Romance and Magical Realism in Graphic Literature, Part 3
This is the point where I actually make an argument.
III – Difficulty in Definition
Despite the title of this section, I shall begin by examining Romance, the definition of which is more readily agreed upon by critics than that of Magical Realism. I turn to Northrop Frye, who posits
“Romance in particular is, we say, ‘sensational’: it likes violent stimulus, and the sources of that stimulus soon become clear to the shuddering censor. The central element of romance is a love story, and the exciting adventures are normally a foreplay leading up to a sexual union.”
The sensationalism – the appeal to the senses and passions, as opposed to reason – of Romance has led to its denouncement by the Arbiters of Taste throughout literary history. If we naïvely take this statement and its connotative implications, then Moon Knight falls squarely into the category of Romance: Romance is low-brow; comics are low-brow; therefore A = C and Graphic Literature is Romance. Of course, the fallacy here is that correlation does not point to causation. Graffiti is also a low-brow form of art. This means that Graffiti is also Romance, according to false understanding. We must apply the elements and a proper definition of Romance to the work before pronouncing judgment.
“The central element of romance is a love story,” according to Frye. Therefore, we ask, Is the central element of the plot of Moon Knight – either the ongoing title as a whole, or any of its smaller story arcs – love, or at least a sexual attraction?
In ancient works, especially epic poems, the first image of a story embodies the theme of the whole work. Applying this idea, we see The Bottom open with Moon Knight intervening in a gang war. The scene intensifies through each panel, setting a scene in a filthy section of New York, unwashed despite the rain, two rival gang members firing at each other from speeding cars, until a page-turn reveals the two-page title splash, depicting Moon Knight falling from his dirigible, lightning forking across the sky, and the only words (apart from the title) are Spector’s monologue-box, stating, “Someone has to do the fun stuff.”
After the conclusion of that scene, Moon Knight enters his dirigible – flown by Duchamp – and he makes the transition to Spector. While this happens, Spector reflects, “No, being a part of a team was never for me. But that doesn’t mean you have to go it alone. That doesn’t mean you don’t have help. Friends. A home. A church. Love.” The panels show Moon Knight boarding his dirigible, which is piloted by Duchamp, and with the last word, they reach a crescendo with an image of Spector in bed with Marlene Alraune, surrounded by red and pink heart-shaped pillows.
This introduction could have been built directly from Frye’s statements. The adventure of crime-fighting is literally – for Spector, at least – foreplay. He leads a life of violence in service to his god, and his reward for doing so is a beautiful woman. Immediately, the reader sees that this story is concerned with violent adventure and the cause for these episodes is Spector’s desire for love. This story fits the basic requirements for Romance, if Love and Adventure (or sex and violence, more negatively) are the only parameters.
As the reader continues into Chapter 3, he encounters a synopsis of Spector’s past, illustrating a litany of some common episodes in Romance, such as a mysterious birth (Spector’s first resurrection by Khonshu) or narrow escapes from death (many examples, including both of Spector’s resurrections). To top it off, the whole scene revolves around the theme of recognition of the hero’s true identity. Through this chapter, a character known as the Profile explains Spector’s past, his identities, and what can be understood of his motivations. So far, everything seems to fit nicely into the genre of Romance.
The aims and episodes of the story are not the sole determinants of Romance. Frye explains,
“Most romances end happily, with a return to the state of identity, and begin with a departure from it. Even in the most realistic stories there is usually some trace of a plunge downward at the beginning and a bounce upward at the end.”
Both a downward plunge and an upward swing play out in The Bottom. Even this title points to something of a downward trend. After the exciting and sexually charged beginning, the first chapter ends with the revelation that the days of Moon Knight’s crusade for vengeance are over, and Marc Spector is now crippled, after his last encounter with his former partner and nemesis Raul Bushman.
The final image of the chapter is Spector, collapsed onto his knees, clutching at the shroud about the statue of Khonshu with one hand while grasping at spilled vicodan with the other. The monologue box reads, “I never asked to be a hero. But please let me be a hero again.” The beginning of this story fits Frye’s explanation of the general flow of Romance. The main character goes from a state of happiness and reward to a state of disrepair and misery. He yearns for the days of his glory, when his service to his god rewarded him with wealth and a beautiful woman.
The end of the story arc, though bittersweet, does end more happily than the state of affairs at the beginning, and a primary theme of the story is the hero’s return to a state of identity. I argue, though, that the ending does not meet the necessary emotional satisfaction to be considered Romance. While Marc Spector does return to his role as Arbiter of Vengeance and Blade of Khonshu, he does not find the reward or the glory that he desires.
