We are not going to give a full history of Moon Knight here – if you’re interested in a Moon Knight curriculum vita, I highly recommend the reading guide by Dave Buesing. Instead, what we’re going to do is touch on a couple of the most influential runs, and the relationship they have with his DID. This won’t provide you the complete history of his diagnosis. but will hopefully highlight some of the themes we find around his DID, themes other creators carry through their own runs.
Previously: DID in Moon Knight Part 1
In the ‘Shades of Moon Knight’ article at the end of Moon Knight issue 15, we see writer Doug Moench himself describe the role of DID in the creative genesis of Marc Spector:
“Perhaps I created the guy too soon after reading Flora Schreiber’s SYBIL, but nevertheless, that sums up Moon Knight in a nutshell: four men in one: mercenary, cabbie, millionaire, super hero… Any man fleeing from his past and seeking to become a new and better man — verily, a super-hero — would logically be prone to role-playing. I’ve merely tried to stretch the ancient concept to further limits… while still keeping the character sane.”
Later writers would, of course, be more than happy to drop the part about keeping the character sane. Nonetheless what we see here is a good summary of the Marc Spector of this seminal run. Marc’s alter identities are not subconsciously created subsections of a traumatized mind, they are instead roles that he plays, literally just undercover identities that he makes up in order to fulfill his career. But, his mind sometimes delves too far into these identities, blurring the lines between artifice and reality. In this Moon Knight, we have a man troubled by his past, who retreats into fantasies to escape his shame and guilt. There is, definitely, the tinge of Sybil, but one gets the feeling that Marc is too tough to ‘go crazy’ as Sibyll does.
For the Moench Moon Knight, mental illness is less like a disorder than it is like a temptation, something to be stood up against with fortitude and a stiff upper lip, and to be repented when it’s indulged. Perhaps this is why his occasional spirals into alternate identities often feel only a step away from Daredevil or Spider-Man, both of whom have had story arcs where they talked about their superhero identity taking over their alter identity, and how living that way could drive a person crazy. Suffice to say, this isn’t how actual DID would work, and in Moench’s defense, he doesn’t ever call it DID. It’s a form of Literary Cognitive Disorder, a disease that exists mostly to allow for the plot to progress in interesting ways.
To summarize, read as written without any future retcons and refinements, Marc Spector in these books doesn’t display obvious signs of DID, and Spector, Lockley, Grant and Moon Knight are not apparently alters in the classical sense. However, because DID is now an established element of Marc’s character, there’s a natural encouragement to re-read these comics retroactively with a DID diagnosis in mind. The irony is that re-reading these issues there’s a fairly consistent story to be told of a man with undiagnosed DID.
Many people assume that DID is a disease that would be difficult to hide. The truth is quite different. Because DID is a condition that develops to keep children safe from harm, DID is remarkably good at remaining unseen, not only to others but even to the system itself. Children in a situation of chronic abuse often have good reason to be afraid of drawing attention to themselves. Thus, there is a natural impetus for the system to learn to be invisible; after all, switching dramatically into different alters in the presence of others is very likely to get undesired attention. As such, many people with DID switch invisibly between alters, and generally avoid behaviors that will draw attention to the disorder – this is called being a covert system, which is actually much more common than being an overt one. Such systems will often switch several times a day with those around them being none the wiser.
In fact, many covert systems camouflage themselves so well that the system itself may not realize they have DID. It is easy to go through much of life simply thinking that feeling disconnected from your experience and having long lapses of memory is normal. You think of yourself as scatterbrained, you present as being perhaps a little eccentric, or a little bit moody. The average DID system, even once they enter psychiatric care, spends an average of seven years before being properly diagnosed, and will sometimes not realize they need psychiatric care until well into adulthood, once the system feels either safe or exhausted enough to let down their guard. Because of this, the average DID system is often diagnosed only in their 30’s.
The idea then that the Marc of this period DOES have DID, but simply doesn’t fully realize it, is a powerful one. In this telling, Marc is a system with problems, even serious problems, but who builds a support system of friends and loved ones and functions remarkably well in day to day life, and the alters form an important part of fulfilling this life, which is perhaps less glamorous for storytelling, but is a powerful affirmation of living functionally with the disorder.
Many later Moon Knight portrayals paint him as a loner and a cipher who lets no-one in. As with any people, there are certainly DID systems who live lives of solitude like this, but DID people need love and support from those around them, and need to be accepted as they are. The fact that Frenchie and Marlene and Gena and others around Marc’s system allow him to say ‘I’m not Grant anymore, I’m Lockley now’, without panicking or growing upset, is remarkably good behavior modeling for those living with a system.
