Warren Ellis best work at Marvel has come when he does two things. One is when he gets to work with obscure characters who nobody remembers or really cares about. The other is when he focuses on telling one or two-issue stories. Both of these traits were present in “Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E.” and the volume of “Secret Avengers” he did. Ellis returns to this approach with this latest relaunch of “Moon Knight” with Declan Shalvey on hand to provide the art for these six issues of former mercenary/current crazy superhero Marc Spector’s exploits on the nighttime streets of New York. Though this approach results in a very readable comic, it also shows that diminishing returns are setting in as well. Unfortunately, the reason for that is part of a larger problem I’m beginning to have with the writer’s style.
All you need to know about the title character is summed up in a handy paragraph at the start of this volume. Marc Spector was a mercenary who was killed, then resurrected in the shadow of the Egyptian deity Khonshu, and subsequently went a little nuts afterward. He has since been fighting crime as the voices in his head tell him how to make the world a better place. In the previous series by Bendis and Maleev, this involved Spector hallucinating the likes of Captain America, Spider-Man, and Wolverine. Ellis acknowledges this here, but chooses to re-cast the character’s many personalities as the means by which his brain is trying to cope with being colonized by an outerterrestrial entity. Specifically, Khonshu itself.
As one of Khonshu’s aspects is protector of those who travel by night, all of the stories here focus on crimes that take place at that time in the city. Fitness enthusiasts being stalked by a serial killer, a sniper’s seemingly random targets, and people being attacked by ghosts all fall under Moon Knight’s protection here. These subjects also lend themselves to Ellis’ particular brand of weirdness as we get to see the title character take on a body-modification-obsessed ex-agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., traipse through the dreams that are infecting the members of a sleep study, and take on a dozen thugs singlehandedly in a run-down hotel.
Though the stories themselves are all pretty simple when come down to it, but the way they play out on the page is actually quite impressive. Ellis’ scripts are direct and to the point while also giving Shalvey plenty of room to show what he can do. There are some very impressive stylistic touches throughout the volume to illustrate this, and they can be simple like full-page shot of Moon Knight climbing down into the bowels of New York while we see the things that inhabit the other layers he’s passing through. More complex and eye-catching are the psychedelic sequences that take place in a diseased man’s brain and the eight-page, eight-panel-grid section where panels are removed by death. Then there’s the simple and straightforward pleasure in seeing a well-executed fight sequence as Moon Knight walks through that run-down hotel and faces down everyone inside armed only with his fists, throwing knives, and a bat. Oh yeah, and there’s also ghost-punching too. Can’t forget about that bit.
It’s also clear from these issues that Ellis and Shalvey work really well together. Though the writer establishes the gameplan and flow of each issue, the artist sees his demands as a challenge to be surmounted and opportunity to show off. In particular, the hotel fight issue could’ve been really dull since it’s just one regular guy fighting a bunch of other regular guys. Yet the particulars of the action, from the way a thug’s ankle breaks to the knife that winds up in a guy’s jaw, speak to a team who can really understand what the other is capable of. Reading this volume, I’m not surprised that they’re teaming up for a new series at Image, “Injection,” to be released next year.
Though this volume does a good job of making me interested in reading that series at some point, it also hammers home something about Ellis’ writing that’s been nagging at me for a while. Compared to a lot of other writers I follow, Ellis dialogue has some very familiar rhythms, syntax, and tics to it. The direct, virtually expository, nature of most of the dialogue. People talking about strange things before following it up with a quip -- like the psychologist who tells Spector about his mental state finishing up with “Smile.” Ideas like “You’ve been breathing in his dreams” being thrown out on the page and not followed up on. Compared to other comic book writers I follow, Ellis has a very codified style to his dialogue that was very entertaining to me when I first encountered it in “Transmetropolitan.” Years later, his dialogue still has some zest to it, but repetition has dulled its edge considerably. The fact here is that the more Ellis you’ve read prior to “Moon Knight,” the less impressed you’re likely to be by the words on the page.
Even so, the ideas are solid and the overall execution is sharp. My problems with the dialogue aren’t a dealbreaker when it comes to recommending this volume, though. “Moon Knight” is still a superhero comic that’s a cut above the norm and one with its own distinct style. As good as Ellis and Shalvey’s take on the character is, however, it’s not so definitive as to prevent me from picking up the next volume from Brian Wood and Greg Smallwood in the future. We’ll see if the dialogue is still an issue when it comes to their interpretation.