Saturday, October 30, 2010

Shadowland: Moon knight #1-3

After several years of centering their whole publishing line around event mini-series, from "Civil war" to "Secret invasion", the last couple of years saw the company taking a step back and turning attention back to the individual titles. This is especially evident following "Siege", with the following crossovers being limited in scope and impact to their respective "family" titles. This has been a regular X-Men practice for decades, but in 2010, Marvel decided to use Daredevil as a center piece of just such an publishing strategy.

With "Daredevil"'s history of being traditionally the most successful of Marvel's street level superhero character titles, it made perfect sense to use the book's long foreshadowed "Shadowland" storyline as a lynchpin for spotlighting that particular part of their line. When it comes to the ongoing titles participating in a crossover event, Marvel has been very particular of late, usually commissioning a separate tie-in mini-series, so as not to derail the regular creative team's plans for the title. This has lead to a slew of clearly labeled three parters, readily available on the stands, with intentionally peripheral stories that serve to entertain just such a customer interested in a very specific product.

Where "Shadowland: Moon Knight" defers from the rule is that the character's ongoing series has been cancelled just before the crossover, thus making the following tie-in mini-series something of an exception. Written by the regular "Vengeance of the Moon Knight" scribe Gregg Hurwitz, adamant on providing some sense of closure to the cancelled titl, and pencilled by the "Deadpool the Merc with a mouth"'s Bong Dazo, the series had a complicated task of balancing between two previously unrelated storylines, while ostensibly trying to appeal to the average reader.

From the start, it's very easy to identify which of these plots the writer is more interested in, as he duly follows the editorial mandate of actually spotlighting the role Moon Knight has to play in the proper "Shadowland" mini-series, but otherwise steers clear of the connection, building the story he really wants to tell around the crossover. This approach definitely benefits existing "Vengeance of the Moon Knight" fans, but can hardly be considered fair to the readers who picked up the obligatory tie-in, interested in seeing the wider event story to the fullest. This is perhaps understandable, seeing as how the potentially interested members of wider superhero audience don't really have a place to continue reading Moon Knight's solo adventures if the character starts sparking their interest in this very moment.

On the other hand, the grim and disturbing atmosphere to be found in the pages of "Shadowland: Moon Knight" clashes even with the tone of Hurwitz' cancelled ongoing. And while a disturbing ending for this part of Moon Knight's fictional life was always an alternative judging by the set-up in the writer's opening arc, it seems that somehow Shadowland's own brutally grim outlook impacted on the crossover, beyond the obligatory Daredevil scenes. This is nowhere as apparent as in Dazo's pencils, whose work seems particularly intense the whole time, starting with the oversized first issue.

His work with inker Jose Pimental on Deadpool's likewise cancelled second ongoing title, likewise felt exaggerated and raw, but maintained a fitting sense of immaturity. On Moon Knight, once again under Matt Milla's colors (supplemented by Chris Sotomayor's work for the first two thirds of the mini-series), following the very first page, this playfulness turns into a perverse exploration of the darkest parts of the Marvel universe, with crooked and bent characters leering maniacally, through gritted teeth, while sulking through the story that echoes of madness and supernatural.

There is literally no respite for the the character, as the body count starts piling up from the moment Daredevil enlists the aid of Profile, designed by Charlie Huston and David Finch as Moon Knight's chief human opponent. The criminal genius finds a way to once again shake up the protagonist's status quo, by creating a threat that proceeds to shake up all of the parts of Jake's past, that he thought he's managed to deal away with. Thus, the conspiracy comes alive in the form of Shadow Knight, composed equal parts of Moon Knight's paranoid connection to the Egyptian mythology, and his darkest personal failings, that sets out to endanger his current fragile balance, under the auspices of securing an item important to the wider crossover.

The gauntlet the character's been put through is severely rigourous and mirrors the darkest excesses of 1980s superhero "realism" when the character starred in first ongoing series. And while his status as Marvel's answer to Batman, with all of the tortured heroism that entails, always made for severely brutal stories, rarely has a single adventure seemed this bleak and depressing. The threat comes from Moon Knight's past and starts severely punishing him, on every level imaginable, leading to some very questionable creative choices. And while it's one thing to attack the constantly changing array of the character's alter egos to represent the psychological cost of the emotionally catastrophic events engulfing Jake, it's quite another to so severely attack his longtime partner, Marlene.

And while the superhero girlfriends have been longtime defined by the careless status of damsels in distress, the personal cost of the title characters' crime fighting has long surpassed the slight inconvenience witnessed in their Golden age debuts. Paralleling the complicated maturation of the genre, an accidental trend of graphically depicted torture to the female form, has been getting it's louder and louder opposers, thus it's difficult to see the reason for it's continuation, in the pages of a tie-in mini-series, of all places.

