Note: The easiest legal way to read the issues I mention in this essay is to subscribe to Marvel Unlimited, which features most of the major Moon Knight stories.
Moon Knight makes his first live-action appearance this month in his eponymous Disney+ series, which begins streaming Wednesday, March 30. The six-episode show will swaddle Marvel’s weirdest vigilante under the warm bosom of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, portrayed by ageless heartthrob Oscar Isaac. It’s a surprisingly prestigious approach to a 45-year-old character who has never quite broken through into widespread popularity. The same could be said of Iron Man or the Guardians of the Galaxy, of course, but Moon Knight is frankly odder and more interesting than either of those.
Moon Knight is a superhero who, over the decades, has changed countless times as writers try to make his unwieldy premise actually work. Every major hero evolves with the times, of course, and the best of them are capable of headlining stories that run the tonal gamut while staying consistent to their premise. Spider-man grapples with responsibility, Batman grapples with loss, Daredevil grapples with guilt, Superman grapples with humanity. These are ideas that the adolescent target audience of comic books can easily latch onto and understand. Moon Knight, across his history, has not always benefited from that simplicity. Core elements of his character have remained, but every interpretation differs in both how it prioritizes the importance of those elements and where it places its moral focus.
To fully understand Moon Knight, I read the roughly 220 issues of his main series and self-titled one-shot comics published over his lifetime. Twice. It was not a difficult project. Reading 220 comics is nothing compared to, say, trying to read all of the other aforementioned heroes. The only challenge, really, was figuring out how to read the largest sustained chunk, 1989’s Marc Spector: Moon Knight series, which ran for about 60 issues and remains uncollected (c’mon, Marvel, I’d buy two Omnibus editions of that).
It’s not uncommon to hear Moon Knight — clad in white, with a big cape and a mansion full of gadgets — compared to Batman. Sometimes I’ve even read Moon Knight described as “Marvel’s Batman” by know-nothings. That’s an erasure of the character’s most interesting aspects, which so many writers have played with in interesting ways. There are certainly similarities, particularly in the creative teams, but they’re mostly in the realm of shared genre convention.
So, for those curious about this character and what makes him special, I decided to drop some Moon Knight knowledge. Think of this as part reading guide and part crash-course on the character and what might be used in the Disney+ series. I’m not predicting what they’ll use or dictating what I think this team should do with its story. The beauty of Moon Knight is that he is ever a work in progress.
Moon Knight first appeared as an antagonist in Werewolf by Night before later spinning off into his own solo series. Doug Moench created him and later wrote almost the entire first series. Moon Knight #1, published in 1980, teamed Moench with a young Bill Sienkiewicz, who in many ways cut his teeth on this title before moving on to define the New Mutants, Elektra and a dozen other titles during his still-incredible career. Sienkiewicz’s approach to the character still defines the ongoing comics to this day.
The first issue is a classic origin story, which explains how mercenary Marc Spector died after turning against his psychopathic partner, Raoul Bushman, while on a mission in Egypt — only to be resurrected within the Temple of Khonshu as the god’s servant on Earth. Khonshu isn’t explicitly real in this run, and it’s ambiguous whether Spector is acting out of divine will or simply telling himself that’s the case. Most of Moon Knight’s adventures are fairly straightforward pulp with very little mysticism. He faces off against a rogues’ gallery of relatively forgettable characters: Midnight, a thief who strikes at midnight; Morpheus, a man who can create waking dreams; Black Spectre, a corrupt politician who dresses in a suit of armor to face off against Spector. Credit to Moench and Sienkiewicz, though, that these relatively mundane villains are all featured in stories with stunning prose and incredible artwork.
As far as the “high concept” at play, though, this run is drastically different than what would come later for the character. Spector never goes by his actual name; instead, he’s adopted the alias Steven Grant, who presents himself to the world as a wealthy playboy with a mansion on Long Island and a hot live-in girlfriend, Marlene Alraune, who happens to be the woman Spector died to save back in Egypt. To help himself fight crime, Marc also adopts the guise of Jake Lockley, a cab driver whose blue collar life gives Marc a ground-eye view of New York City. Moon Knight, of course, is Spector’s fourth identity. None of these are presented as explicit alternate identities but rather those by which Spector can gather intel for his crimefighting. Spector is aided by his longtime friend, Jean-Paul “Frenchie” DuChamp, who speaks in a stereotypical accent and pilots his Mooncopter on missions.
