Fiction: 'The Interview' by H. Sivia
Underground Reading: The Last Spin by Evan Hunter

Review Round-up: The Outlaws of Sherwood and Moon Knight

Outlaws of SherwoodRobin Hood retellings all tend to blur together - possibly because, after a lifetime of exposure to film, television, books, more books, comic books, and post-apocalyptic comic books, the core cast of characters and plot twists all become a bit predictable. Robin McKinley's The Outlaws of Sherwood (1988) adds a fresh perspective to the mix because it is spends the most time scrutinising what an outlaw thinks, as opposed to what one does. McKinley's Robin Hood isn't so much the grand adventurer or iconic rogue as much as an accidental - if thoughtful - leader.

McKinley sets the scene in the opening pages when Robin - who is actually a rather mediocre archer - accidentally kills another forester. It is in self-defense and it is a poor shot, but, nevertheless, a panicked Robin flees into the woods to hide. It is Marian and Much, Robin's two closest friends, who see the bigger picture: a new Saxon resistance, an icon of freedom, a beacon of hope, etc. etc. Robin is mostly concerned with staying alive.

Moreover, that's always Robin's concerns. If anything, Robin is the least "Robin Hood"-like member of his own band: he's pragmatic, slightly paranoid, and far more focused on the day-to-day elements (digging latrines, for example) than fighting for the greater good. McKinley is clever in how she weaves in the traditions of Robin Hood - the green cloth, the archery competitions - in a way that seems both natural historically and natural to Robin as a character.  It is perhaps this commitment to making Robin an ordinary, nice guy in extraordinary, superheroic circumstances that makes him such a compelling character. Through the other characters' eyes, we start to see what he's becoming, and what he is a symbol. Through Robin's own... we only experience the worry, maturity and self-sacrifice that comes with being responsible for the lives of others. 

The Outlaws of Sherwood builds to a surprisingly distressing climax. Robin is a symbol - whether he likes it or not - and the authorities must move against him. The final confrontation with the Sheriff's men, when the 'merry men' are forced to become soldiers and face the cost of their liberated existence, is particularly wrenching. Poaching venison and robbing bishops is one thing, but having blood on their hands is another. Robin Hood has become so jolly and anodyne over the years - a four-colour version of himself - that the  grim 'reality' (however fictionalised) of his situation is both horrifying and heart-breaking. (Outlaws of Sherwood was a recommendation from Gail Carriger.)

Moon KnightOn the opposite end of the spectrum, if there's one superheroic figure without a legacy, it is Moon Knight. I say this with some regret: I've always liked Moon Knight - as a kid, I was a sucker for superheroes with hoods and capes and monochromatic costumes. And as Marvel's Batman analogue, he had a lot going for him: gritty escapades, cool gadgets, nocturnal crime-fighting... just, sadly, never a long-running series of his own. Moon Knight waxed and waned and got ever more complicated as writers all tried to give him an identity of his own (something, presumably, less... batty). This all came to a head with Brian Michael Bendis' run, where, in the quest to make Moon Knight not Batman, he became a bit of everyone else.

Warren Ellis picked up the pieces in his recently-collected six issue run, and has, rather bravely, returned to Moon Knight's core origin: he is Batman again. Ellis' Moon Knight is a billionaire vigilante with a grim sense of humour, Sherlockian detection skills, a big bag of tricks and a tendency to talk to things that live in the darkness of his mansion. As a Moon Knight afficinado, I applaud this - Moon Knight is best as a (rather ruthless) grim warden, and Ellis' metaphysical Egyptian twist (brought to life by Declan Shalvey's brilliant art) gives the hero a delightful infusion of the gothic and macabre.

The new Moon Knight is also rather episodic. There's nifty science, an ingenious extrapolation of some sort of technology, some grim wordplay, a bit of badassery and finis. There's no question that Moon Knight is ingeniously constructed for this sort of format, but there's also no question that we've seen this before in, say, Global Frequency, or even Planetary. I suppose what's particularly  interesting is that Moon Knight - as constructed by Ellis - is almost a non-entity. He's an ethereal, inexplicable force that arrives, solves and disappears again. He has purpose, but no personality - at one point a hostage he saves insightfully refers to Moon Knight's mask as his true face. His existence as a hero is, in many ways, inexplicable. Why does he do this? How does he get away with it? It isn't until the the sixth (and finest) issue of the collection, where these questions are asked directly. The issue is told through the eyes of a rival: a police officer who wishes to supplant Moon Knight as the city's protector (a particularly harrowing story in the post-Ferguson world). The officer's quest to become a 'cape' is genuinely disturbing, both in the steps he takes to erase his own personality and in the steps that, as Moon Knight later reveals, the policeman cannot take. 

Like Robin Hood (see, this all connects!), Ellis' Moon Knight is a discussion of people as symbols - and the unseen cost of being a legend. What little is revealed of Moon Knight shows a man divided. On the streets, he's an unperturbable, invincible icon - the envy of ordinary people, the implacable bane of criminals. In private, he's a shambling, confused wreck of a man, with no memory, no friends, and no sense of self. By becoming something larger than human, he's also become something much, much less.