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Master of Kung Fu: Mordillo’s Island

Longbox Graveyard #74

Ready or not, it’s time for more Master of Kung Fu!

Fresh off his “Snowbuster” mission (reviewed at Longbox Graveyard last month) Issue #33 sees Shang-Chi arriving in London, and things get real weird, real fast, with our heroes attacked by a mechanical man on the steps of Victoria Station, followed by a bit of rapid-fire exposition revealing that the attack was the work of Mordillo — a “ruthlessly professional assassin whose only patriotism is devoted to money.”

A stranger to London, MI-6 has thoughtfully provided Shang-Chi with a luxury flat, complete with shag rug, hot and cold running water, and (because we are still in a James Bond spy world here) a beautiful woman in the bath tub.

But this isn’t just a disposable Bond girl — this is Leiko Wu, destined to become Shang-Chi’s love interest and a major supporting player in Master of Kung Fu — making her first appearance.

It’s not her finest moment.

In time, Leiko would develop into one of the stronger female characters in comics, but in Master of Kung Fu #33 she’s cast as the mysterious temptress, who is admirably unselfconscious about her body, but still …

… while she may have been comfortable lounging around naked in front of her ex-lover, Clive Reston, it’s harder to fathom what was going through her head by awaiting the stranger, Shang-Chi, in his tub. But we’re talking about a 1970s martial arts comic here, and one that is still trying on its spy-movie tropes, so the whipsnap speed of these developments can be excused, and it is undeniably effective storytelling. We aren’t eight pages into this tale and already Shang-Chi’s clobbered a robot and walked into a love triangle between Leiko and his pal Reston. Hyaaahh!

The tale continues with a bit of too-clever-for-its-own-good exposition developing the mysterious Mordillo’s fiendish plot, leading to some foot and fist action at London’s Tower Bridge

… but make no mistake, this three-parter is Leiko’s story, and it doesn’t do a lot to cast her in a favorable light. We’ve already seen her lounging around in a strange man’s bathtub, and toying with Reston’s heart by “innocently” asking him to hand her a towel, but Leiko hits for the cycle when we learn that her current lover — Simon Bretnor — is actually the villainous Mordello, who has kidnapped Leiko and carried her away to his surrealistic secret island base!

All right, to recap for those of you scoring Leiko’s scoring by scoring along at home, in the course of a single issue we’ve met a naked Leiko Wu, seen her cast Reston aside like a used match, and watched her melt the resolutely monastic Shang-Chi with her come-hither ways even as she was already in a relationship with a charming sociopath secretly determined to menace the world with a flying solar death platform!

Not a red letter introduction for Leiko, but she recovers her dignity in Issue #34, showing Kung Fu moves of her own in putting a beat-down on Mordillo (nee Bretnor).

But Leiko’s revenge is fleeting, and she’s shortly an unwilling dinner guest on Mordillo’s mad amusement park of an island, where our villain quickly departs from the suave Bond master villain archetype by showing he’s genuinely gone around the bend …

… and while Mordillo’s freak-out serves to tell us about of his fiendish plan, it’s really Leiko who is the victim here. Of course Mordillo isn’t going to get away with his crazy plot to build a death ray for the Chinese (for a Doctor Evil-like sum of one million dollars) but the emotional damage to Leiko is real. That she was so thoroughly taken in by Mordillo is genuinely humiliating and creepy.

I’ve searched in vain for the inspiration for Mordillo, and his strange robot/toy manservant, Brynocki. Their names seem like anagrams but resist unscrambling. There was a South American cartoonist named Mordillo who was popular in the 1970s but I see no similarities there. Mordillo and Brynocki remind a bit of Mr. Roarke and Tattoo from Fantasy Island, but these books were published a full two years before that series debuted on American television. This site site makes an argument that Mordillo is based on Christopher Lee’s character from the 1974 James Bond film, The Man With The Golden Gun (which also featured Hervé Villechaize in a role similar to the Tattoo character he would play on Fantasy Island), but it is all a bit of a swirl and there’s nothing definitive here.

Probably we’re down to in-jokes and lack of sleep for our villains’ inspiration, who are memorable here but not especially great Master of Kung Fu bad guys. That Mordillo’s Island is characterized by amusement park sets and robots run amok reads better than it plays, with the visual opportunities provided by talking steam engines and homicidal wind-up soldiers seeming more ridiculous than sinister.

Things pick up a bit in Issue #35’s conclusion to this three-part tale, highlighted by the return of Pavane, last seen palling around with Carlton Velcro back in Issue #31, and if her appearance makes little sense, it does provide some welcome continuity with a previous story.

Plus, she’s hot and she has a whip, which excuses a lot.

Unfortunately, all this set-up and standing around cuts into the action, as pages of plot and scene-setting pushes our hero to the margins for much of this story. Shang-Chi’s action opportunities are limited and not especially strong, though he does finally get to confront our villain, and touch on what will prove to be a continuing theme of Master of Kung Fu — that Shang-Chi is a pawn in some larger, immoral game, and possibly a traitor to his heritage by doing MI-6’s dirty work.

And it for a moment it seems that the themes of love, betrayal, and identity are going to come together in an epic cat fight between Pavane and Leiko, too.

But again, it’s a lot of set-up without a lot of payoff, as our climatic Kung Fu battle is packed into a single less-than-stellar page, before Shang-Chi has to start leaping around to destroy Mordillo’s death ray (which admittedly does come to a satisfying visual climax).

