To begin, a weird observation about life in the 21st century: suddenly people really like Moon Knight. Now, I like that dude just fine - actually, scratch that. In forensic frankness, Moon Knight has long been a “fave” of mine. Kind of hard to dislike the character once you’ve read that first volume of his solo ongoing, with the co-creator—Doug Moench—writing the formative first draft of the character for Bill Sienkiewicz to draw. That series ran from 1980 to 1984, with Moench & Sienkiewicz sticking around until the middle of 1983, and is in the running for the most beautiful stretches of comics Marvel has ever published.
Let me be clear about this: I cannot possibly give a higher recommendation for any superhero book than the Moench/Sienkiewicz Moon Knight. I’ll even go one step further and make an additional recommendation. If you haven’t already, please take the extra step of tracking down what I consider to be the definitive editions of those stories: the Essential Marvel volumes Essential Moon Knight 1 & 2. For just shy of two decades, Marvel got in the habit of offering cheap black & white newsprint reprints of their best series, thick phone books that usually clocked in at somewhere between 500-600 pages for less than an Andrew Jackson. They discontinued the line in 2013, which is a damn shame, because while the whole line was quite readable there were a few books, such as the Sink’s Moon Knight and Gene Colan’s The Tomb of Dracula as well, that benefitted significantly from being seen in the nude. Figuratively speaking. One of their best-ever reprint formats, and I’d love to see them make a comeback.
And that’s no shade on the respective colorists, mind, but a testament to just how interesting Sienkiewicz’s work during those years was. It’s the run that made his name, more or less. When he drew his first Moon Knight story, for the backup strips in Marvel’s b&w The Hulk! magazine from 1979-80, he was still in thrall to Neal Adams. As is well-known. And it’s not like he’s the only one who started in that shadow, to be fair. Adams was a beast of an artist with an inhuman grasp of fundamentals, and learning to draw like him meant, perforce, obtaining an inhuman grasp of fundamentals. Sienkiewicz was therefore on solid ground when he started to branch out and get weird. You can see by the last pages of Moon Knight #30, an expressionistic sequence in a rainy Manhattan, approaching full abstraction without sacrificing an inch of readability. Just take a look at that last page, with special guest the Werewolf (by Night) running off into the dark while the reflections of streetlamps melt around him. Enough to take your breath away, even after four decades.
Incidentally, you know who we have to thank for Bill Sienkiewicz? Vince Colletta. He was the guy who first saw that portfolio and made the call. Imagine that.
So, if you’re still following along: the whole of Sienkiewicz’s contribution to the character can be found in the first two volumes of Essential Moon Knight, from the character's earliest non-Sienkiewicz appearances all the way up to the end of the Moench/Sienkiewicz run, cutting off the second volume neatly at the just-mentioned issue #30. In the space of those two years, Sienkiewicz walks the path from journeyman to visionary. (He also had a run on Fantastic Four concurrent to the first year of his Moon Knight, also with Moench. But it’s about as boring as Sienkiewicz gets.)
Once he leaves that title, Sienkiewicz enters what I think could fairly be called the early phase of his Imperial Period. Marvel figured out just how good he was at drawing covers, and pretty soon he was covering half the line: from Dazzler to ROM to Transformers. He drew that bonkers 1985 miniseries adaptation of Lynch’s Dune, which could probably stand to be reprinted if there was ever a chance in hell of that happening. He'd picked up New Mutants in 1984, taking over for Sal Buscema. There was bad blood about that replacement at the time (Buscema "was really mad," per editor Ann Nocenti in Sean Howe's Marvel Comics: The Untold Story), but the experience proved generative for the younger Buscema, who spent the rest of his career as a penciler stretching to a degree that isn’t fully appreciated. Him and Sienkiewicz did just under a year together on Spectacular Spider-Man in 1995 (#220-229); not the best period for reading, but nevertheless one of the most gorgeous runs in that character’s history. I’ve always thought it quite a revealing anecdote, reflecting positively on both men, that they came together and worked so well as a team after Sienkiewicz inadvertently gave Buscema such a savage kick in the pants a decade earlier.
But then, I get ahead of myself. The point is that Sienkiewicz is, was, and always will be, a unique pacesetter in the industry’s history. His presence catalyzed growth in the artists around him - the sign not of a good artist, but of a great artist. Another virtue held in common with Neal Adams.
