“Will I be in a straight jacket?” The attending nurse laughed when I asked her that question, but I wasn’t joking.
My severe depression and anxiety had, up to that point, gone undiagnosed. So when my doctor sent me to a behavioral health clinic after a suicide attempt, my only experience with such places came from popular culture, especially comic books. As the attendants helped me remove the laces from my shoes and strings from my sweatshirt, four-color images filled my head, panels of the Joker cackling from a padded cell deep in Arkham Asylum or Kraven the Hunter bellowing at Dr. Ashley Kafka in Ravencroft Institute.
Superhero comics don’t have the best track record with mental health, and in the character’s earliest incarnations, Moon Knight was among the worst offenders. Initially introducing the character as a Batman riff in 1975’s Werewolf by Night #32, writer Doug Moench, who co-created the character with artist Don Perlin, added “schizophrenia” as a differentiating gimmick.
Despite this checkered past, Moon Knight has become one of Marvel’s most relatable superheroes — and he’s about to get an introduction to a much wider audience, thanks to a certain Disney Plus series starring Oscar Isaac. “Relatable” may seem like an odd way to talk about a hyper-violent guy who sometimes chats with a deity and flies around the city in aircraft piloted by his aide-de-camp Frenchie. But thanks to a multiple personality, and an angle added to the character shortly after his creation, Moon Knight stories have featured some of superhero fiction’s most nuanced portrayals of mental health.
Moon Knight came to be when an act of heroism cost amoral mercenary Steven Grant his life and he was resurrected by the Egyptian moon god Khonshu. As the Fist of Khonshu, Moon Knight defended those who traveled under the moon, but the psychic trauma resulted in additional identities. Initially, these identities included the suave billionaire Steven Grant and hard-luck cabbie Jake Lockley, but would grow to include the methodical detective Mr. Knight and, in a memorable run by Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev, Captain America, Wolverine, and Spider-Man.
Through the 1990s, Moench and other writers varied the personalities. Occasionally, Frenchie or others would refer to Moon Knight’s “schizophrenia,” and some stories treated the identities as distinct from one another. More often than not, Spector treated his identities as characters, tools in his mission. Typical scenes would show Spector changing out of his suit and donning a newsboy cap, choosing Jake Lockley instead of Steven Grant for a certain task.
But as so often happened in the 2000s, the Ultimate Universe changed everything.
When Moon Knight arrived in 2005’s Ultimate Spider-Man #79, he checked off all the Ultimate universe boxes. Ultimate Moon Knight wore a slightly different white costume designed by Mark Bagley, had the bad attitude common to the universe’s heroes, and a backstory that seemed arbitrarily altered from his Earth-616 counterpart.
But Ultimate Spider-Man writer Brian Michael Bendis most strongly distinguished this Moon Knight by accentuating the multiple personalities. This hero didn’t simply adopt new personas to suit a mission. He had full-blown dissociative identity disorder (D.I.D.). In Bendis’s hands, Moon Knight would shift from one personality to another without warning, with his identities even going to battle against one another.
This new focus had almost immediate repercussions in the mainstream Marvel Universe, especially in Ed Brubaker and Mike Deodato’s 2010 Secret Avengers run. These stories found Steve Rogers deploying Moon Knight as an undercover agent, taking advantage of Spector’s shifting selfhood.
When Warren Ellis and Jamie McKelvie took over the book with issue #16, Moon Knight officially became the team’s “crazy person,” at least according to the first page introductions. When a stray bullet lands in his leg, Moon Knight assures his teammate Beast, “Relax. I’m far too borderline psychotic to feel pain.”
For the next few years, insanity became Moon Knight’s core trait. When Bendis and Maleeve launched their run in 2012, they portrayed Moon Knight as a delusional annoyance to other superheroes, even as he imagined himself to be one of the Avengers. To be sure, Bendis gets in some quality jokes at the expense of Spector’s troubled psyche. But it also introduces a tantalizing concept, one not always expired in comic book portrayals of mental health. Maybe Moon Knight wasn’t a hero despite his mental state, but because of it.
Ellis emphasized that approach when he returned to the character for the first six issues of a new ongoing in 2014, teaming with artist Declan Shalvey, colorist Jordie Bellaire, and letterer Chris Eliopoulos. These stories featured regular appearances by a fourth identity, the cool and collected Mr. Knight, a variation of which showed up in 2011’s Secret Avengers #19. Riding in a white limousine and consulting with police detectives, Mr. Knight recalls a hardboiled detective more than a spandex-laden superhero.
For this series, Ellis and Shalvey looked past the many previous takes on Moon Knight. Via email, Shalvey told me that they approached the hero “like a brand new character.” Mr. Knight helped the creative team reach that goal, explained Shalvey, giving them a fresh canvas to work with without getting bogged down in the character’s convoluted history. “Mr. Knight not being in a superhero outfit, being in a white suit, provided a whole new way to draw the character that hadn’t really been explored before.”
