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Direct Message 03: Moon Knight by Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev

by  in Comic News Comment
Direct Message 03: Moon Knight by Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev

Direct Message is a done-as-frequently-as-we-can-manage discussion series between Alec Berry and myself. Previously, we’ve posted it on our respected blogs, first discussing DC’s ‘New 52’ (parts one, two, three, and four) and, then, Sleeper by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips (parts one and two). Now, we’re bringing it to Comics Should be Good with our first discussion revolving around the recent Moon Knight series by Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev. Let’s get to it…

Chad Nevett: I love the randomness of the books we decide to discuss. The first topic was timely, the second fell into that ‘cult classic’ category, and, this one, overlaps two of our respective interests. For me, it’s a growing interest in Brian Michael Bendis’s body of work; for you, it’s the oh-so-comics love of a shitty character in the form of Moon Knight (hey, my shitty character is Cable, so I think you win). Now, my interest in Bendis’s body of work tends to relate more to his Avengers stuff, which Moon Knight falls under to a degree. So it’s pretty easy to see why I’d be interested in further exploring the inner workings of the recently concluded 12-issue series he did with Alex Maleev. But, you… Christ, man, Moon Knight? Why fucking Moon Knight?

Alec Berry: Aren’t you the guy who likes Thanos?

Moon Knight came to my attention at a time when I all read were Spider-man comics, and the contrast of this somewhat menacing figure to the red and blue spandex pulled me in and invited me to share this thought that, “well, there are more to comics than Spider-man.”

Sounds hilarious and completely unreasonable, but I can’t help if it is true. Still a corporate IP, still a superhero, but Moench and Perlin’s creation pushed me past only reading one thing, and I think in some sense, marked my first experience of “branching out” in my comics reading. A small step, maybe, but I think a memorable one.

Charlie Huston’s run was my introduction to the character ( a run I still love while most all hate its guts), but I eventually did my homework and scored everything Marc Spector has starred in (besides the infamous Marc Spector: Moon Knight series of the early 90s, which features some Stephen Platt artwork toward its end).

I’m usually not one to claim favorites in terms of comic book characters, but Moon Knight never really lost interest to me, and next to Peter Parker, he probably is my favorite character to read. As for more of a reason why, Moon Knight presents an ambiguity and question which never ceases to bore me. I love Spider-man as a concept, but reading that character’s origin, you kind of already know everything about the guy, minus some slight development later acquired as the adventures continue. But, for the most part, the toy has been built and packaged. Moon Knight, though, isn’t that simple and never really allows for the box to be sealed and shipped off from the factory.

Part of this comes from the character’s inherent concept of multiple identities, but I think the actual writing of that character’s aspect really gives credence to the thought that Moon Knight isn’t really complete or defined. He’s a character which can serve many different purposes or roles, and the best written Moon Knight stories allow a reader to really interpret who he is. That’s sort of what’s great about the original Moench/Sienkiewicz series; those two produce the typical monthly Marvel mag by meeting all the plot requirements and story package, but along the way, both creators keep dropping hints or adding tidbits to deepen the question of the character. They’re subtle hints, but they’re there. A reason why I like Huston’s run because he really picks up on that.

Now, this Bendis/Maleev series … I was extremely excited for this as it seemed my dude was finally receiving another round of All-Star treatment unseen since Moench and Sienkiewicz, and in a way I would say mission accomplished. Reading and blogging every month became a great treat, and I found myself looking into the comic with all sorts of thoughts and questions. But, after a re-read of the series – all issues together – I’d say some of my enjoyment has parted, although I do still like the book.

I’ve just gone from seeing this series as a very Moon Knight comic to now really seeing it as a Bendis comic, and if anything, I feel these twelve issues are all about turning Moon Knight into a Bendis character, maybe pushing past some of his other qualities.

A point I’m still pondering, and I assume this DM will help me sort things out.

CN: Starlin’s Thanos. Anyone else writing the character usually puts me off quite a bit.

