It’s almost impossible to trust Marvel’s new Moon Knight comic, because none of the scenes on its pages might actually be happening.
Born back in 1975, Moon Knight was easily interpreted as Marvel Comics’ off-kilter riff on Batman. Soldier-of-fortune Marc Spector started wearing a silver-and-white hood/cape combo after Egyptian moon god Khonshu resurrected him following a fatal betrayal. He was a creature-of-the-night hero with a buttload of moon-themed tools and a wealthy alter ego named Steven Grant. The main differentiation presented with Moon Knight was an increase in scale: he didn’t have one secret identity; he had three. In addition to the Grant and Spector identities, he also spent time as cab driver Jake Locksley. His Alfred-alike European aide-de-camp was a French fighter pilot buddy from Spector’s mercenary days who piloted the sweet-arse crescent-shaped moon copter.
The quadruple-identity gimmick soon gave rise to the idea that Moon Knight wasn’t just role-playing the lives of different people but actually mentally imbalanced. The subtext that floated around Batman for decades — that Bruce Wayne was as insane as the Joker, Scarecrow or other villains — became text in Moon Knight. In adventures that evoked slasher psycho-horror tropes, various creators played around with the idea that Moon Knight was actually mentally ill, and it simply became an accepted fact that Marc Spector was a high-functioning schizophrenic.
He was the house weirdo during a late 1980s run in West Coast Avengers, haunted by his voices of multiple identities that his teammates never knew about.
Moon Knight went back to being a solo act and his questionable sanity became a mainstay in the many solo series, guest appearances and team memberships throughout his publishing history.
A 2011 take by Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev upped the ante even more, with Moon Knight’s skull playing host to apparitions of Wolverine, Captain America and Spider-Man after relocating to Los Angeles. Spector even dressed up as Spidey and wielded paraphernalia that allowed him to approximate the styles of those characters.
After that, a series launched in 2014 by creators Warren Ellis and Declan Shalvey backed away from the notion that Spector had any kind of clinically diagnosable multiple personality disorder.
Instead, the series posited that he was on just the right side of unhinged, wearing bright white outfits because he wanted evildoers to see him coming.
Two months ago, another Moon Knight title debuted, with a first issue by Jeff Lemire, Greg Smallwood, Jordie bellaire and Cory Petit that has Spector waking up in a One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest-style sanatorium. Lemire doesn’t dismiss any of the character’s publishing history, as sometimes happens when new creators come onto superhero properties.
Instead, Spector’s being told that his entire career as Moon Knight has been a years-long hallucination that he fantasised while in custody.
The queasy sense that none of the proceedings are actually anchored in reality is the most appealing aspect about the current Moon Knight series so far. Every curve the story throws at readers feels like it might be the one that leads to the truth. The psychiatrist who tells Spector that he’s never been Moon Knight, the other hooded hero he watches on the TV screen, the Egypt-enveloped Manhattan he gazes on after fighting past dog-headed guards… they could all be true. This is superhero comics, after all, and any bizarre possibility is plausible.
Moon Knight always looked like something a high school kid would sketch in a notebook during maths. Lemire and Smallwood have fun with that, in panels that show scribble-covered drawings of Spector’s feverish night-avenger fantasy. In last week’s issue #2, Khonshu tells Spector that what’s really happening is that the Egyptian pantheon’s outer-dimensional war has bled into the plane of humanity. Like all of the story so far, that bit of exposition walks the fine line of believability. Hell, the doubt hovering around the narrative still persists, even when it’s revealed that several old Moon Knight cast members are also in the asylum and can see the macabre visions Marc does. Some sort of handhold on reality will need to be established; that’s just the way of things. But part of the appeal of Moon Knight has always been not knowing whether to trust the character’s sense of his own self. He’s not a hero who howls at the moon. He thinks he is the moon. That’s someone to worry about.