Used To Be Glorious Black And White

You know, I still have that post about the Moench/Sienkiewicz Fantastic Four hanging…

But screw it.  At least for now.

I want to write about Moon Knight.

Although Jonathan Burns would do this far better than I can:  this business of the Return Of The Pulps.  I suppose people look at Moon Knight today and just see Batman…do they just see Batman?  But he’s only partly Batman;  and he’s only about as much Batman as he’s also Dr. Fate.  And much more importantly he’s also the Phantom, the Shadow, Doc Savage…really, this disquisition’s gonna be a bit disorganized, but I may not be able to pull myself more than three steps away from Moon Knight’s assault on pulp at any point in any case, so stirring and sensible is the way Moench and Sienkiewicz show off the knowledge of there inheritance of the pulps, their membership in those old ways of telling a particular sort of story.

But it’s hard to know just where to start, with all that. Going over the art alone could take a while: because we won’t get the Sienkiewicz we know today ’til almost two years of Moon Knight have passed. Mind you, when we do it will FREAK YOU OUT, SONNY…but it’ll take a while, is what I’m saying. You expect to open page one of issue #1 and see the peer of Ploog, Rogers, Miller and all, but you don’t, or at any rate you don’t think you do: instead you see their student. Mind you a lot of the latter-day Sienkiewicz’s craft is right there in front of your eyes anyway, breaking up pages into lean strips and little stamps, populated by distorted figures and scratchy lines — and I’m not enough of a comics scholar to explain it, it does seem fairly squeezed until about the sixth or seventh issue, and it’s about another six or seven (or eight if we’re heading for my favourite, issue #15 — also the first direct-market issue, perhaps not coincidentally) before it really starts to breathe whole breaths, but there is something pulpy about that, too…so I’m not sure how to discount it, or even if it ought to be discounted at all. What we have here, on occasion, is something that verges on a Lee Falk style, something raw and speedy made to get the job done…and yet what we also have is a style in which different angles and perspectives are slammed together quite artfully in order to propel the eye across the page, and in which the compositional space does a lot of extremely fancy things in order to get you from one word-balloon to the next on time and in good order. And in this particularly — at least, so far as my untutored eye can tell — the Moench and Sienkiewicz team are creating something unusual: a largely effortless read, but also one that’s slyly reflective of a slightly less obvious purpose. It probably goes without saying that Doug Moench hardly ever gets the credit he deserves as a writer, much less as an innovator; though his credentials are as solid as any of the Seventies Marvel “superstar” writers who made their fame on style, that he seems to prefer clarity of intention over style has (I think) given him the status of a utility player in most readers’ eyes.  Because he can do the florid, cheaply programmatic “symphonic” emotional Eighties Marvel prose as easily as he can the more “psychological” stuff it developed from, the stuff more rooted in Raymond Chandler knock-offs than in Tolkien knock-offs  — and why not, since in superhero comics the latter style flows out of the former anyway? — and indeed in the Eighties mode (as we’ll see in the Fantastic Four post) he can be as guilty of sententious overreach as any Chris Claremont…but as you read him through you can see a certain kind of studious deliberation behind the styles, an interest in other things past and above “narrative voice”.  Sometimes the captioning is relatively terse, relatively tough-nosed and poetic; other times it’s relatively flowery, or it’s pushy, or it seems unnecessary. But no matter how ornamental the captioning seems at its most extreme, it evidences a certain sort of restraint, that flows from purpose — one senses that Moench could go any old way with this stuff, if he wanted to, so just because he’s going this particular way it doesn’t mean he’s willing to abandon his objectives for the objectives of the tools he’s using.  You wouldn’t really call it spare in most places, and you wouldn’t call it lean in most others, but with one notably teeth-grinding exception I think a reasonable person would have to call it impressively self-aware.

