from one sculptor for another and it turns out to contain the head of the Gorgon Medusa. In a reversal of the traditional myth Spector uses a mirror to turn the head's back on itself and upon its wielder. Other back-up stories range from present day tales by alternate creators, some of them perhaps auditioning to take over the series if needs be, to tales of the statue of Khonshu and how the statue scared a crook in a museum into locking himself in a sarcophagus or how it seemingly used its power to clear a minefield and help a bunch of stereotypical British soldiers in American uniforms to win the battle of El Alamein. Such tales wouldn't appear in most Marvel series but here they help to enhance the background to the series and were doubtlessly a welcome change from adverts when the series's price increased.

Although a lot of the issues have single part stories mainly dealing with one-off urban villains, there are some that take the series in different directions and introduce potential recurring adversaries, though not all survive. As noted above the threat of Morpheus is neutralised early on, but in the opposite direction the character of Stained Glass Scarlet seemingly starts out as a one-off, a sorrowful nun turned mother turned recluse living in an abandoned church who finds herself shooting her gangster son dead. But subsequently she becomes a crossbow-wielding vigilante, declaring war on mobsters in general and Moon Knight finds himself ultimate missing on purpose and letting her escape. The difference between Moon Knight, operating outside the police but usually with their tacit approval and individual support as he generally seeks to bring crooks to justice, and Scarlet, operating completely on her own as she seeks to execute them, may seem a hair split at first but it's a core dividing line as to how vigilantes are usually portrayed in comics and the source of much philosophical debate. Elsewhere the Black Spectre explicitly models himself on Moon Knight but his failed venture into politics somewhat restrains his potential for reuse. Elsewhere the foes are one-offs - various mobster types and terrorists but also corrupt police officers and those who seek to purge the force of them as well as a man driven mad by childhood abuse seeking vengeance on his just deceased father.

The longest story in the volume is an epic adventure that pits Moon Knight, Marlene and Frenchie against a group of terrorists hell-bent on the destruction of the west. The Third World Army is a coalition of terrorist groups from across the political spectrum, headed by the anarchist Nimrod Strange. Privately disavowing their public political goals, they are fanatics who will take aid from right and left wing dictatorships only to play them off against one another to bring the world to its knees. Few take them seriously but the Mossad has realised their true threat. When Benjamin Abramov, Marc's oldest friend, is gunned down in the mansion by the organisations top assassin the Master Sniper, it begins a journey that takes Moon Knight to Switzerland, Israel, Lebanon, the Indian Ocean and finally back to New York. Along the way Moon Knight, Marlene and Frenchie have to infiltrate the organisation, with Marlene becoming one of Strange's elite female bodyguards and harem. Strange himself adopts armour to become Arsenal and almost kills Moon Knight before departing to hijack multiple oil tankers and use them to destroy Manhattan, in a plan lifted directly from US anti-terrorism planning. The pace of the story is relentless and it doesn't pull its punches either with a number of atrocities depicted including the gunning down of a congregation at a synagogue. Arsenal becomes another foe whose long term potential is sacrificed on the altar of a dramatic resolution to the story but it works. It's a tough storyline that combines the global threat with the personal element as Moon Knight seeks to complete Ben's work as well as repay Arsenal for his slights. At a guess this storyline (in issues #17 to #20) was the first to be prepared for the direct market and it shows a willingness to stretch beyond the confines of the Comics Code authority without being gratuitous simply for its own sake. It's a good example of how the series adapts to changed conditions and sets out to offer something truly unique.

In general this is a series that does well to rise to the challenges set, continuing to offer a hero with a very unusual identity situation whilst also adapting well to its changed market position and experimenting within the format and outlet. There are some themes handled here that are more adult than those found in the Comics Code Authority books on the newsstand, but never once does it feel like its being puerile or gratuitous just to show off its freedom. Instead it continues to build a solid and distinctive series, using the expanded page count to explore multiple stories and features and allow other creators onto the characters without feeling like quick fill-ins. Sienkiewicz's art looks amazing in black and white and Moench's scripts remain strong, producing quite a solid volume.

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