I’m a huge fan of Warren Ellis. He’s undoubtedly one of the comic book greats. I love his writing for many reasons but I’d like to focus on just a few in this review because they tie into what made Moon Knight: From the Dead such a fantastic comic.
Warren Ellis is very skilled at revitalization old properties. He’s also good at taking familiar concepts or characters and giving them new life. There are other skilled creators from Ellis’s generation that are also good at this, but it doesn’t take away from his ability to do it and to do it well. A few examples of this would be the work he’s done with Doom 2099, Stormwatch and The Authority, and the work he’s done on the X-men franchise. He’s also had quite a bit of success doing this in Marvel’s Ultimate line of comics with titles such as the Ultimate Galactus Trilogy, Iron Man, Ultimate Human, and Ultimate Fantastic Four.
It’s no surprise then that he revitalizes Moon Knight in a subtle yet meaningful way. It seems so simple and simplicity is another characteristic of some (not all) of Ellis’s work. All he does it boil down Moon Knight to a few core elements, to his core essence. He doesn’t needlessly revise the characters origins or give him an unnecessary cast of secondary characters to support the main character. He doesn’t drag it out into a bloated decompressed character revamp 12 issue maxi series either. He focuses on a few ideas, the strongest ideas, and structures the story around that to heighten the impact of the character and the story. He doesn’t overuse his ideas nor does he throw in more ideas than is necessary or functional. He avoids diluting the narrative in exchange for potency. This leads us into the second reason why he is such a great writer.
Warren Ellis is one of the masters of single issue stories. He’s proved this time and again. Some of his runs on comics were designed around that idea. Comics like Global Frequency and Secret Avengers were designed as series of done-in-one stories. In both series Ellis also manages to include an overarching story. It’s more apparent in Global Frequency than in Secret Avengers, but it’s still there. Ellis has also used single issue stories in some of his ongoing comics. You need look no further than Transmetropolitan or Planetary to see examples of this. In both of those stories Ellis uses his single issues to focus on a particular idea, character, or a plot point of the ongoing series. That he makes single issues feel complete in and of themselves while also using them to add or comment on a larger story is nothing short of impressive.
With Moon Knight, Ellis strays a bit from his previous uses of single issue stories (admittedly I may have missed some as I haven’t done an exhaustive reread of his work prior to this review, just pointing out things that I’ve noticed while reading this comic). Rather than have an ongoing series that uses single issue stories to enhance and deepen the story of the series (like Transmetropolitan) or using a shorter run to showcase his work with the work of a wide range of artists (like Secret Avengers), Ellis used a single artist to tell stories that have only the faintest hint of an ongoing story.
He didn’t just boil down the character to his essence, he created the perfect kind of story that can be told using this version of the character. These types of stories could easily go on for hundreds of issues but just these six probably contain all of the core elements you would see in those hundreds other issues. These issues are so skilfully created that they provide the urtext of what Moon Knight can and should be. There is an almost impossible balance between the simplicity of these issues and the immense depth of storytelling and characterization they provide.
Like other similar series before it, Ellis uses each issue to explore one idea. With Moon Knight, he pushes that further. In the first issue, he plays with two ideas, he establishes his version of Moon Knight and what he does (he brings “vengeance to those who would harm travellers by night.”) and how he would enact vengeance on a man who uses the body parts of others to enhance his own body (transhumanism, a favourite theme of Ellis). What he does with these six issues is to play one idea against the idea of Moon Knight as the spirit of vengeance described in the first issue. It’s so, so simple, yet it has endless possibilities because the explanation of Moon Knight’s character is general enough to be applied in many different ways while also being specific enough that you cannot confuse who he is or why he does what he does. The structure of each issue is also simple. Ellis presents and idea steps aside and allows the artists to do their job.
Warren Ellis respects the artists he works with and understands that comics are a visual medium. In other words, Ellis gets the hell out of the way and lets the artist do their job. He doesn’t crowd the page with dialogue and caption boxes when they would only serve to distract from the art or interfere with good storytelling. The comic book Fell, which Ellis did in collaboration with Ben Templesmith, is a good example of this. Every single page of Fell follows a strict nine-panel grid. That doesn’t leave much room for words or pictures, yet Ellis is careful in how much dialogue he gives his characters so that Templesmith can have the room he needs to tell the story. It exemplifies collaboration in comics and also demonstrates respect for your fellow creator.
Declan Shalvey and Jordie Bellaire are more than deserving of Ellis’s respect and collaboration. Moon Knight is a gorgeous comic. It’s undeniably beautiful. It’s energetic, has plenty of attitude that falls in line with the book’s tone, and the action scenes are expertly choreographed. Most of the issues have several pages without any dialogue at all, and this isn’t because Ellis doesn’t know what to write, it’s because Shalvey and Bellaire fill the page with awe inspiring visuals.
Shalvey is a stellar artist. His linework is precise and his inking was just lovely. He does this thing with Moon Knight in costume where he gives him heavy inks. All other inks in the comic have a different look, like an ink wash. This makes Moon Knight stand out and it also accentuates how bright and noticeable he is which in turn supports the fact that as a person he’s pretty insane. His action scenes are worthy of a lot of praise. Every single panel is clear and easy to read. In succession, they support and build on each other, helping the reader’s eyes move quickly to keep up with the action. I want more. I wish this trade paperback was twice its size. I want to stare and study these pages in order to see every nuance in the character’s movement and the pages’ composition.
Shalvey doesn’t work alone, he’s aided by colourist Jordie Bellaire who is a powerhouse artist in her own right. She colours the hell out of these pages. Supporting Shalvey’s inking choices with Moon Knight, she never adds any colours to the character, unless a part of his costume is removed or if there is some foreign matter on it, like blood or other battle damage. She uses a palette that compliments the tone and style of the comic and, when the story demands it such as in the issues with the ghost punks or the mushroom dream planet, she lets her colours run wild all over the page. She’s been a rising star of the of the colouring world in the last few years and she’s already found a place in my pantheon of great colourist next to Laura Martin, Dave Stewart, and José Villarrubia.
There is plenty of simplicity to be found in this comic and I really enjoyed that. It’s simple by design and there is plenty of elegance to how the stories in each issue unfold. The simplicity is a feature, not a bug. It’s representative of the skill of the creators at work. The creative team collaborates so beautifully, so seamlessly that it’s hard to tell where one passes off the baton to the other. Their mutual support and their focus on the needs of the story makes Moon Knight: From the Dead and spectacularly powerful and extremely enjoyable read. It’s the best new comic from Ellis that I’ve read in a while and Shalvey and Bellaire have shown me that they are creators to watch.