Which is what the placement of the word-balloons helps to suggest: because, is Moench genuinely aping the going Marvel style, here?  After a time, and mostly because of the resolutely intentional character of the dialogue, the weird lucidity that pokes its head up even through the most turgid bits of seeming duckspeak and filler — in fact, hardly a soul opens their mouths without rendering valuable practical information to the reader! — it starts to look a lot more likely that what he’s playing with is the old language of pulpiness that both the Seventies and Eighties Marvel styles drew their power from:  looks a lot more likely that he’s trying to get back to the ruthlessly pragmatic roots of style that he always loved the best, and not only that but trying to tap them more directly than his colleagues.  And when you look at what he doesn’t do, the picture comes even clearer:  because he doesn’t wink at us while he’s doing it.

Despite the constant captions, he really just lets the story tell itself.  Look at everything that’s packed into Moon Knight, all unselfconsciously, without any nervous ankle-scratching:  the callback to Forties movies like Casablanca and Rope Of Sand, the callback to Golden Age origins based on animal-spirits and Egyptian tombs;  Batman’s playboy mansion, the Phantom’s “living ghost” shtick, the Shadow’s and Doc Savage’s crew of helpers…well, Moon Knight is his own crew of helpers, he’s even his own faithful chauffeur at times, and as for the superhero stuff about “you’d have to be crazy to dress up like a bat and fight crime”…well, he is crazy, at least in part.  The resurrection to a new life before the god of the moon…that might not have actually happened.  “Bruce Wayne” being a disguise for Batman in the metaphorical sense…well, Steven Grant is a disguise for Moon Knight, and there’s nothing metaphorical about it!

And yet there’s hardly a time when the complex interleaving of all that stuff is thrust in your face, and you never have to think about it if you don’t want to, even though it all mounts up and up:  because it isn’t the main point, even though it’s by far the cleverest point.  If it were me, I can tell you I would’ve made a great big deal about it in every issue…but Moench makes a far bigger deal of reminding us that Moon Knight has a microphone concealed in his cowl that enables him to talk to his helicopter pilot, and a far bigger deal of reminding us that the copter is silent, the crescent-darts are really throwing stars, and that each phase (each phase…now what could be kinder, than never hammering that point home to the reader?  What could be less necessary than to harp on it?) of Moon Knight’s personality has its own crew of friendly helpers it can call on.  Well, these are the things that should be the biggest deal, since these are the things that allow us to parse the story — that Moon Knight checks to see that the cowl-mike is working properly is maybe something that you could, in fact, call a little bit spare and lean, since it at once gives us the opportunity to cut to Frenchie in the copter (and being able to cut away to Frenchie in the copter is actually very important in terms of the book’s fusion of styles, even when all he says is “oui, Marc“!), and less importantly it eliminates the need for big thought-balloons needlessly explaining who the hell Frenchie is.  And, maybe it does something else, too, in that it accentuates the idea that Moon Knight isn’t quite that crazy after all:  I mean, look, he makes sure shit is working correctly before he swoops down on the criminal element.  You never see Batman doing that.  Batman, especially today’s Batman, just has an assload of incomprehensibly high-tech stuff that all works perfectly all the time, when he wants to talk to Alfred there is never any doubt he can do it, it all just happens and it makes him look a bit insane all by itself.  Modern Batman has so many technological dependencies that never betray him that he’s basically godlike, so totally sane in every way that even his equipment is totally sane, and never has a doubt about itself.  Moon Knight’s a lot more chaotic:  a handful of fancy shuriken, a stick, and a rope ladder hanging from a helicopter is just about all he can handle.  Throw in a cape and a cowl-mike and a dark past and he’s full to capacity.

For some bizarre reason, it’s almost believable.  And you know what it all reminds me of?  Jack Staff.

