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Last week brought welcome news of the return of Shang-Chi, the Master of Kung Fu!
Arguably my favorite 1970s Marvel Comics series, Master of Kung Fu has never received the reprint/collection treatment it deserves, allegedly owing to licensing issues with the estate of Sax Rohmer, who wrote the original Fu Manchu stories that Master of Kung Fu uses as a springboard. It appears those issues have been resolved at last, and this classic run — with all its mystery, intrigue, espionage, and boots-to-the-head — will return in a series of Omnibus reprints starting in 2016!
It’s been awhile, but I have written a bit about Master of Kung Fu here at Longbox Graveyard, starting with Snowbuster, and early tale by Doug Moench and Paul Gulacy, which shared my youthful obsession with Bruce Lee:
Later, I wrote about Shang-Chi’s adventure on Mordillo’s Island, one of the weirder interludes in what could be a very weird book indeed:
I even put together a Shang-Chi Pinterest Gallery!
And all of this reminds me that I am long overdue in blogging about this book. I’ve been meaning to write about the “Clock of Shattered Time” story from issues #42-43 of MoKF — maybe this impending reprint will put a kung fu boot to my bottom to finally get going again!
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