Now I adjure you: Bill Sienkiewicz should never be far from your thoughts. But the reason I find myself on this fine morning musing on the man’s various and sundry influences has to do with a recent reprint package put out by Marvel, entitled Moon Knight vs. Werewolf by Night. Part of the company’s Marvel Tales revival, which has built up a solid track record these past few years as one of the company’s best current reprint formats. In fact, I’m about to give Marvel Comics—yes, the contemporary Marvel Comics, you know the one—some unalloyed praise. Marvel Tales may just be the best bargain on the stands in 2023. No reservations, dead serious, swear to Groth.
Because—and now I’m about to step back from the ledge and say something that will almost certainly not surprise you—stapled comic books are too damn expensive in 2023. And trends are getting worse, not better.
Case in point: one of the most high-profile Marvel releases in many a moon, the first issue of Jonathan Hickman’s much-heralded G.O.D.S. project. Drawn by Valerio Schiti. Overhyped to a degree that could not help but work to the book’s disadvantage when it finally shipped and somehow failed to cure disease and end poverty in one fell swoop. Live by the hype, die by the hype. Did I buy it? Of course not, that fucker cost $10. Admittedly, for a 64-page premiere issue, but still - it’s the principle of the thing! I’m not paying $10 for a single comic book. With a price like that, I’m going to wait until someone makes a 20-minute YouTube video about it that shows off the best parts, for me to watch when I’m catching up with my Marvel Snap missions for the day. There was a lot of capital-“D” Discourse on the matter when the book came out, and I’m hardly the only person who came down firmly on the side of the assertion that $10 is a bridge too far for a regular-ass comic book. It’s a bad sign if Marvel can’t put out a new title from an A-list writer at a price the market can bear.
So, Marvel Tales. Marvel’s original reprint book, dating back to the Silver Age. For decades it was led by Spider-Man. First Spider-Man books I ever bought were issues of the John Romita run printed in Marvel Tales in the mid '80s - I wonder, in hindsight, whether my mom picked those up for me because she recognized the covers from her own prime time as a Marvel reader? I’m too young to remember myself why I started picking that up.
The current Marvel Tales is an anthology, with a new focus (and reset numbering) every month. This month it was Moon Knight vs. Werewolf by Night, reprinting not one but four issues of various Moon Knight comics, every one a tussle with Marvel’s most famous werewolf from the early '80s through the mid '90s. So you’ve got the final two issues of Sienkiewicz’s run on Moon Knight, featuring his absolutely definitive reimagining of the Jack Russell version of the Werewolf character, and two issues from late in the run of Marc Spector: Moon Knight in 1993 (#52-53), featuring Moon Night and the Werewolf fighting Gambit, of all people. It was the '90s! On top of that, they even stuck in a back-up from 1988's Solo Avengers #3, which only has the Werewolf incidentally, but which is nevertheless a crucially important Moon Knight story, for another reason I’ll mention by the by.
Recent months have brought Marvel Tales volumes for the likes of Rocket Raccoon - one issue collecting the entirety of the character's 1985 miniseries, an intensely weird fever dream of a book that has some of Mike Mignola’s best early work. Then there was Ghost Rider: Danny Ketch, with the first three issues of the '90s Ghost Rider series pairing Javier Saltares & Mark Texeira. I never had issue #2 of that run, so I especially appreciated that. They did one for the three issues of the “New” Fantastic Four; the first few hard-to-find appearances of the Thunderbolts; Brian Michael Bendis’ final stretch on Avengers; Kamala Khan’s first four appearances. Nice reading copies of very readable stories, well-selected if you can deal with the fact that the older material is still being printed on the damn shiny paper. Ah, well. They’re moving away from that stuff for their high end reprints of late, so I guess we can’t complain too much.
So, yes, Marvel Tales is a really nice package, an unequivocal bargain in the context of a company charging $10 for new books now. Nice new cover by Nick Bradshaw, very Adamsesque. Who’s in charge? Daniel Kirchhoffer is the collection editor, working under longtime Marvel reprint chief Jennifer Grünwald. They’re doing the Lord’s work, so to speak, because here’s the part that really gets me: Marvel Tales as it exists now is a thick magazine, something like 100 pages, usually reprinting at least three or four complete stories. Squarebound spine. It feels like a substantial piece of comic book in your hand, a definitively pleasing sensation. And do you know how much they’re charging for this experience?
Would you believe, $7.99 American?