And so we leave Mordillo’s Island with a strong sense of “what the heck just happened?” but also with a couple important Master of Kung Fu milestones behind us, having met Leiko Wu (and established her triangle with Shang-Chi and Reston), and also seeing our hero being asked to take a hard look at his handlers’ motivations. It is a mixed bag, and a step back from their “Snowbuster” series, but it is still a Doug Moench/Paul Gulacy Master of Kung Fu story, and that makes it special all by itself. If this “Mordillo’s Island” arc is a failure, then at least it is an interesting failure … and if nothing else, it has robot toy man servants. And girls with whips. And naked girls in bathtubs.

I think I’m going to go read it again!

  • Title: Master of Kung Fu
  • Published By: Marvel Comics, 1974-83
  • Issues Rescued From The Longbox Graveyard: #33-35, October-December 1975
  • LBG Letter Grade For This Run: B-minus
  • Own The Back Issues: MyComicShop.com

NEXT WEDNESDAY: #75 Panel Gallery: Button Men

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About Paul O'Connor

Revelations and retro-reviews from a world where it is always 1978. There's a new blog every odd Wednesday at www.longboxgraveyard.com!

Posted on November 14, 2012, in Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 17 Comments.

  1. Last year, we found a well-worn copy of #34 for 50 cents. At last, we thought, a cheap entry into the masterpiece or Moench and Gulacy we never read! And then… the toys. What? And with that, we closed the door on our intention to check out this vintage title. We are trusting you to guide us futher down the path to where Master of Kung Fu began to truly kick ass!

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    • Yes … that wouldn’t be the greatest place to jump onto this series, though the Gulacy artwork is a draw, and it would have been a better spot than my first issue (which had uninspired Sal Buscema art and Shang-Chi karate chopping a shark!)

      It is in the next couple arcs when this series really starts to get its mojo. Let’s see if I can make a fan of you in my next two or three MoKF blogs.

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  2. Wow, I’m caught up — reading an article on the day it’s released!

    That’s actually about all I have to say — not having read a single issues of this, and not having thought the book for decades (for ever), before you started writing about it.

    But you are causing me to re-think a notion I’ve had about non-hero comics, something I may write about at my site. It was non-hero books like Y, 100 Bullets, and Fables that brought me back to the hobby about 5 years ago, after having taken more than a decade off. And since this “recent” innovation of non-hero comics was important to me, I unconscionsly dismissed all prior non-hero comics, remembering only the bad ones like the Logan’s Run adaptation and Gold Key Star Trek.

    BUt the weird thing about my dismissal of older non-hero books that that I was a fan of some non-hero comics from the 80’s like Jon Sable and The Maze Agency. But somehow I still have the bias in my head that that everything before 2000 was all about “capes and cowls,” which is just not the case. And I knew that wasn’t the case. Weird.

    As always, you give me things to think about.

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    • Congrats on completing the Longbox Graveyard curriculum, Prof! I guess we can call you “Doctor,” now!

      Funny you should mention Logan’s Run, as I’ve been filling in the last issues of the (brief) Marvel run of that book and will be reviewing it someday. I have positive memories of the George Perez art and a Thanos back-up story, but it could easily be the rose-colored glasses of remembering a better time (Logan’s Run is deeply connected to my misspent teenage years).

      Since you mention non-superhero books, have you tried Brubaker’s “Criminal?” I found the first volume a slow burn but was on board by the end, now I need to re-read it before taking the shrinkwrap off the second collected edition, which is sitting on my night stand right now.

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  3. Nice review, and very timely! I bought #34 at a dollar bin recently, and read it a couple of weeks ago, but I have neither #33 nor #35, so it’s great to get filled in on the rest of the story. This seemed very James Bond-ish, though an over the top Bond with the giant killer toys. Still, and interesting story and great artwork.

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    • A lesser MoKF tale to be sure but it is a bridge to better things and the introduction of Leiko Wu is critical to the tale (though she evolves quite a bit from these catty origins).

      You’ll be getting all the Master of Kung Fu you can stand at this blog over the next several months …

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  4. *SHWOK! SWUMP! FWAK!*

    Bring on the Master!

    *FWAP!*

    😋 lol

    Excellent! 💋

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  5. Brynocki is still carrying around his boss’s skeleton as late as 1983, in ROM #47, where I was introduced to the character. I won’t spoil the ending.

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    • ROM is a huge blind spot for me, and likely to remain that way, as I have only the first few issues and a collection or digital versions seem unlikely at this point.

      Mantlo really could make anything work, so it shouldn’t surprise me that he wrung another story from poor Mordillo’s bones. Ah, comics.

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  6. Another great arc, although you’re right about Leiko being used badly; maybe we can retcon it in our imaginations to say she was acting so weird because she was undercover, trying to make Mordillo think she was an idiot? She does get better as the series progresses at least.

    This would make a great TV show (assuming proper casting, sets, scripts, actors…). By the way, what happened? This seems to be your last MOKF review…I was looking forward to more :(

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    • I got distracted by other shiny things, but I will return to MoKF in the fullness of time. I’ve been meaning to write a review of the “Clock of Shattered Time” story for what seems like years, now — some very sophisticated things going on in the way that story is presented, and the passage of time is depicted.

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