To the Unknown God – Warren Ellis’ “Moon Knight”

In 2014, legendary comic book writer Warren Ellis reintroduced vigilante super hero Moon Knight to Marvel Comics after a multi-year hiatus. While the violent and possibly psychotic alter ego of Marc Spector had been featured in numerous solo and team titles since his debut in 1975, Moon Knight had always been a difficult character for writers to nail down, even with multiple series enjoying fairly substantial success in their often brief runs.

Ellis, who is equally well known in comics for his original properties and revamps of preexisting characters, shook up the world of Moon Knight with a fresh approach to both character and storytelling in the span of only six issues. In 2014’s Moon Knight comic book series, technically Volume 5 of the character’s solo runs, Ellis reintroduces the vigilante hero as an isolated and probably unhinged protector of nighttime travelers and a man who is burdened by an intimate relationship with a god he cannot hope to understand.

Stalking the streets of New York is in blinding white costume and exacting furious vengeance upon those who prey upon the innocent, Moon Knight is the personification of a god’s bloodthirsty wrath. It’s an all-consuming purpose that both empowers and terrifies in ways that only spiritual devotion can.

Marc-Spector-(Earth-616)-Moon-KnightYou see, Marc Spector was a mercenary who was nearly killed in Egypt, but was brought back to life by Khonshu, the ancient Egyptian god of the moon, who made him his avatar on Earth. Over the years, the line between the supernatural and psychosis has blurred in Moon Knight’s many stories. The hero suffers from dissociative identity disorder (DID), which resulted in the aliases of Steven Grant and Jake Lockley, as well as hallucinations of heroes such as Captain America, Wolverine, and Spider-Man. With each writer having a different take on the veracity of Moon Knight’s supernatural connections, the mind and mission of Marc Spector became a muddled thing. Then again, many superhero stories end up becoming that after decades of continuing plot threads and revisions.

When Ellis came on board, that confusion and seeming madness was not ignored but was hammered into making sense. Khonshu is a deity with five aspects – Pathfinder, Embracer, Defender, The Watcher of Overnight Travelers, and The One Who Lives on Hearts. When the Egyptian god resurrected Spector, he imposed his will and desires upon him. Spector is driven by Khonshu’s agency and the will of an “outerterrestrial being” such as Khonshu is simply far too much for his mind to handle. As Khonshu cycles through his aspects, Spector’s brain attempts to process it all, leading to multiple personalities and a vigilante whose degrees of heroism and viciousness are propelled by a god he can never fully understand. Crucially, this exposition comes not from Spector himself, but from a suitably ominous psychoanalyst who explains the dynamic to the hero.

Simply put, the burden of being forced into a relationship with a god has permanently damaged Marc Spector’s brain. It’s an extreme interpretation of personal struggles with religion, but this is comic books, after all. How many believers can purport to truly understand every aspect of their religions? Are there not numerous ideas deeply embedded into the fabric of Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and more that are the source of eternal debate and constant reinterpretation? Spector’s relationship with a god whose motives and nature are even more obfuscated than most deities throughout time serves as a sharp reflection of how mankind has continually struggled with the concept of spirituality and greater purpose within the universe. This tale simply has cooler costumes, more gadgets, and loads more action.

spector-moon-knight-religionWhile Ellis’ brief run with artist Declan Shalvey was followed by two more writer-artist teams, he set the precedent for what was to follow. Ellis and Shalvey’s six-issue run consisted of six standalone issues, each telling a story that saw Moon Knight intervene in unconnected instances of strange and selfish crime as one of his various crimefighting personas. As the suit-wearing Mr. Knight, Spector is a reserved yet extremely violent detective. As the cape-wearing Moon Knight, Spector uses gadgets and athletic prowess to take down bigger targets. Ensconced in various pieces of ancient Egyptian mystical garments, Spector is able to fight ghosts and various supernatural enemies. While the correlation is never clearly stated, it seem as though each persona embodies one of Khonshu’s aspects, with Spector even transitioning between them in the course of single issues. While this is further illustrated in the follow-up stories written by Brian Wood and Cullen Bunn, it is given initial life within the text of Ellis’ tales.

While in costume, Spector is almost unstoppable to the degree of being akin to a slasher film villain like Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers, except with slightly more conscience and a lot more intelligence. From start to finish of each issue, Moon Knight is a force of pure will and extreme focus. Though the answers to the mysteries he tackles may not be clear from the start, he moves about in the world with an unshakeable drive that can be terrifying. His rescue of a young girl in the story “Scarlet” sees the hero work his way through dozens of armed men and multiple flights of an apartment to rescue a kidnapped girl. Although the fight is far from easy, he cuts through his targets and moves ever forward with the tenacity and lethal nature of a great white shark. Most terrifyingly, the end of the issue sees him speak to a dying criminal, telling him to warn everyone in the afterlife to run when they see Moon Knight.

moon-knight-warren-ellis-declan-shalvey-comicEach standalone issue comes to an abrupt end once Moon Knight has dismantled his target. There is no room for denouement, only the swift judgment of Khonshu’s avatar. While those sudden endings may cause confusion or frustrate those looking for a more complete three-act structure, they demonstrate the brutal and merciless nature of a god and his follower.

