Sunday, May 31, 2009

Marvels of Gil Kane: Giant-Size Conan #1

Gil Kane excelled at drawing sword-fighting characters in high fantasy settings.  He published a creator-owned graphic novel titled Blackmark in 1974 and turned DC's hero Ray Palmer into a sword wielding character in Sword of the Atom.  Kane seemed like a natural fit for Marvel's version of Conan, and he worked well with Roy Thomas in Conan the Barbarian #17-18.  When it came time to launch the quarterly Giant-Size Conan series, Thomas tapped Kane as the penciller.

Giant-Size Conan 1 cover by Gil Kane

Giant-Size Conan #1 was 50 pages of glorious entertainment.  The lead story was a 25-page chapter (The Hour of the Dragon) from the novel Conan the Conqueror; the backup story was a reprint of an early Barry Smith issue; Thomas wrote a couple of text pieces and included another Hyborian Age map as well.  Set during the later years of Conan's life, he's conquered the kingdom of Aquilonia and seemingly ready to settle down.  His enemies have only plans, as you can see by the cover, where Conan is attacked by an invading army.  The plan was to adapt this novel over the first six issues, but Giant-Size Conan #4 was the last full color chapter.  The story was concluded in Savage Sword of Conan #8 and #10.

Kane was inked by Tom Sutton on the first three issues.  It's interesting how well Kane worked with a variety of inkers--Sutton brought his own art style but kept the essence of Kane's work intact.

Conan the Barbarian 30 cover by Gil Kane

While Giant-Size Conan faded away, Kane continued to draw covers for the regular Conan the Barbarian color comic.  Conan #30 might have been the second comic I bought featuring the barbarian, after I became enamored with King-Size Conan Annual #1.  Kane is inked by Ernie Chan on this cover.  Conan's stance on a slanted hill, swinging his sword, is a dynamic pose.  The giant bat drawn on a separate color plate and the girl he's saving are pretty cool, too.

Conan the Barbarian 48 cover by Gil Kane

Conan #48 is another eerie scene featuring the character attacking an army while the specter of Death looks upon him.  All three of these covers feature Conan fighting on battlefields, loaded with details on the armor, horses, soldiers, etc.  Perhaps I am reading more into it to assume that Kane was a bit more excited to draw Conan than regular super-hero characters?  I think I've read that before in numerous interviews.  Nuff said.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Marvels of Gil Kane: Ka-Zar and Zabu, too

I’ve always had a fondness for Marvel’s Lord of the Savage Land: Ka-Zar!  He just wouldn’t be so darn lovable without Zabu, his sabretooth tiger.  Gil Kane drew a number of covers featuring them, from Astonishing Tales and the first Ka-Zar series.

Astonishing Tales 15 by Gil Kane

In every Ka-Zar series (and there have been many), the writers always bring Ka-Zar and Zabu to New York City for a spell.  It makes for a great fish out of water story, just like the first Crocodile Dundee movie.  I like this cover that Kane did for one of these stories.  The hand holding the pipe in the foreground really drives your attention toward Ka-Zar, who looks like he’s ready to pounce on these guys and rip them a new one.  These dudes are high on something.  Really, I mean Ka-Zar fights pterodactyls and t-rexs almost daily in the Savage Land, these street punks are a threat?  But it’s a great kitschy cover nonetheless.  The balloon “You’ve come a long way, baby—and you’re never goin’ back again!” and the caption They Stalk The Concrete Jungle are just the epitome of 70s style.

Ka-Zar 15 cover by Gil Kane

Ka-Zar leaped into his own series after Astonishing Tales #20.  Kane’s cover to issue #15 is really striking, with the Jungle Lord riding the back of a winged “Hellbird”—a construct of the villain Klaw.  The perspective of these guys attacking this beast over London is spectacular, but what’s really crazy is Zabu clawing at this thing with no regard for his own life!  He’s about to fall to his death at any moment.  Another thing about this Kane cover—it looks to me like Klaus Janson inked it.

Amazing Spider-Man 104 cover by Gil Kane

Another hallmark of Ka-Zar—he teams up with Spider-Man every few years!  Usually Peter Parker makes a trip to the Savage Land for a little vacation and Ka-Zar plays the host.  In Amazing Spider-Man #103-104, Parker is sent by the Daily Bugle to take pictures of Ka-Zar’s homeland.  Gwen Stacy even tags along.  But wouldn’t you know it, Kraven the Hunter shows up and spoils everything!  This cover really makes Kraven seem like a real threat—he’s just taken down Spidey, Ka-Zar, and Zabu!  Probably his greatest moment until his Last Hunt.  Nuff said.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Marvels of Gil Kane: The Beast Kills Iron Man!