I’m actually not too familiar with Moon Knight specifically. He’s a Marvel character, he’s a little ‘serious,’ he’s a little crazy… Otherwise, I went into this series with having read maybe a dozen comics featuring the character, only a few from his own series. I’d picked up a few of the issues in his most recent Marvel series to review at CBR and because Juan Jose Ryp was doing the art and I dig his work. That version of the character seemed to be a wholesale Batman rip-off, which was disappointing. After all, there’s already a Batman and he has plenty of comics — so many that Marvel doesn’t need to start making them, too. If I recall, his Batman phase was an outcropping of his craziness, so there was that at least going for it, I guess?

I got this series because it is a Bendis/Maleev comic. The starring character was a secondary consideration. Actually, something that appealed to me a lot was that Maleev was colored by Matthew Wilson. I like Maleev’s line art quite a bit, but don’t always enjoy his coloring choices when he does all of the art himself (even if that’s more ‘true’ to his artistic vision). But, yeah, this is a Bendis/Maleev joint first, a Moon Knight comic second.

Bendis’s ‘high concept’ take on the character is that the voices in his head are Captain America, Spider-Man, and Wolverine now. When the first issue came out, that ‘twist’ was well known, making the last page reveal that the three heroes weren’t actually in Los Angeles fairly underwhelming. Bendis justified that as saying you have to give away more than you’d like to sell a book like this and I understand that. But, what I noticed this time around is that the issue comes off as a cheat in the way it presents the three. They’re presented as ‘real’ as possible with regular coloring and regular word balloons when, later in the series (issue four), they begin looking a little faded and having colored word balloons. It seems like that distinction only occurred to them after the first two issues, but it still seems sloppy and like they purposefully went out of their way not to show their hand when those stylistic choices would have blown the illusion of the three heroes showing up and telling Moon Knight that he’s got to be LA’s protector. That bugged me quite a bit in reread. I think the first collection of the series has been released (first six issues — seven?) and I wonder if they went back and changed that.

AB: The Batman comparison always tends to bug me, but it is true to an extent, especially in a circumstance where the character is written poorly – like those issues you sampled. I like to try to write off the Batman comparison sometimes, but even Sienkiewicz in a recent Inkstuds podcast recalls being pitched the job as “working on Marvel’s Batman,” so I get a sense there is an in-house awareness and acceptance of the similarity, and so was possibly true even back then.

The coloring of this comic does become an interesting aspect when you consider how involved it is in the impact. I do prefer Maleev’s traditional look, but for something like this – a super hero comic, Wilson, and later Hollingsworth’s, colors make sense because they lend a sense of dynamism to Maleev’s line while still presenting the presence and posture his drawings have. Wilson adjusts his work to Maleev’s perceived style by washing out and toning what is usually a more rich look in Wilson’s books – compare Wonder Woman to Moon Knight. Maybe you could read into that and suggest some artistic control on Maleev’s part, but really all it shows is Wilson’s professionalism. His main concern is telling the story and working toward the two main creators’ visions, yet simultaneously, his own style does bleed through to establish a somewhat happy medium – on the viewer end, at least.

The whole thing ended up a good collaboration, and while it was most certainly done for schedule concerns, the choice did actually add to the work in some sense by loosing up Maleev’s usual photogenic style.

I never caught the lettering mishap, so you brought that to my attention. The way you describe it, though, does make it seem messy. For the most part, I felt the presentation of the additional personalities was fine, although I think to some extent they were under used or ill-used. Not completely, but in some way I feel the dynamic could have been portrayed more interestingly than three apparitions in the background.

I did enjoy Marc Spector’s awareness and seeming acceptance of his interior voices, though. For the most part, the character has always combated that aspect of himself. Here, he’s in a position of living with it and using it to his advantage. Using the personas as tools. It felt like a nice development and it pushed the character past the recurring “am I crazy or not” debate.

How did you feel about the actual choice of personas? Spider-man, Cap and Wolverine offered a nice balance as well as variety in super hero type, I thought.