But more on that in a minute, I guess.  Let’s get back to the pulps, first, and their remarkable “updating” in the Moon Knight mag.  You know what, it actually turns out to be not that hard to pull off! To the Golden Age motivations you simply add the existence of an interior state for your main character — just its existence is enough, about six small thought-balloons an issue is all you need! — and then you drop the other characters a thought-bubble or two, usually just something like “I hope he knows what he’s doing”, and away you go. Some ultraviolet prose in the captions, and it’s superficially indistinguishable from any Very Special Episode Of The Uncanny X-Men you’d care to pick up…but it feels different. The story, whatever story it happens to be, pushes forward in a simple way, “refreshingly psychotic” as Moon Knight says of his third-issue art-thief villain: the captioning seems to nod to the typical moral message one finds in any standard superhero book that deals with anything like the seamy, the social, the evil, the racist, the crazy — always something cloying about making things better one day at a time, taking your solace where you can find it and all that crap, darkest before the dawn, there but for the grace of God, etc. — but whatever sincerity’s to be found in this stuff only comes out of the juxtaposition with action, which is its payoff. I mean the poetry is nice, but on its own it doesn’t mean a thing, does it? It doesn’t really mean a goddamn thing. It’s just texture. As the soul-searching, the navel-gazing, the ruminations are all texture — and we know they are, because they are always cut off by action before they even get to the posing of the Big Philosophical Questions! You read it all through and you start to love Moench for that, love him for not just beating on you with Moon Knight’s interior monologue. Instead he just sort of of gestures airily to the part of the house where the big questions are located, “bathroom’s down the hall to the left”, and leaves it to your imagination. Consequently the pages of Moon Knight continue to be all about the action, and there are few ameliorating complexities at issue:  the crazy people are fucking crazy, even if the story has an earnest line of patter about them…the evil people are evil as shit, even if they’re just cardboard cut-outs we see for three panels, even if they’re nine-tenths cliche in the first place. As early as issue #5, the book starts to externalize Moon Knight’s ongoing identity crisis in the tried-and-true formula of the superhero comic, but only by doing something rather more adventurous and pure than we’re used to even in a superhero horror comic: which is, the horror starts to get funny. Well, okay, maybe not “funny”, exactly…”humourous”, maybe?

Ludicrous, perhaps. And as time goes on, what’s funny and what’s chilling, what’s cute and what’s ugly, starts to get all mixed up. By the time we reach #15, “Ruling The World From His Basement”, we’ll get used to encountering just the damnedest things as equal moments of humour and horror, delight and disgust, in something like the principle of the uncanny — where things that aren’t alive behave as though they were, and things that live practice being inanimate when they shouldn’t. “Refreshingly psychotic”?  Hey, a lot of Moon Knight’s stories are kind of derivative in that old “topical comics” way, but that’s not the point:  you see everything coming anyway, and the characters mostly see them coming too, and there are no shocks or twists, not really…but there is drama, and there is activity, and there’s a certain amount of character development and study, and mood to spare as Moench makes contact with his men’s magazine background, and Sienkiewicz cranks up the speed.  Why Moon Knight does what he does isn’t even a question;  the way things are arranged, he just finds out he has to go from A to B, and then he quite logically proceeds to go there.  Purposes bubble up from wherever they need to.  You love to ponder the backstory in your idle moments, but you come for the action and you stay for the art.

And, oh, “who is Moon Knight”?

Excellent question, but hold on for a minute:  gotta check this cowl-mike is working properly.  Okay, now Sienkiewicz is drawing that Mardi Gras parade, but hold that thought…it’s a good thought, but just hold it for a minute…

Really a lot of the stuff we’re given to know in today’s comics, isn’t stuff we really need to know.  The stuff that gets resolved, a lot of it doesn’t really need to get resolved.  Just find out where you’re starting from, figure out where you’re going, and the question isn’t how soon you can get it all broken down, but how far you can take it.  And there’s no reason not to just keep taking it further, is there, when it isn’t dark secrets but only dark pasts that people have in this book. Which is an important distinction, in that it shows how the one thing gives you something to spoil, and the other one doesn’t.  Years from now, when William Messner-Loebs is writing Flash, again possibly when James Robinson is writing Starman, we’ll see how the Moon Knight Method can rehabilitate even an ordinary superhero-type character completely: why keep doing the same old thing, why keep trying to breed this mutant strain of the Silver Age true? When it’s so easy to get back to the original influences, and mutate them some other way. After all sometimes shit just happens, and that’s a good thing:  you should let it happen. This ain’t Dostoeyevsky, you know.  Nothing’s at stake here, we are not reaching for the timeless themes of respectable literature;  this is the pulps, man.  This is the pulps.  And you thought they were kind of stupid, well they’re not…or at any rate, they don’t have to be.  And don’t you want to see something you haven’t seen before?  Don’t you believe that the old can be made new?