Whether Spector is losing his grip on reality is introduced on occasion. Issue #10 is the first time this happens, when his beloved statue of Khonshu is stolen, washed away in a flood and presumably destroyed. Spector briefly loses his shit before Marlene reveals a replacement statue that may or may not be the original. There’s ambiguity there. Moench is never able to really play with the dynamic he introduces in this issue, which is that Spector’s sanity is questionable and only the actions of his friends prevent him from self-destruction.
There are a few other standout issues in the original Moench run. My favorites are Issues #14 and #24, which feature Stained Glass Scarlet. Scarlet, aka the “lady of sorrow and darkness,” is a failed actress turned nun who marries a mobster and births a son whose criminal viciousness is unmatched on New York’s dirty streets. After her son is sent to prison, Scarlet relocates to an abandoned church and makes it her home, knowing her child will eventually show up in search of a hidden cash stash his father has left there. Moon Knight meets Scarlet while hunting her son and witnesses the confrontation between mother and monster — one that ends with her killing her own son. Our hero doesn’t arrest her, though, and the simple tragedy of it all really screws him up.
The return of Stained Glass Scarlet is a definitively anti-gun piece, inspired in part by the assassination of John Lennon. Before leaving on the patrol that brings him to Scarlet, Steven Grant sits down with Marlene in their home. They cry over Lennon’s death by firearm. “GUNS,” the caption reads, as Marlene slams her fingers on the keys of the piano. Admittedly the scene feels a little goofy, but it’s also so explicitly of its time that it feels timeless. There’s something about comics that aren’t ashamed to be of their time. It gives the story a unique tone. Moon Knight isn’t once again challenged by Scarlet on a moral level. Given how violent Moon Knight becomes in later stories, this feels like an artifact of a much, much different take on the character than we’re likely to see adapted into other mediums.
Two other issues worth recommending: #26, Hit It!, is the peak of Sienkiewicz’s artistic experimentation on the title, telling several short stories; and #27, Cop Killer! is a fill-in issue written by Steven Grant (yes, the name is the same) and illustrated by Joe Brozowski that pits Moon Knight against the Kingpin for the first time.
Look: This first run does not consist of hard-hitting noir stories. For fans of the more modern incarnations of the character, Moench’s classic Moon Knight stories will read as corny and old-fashioned. Like all popular mediums, comics are written for their time. Unlike films, novels or music, though, a comic book is a fast-turnaround creative endeavor. Comics generally weren’t meant to last beyond their periodical lifespan on the shelf of a news rack or a specialty shop. Collected editions (and cultural domination) were mostly unthinkable for this material. It was written, drawn, colored, inked, lettered, edited and printed all within a month or two of its publication and, within another month, relegated to back-issue bins in bargain bookstores (or returned, sans cover, for pulping). Reading older comics is enjoyable if you can connect with their creative wavelength. I really enjoy Moench’s attempts at blending the Marvel-style superhero with his pulpy pop-cultural interests. You can kind of tell where the character clicked for him and where Sienkiewicz hits his artistic groove.
But you have to accept the fact that the corniness, and the imperfections of the storytelling, are part of the experience. This isn’t what we expect from modern stories. It’s something different. In some ways, it feels purer, messier, stranger.
