"Where is My Mind?" - Moon Knight by Lemire, Smallwood, Bellaire and More

 Moon Knight
Written by Jeff Lemire
Art by Greg Smallwood, James Stokoe, Francesco Francavilla, and Wilfredo Torres
Color Art by Jordie Bellaire and Michael Garland
Letters by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics

“With your feet on the air and your head on the ground
Try this trick and spin it, yeah
Your head will collapse
If there's nothing in it”
          - Where is my mind, The Pixies

Like many people (including me), you might not have read many (or any) Moon Knight stories. So, here's what you need to know going into this particular story. Moon Knight is a character with kind of a weird history. He's clearly something of a Batman knockoff, but with this other element of the supernatural and Egyptian mythology thrown in.  He's a mercenary named Marc Spector who's on a mission gone bad and left for dead in the desert. His life is saved by the Egyptian god of vengeance Khonshu, and he becomes Khonshu's aspect on Earth, taking on Khonshu's mandate to protect travelers of the night.

Over the years Spector has taken on a number of different identities in his time as Moon Knight, most notably tough-talking cab driver Jack Locksley and wealthy playboy and film producer Steven Grant. Moon Knight's history has evolved such that he may have Dissociative Identity Disorder, and these identities may be different personalities in Marc's psyche. Or, they might be attempt by his mind to make sense of the divine presence of Khonshu inside his mind. But Marc's mental state has been a running theme of Moon Knight stories in recent years (another highlight of which is the 6-issue run from Warren Ellis, Declan Shalvey and Jordie Bellaire, which I highly recommend).

This Moon Knight story begins with ethereal visions of Khonshu (as seen above), but then moves quickly to a bleak, decrepit mental hospital (think One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) where Marc Spector is being held. According to the staff, he's been a resident there since he was twelve years old. But he's sure that he was the superhero Moon Knight. Or was he? He recognizes some of the other patients as people from his life.  He and they eventually attempt an escape and discover that New York City has been taken over by a giant pyramid and other markers of ancient Egypt, with the streets of Manhattan filling with sand. And the story only gets more interesting and confusing from there. One minute we're in the glamorous life of wealthy producer Steven Grant on the set of the Moon Knight movie he's making, and next we're on the rough streets of a dark, gritty, Taxi Driver-era New York with cab driver Jake Locksley, then on the moon as the futuristic Moon Knights prepare to battle the Space Wolves that have taken over Earth, and lastly in the mind of Marc Spector as we see him move from being a troubled young boy, to mercenary, to hero.    

Lemire and his co-creators are not telling a traditional superhero comic story. I don’t believe there’s any villain to be found here. This entire journey seems to be taking place inside Marc's mind, or possibly in some other inter-dimensional plane of existence, or perhaps some combination of the two. But it's a remarkably wide-ranging journey, and this story wouldn't work as well as it does without the work of stellar artists Greg Smallwood and Jordie Bellaire, with additional (highly memorable) art from James Stokoe, Francesco Francavilla, and Wilfredo Torres. We’ll get to the incredible contributions of Stokoe, Francavilla, and Torres, but it’s with Smallwood and Bellaire that we need to start. 

I was already somewhat familiar with Smallwood’s work, as he was the artist on the arc of Moon Knight (written by Brian Wood) that immediately followed the Ellis/Shalvey/Bellaire arc (frankly, a very tough act to follow). I was impressed with Smallwood’s work there, but honestly nothing would’ve prepared me for the work he does with Bellaire in bringing the story to life. From the very first image of the above story, it’s clear that the art team here is swinging for the fences. There are so many thoughtful creative choices being made by Smallwood and Bellaire in this series. 