The way it's handled, this kind of development certainly raises the stakes in the final showdown between the two avatars of Khonshu, it would have likely provoked a severe outcry, if it had been more extensively featured in the main Shadowland mini-series. Just looking at Dazo's brutal drawing of Marlene, bruised and battered, but still showing a provocative look at her cleavage seems beyond cynical. It's telling that her subsequent appearance amounts to exactly one panel designed to spotlight Moon Knight's current state of mind. Her recovery relegated to a side-glance shot in the mirror reveals not so much a lack of space devoted to the character, but more or less a complete disregard to the deeper motivation behind Moon Knight seeking vengeance, beyond driving the plot where the editorial saw fit.

On the whole, this whole project does fulfill a lot of the promise set up in the early Hurwitz-Opena issues, it's just that the execution itself is very particular. The themes of whether Moon Knight could find acceptance in the wider Marvel universe by avoidance the use lethal force against his enemies, and the possibility of his continued mental well being have been directly dealt with, in this unlikely tie-in mini-series. The only problem is that the execution behind it doesn't carry through on the relative strength of the plot.

It's hard to look at Dazo's tortured work and think that the story has inspired him beyond potentially raising his profile in the industry. He does some of his character work by utilizing the shadows to show Jake's fractured mental state, but even these decisions, when noticeable, seem like narrative tricks long familiar to the Batman readers. The artist fares much better with the introduction of New Orleans as the setting of the final duel, with no doubt the lack of actual Shadowland tie-in scenes inspiring him to end his commitment on a high note. The somewhat more whimsical atmosphere really seems to bring forth the artist's interest, making his work in return have that much of an added weight and definition, to help smooth out the increasingly bleak outlook of the fight.

It's not so much that he renders a local fortune teller Jake encounters with a particularly memorable design, but the care that Dazo and Pimental show in rendering almost all visitors of the Mardi Gras with a distinctive design, which then colorist Milla proceeds to generalize with subdued colors, so as not to interfere with the chief kinetic elements of the page. And while it's unfortunate that the artistic team finds so little inspiration in the Shadowland scenes that dominated the parts of the earlier issues, it would be unfair to say that the event has in any real way clashed with Hurwitz's plans for the rest of the story.

For instance, Shadow Knight, despite the overblown nature of the threat he poses, gets a very natural introduction to the story, his presence foreshadowed by the events depicted in flashback. Those particular character beats, rendered in distinctive sepia tones, certainly work much better in developing the relationship with the title character, than the brief segments devoted to Marlene.

Likewise, Hurwitz treats the story's McGuffin with a serviceable in-story reason that connects the Daredevil and Moon Knight trappings. Still, it's hard to escape the feeling that all of the writer's efforts were merely compromises, realized through the medium of a sympathetic editor. Yet, for all of the effort of Axel Alonso to preserve as much as he can from Hurwitz' initial pitch, it's hard not to wander what would have happened if the proposed "Vengeance of Moon Knight" run continued to it's logical conclusion, under the artistic development of the title's original penciller Jerome Opena.

It surely couldn't have lead to such an intense and repulsive arc finale as the Shadowland tie-in mini series, and along the way would have clearly returned to the rematch with Bushman, whose reintroduction formed the main plot of "Shock and awe". Unfortunately, the economical realities of North American superhero marketplace have once again worked against any long term planning, which shouldn't really come as a surprise, considering Moon Knight's history with the company. The 35-year old property has seen multiple perspectives, relaunches, and different creative teams tackling the character and his supporting cast, with all of them seemingly very honest in their attempt to produce their most professional work.

Unfortunately, Moon Knight, as well as most of the participants in the Shadowland crossover, hasn't been able to lay claim to Daredevil's success of more or less uninterruptedly producing hundreds of monthly issues. With the recent news of the avatar of Khonshu being announced as a cast member of the Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning incarnation of "Heroes for hire", even his place on "Secret Avengers" seems to be in question. Meanwhile, the editorial doesn't seem willing to completely abandon the concept of the character's solo series, as evidenced by "Shadowland: Moon Knight"'s ending.

Just like the previous Huston/Finch launched series, that ended with Mike Benson and Jefte Palo providing a transition to the "Vengeance of Moon Knight", a title that was apparently already in preparation at the company. What's interesting is that this time, Marvel has committed the award winning "Daredevil" creative team of Brian Bendis and Alex Maleev to redefine the character, in what is not yet as being a mini-series, or a continuing project. The creators promise a scope rivaling their previous collaboration, that has firmly established them, both together and separately, as major talents in the genre.

The resulting effort remains to be seen, but for now, Moon Knight remains Marvel's substantially less popular answer to Batman than the superhero in whose story he just guest starred in. Just like Black Panther, who is expected to have a more direct benefit from the Shadowland event aftermath, Marvel is continually investing in Moon Knight, no doubt with the mind to once develop the property outside it's inherent medium. And while the cancellation of the "Vengeance of the Moon Knight", and the Hurwitz-Opena take behind it certainly doesn't bode well for any plans such as the once discussed Moon Knight TV series, the editorial's continued enthusiasm is bound to turn up interesting material along the way.

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