How 'Moon Knight' successfully revamped its lead character
Even in a world where Guardians of the Galaxy is playing in theaters, Moon Knight is an obscure character. Long seen as Marvel’s odd Batman analogue (Moon Knight’s alter ego, Mark Spector, has dissociative personality disorder), Moon Knight managed to star in his own book on and off throughout the ’80s before disappearing almost entirely in 1994. Marvel would attempt to revive the character in fits and starts in the late 2000s, with a couple of ongoing series and roles in team books like Secret Avengers.
But it wasn’t until 2014, 20 years after the end of the characters late ’80s-early ’90s heyday, that Moon Knight would finally be done right. The genius of Warren Ellis, Declan Shalvey, and Jordie Bellaire’s striking reinvention of Moon Knight, which began last March and concluded this week, is that none of that history matters—and yet all of it does. If you’ve been following the character since his first appearance in 1972’s Werewolf by Night #32, the new run is both informed by and subverts Marc Spector’s 40-plus-year history. There are subtle nods to his supporting cast and prior adventures while a completely new take on Spector’s psyche and mission finally give the character a role that finally feels distinct for who he is rather than who he is not—which, again, was Batman, but crazy.
This take on Moon Knight zeroes in on Marc Spector’s connection to the Egyptian moon god Khonshu, who resurrected Spector and drove him to be Moon Knight. Although Khonshu has been a part of the character’s origin since the very beginning, the new series has a center that previous incarnations have lacked. Instead of being Khonshu’s generic avatar of vengeance, Spector, as Moon Knight, is meant to bring vengeance to those who would harm travelers by night. He preys on predators.
Following in the tradition of other Marvel books like Hawkeye that exist unburdened by the need to tie into any current continuity, every issue of Moon Knight begins with this text: “Mercenary Marc Spector died in Egypt, under a statue of the ancient deity Khonshu. He returned to life in the shadow of the moon god, and wore his aspect to fight crime for his own redemption. He went completely insane, and disappeared. This is what happened next.” Interspersed throughout the first issue are a few spare details about Marc Spector and how he’s different: He’s no longer insane, at least not in the clinical sense. Instead, he’s host to the consciousness of moon god Khonshu, which manifests in four different aspects—the personalities his mind develops to cope.
With that little bit of mythology dealt with, writer Warren Ellis goes on to continually reinforce this new, distilled take on the character. Moon Knight is a protector of those who travel by night, a lone vigilante who dresses in white because he likes it when bad guys can see him coming. This clearer, simpler take on the character moves his madness—which in recent memory had been Moon Knight’s defining, violent, character trait—from text to subtext. He’s no longer crazy because he thinks he’s one of four different people (although he’s not the only one residing in his head), he’s crazy because he dresses in white and calmly walks towards monsters and criminals that can gun him down.
Not to mention that he now wears a snazzy three-piece suit with his mask and gloves and calls himself ‘Mr. Knight’ when meeting with civilians who ask for his help, Sherlock Holmes-style.
The five issues that follow proceed to tell a series of self-contained stories that even unfamiliar readers could enjoy. A mysterious sniper, a gang of ghost punks, a dream that afflicts the patients of one particular doctor, an abandoned building full of thugs holding a little girl hostage—all served as premises in what would become an anthology series of sorts. Moon Knight, in one of his guises, would be the reader’s guide into the strange, dark recesses of Marvel’s New York City.
As satisfying as Ellis’ scripts are, the bold visual work from the art and color team of Declan Shalvey and Jordie Bellaire are just as integral to Moon Knight’s fascinating reinvention. In an inspired creative decision, colorist Jordie Bellaire chose to color Moon Knight white by not coloring him at all—the untouched linework cuts such a jarring, standout figure that serves as a great visual reflection of Ellis’ take on the character. As Moon Knight says in the fifth issue, he’s “the one you see coming.”
One of the joys of the new Moon Knight is watching artist Declan Shalvey stretch his boundaries more in every issue. With plenty of room left in the scripts for him to flex his storytelling muscles, Shalvey delivers seedy tenements, wall-to-wall action, weird supernatural phenomena, and trippy psychedelic dreamscapes with aplomb. Nothing about the first issue suggests that Moon Knight will be punching ghosts in the third, but it happens, and it’s thanks to Shalvey’s skill that it works so well. Together with the work of colorist Jordie Bellaire, Shalvey depicts a New York City that both feels authentic and yet somehow off. It’s unmistakably New York, but it’s also a cemetery, full of terrible things that are never shown but feel like they’re there, just waiting for you to walk through it’s streets alone and unguarded. It’s the kind of place that needs Moon Knight.
It’s kind of devious, the way Shalvey’s range is slowly shown off throughout the run as stranger elements are slowly introduced until they just explode off the page in the book’s fourth issue, which saw Moon Knight go from urban action with a touch of the supernatural to full-blown acid trip. Shalvey also understands how to craft compelling action sequences that are both clear and spare, conveying a lot of information to the reader without wasting an inch of the page.
The sixth issue of Moon Knight, out this week, marks the end of this creative team’s tenure on the book. It’s a fine sendoff—a story about a disgruntled cop from the first issue who feels marginalized by Moon Knight’s presence and decides to assume the identity of one of his greatest foes. Everything that made the first five issues great is present, and then some. The Ellis/Shalvey/Bellaire finale is another great standalone story, but it also places the previous five stories in a greater context, one that clearly states what was only hinted at if you were paying attention: Marc Spector is utterly, completely alone.
It’s right there in every page: When he’s not in his abandoned old mansion by himself, he’s operating out of a remote controlled limo, not interacting with a soul outside of the ones he agrees to help and the ones that he goes after. It’s easy to note the character’s solitude and not comment on it, as a supporting cast isn’t a huge concern when a collection consists of a bunch of one-and-done stories. But when directly addressed on the page as a finale of sorts, it’s a sobering moment, one that sums up the emotional cost of Spector’s return to the mantle of Moon Knight, to some semblance of sanity and purpose.
With next month’s issue #7, writer Brian Wood (DMZ) and artist Greg Smallwood (Dream Thief) will take the places of Ellis and Shalvey, with Bellaire staying on colors. Both are talented creators who have expressed the desire to continue what Ellis and Shalvey started. Let’s hope they do that and then some.
While their run was brief, the Ellis/Shalvey/Bellaire Moon Knight gave one of Marvel’s also-rans a potential road map back to glory by giving the character a clear sense of purpose. It showed how much could be done with a single issue several times over, and finally gave Moon Knight a mission that could be summed up in a single line: a protector of those who travel by night. “That,” as Spector says in the fourth issue, “is my specialist subject.”