By: Laramie Martinez
I was 15 when I discovered the comic book/graphic novel section of the South Pasadena Public Library. Since then, I’ve been scouring these small, sometimes minuscule, portions of city libraries, looking for something I have yet to read. I’ve found more than a few gems throughout my search and this column will be taking a look at those finds. This month I will highlight what might be my greatest find: The Compleat Moonshadow written by John Marc DeMattieis and illustrated by Jon J Muth.
I found Moonshadow nestled in the underground stacks of the University of California Library in Berkeley. It was the summer before my senior year at Cal and my job had cut back my hours. Needless to say, I had a lot of down time. It was completely by chance that I stumbled upon this 400-page collection. I remember being struck by Muth’s art, I had never seen anything like it. Watercolor paintings of old men, spaceships, aliens, hippie women, and what looked like a smiling sun all competed for my attention as I flipped through the pages. I checked it out that day and read it (and nothing else) for the next few days.
Moonshadow is a bildungsroman, with the narrative frame being that of an old man telling the story of how he became “Awakened”. We learn his name is Moonshadow, the son of a hippie woman from Earth and a god-like cosmic being known as a Gi’Dose. His best friends growing up are his cat, Frodo, and an oversexed furry alien known as Ira. A few weeks before his 15th birthday his father, who had until this point been present only at Moonshadow’s conception, appears before him and tells him he needs to travel the universe. Moonshadow, his mother, Frodo, and Ira are instantly teleported inside a spaceship with no destination in sight.
If premise seems a little random, that is by design. Equal parts absurdist and romantic, Moonshadow is a comic about the big questions. Themes like greed, war, morality, and ethics are all touched upon in this book. With the core of the series fixed on the question, “How should we live our lives in a seemingly random universe?” The book doesn’t try to provide an answer either. It doesn’t shy away from fact that there can be no true conclusion to this question. Nor does it give our hero a rose-tinted outlook from beginning to end. We see Moonshadow change from naïve boy to young adult and we experience all of the ugliness that comes with having your outlook ripped apart.
But the book isn’t just a depiction of struggle against an uncaring universe, there is humor here too. Biting satire of many an “ism” can be found within along with some occasional slapstick to remind you that this is a comic book. The series draws comparisons to what I call the “Seriously Funny” genre, where authors like Vonnegut and Twain, tackle big ideas with humor to make them more manageable. However, the series doesn’t just draw comparisons to literature, allusions to other works are scattered throughout. Moonshadow is a bibliophile and will often begin a chapter with a quote from a great poet, playwright, or writer. I can think of no other comic besides the Sandman that has as much of a literary influence.
While most of the philosophical points and literary tone can be attributed to DeMatteis’ writing, the scope of the work has to be credited to Muth’s art. As I said earlier, his art was what got me to check the book out in the first place. Each page is gorgeous, treading a line between fine art and underground comix. He covers the humorous and the majestic with equal attention and manages to stay consistent when painting (yes, remember each of these pages are painted) scenes from outer space, an asylum, a battlefield, or a bedroom. You never feel as though the art has made a shift, like the territory covered demands a new style, and that is because Muth has made his art as open-ended as the story. Muth, through his art, makes it feel as though anything can happen, no subject is taboo, no scene is off limits.
I will admit, part of this book’s lasting impression has been the lack of information about it. After reading it the first time, I did my best to look up anything about the series and came up with very little. At the time of this writing, there are still only a handful of reviews, mentions, and essays written about it. Maybe us comic book readers are too focused on the now and the future to look up old books. With new issues and trades coming out every month maybe we don’t take time to look back on things we may have missed. Whatever the reason, it’s a shame. This is a great book. If you love comics, literature, or hearing a good story, this book is worth a read.
PING! POP! POOF!