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Ellis, Shalvey, and Bellaire bring superhero psychedelia to Moon Knight #4

Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance. This week, it’s Moon Knight #4. Written by Warren Ellis (TransmetropolitanTrees), with art by Declan Shalvey (Thunderbolts, Deadpool), and Jordie Bellaire (Flash Gordon, Zero), this hallucinogenic issue spotlights the imaginative storytelling and lush visuals that have made the series a riveting monthly read.

Warren Ellis doesn’t like to overstay his welcome on superhero comics. After committing to some longer superhero runs in the ’90s and early ’00s, Ellis started to focus primarily on his creator-owned works, occasionally dropping by Marvel for short runs consisting of six (maybe 12) issues. Iron Man, Ultimate Fantastic Four, Thunderbolts, newuniversal, Nextwave, Astonishing X-Men, Secret Avengers, and most recently Avengers Assemble (which he co-wrote with Kelly Sue DeConnick) established Ellis’ hit-and-run approach to superhero projects, but maybe Moon Knight would be different. Maybe this series would be the project that brought Ellis back to superhero comics for an extended stay, because his initial issues are easily some of the strongest work he’s done in his last decade of sporadic Marvel work. 

Taking advantage of Ellis’ talent for writing impactful, self-contained stories, each issue of Moon Knight has told a complete and captivating narrative, with the writer straying from typical superhero fare to pit the titular hero against vengeful military contractors, rioting teenage ghost punks, and, in this week’s issue, sentient fungal spores haunting a scientist’s medical facility. It’s Warren Ellis in a superhero universe, but given the freedom to do the things he does best—with a brilliant art team that can realize any idea he puts on paper. He wouldn’t leave after just six issues, would he?

He would. This week, Marvel announced that Ellis would be departing Moon Knight after #6, along with artist Declan Shalvey, although he’ll still contribute covers. Jordie Bellaire is sticking around to apply her impeccable colors to the work of incoming artist Greg Smallwood, who floored The A.V. Club with his outstanding art on Dark Horse’s Dream Thief last year, and Brian Wood is joining them as writer. Wood’s current run on X-Men hasn’t lived up to expectations, but his experience with series like DMZ and Channel Zero shows he understands urban environments, and books like Demo and Local prove that he can write a strong, done-in-one story.

Moon Knight’s distance from the Marvel universe should mean good things for Wood, who benefits when he’s given more freedom (compare the ambition and scope of Wood’s Ultimate Comics: X-Men to the bland superheroics of X-Men), and Smallwood has a bold, crime noir-influenced style that will be a great fit for Moon Knight’s world. The future of this title is in good hands, but that doesn’t dull the pain of losing Ellis and Shalvey, who have left a deep mark on the character in just four issues.

The cover of this week’s Moon Knight #4 highlights all the things that have made these first four chapters so remarkable. The top half is a highly conceptual, meticulously rendered image featuring three different aspects of Ellis and Shalvey’s Moon Knight, each represented by a different mask facing profile against a blue brain background. On top is the traditional Moon Knight mask and cowl; underneath that is the white mask he wears with his Mr. Knight business suit; and at the bottom is the giant bird skull Moon Knight puts on when he wears his “garments for fighting the dead,” a skeletal suit of armor that stands as one of the most striking superhero redesigns ever.

The Mr. Knight mask is being ripped apart by a surge of fungi, introducing the hallucinogenic mushroom element that makes this issue even crazier than the last three. It’s all shrouded in different shades of blue, a wise choice by Bellaire, who saves the real color reveals for inside the issue. That image only takes up half the cover: The other half shows off the book’s sleek graphic design with the big, bold title (replacing that second O with a moon is ingenious) and the prominent display of the creators’ names. Most Marvel titles put the creators’ names inside the red bar along the bottom of the cover, but putting the names directly on the cover image draws more attention to them and opens up that footer space for the issue’s title: “Sleep.”

The Moon Knight covers are some of the most prominent on the stands because of this cover design; it limits the amount of space Shalvey and Bellaire have to create their image, but it’s proven to be a creative opportunity by forcing them to reconsider the types of images they put on a cover. A traditional superhero cover of  a character fighting or posing won’t work well in that space, so they turn to more figurative visual interpretations of the story’s themes with a single defining color for each issue: white for #1, red for #2, green for #3, blue for #4. The results have been gorgeous.

Inside that cover is the starkly designed recap page, printing the same four sentences of text that have preceded each issue. That’s all the information a new reader needs to know; it makes no difference which issue of Moon Knight is picked up first. If Ellis, Shalvey, and Bellaire worked on it, it’s a good first issue. Because each issue is a complete package, the cover of #4 transitions directly into the story through that recap page, which re-prints the title and the moon insignia. The first page of the story carries over the blue coloring of the cover image but uses it to a completely different effect.

