Saturday, November 26, 2011

Moon Knight v6 #1-7 "The Kingpin of Los Angeles"

In a time when Marvel books are routinely underperforming, with a wide swath of cancellations affecting the lower tier titles, it’s doubtful what kind of future a title like “Moon Knight” has. Similar to their persistence with Black Panther, whom Marvel have tried everything to keep publishing for the last ten years, Moon Knight sticks to the pattern of volume after volume of new number ones, new creative teams, rejiggerings and a general feeling that the company is really behind the title, and would like it to suceed, no matter the logistic problems involved.

Therefore, employing Brian Bendis and Alex Maleev, the creative team behind a highly acclaimed run on “Daredevil”, and getting them to try and make sense of Moon Knight was a sound decision. In this day and age, such high profile launches are practically unheard of, with Marvel hesitant to keep the high profile A-rate earning pencillers on the art chores of low selling series for very long. Yet, at least for the time being, “Moon Knight” will be kept in the same configuration past its introductory arc, continuing the stance that the character could be as valuable to the company as Daredevil.

In the past, Marvel have tried a variety of approaches, with all of them to some degree following the basic premise of having a psychotic Batman-like superhero with a complicated operation designed to take down the most extreme of everyday threats. The writers were adamant to respect the continuity that came before them, while offering an accessible title with a special flavor. Typically, and starting with Bill Sienkiewicz, the company employed strong artists, but somewhere in the execution, actual stories usually felt uneven, not able to really carve out their own niche, and generally meandered through strange plotlines usually involving mysticism and hyper violence.

Despite all this, modern Marvel seems unable give up on the concept for the time being, despite the character lacking the appeal of the Punisher, or at least the novelty value of Ghost Rider, both of whom have proven valuable to the company outside of the publishing line. With Black Panther, it’s somewhat easier to understand the Marvel’s stance, as the character is by and large the first black superhero, a Kirby original capable of supporting different types of stories, while still operating from a simple functional foundation. Moon Knight has none of these things, and is at best the publisher’s most dangerous vigilante, whose psychosis the company is trying to turn into a selling point without the traditional appeal of colorful villains or a set-up truly unique to him.

In fact, when it comes to his continuing adventures, the company has always been content to head on without a concrete plan. In recent years this meant sticking with the title for a few meandering arcs before yet another cancellation. The Charlie Huston reinvention, trying to update Moon Knight’s operation for a new audience still felt too claustrophobic to catch on, leading to more extensive tie-in with the company’s event crossovers. The character was subsequently relaunched under Rick Remender into an even more Batman-like status quo, which Marvel quickly shied away from, trying to commit to a more thorough revisioning, perhaps the last one before putting Moon Knight to rest until the audience actually starts to miss him.

What Bendis and Maleev propose is a reading of a character as yet another Marvel superhero, integrated in the Marvel universe as a perpetual outsider, inspired by his past as a member of the West Coast Avengers. Thus, his new series is easily grasped by the new reader, as it transports Moon Knight to Los Angeles and a different status quo, where he starts forming a new supporting cast, without any real references to previous continuity. In fact, the creative team routinely comments on the action movie set up of the series’ original incarnation, today a distant past that a very Matthew McConaughey looking Marc Spector is trying to franchise as a TV series.

Clearly, both Bendis and Maleev are fans of the Doug Moench and Bill Sienkiewicz issues, and the parody is only meant as a tongue in cheek tribute. Alex Maleev particularly seems to work in a style that is a more articulate Siekniewicz homage, lending itself more to the feeling of an ongoing Marvel monthly series, while still retaining the chaotic beauty of the original. At the same time, Bendis is substituting each of Moon Knight’s classical neo noir tropes with a detail that would be somewhat more accessible to the fans of the company’s regular superhero titles. Clearly, the writer feels that getting the focus back on New York and Central Park (featured in the fight between Spector and his brother at the beginning of the character’s first ongoing), would be a mistake. Instead, Bendis seeks to avoid turning the title into something too closely akin to “Daredevil”, twisting the premise almost until it breaks.

