FRED VAN LENTE hosts an ’80s night fight!
COMIC BOOK DEATH MATCH is a recurring column by Fred Van Lente in which the comics writer/historian takes two classic, related titles and compares them in verbal bloodsport. Actually, it’s not that serious at all. It’s FUN!
By FRED VAN LENTE
Moon Knight is often referred as “Marvel’s Batman.” Though with his multiple secret identities—mercenary Mark Spector, cabbie Jake Lockley, millionaire Stephen Grant—and “constant friend and aide” girlfriend, that doesn’t seem as accurate as describing the Fist of Khonshu as “Marvel’s The Shadow”…
…which, if you took high school algebra, you’d know to be a transitive property, as Batman is very much “DC’s The Shadow,” to the point where Bruce Wayne’s first appearance in “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate” in Detective Comics #27 is a direct ripoff by writer Bill Finger of a relatively recent Shadow adventure, “Partners of Peril.”
In fact, all nocturnal fear-based vigilantes are Sons of The Shadow (name of my college band).
My dad owned a multi-record set of Orson Welles starring as The Shadow in the old radio show, which is how I first fell in love with the character, to the point where I started checking out all the old radio dramas I could out of the library on cassette (did your local library do that?) The Shadow, who was either soldier of fortune Kent Allard or playboy Lamont Cranston, depending on whom you asked, had a cool helicopter and a network of agents working for him.
Batman kept the millionaire stuff and copter, but dumped the agents and multiple identities except when he busts out the Matches Malone outfit. Moon Knight integrates the Matches concept as a primary part of the strip in the form of his cabbie guise. Writer and co-creator Doug Moench keeps referring to MK as “schizo” almost from the very beginning, in that annoying compulsive-nickname-tic that most writers who learned to write by reading Stan Lee dialogue develop eventually (myself included).
Ultimately, this develops (with impressive subtlety, IMHO) into MK not being able to tell his various personas apart. Faster than you can say “Hank Pym Is a Wife-Beater,” in a world awash with costumed personalities this becomes his defining trait—he’s the “Split Personality Superhero” and, in less deft hands, “The Crazy Superhero,” which, while making for some hilarious memes, is something I’ve personally found off-putting, so I’ve never actually read any Moon Knight comics before this.
It would have been fun to compare both these titles to a Shadow comic, but none was published during this particular run, so to see who rules the night we’re going to have to pit the perennial champion Darknight Detective against the up-and-comer, cough, the White Shadow, month-by-month with pub-date data from our pals at Mike’s Amazing World of Comics.
Moon Knight #1: “The Macabre Moon Knight!”
When is a retcon not a retcon? In MK’s very first appearance in Werewolf by Night, evil businessmen give a mysterious mercenary a lunar-themed costume to capture Jack (Werewolf) Russell and he adopts the monicker of Moon Knight. Like Batman, Moonie then appeared in numerous comics—most frequently as a backup in the color Hulk magazine—without getting a further origin. According to editor Ralph Macchio, who championed the strip from the beginning, the feature gained enough interest from overseas publishers that Marvel decided to give him his own Direct Market-only mag—and, at last, a proper backstory.
Doug Moench and artist Bill Sienkewicz deftly set up mercenary Marc Spector, his aerial chauffeur Frenchie, his clothes-adverse “constant friend and aide” Marlene, and the source of the fortune that allows him to adopt his bored millionaire Lamont Cransto—uh, Bruce Way—uh, Steven Grant persona in a dancing-through-the-continuity-raindrops way that does not technically contradict anything that came before. No mean feat!
Batman #329: “Twice Dies the Batman!”
In this tale by Marv Wolfman and Irv Novick, Two-Face gets plastic surgery so he can look normal, but not like Harvey Dent, so he can woo the former Mrs. Dent as a “new boyfriend,” which has a creepy Hitchcockian appeal. But the plastic surgery is… temporary, for some reason? So you know coin-flipping crimes can’t be too far behind. I bet the doctor’s fee wasn’t temporary [RIMSHOT].
My favorite part of this comic is when Novick draws Two-Face shaking his fist at the moon, which has an entirely scarred One-Face in a nice touch.