Comic book stores of all stripes live and die on the cover price of Marvel comic books. That’s a fact of life, and has been since the founding of the direct market. Ten bucks for a new comic was a bridge to far for me, but am I paying $5 for new issues of Al Ewing’s The Immortal Thor? Yes, and I can’t help but feel like a sucker for it, even as I know full well it’s a good comic I’m going to enjoy a great deal and read multiple times, possibly even write about at some point. But man, $5 is still steep. How many books like that can I afford to buy, in all seriousness? And I like spending money at comic book stores, I like supporting them however I can. However, in 2023, I sometimes feel that spending money on comic books, even good comic books, is a losing proposition. Not like I don’t also have Marvel Unlimited on tap, and that’s a better bargain by literally any measure.
But as badly abused as the retail model is, and by the worst bad faith actors, it’s worth pointing out when they get something right. Eight dollars for a thick fistful of comics is a great price point. It doesn’t feel like a rip-off at all. On the contrary, it’s a genuine, measurable bargain. It’s important to pay attention on the rare instances they get it right. More publishers should dive in to the format.
Because let me say, I had a real hoot and a half wiling away an hour or so digging on Moon Knight fighting a werewolf. It’s what he does for fun, when he’s not fighting mob guys or mercenaries. His relationship with Jack Russel is similar to that of Wolverine and the Hulk: even if their later careers don’t always intersect, they have history together, so it’s always a little bit of an event when they face off again.
Now, the later part of the present volume, as I mentioned, features two chapters from Moon Knight’s '90s title, with Gambit. From Terry Kavanagh’s run as writer, with James Fry on pencils. And you may think it ain’t fair to ask those guys to share the spotlight with Bill Sienkiewicz. But really... it’s not such a bad spotlight, for all that. Everyone already knows how good Sienkiewicz is. The package offers some variety. Those later issues of Marc Spector aren’t in the same league as the early run, but frankly they don’t need to be. What they need to give me for my $8 is a fight with a werewolf wearing a leather jacket. Wait, the Werewolf is wearing a leather jacket? You bet your ass.
Fry was the rare mainstream guy at the time who seemed to be taking his cues from early Vertigo as much as early Image - there’s a lot of Richard Case here, a surprising focus on background design. Lots of checkered floors and Art Deco cityscapes. Even an incidental villain named Cubist who looks like a Cubist painting - Marvel’s answer to Mr. Nobody. Bet you didn’t know Marvel even had an answer to Mr. Nobody, or that he was an incidental Moon Knight villain from the run on the character right before Stephen Platt came in with issue #55 and blew the roof off the joint. You learn something new every day. (And if that wets your whistle for more of Fry, incidentally, check out his Nomad miniseries from 1990-91. Better looking than it has any right to be.)
People like Moon Knight now, seemingly a lot more than they ever have before. His current title, spearheaded by writer Jed MacKay, seems as popular as anything else Marvel has going at the moment. The character had a well-received TV show, at least as much as any of this recent batch of Marvel shows has been well-received. Honestly, I don’t love that the character now is far deeper ensconced in a mystical and mythological milieu. The Moon Knight I like, who I grew up with, was very much (despite the creators’ own protestations) a down-rent Batman to his core, a costumed adventurer who shared the Dark Knight’s skillset but, crucially, not his core competence. Moon Knight gets beat to shit fairly often. Part of what’s endearing about the guy. Used to be his connection with the Egyptian gods was less concrete, more from inference - Marc Spector didn’t even fully believe in Khonshu, for years and years. Now Khonshu fights the Avengers; kind of hard to hedge on that one.
The most famous incarnations of the character have moved quite far from the template of a crazy rich guy who spends his spare time hanging around the mansion taking verbal abuse from an icy-yet-boozy blonde named Marlene. I miss all that - especially the part about receiving verbal abuse from an icy blonde. Even as I also understand the realities of Marvel wanting to move away from that version of the character, and away from the once-common associations with “down-rent Batman.” Ah well, such is life.
Oh yeah, one more thing - I mentioned the middle story here, the backup from Solo Avengers #3, by the ever-reliable Roger Stern & Bob Hall. Mostly a fight between Moon Knight and the Shroud, who - look, I’m not going to explain the Shroud. Ask your parents. We see Werewolf by Night here in passing, chilling with the Night Shift, a team of Spider-Woman villains named after a Stephen King book, because why not?
The reason why this otherwise forgettable story warrants inclusion is the incidental fact that it is the source of the most famous Moon Knight panel of all time - you know the one, where he’s walking down the stone staircase, saying the immortal words, “I know you’re here, Dracula, you big fucking nerd. Where’s my goddamn money?” That’s not what he says in the actual comic, of course. In the original panel there’s a caption where he’s musing about his relationship with Russell and the spookiness of his surroundings. “Still, there was something about this place that set my nerves on edge,” he says to himself. Perhaps the ominous foreknowledge of memes yet-to-come?