Now a resident of LA, Spector is cognizant that any kind of superhero work in Marvel universe still works in relation to it’s mainstay Avengers members, leading to perhaps the greatest change in the series, that of substituting his regular alter egos with that of Captain America, Spider-Man and Wolverine. Clearly, this is a huge and very controversial decision, as the original Moon Knight more or less managed to be stay completely away from the dynamics of a superhero universe, (withstanding a fill in issue starring Daredevil and Jester), except for a Werewolf by night two-parter that made sense given the character’s origins. Bendis and Maleev’s outdo even the Tony Isabella written Moon Knight, that featured a nebulous crossover with Spider-Man and Gold Bug, before receiving assistance from Dr Strange to get a better sense of the Egyptian mysticism that haunts him.

Bendis is very aggressive in forcing the subsequent interpretations nods to the broader Marvel universe continuity into the new foundation of the character, one that is completely defined by his status as a C-lister that has stuck around the Avengers. It is a very strange take, dismissing with Khonshu and traditional flirting with the occult, to focus on what at first seems a very random series of circumstances, where Spector even impersonates two well known Marvel characters to further his own investigation.

The basic idea is that Moon Knight leaves New York to fight crime in an environment where he will basically be a hero in his own right, which makes sense on one level but completely fails on another. In Moench and Sienkiewicz’s hands, it didn’t matter that Moon Knight was just another in a series of vigilantes covering the same ground, as for the purposes of his series, he was the city’s only defender. For the duration of their run, the reader was getting the creators’ best, with the wider Marvel universe back drop alluded to, but never at the sake of upsetting the series’ own rhythm.

As long as he is in the shadow of better and more successful superheroes, Bendis posits that Spector is unable to get over his self-defeating personality and the mercenary past. As the long standing writer of "the Avengers", Bendis' solution is to tie the series into his other two ongoing team books, and force Moon Knight to present himself in the better light, so as not be looked won by the more experienced heroes. The cumulative effect is not that of a spin-off, but something akin to "Alias" tying in with his and Maleev's "Daredevil" work. The company's head writer has steadily built up the inter title continuity of his work for the publisher, thereby his featuring Avengers foe Ultron so heavily in the opening issues of "Moon Knight" works to get the attention of the broader audience that he's been teasing the "Ultron war" story arc for at least a year and a half.

Despite his success, the writer is regularly criticized for creating better stories when working on a solo title (as evidenced by his run on “Ultimate Spider-Man” that has been continually published since 2000), with his work on team books regularly coming into question despite the strong sales it has been enjoying for years on end. Bendis and his editors seem to be hoping that once the initial hook of the Avengers tie-in plays out, the readers will stick around for Moon Knight’s more traditional solo adventures.

Yet, by introducing Spider-Man, Captain America and Wolverine as colorful aspects of Spector’s troubled mind, there to debate each of his more complex decisions, as well as positing a long standing Avengers villain as the character’s new arch enemy, it’s clear that at least a semblance of an Avengers spin-off will stay around in his and Maleev’s work, however long the duo may actually turn out to work on the title.

Further complicating things is the addition of Echo, the Joe Quesada and David Mack created vigilante, that Bendis has continued to use outside of “Daredevil”. Serving as almost a more sympathetic version of Elektra, Maya Lopez was even a member of New Avengers during Bendis’ original team, before she fell on the wayside during one of the many reshufflings of the roster (with the actual fight against Elektra marking her last notable appearance). Yet, for all of the good will in giving prominence to newly created Marvel characters such as the Hood and Marvel Boy, Echo wound up being particularly ill-served, introduced as Ronin in a widely ridiculed ploy. Due to fan speculation, Bendis replaced Daredevil with Maya, making the big reveal of the new character’s identity turn out to be deaf vigilante wearing the male body suit, instead of the original idea involving Matt Murdock.

The Ronin controversy aside, Bendis persists in bringing Spector and Maya together, with their disabilities and ex Avengers status to connect them. Again, it’s a very unorthodox choice, but introducing it in the series from the start forces the readers to consider it, especially taking into account the craft behind it.

Simply put, where Bendis actually draws inspiration from isn’t his “Avengers” work, or even “Daredevil” for that matter, but “Jinx” and the creator owned titles that brought him to industry’s forefront, which makes all the difference. Using unusual double page layouts, and vertical panels that commonly feature repeated panels may seem common place to his fans, but seeing these techniques employed on the outside, and in the process of trying to build an entertaining Moon Knight series, creates a very solid new superhero title.

