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.

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