Or how to make a drawn out action sequence not boring in Moon Knight #5
by Warren Ellis, Declan Shalvey, Jordie Bellaire, and Chris Eliopoulus; Marvel Comics
I am deeply interested in comics that solve narrative problems. Comics that dive into some storytelling aspect that is often done poorly and manages to make something banal great are super interesting. Moon Knight #5 is just one of those gutsy problem solving comics.
Paradoxically, for me, extended action sequences are one of the most fraught aspects of comics. They should be kinetic, exciting highlights but I find that the longer they drag on the more boring, confusing, and murky they usually become. Moon Knight #5 is an issue long action sequence that had me hanging off every single panel, every blow, splinter, slash, and contusion. And the way Moon Knight #5 works, the choices the creative team make hat keep the action interesting, are worth examining in further detail.
There will be *SPOILERS* for Moon Knight #5 in this post.
The foundation for any action sequence is its motivation. Why are people fighting? Why should the reader care? If this is not done right, if its two superheroes throwing down over a sandwich based disagreement (or whatever cliche shit) or if the objectives of the conflict are unclear it is hard to get emotionally invested or care about the consequences.
Moon Knight #5 takes a really simple, straightforward approach to this. A girl has been kidnapped. She is being held captive on the fifth floor of a shithole walkup apartment. Between her and the door is floor after floor of thugs holding her captive. Moon Knight, because he is crazy, plans to walk in the front door and destroy everyone between him and the girl to ultimately affect a rescue. One wacky cape, a stairwell, a dozen or so goons, and a very clear, emotionally affective objective: a scared teenager. The simplicity of this approach helps provide a constant focus on what the point of all the violence is.
One of the biggest problems with many protracted action sequences is a lack of a well defined location which really makes things feel inauthentic. The simple premise and setup of Moon Knight #5 also does a really effective job establishing a sense of place. By keeping it simple, the stairwell of a shitbox apartment, the comic provides a familiar space that adds a veneer of reality to the proceedings and provides context for all of the resulting action. It seems like such a little thing, but it makes a world of difference.
This little snippet of action here is completely awesome, but also a great example of how action works better with context and spatial positioning. Moon Knight throws scary giant thug off the stairwell and presumably to his death. Now, as a thing a person does, particularly an ostensibly good person, it is crazy and horrific to murder a person by... whatever the balcony equivalent of defenestration is. But, knowing that scary giant thug is involved in the kidnapping of a teenage girl, something that is also crazy and horrific, his dispatch at the hands of Moon Knight feels somewhat justified. We get why this brutal violence is happening. We also, because of the simple well defined layout of the action in a stairwell, understand that Moon Knight has muzzled and thrown scary giant thug through a railing and into the empty space in the centre of the stairwell. Without this sense of space it isn't obvious what the thug is being thrown through or what the consequences of the action are. But with a well established story objective and setting it all works.
Action scenes are a particularly kinetic species of comics. I find that I'm most engaged when the panels are quick to navigate and provide a really clear sequence of events so that they can be read rapidly and clearly. When done perfectly, with additional use of shapes and guides to draw the eye around the page, static panels can feel fast and alive in a really involving way. Moon Knight #5 is great at arranging panels and the events within panels to provide clear snapshots of the ongoing action and to make these snapshots very seamless and organic to read quickly.
The above sequence is a great example of this: the panels show the three key moments of the scene (Moony grappling with thug, Moony tossing thug, and thug breaking himself on the railing) in a really clean way. Of particular interest in this sequence is how the thug, moving from left to right traces an arc, that takes advantage of our eyes natural progression across the page, to actually capture the feeling of the motion of the toss. It's great comics.
Moon Knight also has some really fantastic examples of fractured panel composition. Continuous composition, which I describe above, shows clear intermediate steps and leads the readers eyes through the composition and along motion vectors, is really good at making a sequence feel quick and kinetic. Fractured panel composition, which is deliberately showing images that don't connect and which have vectors of motion that do not sync up. This discontinuity makes each panel feel heavier: readers have to spend more time on each panel to understand how they relate and how to navigate through the page which makes each panel feel more significant and impactful. This is isn't graceful, this is dragged out, fuck-punching.