It also allows for a more nuanced depiction of living with a loved one with DID. We see a great example of this in Moon Knight issues 9-10, the return of Bushman. In this story, Moon Knight is stalked first by Midnight Man. What’s interesting is that in this story, the first of a number of stories throughout the run about Moon Knight having a breakdown, the parallels between Midnight and Moon Knight really take shape, painting Midnight Man as a dark shadow of Moon Knight – the color of their suits, their names, their roles as rich men with secret identities.
While Midnight Man is first presented as a terrible threat, it becomes apparent towards the end of issue 9 that he, like Marc, is a man teetering on the edge of madness. Midnight’s whole raison d’etre was previously stealing and displaying great works of art in his stately mansion. Now he is living in the sewer and his “artworks” are a lamp that can’t give light, a television with a shattered screen, and a filthy broken bathtub. Each one of these objects speaks to shattered images, obscured light, echoing his own soul shattered by his own apparent death and resurrection after his first death at Moon Knight’s hand. Then, he steals the statue of Khonshu and places it among these ‘artworks’, giving for perhaps the first time, the visual of Khonshu as another broken lamp, a shattering of Steven’s mind/soul. He then breaks the statue reinforcing that connection, and Moon Knight immediately seems to lose all his powers.
It’s Marlene’s role in this drama that fascinates me. Marlene starts the story frightened of what will happen if ‘Steven’ finds out that the statue has been stolen:
“And I don’t like it, Frenchie. Steven relies far too much on that statue – beyond mere harmless superstition. He says it gives him strength – Life. And coupled with his schizophrenia, his four-way personality hang-up…”
Marlene is the one who then discovers the clue that leads the rest of the party to know where to look for Steven. She pursues him but too late – she arrives only after he ‘cracks’. As Samuels, his Butler describes it:
“He is alive, too, madam, but– Well, He… ah… he’s not quite himself, madam! He seems to have suffered some kind of breakdown! He saved my life, buy could only say what a failure he is – a fake. I… I’m not sure he’ll be home.. for some time…”
In fine fashion, Marlene is laying on her bed weeping by a box of tissues, one hand resting on a portrait of Steven. But she immediately jumps into action, organizing the search for Steven, then joining it herself.
What’s interesting to me is, on the one hand, the difference between this situation and someone like Betty Ross. When Bruce loses control of his mental condition and becomes the Hulk, he becomes someone to be feared. Sometime Betty will approach him and try to coax him back into his Bruce-self, but it’s always an act of pure physical courage, because Bruce has become a monster, literally. For Marlene, on the other hand, she knows he needs her, and she goes to try to give him comfort and love.
The poignant thing to me, though, is that she goes and looks “in all the places [they] used to go together.” Marlene loves Steven deeply – but she also does not and cannot truly know all of him. She is in love with Steven, but she doesn’t have a real relationship with Jake or Marc, much less with Moon Knight. These are figures that treat her as ‘Steven’s dame’, as Lockley puts it. The feeling of utter estrangement is a powerful one.
But it’s also not a doomed one. The solution to his problems never seems to be that Jake, Marc and Moon Knight are the enemies that need to be eliminated, the way the Hulk often is. It’s rather that Steven needs to regain his balance, and return to where he was, hopefully in a healthy state that won’t involve him losing his internal equilibrium.
This leads to his reintegration at the end of the volume. Eventually, Marlene shows Steven the ‘real’ statue of Khonshu which she ‘hid’ to protect it. But she does only as a last result and considers it a failure. What she tries to do first is to redeem her through her love for him:
“I know who and what you are, Steven, I know you better than anyone! You’re a strong man, a strange man, but you’re NOT mad, Steven! You’re the man I love! Do you understand?”
But it isn’t enough, which is one of the most insightful things I see Moench do in these panels. The more typical story is that he is redeemed by love, in the same way that the Hulk is sometimes soothed by Betty, or that Tony Stark is able to face his alcoholism through the love of his friends. Instead, she realizes that this is bigger than just love. You can’t love someone out of DID, or really most any mental illness. But this doesn’t mean love isn’t needed. It’s just not enough. In the end, the toolset that Marc has built is too deeply embedded for the dramatic one page cure. She has to accept that the disorder is part of him, which she does by giving him the statue. But that pain, the feeling that she is not enough to do this one thing she most wishes she could do, hangs over their relationship like a shadow.