You have to do it the right way, though.

Let’s have a short digression about Jack Staff, I think the first new character of this type since Moon Knight.  Who is he?  What’s his deal?  Well, it’s simple, really;  the last thing any of it is, is secret.  For secret you should go to Harold Pinter or Tennessee Williams, maybe — they can set you up, they’re not serial entertainment, they can afford to give you one big revelation that pays off everything, changes everything, and even ruins everything.  These adventure stories of ours, though…they’re not really set up very well for that sort of thing, it takes an enormous talent to make them traffic profitably in such secrets, and to make them capable of continuing afterwards is even tougher.  Jack Staff is all about the dark past, however, so it doesn’t look (from my cursory survey of it, and God I hope I’m right) much like it can really run out of things to be about.  And when’s the last time we saw that, in our superheroey fiction?  Of course you like Jack Staff:  he gets on with it.  So what’s not to like?

After all, you get on with it too, don’t you?

Ahh, men’s magazines.  I’ve got a copy of the cover of one stuck on my fridge, about the size of a magnet.  “I Battled A Giant Otter!” reads the title of the main story to be found inside, with the illustration of a man in a tent thrashing a big Amazonian furry creature with his lantern, its teeth buried in his forearm…as his square-jawed buddy pokes his head in with a gun.  Moon Knight’s just like that, only with an intense identity crisis;  Jack Staff’s like that, only with humourous world-weariness. One’s punchy, one’s languid, but they’re both drawn to say “hey, look, over here!”

Here’s something that’s not boring to read, even though you’ve basically seen it before. Action, again: to read it is not boring, it is not boring to read.

That, too, is an important distinction.

Of course now that I’ve made it, I don’t know if I can think of much more to say.  I used to say, parroting what they all said in the letters pages at the time, that Moon Knight was like the perfect superhero for the Eighties, the perfect Eighties superhero.  And I guess that wasn’t exactly the right way to put it, but it was true enough for my purposes at the time…maybe even true enough for my purposes today.  Frickin’ Moon Knight, man.  It was so cool.

Although reading these issues again, they’re full of those ads for the Roger Stern/Frank Miller Dr. Strange, and I have to tell you that as much as I loved the Stern/Rogers Doc, I am still waiting for the Miller book to come out…somewhere deep down in the feverish fourteen-year-old core of my comics-lovin’ brain.

…And now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve been saving the re-reading of Moon Knight #25 as a special treat for myself, for when I finally finished this tangled mess.  It’s got a little essay by Sienkiewicz in it, it’s got three pages of letter column, it’s a Special Double-Sized Issue!!!

And the art’s completely insane.  Moon Knight.  Moon Knight, Moon Knight, Moon Knight.  MOON KNIGHT.

You should probably read it, if you haven’t already.

And I should probably go get some more Jack Staff.

Just to keep up with the times, you know!


16 responses to “Used To Be Glorious Black And White

  1. You know what album I never listen to? Bob Dylan’s eponymous debut. I acknowledge its existence and importance in his developments, there are flashes of the Dylan to come, but why bother with it when you have Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan or Blood on the Tracks?

    I’m a huge Sienkiewicz fan. He’s one of maybe three artists whose name is enough to get me to buy a comic. I bought up his Moon Knight issues several years ago, and found myself getting impatient with the first dozen or so. Yeah, yeah, this pulpy stuff is fine, but where are those jagged inks and mind-blowing layouts? Hell, they even had other inkers work over his pencils! By the Stained-Glass Scarlet issue, I could slow down and appreciate the comic as a whole, and, yeah, it was good stuff. “Hit It,” by God, that story must have seemed like a miracle when it first came out! I only wish it could have been longer, or that the back-up story was drawn by Sienkiewicz.