The way in which we are meant (I believe) to read this series is in a state of confusion. We’re not supposed to know what’s real, what’s a dream, or what’s some sort of hallucination. But Smallwood and Bellaire do provide some level of visual coding in the series. Particularly Bellaire, who (as always) does masterful and varied work. In these initial pages, and in subsequent scenes where Marc encounters the god Khonshu, the coloring has an entirely ethereal, scratchy, slightly fuzzy quality to it. And the line work is less precise. The effect of this is to give these sequences a more dreamlike feel, which perfectly reinforces the confusion and unreality of the situation. These initial pages (and the periodic returns to this dream-space, which might also be the "Othervoid", another plane of existence) reminds me of the dreamlike work of Bill Sienkiewicz, which is entirely appropriate since (a) his art often has a similar "this looks insane, what the hell is going on" feel to it, and (b) he was the artist on Moon Knight comics for a number of years.

But when the story moves to the inside of the mental institution, the coloring becomes somewhat more grounded. As seen in the below image, the characters within the mental hospital have a more "realistic" color scheme, but there' still something of a slightly grainy quality to the work, which both feels like an allusion to Egypt and sand, and also feels like it's creating a little bit of a sense of unreality, even in this more mundane "reality" of the story. Another aspect of the storytelling I appreciate in the "main" part of the story is that, as seen below, most of the characters are wearing white, and the pages all have white backgrounds. Even on the pages with darker art, the white backgrounds can give a sense that the panels are floating on a sea of nothingness. There are no panel borders, so we can see, again and again, the color of Marc or the orderlies' uniforms simply blend into the nothingness of the background. On some pages there is no background at all, so it's just characters wearing white surrounded by white. Those seem to be used on emphasis of certain emotional moments, and the effect is almost overwhelming.
Smallwood makes so many interesting and thoughtful artistic choices in this series that really contribute to the feeling of disorientation and unreality throughout the series. One great aspect is the notebooks. In some scenes as Marc is meeting with Dr. Emmet (as above), we see glimpses of the scribbles inside Marc's notebook (and we can imagine that he has had many such notebooks over the years). One issue of the series actually begins with those same few pages from the notebook. I love when an actual notebook shows up as a page of a comic. If you've read My Favorite Thing is Monsters (which, you should, it's fantastic, intense storytelling), the entire comic is told in painstaking, intricate detail through the pages of a young person's notebook.

This isn't quite that, but here we do get to see Marc's ideas abut becoming "Jake Locksley, cab driver", and his ideas for various weapons he could use in his war against crime. These really do feel like the designs of an imaginative child, or a man who has lost all touch with reality, and these pages are very effective at showing us what the story wants to tell us at that time (which is the idea that maybe Marc really is insane, he's imagined the whole thing).

Another place where Smallwood uses every aspect of the page in service of storytelling is with regard to panel layout and design. Firstly, he makes tremendous use of negative space throughout the series (givng so many of the pages a sense of "floating in the void". And with regard to the panels themselves, he uses several distinct techniques that are additive to the storytelling. Firstly, in one instance, as Marc is being apprehended by the cruel orderlies and knocked unconscious, the whole page is just a series of shrinking horizontal panels that get darker and darker as Marc fades into unconsciousness. This is a fantastic technique, as the panels can be read horizontally with the consecutive images, but they can also be read vertically, as we see the panels darken and shrink, we understand that Marc's consciousness and his resistance to the efforts of the orderlies is also shrinking into nothingness.

A similar (but not identical) technique is used to convey something very different. On certain pages, you can see a series of shrinking horizontal panels, but in these pages, it doesn't lead to a moment of surrender for Marc. Rather, it leads to a moment of resistance from him, as he fights back against the captors inside his mind. There's a small circular panel at the bottom of those pages, and only when you reach the bottom do you realize that the entire page is an exclamation point! You get the feeling on these pages that Marc is fighting back, and perhaps stirring himself to be more awake and alert in the battle inside his own mind.  There are other creative panel layout choices made as well, such as in those instances (such s below) where the panels follow some chaotic action, and they have a very "back and forth" quality which conveys the sense of disorientation, as you could imagine in a film as a camera follows around a chaotic battle scene, checking in with each of our main characters.

