Mimsy Review: Moonshadow
The signs along the way were not propitious—but dear old Chesterbarrel did his best to keep morale high. “Don’t worry, men,” he whispered, eyes alert for any trap. “We’ll probably be killed long before we reach the castle.”
A fascinating story, touching, silly, and funny, lovingly illustrated by Jon J. Muth, about a young boy who, after growing up in a small and insular community where he was an outcast, is cast into a universe which he can never call home.
|Illustrator||Jon J. Muth|
In the early eighties, comic books were suddenly beginning to take themselves seriously. Before this, there were islands of seriousness, such as Steve Gerber’s “Howard the Duck”, but it was the early eighties that saw creators trying this sort of thing on a wide scale, culminating perhaps with Alan Moore’s “Watchmen”. Marvel Comics, recognizing that something was happening, even if they weren’t sure what it was, started an imprint called “Epic Comics”, where supposedly ground-breaking work would be published and co-opted by the House of Ideas. Most of the stories there were just superhero stories on glossy paper, but in 1985, in January, came the first issue of a strange little thing titled “Moonshadow 1”.
The cover was amazing. It looked like a watercolor or something, in dark blues and bright whites and fuzzy edges. Flipping through it, the inside was the same, and I couldn’t place my finger on what was really, really odd for at least a few minutes. The text: the dialogue and captions were in mixed case, italicized. Almost… handwritten.
In 1985 this wasn’t completely new, but it was still an amazing thing. Comic book text was all upper case. Hell, most comics still ended every single sentence in an exclamation point! This comic had periods, lower case, handwriting, watercolors, poetry.
This comic even had naked people in it, lovingly drawn in watercolor.
Part of what we’d been waiting for was better quality cheap printing. Even in 1985, the combination of glossy dark watercolors and lower-case, handwritten text could be hard to read. Later, Neil Gaiman and DC Comics (with their own “we’re not sure what’s going on but we’re going to cash in on it anyway” imprint, Vertigo) would go even further into unreadability with the Sandman series.
“Moonshadow 1” opens with poetry, captioned over a panel of clouds and a starry sky, descending to a stone house and an old man with a quill pen and a glass of wine.
“Piping down the valleys wild,
Piping songs of pleasant glee,
On a cloud I saw a child,
And he laughing said to me:
‘Pipe a song about a Lamb!’
So I piped with merry chear.
‘Piper, pipe that song again;’
So I piped: he wept to hear.
‘Drop thy pipe, thy happy pipe,
‘Sing thy songs of happy chear:’
So I sung the same again,
While he wept with joy to hear.
‘Piper sit thee down and write
‘In a book that all may read.’
So he vanish’d from my sight,
And I plucked a hollow reed,
“And I made a rural pen,
And I stain’d the water clear,
And I wrote my happy songs
Every child may joy to hear.”
That’s William Blake. Our aged narrator is well-read. And with that he introduces his story, about a young boy, raised in an intergalactic zoo by his hippy mother beneath the auspices of the globe-like G’l-Doses, one of whom is his father. His mother is Sunflower, born Sheila Fay Bernbaum, plucked from the Earth by the G’l-Doses for their zoo. He grows up with his mother’s “shit-streaked cat,” Frodo, and his unwilling surrogate father, Ira the furry lecherous bear-like creature.
He was a surly, cynical, lecherous grouch; a hairy sensualist who cared for nothing save filling his belly and fondling his genitals. He farted with malice, belched without shame, shit where he pleased, and offended everyone.
Young Moonshadow latches onto Ira, and Ira pushes the youngster away, until Moonshadow shares porn books from his mother’s library (his mother didn’t choose the books, his father did). “So long as the smut supply lasted, I’d found—a father!”
Just before his fifteenth birthday, his father sends him out into the world, with Frodo, Ira, and Sunflower.
And that was the end of issue 1. And Moonshadow, unlike most comics of the time and probably because of the intricate artwork, was not coming out monthly. Moonshadow 2 wasn’t scheduled until two months later, and it was the most memorable wait for a comic that I’ve ever had. Throughout the entire twelve issue series I’d re-read the previous books over and over waiting for the next to come out. Twice, the next didn’t come out on time and I had to wait another month still. The series began in the beginning of 1985 (labeled March, it would have streeted in January or maybe late December) and did not end until the very end of 1986 (labeled February 1987, it would most likely have streeted in December, a wonderful Christmas present two years later).
“Moonshadow” bears resemblances to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, but with much less emphasis on the odd and more on a normal man in a strange universe. Heavily influenced by earlier classics such as the poetry of William Blake, the stories of Lewis Carroll and Alexandre Dumas, and probably Douglas Adams as well, it begins each issue with the narrator quoting some important work. The second-to-last issue opens with Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” and then slips into Ira, wasted at the International House of Tarts.
Parts of it are silly, parts touching, parts sad (I could not believe the ending of issue 2, and only with issue 4 was I certain of its truthfulness), parts funny. Moonshadow travels about the universe, meeting death, lust, love, adventure, and despair. He sees the horror of war; he becomes a war hero, and meets royalty, becomes a parent-figure, is tricked into leaving, searches for enlightenment and salvation. All in a light, easy style of writing and in beautiful, painted illustrations. DeMatteis can be an incredible writer, and maintained his wonderful prose throughout all twelve issues.
Jon Muth’s paintwork is astounding, and brings DeMatteis’ coming-of-age tale up from very good to incredible. In the late nineties, DC’s Vertigo reprinted the Moonshadow series, and DeMatteis and Muth added a postscript, “Farewell Moonshadow”, which is included in “The Compleat Moonshadow”, which I’m linking to here. (Believe me, you don’t want to try and pick up back issues of this thing in comic bins. Get the thing all at once and avoid the anxiety I went through.) “Farewell Moonshadow” is fun and interesting, but not the same at all. Still touching, less silly, part of it is simply that we’re older. Sequels are hard. They’re no longer new. Part of it is that it compresses a lot into a small space; it could have been twelve issues as well. Part of it was the ending, which was no longer narrated. But it’s good, and you get it with the collection.
If you’re a fan of Peter Pan, of The Three Musketeers, of the Hobbit, I recommend this book. I just opened up the fourth issue to the letter’s page, and there are two short notes of kudos: one from Los Angeles and one from New York, signed by Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut, respectively. “Thanks, much thanks for Moonshadow. Handsomely, beautifully done. My bravos to you and Jon Muth.” And: “I thank you for the perfectly beautiful Moonshadow #1. The great-great grandfather of all such enterprises is, of course, my hero William Blake: words and pictures all of a piece. Cheers!”
I’m assuming you won’t get the letters column in the collection, but you will get the work that they were praising.
If you enjoyed Moonshadow…
If you enjoy whimsical, you might also be interested in Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday, City of Lost Children, Hook, King of Hearts, L.A. Story, Oddville! and Land of Nod, Peter Pan, The Complete Lewis Carroll, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Wizard of Oz, The World of Pooh, and Yellow Submarine.