Moon Knight And Jack Staff: Slight Return

Have I said it already, and I just don’t remember it?

So here is where the gears finally stop spinning, and catch:  that long-awaited moment known as “the payoff”.  Having devoured “Everything Used To Be Black And White”, basically “Essential Jack Staff”, all the B+W stories collected into a slimmish phone book, I couldn’t stop thinking about it…

…Except I wasn’t sure if that was because it was almost perfect, or simply “perfect, almost”.  I should really take the opportunity to wax lyrical at some point about what it’s like to see a talent struggling to pierce the eggshell with its beak:  it doesn’t all have to be Phantacea (and there is a “Forgotten Comic” for you folks, by God!), because sometimes it can also be Alpha Flight, you know?  Sometimes it can be something like The Defenders — say, in the Kraft/Giffen years — and sometimes it can be something like Moon Knight.  I’d mention Deathlok here, too, but that is already being done far more interestingly than I could ever hope to do it, and so never mind…never mind…but for God’s sake go READ IT…!

And then let’s get back to the main comparison.  As I mentioned earlier, maybe it’s all a bit obscured by the distance down time’s curving barrel that it has to travel, but from pretty early on in MK it was obvious to the readers of the day that something pretty amazing was starting to happen here…and yet, though Ed and I spent a fair amount of time enthusing about this new Moench/Sienkiewicz team and how perfect they were…well, as has been observed already, they actually weren’t perfect, and those first twenty issues or so are bound to disappoint the new reader of 2010 — or the old reader going back to them in 2010! — because of what we expect to see and then don’t.  We only see flashes.  We wait on pins and needles for them to come faster and faster and brighter and brighter, until they turn into a steady, burning brilliance…but then they don’t, and holy crap just how long is this going to take, anyway?  You know?  Before we finally get into that “oh man, you should really read those old Moon Knights, I’m tellin’ ya” territory, that everybody keeps talking about?

Well…like I said, for me it all starts exploding with “Ruling The World From His Basement”…the real lunacy of it, the real commitment to the synthesis…or was that “The Moon Kings” that kicked that off, I can’t quite remember?  Marvel Comics could be, for a few years, a very interesting sort of influence-mangle:  one thing Superman comics can’t do is blend up Superman with other influences, just as Batman comics can only push the boundaries of “Batmannishness” so much…because in the end they’re constrained, by being such powerful influences themselves.  There’s just too much there there, to pretend you can be anywhere else.  But at Marvel you can put Clark Kent through the wringer ’til he comes out Bruce Banner;  and instead of building up to occasional episodes where you have to wonder if Bruce Wayne is crazy or not you can start out with him being crazy/not crazy/no one’s quite sure not even him…and paint the walls with that stuff so constantly that it just becomes background texture, just becomes the shape that happens to be the shape of the lens this movie’s filmed through, that’s all.  Yeah, okay:  so Bruce Wayne’s crazy, probably.  But so now what?

