Moon Knight of the Soul: What Does the Cancellation of Bendis’ Moon Knight Mean for Marvel?

It looks like Brian Michael Bendis’ relaunch of Moon Knight has failed to gain the traction it needed. Sales haven’t been the healthiest, and Marvel’s latest solicits suggest that Moon Knight #12 will be the last in the present series featuring the superhero:

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We’re awaiting official confirmation on that, but I’ve been expecting this for a while, to be entirely honest.The book launched well, with the first three issues going back to print, but it’s been falling rapidly, settling at sales of around 27k, which is quite low for a book from that team. Interestingly, Diamond’s charts have it at #92 in October, #83 in November and #78 in December, although it seems like sales of other books are falling faster – it actually sold nearly 2,500 less units in December as compared to November.

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While we’re awaiting official confirmation on whether this will be the last issue of the series, or the last from Bendis, it is worth considering how the book has ended up so low on the sales charts, especially with such a big push. Indeed, Greg Rucka’s Punisher relaunch also looks to be struggling to find a niche, despite solid reviews, a few rungs lower than Bendis’ Moon Knight on the charts. Even if it turns out that the book isn’t officially cancelled, it’s still worth talking about how this possibility reflects on the modern comic book market.

It seems that Marvel has been cancelling an increasing number of books of late, and consolidating their line along their core properties. Alpha Flight was infamously upgraded from a miniseries to an on-going and then downgraded again. It seems, increasingly, that the publisher is mainly focusing books around their X-Men, Avengers or Spider-Man lines. Still, the failure of this relaunch from the creative team behind one of the most celebrated mainstream runs of the decade gives cause to worry. What does it mean for Marvel?

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It’s worth noting that, if this is cancelled, it will be the third Moon Knight series to be cancelled in the past six years. Whatever detractors might claim about Marvel, there’s no way to claim they haven’t given the character a fair chance at finding an audience. Indeed, even those objecting to the somewhat shameless “Captain Spiderine” premise (incorporating hyper-popular characters like Captain America, Spider-man and Wolverines into the title as Marc Spector’s alternate personalities), it was a move that seemed like a list-ditch effort to convince comic book buyers to sign up.

It isn’t as if the other two failed Moon Knight series didn’t have a sufficiently high profile. The first was launched with writer Charlie Huston in 2006, but featured extremely popular penciller David Finch. Finch is a fairly big-name artist, and so much that he can anchor an entire book over on DC’s admittedly overcrowded Batman line. While that series did find some measure of cult appeal, it couldn’t push the character into the mainstream and find him an audience.

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Vengeance of Moon Knight adopted a far more cynical approach to attracting readers to the character – one that perhaps says a lot about modern mainstream comic books. They tied it into Dark Reign, with Norman Osborn and the Sentry featured heavily. Event tie-ins continue to sell realtively well, even in a shrinking market, but Vengeance of Moon Knight also failed to find a core audience strong enough to support it, despite its attempts to anchor itself in Marvel’s shared continuity.

So the third attempt was a combination of both. Brian Michael Bendis is a big name at Marvel. He’s driving the Avengers franchise, and has written acclaimed runs on Daredevil, Alias and Ultimate Spider-Man. He seems to be one of the few writers who can propel unsung characters to promenance in the modern era of Marvel’s shared universe – reinventing Luke Cage, elevating the Hood, using the Sentry, or creating Miles Morales or Jessica Jones. While comic books are becoming increasingly conservative, it’s hard to argue that Bendis hasn’t managed to give characters a higher profile than they would have had otherwise. He was paired with Alex Maleev, an artist whose work on Daredevil with Bendis is probably one of the strongest superhero narratives of the past decade.

