Moon Knight #1

The first time I read a Brian Michael Bendis comic, I already felt late to the party. Here was an edgy new auteur in black and white indie crime comics, with a fluid and bold art style, and a weak enough grasp of conventional wisdom about the written word that he wasn’t practiced enough not to transcribe whip-smart, phonetically written and naturalistic dialogue direct from his Mamet-saturated brain to his character’s mouths.

But I didn’t find out about him til Jinx, in 1996. By that point he already had a few years of these street-level comics, about people living sordid little lives on the fringe of society. I had to go looking for hard-to-find collections of his old work.

(Jinx was the strikingly handsome chick bounty-hunter that ended up giving her name to the Jinxworld forum, and I’d be surprised if Mr Bendis ever really expected that space to become the hub of comic fandom that it is now.)

He transitioned into the more fantastical worlds that the comic mainstream is most famous for in the US via a similarly unconventional route, when he was recruited to explore the grittier corner of the all-style-no-substance Spawn universe in Sam And Twitch, which he approached as a straight-up police procedural, bringing humanity and understatement to that particular Image comics paradigm, and later he explored narrative ambiguity and experimented in abstract unease in the same universe, while also giving Ashley Wood a showcase for his incredible evolving expressionistic art in Hellspawn.

Bendis has dabbled in autobiography, and married his writing style to Oeming’s minimalistic dynamism with Powers, and revisited similar ground to Jinx but with a more terse style in the excellent and bleak Alias.

At which point he got yanked into the Marvel mainstream, by way of a star turn on Daredevil, and quickly ended up in the role that only recently got formalised, as one of three or four people basically writing all of the major books coming out of the company. This is when by necessity his writing style distilled itself down to the basic beats of linguistic quirks and snappy dialogue that it became for years, across dozens of titles, and everything was pretty much to the service of moving along huge, committee-run plotlines.

I mention all this for a reason.

I think Moon Knight #1 is as near to Bendis vintage as I’ve seen in a while. Apparently fandom isn’t loving the book as much as I did, and I’m not sure why that is, but if I had to guess, I’d say it’s because fandom loves Bendis for the continuity porn he’s been writing for the last few years, and the dialogue ticks he’s known for, rather than for what he used to do best and what got him noticed, which is push out in new directions.

(Scarlet throws this slightly out of whack, but honestly, as much as I like that book, it’s the establishment commenting on the anti-establishment, and I’m finding it a technically brilliant and interesting exercise but it’s pretty safe ground for the creative team, considering the subject matter.)

The book joins Marc Spector, the titular Moon Knight, where he has relocated in LA. He’s now a TV producer, allowing for a brilliant piece of early misdirection in the book, and he’s also… look, the point of the book is that Moon Knight is mental. And the character’s history is mental. And this first issue is… mental.

So the main elements of this book are that a) Moon Knight is mental. Specifically, he has dissociative identity disorder, and b) he’s the only real vigilante option in LA.

And Captain America, Spider-Man and Wolverine are in it. And there’s some vaguely mystical stuff about Moon Knight’s Egyptian origin, but really that’s by the by, because this book is more about tone than plot. Which makes it more fun than most of the books Marvel have on the shelf right now.

There are a few moments of typical Bendis dialogue which remind you who you’re dealing with, but there’s also some changing up of style early on that shows you that while he has taken the easy road on dialogue in recent years, this is a writer who has more tools at his disposal. The action sequences play out with appropriate pace as well, and when most recent exposure to Bendis’ writing has been in team books, or titles where fight scenes are crowded out by internal dialogue or wisecracking camaraderie, this looks like incredible restraint on his part. The book flows from scene-setting to investigation to confrontation to character play remarkably well.

And this is all helped by a brilliant job from Alex Maleev, whose career has followed an eerily similar path to his regular writing buddy, and his work here runs parallel, too. Maleev’s early work on The Crow books was sketchy and realistic, and he transitioned into a bold clear-line style for the Batman books, circa No Man’s Land, but he didn’t really hit his own trademark style until he and Bendis teamed up on Daredevil, with scratchy but near photo-perfect characters, and super-detailed real-world settings, but a clear eye on composition and storytelling.

But as with Bendis, the style seemed to be what impressed people more than the substance, and his art developed further into the photo-real, and further away from the well-composed storytelling, culminating in the work that both did on the flawed but interesting Spider-Woman. By that time, Maleev’s pages were glorious to look at, but almost completely static, and while a reliance on reference has to carry some of the blame, the over-working of rendering technique doesn’t help.

He’d taken a step back from that with Scarlet, but that book by necessity requires a real-world veracity that stops it being truly fluid.

Because of that, the leap of faith that Maleev has taken with his art style in this book makes the contrast between this and his other recent work seem impossible. Bold line-work and experiments with composition and negative space make this book look like it’s by a whole other artist, but they also mean that he manages to do something that he hasn’t done as well in years, which is control the tone and pace of the book through technique shifts in the art. This looser style also makes for more fluid character work, and more movement on the page.

The Moon Knight costume design helps, here, and like Bill Sienkiewicz before him, Maleev makes a lot of use of the iconic and simple shapes of the cowl and cape. I don’t think it’s an accident that Sienkiewicz’s name has come up in some of the early press for this book – it’s clear that Maleev’s work here is heavily influenced by the other artist’s early work on the character, and while his developing style doesn’t copy Sienkiewicz, it uses a lot of the same broad strokes.

(The truth is, I guess, that a lot of comic artists in the more fine-artsy mode can’t help but be post-Sienkiewicz, but it seems obvious that Maleev is acknowledging the man’s early 80s work at Marvel here.)

Bendis’ script also gives heavy nods to the writing of the late 70s and early 80s, and the combination of the two modern creators and their backward looking approach to technique for this book makes for a really unusual read, that for the most part works perfectly. More importantly, though, for the first time in ages it feels like each of them is just kicking loose and having fun, and that makes it a fun ride for the reader. In the high-output, high-cost arena of Marvel books, maybe audiences don’t have a lot of time or money for books that don’t push forward the company continuity that much, but I crave fun from my comics.

If I had to complain about one thing, it’s that the cover, while a pretty cool image, totally demolishes the main story beat of the whole book. I know that the content and concept of the book had already been discussed at length in some fandom hot-spots, but as someone who doesn’t spend much time in those places, and as such didn’t know what to expect from this book, it seemed a shame that such a strong pay-off was squandered like that.