That striking single mindedness is underlined in Shalvey’s art and the art of following arcs. While every panel is drawn and colored in fine detail, Moon Knight himself is rendered in stark black and white, with no shadows or stains ever obscuring his costume. As a result, the hero sticks out in any environment. When asked who he is, Moon Knight responds with “The one you see coming.” There is no hiding or humanity in Moon Knight, only supernatural vengeance that strikes fear into hearts, even from a distance.

The same cannot be said for Spector himself.

Following a fight against a serial killer in Ellis’ very first issue, we follow Spector back to his dilapidated mansion, where he sits in the dark, surrounded by cobwebs and the ghostly images of his other personalities. As Spector removes his mask, we see a far more human and anguished face. In front of him, the embodiment of Khonshu, wearing a suit and shown as having the skull of a massive bird for a head. He says but one thing, “You are my son.” And in response, Spector is distraught.

Khonshu-Moon-Knight-analysis

Khonshu’s paternal relationship with Spector is far removed from the father-son deity of Jesus Christ and God the Father. Khonshu is a distant and callous god who rarely provides comfort and wisdom. He rules with the cold reservation befitting many ancient religions. To follow him is to be his son, but the relationship rarely brings favor or mercy, only justice meted out to others through his avatar. There is no greater purpose in a relationship with an unknowable god than to bring about his indecipherable will without questioning its motives.

Tellingly, Mr. Knight’s encounter with a group of ghost punks (yes, punks who are ghosts) sees the hero thoroughly beaten. When he confronts Khonshu about the matter, it is clear that his god has let him fail on purpose so that Spector can further rely on him. Eventually, the Egyptian god reveals that the massive amounts of ancient Egyptian artifacts that Spector has been collecting (which he does not remember doing) will give him the power to fight the supernatural. This is a lesson of reliance upon god, but one that is taught through violence, both done to and done by Moon Knight.

moon-knight-marc-spectorReligions across the world ask their followers to worship and trust in entities that are, by definition, higher and, to various degrees, unknowable to their congregations. To submit one’s will to a god is to enter into a pact in which the follower’s life is forfeit to the will of a higher being. Most often, a defining quality of gods is their benevolence, which suffuses even the most sacrificial religions with the idea that what is being done is in the best interests of followers and the world as a whole.

But what about a god whose ultimate character is not only unknowable, but, by definition, ever changing? What happens to a follower who has been brought into the flock, not by his own will, but by the sheer will of his god? During Ellis’ six issues, Spector embraces the power that has been given to him, likely because of its inescapable nature, and he makes a difference in New York City in his own way. But the toll on the man is clear. While Spector once partnered with others during his war on crime, he now works completely alone, even having his limousine and plane piloted by A.I.

Follow-up writer Wood went on to explore the idea of Khonshu abandoning Spector in favor of a new avatar (the therapist who diagnosed Spector and who craves the god’s power) and the further dichotomy of his multiple personalities. Following these issues, the next writer, Bunn, would dabble in the idea of other people within New York being empowered by Khonshu in one way or another, often satisfying the god’s vicious aspects in far more lethal ways than Spector. In each of these cases, there is an impenetrable and terrifying notion concerning the god. Why shouldn’t a deity like Khonshu have more than one follower? And given his multiple faces, why shouldn’t those other followers be horrifying, even in relation to a lethal vigilante like Moon Knight?

moon-knight-ellis-analysisSpector’s only decision, time and time again, is to redevote himself to the god who has forcefully made his life his own. Perhaps by truly embracing the will of his savior, Spector can be the man he must be in order to satisfy all aspects of Khonshu.

When the hero is targeted by a man calling himself Black Spectre (after a deceased former enemy of Moon Knight), he quickly takes apart his enemy despite the foe’s months of planning. Before walking away, Moon Knight offers Black Spectre some insight. “Let me tell you something about me,” says Spector. “People who love me suffer and die. I never wanted to be loved. That’s why I always win.”

Love plays no part in the will of Khonshu or the motives of Moon Knight. That is why he serves only justice, without a hint of mercy to be seen. It’s a bitter, cruel relationship that only brings safety to the world by heaping shocking violence upon those who fall into its narrow crosshairs. And as Spector searches for any moment of solace in his relationship with a god that can never be truly known, he finds momentary fulfillment in a life he never truly wanted.

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One thought on “To the Unknown God – Warren Ellis’ “Moon Knight”

  1. Pingback: The 30 Greatest Antiheroes in Fiction (Part 2 of 2) – Crisis on Infinite Thoughts

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