When a new Marvel character appears, they’ve quickly got to establish their rep…by fighting an established hero!  As a young lad, I had devoured all the early adventures of the X-Men and loved Hank McCoy.  Imagine my surprise in 1972 when I saw Hank looking like a grey monkey in  Amazing Adventures #12!

Amazing Adventures 12 by Gil Kane

One Avenger: Dead on Arrival!  It looked like the newly mutated Beast had severely beaten down Iron Man on this cover, perfectly executed by Gil Kane.  Had Hank McCoy turned into a villain?  The blurb was right, I couldn't afford to miss it.

Naturally, it was all a big misunderstanding, and Hank became a hero—and blue—after a few issues.  Nuff said.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Marvels of Gil Kane: Sub-Mariner Covers

Gil Kane's Sub-Mariner covers often paired him with that character's creator--the great Bill Everett!

Sub-Mariner 48

Sub-Mariner #48 does not seem like a Kane cover at first.  Bill Everett had an unmistakable style, and as the creator who had drawn thousands of Sub-Mariner comics, knew exactly how he wanted Namor to look.  But Kane did pencil the cover.  Look at the stance of Namor, with his legs twisted and balancing him over the girl.  The girl is on her back in a typical Kane pose.  Dr. Doom, Namor's friend/enemy/untrustworthy ally, looks very menacing.

Sub-Mariner 52

Sub-Mariner #52 features an attack by the Japanese mutant Sunfire.  This cover brings back fond memories of the classic Sub-Mariner vs Human Torch covers from the 1940s.

Sub-Mariner 58

Sub-Mariner #58 is probably the first comic I bought featuring Namor.  The Red-skinned chick drew my attention immediately.  Drawn in a typical Kane pose, she taunts the reader with the line: "Come on in Namor--The dying's fine!!"  Totally illogical, but she seduced me.  This cover was also inked by Everett, as you can tell from the detail on Namor.  Nuff said.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Marvels of Gil Kane: Iron Man Covers

Gil Kane did a number of covers for Iron Man during 1971-72.  Here are four of my favorites:

Iron Man 44

Iron Man #44 really sent chills down my spine when I first saw the creepy Night Phantom, but it's the expression of horror on the face of Stark's girlfriend Marianne that sells the cover.

Iron Man 45

Iron Man #45 brings back memories of the Vietnam anti-war protests on many campuses around the United States.  Many Marvel heroes had a "Crisis on Campus!" issue, this was Iron Man's turn.

Iron Man 46

Iron Man #46 has the Guardsman setting Stark's armor on fire--right in front of Stark Industries.  It's really humilating to be defeated in front of your own co-workers.  I really like the inking on this cover.

Iron Man 54

Iron Man #54 gives us Kane's view of a fight with the Sub-Mariner.  Namor always works best on a cover when he's launching out of the water to attack his opponent.  Bob Layton did a commission where he re-interpreted this cover, you can probably find it on his website.  Nuff said.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Marvels of Gil Kane: Warlock Covers

Beginning...a look back at Marvel's Greatest Covers by Gil Kane!  Let's start with my one of my favorite cosmic characters, Adam Warlock.

Marvel Premiere 1 cover by Gil Kane

Marvel Premiere #1 (1972) was the first solo outing for Warlock--not only that, but it was the first time he had an actual name!  Created by Kirby and Lee in Fantastic Four #66, Warlock was previous known as Him.  Since The Power of HIM didn't seem like a good title for a comic, Roy Thomas re-christened the character as Adam Warlock.  Tomorrow's Hero--Today!

Power of Warlock ad

The cover to Marvel Premiere #1 was irresistible,  Warlock's new costume is really nifty and you get all tingly looking at the energy swarming around him.  Plus, he's got a suntan that makes George Hamilton envious!  Hulk and Thor on the cover made this a must have issue.  Too bad they only appeared in flashbacks--and those were recaps of stories previously published!

Marvel Premiere 2 cover by Gil Kane

The cover to Marvel Premiere was pretty cool as well.  I always admired how Kane depicted super-humans in flight.  The character named "Rhodan" has to be a Thomas nod to the series of novels featuring Perry Rhodan.

