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