After the dramatic and violent climax that echoes the excitement from the first scene, Moon Knight makes his escape, his inner monologue commenting, “In the end. I get what I want. Glories. I get glories. Glories such as these.” The illustration for the last sentence – Glories such as these – shows Moon Knight being carried away by Marlene. His body is broken and weak. If this were a less realistic story, the six crossbow bolts would not have even fazed him, and the scene would have ended with Spector and Marlene in bed again, rather than her dragging him from the battlefield.
“Glories such as these” do not seem very glorious. To blankly describe the last image as “a woman with her arms around the retuning hero” does not speak truly to the spirit of the image. This might resemble a proper romantic ending, but it does not satisfy the emotional aspect of a happy ending. The emotional comfort with the ending then oscillates. Feeling like a new man, Spector leaves to visit Marlene, who maintains that their relationship has no chance of resurrection. The happy ending is renewed when Spector visits and reconciles with Duchamp and they agree to go through physical rehabilitation with each other. Finally, though, the reader is jerked downward by the confrontation with Khonshu.
The god reveals that his had been the hand behind the entire adventure. His reason for doing so was to renew people’s belief in him. “I’m a god,” he says, “I don’t fade. I fight. I fight dirty.” This is how a god of vengeance and the moon justifies manipulating his priest. Spector resists his god’s demand for blood and death, showing his hope for redemption when he whimpers, “I’m not like that. I’m not like you. I’m a hero.” This whimpering protest for a happy ending is swatted aside by Khonshu’s reminder of the definition of the word “avatar: – “The descent of a god to Earth in incarnate form.”11 He also declaims to his priest, “You’re right you know, you’re not like me. In the end. You are me.”11 The ending is all but hopeless. This god-thing holds out the promise of reward for service to Marc Spector, but this is far from a happy ending.
If this story is not a romance, then it must be some odd kind of realism. Obviously this is not a fully realistic realism, but one that presents the world as it may conceivably be. Here I invoke Wendy B. Faris to define Magical Realism. She gives a quick and easy definition to begin her essay Scheherezade’s Chilren: Magical Realism and Postmodern Fiction: “Very briefly, Magical Realism combines realism and the fantastic in such a way that magical elements grow organically out of the reality portrayed.” The reality portrayed in Moon Knight stems much farther than this single story. This story is set within Marvel Comics’ main continuity, also called Earth-616. These stories have a well-established element of the otherworldly or the fantastic. Even as far as gods go, Khonshu is a relatively passive one. Hercules, Ares, and Thor take a much more active hand in human affairs.
Faris more thoroughly defines Magical Realism with five criteria. The first of these points is that, “The text contains an ‘irreducible element’ of magic, something we cannot explain according to the laws of the universe as we know them.” The irreducible element of magic in this story comes from Khonshu’s hand in affairs from the beginning. As the Profile explains in chapter 3, the interesting part of the story starts when Khonshu raises Marc Spector from death.
“In the tomb of Sety II, Spector encounters an extradimensional entity. It identifies itself as Khonshu, the Egyptian god of the moon. And of vengeance. It brings Spector back to life as its avatar on Earth. To do its work. Really, it did. What it actually is? What it wants? Who’s to say? But Spector bought it.”
This is the irreducible element of magic, the one event that cannot be explained by the laws of the universe as we know them. It does not matter whether the Khonshu who appears to Spector is the Egyptian god of vengeance and the moon or if he is the hallucination of an unwell mind. Within the story, the issue of Khonshu’s existence is never resolved, but nobody can deny, as the Profile points out, that Spector died and something not of this world resurrected him, and this was done for a purpose.
The second of Faris’ main characteristics of Magical Realism is: “Descriptions detail a strong presence of the phenomenal world – this is the realism in magical realism, distinguishing it from much fantasy and allegory, and it appears in several ways.” In Graphic Literature, the descriptions that would be given in the narrator’s voice are presented in the art. The world presented in the artwork is meant to be representative of our own world. It is quite remarkable that any extradimensional being, let alone this specific one claiming to be Khonshu, appears to Marc Spector. Even the other costumed adventurers in this universe rarely encounter the supernatural. Magic is something encountered only by the Mighty, on Earth-616.
Even when Spector dons his investments and sets out to deal Vengeance to his enemies, the artwork and Spector’s monologue let us know that he is not superhuman, that he feels the injuries inflicted upon him. Marlene still needs to carry him to safety after the fighting is done, whereas a typical superhuman hero would simply walk, fly, or swing away on a web. What makes Moon Knight seem superhuman is his indomitable will.
“In the end. It’s all about what you can take. In the end. They all beg for mercy. All except the best of them. They beg. Still not realizing what they’re dealing with. What I can take. What glories I’ve had. How much I can take. How much I can take from them all. If I so choose.”