Power of Warlock 2 cover by Gil Kane

Power of Warlock #2 was actually the first comic I bought featuring the character.  The word balloons indicate Warlock has killed hordes of humans--how could any well adjusted kid resist that?

Thomas and Kane collaborated on Marvel Premiere #1-2, which led into the Power of Warlock series.  Thomas left POW #3, but Kane continued on as artist for a few issues.  Kane would produce most of the covers for the short life (eight issues) of this series.  Nuff said.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Marvel Comics Kung Fu is sometimes just...Crazy!

In the early 70s, Marvel's goal was clearly to compete with all other graphic-related magazines.  They were taking on Warren with the monster mags (Dracula Lives, Vampire Tales, Monsters Unleashed, etc).  Marvel also went after Mad and Cracked with the humor magazine CRAZY in 1973.  Edited by Marv Wolfman, issue #7 (1974(1974) featured this cover taking on David Carradine's Kung Fu character:

Crazy 7 - Kung Fu Cover

ABC's Kung Fu TV series featured David Carradine as Kwai Chang Caine, a half Chinese, half American dude who wandered the Old West in search of his long lost brother.  In each episode, Caine would encounter any number of racist cowboys who wanted to skin him alive.  Luckily, he was trained by Shaolin monks to be an expert in Kung Fu!  The show was a huge hit on TV when it premiered in 1972.  My schoolmates raved about each episode the next day.

Crazy 1 Kung Fu Parody by Mike Ploog

The show was so big, Marvel did two parodies of it!  Crazy #7 was the second one, with art by Marie Severin.  The first was the lead story in Crazy #1 (1973) with nice art by Mike Ploog.  The opening scene makes a great joke dead on target--Kung Fu always recycled some Western movie plot cliché that Caine would get involved in during the episode.  Widow having her cattle rustled?  Caine would fight the rustlers and save the cattle.

The success of the Kung Fu TV show definitely prodded Marvel into the genre and gave us Shang-Chi, Iron Fist, Deadly Hands of Kung Fu, and the White Tiger.  It also had an impact on Quentin Tarentino, who gave Samuel Jackson that famous line at the end of Pulp Fiction:  "You know, walk the earth, meet people...get into adventures. Like Caine from Kung Fu."  Nuff said.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Marvel Treasury Sized Savage Fists of Kung Fu

This Marvel Treasury-sized special “Savage Fists of Kung Fu” was published in 1975, with a cover by Gil Kane featuring Shang-Chi, Iron Fist, and the Sons of the Tiger.

Savage Fists of Kung Fu Treasury 1975

This monster featured stories from Deadly Hands of Kung Fu, in full color for the first time and reprinted in a large format.  When King-Size or Giant-Size is not enough, Marvel goes Treasury-sized!  Nuff said.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Enter the White Tiger

The Sons of the Tiger series in Deadly Hands of Kung Fu languished in obscurity for the first 18 issues.  Bill Mantlo and George Perez brought new energy into the story when they explored the cosmic power behind the Tiger amulets that gave them their special kung-fu power, but it never really took off.

In DHKF 19, after a terrific fight between lead characters Lin Sun and Bob Diamond, the Sons of the Tiger disband.  They throw away their mystical Tiger amulets…in a New York City alleyway!  Kind of dumb, isn’t it?  Would Doctor Strange just throw away the Eye of Agomotto in the garbage?  The Sons loss was Hector Ayala’s gain when he stumbled across the amulets, put them around his neck, and transformed into the White Tiger.

White Tiger appears in DHKF 20

The White Tiger went into action in Deadly Hands of Kung Fu #20.  Suddenly the series was super-charged and the story was more exciting than it had been during the past two years.  Hector was the first Puerto Rican superhero ever created, and George Perez was obviously proud of bringing him to life.  Hector was introduced with a girlfriend and a family that lived in the South Bronx, drawn from Perez’s own experience living in the city.

White Tiger's identity crisis

The White Tiger was a mysterious character.  He appeared to have a personality completely distinct from Hector in the first few stories.  As time went on, they would become more integrated.
The Tiger was an instant hit with the DHKF readership.  He appeared on two covers of the magazine.  Bill Mantlo made a decision to integrate the Tiger with the Marvel Universe by having him fight the Prowler and Mantlo’s own creation, the Jack of Hearts. 