Ellis is a writer who understands the importance of humor, using it to ease readers into his stories and establish contrast points for dramatic moments to come. Because this is an especially unusual issue of Moon Knight, he begins the story with a hilarious scene at Odinburger, the powder blue fast-food chain that forces its employees to wear horned helmets and eye patches and ask customers, “Wouldst thou like Odinfries with that?” Dr. Skelton is munching outside of the restaurant when Mr. Knight’s limousine pulls up, and the first thing he says is one simple rule: “Do not bring food into my car.” Feel free to laugh.

When Dr. Skelton dumps the food and explains his current predicament to Mr. Knight, he slips into the technobabble that is a recurring element of Ellis’ writing, talking about “neurotoxic load, protein activation and lymphatic processing.” The scene takes an extra beat so that Dr. Skelton can say, “I wouldn’t expect you to know what any of that means.” It’s a meta moment from the author addressing readers that complain about his scientific dialogue—which can be difficult to decipher without proper understanding of the vocabulary—telling them flatly that they don’t need to understand every word to experience the story.

Those kinds of moments show that Ellis is letting himself have a lot of fun with Moon Knight, and this issue taps into many of the themes Ellis regularly returns to in his work: Murder, ideological corruption, hallucinogens, and abstract death gods all play a part in “Sleep.” Dr. Skelton needs Mr. Knight’s help uncovering the origin of a mysterious dream sickness afflicting the patients in his sleep study with the same horrific nightmare, and the hero’s investigation takes him on a psychedelic journey into a neon fungal dreamscape to discover the secret buried under Dr. Skelton’s floorboards. It’s weird and cool and a little bit insane, just like Moon Knight, and it’s going to be very sad to lose Ellis’ voice for this character.

The script has Ellis asking some intriguing questions about the nature of death in the supernatural, superhuman world that Moon Knight inhabits, but its primary function is to showcase the genius of the art team by having them draw extraordinarily bizarre visuals. When Mr. Knight lays down in the damp, putrid back room of Dr. Skelton’s facility, he asks the ancient deity Khonshu to put him to sleep and enters the vibrantly colored mushroom death world, giving Shalvey and Bellaire the opportunity to push their work to surreal highs.

The impact of those trippy pages is heightened by the artistic choices earlier in the issue: Shalvey offers lots of close-up panels at the start to create a sense of intimacy that explodes when Moon Knight finds himself falling into an expansive rainbow-colored wonderland, and Bellaire’s use of a subdued palette of grays and browns for scenes at the start makes that rush of color hit even harder. The decision to keep Moon Knight’s costume a flat white with only inks for texture means that the hero is always the center of attention in this wave of visual stimulation, and Shalvey continues to use the character’s costume as an integral part of his composition.

Shalvey made a name for himself on books like Thunderbolts, Venom, and Deadpool, but his work on Moon Knight rockets him to the superhero comics A-list. He’s refined his linework and tightened his layouts to achieve maximum clarity, all while highlighting the graphic visual elements of the title character and the world around him to offer a more stylized take on an urban superhero. Moon Knight’s cape is Shalvey’s primary tool for accentuating movement, but it’s also a design element that gives the artist the opportunity to show how simplicity can go a long way.

A four-panel sequence shows Moon Knight gliding across a giant skull covered in mushrooms, with Shalvey breaking down one large image of the skull into four panels. These are separated by gutters containing the crescent moon shape of Moon Knight’s cape within, placing a moving object directly inside the space that helps creates the illusion of movement on a comic page. It’s an incredibly inventive way of translating an action—Moon Knight surveying an environment from the air—into a series of images that fit together to make one eye-popping page.

Ellis knows when to step back and let the artists carry the storytelling weight, so there’s minimal text to distract from the breathtaking dream visuals. And this is a book where the art deserves as much attention as possible. Marvel books should have some re-read value if they’re going to sell for $3.99 an issue, and Moon Knight is a title that can be thoroughly dissected on many levels. Ellis’ lean but meaty stories invite a level of reader interpretation that is uncommon in superhero comics, and Shalvey and Bellaire are giving a master class in creating artwork that is atmospheric and expressive without sacrificing detail or motion.

After reading an issue of Moon Knight, put it down for a few days and look at it again, but don’t read any of the words. Ignore the dialogue and focus on the artwork to get a stronger sense of the rhythm of Shalvey’s layouts and Bellaire’s colors, and how they work together to capture the mood of Ellis’ story. This week’s issue gives readers a multitude of reasons to extensively ogle the artwork; if Shalvey goes through the effort of rendering all those fungal fibers and Bellaire spends all that time spackling little pastel dots on a page, the reader should take the time to truly appreciate the work going into these breathtaking visuals. It will be hard to see Ellis and Shalvey leave Moon Knight after this terrific run, but the creators are firing on all cylinders during the time they have.