Friday, March 26, 2010

Vengeance of the Moon Knight #1-6 "Shock and awe"

With the release of it's sixth issue, "Vengeance of the Moon Knight" has completed it's first story arc by Gregg Hurwitz and Jerome Opena tasked to rejuvenate the property for Marvel. Yet, despite the new title and renumbering, their take follows on Moon Knight's previous Marvel knights effort, as defined by Charlie Huston and David Finch. Apparently, despite the cancellation of the previous volume, at the time helmed by Mike Benson, the company has thought that bringing solid mid-list creators and tying the story into the ongoing status quo of the Marvel universe was enough to make for a healthy long run. The reasoning was that a slight change in direction would help ease the new readers, familiar with the overall Dark Reign direction, into sampling "Vengeance of the Moon Knight" and continuing with it.

By and large, this methodology meant slowly reintroducing the character to the familiar New York milieu, the reader would be treated to the of appearances of Norman Osborn and the Hood, who would slowly shift in the background as the title character's supporting cast takes larger prominence. In fact, there is a precedent for Osborn's controlling agenda contrasting with Moon Knight's vigilante status, as established in the previous volume.

The chief problem with the "Vengeance of the Moon Knight" is that it never honestly tries to push for a new audience, with the sales figures already betraying a return to the level of the previous incarnation's final months in the North American direct market.

This largely stems from the conservatism of the editorial. Moon Knight has so far followed the model of "Ghost Rider" and "Immortal Iron Fist" before it, with the company recognizing the critical acclaim won by the revamp of the long neglected properties by subsequently instructing the successive creative teams to immediately pick up on the plot threads and the same general approach. The fact that only Moon Knight was granted a new ongoing series, should have signaled the company to let Hurwitz and Opena have a much broader creative freedom, while the comics buying public still recognizes the property as one in which they will invest even if Marvel's biggest name creators aren't helming the relaunch.

In effect, this has created a title with it's heart in the right place, and a logical continuation from the point of continuity, while forgetting to imbue it with any sort of new take beyond Huston's, now four year old, reconceptualization. The thrust of Greg Hurwitz's take stems from the fact that this time Moon Knight is changing to be a better, more professional superhero, while struggling to keep his more psychotic and anti-social tendencies at bay. Still, all this is by and large very similar to Charlie Huston's version of the character, as defined by the continuing presence of Moon Knight's God Khonshu as a cartoon character, constantly urging the tormented hero to bloodletting.

Unexpectedly, most of the somewhat more light-hearted approach takes cues from Jeph Loeb's "Hulk" run, specifically the issues guest-starring Moon Knight and Sentry. The fact that both character were created without even the attempt to hide their similarities to Batman and Superman actually informs the relaunch in an unexpectedly big way, plot-wise. Seeing Sentry checking in on Moon Knight might appear as a typical Dark Reign tie-in sequence, but the creators treat it as something bigger than a token guest appearance. There is a sense that Sentry could actually continue to be a part of their run on the character, particularly considering that the accentuating the more heroic and Batman-like side of the character echoes throughout the rest of the relaunch. This is particularly obvious considering that most of the middle section of the story arc revolves around the escape from the lunatic asylum orchestrated by Marvel's own Scarecrow, a long standing Ghost Rider villain. Evidently, Marvel is not merely using all these callbacks to DC icon out of a simple sense of fun, but is actually aiming to establish some of the title's appeal as their own version of Batman, in a way not too dissimilar to the original "Squadron Supreme" concept.

Naturally, what follows suit is that the more personal aspect of Moon Knight's fight, as established in the original Moench/Sienkiewicz run, quickly rears it's head back in, as the character's nemesis, Raoul Bushman, literally gets ressurected as the series' chief villain. Despite Hurwitz's efforts to present Bushman as Moon Knight's Joker, and a continuing reminder of what he could be (and in fact already has been in times of his more violent phases), a broader analyses reveals a much simpler motive for his inclusion, beyond the game of homaging Batman.

Basically, Hurwitz and Marvel editorial have once again recognized the value in Charlie Huston's approach to the series, having appropriated a notable aspect of it for "Vengeance of the Moon Knight". The problem is that Huston dealt with both revisiting Moon Knight's origin and the definite confrontation with Bushman in establishing his first arc, and has since taken the character in a different direction. And while confronting the descendants of the organization that hired him in his original appearance in "Werewolf by night", and his own sidekick from the 1990s Chuck Dixon run on the title, could hardly be considered original, at least Huston and Finch updated the character and his operation for the current audience. And even then, the late 70-ies, early 80-ies anti-hero had a hard time keeping an audience, leading to crossover tie-ins, and Marvel eventually deciding to continue with less popular creative teams. All of his has brought "Vengeance of the Moon Knight" to where it now stands, as a paired down action book, trying it's hardest to distill the most commercial of it's previous elements and combine them with Batman tropes hoping to achieve a favorable reaction from the audience.