In the end, she does not tell him whether the statue is real or not. She points out that if he wants to know, he could have it carbon dated, but he decides he doesn’t want to know. That continues to be the foundation of their relationship – loving each other enough to leave things in the shadow when they need to be, to accept love over ‘truth’.
The series can be problematic – for example, it uses mental health slurs, and not even accurate ones (schizo gets thrown around quite a bit – schizophrenia is an equally misunderstood disorder but one that is very, very different from DID). And its portrayal of a person trying to live as a healthy DID system is, probably almost incidental since it doesn’t seem like they were trying very seriously to have Marc be an actual DID system through much of this, or even that Moench had a clear idea of what “Multiple Personality Disorder” was. Additionally, Sara Century offers an excellent overview of some of the other aspects of the book, which can be problematic entirely separately from the issue of mental health.
But if we wish to view these books within the rubric of DID retroactively, they provide an interesting thought experiment in overriding some of our assumptions about what DID systems can and cannot accomplish. Early Marc Spector can be read with a little imagination as a person who is finding their own way to live with DID, with love, friendship, and fulfilling purpose integrated into it, something we don’t see enough of in the media.
Leaping far forward in time, a very different take on Moon Knight’s mental health comes in the 2011 Bendis/Maleev run of Moon Knight. By the time Bendis was thinking through his run, Moon Knight was firmly and canonically a DID system, though problematically depicted. His take on the series is summarized in many ways in an interview he did with CBR that year:
“Wouldn’t it be fun to see the criminals of the Marvel universe not know how to deal with this completely insane person who thinks he’s Spider-Man one day, Wolverine the next?”
The central conceit of the run is that Moon Knight believes himself to be working alongside Captain America, Spider-Man and Wolverine chasing down Count Nefaria in Los Angeles. Of course, the other three Avengers aren’t really there at all. Rather, they are just new alters, formed seemingly on the spot in order to combat the present threat. This is played for laughs throughout, and we often see Moon Knight as a kind of lampoon shadow of the more famous Avengers.
The idea of a funny Moon Knight story is fine – some of Marvel’s best work is when it’s not taking itself too seriously. Additionally, the story isn’t all humor: there is just as much time spent telling a classic hard boiled street story that, as Ben Johnson’s very even handed review points out, could just as easily have been about almost any other vigilante superhero.
The storyline is however one of the more problematic of the history of Moon Knight in terms of exploring DID for a number of reasons. First of all, Bendis’s treatment laughs AT Moon Knight’s wacky disability instead of laughing WITH him, and ends up feeling pretty tone deaf as a result. The DID community laughs at itself frequently and vigorously, but when someone who is outside of any marginalized community makes jokes about it, it takes hard work and research to be celebratory rather than exploitative, something we see as often in Marvel’s portrayals of minorities over the years as, sadly, most parts of media.
Second, it portrays DID as inherently dangerous to the people around Marc. We see this at its worst in a battle with Count Nefaria. In a moment of emotional turmoil, we see his Wolverine-the-Heartless-Killer alter forcibly take control of the body, leaving him a dangerous murderer, beyond the normal rules of morality. It’s clear as he savagely beats Nefaria that this is no longer righteous vengeance, but rather unbridled monstrous rage. Now of course, the trope of the hero who is pushed too far and gives in to his baser instincts is pretty common in a post Frank Miller landscape. The difference is that the interjection of the Wolverine alter is outside of the control of the system, that Mr Hyde takes over and leaves Jekyll behind as he goes on a rampage, not because he is choosing this action, but because he is partly a savage animal, and when triggered, this alter serves no purpose except to kill, for no benefit or desire except to cause death.
This also points to the third troubling aspect: DID is presented as something that takes away the agency of the character. In the portrayal here, Moon Knight is Marc Spector. The other alters are angels and devils on his shoulder that, in certain situations, take control of his life from his hands. This view of DID paints an image of a system as a time bomb waiting to blow, one trapped at the mercies of malevolent spirits. In a view of DID like that, it’s not hard to see why the average layman would assume that DID systems are incapable of existing in the real world, inescapably destined to live on the knife’s edge of total mental collapse. Add this to the cavalier treatment of his condition, and you end up with a portrayal that seems to use DID as a clever gimmick to manipulate the character into exploitative situations that show off the writer’s party tricks.
Warren Ellis described his run with Declan Shalvey, which initiated Moon Knight in the Marvel Now period, as reestablishing the four things that ‘excited people about [Moon Knight] in the first place… the redemptive arc, the multiple facets of the character, the intervention of ancient gods, and madness’. This attempt to harken back to the origins of the character some ways spin even farther back than the Moench run, back to his original introduction to Marvel, when Moon Knight was a side character in the schlock horror title ‘Werewolf by Night’.
DID and horror is the most common pairing for the disease, from Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ to Shyamalan’s ‘Split.’ This urge, while sometimes regrettable, is fairly understandable – from an outside perspective, I can imagine the idea of having different alters seems not so different from being possessed, after all, and it raises the kind of disturbing questions about the nature of the soul and the borders of human identity that much of the best (and worst) horror is built on. At the same time, it’s awfully dehumanizing to people for whom the disease is more than just a framing device for a scary story, and because this is by far the most common portrayal of the disease, it leaves DID and serial killer as horrifyingly synonymous in the popular consciousness.
Ellis seems to have thought about this, and his solution to how to thread this needle is to go right ahead at the beginning of the story and literally have a psychologist tell Moon Knight that he doesn’t have DID at all. His doctor actually frames rather well the problem with the whole underlying premise of Marc’s DID in 2014’s Moon Knight issue 1:
“You don’t “catch” DID simply by pretending to be other people for a while. If that were true, we would have an epidemic of soap opera actors.”
Instead, Ellis puts forth a unique framework for understanding Moon Knight’s condition: Moon Knight is being affected by the power of a God who cycles through four divine aspects, and his mind ,
“Struggling to define what has happened to it, seeks to apply identities to [each aspect]. You’re not insane. Your brain has been colonized by an ancient consciousness from beyond space-time.”
I’ll call this rather unique fictional disease Deity Induced Dissociative Identity Disorder (DI-DID). It’s a remarkably elegant way to square the circle of Moon Knight’s past, and is absolutely perfect for the kinds of stories Ellis and Shalvey want to tell: stories of a supernatural demimonde, where Moon Knight has fist-fights with ghosts, and communes with the soul of a man infected by supernatural brain mushrooms. But his DI-DID allows us to accept the hero’s ability to navigate these worlds with something like resigned aplomb. It lets these stories be creepy and affecting, while simultaneously being witty and playful.
A big part of the success is through the art. Bellaire colors most of the scene in deep water colors, playing particularly with strongly toned light. The background scenes are frequently monotonal, but always a color, and always a color with shades and gradients. Moon Knight himself is the opposite – Shalvey’s clearly inked, almost architectural lines have almost no shading whatsoever, just smears of gleaming white on top of the rich watercolor backgrounds. It leaves Moon Knight as incongruous to his surroundings as Roger Rabbit is incongruous to a live action 30’s Los Angeles – he feels like a cartoon character in a world of reality. It also ends up thematically playing to both the strength and weakness of his DID – Moon Knight never truly integrates with his surroundings. That means he can shift and adapt quickly, handling situations of physical violence quickly, but it means that interacting with other human beings is strained, and awkward.
Because of this, if you want to simply dive in and enjoy Moon Knight’s weird-fiction mental-health-gothic elements, Shalvey and Ellis’s run is my favorite. That incongruity, and the acknowledgement of the fictionalizing of the disease allows the run in its best moments to do what Claremont’s X-Men so effectively did with bigotry – it creates a fictional parallel to the real problem, so that you can sit back and play with the idea, while still respecting that the reality of the idea should be treated gently and respectfully..
This lets it, as Emily Dickinson would say, tell the truth about DID, but tell it slant. After Moon Knight is defeated by a group of punk ghosts, he returns to base where Khonshu takes him to a collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts that contains items he can use to fight the dead. Moon Knight stands before the hyperbolically large collection of museum pieces and says in confusion “I don’t even remember buying most of this stuff.” Khonshu in his mind responds, “Perhaps you weren’t supposed to remember.” This scene is a pretty stark reflection of how unsettling the fugue states that DID induces can feel. But by injecting wry humor, and abstracting it into a fantastical rubric, it becomes something that you can look at and think about, without being expected to believe that your average DID system might at any moment reveal that they have a secret warehouse full of likely illegally obtained mystical artifacts.
Moon Knight comics, to paraphrase Scott Cederlund’s review of the Lemire run, are usually about his super heroics, with his DID acting as a kryptonite to be overcome on the way to defeating the Bad Guy. Smallwood and Lemire’s 2016 run on the other hand turns inward and focuses on Moon Knight’s internal experience – many interpretations of the comics actually suggest that very little of this comic actually “happens” at all, that it’s a portrait of an internal crisis. The fact that it’s open to interpretation is perhaps the comic’s most powerful lynchpin. Lemire (and perhaps more importantly, Smallwood and Bellaire’s art) in no way draw a realistic portrayal of DID, but what they DO accomplish is evoking an emotional experience.
