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.

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