Realizing the genre cocktail as a fast paced adventure naturally falls on Jerome Opena's shoulders. In presenting the loud return of Moon Knight, on the surface the artist sticks with a typical Marvel style, using the first issue to attract readers to the detailed look of the company's perpetually late 70-ies crime plagued New York. Opena tries to win new readers by featuring Manhattan in daylight, filled with Dark Avengers billboards and a general fully detailed superhero art approach, that naturally starts to loosen up once the deadlines start catching up with him. Yet, despite the series returning halfway to the character's natural conveniently obscured nocturnal setting, the focus on the figure work in action still preserves the artist's greatest strengths.

Most impressively, Opena has a very firm grasp on Moon Knight's physique. And while the character remains slightly underdeveloped and generic when out of costume (matching his current unclear secret identity status), the schyzophrenic anti-hero has a very well defined look when fully armored. It is exactly when Moon Knight tries his best to be the hero, without getting caught up on the burdens of his past, that Opena's artwork shines the most, featuring a very detailed combat suit that nonetheless looks practical and realistic. The design itself would be enough to differentiate this iteration of the suit from all the others, heavily influenced by Sienkiewicz's take, focusing on the ghost-like aspect of Moon Knight's bloated cape. Opena goes even further, providing a very clear and knowing look on the characters' anatomy, driving firmly the supposed realism behind the concept of an urban vigilante. Just seeing the way the artist twist Moon Knight's spine in omvement is a testament to his impressive knowledge of figure work in action.

Unfortunately, despite the constant explosive violence, the artist doesn't get much of a chance to showcase his strengths as a storyteller. The short breaks provided for bringing some atmosphere to the ghost town of Charlie Hustion's updates to the Batman-inspired Moench concepts never amounted to something much more than checking in with the minutiae of Moon Knight's world, as established four years ago. The protagonist is certainly not a natural conversationalist, but that still doesn't excuse Hurtwitz's approach, which basically bundles up all of these quieter pieces to drive home the same point.

Everyone seems all too eager to chime in on how unlikely it is for Moon Knight to change, something that was already established in his conversations with Khnonshu in the character's rare lone moments. In fact, the only subtlety to be found on the pages of aptly named "Shock and awe" is in the mechanical way in which his longstanding on/off relationship with Marlene rekindles, and that is surely not a good example of the realistic portrayal of a long suffering partner's feelings. Namely, the statuesque blonde archeologist is just another piece of editorial mandate, employed in order to present the most potent version of the Moon Knight concept, in a misguided belief that it will be both accessible and inviting to the new fans, already familiar with the rival publisher's Dark knight.

Speaking of the creator's vision, it's severely underdeveloped. This is best seen in the subplot involving Crawley, Moon Knight's longtime associate. Namely, the eloquent homeless man is taken from his usual alcohol driven seclusion and featured in an over the top turn of events that leads to a sudden change in his behavior, played with all of the seriousness of a cartoon. And while this unexpected development provides a diversion from the horrors of Moon Knight fighting lobotomized mental patients, it actually points out to the creators' willingness to acknowledge their own take on the Moon Knight concepts. Unfortunately, this rare bit of satire sticks out as hurried and uncertain in what can be considered a much more familiar humor scenes featuring Spider-Man commenting on his fellow superhero, or even the Huston-inspired black humor associated with Khonshu.

Even taking into account that this is a fast paced action book first and foremost, at moments Hurwitz and Opena fail to synchronize, making for at least a couple of very confusion action set pieces. Still, this failing is much more tolerable when one takes into account the relentless speed with which the movement carries forward, and the constant need to shift perspectives in order to make the fight scenes stay fresh and exciting. Unfortunately, any kind of synergy exhibited by the writer and artist is already being dismantled, with Opena leaving the title for the duration. This comes to no surprise considering that he has already attributed to the book's lateness, being yet another artist to prove he cannot work under the impossible deadlines of a monthly superhero comic book.

The solicitations report that Hurwitz's next storyline featured Deadpool, whose profile has unexpectedly being raised by the "X-Men origins: Wolverine" movie in such a significant way that the character now has his own line of titles, ensuring that every week there is a Deadpool book on the stands. And while another of his rounds guest starring in another Marvel title is unlikely to significantly profit "Vengeance of the Moon Knight", it could potentially provide for some hurried juxtaposition between the juvenile violence that is sure to abound. And while it certainly cannot be said that the crossovers have benefited the previous incarnation of the title in the long run, Hurwitz is quick to issue that a more serious storyline is to debut right after. Unfortunately, the current sales reports strongly suggest that it may just turn out to be the title's last, with the return of Jerome Opena that much more likely to happen as a penciller fronting the launch of another title. If this was to happen, Hurwitz will most likely use it to wrap up the elements of his run, that seems troubled from the very start.

Perhaps, in the long run, it might be the best if Marvel was to leave the property be for as long as it take until they finally come up with a new approach that has a better chance of appealing to an audience, that is already weary of all but the most elaborate Batman titles.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is undoubtedly the most thought out and professional comic book review I have ever read. To see such professionalism dedicated to what would be considered a 'side book' in the industry is thoroughly refreshing and a nice surprise.