Smallwood also does something else a few times in the pages of Moon Knight. One of my favorite things in comics is when the sound effects lettering actually contains the comic storytelling. So, in the below page, when Moon Knight frees Marc Spector (don't ask, just go with it) from chains, rather than just show a breaking chain with a sound effect above or below, the entire "panel" is the "CHAK" of the breaking chain, and the line art is contained within the sound effect. Does it mean anything in the broader context of the story? No, probably not. But it's an effect that I absolutely love. Another great example of this can be found in the work of Nathan Fox in the terrific Captain Victory and the Galactic Rangers series from 5-6 years ago (another book with people struggling with reality that I hghly recommend).

Another example of Smallwood's thematic consistency and commitment to creative use of panel structure is that when you take the proverbial step back and look at the page as a whole, you realize that the entire page looks like the link of a chain, and is meant to symbolize the chain that's being broken. That's thoughtful, clever storytelling.

Smallwood's work with Bellaire is masterful in conveying the reality and unreality of Marc's situation, but he's not the only line artist on this series. In most cases I don't enjoy the way in which superhero comics can frequently change artists. Sometimes this even happens within the span of a single issue. I'm not a fan of this, unless there's a very specific reason to do so that's rooted in art and story, rather than the grueling demands of comic book publishing. A very recent example of this that I thought worked very well was the first issue of Strange Adventures (written by Tom King) where the present-day part of the story is illustrated by Mitch Gerads in a great, washed-out way, and the flashback sequences are done by Evan Shaner is his classic silver-age style. Similarly, in Moon Knight, the creative team makes fantastic storytelling choices. The comic has alluded to the various personas that Marc Spector has adopted over the years, but these are more than just "identities" that he has assumed.

It seems relatively clear in the story that Marc may have Dissociative Identity Disorder (i.e., what people used to refer to as Multiple Personality Disorder, which isn't a real thing) and so Jake Locksley isn't the same sort of thing as when Bruce Wayne puts on a fake mustache and goes into the criminal underworld as "Matches Malone". No, Jake Locksley and Steven Grant are their own distinct identities. And what better way to bring this distinction to life than to have completely different artists bring to life Marc's experiences as these separate identities. So the comic brings a veritable murderer's row of stunning and distinctive artists to issues #5-9. And the other artists here each have styles that could not be more different from Smallwood, or each other. 

First, there's the futuristic story of the "Moon Knights" in the future. Earth has been overrun by Space Wolves, and humanity has fled to the Moon, under the protection of the Moon Knights, the leader of which is Marc Spector. This is a story of what is ultimately a lost cause. Marc and his Moon Knights are vastly outnumbered by the Space Wolves, and ultimately overrun. These pages are bought to life in stunning work by the fantastic James Stokoe. 

Stokoe is known for his manga-influenced, hyper-detailed style in works such as Orc Stain and Godzilla: The Half-Century War (a personal favorite of mine). No matter the outlandishness of the premise, Stokoe brings a level of care and thought to his work that is unmatched, such that the artwork carries a level of weight and gritty verisimilitude within the confines of the story (even when we're talking about Godzilla). This level of detail gives the "Moon Knights" pages a dark and lived-in feel like Aliens or Blade Runner.We (the reader) have been dropped into a gritty sci-fi epic, which provides an amazing contrast to what we've seen so far from Smallwood and Bellaire.

Speaking of contrasts, the story moves from the world of the Moon Knights and Space Wolves to one that's about as far afield as you can get. The story moves into the world of wealthy movie producer Steven Grant. This world is bright and sunny and down-to-earth and all of that is brought to terrific life by the team of line artist Wilfredo Torres and color artist Michael Garland. Torres is a talented artist whose work falls in the general school of neo-classic artists such as Darwyn Cooke, Doc Shaner or Chris Samnee. However, Torres has very much his own style. It’s a very clean style with terrifically dynamic lines (a great style for portraying attractive, well-dressed people). He's also a fantastic (and economical) sequential storyteller. This part of the story is the more grounded (but also stylish and beautiful) story of Hollywood producer Steven Grant and his significant other, glamorous actress Marlene Alraune.