It takes two years, but eventually Sienkiewicz turns into the Sienkiewicz we know and love today, and the beautiful pictures do indeed turn into his inimitably mad textures, textures everywhere, subtextual textures that remind us what we’ve been reading this for.  MK #25 is a double-sized issue that looks like he painted it by pouring spices and sugars onto the page, like that sand-art girl on “Ukraine’s Got Talent”;  meanwhile Moench’s purplish-noir magazine-superhero stuff drags around in it and tightens through it like a cord, making a great and vigourous mess.  We were only working up to this:  this isn’t somebody’s riff on Batman anymore.  You could do Batman like this for a little while, but then eventually you’d have to stop;  but this is Moon Knight now, and there’s very little point even having Moon Knight if it can’t look something like this, from now on.  It ceases to be “the way it happens to be drawn, the way it happens to be written”…but instead this is the real Lee-Kirby/Lee-Ditko heartland, this tone and mood is what this character’s really about, now.  And it’s funny how Moench and Sienkiewicz go at this sort of business:  back in the “Ebon Seeker Saga” (but oh gosh, doesn’t that just sound awful) they burst through for a moment into full-on Thomas/Buscema FF land, and when it finally happens it…uh…feels really weird? Suddenly they start playing by the “proper rules” of FF stories, those same rules John Byrne will exploit in his “back-to-basics” run…but as at least Jim Roeg might note with satisfaction, the Moench/Sienkiewicz team does not take it all the way back to Lee and Kirby in their FF run, because that isn’t the sort of “proper” they’re going for.  Lee and Kirby were strange, vivid, unsettling…but Thomas and Buscema were something else.  I’m reminded of the Lee/Buscema “Origin Of The Silver Surfer” here, funnily enough:  where the mysterious Space-Being is discarded for the Alien Peter Parker, and some might consider that a letdown, but just take a look at that climactic splash-page where the form of the Surfer is finally revealed…! Because it’s more than just poor Norrin Radd who gets transformed, there:  that’s simply the place where Kirby’s irrepressible energy becomes a style, where his Olympian thumbprint becomes an influence like unto an -ism…it’s the real birth of “Cosmic Marvel”, no redeeming qualities required, it’s finally just THERE, it’s finally just inarguable.  Buscema does with the logic of the pictures, what Thomas will do with the logic of the words:  and I think you can’t quite call it “copying”.  I think you have to call it “internalizing”.  Byrne copied and twisted and refinished old elements of the Lee/Kirby run brillantly — let’s be sure to be fair, and say he was more than brilliant at it, most of the time — but he was also (I think quite obviously) updating it all as he went, very conscious in his homage as a good homage-ist must be…why the man was practically postmodern, he was doing some Milan Kundera shit out there!  But Buscema was swimming in Kirbyism, for God’s sake he was dripping wet when he got out of the pool, and his skin all puckered too.  I am hardly slagging off Byrne, here;  what he accomplished was staggering.  But our pal Big John went a bit Zen with the Marvel Universe — Roy may have made Stan’s continuity historic;  but his frequent partner made Kirby’s originality classic.

Which, I think you have to admit even if you don’t agree with me…is quite a trick.

“What the Fantastic Four is really about, now”.  Eventually Moench and Sienkiewicz get there, as Byrne does not…as it isn’t his plan to, anyway, and anyway no one is going to really remember the Moench/Sienkiewicz FF run with much fondness, unless part of the fondness is in the remembering.  Byrne’s incredibly self-aware reboot took, and is justly remembered as Very Good FF;  whereas Moench and Sienkiewicz’ journey through cramped post-Conway distortion-spaces to their oddly unsettling-yet-relieving Buscemaland, of metaphorical psychological harmony dressed up in even more metaphorical cosmic clothing…

Well…

Let’s just say that it’s remembered with such disproportionate fondness, by such a dwindling few, for a reason.  Hey, I still like it myself!  And maybe even more than I did before…but…

…But this is not a eulogy for the Moench/Sienkiewicz FF, so much as it’s using that run as an example:  because as I said, how this team goes at their material is sort of peculiar, and that’s what I want to take a look at.  In FF, they lived in the sublunar realm of the continuators, trying to reclaim the felicity of a true spiritual transmission, like that of the Buddha to his buddy:  some touch of long-lost and probably-unrecapturable grace, whose absence finally (perhaps) necessitated the clever forgery of amanuensis Byrne to get the train across the canyon, the ball across the plate, the mix across the metaphor…whew, this homemade cider’s pretty devastating stuff, I’ve gotta tell you…!