Runner up: Two-Face kills a gangster when the guy shoots his spinning coin by accident and the bullet ricochets into his heart. That’s some tough luck!
Friends, I’m going to level with you. I’ve read approximately 12 million superhero comics, and I couldn’t make heads or tails of this one.
Pun… not intended? I think?
WINNER: MOON KNIGHT
Moon Knight #9: “Vengeance in Reprise”
It’s impossible to separate any success the character of Moon Knight has had with the rise of the brilliant penciller and cover artist Bill Sienkiewicz, who got his start with MK’s strip in the Hulk newsstand mag. Particularly in those early stories, Bill looked most obviously like a Neal Adams clone, an artist he famously worked for when he first got into the business. Very few people try to copy Adams because, well, he’s so good it’s really hard! But Sienkiewicz was one of the few people who could do it and do it well—the opening splash of this issue is very Adams-y, with its elongated worm’s eye view from Moonie’s back foot.
Bushman, Moon Knight’s former mercenary employer and nemesis, is back, and as MK gets increasingly desperate trying to find him, an old enemy, the cat burglar Midnight Man, steals the Khonshu statue from his mansion to put him all the way over the edge.
We’ve seen the resulting duel in a rickety scaffolding in the sewer before, but Sienkiewicz really makes it sing.
Batman #337: “Where Walks a Snowman…!”
In speaking of great artists, José Luis García-López is one of those superhero artists so well known for his cover and illustration work (like his defining model sheets for the DC heroes) that it’s always a delight to see him pencil an actual comics story, and you’re reminded of how many talents he has.
García-López works from a deeply nutty Gerry Conway/Roy Thomas story here. Somebody is freezing people during robberies in Gotham City, and the name “Mr. Freeze” is never uttered once (nor, for that matter, is “Captain Cold,” “Killer Frost,” “The Icicle,” “Frost King,” or any one of the approximately 451 winter-themed DC villains), so we have a real mystery on our hands.
Bats uncovers the diary of an albino Olympic skier that says his mom had sex with a Yeti after getting lost in the Himalayas—as one does—and this guy, The Semi-Abominable Snowman, is the result. He steals to fund his expensive travel habits, because, uh, apparently being an internationally famous athlete is more of a side-hustle in the DCU?
Is any story revolving around Yeti Sex inherently goofy? Yes. Does it look awesome? Hells to the yes.
Moon Knight #23: Perchance to Scream and Moon Knight #24: Scarlet in Moonlight
(Mike’s Amazing World says these issues came out June 1 & June 29, respectively.) Moench and Sienkiewicz are trying hard to give Moon Knight his own unique rogue’s gallery of colorful weirdo villains, just like you-know-who, but three years into the run none of them have really stuck. In “Perchance to Scream,” the monstrous Morpheus, a telepathic psycho, tracks Moon Knight and his allies to a lonely cabin in the woods where he tries to pick them off, one by one.
In “Scarlet in Moonlight,” Moon Knight tries to stop the mother of an old enemy from murdering the gangsters who led her son to a life of crime.
As is true with pretty much this entire series, we have two fairly by-the-numbers action/adventure plots embiggened by Sienkiewicz’s stunning execution, as he has fully come into his artistic own at this point.
It’s not helped by the fact the Moon Knight series is so far oddly divorced from the greater Marvel Universe, except for a random appearance by, of all people, The Thing in a fill-in issue. I suspect this is partly because the series was aimed for the foreign reprint market; or, perhaps, because it was a still-new Direct Market title, Marvel wanted it to feel different, “more adult” from the regular 616.
Batman #351: What Stalks the Gotham Night? and Detective Comics #518: The Millionaire Contract
Fortunately for me, Batman comes out twice monthly anyway, so in a June with two Moonies, Bats doesn’t get short shrift. In this era, Bat and ‘Tec had different artistic teams but the same continuity, which must have been confusing for kids buying it right off the spinner rack.
First up, in a story by Gerry Conway, and a dream team of Gene Colan and Jonah Hex co-creator Tony de Zuniga, Batman and Robin have been turned into vampires, which I have to assume is a pretty common occurrence, considering how quickly Bats whips up a cure for vampirism in the Batcave from the blood of the vamp that bit them in the first place.
