I was in middle school when Moon Knight #26 hit the comic book shelves. A seventh grader who liked reading Edgar Allan Poe in Ms. Sarver’s English class, but honestly not too much beyond what was assigned to me at Parrish Junior High, I remember picking up the comic and being confronted with something more relevant, more real, and at least as literary as “The Black Cat.”
I happened on the comic book again a couple of weeks ago, buried in a bankers box in my parents’ garage. Captured again by the artwork on the cover, I opened it up and re-read it with the eyes of the middle school principal I’ve become.
What struck me as I read was how important stories can be during the transitional time that is middle school. Beyond Roald Dahl and not yet ready for Shakespeare, though both authors sometimes make it onto the middle school reading list, students in middle school span a large range of maturity and reading levels. Recent decades have seen dystopian literature flourish, catering to the sense of fairness in our tweens. Vampires, unreliable narrators, and steampunk have all found or lost popularity.
For me, as for so many boys, reading in school meant reading stories I wasn’t really interested in. The twelve year old I was fixated on justice as much as kids today, but Dickens and du Maurier didn’t yet strike a chord. Jack London? Maybe. Poe? A bit.
Moon Knight? Heck yeah.
Written by Doug Moench, the Moon Knight story pictured on the cover is titled “Hit It.” It’s set against a jazz motif, which I most certainly didn’t appreciate as a youngster, but dug as an adult, and follows a man assaulting people on the streets of New York. Flashbacks told through Bill Sienkiewicz’s striking drawings show the man’s own childhood abuse and dare to equate the caped hero Moon Knight, at least through the man’s eyes, with his abusive father.
As an adult rereading the story, I realized just how much the story was an indictment of violence in contemporary society. Riffing like jazz musicians within the established structure of a superhero comic book, this author and illustrator pushed boundaries and challenged readers to face something serious.
Crazy, daring, unlike anything I’d read before, in twenty pages Sienkiewicz and Moench were able to shatter the expectations of a comic book, or any story a twelve year old like me had read. This was contemporary, morally challenging, and took on a grown up subject matter.
And it did so with (literary) style.
The result was the result good literature can provide: broadened understanding, new perspective, and a memorable story.
In retrospect, “Hit It” may have been the best 75 cents I ever spent.
As I talk with readers at Diegueño Middle School I love seeing them excited about the stories that they love, from oddball detectives to anime. Their teachers, gifted as my own Ms. Sarver was -though less constrained by textbooks and tradition- inspire them to engage with the texts, ask meaningful questions, and think critically about the world around them. They aren’t limited to reading in class; our library does a brisk business in YA fiction, and it’s common to see kids carrying novels around on campus.
The students I talk with read beyond books as well, pages and pages of print on portable devices, volumes of text (well, texts), and paragraphs of information online that relate to their own lives. I don’t worry that kids don’t have enough to read, or really that they don’t read enough. Our world has become a more literate one (in its own way), even as Dickensian sentences fade away like the images on thirty-five year old newsprint.
As I closed the cover of that comic book, and tucked it away until my own son is about twelve, I sent a quiet wish out to Khonshu, or whomever the kids today think of as a literary deity. I hope that every young reader, male and female, finds her or his own “Hit It.” I wish them all a Ms. Sarver to inspire them in class and a Moon Knight of their own to help them love reading and thinking about what they’ve read outside of class.
It’s not always easy to know what the perfect story is for any one middle school student, but they know when they find it. It’ll hit them.