November 1, 2018

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Getting Lost in the Mind of Moon Knight by Jeff Lemire, Greg Smallwood and Jordie Bellaire

Art by Greg Smallwood

Moon Knight opens with what looks to be a standard superhero device- a villain using the heroes’ dissociation from reality as a weapon against him— the writer and artist sneakily move the story out of New York City, Gotham, or Metropolis, and into the realm of the character’s own mind, where his greatest enemy turns out to be himself. Jeff Lemire and Greg Smallwood’s Moon Knight trips through the mind of a person with a mental disorder, in this case, multiple personalities. Letting go of the usual good guys versus bad guys dichotomy of superhero comics, Lemire and Smallwood explore what it means for someone who puts on a costume and takes on a different name to be considered healthy.

Moon Knight has never been the sanest character in comics, to begin with. He takes the whole concept of secret identities to some twisted and dark corners as his alter egos are the different personalities that exist within Marc Spector’s head. Spector, Moon Knight, Jake Lockley, and Steven Grant. Soldier of fortune, superhero, taxi driver, rich playboy. The thin line that that separated Moon Knight and Batman since Moon Knight first appeared in the 1970s is that Batman is supposedly sane, minus the occasional tale like Grant Morrison’s take on the Batman of Zur-en-Arrh that could easily be a Moon Knight story. Moon Knight stories that have tried to tackle his mental health have more often than not still focused on the superhero aspect of the character, treating his disorder as something that he needs to overcome to save the day. Moon Knight stories are nearly always framed as superhero stories where his illness is portrayed more as his kryptonite than a matter of health and wellness. Lemire and Smallwood, along with a host of other cartoonists, take that battle for dominance that’s always happening in Moon Knight’s mind and put it front and center in this story as Moon Knight really is trapped in his own mind in this book.

The experience of reading Moon Knight is most likely a poor analog for anyone suffering this mental disorder but it’s also may be one of the closest experiences to the feeling of not being in control of your own being that you can get in comics. Opening in a mental institution, Moon Knight has to question what’s real and what isn’t as he questions his own sanity as it appears that one of his archenemies has him trapped. It feels like any standard story that tries to define mental health as a struggle between reality and illusion but at some point, the question of “reality” gets tossed by the wayside as the book shifts its focus toward the struggle of sickness and health. You probably don’t even know where it happens— maybe at about the part where 3 different artists start drawing the different aspects of Moon Knight’s personalities— but when you do realize it, the point of this story shifts from being another Moon Knight story into being a story about completeness and health that uses superhero metaphors to illustrate the all-to-real battles that many people fight on a daily basis.

Art by Francesco Francavilla

It’s weird to think that there are no other characters in this book but Moon Knight and his multiple personalities. As drawn by Wilfredo Torres, Francesco Francavilla, and James Stokoe, the story aspects of Steven Grant, Jake Lockley, and Marc Spector provide action and excitement to the story even as those aspects struggle to define who the real person is. Their story portions are part of the symptoms of Moon Knight’s illness while Smallwood and Bellaire draw and color the difficult road to wellness that the character is trying to navigate. While Moon Knight’s supporting characters appear in the book, there’s no real Bushmaster, no real Frenchie, no real Gena, and more importantly no real Marlene in this story even if they are featured in Moon Knight’s experiences throughout the book. If you’re a longtime Moon Knight fan, those names may mean something to you from his third-tier Marvel mythology. But for Moon Knight, each of those people represents an aspect of his multiple personalities, memory fragments of the many people that he is. Projections of them appear throughout the book, guiding Moon Knight’s journey through a mish-mashed symbolical landscape but that’s all they are- projections of memories that have contributed to the life and adventures of Moon Knight.

Even with the other artists contributing art, Smallwood and colorist Jordie Bellaire chronicle this journey from sickness to health with a naturalism that makes Moon Knight’s struggles all the more relatable. Torres, Francavilla, and Stokoe are there to illustrate the fracturing of a mind and perception but Smallwood and Bellaire's art unifies these many personalities, bringing them together in the guise of Mr. Knight, the white-suited and simple masked version of Moon Knight. Even when Mr. Knight seemingly steps into the cosmos to interact with the Egyptian gods, Smallwood and Bellaire create a visual identity to the story that unifies the healing.
Art by Greg Smallwood

As the story itself has a number of personalities, they all come back to the vision of Smallwood and Bellaire who really define the conflicts in Moon Knight’s head. As Lemire is not writing a standard superhero story of good versus evil, Smallwood and Bellaire’s artwork is not limited by the standard props of superhero comics. And while parts of this book use the basic language of mainstream comics, most of the art tries to use that language to show the inner battle that Moon Knight is fighting. Sometimes it looks familiar and benign but at other times, the art becomes disorienting and difficult to contextualize within the boundaries of what we think clarity and health should be.

Reading Moon Knight is like being in a constantly shifting dream. Everything looks and feels like it could be real even as a small voice in the back of our minds screams that nothing is real. Everything becomes the machinations of a mind that is forming its own reality. Only for most of us, we wake up and reality does take over as the dream fades into memory. Jeff Lemire, Greg Smallwood, and Jordie Bellaire show us that for some people, it’s not as easy as waking up to find some semblance of normal again.

Moon Knight
Written by Jeff Lemire
Art by Greg Smallwood
Colors by Jordie Bellaire
Additional art by Wilfredo Torres & Michael Garland, 
Francesco Francavilla and James Stokoe
Lettered by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics