There's a whole article that could be written about how 'The Moth' is a throwback to the silver age of comics and I'm not going to write that because I haven't remotely got the depth of knowledge to do it justice. However, I can summarise it by saying that this 2005 collection of a four-part Dark Horse comic book series and one special issue is not remotely like anything else I've read in American comics from the era.
It's obviously a throwback to when comic books were fun, first and foremost, and it's told with passion by an incredibly talented artist who clearly loves the field he's working in. That's Steve Rude, who was our fantastic Artist Guest of Honor at CoKoCon 2018. He created The Moth and he drew the character throughout, though he brought in Gary Martin to officially script the stories they conjured up jointly. That's why this volume is presented as Steve Rude's The Moth.
Beyond that, my take was more to do with the story being good old-fashioned pulp adventure with a superhero who's not really a superhero at all but a man with certain astounding but very believable talents, who uses those talents not only in his job but to do what's right whenever it's needed. From the perspective of morals, this is simple stuff. Our hero is the good guy and there's no ambiguity to be found, no dark side, no unsavoury secrets. The bad guys are generally bad guys, whether they're crooks, thugs or a more primitive supernatural evil. Maybe there's a little moral shift in a couple of the supporting characters, but that's not what this series is about.
By day, our hero is Jack Mahoney, initially just an accomplished acrobat in a circus but soon, after the death of Victor, its owner, he becomes the man tasked with actively running the place too. He has the sort of physique that you'd expect of an acrobat and the physicality and energy too. Who better than an acrobat to leap around in the sort of high-flying action that's everywhere in comic books, this one very much included?
Well, that physicality comes with a cost, because Jack is half of a pair of Siamese twins, separated at birth, and Tad is his precise opposite. It's as if Jack took more than his share of nutrients in the womb, at the expense of his little brother, who is still, as an adult, very little indeed, though fully functional and adept at cards. Needless to say, Jack is incredibly guilty about this, even though he knows that it was never a knowing act on his part, so he takes care of Tad at the circus.
By night, he's the Moth, taking on bounty hunter jobs and anything else that might come his way. The series of adventures he runs through here are varied and told in mostly separate chapters, an issue a pop of the original comic book, so they start, they unfold and they finish and we move on to the next, just as we would with a pulp adventure novel series. Who's Tarzan going to face off against next time out? Buy the next thrilling novel in the series next year to find out!
First up is 'Not of Flesh and Blood', the only overtly supernatural piece in the book, in which the Moth faces off initially against a biker gang led by the violent behemoth known as Lamar 'Tiny' Henderson and then a demonic lion-man imported from South Africa that's been racking up quite the kill count. After escaping from its crate, it takes down the crew of the ship and then escapes into the New Jersey countryside, where it takes down bikers, sheriffs and Victor, the circus owner, who's helping out from the standpoint of someone who works with animals every day.
I liked this initial story, which does a decent job of introducing all the key characters at the circus, not just Jack and Victor but also Tad, Sophia the bearded lady and Melvin the strongman. It highlights in no uncertain terms how acrobatic Jack is, during his epic fight with the lion-man who simply refuses to die. There's a deceptive amount going on in the text, as well as some ambiguity with some bikers who decide to help out after their leader is taken out of the equation. The art, of course, is exquisite, even if I wasn't particularly fond of the lion-man's face. Rude knows his business backwards and blindfolded and clearly cares about his characters.
I think I liked the second story even more, though it's a much shorter and less substantial piece called simply 'The Moth' and taken from 'Dark Horse Presents No. 138'. It puts the Moth into a classic Man with No Name setup, pioneered by the Kurosawa film 'Yojimbo', playing two sets of gangsters against each other in Hoboken and getting paid by each. It's over and done with in a mere eight pages, but it does a lot within that tiny space. Quite frankly, it may be my favourite piece in the whole book.
After that, we introduce a new primary character who's clearly meant to be ongoing support for the Moth, a recurring character in the universe Steve Rude was creating. She would be a quintessential silver-age masked vigilante if only she wasn't black, but this book doesn't care in the slightest about being that authentic to the era, just to its sense of fun and action. It seems entirely appropriate to me that American Liberty, dressed in the stars and stripes outfit you'll be seeing in your head right now, is a young African American lady.
She's also very established, a well-known public figure who thwarts bank robberies by day and makes cereal commercials by night. She also works within the law rather than outside it, which is the trigger for her connecting with the Moth. Initially she saves him, in 'Sweet Land of Liberty', after a bad-guy bounty hunter waylays him and leaves him bloodied and bruised in an alley. She fights alongside him in 'Liberty and Justice for All' and then teams up with him for real in 'The Price of Liberty', when her father, an earlier version of American Liberty, is kidnapped.
These stories work for me and I enjoyed them a lot, but they'll mean something more to truer comic book fans than I. Again, Ann Liberty and her father are costumed vigilantes rather than superheroes, however they're billed in their franchise building comic books, and I always prefer that. As you'll have seen in my 'Doc Savage' reviews, I appreciate the possibility that I could be like Doc Savage, if only I'd dedicated the time and effort to perfecting my mind and body and dedicating my life to crusading for the side of right. Which, naturally, I didn't, but I could have done. I could similarly be like the Moth or American Liberty, if I'd only taken the paths they did. I could never be Superman, even if I'd wanted to be. So these characters work for me, even if I haven't read all the silver age comic books that Rude is hearkening back to.
I connected to the final story too, 'Trouble Times Three', which feels like a very American take on the stories I read in British comic books like 'Lion' and 'Thunder'. It's a little out of place here because it sets up a story that presumably would show up in the next volume, which was sadly never written. It introduces a new villain, a very tall and very polite African assassin, but that doesn't go anywhere in this book. It also introduces a sidekick, in the form of a streetwise girl called Rebe Michaelson, who's stuck in a very broken home environment until Jack becomes her legal guardian. I love this stuff and it's impossible not to have fun with it.
Which, after all, is the point of the book. I just wish there were more stories featuring the Moth. One day I'll get round to starting in on Steve Rude's best known solo work, a combination of science fiction and superhero stories called 'Nexus'. Not only is there far more of that one, but it even crossed over at one point to a comic book I dig called 'Magnus: Robot Fighter'. ~~ Hal C F Astell