Sienkiewicz left the title first, departing with Issue #30, the second half of which is a two-part rematch between the hero and Werewolf by Night. Moench teamed with artists Kevin Nowlan and Bo Hampton for a few stories before tapping out with Issue #36. There are some good stories in that final batch, including a team-up with Doctor Strange, but it was clear the series was starting to wrap up. It was around this time that Moench closed out his extensive run on Shang-Chi: Master of Kung Fu, too, and his first era at Marvel Comics in general. Moon Knight himself would retire his identities to live a quiet life with Marlene, until duty called him back …
Fist of Khonshu
The second volume of Moon Knight jettisons most of Moench’s identity stuff in favor of a stripped-down concept for the character. In this run, Marc Spector is living under his own name, using what was once the “Steven Grant” fortune to run a global ring of art galleries. He’s living the high life with Marlene and has retired from fighting crime until he’s called back into the service of Khonshu by a trio of Egyptian priests. His costume is changed as are his powers. Originally, he was just a very skilled human with some gadgets, but now he’s armed with golden Egyptian weapons and gains strength depending on the phases of the moon. This actually seems to be the inspiration for the Disney+ show, which is interesting because none of these powers or weapons lasts into the subsequent eras of the character.
Fist of Khonshu only lasted six issues, and they’re a mixed bag. The first few are written by Alan Zelenetz, who pits Moon Knight against a deformed Nazi doctor (Arthur Harrow, whose name seems to be grafted onto Ethan Hawke’s live-action character in the Disney+ series with little similarity otherwise), an Egyptian cult that worships the god Jackal, and Moon Knight’s old nemesis, Morpheus. The series concludes in a well-meaning but trite gritty crime saga that wraps up no loose ends, particularly Marlene’s decision to dump Spector due to his return to crimefighting.
One of the major developments during the Fist of Khonshu era is Marlene leaving Spector when he resumes crimefighting. She always loved Steven Grant, the wealthy playboy, but accepted Spector when he nixed that ID in favor of his real name. Returning to the fray of fighting, though, is a step too far, so Marlene shacks up with her ex. It doesn’t really go anywhere this time around, but it’s a noteworthy moment of agency for a character who mostly existed as a (sometimes capable) live-in love interest during Moench’s first run. Most superheroes cycle through romances over the years. But for the most part, Spector and Marlene are on-again, off-again without much variation (except for his fling with Tigra later on in this era).
After this, Steve Englehart incorporated Moon Knight into his West Coast Avengers run and did a great job depicting the character as someone without much interest in the superhero game beyond his deity’s desire for him to join up. Moon Knight’s weapons and superpowers of this era are complemented by the heightened use of Egyptian motifs and Spector’s relationship to Khonshu, whose influence is slightly less ambiguous thanks to the powers and priests who speak for him. Englehart’s WCA run even provides further origin to those weapons. Eventually, Moon Knight is like “Nah, this sucks, bye,” which brings us to …
Marc Spector: Moon Knight
After a few years as a guest star, Moon Knight finally got another series to call his own. Marc Spector: Moon Knight is longer than any other Moon Knight series and goes through several phases over its five-year run. Chuck Dixon wrote about half of the series, and it’s here the character most resembles Batman (if only slightly). Gone are Moon Knight’s superpowers from the Fist of Khonshu era, as well as his multiple identities, leaving us with a street-level hero dedicated to dispatching the criminal element in lieu of gods and monsters.
Dixon’s run is fine but unexceptional. He focuses heavily on Spector’s history as a mercenary, his rivalry with Bushman, and his annoyance with the new Midnight Man, the son of his old foe Midnight, who longs to be Moon Knight’s sidekick. There is an arc where Moon Knight and the Punisher team up, which sets the stage for Moon Knight’s slightly less strict feeling about killing in the name of justice; he still views the Punisher as a maniac, but he isn’t going to pull his punches if a fight calls for martial law. It’s a big change for the character from the Moench days but very much in line with the “gritty” 1990s.
Although he loses the multiple identities, Spector is once again accompanied by Frenchie and Marlene, who get to play larger roles in his adventures. Marlene is frequently drawn in a cheesecake ’90s style. It ages this particular run in a very bad way. American comics didn’t improve their standard depiction of women until very recently, and while it’s not like Moench’s original run gave Marlene a ton of agency, well, she rarely showed up quite like she does in this silliness:
Really, the only great portion of this run comes with J.M. DeMatteis’ “Scarlet Redemption” story, which runs between Issues 26 and 31. Yes, once again I’m telling you that Stained Glass Scarlet is the cornerstone of a good Moon Knight story (and that’ll happen at least one more time in this reading guide). This story abruptly breaks the pattern of Marc Spector: Moon Knight‘s action setpiece-centered adventures and returns to the noir tone that makes the Sienkiewicz approach iconic to this day. It’s another Scarlet story about revenge, morality, grief and what makes a hero or a villain. This time, Scarlet and Moon Knight’s telepathic connection is made more explicit, and she’s also joined by her own coven of red-robed vigilante nuns. The fact that Marvel has not made this easily available in reprint form is a damn shame.