White Tiger Shang Chi Iron Fist team up in DHKF 31

The Tiger’s serialized story climaxed in DHKF #31, featuring the biggest Marvel Kung Fu team-up in history: the Tiger, Shang-Chi, and Iron Fist, with Jack of Hearts riding shotgun.

DHKF #32 featured the White Tiger’s last appearance before the magazine was cancelled.  He met the original Sons of the Tiger, who remained a sub-plot throughout the past 10 issues.  I had waited to see what would happen when the Sons discovered that Hector possessed the Tiger amulets—would they want them back?  Would Hector have to fight to keep them?  Perhaps arrange some kind of Tiger amulet timesharing deal?  Fortunately, Mantlo never had to answer the question…that was the end of the White Tiger’s solo stories. 

White Tiger in Peter Parker 9 by Perez Giacio 1977

But it wasn’t the end of the White Tiger in the Marvel universe.  Bill Mantlo brought Hector Ayala into Marvel’s color comics in Peter Parker, Spectacular Spider-Man #9, circa 1977.  The story involved Empire State University cancelling night school, and a storm of protesters who work during the day!  The White Tiger springs into action against corrupt ESU officials, and in one of those usual comedy of errors, winds up fighting Spidey.

White Tiger in Peter Parker 10 by Perez Giacio 1977

George Perez penciled the covers on this two issue story, and I have always admired the cover to Peter Parker #10.  Everything about this composition seems near-perfect: the White Tiger kicking Spider-Man off the ledge, the New York City skyline, the sunset, and the feeling of vertigo as they appear to be fighting far above the street.

The White Tiger would continue making sporadic appearances in the Marvel universe, most oddly in the Human Fly #8-9 in 1978.

If you can’t tell by now, I always liked the White Tiger.  When Marvel started publishing mini-series in the 1980s, I hoped that Mantlo and Perez would produce a White Tiger mini.  Even if that was desirable, it would have been impossible to schedule, with Perez busy drawing Teen Titans for DC Comics.  In many interviews with George Perez, he’s repeatedly stated his fondness for Hector Ayala.  Nuff said.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Enter the Deadly Hands of Kung Fu

When characters like Spider-Man, Conan, X-Men, Punisher, and Wolverine become popular, what's the next step for Mighty Marvel to take?

DHKF promo 

Spin them off into a number of books to maximize their profit!  Soon after Shang-Chi appeared in Special Marvel Edition #15, Bullpen Bulletins announced the launch of a brand new black and white magazine...The Deadly Hands of Kung Fu!

Deadly Hands of Kung Fu 1 cover by Neal Adams

The cover to issue #1 featured a dynamic cover by Neal Adams, which depicted a Kung Fu character kicking the shit out of a much larger opponent.  The character looked like Bruce Lee and the scene looked like it was ripped from his most famous movie, Enter the Dragon.  This cover was so popular that Marvel sold it as a poster.

Neal Adams covers really helped sell DHKF magazine.  He executed a series of them inspired by TV/Movies, including David Carradine's Kung Fu series, Roger Moore as James Bond (from a scene in The Man With the Golden Gun), and the Trial of Billy Jack. 

Deadly Hands of Kung Fu actually had the least story content of any Marvel magazine.  Kung Fu was a new genre and there were no reprints Marvel could use.  Their writers and artists were straining just to fill Master of Kung Fu and Iron Fist with new stories in the color comics.  Each issue of Deadly Hands would feature a lead Shang-Chi story and a back-end story with the Sons of the Tiger.  In-between these stories would be a number of articles on Kung Fu inspired TV shows and movies, articles on actors like Bruce Lee or Chuck Norris, or articles about the practice of martial arts.  The articles are quite good, especially if you are fan of 70s Kung Fu movies, as they interviewed many actors who starred in them.

Deadly Hands of Kung Fu 10 cover with Iron Fist

Iron Fist smashed his way into Deadly Hands in issue #10, in a story originally meant for his own black and white magazine.  Iron Fist was always drawn by Rudy Nebres when he appeared in DHKF.  He displaced Shang-Chi as the lead character for six issues (19-24).