But in Moon Knight they started with that stuff — riffs and pastiches dropping like doves from the sky at a doomed wedding — sorry, it’s the cider — but take that, Mr. Moench! — and moved on up past the sphere of the moon and into (for want of a better term) Kirbyland instead of Buscemaland.  The glove turned inside-out:  the hat pulled out of the rabbit.  Originality?  Well, I couldn’t say for sure if I really do think there’s any such thing for sure…but there’s a reason I wanted to read the Bachalo MK and couldn’t, you know?  Because it absolutely had to be somebody like Bachalo, to do Moon Knight.  I mean, you can’t “copy” Sienkiewicz (oh no, did I say this before?), you just can’t…but you can take his lessons on board, he can be an influence of yours, you can care about it, care about “what this character is about, now”, you can in fact (if you are so motivated) make a hell of a job of following Sienkiewicz’ efforts…and you know Bachalo, he’s a nutcase, he can do truly remarkable things with pencil and paper.  Sometimes, it’s true, I have read a Bachalo book where I did not know what the fuck! was going on, and I’ve shaken my fist at the skies and sworn at him too…but hey, I never said I wasn’t well aware of the fact that he’s an amazing artist.  So:  his Moon Knight.  I was considering it very seriously.

But!

(You’re gonna laugh…)

I didn’t like the writing!

Imagine that, after all that, after all that admission of Moench’s shortcomings, after all that goddamn purple stuff he (let’s not mince words) perpetrated…I mean, isn’t it amazing, Bloggers!  Sometimes you’re lucky enough to see talent fighting its way out of the shell, still! And there is still something unsubstitutable about it.  Of course it’s easy to see Moench wobbling around with our 2010 eyes, but goddamnit if there’s been anyone to write a “proper” Moon Knight since he stopped it!  And I think the reason for it’s because:  he was getting a lot of stuff out of his system, on that book.  Some obsessions.  Some long ticked-over calculations.  God, but this cider’s a killer, am I still typing?  Really, all this time?  And still haven’t got to the point?

Me, I was fond of the “utility player” Moon Knight:  the cool guy.  How marvellous he was, what an amazing breath of fresh plot-point air, in “Who Is Scorpio?” I mean, was that amazing, or what?  I’m embarrassed to say that although I loved the Marvel Horror titles of the 70s, in particular had (and still have!) a huge fondness for “Werewolf By Night”, I didn’t catch too much of Moony in that one…but when he inevitably collided with the Defenders I knew what character in that movie I most wanted to be.  Well, but as soon as the Moench/Sienkiewicz stuff started he became a different sort of Cool Guy…one whose story was somewhat needlessly messed-up, I thought at the time.  I didn’t need the guy to have any extra texture, you know;  I really didn’t.  I wasn’t clamouring for it.  And Moench “wrote good” in the style of the day, and he’d written Deathlok after all…and I didn’t even know he’d made the bastard up!

Hell, I thought he’d made Fu Manchu up!

I was just a kid.

But I got transfixed pretty quick, even though my first instinct was probably right…and it was messy, even though I don’t remember noticing at the time…but you know what else?  It had some rough-sketched life to it, after all, and maybe it was inimitable.  The funny thing is, Sienkiewicz is inimitable and everybody knows it — but back on the first year of Moon Knight, looking from today’s perspective, he hadn’t gotten there yet.  Meanwhile it’s possible that MK features some of Moench’s worst writing…and yet as it turns out he was inimitable on it.  Oh no, is this like Gerber on Man-Thing, like on “Soul-Cry”?  I laughed at Tucker, knowing he was going to read that;  but show me the writer who can do better on Man-Thing than Gerber did, even at his worst.  So much of the brilliance of it is available only through the organ of memory, now…I cheered Tucker when he read the one about “Dawg”, with the amazing Ploog art, so insane…but I shuddered to think of him reading “The Kid’s Night Out”, I imagined him putting his head through a wall.  The Gods of Therea?  Hell, I thought he might come to my house and slap me.  You know when I was in high school I had this idea for an avant-garde play with a full script, only each word of it would be “door”…

JAMES:  (takes off hat) “Door door door, door door door door, Door?

VERONICA:  “Door door;  door door “Door”.  Door door door door DOOR door door door!”  (runs off crying)

…And the object of the play would be that when people left the theatre they would go into the parking lot, and one person would say to the other “Honey, could you get the…the…the motherF#@*$&6T#O@#!!!!!!  WHATEVER THE FUCK IT IS!!!”

