Friday, 6 March 2015

Essential Moon Knight volume 3

Essential Moon Knight volume 3 contains issues #31 to #38 of his original series, all six issues of the brief series Moon Knight: Fist of Khonshu plus material from Marvel Fanfare #30, #38 & #39, Solo Avengers #3 and Marvel Super-Heroes #1. Most of these series are self-explanatory but Solo Avengers (later retitled Avengers Spotlight) was an anthology highlighting individual team members past and present with Hawkeye holding a regular slot in most issues. The writing on the original series is by Doug Moench, Tony Isabella and Alan Zelenetz with one back-up by Steve Ringgenberg. The art is a mixture of Kevin Nowlan, Bo Hampton, Mike Hernandez, Marc Silvestri, Richard Howell, Bob McLeod and Bill Sienkiewicz. The Fist of Khonshu series is written by Alan Zelenetz, Mary Jo Duffy and Jim Owsley and mainly drawn by Chris Warner with the final issue by Mark Beachum. The Marvel Fanfare stories are written by Ann Nocenti, Mary Jo Duffy and Mike Carlin and drawn by Brent Anderson, Judith Hunt and Bill Reinhold. The Solo Avengers tale is written by Roger Stern and drawn by Bob Hall. The Marvel Super-Heroes tale is written by Robert M. Ingersoll and drawn by Mike Gustovich. The separate labels post is here.

This volume covers seven years of the character's solo stories from the last days of his original series until just before the launch of his third series. Complicating things further it's not clear if the stories from Marvel Fanfare and Marvel Super-Heroes were one-off pieces commissioned for those books or else material prepared earlier and rescued from the inventory pile with perhaps some additional work to complete them. The Solo Avengers story appears to have been an original commission as much of that series was but the Marvel Super-Heroes story may have also been commissioned for Solo Avengers and not used for whatever reason. The Marvel Fanfare issues are the most confusing because they appear to be set during the original series's run, whether as a consequence of being inventory material or a deliberate decision to tell a story set retroactively, but are here placed after the second series and so add to the confusion about the status quo.

Part of the mess seems to stem from publishing decisions rather than creative ones. Unusually the original series including single page editorials by Denny O'Neil (apart from issue #35 where it's by Linda Grant as part of Assistant Editors' Month) and equally unusually these have been included in this volume. Consequently the modern reader is informed that the series was normally only available in the direct market comics shops and that from issue #32 onwards the series and indeed all direct market only books would now be published bimonthly as a result of a decision from somewhere higher up in Marvel (O'Neil humorously identifies the decision maker sending down this decree as "The-Computer-Which-Dares-Not-Speak-Its-Name", and makes clear that he doesn't like this new rule). Issue #35 is double-sized and was made available on the newsstands, presumably as a test to see if there was still an audience on the newsstands that hadn't been able to migrate to comic shops though I don't know if Marvel's other direct market only titles also undertook such experiments. Finally with issue #38 the book was cancelled to be replaced by a new series that would be available both on the newsstands and also in the direct market, with O'Neil promising it would appear "within a couple of months". Around the same time Micronauts, another bimonthly direct market only book was similarly cancelled and replaced with the monthly, available everywhere Micronauts: The New Voyages after just a couple of months, though Ka-Zar the Savage was cancelled outright, as though Marvel was now backtracking on the direct market only option (at least for the time being) and indeed O'Neil's comments in the editorial in issue #37 admit to second thoughts on the matter. But for whatever reason it took rather longer for the new Moon Knight: Fist of Khonshu series to appear, eventually showing up eleven months after the old one ended. And then it ended after just six months.

One result of this is a high turnover of creative staff. The only thing approaching an extended run is Alan Zelenetz writing the last three issues of the original series and then the first four of the Fist of Khonshu but the eleven month gap makes it hard to consider the two as a single seven issue run. Chris Warner draws the first five issues of Fist of Khonshu but otherwise no artist draws more than three issues consecutively. So even before the volume reaches the wilderness years at the end the whole thing is exceptionally bitty, with successive creators all pulling in their own different directions and some very different takes on the character being offered.

The end of the original series largely focuses upon the urban crime fighter aspect of the character with a succession of tales that primarily focus upon the characters subject to the environment. There's a tale of a rundown street where a pawnbroker tries to stand up to the gangs demanding protection money and reaches out to one young recruit, only for tragedy to erupt. There's an encounter with insane environmentalists who want to use a new gas to wipe out the human race and allow the planet to begin anew. There's a tale of a man dying of cancer with an uncaring doctor more interested in his coffee and the man's brother resorts to bringing a gun into the hospital. A reporter seeking to explode urban myths shows up a man as just a local thug and he responds by trying to explode the myth in a different way. A gang hangs out at a warehouse storing a nasty chemical substance that unleashes primal violence, causing Moon Knight to flashback to a previous encounter with the substance and Gena of the diner to become a fearful recluse in her own business.

