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!