DID is usually portrayed as a character trait to be observed, not as an internal reality to be experienced. It’s one of the reasons why it’s so easy to make DID systems into villains – because the experience of watching a new person enter a body is an eerie one to display, one that humans have a fascination with. Just search YouTube some time for videos of DID systems as they go through a ‘switch’ – they’re remarkably common and the popular ones definitely don’t show subtle covert switches.
Portraying the inner experience of DID is remarkably more difficult than these glamourized outside portrayals. Singletons will often say that they can’t really imagine what it would be like to have alters – many systems would respond that it’s equally difficult for them to imagine NOT having them. The experience of identity is so fundamental to us that it is perhaps indescribable. We have to approach descriptions like this from the side, both halves of the conversation seeking for some shared ground to make a metaphor on top of. Lemire, et al, take this metaphorical approach throughout their run of Moon Knight.
It is easy for me to point out things that are inaccurate in the portrayal of DID in this run. An example: people with DID do not, without other serious comorbidities, have complex delusions about the nature of reality. You may have an alter who takes the form of something as fantastical as a space man fighting werewolves, but they won’t switch in driving down the highway to work and suddenly believe their car is a starfighter and the other cars are werewolf ships.
Similarly, when young Marc is talking to the newly created Steven Grant alter, the art implies that he sees Steven as an external hallucination. In reality, one of the criteria that psychologists use for shorthand for differentiating the voices of alters from the auditory hallucinations of someone with, for example, schizophrenia, is that the voices in DID seem to come from inside, and those from schizophrenia come from the outside. Having actual external hallucinations in DID is not at all common, and would, again, usually suggest an unrelated comorbidity, particularly for visual hallucinations.
We can also point out parts of the portrayal that are downright dangerous. The depiction of mental hospitals and therapists as cruel antagonists and rotting prisons for the mentally ill, a la One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, is an outdated and damaging stereotype that discourages those who need help from seeking it from those most qualified to give it. Additionally, when young Marc listens to his father and the doctor saying that he may need to be institutionalized and heavily medicated, this enforces that same code of silence, that fear of ‘but if someone knew, they’d not believe me, or they’d lock me up.’ The reality is that unless Marc was also a threat to himself or others, the kind of conversation the Doctor is having could be tantamount to malpractice.
But at heart, the reason that I think Lemire’s portrayal is as well-regarded as it is is that it is not MEANT to be a realistic portrayal. To quote Cederlund:
“The experience of reading Moon Knight is most likely a poor analog for anyone suffering this mental disorder, but it also may be one of the closest experiences to the feeling of not being in control of your own being that you can get in comics.”
There is a place for realistic portrayals of DID in the media. But the artistic team is not interested in playing this role. Instead, they find small ways to convey the feeling of living in a state of continually fluctuating identity.
One of my favorite ways this is accomplished is, in later episodes of the series, by enlisting an entirely different artist to draw the experience of each alter. Again, the chances that someone will switch into an alter that believes they are in the middle of a space battle is vanishingly slim. But that sudden re-contextualization of reality, where everything around you just looks… different, that is remarkably familiar as someone who has DID, and I’ve not seen it portrayed as effectively anywhere else. The depiction is problematic, but I have to still look at the effect that the story gets across, and say, I could not explain to you what it feels like to recontextualize an experience from another one of my alters more effectively than to refer to the sudden shift into neon and shadow for the Lockley images, or into scratchy Buck Rogers pulp for the Space Marc images.
Similarly, I know of no DID system that would have an experience comparable to stepping outside and seeing New York half buried in sand (probably one of the most powerful images in the series). But, the threatening pervasiveness of Khonshu himself that this image conveys is a very effective metaphor for what repeated trauma feels like, the way it becomes embedded into everything, discolors and distorts whatever you see. The way it seems to infect your relationships with those you love, or those you need help from. The way that it makes the smallest mishaps feel cosmic in scope.
It also means that for me, I can describe the experience of reading this run as powerful far more than I can describe it as enjoyable, and I say that with all the respect for the final product. If someone was to say ‘What’s a good portrayal to understand DID’ would I say the Lemire run of Moon Knight? No, absolutely not. But if I wanted to describe some of the emotional experiences of DID to someone who knew logically what DID is, but couldn’t quite understand what it feels like, it’s a very powerful soundboard for doing so.