Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Post-Graduate Studies #1

The MU campus is mostly unused right now but
from time to time, our Professors will drop in for Summer courses.
This Week:

Full Moon by

Professor Tom Flynn

With an Assist from Professor Matthew Bradley

The Hulk! 20
April 1980
Cover Art by Joe Jusko

“A Long Way to Dawn”
Story by Doug Moench
Art by Bill Sienkiewicz
Colors by Steve Oliff

Marvel Preview 21 Moon Knight
May 1980
Cover Art by Bill Sienkiewicz and Klaus Janson

“The Mind Thieves”
Story by Doug Moench
Art by Bill Sienkiewicz, Tom Palmer and Dan Green

Call it separation anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder, but when I finished my write-ups for December 1979 — the last month that Marvel University was commissioned to cover — my thoughts turned to “well, what’s next?” But then I remembered: Dean Pete had mentioned that professors could contribute post-graduate studies if moved by the mood. So I pondered for a bit. Did any of my series end on a cliffhanger? Not really. Well, The Savage Sword of Conan the Barbarian #47 was the first of a two-parter, but my review worked in a bit of coverage for the finale published in the January 1980 magazine. 

But then I remembered: “Shadows in the Heart of the City,” the Moon Knight backup in The Hulk! #18 (December 1979), ended with Marlene on her deathbed. In hindsight, we all know that she’ll pull through: the character will be featured in Moonie’s solo color series that debuted in November 1980. But still, readers back in the day were left dangling — not unlike Jaye Davidson at the end of The Crying Game. Sorry about that. Anyways, it also struck me that Moon Knight was the main attraction of Marvel Preview #21, a black-and-white magazine published in May 1980. By Crom, not only could I wrap up the “Hatchet-Man” storyline from The Hulk! backups, I could also cover his final appearance in a Marvel magazine. And here we are.

Clocking in at a slim 7 pages, “A Long Way to Dawn” from The Hulk! #20 opens with Moon Knight standing over Marlene’s bloody body in a hospital — she was grievously wounded by the Hatchet-Man, Mark Spector’s insane brother, Rand. When a nurse informs the costumed crusader that they won’t be able to tell if Marlene will pull through until the morning, the Knight walks out into the dark streets of Manhattan, allowed to leave by two cops who decide to “look the other way” since the hero put an end to the Hatchet-Man’s reign of terror. Tortured by visions of Marlene’s face in the full moon, the white avenger performs a variety of good deeds — stopping a mugging, calling an ambulance for an overdosing hippy, etc. After returning to the hospital at dawn, the relieved Moon Knight is told that Marlene will live. 

This wisp of a story basically pads things out until the end’s big reveal: Marlene survives. And Moon Knight’s little “adventures” during the wee hours are pretty pedestrian. Besides the mugging and 911 call, he chastises a drunken doorman and a cabbie who let the air out of a rival driver’s tires. He also intervenes when a pimp is about to put the smack-down on one of his prostitutes. But the woman calls Moonie a freak and tells him to get lost. Surprised she didn’t yell “whitie!” Not exactly earth-shattering stuff. What the heck, Bill Sienkiewicz’s self-inked art is outstanding. There’s no doubt why Bill quickly became Moon Knight’s signature artist: you can nitpick some of his artwork, but he made the character cool. 

Moon Knight is given a much bigger showcase in Marvel Preview #21, published the next month, May 1980 — six before his solo color comic debuts in November. Things kick off with a one-page editorial by Ralph Macchio titled “Full Phase.” Much of it is spent on how lucky it was that Bill Sienkiewicz walked into the Marvel offices one day with his portfolio. Indeed.

In the 39-page “The Mind Thieves,” Steven Grant and Jake Lockley take a backseat to the Marc Spector persona as the story focuses on the mercenary’s CIA background. Things open up at Grant’s mansion: a coffin-sized box has been delivered, surprisingly addressed to Spector. After Frenchie decides that it is not a bomb, the crate is opened to reveal the brutalized corpse of Amos Lardner, Marc’s old agency buddy. Spector recalls that Amos disappeared after he dropped him off at the Ravencrag sanitarium in Montreal on an unknown assignment. Months later, Lardner's brother James joined the CIA but remained close-lipped whenever asked about the whereabouts of his missing sibling. Spector left the agency soon after. Suddenly, a shadowy figure launches an incendiary grenade at the mansion and races away in a getaway car. After the fire is extinguished, Marc tells Frenchie to fire up the Moon Copter — they leave for Ravencrag.

