The Beat’s Gregory Paul Silber has been accused of having a bit of an… obsessive personality. Each week in Silber Linings, he takes a humorous look at the weirdest, funniest, and most obscure bits of comics and pop culture that he can’t get out of his head.
Moon Knight is finally coming to live action next week in the form of a streaming television series on Disney+, with the so-charming-and-handsome-it-makes-me-kinda-mad Oscar Isaac in the title role. While Marc Spector/Steven Grant/Jake Lockley (Moon Knight, you see, has dissociative identity disorder and therefore has multiple secret identities) has existed since 1975 when writer Doug Moench and artist Don Perlin introduced him within the pages of Werewolf by Night #32, he’s usually been a more obscure figure within Marvel’s deep bench of superheroes. For the vast majority of Moon Knight viewers, the show will be their first exposure to the character. If you’re looking for an explainer to give you some background on the character, you’ve come to the wrong place. I’ve only read one, brief run of Moon Knight comics. But if you want to hear how a semi-retired rock star wrote one of the most compelling meditations on Jewish identity I’ve ever read in a comic this side of Maus, pull up a chair.
While there are Marvel and DC characters I gravitate to more than others (I certainly haven’t been shy about my Batman love in this column), I’m the kind of superhero comic fan who follows creators over characters. I’m not particularly invested in Dr. Strange, but I read a good chunk of Mark Waid‘s run because as far as I’m concerned, Waid’s the best pure superhero writer in the business (while we’re on the subject, I’m pumped for original Spider-Man director Sam Raimi to take another shot at a Steve Ditko co-creation later this year with Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness). Conversely, I love Superman, but I’m not going to read Scott Lobdell‘s run from a decade back because why would I do that to myself.
I bring this up because while I always liked the idea of Moon Knight, and had even read a handful of issues here and there, I was never excited about MK before I heard Max Bemis would be writing the series as part of the “Marvel Legacy” publishing initiative. A Jewish Batman-type characterized by mental illness written by one of my favorite emo singer-songwriters, who also happens to be Jewish and open about his own mental health struggles? Sign me the fuck up.
Bemis, for those of you who haven’t seriously considered flying out to Vegas for the When We Were Young festival, is the lead singer, songwriter, and sole constant member of the now-defunct pop-punk band Say Anything, among other musical projects. At least one person at Apple Music thinks Bemis is “the emo Kanye West,” and it’s an apt comparison. Not only do they share a mutual appreciation of each other’s music, but they both have had difficulties coping with bipolar disorder in the public eye. While both artists’ talents have at times been overshadowed by embarrassing public behavior (although Bemis hasn’t publicly gone off the deep end remotely to the degree West has in recent years), they’re comparable in that whatever you think of their antics, their creativity is undeniable.
One of Say Anything’s best known songs, for example, “Alive with the Glory of Love,” is a love song inspired by the lives of Bemis’ Holocaust-survivor grandparents, written from the perspective of his grandfather as Nazis march through the ghetto. Then there’s the naked, ironic vulnerability of “Every Man Has a Molly,” in which he laments that “Molly Connolly just broke up with me over the revealing nature of my songs.” Both of those songs are from Say Anything’s breakthrough album, ...is a Real Boy, which Bemis has described as a concept album, so don’t assume it’s autobiographical. Even so, he reflected upon his own life for Say Anything’s 2019 final album, Oliver Appropriate, a sequel of sorts to ...is a Real Boy. Bemis had recently come out as bisexual, a theme that’s explored by the “main character” of the album as he comes to terms with his own sexuality. Bemis isn’t afraid to take sonic risks either: Say Anything’s 2014 album, Hebrews, committed what many may consider an unforgivable rock sin by ditching guitars throughout the record in favor of keyboards.
I’ve seen Say Anything live twice, and would have seen Bemis in concert on a third occasion if his 2017 tour as Two Tongues, a side project with Saves the Day singer Chris Conley, hadn’t been canceled. I’m a Max Bemis fan, obviously, but it wasn’t until Moon Knight that I was sold on his comic book writing abilities. His first comic (with artist Jorge Coelho), 2013’s Polarity, has a promising premise as the protagonist is also an artist with bipolar disorder, but it’s too self-indulgent for its own good. I next read Bemis’s forays into Marvel comics like X-Men: Worst X-Man Ever (with art by Michael Walsh) and Foolkiller (with art by Dalibor Tajalic). Both improve on what came before, and even took some impressive risks for Big 2 comics, but still read as if the writer was still mastering the craft.
By the time Bemis’ first issue of Moon Knight came out in 2017, he had finally found his voice as a comic book writer. It helped that with Jacen Burrows on penciling duties, Guillermo Ortego on inks, and Mat Lopes on colors, MK’s return to a more traditional look didn’t come off as regressive as it could have been. Artist Declan Shalvey introduced Moon Knight’s dapper detective costume in 2013, while colorist Jordie Bellaire made the striking choice to not color MK at all while he’s in costume, making his stark white appearance stand out more than ever. I wish that could have continued in the Bemis run and beyond, but Burrows and Lopes did an excellent job displaying how ostensibly conventional superheroic aesthetics don’t have to look stale. Those first few issues remind me of Frank Quitely in their compelling juxtaposition of slickness and grotesquery.
But it’s Moon Knight #194, drawn by Ty Templeton, where Bemis and company truly blew me away. I can’t think of another Big 2 superhero comic I’ve read that’s even tried to explore Jewish identity as frankly and as harrowingly as this flashback to Marc Spector’s childhood, where his father, a rabbi, is tormented by a Nazi who becomes a major antagonist for Moon Knight later in the series. It’s not just that it’s about Nazis; plenty of other superhero comics have done that ever since Chris Claremont revealed in the ’80s that Magneto is a Holocaust survivor. It’s the way Bemis interrogated the psychology of Jewish intergenerational trauma.
Bemis has compared his writing of Moon Knight to therapy, even going so far as saying that some issues left him “shivering and crying.” The cynical among you may read that as mere hype, but read the comic in good faith and it’s clear that it’s written from a deeply personal place. A lot of the best writing, across media, comes from a writer’s efforts to work through their greatest fears, traumas, and other hang-ups, whether it’s a prose memoir or a comic book about a Marvel superhero who thinks he has moon powers thanks to an Egyptian god who may not actually exist.
The run gets progressively trippier from #195 (drawn by Paul Davidson) onwards, and the creators do an excellent job emphasizing Moon Knight’s erratic headspace without being weird for the sake of weirdness. Unfortunately, the run ended somewhat prematurely at #200, after just 12 issues. Bemis claims that he left the book over creative disputes with Marvel, who thought “a book written by a mentally ill Jew about a mentally ill Jew” was “too crazy.”
We don’t know Marvel editorial’s side of the story. It’s Bemis’ word against theirs, but I know from experience that his account is plausible. Stark and honest looks at mental illness, which emphasize how painful it can be rather than shallow stories of “overcoming” that make nice fodder for inspirational quotes, make people uncomfortable. Add to that a harrowing portrayal of Jewish culture that has more on its mind than latkes and lazy jokes about “punching Nazis,” and it’s easy to see why the higher-ups at Marvel may have had second thoughts about hiring a mentally ill Jew to write about a mentally ill Jew. But at least what little we have of this series shows few signs of restraint on the creators’ part before they would have had to compromise too much.
From one mentally ill Jew to another, thanks Max Bemis. Thanks for staying true to yourself, thanks for the music, and thanks for writing a damn good superhero comic.