Finding Identity in Warren Ellis & Declan Shalvey’s ‘Moon Knight’ #1[Review]
Moon Knight is an oddball in a comics universe peppered with oddballs. A former mercenary brought back from the dead by an Egyptian god to serve as his “fist” of retribution, MK’s origin offers a peculiar mix of brutality, insanity, and fantasy.
Those elements have been fundamental to Moon Knight since he first appeared in Werewolf by Night in 1975, created by Doug Moench and Don Perlin. Yet in the hands of successive creative teams these elements have come together in ways that muddy the character, leaving both him and the readers confused about who he is. Now it falls to the new creative team of Warren Ellis and Declan Shalvey to make it all make sense in Moon Knight #1, on sale this week from Marvel.
Here’s the bad news. This is not the Moon Knight you remember. Speaking as a fan of the character, this is a radical departure. He doesn’t even look the same.
Here’s the good news. This is a better Moon Knight than you remember. And he’s a snappy dresser. Moon Knight wears a three-piece suit now. That’s not a minor detail; it’s clearly central to Ellis and Shalvey’s conception of the character.
When I first saw Declan Shalvey’s designs for Moon Knight — white suit, white gloves, white shoes, white tie, and a white mask with a white crescent moon on the forehead — I was taken aback. Marvel is less keen on capes than its competitor DC, but that only helped make Moon Knight’s silvery cowl distinctive. A natty suit feels like the thing you would expect in a comic from Warren Ellis, co-creator of suit-wearing heroes Pete Wisdom (Excalibur), Jack Hawksmoor (The Authority), and Elijah Snow (Planetary).
But look at the suit. It’s crisp and clean against the grime and shadows. This Moon Knight is all white space and black line, without a hint of tone; a stark presence in the elegant murk created by colorist Jordie Bellaire. This suit, this tailored white costume, sends a very deliberate message. Don’t be confused. This is Moon Knight.
The story of the first issue says the same thing, first in an expository opening scene with Daily Bugle journalist Joy Mercado, and then in the book’s only flashback.
The first scene gives us the nutshell history of Moon Knight, to catch new readers up and to reassure old readers that nothing is forgotten. The second scene, which I won’t describe in any detail, is essentially a reframing of the lead character’s mental state.
Moon Knight has sometimes been an unfortunate example of comics’ cavalier attitude to mental illness, with real world diagnoses pinned to the character’s often fantastical struggles with identity. The flashback scene removes some of that stigma, but through Shalvey and Bellaire’s art it also creates ambiguity that should serve the story as it develops. We’re no longer dealing with a Moon Knight who thinks he’s someone else.
So who is Moon Knight now?
This first issue gives the character a definitive new role to play — as a protector of the night — and a distinctive vision of New York to play in. As Moon Knight aids the police in their investigation of a serial killer, the story invokes Jack the Ripper by name and echoes The Phantom of the Opera in spirit. The story is set in contemporary New York, but the creative team has carved out their own fabulist corner of the crowded city, with touches of Brechtian flourish and Victorian macabre.
And Moon Knight is the hero this beautifully derelict city needs. Daredevil left New York, and Peter Parker’s Spider-Man is long absent, but even if they were around one couldn’t imagine them against the same backdrop.
Moon Knight is now an operatic figure in pristine white, cruising the city in a driver-less stretch limousine. He is the moon at night, serene in the face of violence, unsullied in the darkness, watching over the world in the small hours. Ellis and Shalvey are myth-making here. They’ve created an identity that finally makes the character distinctive.
Of course, he’s now a costumed detective who works with the police to solve unusual crimes in the dark streets of a fictional Gotham. Moon Knight’s biggest problem has always been that he’s regarded as Marvel’s Batman — to the extent where the first result in a search for “Moon Knight” on Comic Vine is… Batman. Yet Moon Knight’s lack of clear identity has left him too easily overshadowed by that other knight.
That may not be a problem any longer. By making Moon Knight a dark night detective, Ellis and Shalvey may actually have helped set him apart. Batman moves in shadows. Moon Knight is the light. That’s the concept that Ellis and Shalvey have embraced, and that’s what elevates this version of Moon Knight above all previous incarnations. No-one will ever mistake the guy in the white suit for Batman.