After “Scarlet Redemption,” the title takes a turn for the worse. Terry Kavanagh is the main writer of the last few years of the series. It’s borderline unreadable, particularly as the art becomes increasingly aligned with what was vogue in the 1990s. Everything builds up to Spector’s second death at the hands of Seth the Immortal, another Egyptian god that assumes the guise of a computer virus. It’s an inglorious end for a once-interesting character.
All told, it’s a frustrating run. Without multiple identities, Egyptian stylings, superpowers or a patron deity, what makes Moon Knight different from every other street-level hero in the Marvel Universe? MS:MK is the closest the character has ever come to feeling like a knock-off of everything else on the market. It was up to Doug Moench to restart the character …
Resurrection War and High Strangeness
The late 1990s were a fallow period for Moon Knight fans besides two excellent miniseries by Doug Moench. They’re notable for bringing the character back from the dead and re-establishing his classic status quo, if only for their paltry eight issues.
In Resurrection War, Spector rebuilds his old identities, soft-resetting his status quo to Moench’s earlier run. Spector, as a person, remains dead. Steven Grant and Jake Lockley are once again his go-to civilian guises. The first issue alone includes most of the rogues’ gallery Moench created, including Scarlet, Black Spectre, Bushman and Morpheus. Resurrection War is a journey through classic Moon Knight and a stellar read all-around. It also allows Marlene a little bit of development, witnessing his newest resurrection and finally understanding the person with whom she’s involved.
Moench’s take on Khonshu is different than what would follow: It doesn’t really matter if Khonshu is a real presence in the Marvel Universe as long as Marc believes in him. The art by Tommy Lee Edwards is much different than previous runs, with a lot of Mike Mignola vibes.
High Strangeness (aka High Strangers) hits the ground running with Moon Knight investigating a mystery: Someone has contacted Marc Spector … and wants him dead. Moench is joined by artist Mark Texeira for what became his swan song on the character. What starts as a pulp premise quickly becomes a mess of ideas, including mind control, crop circles, cryptids and other odd fascinations.
Despite being odd, though, it’s really the final gasp of Moon Knight as he existed in his earliest incarnations. Odd mysteries, pulpy villains and esoteric ideas were part and parcel with Moench’s approach to comics. Marc Spector isn’t a murderer here. His relationship with Khonshu is somewhat ambiguous but fundamentally heroic. His mind, split between multiple identities, isn’t necessarily broken. A few years later, that would all go away and change the character forever …
Moon Knight in the 2000s
This is often regarded as one of the high points for the character, but I personally dislike it quite a bit. Charlie Huston and artist David Finch relaunched the character after years of absence, introducing us to a Marc Spector whose identity issues have rendered him violent and insane. The first issue opens with him ripping off Bushman’s face, and Khonshu subsequently appears to him as his faceless arch-foe for quite some time. Excessively grim.
To Huston’s credit, he incorporates a lot of Moench’s old supporting cast — including Moon Knight informers Bertrand Crawley and Gena Landers. But in classic mid-2000s extreme form, they’re all broken and traumatized. Frenchie is also back, having lost his legs; he’s also openly gay, but his boyfriend is later mutilated. Gena’s son is dead. Crawley’s alcoholism is treated much heavier. Marlene returns and leaves again, her on-and-off-again relationship with Spector increasingly complicated by his mental health issues.
Huston left halfway through the run, replaced by Mike Benson. There’s a decent Punisher crossover in there. Maybe the high point is the Civil War crossover where Captain America and Iron Man both ask Moon Knight to stay out of it because he’s too unstable and dangerous. That was a fertile era for Marvel cross-pollination, and like many books, the story actually improved thanks to the new status quo set in place after that line-wide event.
