Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Nocturnal Lunacy: The Essential Moon Knight Review.

'Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.' ~Bible: Romans

Stop me if any of the following sounds a bit familiar: A wealthy millionaire, living in an opulent mansion on the outskirts of a major metropolitan city, wages a nightly war on crime and corruption by donning a cloak, going forth with the aid of his European man-friday to bring justice to the mean streets in a one-man war on crime. All of this is true of Marc Spector, the man known as Moon Knight. . .but it's not quite as damning a fit as you might think. Yes, Moon Knight does resemble a certain bat-themed hero from the city of Gotham, but scratch the surface and you find a much more interesting character than any mere knock-off.

In the beginning Moon Knight was little more than a cool visual, a one-off antagonist in Marvel's horror comic Werewolf By Night. Contracted by a mysterious Committee to bring in the eponymous hero of the book, Moon Knight went on to develop something of a growing fan following, enough to warrant a few one-off stories in Marvel Spotlight, and eventually his own backup feature in The Hulk's color magazine back during the peak of the Bill Bixby/Lou Ferigno popularity. Under the pen of writer Doug Moench and the amazing pencils of Bill Sienkiewicz, the back-up feature would set the tone for the character's backstory, and eventually lead to the establishment of his own monthly series. The closest parallel I can bring you from contemporary pop culture would be the character of the bounty hunter Boba Fett from The Empire Strikes Back. What would start out as little more than a striking background image would eventually develop layers that made him a unique and rich character all his own.

Marc Spector is not a nice man. A paid mercenary and soldier for hire, he and his comrade in arms Jean-Paul DuChamp (whom he affectionately calls 'Frenchie') come into the employ of a ruthless soldier of fortune named Raoul Bushman. Coming across an archealogical expedition led by Doctor Peter Alraune and his daughter Marlene, Bushman decides the temple will provide an ample source of loot and plans to plunder it. Spector reaches his breaking point after Bushman murders Dr. Alraune, challenging him to single combat. It's a fight that leaves Spector a beaten, bloody mess. Wandering the desert wounded and without water, he's found by worshippers of the temple's deity and brought to the site. There, laying on the dirt-floor of a temple centuries old Marc Spector's heart stops. He dies. . .and is reborn beneath the statue of Khonshu, the Egyptian god of the moon and vengeance. Donning himself in an ivory cloak Spector goes forth and defeats Bushman, this time seemingly a great deal more formidable than he was before. Returning to America with Marlene, Frenchie, and the statue of Khonshu, Marc becomes a super-hero. Utilizing the money gained from his years as a mercenary he purchases an elegant manor on the outskirts of Manhattan, creating the identity of millionaire playboy Steven Grant to better mingle amidst high society. To keep his ear close to the streets he crafts another identity, that of New York cabbie Jake Lockley. One man suddenly becomes four men as our stage is set: Marc Spector, the mercenary looking for redemption, Steven Grant, the altruistic millionaire who Marlene herself believes is the 'true' identity of the man she's fallen in love with, Jake Lockley, the cabbie and man of the people, and Moon Knight, the masked hero and possible avatar of Khonshu. Which of these identities is the real protagonist? Sometimes even Spector himself isn't too sure, and as the series progresses those moments of hesitancy and confusion burrow and entrench in his psyche from slight cracks into full-blown fault lines.

You see, that's the real trick of Moon Knight as a character, and as the character is examined in greater depth you begin to understand. Firstly, Batman--while driven--merely pretends to be crazy to provide him with an edge against the criminal element. With Moon Knight, there is a very strong possibility that the man may actually be insane. He believes he owes his life to an ancient god of the moon and vengeance, and has become a warrior acolyte in the name of his god. Batman is a crimefighter. Moon Knight is a warrior-priest. Batman fights for justice, to ensure that what happened to the eight year-old Bruce Wayne never happens to another helpless child. Moon Knight fights for redemption, to atone for the things he did as Marc Spector that he is deeply ashamed of, and to honor the god he feels he owes his life to. Batman is a superhero with pulp trappings, while Moon Knight feels more like a pulp hero with superhero trappings.

This first essentials volume introduces us to the character, and provides a fascinating look at how a concept like Moon Knight develops. From his origin as a one-off mercenary created by a criminal group to the eventual retcon of it all being a set-up by Marc and Frenchie, to the development of the character's backstory and his motivation for his nightly crusade, it's fascinating to watch Moench and Siekiewicz work, adding layer upon layer to the character until what results is an amazing mixture of concepts and ideas that come together in a whole that provides for an entertaining and surprising read. Those that feel that Moon Knight is little more than a dark knight doppelganger would do well to give this volume a look.

The character has undergone something of a second renaissance these days, with a recent series penned by writer Charlie Huston detailing the hero's return after a long absence, as well as further exploration of the character as a near-madman clinging to the edge of sanity by his fingernails. Artist David Finch made the book's visuals stunning stuff, and The Bottom is a favorite series of mine and one I point most of my friends to if they want something that has as much grit and assorted jaw-dropping amazement as Nolan's The Dark Knight. With Essential Moon Knight Vol. 1, we see the beginnings of the character, the seeds planted that took a simple mercenary antagonist and forged him into a character that people are still telling stories about 34 years later. Recommended.


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