from Patreon: my review of Moonshadow: The Definitive Edition

When I reached fifty patrons on my Patreon in August 2020, I wrote the following as a special bonus for all of my patrons. I’m reprinting it here two years later in honor of writer J.M. DeMatteis’s new Kickstarter.

When I first started seriously getting into superhero comics in the early-to-mid-1980s, I read almost entirely Marvel Comics stuff. It was a great time to get into Marvel, as some of the greatest runs on their heroes were at this time: Chris Claremont’s X-Men and New Mutants, Roger Stern’s Amazing Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, and Avengers, John Byrne’s Fantastic Four and Alpha Flight, Bill Mantlo’s Incredible Hulk, Micronauts, and Spectacular Spider-Man, Walt Simonson’s Thor, Denny O’Neil’s Iron Man, Jo Duffy’s Power Man & Iron Fist, Frank Miller’s Daredevil, and J.M. DeMatteis’s Captain America, Defenders, and Marvel Team-Up, among others…

DeMatteis was a writer I quickly took to. Several elements of his authorial voice appealed to me, from his naturalistic dialogue to his strong use of humor, from his fantastic ability to get at the human motivations behind both his heroes and his villains to his general belief in the goodness of human beings. (A lot of the work he did on Captain America proved to be the lasting basis of how the character was written both in comics and especially in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the lack of any kind of thank-you to him in any of the MCU films is a travesty.) There was also always a sense of hippie mysticism about his work that continues to appeal to this child of hippies.

From 1985 to 1987, DeMatteis wrote a miniseries for Epic Comics, Marvel’s line of creator-owned titles, called Moonshadow. The artwork was fully painted, mostly by Jon J Muth, with help from George Pratt and Kent Williams when Muth fell behind on his deadlines. It was one of the first fully-painted comics, and Muth et al’s washed-out watercolors gave the book a very distinctive, ethereal look that stood out in a medium that favored bright primary colors.

Moonshadow was reprinted by Vertigo in the mid-1990s, and then they published a coda one-shot called Farewell, Moonshadow, all of which was collected into The Compleat Moonshadow—which was recently reprinted, along with a ton of behind-the-scenes material, by Dark Horse as Moonshadow: The Definitive Edition.

Anybody who’s read DeMatteis’s work over the years will recognize many of the tropes in Moonshadow, from the general search for enlightenment that is the theme of the story to the romanticizing of mid-to-late-20th-century Brooklyn (where DeMatteis himself was born and raised) to the multiple literary references (including at least one reference to Fyodor Dostoyevski, a DeMatteis staple) to the charmingly goofy use of humor, including quite a number of Yiddishisms. 

DeMatteis is Jewish, and Judaism plays a much bigger role in his work than it does in most mainstream comics work. (One of his other 1980s creator-owned Marvel projects was a graphic novel called Greenberg the Vampire.) Reading The Definitive Edition now, there are several Yiddishisms that my teenage self totally missed the first time ’round (as an example, two planets are named Goyim and Shpilkuss).

I can’t recommend this book highly enough. It’s a true delight, one part coming-of-age story, one part satire, one part fairy tale, and one part science fiction allegory. An older Moonshadow tells the story in flashback, with the main action taking place during Moonshadow’s teenage years. The title character is half human—his mother is a hippie burnout named Sheila Fay Birnbaum, who goes by the name Sunflower after she tuned in, turned on, and dropped out—and he has many adventures throughout the cosmos. The satire and social commentary is fast and furious in Moonshadow, with critiques of capitalism, war, organized religion, and more.

The most fascinating aspect of Moonshadow to me is the G’l Doses. They’re basically giant glowing smiley faces, created decades before emojis became a thing. They flit about the galaxy pinging, popping, and poofing their way through space, occasionally kidnapping people and putting them in their zoo for reasons that are never made clear. The G’l Doses appear to operate completely on whim, and all attempts to understand them are doomed to failure. (DeMatteis presents two philosophical texts that take opposite viewpoints on the G’l Doses: We’re All Ants in a Meaningless Cosmos by Ragstone Phillit, which obviously takes an existentialist, nihilistic view, and The Gospel of Shree Quack Quack H’onnka, which takes a much more optimistic one.) Sunflower is one of the people they kidnap, and — for reasons that are never elaborated upon, just like every other G’l Doses action — one chooses to marry Sunflower and impregnate her. Moonshadow is the result of that bizarre union.

One of the things I love about DeMatteis’s work in general and Moonshadow in particular is that he understands the importance and value of storytelling, and how the creation of art in general and of literature in particular is of such critical import to what makes life worth living. Each chapter of the story starts with a literary quote, and while they’re all excellent and apt quotes, by some of the greats, reading it in 2020, I have to wince at the fact that it’s made up entirely of white dudes from the late 18th to the early 20th century, and all but one from the U.S. or the UK (the exception being the aforementioned Dostoyevsky): William Blake, L. Frank Baum, William Butler Yeats, J.R.R. Tolkien, Percy Bysshe Shelley, J.M. Barrie, Robert Louis Stevenson, Dostoyevsky, John Keats, Henry Miller, and Samuel Beckett. While growing up in the G’l Doses zoo, Moonshadow had access to a huge library that supposedly had the entirety of human literature in it—but, again, all white dudes from a single hundred-and-fifty-year timeframe. 

Still, the story is superlative. DeMatteis effortlessly slides across set pieces and genres, from the horrors of war to the hilarity of worlds like Gimmegimme and Pillbox to the delightful flashbacks to Sunflower’s childhood and young adulthood during the oppressive 1950s and the turbulent 1960s. Throughout it all, Moonshadow is a delightfully romantic, naïve, competent, pathetic, brilliant, idiotic, complex hero whose journey to enlightenment is well worth the journey.

The art is beauteous, the perfect accompaniment to DeMatteis’s tale, ranging from Seussian absurdity to ethereal beauty worthy of William Blake (whose introduction to the Songs of Innocence provide the de facto epigraph and theme). Kevin Nowlan’s handwriting-style lettering is also perfect for the feel, though occasionally it is difficult to read the thin-lined lettering over the colorful art, at least for your humble reviewer’s aging eyes…

I’m of two minds about the Farewell, Moonshadow epilogue, which also slides from genre to genre but it’s not as effortless as it is in the main story, feeling a bit more disjointed in tone and feel. The initial bits with Moonshadow as a tinkerer works well, but the middle part with him basically becoming Job, with everything going wrong with his life, feels like it wandered in from a different story. Sometimes it’s best to leave parts of the story untold, and I’m not sure the epilogue works as well as hoped.

Still, this is one of the greatest comics stories ever produced, flaws and all. It’s tremendous fun, full of happy chear, and will make you feel good when you read it. It’s a great story, and that’s what makes life worth living.

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