That night in Montreal, Moon Knight breaks into the sprawling institution only to encounter the masked man who fire-bombed Grant’s home: while the stranger manages to escape once again, the crescent crusader disarms the explosive he was setting. Next morning, Marc Spector meets with Ravencrag’s director, Mr. Hanson. Hanson informs Spector that the sanitarium is no longer a front for the CIA — it is now a legitimate hospital. He adds that LeBlanc, the former director, is living in Paris, apparently continuing his sinister mind-control experiment, Operation Cobra. Spector flies out of Canada to Paris on the Concorde, telling Frenchie to take the Copter back to New York, book a trans-Atlantic flight later in the day and meet him at the Hotel Regina. Against Spector’s orders, Marlene takes an earlier plane to the City of Lights.

In Paris, Marlene surprises the annoyed mercenary at Orly Airport and they take a cab to the hotel. When darkness falls, Moon Knight slips into LeBlanc’s office on the Left Bank and confronts the fat CIA operative. LeBlanc quickly spills the beans: he is in the last phase of Operation Cobra, the implantation of electrodes in the human brain. Using a simple radio controller, he can then bend patients to his will, making them mindless assassins. The portly psychiatrist adds that he is delivering his findings to agents the next evening at the bizarre Museum of Robert Tatin. Unexpectedly, the doors to LeBlanc’s office burst open and the shadowy stranger rushes in, machine gun drawn. He removes his mask and reveals himself as James Lardner — he is here to get revenge on LeBlanc and Marc Spector, the murderers of his brother Amos. Moon Knight proclaims Spector’s innocence and then disarms Lardner with a crescent dart. Lardner flees, jumps in his car outside and tears off. The midnight avenger gives chase — on the street, Marlene drives up in a rental convertible and the Knight hops on the sideboard. But, after a tremendous traffic accident (caused by LeBlanc’s associates Jenkins and Crane), Spector, Marlene and Lardner are all knocked unconscious. 

Unmasked, Moon Knight wakes hours later, tied to a chair in the psychiatrist’s country estate: Jenkins and Crane inject him with a psychotropic drug. As hallucinations set in, he overhears his captors speaking of Marlene — even incapacitated, Spector breaks his bonds, overpowers the men and stumbles out of the room. Fighting off terrifying visions, he manages to find Marlene tied to a bed in another room. They both make their way outside and are whisked to freedom by Frenchie’s waiting and rented helicopter. 

After Spector recovers from the drug’s effects at the Regina, they all rush to the Tatin museum to foil the hand-off. But LeBlanc is waiting along with the mindless James Lardner: the Cobra electrodes have been implanted in his head, giving him immense strength and agility, all under the control of LeBlanc. Lardner begins to throttle the Knight but the costumed hero smashes the controller out of the psychiatrist’s hands with a well-thrown truncheon. Realizing that all is lost, LeBlanc tries to flee in his car. But Spector flattens one of his tires with a crescent dart and the fat man crashes into a tree. Freed from control and driven by an animalistic rage, Lardner begins pounding the flaming automobile. It soon explodes in a huge fireball, killing the creator of Operation Cobra — and his final victim as well.

Well, it’s yet another convoluted and unengaging magazine story from Devil-May-Care Doug Moench. I’ve always had the feeling that Doug starts with a simple idea — here, CIA mind control experiments — and then gets to the padding, stretching and long, dull blocks of dialogue to fill up the page count. Plus, to hold the slim thread together, he makes quite a few unexplained — or simply ignored — leaps in logic. Let’s start at the beginning. James Lardner sends the corpse of his brother Amos to Marc Spector in care of Steven Grant. Does this mean that the younger Lardner knows that they are the same person? If so, that important plot point is completely dropped. And, if you consider Moon Knight’s adventures in the pages of Werewolf By Night (August 1975), Marvel Spotlight (June 1976), The Defenders (May 1977), Spectacular Spider-Man (September 1978), Marvel Two-in-One (June 1979), and The Hulk! magazine, it has been years since Spector quit the CIA. So where has Amos’ corpse been all this time? It looked pretty fresh — it would have been a skeleton by now. Was he one of LeBlanc’s experiments and kept alive? Nah. My guess is that Doug didn’t bother to think things through yet again.

Also, how does Frenchie know that LeBlanc brought the unconscious Knight and Marlene to his country estate? The pilot is waiting outside when they make their escape: did he just guess and, if so, how did he know where the estate was even located? Plus, at the end, Marlene uses some high-kicking karate skills to help take down LeBlanc’s associates Jenkins and Crane. Where did that come from? She hasn’t displayed any knowledge of the martial arts at this point. Speaking of the sexy assistant, she’s very sexually aggressive towards the Spector and Grant personas throughout the story, eagerly tearing off her shirt at one point. Sadly, poor cabbie Jake Lockley isn’t the recipient of these amorous advances. Moon Knight/Spector’s escape from Jenkins and Crane is a stretch as well. Despite being under the thrall of a powerful psychotropic drug — as demonstrated by Sienkiewicz’s horrific visions — he still breaks bonds applied by CIA agents, beats the two well-trained men and finds Marlene. Seems a stretch.

