There’s a war raging within the mind of Marc Spector. Between a man and his god. Between reality and fantasy. And most importantly, between the many lives of a hero.
The history of Marvel’s Moon Knight is one of a character growing more complex, more introspective, and more emotionally resonant with each decade. After his creation in 1975 by Doug Moench and Don Perlin, Moon Knight would go on to be more fully formed in his own series starting in 1980 by Moench and Bill Sienkiewicz, with Moon Knight’s other identities of businessman Steven Grant and taxi driver Jake Lockley being used by the hero to fight crime. All the while, Marc’s relationship with the Egyptian god Khonshu is called into question as either real or hallucination. Over subsequent volumes, and there have been 9 so far, Spector’s struggles have been reinterpreted as dissociative identity disorder, or DID, adding real world weight to an increasingly tortured vigilante. Encounters with a jealous ancient god, powers that wax and wane with the moon, alters of different heroes – all have come and gone, with writer Warren Ellis solidifying the modern incarnation of the character, along with his Mr. Knight persona, in 2014, revealing Marc’s mental health struggles as caused by the many aspects of Khonshu fracturing his mind.
But every reinterpretation of Moon Knight can take on new aspects. And when writer Jeff Lemire took on the life and mind of Marc Spector in 2016 with a new volume for All New All Different Marvel, he created the most introspective take on the character yet. The series spanned 14 issues, both expanding on the ideas introduced in the previous volume and also narrowing in on the mind of Marc Spector in one continuous story that twisted reality, perception, and personhood as Moon Knight awakens in a mental health facility with his entire comic book history suddenly called into question.
Is Moon Knight real? Is this taking place in a Marvel Universe reshaped by the gods? Is this all happening inside Marc’s mind? Where does the struggle between Marc’s personalities end and Khonshu’s influence begin?
This is the story of Jeff Lemire’s Moon Knight and the battle to find one’s self.
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Health & Heroism
Over the years, mental health issues have been tackled to varying degrees of success in the superhero subgenre of comic books. As public awareness of mental health has increased, so has its prominence in comics. And depending on the writer, this can be handled with an appropriate sensitivity or a sort of blase need for a crazy villain.
Sometimes, it’s a writer finally naming and facing an issue that has subtextually informed the characterization of a hero for decades. Like depression in Daredevil or dissociative identity disorder in The Hulk. When done well, it adds new layers and a relatable struggle to heroes that can be inspirational in ways beyond simply punching the bad guy. Most readers will never need to stop a villainous plot, but many will need courage to overcome their personal obstacles and demons. But even the best intentions can go wrong. See Heroes in Crisis and its earnest but exploitative approach to exposure therapy and trauma.
Moon Knight is the rare example of a hero whose mental health issues have been an explicit part of the character for decades and whose depictions have evolved alongside both psychology and comic books.
Originally, Moon Knight was said to have multiple personality disorder, which has since been renamed to dissociative identity disorder to reflect its greater understanding of the condition. Likewise, Marc Spector was originally said to have become afflicted by multiple personalities due to pretending to be his alter egos for too long, which, I mean, come on.
There’s a tricky balance to the portrayal of mental health issues in media, especially when depicted in conjunction with superheroes. It’s just as easy to say that someone’s real world problems are responsible for their powers as it is to use them as the cause of their evil actions. In either case, there’s a lack of sensitivity there. But it’s important for writers to understand the responsibility that has to come along with taking on a struggle that so many people are actually dealing with. It’s much easier to ignore the details of a mental health struggle in favor of an simple, entertaining story, which many Moon Knight creators have. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that when it means you won’t perpetuate a negative stereotype. But this isn’t the story that Jeff Lemire chose to tell. He chose to face mental health head on here.
“The hospital Marc finds himself in is a bit of a throwback to another era where mental health was much more taboo and these hospitals and facilities were much harsher and more like prisons than hospitals,” said Lemire. “I wanted this place to represent a lot of the stigma and negativity surrounding mental health. While I think we are making progress and are becoming much more open about talking about and addressing mental health in our society today, there is still a lot of negativity surrounding it. And this place is like the most exaggerated, horrible version of that. That’s where Marc needed to be at the beginning of the series for the story I wanted to tell.”
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, dissociative disorders cause a person to experience an involuntary escape from reality through a disconnection in thoughts, consciousness, memory, and identity. And according to NAMI, as many as 75% of all people will experience a depersonalization episode in their life. But only 2% will experience chronic episodes.