Meanwhile, Alfred, no dummy, has hired Christopher Chase, the Human Target, to impersonate Bruce Wayne while he struggles with his bloodsucking problem. Unfortunately—or fortunately—in Detective #518, by Conway, Paul Levitz, and Don Newton, gang boss Rupert Thorne has hired Deadshot to assassinate Wayne for interfering with his political corruption one too many times, leading to our future favorite Suicide Squader to have deal with both Chase and the Darknight Detective.
Detective also boasts a gorgeous-looking Batgirl back-up drawn by Trevor von Eden; Batman has a Catwoman back-up by Bruce Jones and Adrian Gonzales.
Sadly, neither of these stories live up to their spectacular covers (Ernie Colon and Jim Aparo, respectively).
Moon Knight #30: The Moonwraith, Three Sixes, and a Beast
It’s old home week for Bill Sienkiewicz’s final issue on the title that launched him, as Jack Russell, the Werewolf by Night, turns to his old frenemy Moon Knight as a bunch of Satanists are trying to kidnap him and sacrifice him to Our Infernal Lord and Master because that will bring about the apocalypse, or something something. Marlene, Moon Knight’s constant friend and aide, has hypnotized Russell into not eating Moonie when he goes furry and they have a massive throwdown with the cultists who have invented demonic laser guns for some reason.
This is totally ridiculous and completely awesome. Sienkiewicz was born to draw feral werewolves and White Shadow’s throwdown with Lucifer-lovers in stupid hats. Bill goes out with a bang! Moench leaves the title soon after as well, to go work on this Batman franchise you may have heard of.
Batman #358: Don’t Mess with Killer Croc!
What Moon Knight has over Batman is Bill Sienkiewicz; what Batman has over Moon Knight and literally everybody else is his incredibly deep bench of villains (the only strip that comes close, I’d argue, is Fantastic Four, with Amazing Spider-Man trailing at third) which gets added to in this issue. You can’t tell from this iconic Ed Hannigan cover, but here we get the first full look at Tampa’s own gator wrestler-turned-would-be-crime-boss Killer Croc.
Though no real reference is made it to it this story by Gerry Conway, Curt Swan and Rodin Rodriguez, but I imagine Croc was originally supposed to have the “alligator skin” disease of ichthyosis vulgaris, which prevents the body from shedding its dead skin cells. It notoriously does not give you fangs, super-strength and the desire to fill in the void with the imprisonment of Rupert Thorne at the head of the Gotham City mobs. I can see how someone would see it as a good inspiration for a weird, Dick Tracy-style baddie.
But I would lump Killer Croc in with the likes of Blockbuster and Bane as my least favorite Bat-villains because their schtick is just to beat the snot of the Dark Knight. In fact, Croc’s whole plan for taking over Gotham’s syndicates is to kick the shit out of anyone who stands in his way, which just does not seem sustainable to me over time. Batman tracks Croc to his riverside Hell’s Point lair (based on the real-life Hell Gate). When Croc discovers Bats violating his territory, he goes berserk and, yes, pounds the crap out of him, which does not bode well for his future in managing a large, complex criminal organization.
We’re still in the era where Batman and Detective Comics flow into each other as essentially a semi-monthly title, rendering each individual issue not terribly satisfying.
WINNER: MOON KNIGHT
For the first time in the glorious history of COMIC BOOK DEATH MATCH, I have to say I didn’t… really… like… either of these runs? Batman has the edge in the writing department, but if you’re an aficionado of comics books, there’s nothing more exciting than watching a great artist find themself.
If for no other reason than to see Bill Sienkiewicz turn from a pretty talented Neal Adams clone to BILL FREAKIN’ SIENKIEWICZ, I’d definitely check out MK first.
Although as a Bill Sienkiewicz fan, you know what I’d rather check out?
OVERALL WINNER: THE SHADOW
— The Complete COMIC BOOK DEATH MATCH Index. Click here.
— NEW TEEN TITANS vs. UNCANNY X-MEN: 1980-84. Click here.
13th Dimension contributor Fred Van Lente is a comics writer, historian and playwright.