CN: I don’t think Bendis ever really figured out what to do with the concept besides having Moon Knight’s perception of the three squabble in his head. As a technique replacing thought bubbles or narrative captions, it was a success. We basically got to see a character talk to himself/show his inner thought process in a way that wasn’t direct narration. But, I’m not sure anything was accomplished beyond that. Each character was boiled down to his most superficial characteristics and I didn’t find that terribly interesting. It didn’t reveal anything about those heroes or about Moon Knight necessarily. It also led to a moment that still baffles me where him asking Buck for Cap’s shield, Spider-Man’s webshooters, and Wolverine’s claws is greeted with a response of “Those are the voices in your head, aren’t they?” instead of “Of course, every hero with half a brain would want those items! You’re a frickin’ genius, Moon Knight!” Because every hero with half a brain would want those items. You don’t have to be crazy to think those would be useful tools.

There were times that the trio of heroes seemed to be an impediment to the comic. Times when I just wished they’d get out of the way a little, because Marc Spector was far more interesting when he was just by himself without the voices. That oddly confident, kind of uneasy guy with weird charm making a TV show about his life? That’s a solid hook! Him riding around in his car, the top down, calling up deaf women and trying to get them to eat hot dogs… more of that, please. Rereading the series, I really honed in on moments like that and wish we’d gotten more of them. Hell, more of the TV series in general. That we didn’t really made that final page of the series fall completely flat for me.

Though, his Spider-Man costume and horrible webshooters the first time he does that were quite funny…

AB: I agree to an extent. You’re right. Bendis does boil Spider-man, Cap and Wolverine down to their most predictable, basic points, but I still feel in some sense, just by their presence and the context of previous knowledge, something is revealed of Marc Spector. Those characters clearly stand for three different types of heroes. Cap’s obviously the patriotic, by the book one. Wolverine’s the savage. Spider-man encompasses that guilt as well as the energy and excitement of being a super hero. All of that comes together to say something about Spector, whether he’s all of that at once or up in the air about what type of hero he wants to be. You’re never really told, but as I said, Moon Knight stories tend to leave room for interpretation. By boiling them down and making them superficial, Bendis just assures he can get across the core of those characters and how he wants those cores to resonate in the series. I can see why the writing reads the way it does.

But as I said, I do agree with you. Spector does end up in the background as the series progresses, and that’s a large part of why I look at Moon Knight now as more of a Bendis book than a Moon Knight book. The whole thing houses the usual toys and feels what is ultimately like an Avengers spin-off, and all the while, Bendis slowly converts Moon Knight into more of a Marvel Universe member than the D-list novelty he’s been.

It’s a commercial operating in similar vein to a Marvel Studios movie.

But, really, some of that makes sense. That’s where the character is these days. Fuck, it’s where most all Marvel characters are these days. Without the tie to Bendis’ other Marvel work, Moon Knight would still feel off, and really the whole thing just pushes the character into some much needed new territory. The same note has been riffed upon for far too long.

I look at this series as an example of a new Moon Knight. The core still resides, but much of the outside dressing now holds a different appearance.

Is that bad? Absolutely not. I just didn’t find it entirely interesting all the time because, like you, I wanted more Marc Spector. Especially the TV bit when you consider the Powers TV show debacle and the potential for commentary that comes with that.

But even then, I can’t really dislike the close Avengers tie and focus because it does manage to serve two purposes instead of just the obvious one. I mean, if you consider the character and his need to be heroic, the close tie to the Avengers and riffing on Avengers members … that brings some of that out, and it brings it out in a different way than we’re used to. Plus, by spotlighting these two nobody Avengers (Moon Knight & Echo), Bendis adds to the idea that Avengers can come in all shapes and sizes, broadening the definition of what that team is and showing the possibly of a guy like Moon Knight being on it (a schizophrenic with a soldier of fortune past).

So, yeah, I guess I don’t oppose what was done, really. Besides the actual execution to a degree because, as we’ve stated, the persona presentation could have used a bit of work, and the balance between Avenger and real guy wasn’t the cleanest thing in the world.

Echo, though, was probably my favorite part of this comic. Her presence made a lot of sense as she’s another nobody, and she brought out this nice dynamic for a few issues. Kind of like a “losers have their time to shine” sort of thing. The dialog between those two characters may have been the smoothest Bendis has penned in a while. Felt very natural.