There's a brief backup story in issue #34 narrated by Moon Knight's confidante Crawley that speedily reintroduces all the supporting cast, presumably an attempt by incoming regular writer Tony Isabella to show his grasp of the series but as he only does one more issue this leaves "The Vault of Knight" as a mere curiosity. It might have better to run it in the following issue as this was an attempt to build a wider audience on the newsstands and an introduction/reminder piece would have been a good way to help build readership. The tale is a mini-epic as Moon Knight gets crippled with a fight with the Fly, normally one of the lamer recurring Spider-Man villains, and he has to recover his movement in time to stop Bora, a frustrated over-tall would-be ballet dancer who now uses her mutant psionic powers for revenge. The story includes guest appearances by both the X-Men and the Fantastic Four but they mainly perform crowd control in a showdown at a ballet performance.

Alan Zelenetz's arrival sees a shift in the series's focus away from the urban crime fighter and more into magical territory. His first issue sees a team-up with Doctor Strange when Marlene is possessed by the spirit of Amutef, an Ancient Egyptian sorcerer, with a sceptical Moon Knight slowly coming to accept the forces around him. The final two issues of the original series tell of the death of Moon Knight's estranged Rabbi father amidst a wave of anti-Semitic violence and the body is stolen by the magician Zohar who is seeking to obtain occult powers. It's one of the only stories to really use Moon Knight's history to develop the character rather than just to provide a source of previous encounters.

And then comes the big interruption and the gutting of the character's world.

When the character returns in Moon Knight: Fist of Khonshu, massive changes have been made. The character has ditched the Steven Grant and Jake Lockley identities and is now living openly as Marc Spector albeit in the mansion and lifestyle associated with Grant. Supporting characters like Gena and Crawley have vanished, with Frenchie reduced to a cameo. Marc is trying to ditch the Moon Knight identity as well and auctions off the statue of Khonshu. However agents of Khonshu's rival Anubis obtain the statue and so the spirits of priests of Khonshu force Marc to retrieve it. In the process he defeats Anubis and returns to the Moon Knight identity in a modified costume, although as most of the changes involve colour the main change seen here is the replacement of the moon's crescent with an ankh. Marlene is angry with Marc's return to the role and walks out on him. Marc continues in the role and finds his strength is now enhanced at night but now the priests regularly invading his thoughts and forcing him to carry out tasks in spite of his own concerns as he is ever more the "Fist of Khonshu".

The first issue may introduce the character for a new and returning audience but otherwise it's a disastrous opening that ditches much of the best parts of the set-up in favour of Egyptian mysticism and pulp adventure. Subsequent issues slowly try to return to the more successful arrangements but it's too little and too late. In the meantime the more fantastical adventures include a visit to Mexico where a mad scientist is recreating Nazi experiments in a base inside a pyramid, the return of the sleepless man Morpheus, and two brothers who kill children to prolong their lives but now face a trio of Indian assassins. On a smaller scale is the man who has taken on the identity of Bluebeard and kidnapped multiple women using neuron rays to make them obey him, and drug pushing cannibal cult on an island in the south Caribbean. It is little surprise this series bombed so quickly. Moon Knight works best as an urban gritty crime fighter and not as a globe trotting adventurer. The absence of most of his supporting cast with no real replacements also hinders the series and attempts to develop a subplot of Marlene returning to her ex-husband, who is now in a wheelchair, just don't go anywhere.

Nestling at the end of the volume are five further stories from various anthologies but it's unclear just when most of them were originally written or are meant to be set, though Moon Knight is sporting a crescent in all of them. The first is a full length tale as Steven and Marlene (together without comment) visit a small town where nearby a film is being shot and killing deer in the process. This brings forth a vengeful spirit of nature. Next up is a tale that sees Frenchie fully back but the priests still pestering Marc as he investigates the connection between a talentless boy band and the sudden appearance of old people claiming they have suddenly aged. Following that we get a tale of Jake picking up a man disguised in an Arab keffiyeh in his cab who goes on to terrorise the United Nations. At the story's end Jake succumbs to casual racism and refuses to pick up another Arab in a keffiyeh. Each of these stories feels like they were written for one of the ongoing series but never got used, and it might have been better to have placed them here in the originally intended locations.

The Solo Avengers story is clearly original and brings Moon Knight into conflict with the Shroud, Master of Darkness. Both characters have strong elements of Batman about them and it's surprising that it took so long to bring the two together, even if it is for only half an issue. The final story, from Marvel Super-Heroes #1, feels like it was also prepared for Solo Avengers but not used in favour of a new Moon Knight series. It sees Moon Knight battle the Raptor, a forgettable one-off villain like so many in Solo Avengers, and also visit Gena, now managing a restaurant in Houston. It does its best in the pages available to provide a coda to the original supporting cast as well as establishing that Marc and Marlene are back together, thus undoing as much of the Fist of Khonshu damage as possible in the limited space available.

All in all this volume shows a once great character and series crashing into the mess of rapidly changing creative teams and a badly fumbled relaunch that steers in completely the wrong direction. There a few especially memorable stories with the villains mainly one-offs and much of the good and unique elements are needlessly jettisoned. This volume also suffers from presenting the inventory stories when they were published when it might have been better to follow the lead of other volumes and insert them into the original run at approximately the point they would have originally been used. In total this volume is best forgotten.

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