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And the concept was retooled to cater to the modern comic book reader. The big name characters were all shoehorned into it, and included on marketing. The artwork contained Spider-Man and Wolverine, the two iconic faces of the comic book company. Some have argued Bendis’ approach was too cynical, but I think it’s a valid story-telling choice. After all, aren’t those three heroes the superego (Captain America), ego (Spider-Man) and id (Wolverine) of the Marvel Universe, and thus a valid metaphor for Marc Spector’s fragile mental state? Well, regardless of the artistic merit of the decision, it’s hard to argue that the book wasn’t marketable.

And it couldn’t sell.

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Part of me is tempted to attribute the failure to the bad buzz on the internet, those fans who seem to show up everywhere to bash Bendis’ work, often without bothering to read it, or simply on the basis that it is different from what they used to read. It’s common to hear on the internet that various fans of Moon Knight rejected the book because they didn’t believe it meshed with their vision of the character. If it was those people who secured the cancellation of the book, I think they’ve effectively helped demonstrate that their pet character is financially unviable, and we’re unlikely to see the character given another solo title in quite a while. It wouldn’t be the first time that comic book fanatics had cut off their noses to spite their faces.

However, I don’t think that those vocal fans made that big a difference. After all, bitter Bendis-bashers are remarkably common on-line, and yet his Avengers books continue to sell relatively well in a shrinking market. (Arguably merely selling less badly than other writers, but it’s a fair point.) I think that people didn’t avoid the book because they didn’t like Bendis or because they didn’t think the premise suited the character. I think that it’s an example of the self-perpetuating downward spiral of the major publishers.

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DC announced their first spate of cancellation following the New 52 relaunch in September. The titles that were cancelled were easy to predict – not just because they were at the lower end of the charts, but because they weren’t anchored to existing superhero concepts. There wasn’t a Superman, a Batman or a Green Lantern book cancelled. Instead, both of DC’s war comics were consolidated, two minority heroes were lost, and a relaunch of Jack Kirby’s O.M.A.C. was cancelled. The message is quite similar to what we’re seeing at Marvel: the main lines are doing fine, it’s the stand-alone books that are struggling.

I think this is a result of the way fans buy comics, and the way that the publishers reinforce those purchasing decisions. Event books like Flashpoint and Fear Itself sell ridiculously well, while acclaimed books like Xombi languish near the bottom of the sales charts. Dying titles are given a second chance by “tying into” these big universe-altering events, but sales continue to decline once the book “isn’t important anymore.” Publishers insist that the “Road to [event!] starts here!”, and books sell well based on their perceived importance to shared continuity instead of any objective merit.

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The result has been a “clustering” of titles along those sorts of lines, books that easily tie into over-arching plots and crossovers. We’re barely out of Fear Itself and we’re talking about Avengers vs. X-Men. The notion is that a title that can’t tie into a big massive story arc that can be sold to completists isn’t worth buying. Fans buy the books because they are “important”, and publishers hype that “importance” because fans buy into it. It’s a viscious cycle, because it manages to consolidate a fickle and shrinking demographic, while alienating any fans seeking to break in from outside.

If I were recommending a book to a new reader, I wouldn’t pick one that requires some gigantic crossover to make sense. I’d hand them a copy of Grant Morrison’s self-contained All-Star Superman, or Peter Milligan’s X-Statix or Brubaker and Fraction’s Immortal Iron Fist. These are all books that read very well on their own terms, without a need to know about “the worthy” or “black lanterns” or any of the other trappings of the latest big crossover.

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Regardless of what you might have thought about Moon Knight, this cancellation is disheartening. It seemed like a genuine attempt to craft a title outside the core of the Marvel Universe, with a big-name writer and a strong artist and an accessible appeal. You can’t say that Marvel didn’t try, as much as we comic fans like to blame the company. At least some of the responsibility for the state of modern mainstream comics has to lie with the people buying them – the market only responds to our tastes, after all.

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About Darren

Darren is a pop culture commentator and lover of movie and comics. He won the Best Pop Culture Award at the Irish Blog Awards in 2011, and is now officially a member of the Online Film Critics Society. He can also be caught idly humming John Williams' Superman theme to himself.