CN: An Echo scene nearly led to me dropping the comic early on. That scene where Moon Knight tries to kiss her and her response is to just begin throwing haymakers? I don’t know if that was how Bendis meant it to come off or how Maleev drew it, but it turned me off quite a bit. That level of violence for what was, at worst, a complete misread of a situation and deserved a shove away and a few harsh words? I don’t know… stuff like that tends to bother me. I’m not a fan of violence in situations like that. They sort of addressed it with Echo apologising, but it still felt like too much. Basically, I tend to view scenes like that in relation to how it would have played if the roles were reversed — and if Moon Knight reacting like that is wrong, why is it okay for Echo? I can’t imagine Moon Knight apologising making anyone feel much better about that scene if it was reversed…

There’s also the possible problem of Echo’s death. I didn’t find it problematic, but I can see how some would. Echo basically sacrificed up to teach Moon Knight a lesson in hubris? I’m kind of surprised that Buck wasn’t the one to die given that that would sidestep any gender issues and not close the book on a character that’s been around longer. I guess that Echo was a bit of a Bendis pet character demonstrates that it wasn’t a death taken lightly — I mean, he made her an Avenger. He obviously didn’t view her as a character to be introduced and discarded for the sake of it.

But, the interplay between Echo and Moon Knight was almost always a big asset to the book. Both fill similar roles and complement each other well. It also meant that great scene where Echo calls up Avengers Mansion to check up on Moon Knight before opening herself to a possible romantic relationship with him. Funny scene that was typical Bendis.

I don’t disagree that this was more a Bendis comic than a Moon Knight comic — which I both like and dislike. I like Bendis’s writing, so… that’s pretty self-explanatory. I like how, in general, it fit into the context of his work at Marvel. He used Nefaria and Masque in New Avengers a little and following up on that felt very natural (as it did with Echo). Where it hurt was the end of the series. Moon Knight suddenly becoming “Prelude to Big Ultron Story” was a terrible way to end the series.

AB: I recall the scene in question as this sudden jolt, knocking me from my complete, character biased enjoyment into a moment of disgruntled clarity. I wasn’t totally opposed to Echo delivering a full force punch because of a misread kiss, but the repetition of the act sort of took things too far and changed the tone entirely. If the action would have occurred once with a change in the color scheme rather than the hot reds splashed against the backs of the panels, I think the creators could have accomplished a humorous moment worth chuckling over (which is what I think they were going for, considering Spector’s dialogue immediately following being “will you marry me?”)

As for the notion of a double standard, it certainly is, but it’s not necessarily something that annoys me for that reason. For the amount of shit female characters are put through more often than not, I can stand a female going scot free after kicking the shit out of some dude for an unwarranted reason. It’s sort of earned, in a sense. Maybe that’s a twisted sense of equality, but for fiction it works. A real life application is a whole other conversation, though, and I wouldn’t go there, as in, that doesn’t work in real life.

The nature of the ending is so Bendis it’s really not even funny, but while true to form, no, it wasn’t a very cool way to handle things. I understand the concern or desire to bleed all these different works together, but I find the lack of concern for taking care of the story at hand sort of disgusting. But, really, that’s super hero comics, right? They never end; they fold into one another. Yet, while an easy excuse to make or a generic situation definition to digest, I am tired of making the excuse and brushing away the issue. I know it’ll never happen, but fuck, I’d love to see one of these things end at some point. I want a Marvel or DC super hero series to have a beginning, middle and then end, offering something complete. There’s too much concern for what happens next, leaving the very thing on the page in the present weak with all weight and concern off of it. That’s what happens to this series somewhere after issue nine. After all the drama and suspense, it’s decided things are through, whether plot lines or anything has been taken care off. It’s off to the next race, and the publisher, as well as creators, get there by jamming in teaser bits for next year’s summer splash.

I have no problem with the character interacting with the larger story universe. Just finish a fucking story. Give me an ending. I don’t care whether or not it’s Bendis’s style.