Unlike Maleev’s instantly affecting work filled with gritty details and very characteristic heavy inking, Bendis’ story at first seems meandering and non traditional, but when read as a complete unit, it works as more than the sum of it’s parts. The leasurely pacing and long dialogues attribute hugely to developing new characters, such as Buck the former SHIELD agent (consciously integrating Moon Knight even further into the Marvel universe) that quickly starts having his own identity resists type casting. Thus, Spector’s new technical consultant on the Legends of the Khonshu TV show feels uneasy about his role of moonlighting as Moon Knight’s back up, taking a realistically long time in getting used to the vigilante’s operation.

Likewise, Echo actively rejects the role of a girlfriend and damsel in distress that Marlene previously played. After the faliure of Bendis and Maleev’s long teased "Spider Woman" series, Bendis must be completely aware that Maya would not be capable of supporting anything but the shortest of limited series in today’s market, and considering Marvel’s recent cancelled of their last books starring female leads, perhaps having Echo play such a strong and self determined role in “Moon Knight” might not be a worst case scenario.

In a way, the title’s traditional focus on supporting cast elevates the series to almost an ensemble piece, which it would be if Moon Knight and Spector were one and the same. Such as it is, the book is definitely a solo title, that despite the semblance of reality sticks to the familiar superhero cliches. Therefore, Buck fakes going along with the villain's plan to gain their confidence, the up and coming kingpin obliterates his goons when they fail him after interrupting Echo and Mark's date, with Maya even introduced posing as an erotic dancer, a hoary old cliche that keeps reappearing in genre fiction. Yet, the little touches of humanity, like Echo phoning Carol Danvers to ask her opinion about dating Spector recall the best moments of "Alias" and the Jessica Jones and Ant-Man relationship depicted there.

Throughout Matthew Wilson's relentlessly grim coloring helps carry over the neo noir atmosphere, but fails in restoring clarity to Maleev's inks that routinely lead to a lot of confusion when it comes to the fight scenes, which flow in complete chaos of overbearing lines whenever there are more than two combatants involved. The artist's rendition of Mister Hyde likewise seems bland and uninteresting. The design used in the duo's "Daredevil" run was likewise very primal and savage, but the addition of the cape and shorter cape makes it too generic and uninspired. Hyde's role in introducing Ultron's body to the story could have been played by any villain, which feels like a misstep considering the much more inspired redesigns of the rest of the antagonists.

Despite the odds stacked against Moon Knight and the visual stylings that seem almost tailored made for a horror book, Bendis maintains a tone that forgoes the brooding insanity of the character’s previous darkest moments to have Spector at least try and function by focusing on the positive emotions. Remender and Opena’s previous take on the character helped smoothen out the transition, considering that Moon Knight’s optimism was a major concern during the Heroic age relaunch.

The idea of the main character striving for positivity without a clean bill of mental health on one level recalls the major post Shadowland relaunch, that of Mark Waid’s “Daredevil”. And where that book seems to be getting all the praise and accolades denied the lukewarmly received Bendis and Maleev’s new title, it’s still no reason to ignore the perpetually slighted Crescent Crusader. Perhaps part of the problem is that Daredevil is simply a better executed concept than Moon Knight, with Frank Miller’s run serving as a much better blueprint for dark anti hero storytelling than Moench and Sienkiewicz work, or the readers have simply already seen Bendis and Maleev working in a very similar configuration. In 2011, Waid working with Paulo Riviera and Marcos Martin seems a breath of fresh air, precisely due to the abandonment of the grim and gritty aesthetic, no matter how well executed, for a more retro modern style.

Bendis seems certainly writing a somewhat lighter story than the one Maleev is illustrating, and the readers have seen time and again, most recently on "Spider Woman". What Bendis is doing is actually 
giving the readers a close approximation of what an intelligent, innovatively directed Moon Knight TV series might have looked like, if the producers ended up greenlighting the 2006 proposal. Waid and Riviera seem content to present their work as a classical Marvel comic, integrating the techniques that would work in no other medium, and presenting a very unique experience down to the lettering. On the other hand, Maleev is working with models with the captionless and dialogue-heavy script diverting attention from some the traditional stiff posing inherent with the approach. 

Taking into account “Torso” and other work he both scripted and illustrated, it’s clear to see why Bendis has such an affinity for artists such as Maleev and Micheal (“Alias”, “Manhunter”) Gaydos. They have the talent and the ability to produce the exact kind of work he was striving for when he was still a full time cartoonist. 