In many ways, this is the second most definitive Moon Knight run, introducing his brutality and making explicit the tragic aspects of his multiple personalities. No run after it has let those two questions slide.
After this run, Moon Knight got a few more miniseries before entering into his most modern era. A miniseries titled Vengeance of the Moon Knight is OK, and he appears as an Avenger once again on Ed Brubaker’s Secret Avengers team. He doesn’t do a whole lot in that series.
Brian Michael Bendis, one of the architects of modern Marvel, launched a 12-issue miniseries for the character in 2011 that is widely regarded as one of the worst takes on the character ever written. I think that’s a little harsh, but it’s notably odd: Rather than fighting for Khonshu while suffering from a secret identity disorder, this version of Marc Spector is living in Los Angeles, trying to produce a film about his life and fighting a criminal conspiracy alongside his Avengers buddies. One problem: Wolverine, Captain America and Spider-Man are just his new alternate identities.
It’s an odd approach that doesn’t really jibe with the previous incarnations. Then again, what is Moon Knight without idiosyncratic attempts to make the character work? Despite being unpopular, I actually enjoy it quite a bit as part of Bendis’s tenure at the company, and the art by his old partner, Alex Maleev, is gorgeous as always. This is also where Echo (who debuted in last year’s Hawkeye show on Disney+) dies in the comics for the first time.
Its cancellation led to a few years of dormancy for Moon Knight. He continued to appear as a supporting character in Secret Avengers, now written by Warren Ellis, who would spearhead the 2014 relaunch of the book with what would accurately be described as the character’s third rebirth …
Moon Knight In the 2010s
Warren Ellis relaunched Moon Knight in a six-issue series of one-shots (which is kind of his best format, as seen in Global Frequency and Planetary) titled From the Dead. It refocuses Moon Knight’s mission as Khonshu’s “protector of those who travel at night,” a high concept that gives him a unique identity while not sacrificing his odder attributes. He has a new alter ego, Mr. Knight, who seems to feature in the forthcoming Disney+ show. The series walked back the Dissociative Identity Disorder diagnosis, which had become somewhat problematic because none of Marc Spector’s symptoms actually matched a real disorder suffered by real people. Instead, Ellis took on a typically science-fiction tack, explaining his brain was damaged when it came in contact with Khonshu and the result was the constant development of additional personalities to aid him in his quests. This has remained the operative explanation to this day.
Declan Shalvey’s artwork is sensational and does most of the heavy lifting in these stories. As seen above, the use of Moon Knight’s white cape and costume becomes part of the panel structure. It’s next-level. Shavley also designed Mr. Knight, the most iconic update to the character’s costume since his inception.
Ellis was recently rendered a persona non grata in the mainstream comics world because of how he abused his influence to lead inappropriate relationships with women he’d meet online, so it’s not really clear when this run will end up reprinted. Despite the writer’s personal transgressions, this is a great run and an essential read if you’re curious about the character … and nervous about the amount of baggage any given story might carry.
After Ellis, Brian Wood and Cullen Bunn each wrote six issues of the title before it was once again canceled at Issue #17. It’s not worth writing home about any of these.
In 2016, Jeff Lemire took over Moon Knight for a 16-issue run that serves as the best psychological deconstruction of the character ever written. Although one of the best Moon Knight series ever — touching on all past stories and ideas — it’s very much “expert-level” Moon Knight and thus not recommended as a starting point.
After Lemire, Max Bemis took the reigns in a series now referred to as Moon Knight: Legacy. This series is the one that introduced Sun King, who seems the likely villain in the Disney+ series. The first arc is OK, but for the most part, it’s a weaker run in the history of the character. Marlene is written off, having had a child with Spector’s alter Jake Lockley, who is also kind of nasty in this incarnation. It’s a shitty way to handle her character, given how essential she is to Spector’s journey. I’m hoping all of that is retconned in subsequent comics.
Moon Knight defeats Sun King with the “power of crazy,” which … all right. One positive element is Bemis’s emphasis on Spector’s Jewish identity, which has only been relevant in small ways across the history of the character.
