Saturday, September 13, 2014

Moon Knight #7, Dream Thief: Escape #3, and the Loss of a Signature Artist

Like pretty much everyone else, I enjoyed the hell out of Warren Ellis & Declan Shalvey's recent six-issue run on Moon Knight. They did a lot of cool things in those comics, and one of my favorite aspects was how Ellis' scripts were designed to shine a spotlight on Shalvey's art. One issue's entire story was built around getting Moon Knight to dress up in a new costume made of objects that would make him better at fighting the spirits of the dead. He looked like a skeletal crow-man mummy, and it was an awesome and terrifying image. Issue #5 was basically one long fight scene, a non-stop action sequence that Shalvey made sing. And my definite favorite was the most disgustingly enchanting dream sequence I've ever seen, transmitted to Moon Knight's mind through the spores of the brain fungus of a dead man. Ellis' stories weren't at all lightweight, but they were tailored to make Shalvey the series' real star, the main attraction, the point of reading it at all. When I learned that both creators would be exiting the title after issue #6, I was sadder to lose Shalvey than Ellis, because while Ellis gave Moon Knight a new drive and attitude, Shalvey gave him a new world in which to exercise that attitude and satisfy that drive. Without him on board, the book was likely to develop a whole new feel, to perhaps even take place in an unrecognizable version of the same city or with another new approach to the main character that wouldn't mesh with what came before. Would Moon Knight be able to hold my interest without the signature look and atmosphere that had so completely won me over in the beginning?
     Then I took a peek at the creative team for Moon Knight #7 and, while still upset to say goodbye to Shalvey, I was instantly far less nervous about the comic's future. Because listed as the artist was one Greg Smallwood, who melted my face off with his work on last year's Dream Thief and was in the middle of a repeat performance in that book's current sequel, Dream Thief: Escape. I was thrilled to see an artist I so admired getting higher-profile work, and though I wouldn't describe Shalvey and Smallwood's styles as similar, I could see Smallwood having fun with the visuals in a way that would carry on the spirit, if not the actual aesthetic, of what Shalvey had established. Plus the world's best colorist, Jordie Bellaiere, who had colored all of Shalvey's issues, was going to stay on when Smallwod joined, so there'd be at least one layer of consistency in the art that might make the transition easier. Even as I hated the thought of Shalvey departing, the Smallwood-Bellaire combo was something to look forward to, and it was nice to have that on the horizon. Plus, it would mean getting two doses of Smallwood art each month for at least a couple months, since I presumed he'd be finishing up Dream Thief: Escape at the same time as starting his work on Moon Knight.
     Nope. Turns out that in order to do Moon Knight (or at least I'm assuming that's the reason) Smallwood had to leave Dream Thief: Escape as of issue #3. I can't imagine I was the only one surprised by this, considering he's still listed as the artist online. If there was any current series where the art was the biggest draw even more than Moon Knight, it was damn sure Dream Thief: Escape. Smallwood did everything from the pencils to the letters on that comic, with Jai Nitz on scripts, and while the reality and cast Nitz has assembled is certainly interesting, Smallwood was what made the series great. He played with color, panel borders, and layout freely, but kept the characters more solid so the book had a lot of flavor and dynamism but stayed firmly centered on Nitz's strong, careful character work. In a way, the original Dream Thief and the two Smallwood-drawn issues of Escape have the opposite relationship between art and script as the Ellis-Shalvey Moon Knight run. Shalvey's art was put on display intentionally because Ellis' plots gave it space, offered it the spotlight. Smallwood made himself the star by simply outperforming and elevating what was already a smart, weird, tightly-written story from Nitz.
     Tadd Galusha is the new Dream Thief: Escape artist, and a new artist for me entirely. He's very talented, and a good fit for the series in his own right with clear similarities to Smallwood, but it's definitely not the same. It's sort of a reversal, really: the panels and pages tend to be constructed in more standard, rigid ways, but the characters are a little looser in shape. I don't mind that, because the whole premise of the Dream Thief world is about people becoming other people, so for the art to be a little more flexible in its depictions of the characters has a nice logic to it. And everyone is recognizable and expressive, so there's no loss of storytelling ability. Then again, Galusha doesn't do much to demand the reader's attention; nothing pops or delights or surprises quite like it did with Smallwood.