…And then they’d, I don’t know, pick up a crowbar and just start whaling on their car, just smash everything in sight like Orson Welles in “Citizen Kane” (“I think I really felt it that time,” he is reported to have said.  “I swear to God I really did.”), and thus — in my stupid teenage mind — they would at that point truly understand how the THEATRE TOUCHES OUR REAL LIVES…!

And is the sainted Steve as bad as that, in Man-Thing?  Oh, fer shurr, Seth;  why, he’s where I got the idea from in the first place, no doubt.  So it’s awful…and yet something is there, that can’t be duplicated, anyway.  And it’s not all bad.  Never mind that we get Howard out of it all, you know?  But I’m thinking of the incredibly genial lameness of one of my favourite characters:  Dakimh the Enchanter.  I mean…really?  I like Dakimh?

Moreover:  someone can write him wrong?

It seems positively insane to say he can be written wrong, I mean how much effort would that take?  And Jennifer Kale?  jennifer KALE?  No, honestly, it isn’t hard…is it?

And yet apparently it is, because gosh and gee whiz, you guys won’t believe this but my hand to RAB there is a REAL JENNIFER KALE, and she showed up on Steve’s blog after he died, the girl he based her on, and…

…She was very sad, and…

I mean my question is:  who is it, that even has anything to say in a Man-Thing book?  Who would even want to write a comic about Ted Sallis being diffident around a hippie chick who likes him?  I mean why would they want to write that?  The corridor of the past is flexy, but it ain’t that flexy:  and I dare even Alan Moore or Grant Morrison to find a reason to write Phantacea.  Know what I mean?  Sometimes you know the heart is there, and it’s non-replaceable.  Or at least, not casually replicable by ordinary methods.  I suspect Warren Ellis could’ve probably written a pretty entertaining Ultimate Man-Thing back in 2001, “Candle For Sainte-Cloud” and all…and somewhere I’m sure there’s an alternate universe where I would’ve wanted him to, just because he could…

But then I guess he could probably write a pretty good Jack Staff, too.

And it still wouldn’t be the point.

So here’s what — and did I mention this was going to be a real long ramble to nowhere in particular?  Guess I shoulda mentioned that up front — here’s what I thought about “Black And White”, the Jack Staff phone book.  I kind of thought about it like I thought about Paradax, by Milligan and McCarthy:  “God,” I thought, “I wish I could be sure this was going somewhere, because I’d totally hop on board.” Okay, Paradax wasn’t going anywhere in particular, hell we all knew that…but the Jack Staff phonebook, it had so many little dropped stitches, so many “hey-catch-up”s that didn’t do the trick, that didn’t quite stick…it was great, really really great, but I only loved it like I used to love reading Alpha Flight to the American Woman album — let’s be honest, both very rough works — almost primitivistic, at least as far as the mainstream can go that way — I mean I love those guys, but Burton makes Elvis look like Yeats — and if you don’t think that was essentially Phantacea only made under a professional and corporate imprint you’re on glue — there’s some good self-loathing in there as well, I’ve come to think — or maybe it was like reading Man-Thing to the White Album?  So many useless tricks I used to try, when my own shell was still only half broken-out-of!

Anyway, I wondered about it, like I wondered about Moon Knight.  Almost exactly like that.  There were flashes;  it seemed a little spotty, though.  I hoped great hopes, of course:  I wanted Paul to hit his stride.  I mean it was messy.  Sometimes, I thought, it was even sloppy.  The art was wonderful and amazing.  The lettering was SO FUCKING GREAT! But the story…?

It wasn’t smooth.

But then — just as with Moon Knight #25 — I learned an amazing thing.

I learned, when I bought the next collection, that COLOUR made a difference to storytelling.