Sons of the Tiger in DHKF 18, Pat Broderick and Terry Austin

The Sons of the Tiger backup strip was clearly inspired by the three lead characters in Enter the Dragon.  Take three Kung Fu guys--an Asian dude who looks like Bruce Lee, a butt kicking Black dude, and a white guy who is also a movie actor--give them mystical Tiger amulets that triples their power when joined together--and you've got a Kung Fu super-team.  This series floundered for a while, but when Bill Mantlo and George Perez took it over, it started to be more interesting.  Perez was early in his career and just starting to develop his skills.  Mantlo and Perez introduced the White Tiger in Deadly Hands #20, a Puerto Rican guy who got a hold of all three tiger amulets after the Sons disbanded.

The funny thing about Deadly Hands is that I remember only a handful of stories.  The first two Shang-Chi stories clearly stand out, as they were written by Steve Englehart.  The only Iron Fist story that stands out was in DHKF #18, by Mantlo with Pat Broderick, and Terry Austin, who did a terrific job on the art.  Iron Fist teams up with the Sons of the Tiger and stops a subway train from running over Abe using his glowing hand.  Chris Claremont and Marshall Rogers' Daughters of the Dragon story in DHKF #32-33, that took Iron Fist supporting characters Colleen Wing and Misty Knight to lead roles as butt kicking heroines, was another standout.

White Tiger splash by George Perez in DHKF 21

The supreme Deadly Hands moment occurred in issue #21, when I saw this terrific splash page by George Perez featuring the White Tiger.  I couldn't--and still cannot--get over the the painstaking detail of the buildings in the cityscape and the clever use of the White Tiger logo on the buildings.  From this moment on, I knew Perez was an artist with enormous potential, and followed him to any comic that he drew.  I also admired the design of the White Tiger's costume.  He was a mysterious character. 

Deadly Hands of Kung Fu special album edition

DHKF even had its own version of a King-Sized Annual, a Special Album Edition in 1974.  It really cost a heckuva lot more.  Whereas the regular mag cost 75 cents, the Album was a quarter extra!  It was mostly reprint material from previous issues.

Deadly Hands of Kung Fu lasted only 33 issues and less than 3 years, but it clearly made on impact on fans who later become professional writers.  I couldn't have been more surprised when Hector Ayala, the White Tiger, appeared in Brian Bendis' Daredevil as a defendant represented by Matt Murdock.  (Of course, I was disappointed when Bendis killed him off!)  Jason Aaron brought the Sons of the Tiger back in the Wolverine Manifest Destiny series.  Nuff said.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Enter the Iron Fist

There was no doubt about it--the Kung Fu craze had taken over Mighty Marvel in 1973-75.  A few months after Shang-Chi premiered, we saw this teaser in the Bullpen Bulletins page:

Iron Fist Promo

Iron Fist is coming!  There was also a secret coded message that had to be decoded using a key found in FOOM.  It was a tantalizing image, and he looked very different from Shang-Chi.

Marvel Premiere 15 - Iron Fist cover by Gil Kane

On a cold winter day in February 1974, I picked up Marvel Premiere #15 in a store called "The Book Cache" in Anchorage, Alaska.  The origin of Daniel Rand was beautifully executed by Roy Thomas and Gil Kane.  Whereas Shang-Chi broke the Marvel mold of a superhero (becoming a straight action hero), Iron Fist was a hero in the classic Marvel manner, as Iron Fist he:

  • Wore a mask and had a secret identity.
  • Had a Super-Power, the Iron Fist.
  • Was an orphan who watched his parents die.
  • Came from a secret hidden city called K'un L'un.
  • Teamed up with Marvel Super-Heroes regularly.

Thomas has said in an interview that the origin of Iron Fist was inspired by the Amazing Man character (created by Bill Everett).  Danny Rand's training in K'un L'un that culminates in him fighting Shou-Lao the Undying and attaining the power of the Iron Fist is very much akin to Amazing Man acquiring the power of the Green Mist.  Gil Kane came up with the idea of using this origin structure for Iron Fist.

Unfortunately, Thomas and Kane only worked on the debut issue of Iron Fist.  A number of writers handled the character from Marvel Premiere #16 to issue 22: Len Wein (1 issue), Doug Moench (3 issues), and Tony Isabella (3 issues).  The stories basically involved Danny Rand coming to the United States, confronting Harold Meachum (the man who killed his father), and meeting Colleen Wing.

Iron Fist 9 cover by John Byrne

It wasn't until Chris Claremont took over as the writer of Iron Fist (in Marvel Premiere #23) that the character started to shine.  Claremont was given a clean slate and able to put Iron Fist in action against super-villains.  In 1975, Iron Fist #1 was published, and Claremont was joined by his magically talented artist-partner: John Byrne.  Together, they made Iron Fist come alive in a way we had never seen before.  Danny Rand fought Iron Man in issue #1, took on the Wrecking Crew, and beat down SabreTooth, who made his first appearance in Iron Fist #14. 

