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!
Once again, Paul has allowed me, your old pal, Dean Compton, to venture into the Bronze Age with you guys! It’s funny, but I have noticed that whenever I get out of my 90’s comics bubble, (which all of you can read more about at The Unspoken Decade) and come here to chronicle some Bronze Age favorites, I only deal in the very bright (as my prior articles on SHAZAM! and All-Star Squadron prove) or the very seedy (Punisher, this article) elements of the age. Just like Billy Joel, I don’t know why I go to extremes, but unlike Billy Joel, I allow characters like Hulk to take me to extremes. Also unlike Billy Joel, I cannot play the piano.
Another thing Billy Joel and I do not have in common is the fact that he was a living, breathing being when The Rampaging Hulk debuted in 1977, while the world would have to wait with bated breath for two more years for me to emerge. That’s just another reason for me to be jealous of Billy Joel. I mean, he had a great career, he married Christie Brinkley, and he also had the chance to buy something as cool as The Rampaging Hulk right off the shelf.
There’s no proof that Billy Joel frequented 7-11 after 7-11 while on tour, pushing back magazine after magazine until they were dog-eared so that he might find these Hulk comic books, but there really isn’t any proof that he didn’t either, and I prefer to think that we live in a world where the Piano Man demanded his tour bus stop at newsstands as he tried to find these. I also prefer to think that his tour bus is shaped like a giant piano, so my thoughts are most likely not worth much. Besides, isn’t that a funny image to have in your head now?
The images in The Rampaging Hulk usually are not so funny. They tend to be somewhat visceral, as black and white does Bruce Banner’s green alter ego very well! Of course, it does not hurt that we get some great art by several masters. The first few issues are done by Walt Simonson in what i think may be his most underrated work ever, which is nothing short of a war crime in my book.
Before I show you any of that though, let’s discuss the magazine…I hear you whining, Ok, one picture from Simonson, but then it is right back to the background behind The Rampaging Hulk!
Now that your appetite for Walt Simonson has been momentarily sated, let’s chat a bit about the background of this magazine. It started in January of 1977, which is a good year and a half before Hulk debuted on TV. With issue #10 of the magazine’s run, the magazine will become full color and start to focus more on adventures like the ones TV Hulk would have, and it would also start to have lots of interviews with the cast and crew of the show. After those changes, I find myself disenchanted with the magazine. I know this is probably blasphemous, but I have never cared for the Lou Ferrigno/Bill Bixby Hulk TV show. Even as a youngster, I thought them to be cheesy and silly. Later, when I saw the made-for-TV movies with Daredevil and Thor, I liked them more due to my penchant for crossovers, but I still hated the changes that were made to Thor and Daredevil.
That having been said, I wonder why this was launched when it was. Was there an outcry for more Hulk material in 1976 and 1977? Was this just added in anticipation of the TV show? If it was added for the TV show, they did it in a rather odd way, as the first none issues deal with filling in gaps in Hulk’s history.
That’s right. This title is set YEARS earlier than when it is released. In fact, it is designed to fill in gaps between the end of Hulk’s original series (which only lasted six issues, believe it or not) and when he started appearing regularly in Tales to Astonish,so in many ways, this is one of the first “retcon” type of title. Of course, it apparently caused more harm than good, and so later it was determined that these stories were all fake, told by one of the characters located therein. I find it sad that they could not work any of these into continuity (for whatever that is worth) because these issues are very fun and very solid. Doug Moench writes most of them (Jim Starlin writes a GREAT issue) and while I do not think it stacks against his Master of Kung Fu or Moon Knight work, I still like it a lot, and it is probably unfair to make the comparison. It is sort of like comparing albums by The Beatles. I mean, Rubber Soul isn’t as good as Revolver, but they are both amazing albums by amazing creators.
One big complaint that I have about the magazine is that it did not really take advantage of its medium. When I did my Punisher article here at LBG, I noted that the black and white magazines put out by Warren, Marvel, Skywald, and others during the 70’s had a dangerous vibe to them. Many of them were a little more violent and offered a little more sexuality than color comic books (regulated by the code) could. I was not interested in the Cinemax adventures of The Hulk, but I would have liked to have seen this medium used more effectively, even if the storylines were a little more mature with some social commentary and whatnot. This magazine cost a buck in 1977, which means that the people who could afford it not only wanted more for their money, but they also were almost certainly an audience of an older age, one who would have expected some meatier stuff than what they got. Jim Starlin’s issue has some excellent death/outer space imagery (IMAGINE THAT) that fits into the grindhouse/nigh-seedy feel of 1970’s black and white magazines, but the rest of the series sort of falls flat.
That doesn’t make it a bad read though, and in fact, I highly recommend it just for the art of Walk Simonson, George Perez, Jim Starlin, Kieth Giffen, and more! In fact, there’s so much incredible imagery that it is going to be beyond difficult to keep this article to a manageable level; some of you probably already find it too wordy, so here’s some more Simonson!!!
I also want to give props to Alfredo Alcala for his great inking job; he makes Simonson come alive in a way I think many others could not. Alcala is a favorite of many pros I know, and this really makes one see why.
The basic story is that Hulk is thwarting a secret invasion of Krylorians. He does this working alongside his pal and the mascot of the Marvel Universe, Rick Jones. Of course, we all are probably aware of how intertwined Bruce Banner and Rick Jones are due to Rick basically being the catalyst for the chain of events that formed Hulk, but in case you didn’t know, Walt Simonson and Doug Moench break it down in a really cool manner.
We see very little of the traditional Hulk supporting cast. After issue #1, there’s no Better Ross, Thunderbolt Ross, or Glenn Talbot. Due to flying saucers being spotted over London, Hulk and Rick Jones head for Italy. What I especially enjoy though, is how jingoistic Thunderbolt Ross is. I mean, there’s certainly no surprise that a general in the U.S. Army is very blindly patriotic, but few would convey it in as humorous a fashion as good ‘ol Thunderbolt.
I have no idea what a milksop is, but I am working that into my everyday insult collection. Instead of hurling expletives at the drivers in Atlanta, I will shoot a milksop or two at them. My road rage is becoming more refined, and I feel like that makes me a better person. It doesn’t, but at least it makes me feel like it.
That’s really the last we see of the usual gang of Hulk Hangers-On! (Hello Stan Lee alliteration) Instead, Hulk and Rock head for Europe, where they meet the Krylorian who is on our side, Bereet!
That name may sound familiar, because she was the alien Starlord forgot he had aboard in the incredible Guardians of the Galaxy movie. She is a neat character, and due to her gentle nature, status as a techno-artist, and neat tricks like a spatial distorter and a banshee mask that doubles as a supersonic ship!
Once this trio joins forces, they gallant all across Europe, thwarting Krylorian plan after Krlylorian plan. Their adventures also lead them to meet The
Uncanny Original X-Men! I do not know if Walt Simonson ever got to do the original X-Men elsewhere (other than a stint on X-Factor, which only sort of counts in my eyes), but he does them justice here. His Danger Room sequence packs in more excitement than many other artists rendition of the X-Men in action against actual foes!
The Danger Room sometimes seems like a false danger, in that they are holograms and the like. I know that these holograms can be deadly, but there’s something much more viscerally satisfying about watching these young mutants dodge spiked balls and knives on poles. The danger comes to life, as it does when Simonson draws the Hulk completely unleashed!
Moments like the X-Men’s arrival propel this title, but I think the best overall issue is the one Jim Starlin wrote and drew. Jim Starlin has so much talent; I wonder if he could lend me some. We often discuss Starlin and his greatness, and I think nearly everyone would agree that he is indeed one of the all-time greats, but I think we often overlook his ability to do good Hulk stories. One of my favorite Hulk moments of all time happened in Infinity Gauntlet, where he and Wolvering are chatting on the roof of Avengers Mansion. The dialogue is perfect, and the if the characterization where anymore spot on, Gordon Ramsay would be here to tell you all about it,
Jim Starlin also draws a tremendous Hulk, as evidenced by his bittersweet standalone story in The Rampaging Hulk.
That’s some of my favorite Starlin work, and if that double-page splash doesn’t convince you of Starlin’s greatness, then I guess you only have about 439783498734983 other great things he did to convince you. Something about the black and white of this magazine makes Starlin’s work sinister at the edges; that’s perfect for this book and the story he tells here, which takes Hulk away from the main tale of beating up Krylorians left and right. Starlin does not ignore the main story though, as he bookends his tale of outer space and magic with how Hulk got there and how Hulk got home in one of those bittersweet tales that Jim Starlin is really good at doing.
The other two big highlights of the series are Hulk meeting people from the rest of the Marvel Universe before he “actually” would have met them. His meeting with Namor, the Sub-Mariner is a 2-parter, and it is one of the highlights of the book to me. Namor is a favorite of mine, and I love the line of nobility and savagery that he manages to walk! Or is that swim? OR EVEN FLY? The possibilities remain endless!!!
A Hulk vs. Namor fight almost always delivers. Namor’s arrogance and prodigious strength of his own almost never allow him to admit defeat in the face of a foe, even one as superior in strength as the Incredible Hulk, while Hulk, well, HUlk just wants to smash, of course.
I am unsure when Namor got all He-Man/Conan, but that is what he decided is necessary to beat Hulk on this cover.
One thing is for sure, though; I have no problem believing that indeed, is the axe of Namor. Look at how ornate it is. Also, did they build a replica of the domed cities of Atlantis on his shield? That seems pointless, seeing as how while it may look beautiful, that part of the shield is just gonna get crushed, unless you are fighting Hulk, in which case it will get SMASHED.
I especially like the post fight sequence where Namor sees off the Hulk and the Hulk’s pals.
Also, Namor obviously lays down his smooth game on Bereet, as they become smitten with each other. I am glad Namor is not real, lest he would steal every single lady living on the surface…and some of the married ones too! Just ask poor Reed Richards! (By the way, I think there is no contest. As much as I love Namor, Sue and Reed belong together. Butt out Atlantean!!!!)
Also, isn’t it funny how Namor is talking up how green Hulk is? I mean, we all know he is green and all, but it tickles my funny bone to see Namor refer to him as green when the comic book is black and white. It shouldn’t, but hey, it’s a little pleasure, and if life isn’t about little pleasures, what do we have? Maybe a Hulk vs. Avengers story?
The last two issues before the magazine went color featured Hulk taking on/teaming up with the original Avengers…BEFORE THEY WERE AVENGERS! I find it a smidge surreal to see, but it gets pulled off fairly well, and if you say you aren’t intrigued by this cover featuring the funeral of crystal-encased Hulk, you’re guilty of perjury in the court of comic books, son!
Sal Buscema does a great job on this issue, as we wrap up the retcon portion of The Rampaging Hulk (which would be renamed “HULK” with the following issue) with a bang. The story starts in #8, and it is a really good example of the Marvel “when heroes meet” formula, in that when heroes meet in the Marvel Universe, they fight.
One of those fights that I think we all love, is Hulk vs. Thor. Thor, the noble warrior, the scion of Asgard, and the sort of arrogant prick, takes on Hulk, who is savage, unrelenting, and uncaring. I think that on the surface, we are all required to cheer for Thor, but deep down, many of us hope Thor gets put in his damn place. It’s sort of like watching a car chase on Cops. I mean, we know that the people speeding away did something wrong and are causing problems, but man, those cops act so full of themselves and righteous that I’ll be damned if we don’t start cheering for the bad guys to get away about 3 minutes into the chase.
Unless you are me, then you are cheering for the bad guys the whole time (unless they murdered someone or are putting too many other drivers/people in danger). But I am of the 90’s folks, when things were extreme and we loved “Stone Cold” Steve Austin for being the bad guy! To the kids reading, I have two things to say: Mine is not the example to follow, and also, go read an actual comic book!
For the rest of you, here’s Thor and Hulk punching on one another.
So we get to see “The Avengers” team up and stave off a threat to the planet before they even existed! I find great comfort in the fact that Hulk treats them about the same before, during, and after his tenure as an Avenger. I like the world to be a simple place…at least sometimes.
The editor of the book provided an epitaph of sorts for The Rampaging Hulk era of this magazine:
It is very true that some of the greatest artists stepped in to try their hand at Hulk. I have already mentioned several of them, but I would be remiss if I did not show you some of what George Perez did. Perez is, in my opinion, the best artist in comic book history not named Jack Kirby. Controversial? Perhaps, but no one makes the page live for me like him.
He never did a regular feature on The Rampaging Hulk, but he did do a pin-up gallery featuring the history of a few of Hulk’s associates and enemies:
One thing I found fascinating about this gallery (and there are a couple more Perez Pin-Ups in the book) is that one can see the vast impact different inkers can have on the same penciller. That’s something that can be hard to notice for the artistically disinclined such as myself. Here though, it’s as blatant as a bank robbery in broad daylight where the perpetrator is dressed like the Hamburglar and is carrying big sacks with “$” on them. The Stranger looks mighty different than the Silver Surfer. Kieth Giffen gets to do his own gallery in issue #4, and he channels his best Jack Kirby!
I love Giffen’s work and how he has the ability to take on so many different styles. Look at this next to his stuff from the 90’s, like Trencher, and one would be astonished to find out it was the same guy working on both.
The only other thing to really mention is the back-ups, but I won’t spend too much time on them. For those picking up the magazine, like say, Billy Joel, they’d get treated to some sweet back-ups featuring Bloodstone, Man-Thing, and Shanna, the She-Devil, among others.
The back-ups are one of the most enticing elements to the black and white magazine boom of the 70’s. I have heard many folks talk to me about Bloodstone. I am not a huge fan, but just even just skimming through it made me realize that I will be back into these soon to learn more about this guy. The Man-Thing stuff interested me a great deal, as Steve Gerber can really write that sort of character just so much better than anyone else. Of course, it still could never live up to this pin-up:
All in all, I’d say the series is solid. I’d say it is must-read for Hulk fans, and a I would say the Simonson and Starlin issues (#1-4) are must read for any fans. The rest is good, but one would not be missing out on something spectacular if one were not to grab them. The series is a fun read, and the arch does definitively conclude in issue #9, so if you have the completionist bug and get #1, you will find it enticing enough to grab all 9. I also think that these have been re-printed in an Essentials volume, which would be one of the rare Essentials that would not lose anything by now being in black and white.
I want to thank Paul again for letting me write about these Bronze Age gems! I highly encourage you to check out all the cool stuff here if you haven’t, and when you are out of cool stuff here, come check out The Unspoken Decade! JNCO Jeans are coming back, so why not check out some 90’s comic book action as well? You’ll find it at The Unspoken Decade! Let Paul and I know what you think below, and I am looking forward to my next article here at The Longbox Graveyard! Hell, I am looking forward to Paul’s too!
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
I’ve covered a lot of superhero territory in the past sixty-seven issues of Longbox Graveyard. Aside from side-trips to look at undead counts, giant radioactive lizards, and a continuing dalliance with a loin-clothed barbarian, this blog has been all about men (and women!) in tights.
It’s fair to say that I am obsessed with comic book superheroes.
But I admire some real-life superheroes, too.
And Bruce Lee.
Bruce-freaking-Lee was an honest-to-gosh, living and breathing superhero. I still can’t believe that he’s gone.
I’ve written before about how 1974 was a watershed year for me. At the age of twelve I moved to Hollywood, CA for several months, and it was while prowling the geek shops of Hollywood Boulevard that I cemented my life-long love of comic books, science fiction, monsters … and Bruce Lee.
It is one of history’s cruel ironies that Bruce Lee died just days before his 1973 film Enter The Dragon made him into an American cinema superstar. Lee was an “overnight” success story years in the making, after having appeared on American television in the 1960s before becoming an international superstar in Chinese cinema in the 70s.
But it was Enter the Dragon that put Lee on the map in the United States. My father was a good guy and a lover of action films and he took me to see the R-rated Enter the Dragon — once — during it’s theatrical run, and I was mesmerized by Lee’s power, grace, charisma and skill …
… so much so that I must have sneaked into repeat showings of Enter the Dragon at least a half-dozen times in 1974. That summer, Hollywood Boulevard was a shrine to Lee, with his photo in every gift shop window, and his films playing in several theaters (this was back when Hollywood Boulevard had theaters). When I wasn’t reading comics that summer, you’d find me in a theater taking in multiple showings of badly-dubbed versions of Fists of Fury and The Chinese Connection that were rushed into U.S. distribution to capitalize on Lee’s posthumous fame.
Idolizing Bruce Lee was bittersweet, knowing he was gone, clinging to the urban legends that circulated at the time — that Bruce wasn’t dead, that he had faked his death to retire to a Shaolin Temple, or gone underground to evade vengeful Chinese gangsters. It just didn’t seem possible that such a specimen of superhuman strength and ability could have died. He … was … a … superhero, and superheroes don’t die!
Even decades later, my heart skips a beat when Bruce bounds up the stairs in the final act of Game of Death, replacing the imposter who filled his shoes for the first hour of that otherwise-unwatchable picture. It’s like he’s come back to life, to fight and amaze and entertain one last time, and rip the scab off the wound I still carry for his loss.
I loved Bruce Lee.
And I was not alone.
Marvel Comics was never one to miss a trend, and they jumped on the American martial arts mayhem bandwagon with a number of comic books — and the best and longest-running of them was Master of Kung Fu.
Created by Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin in issue #15 of Special Marvel Edition, the book had just recently assumed the Master of Kung Fu title when I first encountered the title with issue #21 on the rack at my favorite Hollywood newsstand. I’m sure I was looking for Bruce Lee heroics when I read that book … but what I got was lackluster Sal Buscema art, and a scene where the hero karate-chopped a shark. This is crap, I thought, and went back to reading superhero books.
It would take thirty issues before a chance encounter with Paul Gulacy’s cover for issue #51 convinced me to give Shang-Chi another chance.
It was a strange time to jump on the book, given that issue #51 was a transitional story: an epilogue to arguably the greatest Shang-Chi story of all which had concluded the issue before. I didn’t care. The title had matured in the time I’d been away, and my own tastes had evolved, and now I was the perfect audience for Master of Kung Fu’s unique 1970s blend of espionage, intrigue, and martial arts action. I would remain a loyal reader for the remaining seventy-four issues of the book’s run, and in time would fill in the issues I’d missed. My complete run of the Doug Moench-era of Master of Kung Fu remains the jewel of my Longbox Graveyard collection — not especially valuable books, but possibly my favorite comic series of all time, and somehow sweeter for having never been made available in reprint or digital form.
The reason there are no Master of Kung Fu reprints is generally attributed to copyright issues stemming from the book’s origin in Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu pulp series from the 1920s, though it may also be that the “yellow peril” stories of Fu Manchu rightly belong to another age. The comic does borrow from the pulps, picking up the adventures of Rohmer’s heroes Denis Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie as they carry their battle against the Asian crimelord to the modern era, and Fu Manchu himself is a consistent presence in comics. For the most part, though, Master of Kung Fu is an original work, spring-boarding from Rohmer’s premise to tell the tale of Shang-Chi, an original character who is the son of Fu Manchu, raised by his evil father to be the ultimate assassin. Learning the error of his ways, Shang-Chi swears to oppose his father, beginning a journey of transformation in keeping with his name, which we are told means “Rising Of The Spirit.” Throughout the series we are treated to rich characterization, a deep and intriguing supporting cast, some weird and wonderful bad guys, plenty of espionage and double-dealing, and of course a fist-full of cinematic Kung Fu action.
we won’t mention that shark again
My reasons for not reviewing Master of Kung Fu before now at Longbox Graveyard are complex. Partly it is down to a publication and reading schedule driven by summer movie tie-ins, but mostly I’ve put it off because I was afraid the series wouldn’t measure up to my memories. We’re talking about a Marvel book from the 1970s here, and not every title from that era has aged especially well. But I needn’t have worried. A recent re-read confirms these are still terrific books, and I look forward to revisiting them with you in a series of articles in the months to come.
To start, I’m concentrating on a short and not terribly distinguished run of Master of Kung Fu — issues #29-31 from 1975. This is the first run where I felt the series really came together as author Doug Moench and artist Paul Gulacy first found their mojo, largely by embracing a genre movie style that instantly distinguished the book from superhero titles of the day.
Earlier issues in the series do have their moments, though, such as these two pages from issue #25, notable as the flash point where Paul Gulacy starts to cut loose.
The energy spooled up on page 26 explodes in a full-page shot on page 27 …
… but it is really just a flash of lightning for what is to come. The thunder starts to roll in with #29’s “The Crystal Connection,” the first issue in the three-part “Snowbuster” arc, where the Master of Kung Fu storytelling DNA really starts to emerge.
It is with this issue that the creators fully embrace a cinematic style. Previous issues were awkward martial arts pulps, with Fu Manchu lurking behind every potted palm, but starting with this tale, Shang-Chi’s world starts to broaden. Now a member of MI6, Shang-Chi is part of a team tasked with throttling a pipeline of heroin at its refining source in the Mediterranean. The story set-up and briefing scene that leads the issue is clearly inspired by a similar set-up in Enter The Dragon, where Bruce Lee’s character was tasked by the British Secret Service to investigate a heroin operation in Hong Kong.
But Moench and Gulacy were even more interested in a different kind of movie — a few pages later, we’re in the middle of a James Bond picture, as team member Clive Reston (who several times in this series suggests he is Bond’s son) arrives at the fortress of the unfortunately-named drug lord, Carlton Velcro. True to the Bond formula, there’s repartee between Reston and the evil mastermind, Bond girls lounging around a pool, and the introduction of the bad guy’s privileged henchman — in this case, Razor Fist, fulfilling the role of an Oddjob or Jaws.
From the moment Razor Fist is introduced, we know it’s just a matter of time before he comes to blows with our hero, and the confrontation is teased in the final panel of the issue.
The battle is worth the wait, and the fight between Shang-Chi and Razor Fist in issue #30 also illustrates another critical distinction of this series. Master of Kung Fu was a Marvel book, and while cross-overs with the rest of the Marvel Universe were mercifully infrequent, this comic still had to compete with Spider-Man, Iron Man, and a whole host of superhero titles that took their fighting action to places that were beyond Shang-Chi’s capabilities. Shang-Chi may have been a master of Kung Fu, but he couldn’t stick to walls or bounce bullets off his armored chest.
To offset his non-powered disadvantage, Shang-Chi’s action scenes go inward. Narrative captions slow down the action and help us see the battle through Shang-Chi’s eyes. The result are thoughtful fight scenes that reinforce the meditative and philosophical tone of the book. Over time, Shang-Chi’s philosophy would evolve from his initial fortune cookie homilies to legitimate self-searching about the violent games of deceit and death in which he found himself a pawn.
Moench also knew when to be silent, and let Gulacy’s cinema-inspired images tell the tale. There’s more than a little debt to Jim Steranko here, as well.
The cinematic style fully flowers later in issue #30, where Gulacy uses multiple panels to capture split-seconds of continuous action, and also goes all-in drawing Shang-Chi to look exactly like Bruce Lee (particularly in the penultimate panel of the page below). Gulacy has also contrived to have his hero go shirtless, further reminding us of Lee, and distancing us from Shang-Chi’s horrid Ying/Yang pajama costume.
In issue #31’s conclusion, there’s no doubt that Master of Kung Fu is an action movie, with our heroes plastered across a movie-poster splash page of a story “produced and directed” by Moench and Gulacy.
The Bond references keep coming fast and heavy, with Clive Reston now reminding of a young Sean Connery, and Shang-Chi continuing to sport a Bruce Lee look.
We also get another Bond trope — a femme fatale spin on the privileged henchman, as Shang-Chi battles Velcro’s lover, Pava’ne. Again, what might be conventional action is improved by slick panel construction and Shang-Chi’s narrative caption admitting he took his opponent lightly because she was a woman.
And what would a Bond movie be without the evil villain’s secret island base blowing up just before the credits roll?
The film influence is particularly keen in this spectacular page from issue #31, where the passage of time is visually communicated by the guard lighting his cigar. The guards actions serve as a fuse, burning down to an explosive climax as Shang-Chi drops down from above. The inset panel of panic in the guard’s eyes as he glimpses Shang-Chi in the reflection of his lighter is a striking moment of frozen time that goes beyond cinematic convention, as the juxtaposition of the guard’s eyes and the reflection in his hand would be difficult to achieve on film without resorting to a gimmicky split-screen. By clearly positioning the guard’s hand in front of the inset panel showing his expression we experience the kind of action composition that is unique to comics as a storytelling form.
In case it isn’t obvious … I love this page, I love this issue, and I love this series, which I offer my unreserved recommendation. This three-part “Snowbuster” story isn’t the strongest run in Master of Kung Fu, but it is a worthy jumping-on spot for the series.
And since I’ve already rambled on for two thousand words, I am going to break with tradition and confine this Master of Kung Fu review to these mere three issues, rather than trying to appraise the series as a whole. But I do so with a promise to return to Master of Kung Fu sooner rather than later, and also to examine this series in closer detail than has been the rule here at Longbox Graveyard. The book is good enough — and sufficiently significant to the form — to warrant close attention, still fun and fresh and entertaining after all these years.
Plus it helps this still-heartbroken fan imagine what it might have been like if Bruce Lee had lived to enjoy the popular action film career he so richly deserved. Over time, Master of Kung Fu evolved its own distinct identity, but I still can’t help but link it to Bruce Lee in my mind. Rest in peace, Bruce, you are still deeply missed.
(And if you want more Master of Kung Fu coverage, be sure to check out Tom Mason’s review of the final Gene Day issue over at Comix 411, and tune into this Master of Kung Fu Tumblr blog which summarizes (nearly) every issue in the run!)
- Title: Master of Kung Fu
- Published By: Marvel Comics, 1974-83
- Issues Rescued From The Longbox Graveyard: #29-31, June-August 1975
- LBG Letter Grade For This Run: B
- Own The Back Issues: MyComicShop.com
NEXT WEDNESDAY: #69 Marvel Comics: The Untold Story
The Dark Knight Rises is in theaters this week, the third and final chapter of Christopher Nolan’s take on Batman, which with its bazillion dollars in box office has clearly become the consensus view. Few characters have sported as many different tones as Batman, and fewer still so successfully — between comics, TV, and movie series, there must be a half-dozen different versions of the Batman. The current grim-and-gritty motion picture Batman traces its roots to Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, though Nolan’s series has gone on to become a thing of its own, thanks to its not-a-superhero-but-really-a-crime-picture story beats, and a transcendent performance by the late Heath Ledger in the trilogy’s middle installment.
Batman wasn’t always this way, and the Batman of old didn’t become today’s Batman overnight. A couple weeks ago I spotlighted the late 1970’s Steve Englehart/Marshall Rogers run in Detective that arguably began Batman’s transformation into his modern form, but where was Batman after that series and before Frank Miller put his indelible stamp on the character?
The Batman of the early 1980s was defined by writer Doug Moench. Teamed with a number of pencillers — most notably Gene Colan — Moench’s 80-issue run, published twice monthly in the pages of Detective and Batman, gave us a final look at Batman before Crisis on Infinite Earths and Frank Miller’s vision helped bring down the curtain on the “Bronze Age” of comics.
Overshadowed as it was by the Dark Knight phenomenon, this Doug Moench era has been forgotten by many, and I think unfairly, as it has moments of rich characterization and a couple single-issue stories that hold up well today. To their credit, DC didn’t boot Moench to the curb, no matter how many times Dark Knight went back to press with the flavor fans clearly preferred. Moench’s run came to a celebratory end in Batman #400 … but then it’s like he was never there. Following Moench would be Batman: Year One, and then a run by crime novelist Max Allen Collins, and the modern age of Batman had well and truly begun.
nice cover by Don Newton, who did some of his final work on this series before his untimely death in 1984
So who was the Doug Moench Batman, this transitional shades-of-grey knight before the darkest dawn of our current era?
The familiar Bat-tropes are all on display. Bruce Wayne still moonlights as Batman, hangs around in a cave, and responds to Commissioner Gordon’s Bat-Signal. Gotham City is still menaced by the finest rogue’s gallery in comics, and Batman himself is obsessively driven to bring them all to justice. Batman roars around in his Batmobile accompanied by his young partner, Robin. There are plenty of fist-fights and shadowy show-downs with warehouses full of mooks up to no good, and one or two Gene Colan pages with costumes swirling all over the place.
yes, Harvey Bullock has three hands in that panel, but this is the masterful Gene Colan — just go with it!
Where this Batman most differs from the more recent vintage is in his humanity, or at least his emotionality. Far from the grim workaholic of contemporary Batman stories, Doug Moench’s Batman wrestles with his dual roles as Bruce Wayne and superhero, wondering if he can ever be happy so long as Batman is a part of his life. Themes of mortality and exhaustion are repeated throughout the run, as Batman comes to understand that he may be at his physical peak, but that he’s wearing down under the constant grind of battling Gotham’s crazies. He especially agonizes over whether he should allow Jason Todd to become his partner as Robin, and he gets positively tied in knots shifting his affections between four different women each appealing to a different aspect of his soul.
There’s plenty of crime, punishment, and superheroic punch-outs in this run, but it is in this handling of Batman’s interior life — and the lives of the book’s many supporting characters — where Moench is at his best.
Commissioner Gordon nurses a bad heart and works overtime to bear up under the gaze of his boss, the corrupt Mayor Hamilton Hill, who makes Gordon’s life miserable by saddling him with the piggish and disgraced Harvey Bullock as his assistant. Alfred Pennyworth is distracted from pressing Bruce Wayne’s trousers when his estranged daughter, Julia, re-enters his life. Jason Todd has mood swings and generally acts like a little kid, earning him a contempt from the audience that would famously end in his death by popular demand in a DC Comics telephone poll, but also painting an emotionally accurate portrait of an insecure and needy young man.
Four women form the points of Bruce Wayne and Batman’s emotional compass in this series. Bruce’s relationship with Vicki Vale goes downhill quickly, with Vicki proving demanding and strident; it isn’t long before Bruce has thrown her over, first for a momentary infatuation with Alfred’s daughter, Julia, then for a more serious involvement with Nocturna, one of several new characters Moench adds to the cast in this run.
Nocturna is introduced as a tiresome emo girl, physically and psychologically altered by an astronomy accident (!) rendering her skin white … but she recovers from that ridiculous beginning, and does what many of Moench’s characters do: change and grow as the series evolves. Nocturna puzzles out Batman’s true identity, then tries to ensnare Bruce by mounting a custody challenge for Bruce’s ward (and Robin-to-be) Jason Todd, only to find that her emotional needs are better met trying to be mother to Jason than paramour to Batman.
Along the way, Batman discovers he’s interested in Nocturna only when she’s playing the bad girl, an obsession thrown into stark relief when Catwoman returns to Batman’s life, but our hero finds the old sparks aren’t striking, largely because Catwoman has reformed and the thrill has gone along with her villainy.
Catwoman’s return doesn’t work out so great for anyone
Supporting players get their spotlight time, too. He’s changed a bit since his introduction here, but Harvey Bullock is Moench’s signature and enduring creation in this run. Initially a foil for Commissioner Gorden, the incompetent Bullock changes his tune after driving Gordon to a heart attack, and seeks to atone for past sins by becoming a genuinely dedicated cop. He’s used for comic relief, storming in at the worst moment and trampling on evidence, but he proves to be a genuine and emotionally reliable character, even revealing an interior thoughtfulness through his love of classic film …
… and inspiring a boyish loyalty from Jason Todd, who might see in Bullock a surrogate father more approachable than the remote Batman.
The bad guys are appropriately street-level, with most of their darkness on the inside. There’s the cop killing (and ex-cop) Savage Skull, and the aforementioned Nocturna and her ninja henchman, Night-Thief. Black Mask goes whacko and fashions a mask for himself from his father’s coffin lid, which is pretty wonderful. Moench trots out Batman’s traditional villains, too, but at times this feels compulsory. Batman’s battle with the Riddler was an off-the-shelf tale (though it is hard to be anything but formulaic with a written backwards-by-the book Riddler story), and Moench’s Joker story was a feathered fish, with that villain incongruously trying to set off a Guatemalan civil war. Poison Ivy fared a bit better, as did Deadshot.
Moench’s take on Two-Face was his best of all.
This is a Batman book, so of course it has its gothic shadows, but they aren’t so front-and-center as in contemporary books. This is an old fashioned series, employing storytelling conventions long out of style — like compressed story arcs that rarely run more than an issue or two, and copious use of thought balloons. So, too, is Batman a bit old fashioned, at times daring to smile and even seem happy to do what he does. On his first night’s patrol with his new Robin, Batman is positively giddy compared to the grim Dark Knight of page and screen this past quarter century. Batman even works in a photo opportunity after he and the Boy Wonder clean up a den of inequity.
To be fair, this isn’t a classic run of comics. A few of the storylines overstay their welcome, and the Green Arrow back-up feature in Detective is forgettable, save for a two-part Alan Moore story, and a delightful turn in Detective #559 — a full-length tale where Batman and Oliver Queen go after each other harder than they do the bad guys.
Select single issue stories stand out, like Batman #383, where we see an exhausting night in the life of Batman, or the excusably heavy-handed Detective #550, where Moench tries to get to the heart of what led an otherwise ordinary street thug into a life of crime. A two-part tale in Batman #393-394 reuniting Doug Moench with his Master of Kung Fu partner Paul Gulacy has some tasty art, but the espionage thriller story is a bit muddled.
Moench & Gulacy bring some Master of Kung Fu-style to Batman
In all, though, this is an average run of superhero comics, nudged to just-above-average grade owing to its length, and consistency. I am a big Gene Colan fan, but even Gene is less than extraordinary here, possibly limited by inadequate inkers (the forceful Alfredo Alcala, especially, is a poor fit for Gene’s flowing fog style). Approaching the end of this run in my recent re-read, when the “red skies” of the Crisis on Infinite Earths meta-event signaled that the end was near for the old order at DC, I found that I didn’t sadly shake my head or mourn for what Batman was about to become. I enjoyed this run, and I rank Doug Moench among my favorite comic book authors, but Batman is one of the few comic characters that I think is genuinely better served by his current incarnation. The contemporary Dark Knight may be a little short on melodrama and self-examination, but we have plenty of other superheroes running that playbook. Batman has evolved into a remote and unapproachable legend, but he’s earned that status, and it’s a big part of what makes him unique. Despite my love of Bronze Age comics, I think I’ll stick with the current take on Batman …
… but if you want to see Batman before the legend overtook the man, you could do worse than to hunt down this particular run of Bat books, which do offer their own leisurely, introspective, and slow-burning rewards.
- Titles: Batman & Detective Comics
- Published By: DC Comics, 1937-2011 (curse you, “New 52” reboot!)
- Issues Reviewed By The Longbox Graveyard: Batman #360-400, Detective #527-566, June 1983-October 1986
- LBG Letter Grade For This Run: C-plus
- Own The Originals: Detective & Batman
NEXT WEDNESDAY: #58 Panel Gallery: Holy Hannah!