Spector’s will and his faith are his strength. He will not fail, for if he does so, his god shall not reward him. What rewards he receives, he must first take out of the skins of the wicked. This detail of the story, while remarkable, is not otherworldly. It is quite conceivable that a man would be able to ignore pain in the heat of battle, and charge forward on will alone.
This brings us to the Faris’ third criterion. “The reader may hesitate (at one point or another) between two contradictory understandings of events – and hence experience some unsettling doubts.” This story has many events whose explanations can be taken two ways. The crux of this question is the existence of Khonshu. The events of The Bottom could be explained as the Profile sees events: the heirs of a committee of villains hated their fathers so much that they decided to humiliate them by recruiting Spector, a goal the elder generation could not fulfill. Plans go poorly and they trigger a sense of purpose in Marc Spector. This leads him to attempt to reestablish ties with Marlene Alraune and Jean-Paul Duchamp. This explanation is absolutely believable and mundane (predicated upon a reality where such things as criminal committees and masked vigilantes both exist and commonly come into conflict).
Alternatively, the reader could believe the words of Khonshu, who claims to have pushed the New Committee’s desire for vengeance, which caused them to hire Bushman, who crippled Spector, who learned just how bad life could be without his god’s favor. Nowhere in the story is the reader given a definitive answer about the nature of the god. Even the Profile, a master psychologist and empiricist, admits to the ambiguity of supernatural forces. “Cross-dimensional influences, no telling what they’re after. What they need. But it’s always serious #&$%, whatever it is.” He repeatedly admits the existence of something outside mortal ken, but he never admits them to be gods.
Wendy B. Faris’ fourth criterion for Magical Realism is this: “We experience the closeness or near-merging of two realms, two worlds… The magical realist exists at the intersection of two worlds, at an imaginary point inside a double-sided mirror that reflects in both directions.” Again, this goes back to the irreducible element of magic in the story. The catalyst for the story is the intersection and interaction between two worlds, or two dimensions, in the rational words of the Profile. We cannot deny that Marc Spector died and something not of this world resurrected him. If we choose to believe Khonshu’s explanation of the events, that also points toward a near-merging of two worlds. The whole story becomes one of a god’s taking an active hand in the affairs of men.
Finally, Faris posits that, “These fictions question received ideas about time, space, and identity.” The overt message given by Khonshu presents the question of identity when one dedicates himself to a particular cause for so long. Is Marc Spector simply the Blade of Khonshu, or is he a hero, the Moon Knight? This problem of identity is crucial to Spector’s character. He seeks redemption for a life spent inflicting pain, but his talents and his god pull him toward blood and death. Both the supernatural and the realistic explanations of events question not only Spector’s identity, but the nature of identity in general.
The Profile explains that everybody’s actions can be reduced to programming. Free will, for him, is not a factor in people’s decisions. He explains,
“All of us, we’re just what our past makes us… I see information. Signals people send, without knowing they’ve been sent. Interactions with objects. Unconscious modesties. I see programming. All the ways we’ve been hardwired. All the software loaded from experience. It all shows up in our behavior. Whether we want it to or not.”
This is a bleakly scientific outlook on life. Raising this point of view calls identity into question. For Spector, it means asking whether he is the avatar of vengeance, or a hero dedicated to aiding the common man, or simply a man who had a bad relationship with his rabbi father, playing out his life in violence and fantasy.
Spector’s identity is further called into question in the story The Uses of Restraint, when he goes for a psychological evaluation as part of his registration with the government, under the Superhuman Registration Act. The Profile mentions three different aliases used by Moon Knight. He was born Marc Spector, and he was a mercenary until his first resurrection. After that, he developed two different personae: Jake Lockley, a working-class man of the people, and Steven Grant, a millionaire philanthropist.
The psychologist seems to be able to switch Spector between his three personalities through hypnosis. Again, the reader must choose between the magical and the realistic explanations here. If one prefers realism, then Spector’s responses during the interview can be explained as Spector playing along with the hypnosis, pretending to switch between Lockley and Grant and the Fist of Khonshu. If one believes the magical, then the hypnosis was successful, and Khonshu truly does speak through his vessel. Not expecting a fourth voice, the doctor asks to whom he speaks.
“Insect. Worm. Foul globule of waste and decay. You are talking to no one. You are not asked to talk. Only your obedience is desired and commanded by the Lord of Vengeance and the Moon. Khonshu speaks.”
The grandiose melodrama of this scene begs to be taken seriously. In this light, Spector’s identity and the nature of supernatural interference in our world are called into question. Even if Khonshu does not exist, Spector’s faith (programming) still allows for its influence to affect the world.