An old, tired rant, I know, but one that truly came to life reading this misshaped series. You could argue Marc Spector reaches a new point by way of that final page, exclaiming Hollywood’s not his place, but the bit feels so shoehorned I can’t really say it’s satisfying. The whole thing just seems like a quick way to take this back to its protagonist after spending so much time on other Ultron-related elements. Sure, read the line as Bendis’s comment on Hollywood after Powers TV, but when it’s backed by so little, how heavy does it weigh?

But you brought up Nefaria, which I’m happy to see because I do like his involvement here even though I hold little clue to the character’s background. Apparently he’s a big deal to some people. Me? I know his name.

That aside, Bendis makes it clear the character’s capable of some powerful things, noting he once fought Thor. He persists to make that point throughout much of the book and juxtaposes Nefaria’s power level against Spector’s humanity. This creates an interesting conflict as does it remind the reader of Spector’s position in the superhero world, but I truly like it for the uphill battle it places amidst the conventional hero versus villain tagline. Though, the writing isn’t always there to emphasize that conflict past the few lines of dialogue exclaiming “Nefaria has defeated the Avengers” or whatever.

And in tune with the ending, Bendis does sort of misstep the Nefaria thing by cranking in Madame Masque. I’d rather have seen a broken, humanized Nefaria struggle through and battle a super hero mano y mano than abruptly write in the character’s daughter to do his bidding. Lazy writing.

You said you like Nefaria and Masque, here. Tellz me why, sir.

CN: Going back to the punch thing, I’d rather just not see that sort of thing happen to women either than for it to happen to men sometimes and explained away as “Well, it’s not as bad as what happens to female characters…” Which, honestly, is a horrible explanation that enables shitty moments like that to keep happening. Okay, odd mini-rant over.

That final line bugged me, too. It wasn’t earned in any way.

As for Nefaria and Masque, I didn’t see Masque’s presence as forced as you did. I’m not incredibly versed in either character, but Masque showed up a lot in New Avengers with the Hood and Nefaria, and she made an appearance in New Avengers Finale #1 when they tried to take refuge at his house only for the New Avengers to show up and kick some ass. I guess I’ve seen their relationship before this, so it isn’t a big intrusion the way it would be for someone who doesn’t know the characters at all. It felt organic to me — of course they’d get his daughter to help them…

Nefaria made for a good contrast to Moon Knight. Basically, a Batman-esque hero up against a Superman-esque villain in the broadest of terms possible. The goal is to usually make the hero the underdog and watch him triumph against superior forces and this was very effective in creating that impression. Moon Knight seemed outgunned in every confrontation and only survived because of planning and superior skill. Like most people with power, Nefaria never showed much skill at using it, normally getting by on the power alone, and the way Moon Knight and Echo fought him always played into that. Nefaria made Moon Knight the underdog and allowed the character to be showcased in a way that elevated him. As far as choosing a villain goes, I’m not sure that Bendis could have picked a better one.

AB: The continued back-and-forth between male and female character struggles doesn’t solve anything, you’re right, but still in this instance I wasn’t annoyed for that reason. I think you just put more thought into it than I did, which is not a bad thing whatsoever. I probably should have.

Madame Masque bugged me for the simple fact that, while she’s certainly a member of Bendis’s canon, she doesn’t entirely work here, in this story, the way she’s used. Sure, it makes sense, in a way, for her to show up and “help” her father, but even with sense at the character’s side, it’s not really the best option for the story. As a part of the story, Masque causes more distraction than statement, and by the final issue Nefaria just re-enters the scenario to make roll call for the lackluster final battle. The only reason she’s there is for a later reference call to show her involvement in this Ultron plot. As a piece of Bendis’s larger Marvel story, such a thing is fine, but as a member of this Moon Knight series, the move just tastes sour.

What else can we say, Nevett? The overview?

CN: Hey, some of us are Bendis readers first, Moon Knight readers second. And, as I learned back when Final Crisis came out, I’m not going to complain when something is aimed more at me than other people. Fuck other people.