Often, these dissociative disorders are a response to a traumatic event like military combat or abuse so that a person can control that memory. Typically, sufferers will experience significant memory loss, out of body experiences, depression, anxiety, emotional detachment or numbness, and a lack of self-identity. However, there are three types of dissociative disorders, each with their own symptoms: Dissociative Amnesia, Depersonalization Disorder, and Dissociative Identity Disorder.
A person with DID will alternate between multiple identities and may feel like there are multiple voices in their head trying to take control. These identities will usually have their own names, mannerisms, characteristics, and voices, with gaps in memory.
This is all to say that when taking on the character of Marc Spector and committing to his DID diagnosis, Lemire has opened up Moon Knight to a more real struggle. Something that has little to do with stopping a villain and has everything to do with confronting and accepting the realities of their disorder.
“I really want to explore mental illness through this character,” said Lemire. “It’s really what makes Moon Knight so unique and it’s what got me so excited about the book in the first place. But I don’t want the series to become preachy or pedantic. So this exploration of mental health will be a very metaphorical one at times and will be executed in a way that is hopefully still very entertaining and even fun. But, yes, I definitely have a point of view and something to say about the way we view mental illness as a society, and I’m not shying away from it.”
That shouldn’t be too surprising for fans of Lemire. So much of the creator’s Big Two and independent work ruminates on deep personal issues that haunt and drive his characters. Underwater Welder, Black Hammer, Animal Man, Old Man Logan, Bloodshot, Trillium – the fantastical encounters are metaphors for the internal struggles. And Moon Knight might be his most literal extrapolation.
After waking up in a mental institution that looks and acts like the more barbaric facilities of old, Marc is subjected to abuse and shock therapy, surrounded by friends from the past locked up with him. After seeing his captors for what they are underneath, minions of the Egyptian god Seth, Marc fights to escape alongside his friends. But there’s a constant sense of doubt and strangeness that’s inescapable. Marc sees a full-scale god invasion of New York, but most of his friends can’t. But are Marlene, Frenchie, Gena, and Crawley even real? Or are they in his head, too?
Has Marc escaped from the facility? Or did he never leave? Where does reality end, perception begin, alternate personalities take over, and Khonshu influence?
By the end of issue 5, we discover Marc’s capture and fight was all set up by his god, who seeks to break down the last of Marc’s psyche to fully take over his body. But even then, we can never fully trust how literal this all is. Sure, this can be taken at face value as a hero’s fight with a malevolent god, but it can all be taken as metaphor, as well. Khonshu doesn’t have to be an actual ancient being from the overvoid. He can be a metaphor for abusive figures in a person’s life or the trauma that is often responsible for a person’s D.I.D.
Unlike Ellis’s interpretation, where Marc is helplessly devoted to an unknown god, Marc rejects Khonshu at the end of issue five and chooses to die. But instead, he wakes up as Steven Grant, and we see more clearly that this is the story of Marc Spector’s fight to become whole.
The Art of Alters
Because so much of Lemire’s story revolves around the alters of Marc Spector, the worlds and art here shift alongside the focus.
Lemire’s run begins with Greg Smallwood on art, returning to the title after a short arc in the previous volume, but the introduction to the Steven Grant, Jake Lockley, and Moon Knight-One personalities with issue 5 would also bring Wilfredo Torres, Francesco Francavilla, and James Stokoe into the title to illustrate each respective alter. Now, the comic’s visual identity shifts with Marc’s own.
Alongside colorist Jordie Bellaire, who fills this world with colors that shift from soft sand to swirling cosmic rainbows, Smallwood uses a diffused, chiseled approach to depicting his characters, filling in their digital inks with a charcoal brush that keeps everything looking slightly softer than reality. The lack of hard edges, alongside a lack of borders for every panel, allows the white pages to seep into each image. This creates a world and characters that feel less defined and more dreamlike, which is perfect for a story that consistently questions the reality of everything happening. And of course, it’s Moon Knight, decked out in white, who lacks definition the most, echoing the man within’s shifting definitions. To accompany these, Smallwood plays with panel sizes and page layouts much more than his previous Moon Knight run, as images increase and decrease in size to represent shifting levels of consciousness.
For Steven Grant, Torres brings a more clearly defined and clean line alongside slightly more rounded and cartoonish figures. When juxtaposed with Smallwood’s Spector story as the first alter we see, the clarity immediately calls the dreamy past issues into question. For Jake Lockley, Francavilla brings his classic, extremely moody and hypercolored neo-noir look. Heavy shadows with impenetrable inks and secondary colors (the man loves him some orange). His retro character models work in concert with Lockley’s Taxi Driver-esque streets. And for the brand new Moon Knight-One, Stokoe has his hyper-detailed and speedline-covered hand drawn art bring a wild moon battle to life. The werewolf space fight of Moon Knight-One is the most unlike reality, so Stokoe’s overwhelming sci-fi action works to enhance that sense of disorientation.