For their run, Ellis and Shalvey invoked Moon Knight’s unusual mental state but did not exploit it. Other characters still treated Moon Knight with suspicion, and he regularly had conversations with Khonshu, appearing as a bird-skeleton wearing a dapper white suit, with Grant and Lockley standing by. But for all its off-kilter energy, the Ellis and Shalvey run featured Spector at peace with his fractured psyche.
Jeff Lemire and Greg Smallwood further explored that aspect in the ninth Moon Knight ongoing, launched in 2016. The first five-issue arc, “Welcome to New Egypt,” partially plays like a classic Moon Knight story, in which the hero and his long-established supporting cast must escape agents of the god Seth to prevent the destruction of Earth.
Lemire juxtaposes this plot with scenes in a mental hospital, where psychiatrist Dr. Emmet treats Spector and his friends. At first glance, these scenes seem like the business as usual for comic book portrayals of mental health, the type that terrified me during my first stay in an institution. Babbling patients wander the white antiseptic hallways, menaced by hateful nurses and orderlies.
While my hospital stays have put me into contact with some frightening figures, and I have certainly dealt with nurses who made questionable care choices, Lemire’s choices strike me as exaggerated. But rather than use these elements to make mental health patients into weirdos who need to be fixed before they re-enter society, Lemire makes Spector a hero whose power comes from his unusual mental state.
Lemire never clarifies if Emmet and her (admittedly abusive) staff truly want to help Spector by freeing him from the Khonshu coping mechanism he’s made for himself, or if they’re minions of Seth. Smallwood enhances the ambiguity by varying panel layouts and linework. Scenes in the mental institution feature realistic figures constrained in tight, small panels, made more claustrophobic by colorist Jordie Bellaire’s dingy washes. When Moon Knight puts on his costume, Smallwood’s figures grow dynamic and the panels widen, accentuated by Bellaire’s brighter tones. Cory Petit letters Khonshu with an otherworldly font, keeping the word balloons spaced apart, unmoored. Between each panel Smallwood leaves swaths of white space, showing literal nothingness between realities.
Midway through the adventure, confusion overwhelms Spector. Lost in a subway tunnel, unsure if he just battled the forces of Seth or beat up doctors to escape a mental institution, Spector drops to his knees and calls out for help. Khonshu arrives, rendered by Smallwood as an indistinct sketch, and dismisses Spector’s questions about truth.
“Let your insanity guide you,” instructs Khonshu, his words captured in a single black balloon, hovering in the darkness surrounding Spector’s head. The next page begins with a bright horizontal panel, taking a bird’s eye view of the unmasked Moon Knight in a white three-piece suit. On either side of his outstretched arms, we see the words, “Let your madness show you the way.”
This moment serves as a turning point, not just for the story, but for Moon Knight as a character. On a plot level, Moon Knight’s trust in his perception allows him to not only find a way out and save his friends but also eventually break free of Khonshu. Over the next several issues, Spector redefines himself not as a broken person or a mistake, but as someone with a different way of approaching the world, which offers its own benefits as much as it offers challenges.
With this breakthrough, mental illness is no longer a mere gimmick for Moon Knight. Building on the work done by Moench, Bendis, Ellis, and others, Lemire gives us a superhero whose mental state does not adhere to simple binaries. He’s not a healthy person with a relatively stable outlook on the world, nor is he a madman driven to dangerous ends. Rather, he’s a person whose brain works differently from others, a condition that presents challenges and offers opportunities for heroism.
For the most part, creative teams who followed Lemire and Smallwood have continued exploring this approach. Say Anything singer Max Bemis joined artist Jacen Burrows for an arc that contrasted Spector’s mental state to that of a villain, while the current ongoing from Jed Mackay, Alessandro Cappuccio, and Rachelle Rosenberg features Moon Knight balancing his personalities to serve others through his Midnight Mission.
Teasers for the Disney Plus Moon Knight series suggests that the show will play up the character’s insanity. However, the show’s first four episodes handle the issue with care, even drawing heavily from the Lemire and Smallwood run. Leads Oscar Isaac and Ethan Hawke don’t ignore the difficulty of living with mental illness, nor the sometimes comedic situations it can create. But showrunner Jeremy Slater follows the work done by recent creative teams, portraying Spector as a real person, whose mental state offers unique benefits and challenges.
As the general public grows more aware of mental health, more people can be diagnosed and learn coping mechanisms without needing to be hospitalized as an untreated adult. Superhero comics need to follow that increased awareness, doing away with simple divisions between sick in the head villains and clear-minded heroes.
Moon Knight’s nearly fifty-year evolution has made him sympathetic, and nuanced portrayals of mental health. That’s a hero that everyone needs, whether they’re checking into a hospital at a moment of crisis or well along their mental health path.