Torres' style is extremely well-suited for telling the story of a wealthy producer living a modern and stylish life. It's also a trip into the realm of meta-fiction (which Torres has done more recently in Bang!, with Matt Kindt), as Marlene is one of the stars of, and Steven is the producer of, a Moon Knight movie, the new movie from Marvel Comics! So Marlene is playing one of Moon Knight's villains, and the scenes that are reality in one world are actually just movie sets in another. Garland uses flat, bright colors to give this part of a story a very upbeat and classic feel. The colors and linework here couldn't be more of a contrast to the ethereal grime of Smallwood's mental hospital, or the retro-futuristic look of Stokoe's Moon Knights.

Which is why it's great there's one more contrasting art style in this story, and the "Jake Lockley" part of the tale is brought to moody, gorgeous life by Francesco Francavilla. Francavilla is a spectacular artist whose work I first became aware of in the Batman: Black Mirror story. He's done some incredible comic storytelling in the terrifying Afterlife with Archie and The Black Beetle, and is just generally a great follow for covers and other art. Francavilla's pulpy style and limited color palate (dominated by blues and oranges) is perfect for the grimy, street-level world of Jake Lockley. His New York is a New York that doesn't even exist anymore, and is somewhere between a pulpy detective novel and Taxi Driver.

Moon Knight is a story full of stunning, varied art, but it's also a story that gets at the heart of some of what Jeff Lemire does best. Lemire tells stories of sadness, loneliness and introspection better than just about anyone working in mainstream comics these days. From Sweet Tooth to Trillium to The Underwater Welder, Lemire has a remarkable skill at capturing the loneliness of characters trapped in difficult situations. Even more than that though, he’s got a great mastery of telling stories of characters trapped in their own minds, or trapped in strange situations that may or may not be real. The realm of madness and paranoia is one that Lemire skillfully captures, from The Sentry, Black Hammer, Gideon Falls to the recent Frogcatchers. And so I can't think of a better writer for this story than Lemire.

Marc seems to have had a genuinely difficult upbringing, with early onset mental illness followed by the death of his father at a relatively young age. Even before gaining powers and skills with the assistance of Khonshu, he seems to have been dealing with difficulty in processing the world. After becoming the Moon Knight, these personalities that he developed to aid his superhero efforts also seem to have also been methods of coping with the strange world in which he lives. Getting through the day can be challenging enough for anyone. You don't need to live in the Marvel universe and be visited by Egyptian deities and battle villains, killer robots, aliens, etc., to struggle with the world that you live in. We all cope with things the best way we can. And even if the idea of these completely distinct personalities is pretty far afield from the way the human mind really works, the point is clear. Marc has a troubled mind and is trying to make sense of the world the best way he can (something to which I think we can all relate during these difficult times). This entire Moon Knight series is Lemire trying to cope with all of the difficult, contradictory information that Marc has taken in during his lifetime.

First, he perceives his enemy to be the people holding him in a hospital. Then his enemy is externalized as the Egyptian god Seth. And eventually, Marc comes to see the god Khonshu, who saved his life, as his true opponent. Whether the Khonshu that Marc battles is the "real" Khonshu or only a representation of Marc's own feelings of weakness, doubt, and self-hatred, it's impossible to say. But the voice of Khonshu keeps telling him that he chose Marc because Marc has a weak and malleable mind, and that Marc must surrender and let Khonshu completely take control of his body, so that Marc will merely serve as a vessel for Khonshu.

In the end, Marc comes through this whole experience by recognizing that all of the different parts of himself are in fact what makes Marc himself. He is Marc Spector and the Moon Knight and Jake Lockley and Steven Grant. And I think Lemire is making a powerful point that resonates with me; those things that we know are our weaknesses can also be our strengths. And just because people have challenging mental health issues, that doesn't mean they're broken. Trying to find healthy ways to manage and deal with the many conflicting parts of ourselves, and remaining compassionate with and accepting of ourselves, is the struggle of life. And in this fantastical, dramatic series, Lemire and his co-creators have captured something very real about that struggle. I can't recommend Moon Knight highly enough.