Near Mint Memories: The Hands of Shang-Chi

That 70’s Dojo”¦

Thanks to Bruce Lee’s massive appeal in the early ’70s the martial arts saw a surge in popularity. The Way of the Dragon became a way of life for many people. Films like Fists of Fury and Enter the Dragon turned Bruce Lee into a household name. The martial arts became the next major fad; a fad that would reach far beyond the cinema. There were scores of television shows and cartoons, which had a martial arts influence. Probably the most famous being the cult hit television series Kung Fu starring David Carradine, which launched in 1972. As fads go, it wasn’t long before comic books would join in on the martial arts bandwagon.

Marvel struck first, and most successfully, in 1973 with the introduction of Shang-Chi in the pages of Special Marvel Edition #15. DC would follow with two series featuring martial artists in ’75 and ’76, Kung-Fu Fighter and Karate Kid. While Shang-Chi’s continuing adventures would last well into the 1980s, DC’s two series only lasted seventeen and fifteen issues respectively. These were by no means the only martial artists to spawn in the ’70s. Iron Fist is another example of a character that came from the super-’70s martial arts phase that America endured. Even though Iron Fist may be a more known commodity to today’s comic reader, no other martial arts comic comes close to the run that Shang-Chi enjoyed.

I am sure I’ll get a slew of mail disputing Shang-Chi’s reign in comparison to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but it isn’t even close, folks. Sure the Turtles may have had more issues published with their name on them, but we’re talking mass merchandised comics that fell under two major umbrellas—the original, more realistic, martial arts based Eastman & Laird and the silly, trivial, animated stuff. Master of Kung Fu ran longer than either incarnation did separately. Anyway, TMNT, like Star Wars, was something fresh, exciting, and wonderful. Was being the operative word. Unfortunately, both were bastardized far beyond recognition, long, long ago.

Really, though, the length is not the most important issue, nor is the bastardization of TMNT. Master of Kung Fu was a far more entertaining series and maintained its high standard of creativity for far longer than any other martial arts title. That’s why it’s the best.

Let’s take one final look at the competition. TMNT‘s been shelved more times than any, but a rocket scientist can count. Kung-Fu Fighter featured Richard Dragon, who has his own series once again, the amazingly-titled Richard Dragon. Karate Kid still appears occasionally in books bearing the Legion of Super-Heroes brand, and Iron Fist appears semi-regularly in series that are soon cancelled (although he did successfully team with Luke Cage in Power-Man and Iron Fist for 76 issues). Yet, Shang-Chi is the only martial arts character to carry his own series for more than 100 uninterrupted issues and I venture to guess that his record will not soon be broken.

Here’s the story why.

Oh, that Marvel math”¦

While Master of Kung Fu was cancelled in 1983 with issue #125, there are only 109 issues of the MOKF comic.

How’s that?

As I stated above, Shang-Chi made his debut in Special Marvel Edition #15. With the success of his first two appearances (did you guess that he next appeared in Marvel Special Edition #16?) the decision was made to give Shang-Chi his own series. As was often the case in the pre-80s comic-world, first-issues were avoided whenever possible. Higher numbers were what newsagents and even readers were most comfortable with, so the first issue of Master of Kung Fu was actually #17.
Odd stuff, no?

A literary classic?

As strange as that numbering is, here’s something even stranger. In the early 1970s, Marvel held the comic book rights to the works of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu literary work.

Rohmer was actually a pen name for writer Arthur Henry Sarsfield Ward. He created the “Devil Doctor,” Fu Manchu, in 1912 in a serialized story entitled, “The Mystery of Dr. Fu Manchu.” In all, thirteen novels and a collection of short stories featuring the Fu Manchu’s attempts at world conquest were written by Rohmer. Fu Manchu is rendered all the more nefarious by the fact that, due to a magical elixir, he is ageless. All great villains must have a heroic foil. In Fu Manchu’s case he had two—British agents, Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie. Fu Manchu moved beyond his book roots starting in 1929 with a series of ten films. The last film, The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu, arrived in 1980, but that was not the end.

As I said, Special Marvel Edition #15 introduced Shang-Chi, who we learned was the son of Fu Manchu. Shang-Chi was separated from the influences of the outside world and not allowed to learn of the insidious nature of his father. When Shang-Chi reached the age of nineteen he was sent by his father to London to murder Dr. Petrie. Shang-Chi is apparently successful in his mission, but learns the truth about his father’s evil empire from Nayland Smith. The crux of Shang-Chi’s future is laid out as he sets out with the hopes of taking down his father’s evil empire. By issue #17 Shang-Chi met up with Wayland Smith once again and was brought into Wayland’s inner-circle in British Intelligence—MI-6.

As things role in comics, it was revealed the following year that Shang-Chi did not actually kill Dr. Petrie (Giant-Size Master of Kung Fu #3). It was all an elaborate hoax by Fu Manchu. With Petrie alive, Shang-Chi was relieved of the gravity of the act; could you really blame Marvel, though? That’s one helluva thing to be hanging over a popular hero’s head.

The first creative team that brought us the adventures of Shang-Chi’s was the team of Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin. The men most known for Shang-Chi’s adventures would arrive soon thereafter, albeit at separate times. With issue #18 artist Paul Gulacy would begin to leave his indelible impression on the world of Shang-Chi. Gulacy rendered some of the finest hand-to-hand combat sequences I have ever seen in a comic. Gulacy rendered the frenetic fight scenes and explosive action in Master of Kung Fu with a look so far ahead of its time that many of today’s top artists could learn quite a bit if they took a glance at MOKF.

A brief aside: I don’t read DC’s current Catwoman series, but I have thumbed through it in the stores. I’m shocked by some of the negative words I’ve heard about Paul Gulacy’s present contribution as penciler. From the brief looks I’ve taken, his stuff’s better now then it was in the ’70s, and that’s saying a lot. It may be a departure from Darwyn Cooke’s style, but it is fantastic in its own right. In fact, this past weekend, I was at the Baltimore Comicon, where I had the opportunity to meet Paul Gulacy and look closely at some of his original artwork from Catwoman. It might be time for a trip to an ophthalmologist if you can’t enjoy Gulacy’s amazingly, detailed work. Enjoy Mr. Gulacy’s run while you have him! You can’t do much better.

Now back to your MOKF NMM”¦

With Paul Gulacy in place, the final piece of the puzzle fell in place when Doug Moench took the reigns as writer with Master of Kung Fu #21. He’d be the scribe for the vast majority of Shang-Chi’s appearances from that point forward. With the Moench/Gulacy pairing MOKF took a quantum leap forward in quality. Moench introduced some interesting co-stars, and sent the characters on rousing adventures with Gulacy nailing the martial arts and action like few have ever done in comics.

Issue #50 proved to be Gulacy’s last Shang-Chi story for some time. When there is a change in a creative team producing such magnificent work, it’s hard not to cringe and wait for the inevitable cancellation. Thankfully, Gulacy’s replacement didn’t miss a beat. By issue #55, Mike Zeck, who would later produce the artwork for what I still consider the finest Spider-Man story ever, Kraven’s Last Hunt, began a five-year stint as the penciller of MOKF, which lasted until issue #101. By my fast count while preparing this article, Zeck hammered out forty-seven of the next fifty-five issues of MOKF.

So, while Shang-Chi lost one great artist, another was ready to pick up the slack. With the action-packed stories by Doug Moench and the amazing artwork by Gulacy and then Zeck, Shang-Chi enjoyed an amazing run of top-quality creative output for a long, long time. Truly amazing circumstances for a character launched because of a fad and as an addition to a licensed property.

James Bond, Jr.?

As seems to be the case of many of my favorite books, the supporting players in MOKF quite often upstaged Shang-Chi. The well-rounded supporting players gave the book that extra little oomph. Blackjack Tarr, a muscular arm-breaker was in tow right from the start as a foil and later a fast-friend to Shang-Chi. The cast came into its own when the dashing Clive Reston joined the group (also in Giant-Size MOKF #3) and a triangle-of-love was completed with Leiko Wu’s introduction in issue #33.

Clive was the picture of everything you’d expect from a British secret agent”¦well at least if you like the roguish, daring, love-machine caricature of James Bond (I must say the “Bond Series” is my guilty pleasure). Reston makes note of his heritage many times throughout the series. Not only does Reston make it clear that his grandfather is Sherlock homes, but it’s more than intimated that he was, in fact, the son of James Bond. There were cagey references to his father and the missions that he completed. These would always include a canny Bond-title reference or some other aspect that made it abundantly clear that Reston was indeed the son of Bond”¦James Bond—that line never gets old for me. Of course, we never see the name “Bond” name in print, but Reston’s father shows up to help out once, although we never get a look at his face. Lawsuits, you know!

The truly inspiring entry into the series was Leiko Wu into the regular crew at MI-6. Leiko was a former lover of Clive Reston. This, of course, built in a natural sense of tension between the three. Leiko and Shang-Chi’s romance grew as the series went on, but there were always obstacles in the way of their happiness. With the cast complete, the series built some fantastic action and some interesting stories from here on out.

Freelance Restorations, Ltd.