    Take Sienkiewicz out of Moon Knight (or New Mutants), however, and it’s just another comic. While I understand what you’re saying about Moench, and agree with it, the few non-Sienkiewicz Moon Knight comics I’ve read were pretty blah. I don’t think the roots and elements of the character can sustain it without the scratchy flair. I like Mark Texiera’s artwork (bless me father, for I have sinned- I bought Pantha), but his Moon Knight mini did nothing for me. Maybe it’s the same problem post-Miller Elektra has (and why is that? I feel like Elektra should work as a character even without Miller, but she just… doesn’t), maybe it’s only me, maybe I haven’t read the “good” post-Sienkiewicz stories? Are there many? While I’ve read a lot of people extolling the virtues of, say, Rom or Messner-Loebs Flash, I haven’t read many bloggers commenting on later Moon Knight.

  2. “Nothing’s at stake here, we are not reaching for the timeless themes of respectable literature; this is the pulps, man.”

    I don’t know, man, I’d say “Underworld Unleashed” is AT LEAST as good as “Great Expectations.”

    Also “Our Mutual Friend” = “Our Worlds At War”.

    I really have to get off my ass and start picking up Jack Staff like I keep meaning to one of these days. Do you have to start from the beginning or could you just pick it up as you go along?

  3. Justin: I just got the black-and-white TPB. It worked out fine.

    Mike: I can deal with pre-Sienkiewicz Moon Knight, and I even didn’t mind that Englehart stuck him in WCA (didn’t mind that Englehart did something, coming from me that’s a big deal), but really Moon Knight’s not so good without Moench and Sienkiewicz, although obviously Sienkiewicz is always going to hugely overshadow Moench when it comes to the question of “who made it so cool”. Which is fine, and probably as it should be, or must be. But man, I just don’t trust anybody to do a Moon Knight standalone, and I’m not aware of any post-Sienkiewicz “good” MK stories — what the character’s good for, is basically what we got out of him in the Eighties. As a Marvel superhero, as “Marvel’s Batman”, I just don’t see how I wouldn’t always be asking “why am I reading this?” And even Darwyn Cooke couldn’t completely make a re-do of the Spirit work, you know?

    Although some people did seem to like Chris Bachalo’s version of the character. I didn’t read it, myself. It may have been fine, but I’m dubious.

    And I’ll grant that inking Sienkiewicz seems crazy, but at least they got Klaus Janson for it a couple of times. Also, what about the colour? I think they just had two colourists, I’ll have to check that. Janice Chiang and Christie Scheele? Dunno. But at a certain point the colour becomes a BIG part of the book. I’ll tell you what blew my mind, was the cover to #8, with the werewolf — that’s when you knew Sienkiewicz was crazy. My favourite cover may be #20, though, the burning city…

    Hey, if you were bugged by the rougher art in the early issues of Moon Knight, don’t read the Moench/Sienkiewicz FF, whatever you do!

  4. He didn’t, but I had an exciting 10 seconds googling it. And Charlie Huston rather than “Charile”, re: my own mini-stroke.

  5. Honestly, I could’ve sworn there was a Bachalo Moon Knight. It was one of the few times I’ve been interested in a post-Sienkiewicz Moon Knight.

    Shit, I really would like to see Bachalo try it on though, wouldn’t you?

    Actually, scratch that: David Aja (?), that’s who’d I’d put on the thing. Wow.

  6. I would really like that. Here’s a thing. Aja, too, definitely.

    “Frank Miller Doc Strange” made me flash to a DK2 equivalent for Daredevil, while we’re on “would like to see”s. Maybe Moon Knight’s in it.

  7. The Charlie Huston relaunch captured my attention, if only for Huston’s rhetoric about it. He was out to “redefine” the character, create a unique niche for Moon Knight that would shape any and all future uses of the guy. He wanted to be the Miller to MK’s Daredevil. Intriguing, eh?

    From what I could tell, Huston’s “redefinition” was to make Moon Knight extra-super brutal and more than a little delusional. In the first issue (I think) he fought his original foe, another mercenary, and cut his face off with a crescent dart.


    (Anybody remember the in-comic mail order comic shop ads from the early nineties? “All-new violent superhero!” Yep.)

    I have the two “Essential” volumes of MK, and yeah, it’s all about the art. As comics per se, they aren’t great, and many downright suck. As a chance to see one of the greatest talents in the field find himself, they’re astonishing.

    When I was a kid, I loved the first issue of the first revival of the character, Moon Knight: Fist of Khonshu. It wasn’t good, but the Egyptian trappings were wicked cool. A dude in an Anubis mask with laser eyes? Woo! Though I never read another issue, nor did I feel the need to. Hm.

    Just occurred to me: Okay, MK’s girlfriend Marlene is named a literary lift: “Alraune” is the German term for mandrake root, and is the title of a famous novel from 1911 about sex, lovelessness, and death. Then there’s MK’s original name, “Spector,” which is obvious symbolism — “Spector” is dead, and remains only as a haunting ghost. His rich playboy name is also fairly obvious: “Grant.” But what about his cab driver name? Duh. It’s Robin Hood. “Lockley.”

    I can’t believe I just got that.

  8. I know you’ll charge your glass and join me. Oh how I miss the creative anarchy of ’70s comics! It was Mardi Gras.

    Moon Knight was one wave I didn’t quite catch. I could see it was hardboiled, with Moench calling out a real bad posse of anxieties to devil a good, if fragile, man. But the background was unappealing, and I can’t readily bring any of Grant’s enemies to mind now. It didn’t make me want to be him.

    In contrast. I could be a well-favoured young fellow cursed to menace the palm-fringed sands and Spanish villas of Venice Beach or wherever it was, under full moons on Beach Boys California nights, where the wealthy woman in the dark glasses would be the pivot of a soap-opera dynastic tragedy and a Gorgon too. Or I could race through desolate Southern ghost towns and truckstops with my head on fire, to folktale crossroads where anyone might have sealed a pact with Satan.

    Those little worlds had enchantment. Contemporary scenes made gothic, with strong original casts of straightforward people who made terrible mistakes and had to go into action then and there. There was also enchantment of a kind on 42nd Street, where you were risking your freedom trying to make a quid as a mercenary super-tough and the place was teeming with black protagonists all full of flash and swagger.

    Freshly invented exoticisms. Moon Knight was trying for something a bit like that, but the exotic dimensions were all in Stephen Grant’s head, along with the guilt and worries that were driving him nuts. It could have been the Taxi Driver of the Marvel stable.

    But Doug Moench moulded Grant on Phillip Marlowe instead of Travis Bickel. And Marlowe is nothing if not sane. Dramatic motivation is a plant that grows very slowly and realistically in Chandler’s world. A thousand pulp imitators only saw that you could get any amount of action in a society where the strong could prey almost freely on the weak. Their heroes’ solitary ruminations were faint carbon copies of the original; and so, I feel, were Moench’s atmospheric captions.

    Then Sienkiewicz revs up. Sienkiewicz is overwhelming. He eats space alive so you can only see with the reptile brain by lightning. He’s like heavy metal rock. I sometimes think history might have been different, and not necessarily for the better, if metal had been picked up by the military culture instead of headbangers. Returned vets and all. Imagine The Deer Hunter with Black Sabbath swelling when the hero gets his patriotic moxie up. And imagine if the metal iconography was Old Testament instead of Satanism. Instead they got C&W. We were saved. Anyway, if Moon Knight had taken its cues from Taxi Driver, and we were privy to Stephen Grant’s inner world lurching from his red-handed mercenary guilt to playing In My Life on the piano for John Lennon’s death, to Egyptian Rites of Retribution By Moonlight, it would have been an armoured tank with Sienkiewicz on board. Indeed some happy fans might say that’s just how it was.

    But that primitive force is not right for the closely-regarded sanity in the balance that Moench was presenting. What that balance needs is precision in words and precision in images. Because you have to show how Grant is up against a slow, poisonous disenchantment and a watertight verdict against his life. You have to demonstrate that he has no way out.

    You have to, I think.

    Because if you don’t have conviction in your character fundamentals, or you don’t have precision, then you only have (what we used to call, in rec.arts.comics.marvel.xbooks, with absolute certainty of reference because it was so damn prevalent) angst, general-purpose angst poured over super-action, space opera, romance etc, indifferently. It’s false pretence, it gets in the way of the invention, and it blots out the fun of the formula.

    Now I’m being bad, because I haven’t ever read a complete Chandler novel, and I’m speaking of Moon Knight from memory. But I do remember this sense of confusion and futility about it all. If there was angst, I wanted it resolved. Or explained. Or dealt with, somehow. The general air of pulpiness worked against the whole production.

    So you see, I do need it to be Dostoevsky, if only bad Dostoevsky, or bad Chandler. If it’s not making a game try, then the anxieties are all rubbish, and a drag to boot. Let’s cut to the giant otter. I also think Golden Age stories don’t need an excess of self-awareness. When your flesh ignites and your cycle is growling like a maddened bulldog on the leash, you’ve got all the self-awareness you need. I love the way Luke Cage thinks, because mostly he’s thinking about justice. I don’t need pulp sensibility painted on.

    But I am hep to the pulp when that’s the focus. Now look, I’m no expert …

    But I have the notion that le sensibilite Noir is rooted in the Lost Generation, the ones who served in the Great War and came back to find nothing worth their crippling sacrifices. Noble causes and innocent dreams lying broken all around. There’s little enough room between Chandler and Hemingway. All else having failed, the profitable thing left to you is accurate observation, even if only to document the verdict against your life as a historical witness. In general this doesn’t benefit from having Kevin Sienkiewicz illustrating it — but it might, if what you are documenting is your personal Travis Bickel explosion.

    It’s a good match for the post-Vietnam years, which were a bit of a Lost Generation in themselves. When you’ve lost the stories you lived by, there is still good to do and evil to avoid, but you have to see with dispassionate eyes. No, that’s not quite right. With disenchanted eyes. With Phillip Marlowe’s eyes. With, in Poul Anderson’s fearsome phrase, surgical compassion.

    But before the Lost Generation, there were the generations on which the pulps were founded, and the dime novels before them. Rough, tough, years when the country was building itself up after the Civil War; years full of profiteering and pioneering and injustice. Those years issued in a literature you have to dig for now, tales of Klondike mining camps, boxing rings, the Wild West, strikes and hillbilly wars. All this stuff went into the Pulps. It’s what the men’s magazines might have wanted to be if they’d had any ambition. From the Pulps they went into the comics.

    I’ve found some pretty decent writing there, loitering around Project Gutenberg. But if I’m not mistaken there was only one successor to it all who was driven to try to make a philosophy of it — beyond the standard litany of home truths — and that’s Jack London.

    Also, if I’m not mistaken, Chandler and Hammet were the only pulp adventure writers to force their readers to look with those Lost Generation eyes. They created a unique and freakish hybrid by force of creative will. And if you want to do it over again, you have to be that good. If instead what you want is to write popular men’s action, and expect to get the desolate compassion for free, then sorry, they’ll see right through you.

    While Vietnam was going on, Doug Moench wrote Deathlok the Demolisher in what must have been a clear-sighted burst of fury. It’s underrated. It was like Frankenstein written by Jack London after reading accounts of the Somme together with R.U.R. There’s no damn doubt Moench is genuine.

    So I think the story has to be, Moench genuinely tried to do the Chandler hybrid over again. I think it’s a mess, not unlike the messes Steve Gerber got into trying to nail down his own concerns using Marvel comics, of all misbegotten conventions, as his medium. But it’s a mess for the ’80s, no question.

  9. By the way, that weird little digression about heavy metal and the military and the Old Testament, that was because as well as Taxi Driver I was thinking of Pilgrim’s Progress as a story latent in Moon Knight. That is, Grant/Spector/Locksley as distinct stages on an interior journey toward meaning. Who would true valour see …

  10. Nice! Although you omit Moon Knight as a personality, which Moench never did — though later on the man inside the mask was just made Marc Spector. Well…sort of, he was…but it was Spector resurrected, that was Moon Knight. “Old” Spector was an energy of Moon Knight’s motivation more than a man, in the formula I liked best. Although you could never be quite sure. Of them all, only Moon Knight and Lockley “thought”, and only Lockley thought about the other personalities…and he only thought about Grant!

    It was a sort of postmodernization of the pulp hero, not unlike “Tintin And The Real World”, but it wasn’t so goddamn condescending. There was a thought there, but it was buried under the interest in action, the interest (in other words) in Moon Knight — the guy who Dave the Dude wrote drinking a last beer — on the one hand, and buried under loads of ugly Marvel superhero-writing conventions on the other. The best Moon Knight is where the laboured captioning drops out, and Sienkiewicz’s personal grasp on absurdity shines through: yep, #15 again.

    But before I go on: a couple of things. One: ahh, Deathlok, I re-read it recently. It hasn’t aged very well, in fact. But it’s BLAZING with passion, and it only exists to give us in comics form a sort of T.J. Bass world, an Ultimate Dr. Doom we can believe in, a touch of Brunner and a touch of Roy Thomas…did a young Sienkiewicz read this? I howled when Deathlok — my Deathlok!! — was corrupted for silly Marvel alternate-universe purposes, it was like seeing a Zelazny character (because, obviously, not Marlowe himself) show up in Number Of The Beast, or JOB: A Comedy Of Justice. Yuk. I’d never read another Deathlok story, I don’t see the point, it was a very personal effort by a very young man at the time, and its naivete is something you have to take on board too…but I’d read a Sienkiewicz Deathlok, if it were okayed by Buckler. Hey, let’s freak out the squares! Is it possible Buckler was as much of an influence on Sienkiewicz as Ploog, at least?

    Two: I’m really enjoying Twitter.

    Three: You’re right about it all, of course, and I can’t argue. Why I’d even say there’s little enough room between Robert Graves and Chandler! But I would say…try “Farewell My Lovely”, and perhaps, perhaps, try a look at Moon Knight again, because there’s some overreach there but I don’t think it’s got much to do with a sense of futility…to see Steven Grant lurch drunkenly between ur-noir roots and confusion over John Lennon, it would indeed be something to watch — it would probably be “better” in at least some sense of the word — but mostly the book isn’t mired in futility, I would say. It’s absolutely mired in something…Moench is a mature man with a dues-all-paid background by this point, Sienkiewicz just a young talent finding his feet, and both of them caught in a particular sort of enforced-tone-of-episode…I don’t know what to make of it, sometimes. I find it hard to remember exactly what made me go “oh, shit“…comics were young, then. But there is a sense of pursuing a kind of narrative deflation, in a lot of the ones they did after (say) #6…something in the noir mode of “no message”…

    …And may I float this? Noir as the dramatic inflection of Art — the interest in “no motive” in a canvas, that won’t translate to a story, you need the motive sense to keep turning the pages…but no moral, yes! Buddy, you can have all the motive you want, we’ve got piles of motive lying around here for the carting-away…! But moral…you tell me…

    …Digression concluded, and I hope you did that “notify me of future comments” thing, Jonathan…but anyway back to business, no, in Moon Knight there’s no underlying moral but that Moon Knight exerts himself, tries hard. There’s an overlying moral, of course! But it’s funny you should mention Gerber, because as I said, there’s absurdity here, and an almost savage combat with it, the ghost of Marc Spector loves destroying the symbolism of people he doesn’t like…

    And now we’re out of my total digression, and what else have I got to say? Harvey’s right: reading this stuff is as disappointing as reading Origins Of Marvel Comics.

    But still.

    Oh my gosh, I seem to’ve run out of lucid things to say!

    Must try again later. Maybe it’s the pterichor or maybe it’s me, but I’m seeing a connection with “Discotheque, Apocalypse” and this one.

    Oh yes, the petrichor. I am just writing a song called “Petrichor”, since Holly gave me the word…I urge you to look it up.

    Okay, out! For now. On to the Watchmen Movie Post!

  11. NOT on to the Watchmen Movie Post — I made the mistake of watching the movie twice, and now I’m depressed. Will have to read the comic again to brighten myself up.

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