Iron Fist lost his own color comic after issue 15, with a memorable guest appearance by the X-Men, where Danny proved he could hold his own against Wolverine.  When the X-Men later took off in popularity, the back issue prices for Iron Fist #14 and #15 went through the roof. 

Claremont developed all the elements that make Iron Fist a great character for the Marvel universe.  He introduced Misty Knight, the cyborg arm wielding woman who later became Danny's girlfriend.  He also added to the mythology surrounding K'un L'un, suggesting that ruler Yu Ti had ulterior motives that weren't so honorable.  Claremont also showed that the Iron Fist power could be used for more than just smashing things--Danny used it to heal himself in issue 4.  Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction took these story elements and developed them further in the 2007 Immortal Iron Fist series.

Iron Fist Magazine promo from DHKF 4

Iron Fist even leaped into Marvel's black and white magazine line.  Marvel initially announced that a black and white "Iron Fist #1" magazine would be published in September 1974.  I saw an advertisement for the cover of this magazine, but was unable to find a picture of it for this article.  In FOOM, there was an interview with Tony Isabella about the co-feature, titled "Dragons Two" about a brother-sister team with Kung Fu abilities.

Iron Fist #1 (the magazine) was never published.  Marvel reconsidered, either thinking that the magazine market would not support two Kung Fu titles, or perhaps that Iron Fist's color comic sales weren't as great as Master of Kung Fu.

Iron Fist Rudy Nebres pin up

In Deadly Hands of Kung Fu #9, we saw this beautiful Iron Fist pin-up by Rudy Nebres.  The "movie-length saga" by Nebres and Tony Isabella, intended for Iron Fist #1, was published in Deadly Hands of Kung Fu #10 (1975).  Iron Fist returned in Deadly Hands of Kung Fu issues 19 to 24, in a six part epic by Chris Claremont, with Nebres on the art as well.  Doing the research for this article, I discovered a new appreciation for Rudy Nebres art.

Iron Fist survived into the 1980s by teaming up with Luke Cage in Power Man/Iron Fist, but was lost from the Marvel universe after a pointless death at the end of that series.  Thankfully, he was revived by John Byrne in Namor and restored back to glory by Brubaker, Fraction, and Aja in 2007.  Nuff said.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Doug Moench and Paul Gulacy, Masters of Shang-Chi

Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin may have given birth to Shang-Chi, but it was Doug Moench and Paul Gulacy who performed the baptism on Master of Kung Fu.  OK, that’s in conflict with Eastern philosophy, but I heard Carlos Pacheco say that about Stan Lee and Roy Thomas, and I’ve been eager to steal it ever since.

Master of Kung Fu 55 - Paul Gulacy cover

As a kid, I followed writers with a passion.  Steve Englehart was my favorite writer of early 70s Marvel Comics, working on Avengers, Defenders, and Dr. Strange.  I followed him everywhere and bought everything he wrote, even that single issue of Skull the Slayer.  When I read that Englehart was leaving MOKF, I was heartbroken.

Shang Chi fighting in MOKF 22 

Doug Moench was a relatively new writer when he took over the series.  Moench had already proven to Marvel editorial that he could produce material very quickly for various comics and magazines.  He was given the daunting task of writing up to 70 pages of new material (in certain months) for Shang-Chi as he appeared in three different publications.  His early scripts had plenty of action and cool Bondian deathtraps.  Paul Gulacy honed his cinematic action chops by bringing these stories to life.  Both men were learning their craft, getting ready to take Master of Kung Fu to the next level.

Shang-Chi's new direction in MOKF 29

The MOKF true believers were rewarded for their loyalty when issue 29 appeared, promising “a volatile new direction” and it did not lie!  The splash page by Gulacy was executed with the finesse of a movie poster.  Moench had been building Shang-Chi’s supporting cast with Sir Denis Nayland Smith’s team: Black Jack Tarr and Clive Reston.  Shang-Chi would hook up with them in order to stop Fu Manchu’s latest madcap plot, but he was still a loner.  2 years of stories centered around Shang-Chi’s conflict with his father had made the stories old and tired.