     As for Moon Knight, Brian Wood replaced Ellis as writer, and he brings very different approach. It's true to the ideas and even the personality Ellis set up, but way wordier and less willing to leave things open-ended. Wood seems to fear ambiguity and/or silence, while Ellis was comfortable with both. So right there, it was already going to feel different even if Smallwood had totally killed it. Which for the most part, I thought he did. Nothing quite as interesting as his Dream Thief work yet, but it's only been one issue so far, and overall he got the presence and swagger of Shalvey's Moon Knight spot on. However, the one glaring distinction is the way Smallwood does Moon Knight's mask, which is essentially just his face, and therefore a pretty major factor in how he looks/feels/comes across as a character. Perhaps to match Wood's more expository tone, Smallwood's mask is more expressive and human than Shalvey's, which hid some of Moon Knight's emotions and amplified others with its dark, chaotic wrinkles. Those wrinkles have been mostly smoothed out in Smallwood's version, so there's slightly more face-shape to the whole thing, expressing all his feelings more evenly. It's not bad, and like I said it goes well with the change in the writing. Again, though, it's just not the same.
     I don't want to be one of those comicbooks fans who automatically recoils in the face of change. Generally speaking, I don't think I am. Sometimes people make a move with a beloved character that I don't like, but we all know a shake-up can be awesome. Kid Loki comes to mind as a recent example, and Spider-Ock, and even something as simple as the current more upbeat take on Daredevil. I mean...Nightwing, anyone? I know that's before my time, but it feels like the most inarguable example of change having the potential to be a good thing. Come to think of it, from what I've seen online Dick Grayson's latest incarnation as a spy (I think...something spy-like) is a role that suits him and has been well-received, so if it sticks he'll be two examples in one. I'm getting a little off-track now, but what I want to emphasize is that my negativity about these artists changing isn't directed at the mere fact that it's something new, but that it's something new about my single favorite aspect of both series. Once the best part goes away, no matter what comes next, it's hard not to miss what used to be.
     Which means, of course, that neither Galusha nor Smallwood ever had a chance on their new gigs when it came to satisfying me. I went in with bias, especially in Galusha's case, where I didn't even spot that he was on the cover or the inside credits but simply looked at the first story page and muttered out loud to myself on the T, "What the hell...? Is this Smallwood?" before checking the cover, cursing the unfamiliar name, and reading on. At least with Smallwood on Moon Knight I knew it was coming a couple months in advance, and he was an artist I already loved, so I could be excited and anxious at the same time. Galusha caught me off guard, and that bugged me before I even properly got started with the issue, so that's just plain unfair of me. I know I should reread it with more open eyes, and I will once the series wraps next month.
     Right there is the other way in which Smallwood has a leg up on Galusha: Moon Knight is an ongoing series, but Dream Thief: Escape has only one issue left. The longer Smallwood lasts on Moon Knight, the more likely I am to warm to him, unless, I guess, he or Wood turn me off all of a sudden with some tremendously horrible issue or something. Galusha's only got 20 more pages or so, which makes it an even bigger bummer that Smallwood didn't just stick around to finish things off. Galusha could have drawn the entire third volume of Dream Thief—which I'm just assuming is coming because I still really want to read that, with any artist, since at this point I'm fairly well hooked—and I wouldn't have minded at all, but for Smallwood to do the top half and Galusha the bottom of this four-issue affair is a drag. It splits the series in this weird way, because the narrative's not really divided that way, rhythmically. The story seems built to span all four of its chapters with a fairly even pace and tone, so it would've been preferable if they'd looked the same, too.
     I'm not walking from either title, and I wouldn't be even if Dream Thief: Escape were going to continue after its next issue. One month's worth of a new artist is hardly enough to make a real assessment of how good they are on the comic in question. I'm not even entirely convinced that I think Galusha is any worse than Smallwood or Smallwood any worse than Shalvey on their respective projects. I just...these comics are new things again, when not long ago they were familiar and reliable, and that naturally disrupts. So I am disrupted, I guess, as a follower of these titles, and I haven't settled back in yet, and until I do I won't know where I stand. For now, I'm in a kind of fan limbo, and that's alright as far as it goes, but not nearly as much fun as reading something I just plain love.

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