Pulp Appeal: Moon Knight: From the Dead (guest post by Anthony Perconti)

Editors’ Note: Anthony Perconti lives and works in the hinterlands of New Jersey with his wife and kids. He enjoys good stories across many different genres and mediums. His articles have appeared in Swords and Sorcery Magazine and DMR Books Blog.

Copyright text page for Moon Knight: From the Dead, with a snippet explaining how Moon Knight gained his powers. "Mercenary Marc Spector died in Egypt, under a statue of the ancient deity Khonshu. He returned to life in the shadow of the moon god, and wore his aspect to fight crime for his own redemption. He went completely insane, and disappeared. This is what happened next."

In the early years of this century, in addition to all of the mainstream comic work that was on his plate, Warren Ellis took the time to  create a line of standalone pulp inspired one shots for Avatar comics, under the heading of “Apparat.” The goal of these 4 titles was to present specific pulp subgenres (science fiction, aviation, detective and pulp vigilante) as a first issue of a series from a parallel universe where pulps made the direct translation into comic books, without the invention of the superhero. These four one shots was Ellis’ attempt to directly create new pulp stories for a modern comic reading audience, replete with many of Ellis’ signature story tropes (mistrust of authority, highly individualistic heroes, hyper-violence, and futurism). Flash forward approximately a decade to the Marvel Comics reboot of their character Moon Knight. The first six issues of this title were written by Warren Ellis, with illustrations by Declan Shalvey.  Like the “Apparat” experiment of 2004, this story arc seems like a continuation (at least in spirit) of those comics from a parallel world; each individual issue is a standalone that combines disparate elements such as hard boiled, thriller, supernatural, psychedelic, and the consulting detective subgenre (a la Sherlock Holmes) to create a strange mishmash genre that Ellis referred to as “Weird Crime.” And boy, these comics have the bizarre factor ratcheted way up. The collection of Moon Knight: From the Dead, has more in common with Black Mask, Weird Tales, and The Shadow than it does with any modern mainstream superhero book.

Genre split illustration for Apparat by Warren Ellis for Avatar comics

In rebooting this series, Ellis took a soft approach in that all that came before in the character’s history is still canon. This is simply explained away as just the beginning of a new phase in the life of Marc Spector, with a few additional twists. The character of Moon Knight has been traditionally written as having dissociative identity disorder or multiple personalities. These other personalities included Jake Lockley, Steven Grant, and, depending how you look at it, Moon Knight himself. The white-cowled vigilante is the Egyptian moon god’s mortal avatar here on Earth after the deity resurrected Spector from the dead.  Known as the Fist of Khonshu, Moon Knight is directed by and serves the will of his divine patron. It has been argued by comics fans (and fairly, in my opinion) that this character is Marvel’s attempt at having their own in-house Batman. Arguments aside, Ellis (with the help of Shalvey), is able to sidestep this controversy by shifting the character’s visual aesthetic and creating an additional persona for Spector. Like several of Ellis’ works, each issue is a self contained story that can be enjoyed on its own, but also rewards commitment from readers as well.

Moon Knight in his raven faced costume.

In the first issue (entitled “Slasher”) we are introduced to Mr. Knight. Bedecked from head to toe in pure white, in a full face mask and a three piece suit, the consulting detective arrives on a grisly crime scene. Detective Flint of the NYPD “freak beat” has what he believes to be a new slasher killing on his hands, the victims being all physically fit specimens.  Mr. Knight disagrees with Flint’s assessment of the situation and proceeds to go on the hunt for the killer. He tracks his prey deep underground, well beneath the subway tunnels to a mothballed S.H.I.E.L.D. bunker in which a physically and mentally damaged agent is harvesting body parts from his victims and grafting them onto himself. Issue two (“Sniper”) deals with a disgruntled black ops shooter seeking revenge on his former handlers. Shalvey’s panel layouts for this issue are masterful in that as each victim is killed off, their character panels fade to white, leaving gaping blank spots on the page. Issue three (“Box”) delves deeper into the Weird as Spector contends with a case involving punk rocker ghosts terrorizing the nighttime denizens of Manhattan. Khonshu guides his avatar in donning raiment for fighting the dead, which consists of mummy bones (including bone versions of brass knuckles) and an oversized bird skull. This ghost fighter costume resembles a (bone white) plague doctor uniform from the 1600’s. Several phantoms get the stuffing beaten out of them in this issue. If this isn’t bizarre enough for you, don’t worry because the next issue, “Sleep” deals with a suspected incursion from dream space by intelligent fungal entities. The denouement at the conclusion points to something far stranger. Issue five is Ellis riffing on the film Dredd (2012) in which Mr. Knight has to battle his way up to the top floor of a building full of gangsters in order to save a hostage. This issue spotlights Spector’s brutal pragmatism as a master tactician and fighter. This is as “street level” as it gets; “Scarlet” is basically one extended bloody, nasty fight scene. In the final issue (“Spectre”), the story comes around full circle, focusing on a beat cop from issue one and his unhealthy obsession with Moon Knight.

Interior panel layout of Moon Knight: From the Dead

Ellis made the decision to jettison Spector’s traditional supporting cast of characters, although Marlene and Frenchie do make brief appearances in issue six. This iteration of Moon Knight works alone. His “companions” consist of an artificial intelligence overseeing his various vehicles and gadgets (glider, stretch limo, and drones). Moon Knight, (like many of the author’s works) is pretty light on dialogue, yet the plotting of these comics are very tight; one of Ellis’ gifts as a storyteller is that he engages with and encourages his artist collaborator(s) as equal partners in the creative process. Declan Shalvey’s art does much of the heavy lifting in keeping the story moving forward at a rapid clip. Just because the dialogue is sparse, that’s not to say that this title is devoid of ideas. Far from it; in addition to the already strange plot points that I have mentioned, Ellis presents some thought provoking twists in Marc Spector’s relationship with his divine patron. The conclusion of the first issue finds Spector in session with his mental health practitioner who contends, “You’re not insane. Your brain has been colonized by an ancient consciousness from beyond space time. Smile.”  Ellis just drops this Lovecraftian statement onto the reader’s lap, almost as an afterthought, and moves on to the next strange set piece. Another interesting wrinkle is inserted concerning the nature of Khonshu, in that the moon deity has several distinct aspects: Pathfinder, Embracer, Defender and Watcher of Overnight Travelers. This last aspect especially seems to be the prime focus of Khonshu’s guiding hand on his earthly avatar in this latest phase of his career. This mandate specifies to “bring vengeance to those who would harm travelers by night.” Spector certainly achieves this aim, with enough vengeance to spare for all comers.

Moon Knight illustration by Declan Shalvey. It's Moon Knight sitting in an easy chair with a stylized raven mask and human body in a death pose hovering in spiderwebs above Moon Knight's head.
Art by Declan Shalvey

I would contend that From the Dead is a minor work in the Warren Ellis oeuvre. It’s not as ambitious nor as epic in scope or scale as, say, Planetary or the Authority, nor does it contain the scathing social satire and black humor that was so prevalent in Transmetropolitan [Editors’ Note: The Broadswords and Blasters crew bonded partly over our love of Spider Jerusalem.] Nevertheless, these six issues are a compelling read that blur the boundary lines between genres. Is it crime fiction? A superhero book? A hero pulp? An occult detective tale? A trippy urban fantasy? I would check the “yes” box to all of the above. In addition to all of these categories, Moon Knight: From the Dead is also 100% pure high octane modern pulp fiction.

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