Shang Chi joins Smith's team of spies, MOKF 29

With a bit of persuading by Smith, Shang-Chi becomes as a full time member of British Intelligence agency MI-6.  Smith tells Shang-Chi that pursuing Fu Manchu isn’t his only responsibility—he also takes down white guys!  Bondian villains with lairs as big as Hearst Castle or an island populated by Disney-like robots who kill.   Moench and Gulacy began to produce 3 issue mini-epics, each featuring a different baddie.  The first one was named Velcro—a weird name for an international drug dealer.

Shang-Chi meets Razor-Fist MOKF 29

Shang-Chi’s physical adversaries became more deadly with this new direction as well.  At the end of issue 29, he encounters Razor-Fist, one crazy mofo who had his forearms chopped off and replaced by machetes.  Razor-Fist promised to slice and dice the unarmed Shang-Chi, ensuring that all MOKF readers would snap up issue 30 the minute it hit the stands.

MOKF 40 - The Cat

Both Moench’s story and Gulacy’s artwork improved with the new direction.  It was obvious that Gulacy was inspired by Jim Steranko.  Steranko had quit drawing for Marvel years earlier, and fandom had missed that style of artwork.  Like Steranko, Gulacy’s pages were incredibly cinematic, from the splash pages to the action sequences that spawned multiple panels.  He became an A-list director of his compositions, knowing when to execute a close up and how to portray the agony on Shang-Chi’s face.  Gulacy excelled at making his characters resemble famous actors—Shang-Chi at times looked like Bruce Lee, Clive Reston was Sean Connery.  Agent James Larner was undoubtedly Marlon Brando.  

It helped that in-between arcs, MOKF had one or two issue stories by other artists to give Gulacy time to recover. Suddenly we were witnessing a classic team emerge, on par with Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, or perhaps more akin to Roy Thomas and Barry Smith.  Teams that catch artistic lightning in a bottle.

Master of Kung Fu 64 - Paul Gulacy cover

The last story in Moench/Gulacy’s Master of Kung Fu spanned seven issues (44-49), featuring the return of Fu Manchu and his boldest plot ever: destroying the moon from a ginormous space-ship, cleansing the Earth with destruction in order to repopulate it with his sons and daughters.  Ya gotta like a man who thinks big and knows how to party!

Master of Kung Fu #49, published in 1976, was the end of the Moench\Gulacy working together on the series.  From that point onward, Gulacy would contribute the occasional cover.  Moench continued working with artists Mike Zeck and Gene Day until MOKF ended with issue 125.   We would have to wait 26 years until they could be brought back to Marvel to produce an excellent six issue mini-series for the Max line.

While the party ended for Master of Kung Fu, Moench and Gulacy’s partnership endured for decades.  They collaborated on many different many series, but the most natural outgrowth of their MOKF years was James Bond: Serpent’s Tooth for Dark Horse comics.

I had a friend named Ernie, a fellow devotee of Marvel Comics, who insisted that if Bruce Lee had not died, there would be a Master of Kung Fu movie with Lee portraying Shang-Chi.  In our dreams, fueled by Moench & Gulacy, that movie already exists.  Nuff said.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Enter Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu

In 1973, propelled by the success of ABC's Kung Fu television show (as well as the incredible success of Bruce Lee films), Marvel Comics decided to join the party with...Master of Kung Fu!  Or MOKF, as we like to call it.  Shang Chi first appeared in Special Marvel Edition #15, which is not the cover you see below.

Giant Size Master of Kung Fu 1

What the heck, this is Giant-Size Marvel!  But, this would be the only #1 issue for Master of Kung Fu until his 2002 Max mini-series.  An interesting aside here--Giant-Size MOKF probably had more original content than any other GS book.  This was a new character, and other than an old Yellow Claw (Marvel's clone of Fu Manchu) there were few reprints that the editors could use as filler.

Shang Chi origin story from Special Marvel Edition 15

The origin story in SME #15 by Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin featured a great Marvelization of a Kung Fu hero.  Shang-Chi was actually the son of Fu Manchu, Sax Rohmer's infamous creation.  I had been familiar with the character from the film series starring Christopher Lee. 