Also, adding in other artists for the express purpose of alternate visions helps give Smallwood a break to prevent delays without falling into the category of underwhelming fill-in art that so often plagues mainstream, deadline-mandated comic books. And Lemire would later reveal that Smallwood had indeed fallen behind schedule, necessitating the different artists. Smart move.
Steven Grant, a movie producer working on a Moon Knight film for Marvel Studios (this was before the age of underwhelming Disney+ shows), begins to confuse the movie he’s making with reality, where Jake Lockley patrols the streets to fight The Midnight Man. But as he dips into Moon Knight-One’s space battle with werewolves that have conquered the Earth, each reality swerves toward disaster because none of these personalities can coexist in peace. By the end of this second arc, Grant, Lockley, and Moon Knight-One step from their realities and into the New Egypt where we last saw Spector.
As the birth person, or original personality, Marc must recognize and reabsorb the alters that have continued to fracture his life. Once necessary to survive, their lack of coexistence has only created more and more disharmony over the years.
It’s time for Moon Knight to confront the many different phases of himself to become whole. Not through a violent rejection of the self, but through peaceful acceptance that seeks to create a whole, complete man.
Resolution of Reality
It’s rare for any superhero comic to bring closure to its central protagonist, especially in regards to a personal conflict that’s been motivating them for years. But this is exactly what Lemire is driving toward in his story.
It can be easy to let your hero wallow in their misery as long as it keeps their comic going. And most Moon Knight stories are content to let this happen. After all, what’s Spider-Man without his guilt or Batman without his trauma? They’d likely be less compelling characters, but they also are denied the reality of growing and changing like real people do. But to present a hero with a true (if exaggerated through fantastical encounters) disorder, means that denying any sort of growth is also denying hope for anyone else that has similar struggles.
In Lemire’s third and final arc, we’re dragged back through Marc’s life, reexamining his history from a new point of view. Marc didn’t contract DID from posing as other people, he didn’t have his mind colonized and fractured by an extradimensional force, he’s had the condition since he was a young Jewish boy raised by a father who never quite understood him. First, it was Steven Grant, seemingly an imaginary friend but soon an alter that caused Marc’s father to send him to a mental health facility. Next, it was Jake Lockley. These personalities helped Marc cope with his life. But the stigma around Marc prevented any sort of healing. Instead, Marc denied his condition as it grew more extreme within him
And it was also this divided mind that attracted Khonshu, looking to take advantage of Marc and turn him into his avatar. From his time in the facility to his father’s death to his tours as a Marine to wandering as a mercenary, Marc searched for purpose for years. And it was encountering Khonshu when near death that gave him the focus to survive. But this isn’t true healing.
While this final third of the book is probably the series’ weakest part, with Lemire backtracking through both Marc’s past and the surreality he escaped from earlier when we’ve been ready for the final confrontation for 5 issues, it also gives us the chance to reconsider Moon Knight in the light of D.I.D.
To move forward, Marc must remove and absorb his alters, but to defeat Khonshu, all of these alters must reemerge and work together. A healthy, cohesive ecosystem, all of them valid within the larger person that is Marc Spector. And this is where Lemire’s Moon Knight succeeds on a level where few other comics besides Immortal Hulk have. The solution isn’t to destroy parts of yourself or to embrace your unhealthy sides to destroy others. The solution is to understand that the issues that you face, that have been with you since you were a child, that make you the person you are, will never truly, permanently be gone. And that’s ok. All we can really do is be the best version of ourselves that we can be.
If Warren Ellis’ time on Moon Knight and the short runs that followed ruminated on the hopelessness of being caught within a faith and relationship to a god that can never truly be known, then Jeff Lemire’s story is the antidote. In the end, the solution is not violence and death, but understanding and learning to love yourself, all aspects of yourself
Because the story of a mainstream superhero is never done, Lemire leaves us with a sense of ambiguity so that future Moon Knight writers can choose which parts to take and leave.
Maybe Marc never left the roof we saw him on all the way back in issue one. Maybe Khonshu has simply been a metaphor for the issues that Marc must face to be whole. While future volumes of Moon Knight will add layers of clarity to this interior story, all that really matters is that Marc Spector, Steven Grant, Jake Lockley, and Moon Knight have found harmony through self acceptance.
All that matters is that we try to do the same.
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