I still don’t know.  Was it, is it, all a hallucination?  Jack Staff in fucking COLOUR.  I have to tell you it has opened my eyes, it’s what I was waiting for.  Suddenly the unfortunate ellipses don’t matter.  They really don’t, and anyway they’re revealed as not unfortunate anyway.  I took my Black Dossier X-Ray Specs and read the thing without colour and the gaps are there, it all reads kinda clunky still.  I went that far, folks.  Then I took ’em off, laid down in a dark room with a cool cloth for twelve hours or so, got up and read it again.  Presto, no gaps.  No clunks.  What used to be a logic-crevasse is plunged over by the wonderful colour — the colour carries you through.  That Helen Morgan wears a green jacket replaces twenty words a page, carries you across, across, across the plate, across all the mixed metaphors.  Sometimes colour really matters, as I wanted to say to Sea (and did I?  or was that someone else?  I can’t remember) about the Lee/Kirby FF run, or indeed about the Lee/Ditko Dr. Strange run, or indeed about Deathlok or Moon Knight.  What d’you think, Bloggers, does colour ease the load on the writer, penciller, inker, letterer?  Can it ease the load on the plot?  I sometimes like reading a pure B+W book, but it’s kind of making me think about what Paul Pope said about his Wednesday Comics experience (and this is essentially why I’ve changed my whole tune about Pope forever), which is that he thought he did pretty well, but towards the end became aware that he hadn’t fully grasped the Sunday Page format, what it required from the artist, what in its full potential it offered to the reader, how time and space oughtta be moulded when you do it.  He wrote it all on his blog, go take a look and check my reporting:  but I think I recall he said he learned something about how the old heroes usedta do it.  And of course, for anyone who read Wednesday Comics, I mean I think I can speak for everyone in saying that we LOVED the way he screwed with the gears of “take this part fast;  now wait, take this part slow;  now take this part FAST…!”  I mean I think he showed simply tremendous command of the possibilities of the Sunday page…but then I guess that’s why I’m not an artist, eh?

I mean I love reading a good B+W page…but maybe drawing one AS one, is different from drawing one IN YOUR HEAD as a coloured page?

I confess I don’t know, and that makes me unhappy.  But I’ll also confess that seeing Phil Elliott’s colouring on “Jack Staff:  Soldiers” gave me EXACTLY the same thrill as reading Moon Knight #25, when Sienkiewicz started to throw cinnamon and saffron and fleurs de mer directly into my eyes, and Moench started talking to the colour for real

I mean, I think that’s the greatest thing ever.  I mean here’s what comics can do.  They can do a noir thing.

But in comics, noir is just another word for Basquiat.

God bless colurists:  the special-effects team.

Well, except for our pal Paul, right?  I mean just look at that lettering.  He’s always wanted to be a colourist!

And so one more remark:  my men the Mindless Ones have been sitting on pins and needles (it seems) for Mr. Grist as long as I sat on pins and needles myself for Messrs. Moench and Sienkiewicz way back in what young people seem to call “the day”.  Hoping for the really GREAT great good.  After all it started out as a riff, a pastiche.  A dead dove.

But having seen a lot of these beaks-and-shells things myself…

…The colour has given me total confidence now.

Seriously, the colour, guys.  That’s what I need to talk about.  It’s what draws kids to comics.  It’s what draws suicidal adults to cliffs over the sea.  It takes lives, and saves lives.  I am one stop short of saying it makes lives.

But anyway I have the funny feeling that Jack Staff has turned the glove inside out.

You?

Oh God this damned cider.  Will correct spelling mistakes tomorrow.

Viz:  “Woke Up On A Barge With My Pant-Legs Around My Wrists, Having Eaten My Own Tar-Smeared Pancreas!  CHEERS TO YOUR FINE LAGER!”

Oh God, Bloggers.  I can feel the dread approaching already.

But…maybe I said all this already?

Maybe this was just a very complicated deja vu?

Probably I should just go.  But I just had to say:

Moon Knight #25?  GET IT.  Jack Staff:  Soldiers?  YES, GET IT.  But read the black-and-whites first, otherwise that’s cheating.