By the late ’70s Nayland Smith had left MI-6 due to the widespread corruption within the organization. Eventually, he and the other agents we’d come to love over the course of the series would start their own agency called Freelance Restorations, Ltd. Even with the change, the series never really moved away from its action-adventure James Bond-esque mold. While the series focused on exotic locales and varying villains throughout its epic run, the shadow of Fu Manchu was never gone for long. Sooner or later, our heroes would come face-to-face with Fu Manchu and his villainous plans to take over the world.

In issue #118, Shang-Chi seemed to defeat his father for the final time. As the story went, the mysterious elixir that Fu Manchu consumed to maintain his youth was no longer working. He found that the blood of his children, Fah-Lo-Suee and Shang-Chi, could take its place. Fu Manchu failed again in his hopes of conquest and Shang-Chi seemingly killed him”¦again.

Master of Kung Fu ended its astounding run in 1983 with issue #125. Shang-Chi was a mess over committing patricide and retired to a quiet life as a fisherman sans his love, Leiko Wu.

Son, I’m back”¦But don’t say my name!

Shang-Chi appeared infrequently in the years following the cancellation of MOKF. There were several arcs in Marvel Comics Presents including an 8-part storyline that helped to launch the title as well as the Bleeding Black one-shot. Shang-Chi finally got his chance to shine once more in the 2002 MAX imprint miniseries Shang-Chi: Master of Kung Fu (since subtitled in trade paperback collections as “The Hellfire Apocalypse”).

The story reunited the team of Doug Moench and Paul Gulacy for an action-packed story that turned back time to the glory days of the ’70s. Convinced to come out of “retirement” Shang-Chi returned to a world that’s a lot different from the one he left behind. Especially since his former-lover Leiko is now married to rival Clive Reston. Blackjack Tarr also got in on the action.

While most of the major players from MOKF were brought back, that did not extend to the Sax Rohmer characters of Nayland Smith or Dr. Petrie. The license that Marvel held over these characters had long since expired and Smith was mentioned, but not shown.

Surprisingly, Marvel was able to use Fu Manchu for this story. Well, sort of. While Shang-Chi’s father does play a huge role (it wouldn’t be a big Shang-Chi adventure without him), he’s never mentioned by name.

As it turns out, the story is a lot of fun and beautifully illustrated, but doesn’t add a whole lot to the previous stories. Even still, it’s very accessible for new readers and a nice gift to longtime fans. Hopefully it will lead to further adventures down the line.

Reading Rack

Shang-Chi: Master of Kung Fu – The Hellfire Apocalypse: This trade paperback collects the recent MAX miniseries that saw Doug Moench and Paul Gulacy return to the character they helped to make famous. Most of the gang is here, the characters that are left out are those that were owned by the Rohmer estate. Although Fu Manchu does come back from the dead one more time, this time, he’s never mentioned by name.

Miscellaneous Memories

I want to take a few paragraphs to point out an interesting new series, Bloodhound, that’s not getting a fair shake on the shelves of comic book stores. While many DC books featuring totally new characters do quite poorly I was simply shocked that Bloodhound #1 sold less than 15,000 copies. How is it even possible for a mainstream DCU book to launch so poorly? I’d been planning on sampling the book, but my comic shop was sold out. This is a sad case where a lack of retailer support has made it near-impossible to even find the book.

Seeing the poor showing gave me the onus to order the first two issues online. Let me just say: I’m now hooked!

The first issue introduced us to our “hero”—Travis Clevenger—as he “rots” in prison. It’s a neat little twist to have our hero in jail for a crime that he DID commit. Clevenger’s a former cop that had an affinity for bringing in meta-human offenders, before he killed his partner and ended up behind bars. Clevenger’s offered the opportunity to help the F.B.I. out, thus reducing his sentence or possibly even ending his sentence. The F.B.I. needs help tracking down a serial killer that—get this—has his/her sights set on Clevenger’s former partner’s daughter.

Dan Jolley’s doing a solid job in an extremely difficult situation on the recently relaunched Firestorm, but his work on Bloodhound is outstanding. Clevenger is a total badass and quite different from most every other lead-character plying his trade in the DCU. The book’s got the polished feel of a DC comic, but it’s got the raw feeling that can usually only be found from an independent comic. Clevenger’s not your typical, politically correct heroic amalgam we’ve seen a million times before. Yet, he’s not a lame vigilante, anti-hero, Punisher-type that we’ve seen a million times before either.

To top it all off Bloodhound boasts the pencils of Leonard Kirk. Kirk who put in an amazing run on JSA has been missed since he was pushed off of JSA for reasons that still don’t make sense to me. JSA‘s loss is clearly Bloodhound‘s gain.

Jolley and Kirk are putting out something that stands outside of DC’s normal offerings. Bloodhound is the real deal. Give the book a chance. Issue #3 is out now.

That’s all for me! John will see you next week with his next column and news on the reader feedback section. I’ll see you in two weeks for a look at Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth.