The year was 1975, and Moon Knight’s future was not very clear. Created as a villain for the comic book series Werewolf by Night, Doug Moench and Don Perlin designed the character to simply supply conflict for an issue or two. Nothing more, nothing less. His stint on the printed page after that was relatively short, appearing in only a couple of other projects, most notably Marvel Spotlight numbers twenty-eight (28) and twenty-nine (29) where he battled the very conventional Conquer Lord. The character for the most part did not have a big game plan, and Moon Knight was simply expected to just fade away as a long-forgotten blip in the Marvel Publishing Pattern. Ralph Macchio saw something though.
At the time, 1978, Macchio was an assistant editor to Special Projects Editor Rick Marschall. The team was working on the forth coming HULK! magazine, and Macchio was put to task finding a back-up feature to go alongside the publication’s main showcase. Ideas of Namor the Sub-Mariner and Shanna the She-Devil mulled over in Macchio’s head until he came to the conclusion of Doug Moench’s second-tier man of mystery Moon Knight.
The rest is history as they say because HULK! led to 1980s ongoing Moon Knight series, which led to some excellent comics work from both Moench and Bill Sienkiewicz, which then led to future Moon Knight stories and the character’s existence in this very day.
But the HULK! issues had to happen first. Without them, Moon Knight is still the throw-away villain with limited purpose and future. Those HULK! issues were Doug Moench’s chance to really tell the character’s story, and reading those comics with that thought in mind provides you with a solid understanding that this could have possibly been the last Moon Knight story. The character was then and still partially is a risky endeavor to pursue as his existence does not match that of Batman or Superman. No one (except for me) is clamoring for Moon Knight comics; it would be easy for the character to get lost in the shuffle due to his lack of popularity. The character is a C-lister, and Ralph Macchio wanted him to be the second-stringer in the back of HULK!. For all Doug Moench knew though, Moon Knight could have been at the front of the magazine, staring as the main feature because reading those stories certainly shows quality rather than a feeling of something mashed together to fill page space.
The stories carry a quality of literature in how they subtly suggest while presenting a plot that is actually pretty simple. If you look at an author like Hemingway, he writes short stories in a style where not a whole lot happens. The majority of the writing and purpose of the story is the setting or internal conflict or ambiguous lines of dialogue. Now, while I am not completely comparing Doug Moench to Ernest Hemingway, because I do not necessarily feel comfortable doing that, I do see a few similarities between these Moon Knight stories and say Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories when it comes to showing little while alluding to more.
Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River,” which is the conclusion to his Nick Adams saga, basically provides an account of Nick hiking through some grasslands and ascending up a hill where he then camps and eventually finds a river and goes fishing. That is the plot, and it is not a whole lot, almost bare minimum in the events department. Moench does this in his own way, a way that is certainly only fit for comics. Stories like “The Big Blackmail” and “Countdown to Dark” do have eventful plots, but when these plots are held in a context of comic book plots they are not really that outgoing. The plot for both of these stories, as they are connected, is Moon Knight stopping a terrorist plot and then having a final battle with a big, bad villain. That is pretty standard for super-hero comics, and these comics, on the surface, read like they are just going through the motions of bronze age practice.
So, both of these plots are almost boring and certainly could appear as repetitive to selected audiences, but what is important is what is being said underneath as the authors provide subtle indication for larger themes. “Big Two-Hearted River,” even though a fishing story, goes a bit bigger as Hemingway describes the environment of the river, the way the fish live in it, how Nick reacts to it, and how the swamp appears dark and placid further along the way. These small indications are the clues to the theme and invite the reader to think, but they are not necessarily placed in the forefront of the text as instead they are briefly mentioned. The Moon Knight stories pull the same trick. At one instance Moon Knight is at battle with Lupinar, The Wolf, carrying on in true comic book style, yet suddenly the fight stops leaving Moon Knight in a moment of looking at what had just occurred, muttering the words, “I see. But I don’t want to.” This happening takes place over three panels, pretty brief, but the nature of how that moment stops you has an affect, bringing about feelings of what is really going on with this character. The moment though is completely surrounded by the traditional plot.
This design for a story packs such an impact I feel because it creates this feeling that the comic almost knows more than you do. The comic presents itself one way, but really underneath the dressing there is a whole other side to it. There is also this really cool aesthetic value to that idea. I like looking at these stories as pulp adventures because of how romantic and dated they can feel. And not dated in a bad way, saying that the comic does not work today, but more in terms of it feeling from a certain era. The swashbuckling and pattern they spotlight are so very bronze age, but underneath it all are themes and ideas that could work in almost anytime. The ideas of not knowing who you are and wanting yourself to be a certain way are timeless as they are very true to the human experience.
And that is the Moon Knight character. He is a costumed adventurer in some classical sense, but beautifully does Doug Moench show that the super-hero can face conflict from the inside and that these characters as concepts can really say much about us. He provides Moon Knight with the three identities of Jake Lockley, Steven Grant, and Marc Spector and pits them against each other to show the inability to choose an idea of a life. Marc Spector, assuming that is the real, base identity of the character, makes choices as to what role he is playing at different moments. Is he Lockley or Grant? That is up to Spector, or is it? The identities seems to almost dictate themselves as each role has its own abilities, and according to what needs done Spector has to assume the specific roles. It is like he does not even have the choice because for the character the job of Moon Knight needs done, and the job of Moon Knight needs done because the character is driven toward a sense of wanting better for himself.
Take a look at the character’s origin: a former mercenary hired by a committee of men to make a hit on a werewolf (man). The character was a villain, and Marc Spector knows this about himself. That is why he becomes Moon Knight; Moon Knight is Spector’s opportunity to be something better and not just a soldier working for pay. Being Moon Knight brings about a sense of mission and higher calling. He is still a soldier, but he is a soldier concerned about ideals rather than self. Except Marc Spector does not always go away. “Night Born Ten Years Gone” is a great example of this as Marc’s brother, Randall, basically goes on a killing spree because of the wrong done to him by Marc Spector. This is the past catching up with the character, and it is a past of violence and wrong that he cannot escape. Marc Spector, and the old life he used to live, is a part of him – it IS him – and it only brings problems as Randall’s free-for-all leads to the stabbing of Marlene, Moon Knight/Steven Grant’s lady.
Really that is only one of example of many to suggest Marc Spector’s restlessness with himself. Look back to “Countdown to Dark” once more as Moon Knight defeats Lupinar, The Wolf by killing him. Lupinar does aid in this as he does throw himself upon the sword, but the act of that occurrence even being written suggests the troubled past Spector cannot escape. The blood spill and reaction by Moon Knight, “I see. But I don’t want to,” says to me that the character knows who he is at heart, the mercenary, but he does not want to be that. Even the way “Night Born Ten Years Gone” ends continues this trend as Moon Knight cannot save his brother Randall who ends up impaled by a tree. The true, classic super-hero would have saved the villain, allowing him to be punished accordingly, but Moon Knight does not save Randall. He lets him die. It is sort of this weird takeaway for the character. He tries to be the good, blue-blooded American hero, and for the most part does an alright job, but at the very end of these missions his hopes of saving the day are ripped away from him as the blood is spilled and he is reminded of his questionable past.
It is this idea of not being able to escape from who you are, no matter how much you desire to be someone else. That to me is Moon Knight. The villain who wants to be the hero. I think there is certainly an element of a man who does not know what he wants, but the ultimate point of Moon Knight is facing the truth of who you are.
A very Marvel idea, if I may say.
Doug Moench lays this all out in six back-up stories, and he completely defines his character, taking him from two-dimensional villain to 3D bag of internal struggle. Moon Knight was no longer a throwaway.
And how about Bill Sienkiewicz? I, with my ability as a writer, do not even have the vocabulary of words to express how I actually feel about his work here. For one, it is early Sienkiewicz where he is clearly channeling Neal Adams. I think anyone can say that; it is not hard. I can add though that I feel this stage of Sienkiewicz is actually perfect for these stories because they fit that idea of the traditional look and feel. Ok, maybe Neal Adams is not so traditional of a comic book artist. His work was a game changer, and it certainly carries its own identity. When compared to the Sienkiewicz we now know and love though, Adams is certainly more traditional. I just like how the styling of the artwork goes along with the styling of Moench’s writing: traditional yet subtly more. Because of HULK! magazine’s printing privileges, as it was in “SUPER COLOR” which was proudly stated on the covers, the artwork carries with it a bit more depth and life. The work has shadows, and as simple as that may sound, it adds a lot. It may look traditional at first, but the shadows bring out a bit more. They bring out the questions and the grayness – a point certainly mirrored by Marc Spector’s own character.
Moon Knight was not guaranteed a long running shot. The character was designed as a throwaway, not necessary destined to have his whole story told. But the chance was offered, and Doug Moench seized the moment and gave his character purpose. Looking on it now, The HULK! stories had to be right otherwise who knows where the character may have ended up? Who knows if Moench and Sienkiewicz would have gotten together? Who knows if anyone would care about this character?
Luckily, The HULK! stories are well-crafted. Some of my favorite comics, to be honest.
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