Moon Knight: Lunatic is the first volume in a new series that, as I write, is up to the thirteenth issue, and since this volume includes issues one through five, we can anticipate at least two more collected volumes of five issues each. The Marvel character Moon Knight has been around since the mid ‘70s, and though he has similarities with other characters from DC and Marvel, what makes him truly unique is that he has a serious mental diagnosis: Dissociative Identity Disorder, or Multiple Personality Disorder. Over the years, this diagnosis has gained greater focus for writers of the Moon Knight series.
I have enjoyed these multiple versions of Moon Knight, but only the recent one by Jeff Lemire seems to focus on the character’s mental illness and the struggles others with this disorder endure in the real world. In other words, I think Lemire’s Moon Knight has a little more thematic focus on mental illness than previous versions. Early series seem mostly to use Moon Knight’s mental illness to give depth to the character rather than to shed light on mental illness itself.
Who is Moon Knight? Moon Knight is a Jewish man named Marc Spector, and he has played many roles in his life from soldier to mercenary before becoming a wealthy Bruce Wayne/Batman-type vigilante who dresses in all-white doling out a little more violence than Batman and sometimes crossing the line into killing, as does the Punisher. However, his origin story differs from Batman’s, whose parents were murdered. In Moon Knight, Marc Spector is the one who dies. Spector dies in Egypt under the statue of Khonshu, the Egyptian Moon God, and then he is raised from the dead to fight justice as Khonshu’s avatar. Unfortunately, since Marc Specter suffers from mental illness, we never know how much of this backstory is a product of an unstable mind and how much is “real” in the world of superheroes in which such a backstory would actually be possible and even expected!
Jeff Lemire’s narrative is wonderfully disorienting since he puts us in the same place as Marc Spector: Neither Spector nor the reader knows what is going on. Spector wakes up in a mental institution, and he suspects that the two male nurses and the female psychiatrist are more than they seem, perhaps are even enemies on a higher plane in terms of Egyptian deities. Spector is confused, and so are we. Spector knows he has a mental illness, but he never knows when he is acting on truths of the illness or truths that others around him would acknowledge.
As the story progresses, we are introduced to Spector’s other personas, if that is the right word to use in this case, since he sometimes is aware and sometimes is not when sliding into these personas: Sometimes he is Jake Lockley, the taxi driver who can pick up news on the street. Jake Lockley, therefore, is an intentional undercover persona used by Moon Knight as a Batman-like detective, since Batman has a similar persona he uses when he goes undercover. However, Batman never believes he is his persona, while Spector often forgets the role is a role he is playing purposefully. His persona becomes his identity. At other times, Marc Spector is “Steven Grant,” the wealthy Movie Producer who is making a film about Moon Knight for Marvel. When we switch to these scenes, Grant is watching an actor playing Moon Knight, which adds to our sense of disorientation. Spector, of course, also dresses up as Moon Knight and seems to have different versions of this vigilante.
All of these characters are enhanced by Jeff Lemire’s decision to work with multiple artists in each issue: One artist will draw the Lockley scenes and another the Grant scenes, for example. And even though the main artist Greg Smallwood draws most of the pages, he seems to switch styles with different scenes. I am not always sure if I am seeing work by a new artist or simply a new style employed by Smallwood. Because, in addition to the two personas I just mentioned, there’s the Marc Spector main storyline and even one more persona/storyline I have not had time to even mention: This persona is fighting in a spaceship near the moon. In other words, we get the drama of realism, science fiction, superheroes, noir, and Egyptian mythology. All these genres and artistic styles blend perfectly together with the added help of main colorist Jordie Bellaire and secondary artists Wilfredo Torres, Francesco Francavilla, and James Stokoe.
The different artistic styles highlight the main questions that those with mental illness have on a regular basis: What is real? In other words, what do you do when you know you are mentally ill and are trying to distinguish what is real from what is false? For Spector, what is real is more extreme than it is for most others, of course, but the real is not always about personas/identities and god-based avatars. Even those without Dissociative Identity Disorder question reality. We all do to a certain extent, but those with mental illness find that this confusion between the real and imaginary involves questioning one’s thoughts, memories, feelings, and moods, all of which can be both realistic and fantastic, true and false at the same time. As we know, for example, a memory may be false and still have the impact of a real memory. A mood or feeling may be labeled inappropriate, “imaginary” to others, but it is not less real for its being labeled as such. And shifting moods cause shifts in the perception of time, shifts that, when described, sound like something out of a science fiction novel, and this subjective reality is acted on by people experiencing these shifts. And doesn’t it become real (in a certain sense), or impact the real, once a person acts upon what he perceives? These questions cannot be fully answered, of course, and Lemire does not try to answer them in this comic book; however, he does raise these questions, and he clearly takes them seriously. They are not simply playful narrative tricks used for entertaining the reader, though Moon Knight: Lunatic is entertaining.
Fans of this latest run of Moon Knight have been impressed with Lemire’s writing, so, as much as I recommend the single volume of Moon Knight: Lunatic, I recommend even more the purchase of the individual issues, either in physical or digital format, because that is the only way to read the fan letters that are published in the back of the issues. Many of these letters are from those with mental illness who feel that Lemire is addressing the subject with the respect and seriousness it deserves. At the same time, let me emphasize that for all his seriousness, Lemire does not forget he is writing in the superhero genre. Moon Knight: Lunatic is a fun book to read. The art is dazzling, particularly the scenes with Jake Lockley and the ones when we see the Egyptian Deities. I cannot think of a reason for taking off even half a star, and therefore, I cannot give Moon Knight: Lunatic less than five stars.