Moon Knight had a much larger role in other series during the last half-decade, appearing as a guest star in many miniseries. Most notable is his turn as a villain in one of Jason Aaron’s stories on the main Avengers title, when the World’s Mightiest Heroes face off against an emboldened Khonshu, who wants to rule the world. Moon Knight takes down all of the Avengers singlehandedly. While dumb, it’s also pretty entertaining.
Moon Knight Now
In July 2021, Jed McKay launched a new Moon Knight #1. It’s now eight issues deep and has done a great job honoring Moon Knight’s history while introducing some new elements to his character and world. Issue #8 was a Stained Glass Scarlet story, which left me overjoyed. The first trade-paperback collection was released last month and serves as an adequate place to start if you’re curious about the character.
Look, I read a shitload of Moon Knight comics and wanted to write about them, OK? The thesis of this essay is that Moon Knight is a character whose fundamental premise has never been consistent, which makes him really interesting to read in total.
Unlike Batman, whose quest to avenge his parents / build a new family will never let him grow, Marc Spector has no consistent motivation. He serves a god who may or may not exist. His alters are either crimefighting tools or psychological expressions. He may have superpowers or might not, depending on the writers, artists and editors who dictate his faith. The greatest similarity to Batman is that Chuck Dixon and Doug Moench each wrote for both characters during the 1980s and 1990s, and that the heroes utilize universal tricks of the trade: gadgets, caped costumes and loyal manservants.
One other major difference from Batman is that Moon Knight’s rogues’ gallery is not on the same level. To be fair, few other heroes have archenemies as iconic as Two-Face, the Joker, the Riddler, Harley Quinn, Mr. Freeze, Catwoman or Poison Ivy — and that’s just naming the ones who have been adapted to live-action films. Batman has dozens of iconic and visually interesting villains that make his stories sing — in part because they challenge fundamental elements of Batman’s core character and in part because they’re just well-designed and cool as hell.
Moon Knight, however, has Black Spectre, Midnight Man / Midnight, Stained Glass Scarlet, Morpheus, Shadow Knight (his evil brother from the Marc Spector: Moon Knight run), the Committee and Hunter’s Moon. Truthfully, few of these are all that interesting, and it really doesn’t feel like any of them are destined to break out into the mainstream without heavy cinematic alterations. Stained Glass Scarlet is the exception (at least to me), but even she has a cumbersome name and a complex set of circumstances. Some would say superheroes are only as exciting as the villains they face. In Moon Knight’s case, he’s saved by the fact that, above all else, his most consistent antagonist is Khonshu — the god who called him back to life to serve a mysterious purpose. Khonshu will never let Moon Knight go, directly or indirectly haunting him in any incarnation.
The fact that Moon Knight is gone through so many iterations has been a double-edged sword. He’s never broken into the mainstream, but writers who appreciate Marvel continue to find new ways to revive him every few years, and have been given considerable leeway to put their stamp on him. Sometimes that’s good, sometimes it’s bad. Ultimately it just means there is a Moon Knight for everyone … if you just know where to look. I hope this guide offers some good starting points and an overview of the character’s comic-book history for anyone excited for the show. I also hope it has cleared up what Moon Knight is and is not — definitively proving he’s not just a low-rent Batman ripoff hanging out in the streets of Marvel’s New York City. Is he as good as Batman? No. Is he pretty awesome in his own right? Hell, yes.
(One final aside, for anyone curious: Those Moon Knight memes that make him seem like Deadpool? All that “Dracula, where’s my money” and “random bullshit go” stuff? Those are Photoshop jobs. Funny Photoshops, but not really representative of the character in any way.)
I don’t know what Kevin Feige, Oscar Isaac and crew will do with the character. If Marvel Studios has proven anything, it knows how to take the best elements of these 80+ years of stories and distill them into their own versions. It appears we’re dealing with a Spector whose main alter is Steve Grant and they’re not aware of one another. The villain is named Harrow (from Fist of Khonshu) but appears to be more like Sun King (from Moon Knight: Legacy). Everything I’ve heard about this series sounds awesome and intriguing, and I can’t wait to have a chance to watch it with all of you.