And I think there’s still stuff to say. We touched a little on Alex Maleev’s art and how it differs from when he colours himself, but there’s more there. I know we both didn’t particularly enjoy the way he drew issue 11. That fight scene with Madame Masque was very stiff and awkward. Looking back, I find a lot of his action scenes suffer from the same problems. Maybe this one was a little worse. He’s a very posed artist and that doesn’t lend itself to action too well. Not as well as it lends itself to a cool-looking guy driving a convertible or even back-and-forth dialogue. Even his Nefaria was very hit and miss for me. Ultimately, do you think he was the right artist for this? Is there an artist at Marvel (or in Bendis’s stable of artists) that would have been a better fit?

AB: While I could sit here for hours and ponder for another name of another artist, no one currently at Marvel – expect for Opena, who’s drawn Moon Knight before, yet I wouldn’t want to remove him from Uncanny X-Force because that shit’s locked – really comes to mind. Maleev isn’t an action artist, much at all, but for the things he can accomplish – talking heads, mood – I do like him on the project.

But to talk shit for a second, that fight in issue eleven was complete bullshit. Maleev’s shot composition failed to really isolate or focus any particular action in those panels, and when he tried to ditch the rendering for a looser look his figures only became these odd shapes bleeding lines. The whole thing’s a mess, and characters at odds only appear as cardboard cutouts slammed into one another rather than driven individuals.. Issue eleven’s the peak of that, but even back in issue one some of that slides in. I appreciate the guy for trying, but the way he draws is so fine tuned for figure and profile work and not charismatic expression or dynamism. Hollingsworth and Wilson’s colors help where they can, but Maleev’s line is so defined it’s hard to break the format it’s coded to.

But I do enjoy the fact he’s the artist on Moon Knight. Maleev’s sort of this dude with a lot behind him in terms of reputation and role in comics. I know that sounds weird because in actuality I don’t really see the guy as anything more than a better than average contemporary, but there is this certain sect of people who see Maleev as this game changer. And, due to runs like Daredevil and his connection to Bendis, he’s been provided the label of “super star.”

(Which, “game changer”, might be accurate because I’m sure something like Daredevil was an eye opener.)

I enjoy the weight that that “super star” label brings to the series, though. It’s not a completely backed up label, but from years of chatter and fan reaction, the weight’s still there and it incidently gives Moon Knight this extra air of importance because, well fuck, it’s the Daredevil team reunited – even though that already happened on the short lived Spider-Woman series. That may sound cheap – to like something for its reputation – but I argue the fact of Maleev just drawing the book, no matter the quality – just with his name on the cover and the context brought with it – makes Moon Knight more of a standout and exciting work. Think about it … if Bendis still wrote it but say Stuart Immonen drew it, Moon Knight wouldn’t have the same hook. It would look awesome, but the hook of Bendis/Maleev wouldn’t be there.

It goes back to my point of wanting a Moon Knight book produced by top talent. While Maleev’s not my favorite artist or maybe best for the job, his involvement accomplishes the top talent requirement I’ve been waiting for. It’s a cheap compliment and desire but one I’ve still had out of weird character bias.

But on an actual objective and technical front, Maleev still does a fine job, and there are things that he does bring to the book other than face/name value. His visual aesthetic does a lot for Moon Knight in terms of tone. The “realistic” or photogenic style does wonders to meet the street-level, “hey this is gritty” attitude a book like Moon Knight is after, and I even think for a character like Marc Spector, who’s core is based on identity, Maleev’s photo realism – which relies on distinct character features – serves the point and focuses a reader’s attention on appearance and body language.

Dude just can’t do action.

And between that, a distracted script and a short-lived life span, Moon Knight doesn’t live up to the Daredevil run but rather exists as another notch in this duo’s career – a notch that will ultimately be insignificant unless you’re me. As a Moon Knight guy, it’s significant, but in the greater scheme of things, Moon Knight’s just a blip.

CN: Hell, in the greater scheme of Bendis, it’s just a blip. I’m struggling to find something else to say (because I agree with almost everything you say there) so we don’t go out on that negative note necessarily and I can’t. Just a blip. Seems appropriate somehow for this series.

Anything else?

AB: Moon Knight is better than Thanos.

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