Speaking of the Spector/Grant/Lockley three-headed monster, when Doug Moench created the character for Werewolf By Night #32 (August 1975), only Spector was Moon Knight: the other two personas were introduced in Marvel Spotlight #28 (June 1976). Now I’ve only read the Moonie backups in The Hulk!, but not sure Doug had a firm grip on how to handle the three characters from the very beginning. While they all seem to consider themselves three distinct individuals, the only thing that really separates the trio is what they wear — well, and Grant’s money and Lockley’s hack license. Not sure what Moench thought he would gain by giving them some type of split personality. In this very magazine, Marlene asks “But one question first! Just who are you, Steven?” Grant replies “Sometimes I’m not sure I know.” It would have made more sense — and made it easier to write about Moon Knight — if the crescent crusader was the alter ego of Marc Spector and Grant and Lockley were just the mercenary’s disguises. But, I don’t have to worry about that any more. Not that I really needed to worry about writing this post at all!

As always, Bill Sienkiewicz is the perfect artist for Moon Knight. It’s a dark character and he has a dark style. I couldn’t really tell the differences between the pages inked by Tom Palmer or Dan Green: they both used a heavy brush so everything meshed well. I will say that I much more enjoyed Sienkiewicz’s self-inked art in “A Long Way to Dawn.” Oh, forgot to mention: the oddball Museum of Robert Tatin is an actual place. Looks extremely interesting.

As you must have noticed, I didn’t spend a second on the main feature story of The Hulk! #20 — that’s not what I signed up for. It seemed to involve the green giant actually stopping a meltdown by smashing the insides of a nuclear reactor. Whatever. Now Marvel Preview #21 included a backup, the 15-page “Walk a Crooked Mile,” starring The Shroud. While I’m not going to cover that as well, I’ll note that it was written by Mark Gruenwald and Steven Grant (him again!) and illustrated by Steve Ditko, the Golden Age legend I last encountered in The Micronauts Annual #1 (December 1979). Ditko’s art is much better here. Though the Crooked Man, the bad guy in this extremely dopey story, has the oddest haircut in the history of comics (see below).

Matthew Bradley:  The two tales reprinted in the third and final issue of the 1983-4 Moon Knight Special Edition, although both by Moenkiewicz, are a decidedly mixed bag.  The first, marking MK’s swan song in the unlamented Hulk!, is but a belated 7-page coda to the Hatchet-Man epic of #17-8, while the second, anonymously colorized here from its first appearance in Marvel Preview #21 (with a Shroud backup story that I sadly don’t have), weighs in at a whopping 39 pages.  The self-inked Sienkiewicz is at his moody best in the former, depicting a snapshot of each hour during the long night while MK awaits news of Marlene’s fate, and Moench cleverly contrasts the hopelessness felt in several episodes with the promise of literal new life as he learns that “She’ll pull through.”

The latter unsurprisingly required some helping hands for Palmer, with “Add’l Inking” credited, at least here, to Sienkiewicz and Dan Green.  Those who know me well may be surprised to learn that I have any reservations whatsoever about the generous helping of cheesecake Bill serves up, and yet I have two, starting with the fact that, although Marlene has just narrowly survived an attack by a guy wielding a hatchet, who if memory serves me correctly struck her in both back and front, her “squeaky velvet” doesn’t display so much as a blemish, let alone a big scar.  And it epitomizes the aptly schizoid way in which MK’s main squeeze is often portrayed:  one minute, she’s like bubble-headed (pun intentional) eye candy, and the next, she’s kicking rogue CIA butt.

Obviously, Savage Swordsman Flynn—who, by a bizarre coincidence, sent me a recent review of The Manchurian Candidate the very day before I read LeBlanc’s allusion to it here — has far greater experience than I do with these economy-sized stories, yet I think Moench handles the plotting and pacing of this one pretty well.  To me, it seemed substantive, never dull, and free from conspicuous padding.  My biggest beef is with the electrodes sticking out of Lardner’s head, which not only look ridiculous (how on Earth did he ever get that hat on?), but also seem like they’d be incredibly vulnerable; how hard would it be to disable him, control board or no, by whacking a couple of those with MK’s truncheon?  Is that supposed to be Shooter on the splash?

Two Weeks From Today:
Professor Matthew Answers the Question:
Whatever Happened to Captain Marvel?


  1. But Steve Ditko is a Silver Age legend, not Gold...

  2. I have this Marvel Preview somewhere. I remember thinking that Palmer overwhelmed the art, The same did happen when he inked Simonson on Star Wars. Honestly I remember nothing of this tale. I collected Moon Knight in the Moench years and liked it. It was Marvel's Batman. Kind of. But re-reading it a couple of years ago I couldn't get into it again. I just thought it dull. The many personalities of Jake Spector didn't made a lot of sense.