Okay?

I do not believe you will be sorry.  But tomorrow I will be sorry, and probably want to add two thousand words to this post.  DO NOT LET ME DO IT!  It’s a comparison between Paul Grist and John Byrne, it’s two thousand words, I’ve already run through the whole thing in my head and it also involves Aladdin Sane and The Munsters and it all makes logical sense but it is NOT INTERESTING…!

I mean:  you thought this was not interesting…!

I’ll show you not interesting…!

Okay, goodnight Cider June.

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7 responses to “Moon Knight And Jack Staff: Slight Return

  1. I attended a party on Friday. It being the depth of winter, they had dug up a circle of lawn and made a fire, upon which we were invited to throw anything of which we wanted to get rid. At one point a large kitchen cabinet went on, and also a Cisco router which burned with a toxic blue flame for an hour.

    Another notable immolation was a vintage, possibly first edition, copy of Dianetics, The Modern Science of Mental Health, whose announcement met with roars of glee and execration. It was too good merely to be chucked on whole, so single pages were torn out and shared around; and naturally we started to read bits out loud:

    “Dianetics does not mean to save the world; it means to prevent the world from being saved. One more time would be fatal!”

  2. I’ve found my Panel Madness for this year, Jonathan. Finally, finally, and it’s real and it’s true.

    Colour Madness.

    So you may return the serve by finding yourself a beloved example of colour in comics, yes?

    Actually I could never have written this post without you. Perhaps some correction to this one’s humble thesis might be in order.

  3. This is all a plot to force me to unpack the Forty-Seven Cubic Feet. The old Doug Moenchs are in there, I’m sure. Some of them.

    Thanks for the link to Rich Buckler’s Deathlock reminiscences. Because I have a philosophy discussion group meeting soon. The assigned reading is a muggins going on about thematically elevated “High Art” vs pandering “Popular Art”.

    I want to recast this as “speculative” vs “formulaic”, where in the former you don’t know in advance what effects you’ll produce, while in the latter you do, and bend your resources to achieving them. So for show-and-tell, I’m bringing William Blake’s poem “The Mental Traveller” and a scan of that Black Rider — Mystery Man of the Western Range.

    Well, I bring this up because Rich’s conversations with Roy Thomas over Deathlok display formulaic and speculative agendas in a fragile detente while Stan Lee is distracted. Sure Rich, it looks good, go right ahead, and can we merge it into the Marvel Universe later?

    And you have to smile, because it is not the moment for Rich to say what he must be thinking, i.e. Oh god, Roy man, no god no! You don’t get it — Deathlok is poison, it’s terminally ill, it does not allow for happy endings! Like it’s putting a rabid hyena in the yard with your cherished cuddly puppies!

    Anyway, yeah, colour. On it.

  4. Seconding the above thanks for the pointer to those Rich Buckler posts. I’m getting a lot of insight into how he sees things and the way he remembers events; it’s very revealing, especially if you’ve heard other versions of some of the events. But the original Deathlok remains one of the most interesting blips in comics history, and I’m always interested to learn more.

    Jonathan, be careful not to underrate Roy Thomas as an editor. I’m not at all thrilled with him in subsequent years, but in that period when he was running Marvel he seemingly never flinched from taking risks…and he didn’t base all his decisions entirely on his own personal taste; that’s way better than I can say for most editors. Thomas published books he himself didn’t care for but which he felt deserved a shot; that’s huge. And he kept trying to move away from the increasing domination of the super-heroes. It would have been very easy for him as fan-turned-pro and Stan’s putative successor to just issue carbon copies of Stan’s successes. Instead he repeatedly stuck his neck out, and the result was a period of great creative freedom and comics we’re still talking about today. That Roy Thomas is worth remembering.

  5. You’re right, and I realize I’ve defaulted on my promise on this very site never to underrate Roy Thomas.

    Yes, so much of that anarchic fertility was due to him.

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