The above collection of panels is a great example of this: as Moony beats the shit out of sideburns thug, there isn't a clear sequence of events from him brandishing his baton to cocking the guy in the face to kneeing him in the stomach to braining him. Which makes each panel a little surprising, and requires us to stop and figure out whats happening at each step. The panels also have very different vectors of motion: the first panel looks to be primarily coming out of the page while the second panel goes bottom left to top right, the motion of the third panel is upward-right, against the grain of the reader carriage-return, and the fourth panel is straight down. It's choppy to read but in a way that enhances the action.
By varying the two approaches throughout the comic, quick elegant violence and brutal, disjointed beat downs, Team Moon Knight gets the best of both worlds: the overall action manages to feel overall quick but punctuated by bone-crushing moments of extreme impact. Alternating panel pacing like this also helps keep the comic interesting. Readers are constantly being forced to adjust the pace of their reading and contend with these different modes of storytelling. And this challenge forces the reader to pay attention and actively decipher the violence. Which is a smart choice.
Long boring action scenes in Superhero comics tend to be weirdly sterile affairs. I mean sure, all of Metropolis might get destroyed in an orgy of property damage, and people are presumably killed in the process, but what we are shown is often nigh-invulnerable superbeings walloping each other while suffering only the most superficial of injuries. In real life violence does not just tear a costume or scratch a person up. Real violence is horrifying and has consequences.
Okay, I play beer league soccer because soccer is fun and jogging is awful, and right now I have a grotesquely swollen and bruised ankle from a sprain I suffered for having the hubris to try and change the direction in which I was moving. Not, you know, being kicked down the stairs by a crazy man in a mask or punched through a wall by a Spacegod. This wasn't even violence and I am hurt in a way that makes standing extremely sucky.
Watch MMA and you will see actual violence: dudes who are fucking beating the shit out of each other for our entertainment and suffering potentially mutilating injuries. (Which is why I cannot watch that stuff...) Humans when beating on one another are damaged and suffer. When scary people set out to hurt each other, people are actually fucking hurt. That is the nature of violence. When a protracted fight scene features untouchable beings throwing lazer beams at one another it does not connect to that frightening, lurid reality and as a result feels inauthentic.
Moon Knight #5 is one of the most graphic depictions of realistic injury I have seen from mainstream comics. I mean, there are comics where more people are killed, but the granular depiction of realistic injury: the broken wrists, snapped legs, smashed in faces, in this comic are real and viscerally authentic. These are people being hurt in the way people are hurt when terrible violence is done to them. Moon Knight #5 is a comic that when it kicks you in the gut you fucking vomit. And this dedication to depicting the consequences of the action goes a long way to making the action feel real and feel like there are actual stakes. By making everything so goddamn cringe worthy, MK5 makes it impossible to be bored.
Another problem with drawn out superfights is that they tend to be surprisingly unimaginative. Page after page of dudes flying and punching one another in similar ways is not all that engaging. In all things in life, variety is super important.
Moon Knight #5 does a fantastic job of being creative with the application of violence. Moon Knight beats down each thug in a different way while relying on a variety of weapons and tactics in slightly different situations. Like, take the two sequences above where Moony uses the same weapon to dispatch Spider-head and SWAT-ginch thug. Both of these sequences are nothing like each other, and also kind of horrific snowflakes of originality. How often do you see a shuriken driven through the floor of a man's mouth, or a goon tripped down stairs by having a foot stapled to a tread? Not very often in a superhero comic, yeah? And Moon Knight #5 is full of these wild, bizarre feats of asskickery and its this constant experimentation with showing different examples of violence that helps keep such an extended action sequence feeling fresh.
And really, Moon Knight #5 is a comic where a baseline human dispatches other baseline humans on a stairwell. It is both a testament to Team Moon Knight and an indictment of the rest of the superhero comics industry that this very mundane premise is the most creative superhero action sequence I have seen in a long time. In comics where impossible people fight in impossible ways where literally anything imaginable can happen, there shouldn't be boring repetitive action. Ever.
So yeah, if you ever are wondering how to make protracting action super engaging, take a long hard look at Moon Knight #5. Go! Find a copy!
Monitoring Moon Knight #2