Maintaining the kind of layout that carries over his dialogue in the most natural way actually enables Bendis to have such a strong creative voice and command over his comics. When employed in his prolific work set in the shared superhero universe, this technique is exactly what irritates the long standing Marvel fans. In "Moon Knight", Bendis avoids the common complaint of all of his characters speaking in a similar cadence, by maintaining a strong individualistic streak in Marc Spector.

The vigilante spends most of his time obsession with taking down the up and coming LA kingpin, and proving himself to the superhero community symbolized by the Avengers. Yet, unlike Daredevil, he is not above admitting his failings, that extravagantly manifest in the scenes of his consulting with the Spider-Man, Captain America and Wolverine parts of his personality. The character tries his best to ignore the psychosis, but the execution falls short of the supremely demented supernatural excess personified by Charlie Huston's Khonshu. Bendis' troubled protagonist tries his best to drown out the voices of the Avengers, while enlisting allies to help with the plan of using the head of a deactivated Ultron robot to locate and confront the LA’s new leader of the underworld. 

When it comes to the underlings of this elusive figure, the writer employs a wide variety of 1980s Marvel villains, redesigned by Maleev to better play the part of believable henchmen. The book treats the obscure super villains as characters in the story first and foremost, with their previous pasts regarded to plot lines in the other writers books from more then two decades ago. Snapdragon, a beyond the obscure character plays the role of the kingpin’s lieutenant, working out of a brothel and exhibiting both fighting skills and the connections needed to help her recruit muscle to oppose Moon Knight and Echo. In place of standard bodyguards, Bendis places the Night Shift. The West Coast Avengers foes receive extravagant Maleev redesigns that liven up the proceedings. 

Foregoing the usual cacophony of shouted names of the bit players fighting for space during the fight, the writer spotlights Tick Tock, a more intelligent member with interesting superpowers, that still ends up living up to his unceremonious name.When it comes to the actual villain that seeks Ultron’s head to further his plans, his identity is perhaps the one element of marketing Marvel specifically designed to play up as a secret. The immensely powerful figure is actually shown in more detail each time, before actually saying his name in the final part of the arc. By that time, a long time reader had every opportunity to recognize the flamboyant design, which makes for one time that a character reveal was executed in a way that actually makes sense. The character has seen a broad use in Silver Age and has since continually appeared in the wide variety of the more typical superhero stories, yet the fact that he’s new to Moon Knight once again maintains that the uninitiated reader won’t be penalized due to their lack of encyclopedic knowledge of Marvel continuity.

The conflict itself is drawn out, with large portions of the story given to subplots concerning Echo and Buck’s gradual acceptance of the much flawed Spector into their lives, but Bendis finds a way to tie all of the plot threads into the character’s plan to confront Snapdragon and forcing her benefactor out of hiding. The Ultron’s head is used strictly as a McGuffin in these pages, but will no doubt have some wider implications on the upcoming Ultron war “Avengers” storyline.

Having proven himself as a hero in his own right, and forcing his adversary to a temporary retreat, Moon Knight has made his debut in LA a successful one. Despite the presence of a traditional police detective whose disdain for the recent outbreak of superhero violence in LA will no doubt have further consequences, Spector is at present left with a much more direct problem with Echo having stumbled upon one of his secrets. The final scene is not really a cliffhanger per se, as it expands on Maya’s supporting role in the confrontation with the criminal organization, teasing the forthcoming drama in the duo’s unlikely romantic dynamic.

Hopefully, a dedicated audience and the editorial’s continued support for having such a distinctive team of creators working on the low selling book means that Bendis’ and Maleev’s story will be brought to it’s natural point of conclusion. It would be a shame if such an above average book didn’t manage to last a year in the Direct Market, fueling the decision that the company should stay away from their less commercial titles. At the moment, the possibility of equaling the success of DC’s line wide relaunch with Marvel titles starring lesser known heroes seems beyond even the most skilled of the company’s creators. The forthcoming months will no doubt force some of the readers to return to their traditional reading habits, but for now it seems that the massive promotion their competitors have granted their entire line of superhero titles seems impossible to replicate on a smaller case. It seems a missed opportunity when even such names like Brian Bendis and Alex Maleev fail to draw a bigger audience solely for the fact that they are working on a book that is well out of  the fans’ usual consideration, but there is hope that their continued good work will garner further notice and distinguish the effort at least when it comes to critical reception.

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