Shang Chi discovers his father's true nature

Fu Manchu was definitely born out of racism, an manifestation of the Yellow Peril.  But he's definitely the template for many James Bond villains, the type of dude that has seemingly infinite resources and massive lairs in volcanos and shit like that.  Marvel was into licensing characters that were born out of the pulps during the 70s--that was where Conan originated, as well as Doc Savage, another Marvel comic.  I would have to think that Marvel may have regretted this decision later on--Fu Manchu was licensed by Rohmer's estate, the cost wasn't inconsequential.  After MOKF ended, Marvel was unable or unwilling to license him for future Shang-Chi stories.  They could have used the Yellow Claw, Fu Manchu's virtual clone, who had deep ties to the Marvel universe in stories with Nick Fury and Captain America.

Shang Chi, the Rising and Advancing of the Spirit

In his origin story, Shang Chi is dispatched on his first mission for his father: killing Sir Denis Nayland Smith, Fu Manchu's British enemy in every story and film.  Shang Chi is told that Smith is evil, but after seemingly killing him, discovers that he was a good man.  Shang invades Fu Manchu's lair and uncovers the truth about his father--that he's a megalomaniac!  As the panel above shows in overt symbolism, Shang Chi and Fu Manchu are the Yin and Yang, opposing forces.

Shang Chi's training - DHKF 1

How did Fu Manchu raise such an ungrateful whelp?  Deadly Hands of Kung Fu #1 has the story which reveals Shang-Chi's upbringing.  He basically was an absent father and outsourced Shang-Chi's parenting.  Shang-Chi was Fu Manchu's son by an American mother, raised to physical and mental perfection by his father's monks.  His name means "Rising of the Spirit" and seeks harmony through his practice of martial arts.  At the age of fourteen, Fu Manchu sent four kung-fu masters to attack Shang-Chi--call it a mid-term exam!  Shang-Chi manages to overcome them, but is horrified to learn that his father arranged this test that resulted in heavy injuries to his opponents.  By the end of the story, it's subtly implied that the monks have instilled Shang-Chi with honorable values in order to turn him against dear old Dad.

Shang Chi trapped in a cab with poison gas

Putting Shang-Chi as the Chinese-American son of this villain, in a father-vs-son dynamic, was a great setup.  Fu Manchu had a network of assassins and spies all over the world to throw at Shang-Chi.  After he moved to New York City--where all Marvel heroes must live--Shang-Chi is constantly on guard.  Walking down the street, he might encounter an assassin waiting on a rooftop.  One time he got into a limousine and the driver sealed the cab with poison gas.  Shang-Chi would meet alluring women who would seduce and then try to kill him.  He lived in a constant state of paranoia, yet somehow never lost his cool, proof that we should all meditate daily.

Shang Chi fights Midnight in Special Marvel Edition 16

The second story, in Special Marvel Edition #16, had one of my favorite stories of the Bronze Age.  Shang-Chi has to fight Midnight, a martial artist that he had known since childhood.  While Shang-Chi has awakened to Fu Manchu's evil deeds, Midnight is still fully brainwashed.  Midnight is the ultimate, loyal weapon that Shang-Chi was destined to become.  Scarred by a skirmish with British troops in Africa, Midnight wears an all-black costume that insured he would never get laid throughout his life.  He's determined to kill Shang-Chi, and the climax of this fight takes place at a skyscraper construction site.  I love this full page spread, with the perspective pointing downward--it really gave me a sense of vertigo.  The ending of this story is tragic for Shang-Chi, as he survives the fight by turning away from hate, only to see his friend die.  Englehart's writing here is just beautiful, as Shang-Chi narrates the conclusion:  "I always wanted to see his face, to see what drove him.  Now is my change, I only have to climb again and pull him to me.  But even without seeing, I now know the scars that plagued him."

Marvel Kung Fu Promo

The sales of Shang-Chi's first issues were very high and took Marvel by surprise.  They renamed the clunky Special Marvel Edition with the new title Master of Kung Fu with issue 17.  It went from bi-monthly to monthly status by issue 20.  Giant-Size Master of Kung Fu #1 was published in 1974.  Marvel launched a black and white magazine called Deadly Hands of Kung Fu, also in 1974, with Fu Manchu's son in the lead story.   Shang-Chi had one of the highest profiles of any Marvel character, in just a short period of time.  At times he was featured in 3 publications per month!

Shang Chi pinup by Jim Starlin from DHKF 19

Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin did only 4 Shang-Chi stores together--the first three color comics and the first black and white story in Deadly Hands.  They were a superb team and primed Shang-Chi for a long and successful run that would last for over 100 issues of crazy kung fu.  Nuff said.