Marc Spector is a troubled man. In the opening pages of Moon Knight #1 by writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Alex Maleev, we see the origins of these troubles – betrayed and gravely wounded by his partner Bushman, a brown-haired mercenary collapses at the foot of a statue of the Egyptian god Khonshu and apparently dies. However, it turns out that we are not witnessing the 616 origins of Marc Spector, Moon Knight, after all. We are watching the cliffhanger ending of the first episode of “Legend of the Khonshu”, a television show Spector is producing in his new stomping grounds of Hollywood. Here we have an in-story fictionalization of events whose truth has been questioned over decades of publication history – was Marc Spector truly saved from the brink of death by an ancient Egyptian god, or is psychological trauma contributing to a dangerous delusion?
It’s an apt starting point for a series about a character that deals with unreality as frequently as Moon Knight does. As I started reading the series, I expected the framework of Marc Spector as an unreliable narrator to be integral to the core conflict. However, Bendis and Maleev are more interested in grounding Moon Knight with a surprisingly straightforward story about a street-level hero than diving too deeply into the elements of the character that distinguish him from the myriad other vigilantes populating Marvel comics. Don’t get me wrong, this is a fun book – it’s just that it doesn’t take full advantage of the things that make Moon Knight unique, so the story that unfolds is much more traditional than I had hoped.
The unreality I mentioned is a core aspect of Moon Knight as a character thanks to Spector’s association with a literal god coupled with his dissociative identity disorder. The combination creates a constant battle within his own mind to discern what is and isn’t real. This is made all the more difficult by how frequently Moon Knight interacts with the supernatural corners of the Marvel universe – he makes his first appearance in Werewolf By Night #32, for goodness’ sake! At the start of Bendis and Maleev’s series, though, Marc Spector seems to largely have it together, his feet planted firmly in the middle of polite society. He has just come off a stint with the Avengers and is living a pretty cozy civilian life as a Hollywood producer. He is also no longer relying on his multiple identities for anything more than story fodder for “Legend of the Khonshu” – the main character is named Jake Lockley, for instance, though there is no sign of his wealthy socialite persona, Steven Grant.
However, we quickly learn that Marc still has a few voices clamoring for attention in his head. While attending the screening party for the pilot of “Legend of the Khonshu”, Marc has a surreptitious meeting with Captain America, Spider-Man, and Wolverine. The heroes enlist him to fight the growing criminal presence in Los Angeles – with New York teeming with so many superheroes, it only makes sense that the bad guys would try switching coasts – and Marc is all too eager for the mission.
It doesn’t take long for Marc to come across criminality worthy of Moon Knight’s attention. His first night on patrol, he intercepts a shady deal going down at (where else?) the docks. Turns out, a mysterious new player in the Los Angeles underworld has arranged to purchase a deactivated Ultron from hulking C-list villain, Mr. Hyde. The sale goes south quickly, and after a fight with Mr. Hyde on a racing speed boat, Marc winds up in possession of the Ultron’s head. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the unidentified big boss, in a show of gravity-defying power, secures the robot’s body. Marc regroups at his hideout with the trio of Avengers and realizes that he’s going to need their help.
There’s something off about these Avengers, though, and by the end of the first issue we discover what: they aren’t real. As it turns out, they’re creations of Marc’s fractured psyche, each persona representing a different type of hero Marc can choose to be. When “Captain America” takes the reins, Marc is tactical and strategic. As “Spider-Man”, he is more prone to winging it and tossing out quips at his opponents. And when Marc lets “Wolverine” be the dominant persona, he is the brutal berserker that you’d expect. Marc outfits himself with gear befitting each persona – a hard-light shield, retractable claws, and – in one of the series’ most entertaining sequences, coming in Moon Knight #2 – a full Spider-Man costume complete with knock-off web-shooters. It’s an interesting take on Marc’s dissociative identity disorder, this idea that the time Moon Knight has spent on an honest-to-goodness superhero team has influenced even the ways in which his mental illness manifests.
But as much fun as it is to see Marc employ the gimmicks of heroes who are more accepted and mainstream than he is, this representation of Marc’s disorder doesn’t tell as compelling a story as it could. One of the problems with this take is that as Bendis writes him, outside of the specific weapons he uses when a given personality is in control, Moon Knight doesn’t really behave all that differently from the character we know from other stories. It’s not unusual for Moon Knight to be tactical or brutal or quippy, so when one of the “Avengers” becomes Marc’s dominant persona, it’s a bit less jarring than I imagine Bendis intended. Instead, the main evidence we the reader are given that Marc is acting strange is that the supporting characters pulled into Marc’s story – notably, Echo (whose cover as a dancer at local underboss Snapdragon’s club is blown when she has to rescue Marc-as-Spider-Man) and Buck Lime (gotta say it – what a name), an ex-S.H.I.E.L.D. agent turned “soldier of fortune consultant” on “Legend of the Khonshu” – ask Marc every now and then if he’s still crazy. In-story, the consensus – confirmed after Echo calls the Avengers in New York to get their opinions on Moon Knight – seems to be that Marc has his issues, but he can be trusted.
Once Marc gets ahold of the Ultron head, the rest of Moon Knight plays out in a fairly predictable fashion. Moon Knight and Echo start working together to unmask the new west coast kingpin and their relationship develops into something deeper. Eventually, by using the Ultron head as bait, they discover that the big bad is, of all people, Count Nefaria. Nefaria wants to do something nefarious (heh) that can only be done with the full Ultron-kaboodle, though his aims are nebulous, and Bendis doesn’t do a whole lot to clarify them. It doesn’t take long before the situation escalates beyond what Moon Knight can handle and he’s forced to call in Earth’s Mightiest Reinforcements.
It’s hard not to compare this Bendis and Maleev collaboration to their work together on Daredevil. In that Eisner Award-winning run, they tell the story of a haunted man trying not to give in to his darker impulses while internal and external forces threaten to upset a delicate balance. In Moon Knight, they, well, tell the story of a haunted man trying not to give in to his darker impulses while internal and external forces threaten to upset a delicate balance. Truth be told, Moon Knight often reads like Bendis wishes he was writing another Daredevil story. From Marc’s partnership/romance with frequent Daredevil supporting character Echo to the villains he faces – Mr. Hyde, Snapdragon, Madame Masque, and a literal (wannabe) kingpin of crime in the big bad, Count Nefaria – there’s a lot here that feels like it was transposed from a story with Matt Murdock at the center. Heck, even Bullseye makes an appearance of sorts when Marc dresses as the psychopathic assassin to test Buck Lime’s resolve. Add it all together and I had the sense that Moon Knight wound up at the center of a story better suited for someone else.
Ok, so I’ve gone on at length about Bendis’ contributions to this comic, but what about Alex Maleev’s art? There’s not a whole lot to say except that it’s pretty stellar and makes the book worth reading all on its own. Maleev’s heavy lines and use of shadow are a perfect fit for a Moon Knight book, and he frequently uses intense splashes of color – the reds and oranges in particular stand out in my memory – to emphasize the more shocking moments. He is an expert at using panel layouts – and throwing in an unexpected double-page spread every now and then – to make a scene feel dynamic, whether the focus is Marc interviewing Buck Lime for the consultant job on his TV show or Echo decking Marc after he tries to kiss her. One slight criticism I have is that the action in the larger-scale set pieces can be a little hard to follow on the first read, but that’s a minor quibble that takes nothing away from the high quality of Maleev’s work.
All told, Bendis and Maleev’s Moon Knight is an enjoyable read with a lot of interesting elements and fantastic art that nevertheless feels lacking. The absence of a defined goal for the villain and a determined effort to ground the titular hero and separate him from the supernatural elements and supporting cast that make him stand out – to the point that he almost feels like another character entirely – adds up to a very solid street-level story, but an underwhelming Moon Knight one.