Review by David Flin
There's a huge amount of symbolism going on here. Read the issue to find out what it's all about.
No, not comic as in comedian, but comic as in comic book. Comics can be literature, too. They can certainly shine a light on the world we are in.
For the first in this series, I’ll be looking at Master of Kung Fu (1974-1983).
As the title implies, this was created to cash in on the Kung Fu craze of the 1970s. I was there. Trust me, it was a craze. Who can forget Carl Douglas’ hit single from 1974, Everybody was Kung-Fu Fighting, from his album Everybody was Kung-Fu Fighting and Other Love Songs? I can’t, no matter how hard I try.
That song just will not die. Stake it, burn it, exterminate it, and it still survives.
I'm not a fan.
Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
I digress. The series started off as a modest financial success, under Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin, but it was of very modest quality. Shang Chi, the central character and the Master of Kung Fu, was raised by his father Dr Fu Manchu to be the ultimate assassin. However, Shang Chi turns to the Good Side and opposes his father’s schemes, battling grotesque creatures or bizarre death traps on a monthly basis.
The main characters were based on those from the Fu Manchu stories by Sax Rohmer, but that was mere window dressing.
Then Englehart and Starlin left, and Doug Moensch and Paul Gulacy took over. They took a few issues to get into the swing of things. They leant heavily into the spirit of the Sax Rohmer novels, updated for the contemporary, gave it a strong ciné noir feel, emphasised the spycraft aspect (games of deceit and death), and developed it into something special.
The central cast of characters coalesce around the following:
Shang Chi; the central character, an honourable student and master of Kung Fu
Leiko Wu; femme fatalle, martial arts expert, and love interest. The list for the last is for quite extensive (Shang Chi, Clive Reston, Mordillo, Shen Keui....)
Clive Reston; Secret Agent, and seemingly both the son of James Bond and the great nephew of Sherlock Holmes.
Black Jack Tarr; big bruiser, aging but still active. A close friend and ally of...
Sir Dennis Nayland-Smith; spymaster and leader of the spy group, and the long-standing enemy of the villain...
Dr Fu Manchu; mastermind villain and his daughter
Fah Lo Suee, Fu Manchu’s daughter and Shang Chi’s half-sister.
It was still all pretty ho-hum, until Issue #38, when the atmosphere and the plot and the zeitgeist all clicked together.
The start of the Games of Deceit and Death. #38.
Picture courtesy Slings and Arrows.
It then became an underrated epic. Characterisation became tight, consistent, and convincing; themes became evident; the art became gorgeous and detailed; villains had actual motivations, and interactions became both fascinating and convoluted.
Gulacy left, burned out, and the series had occasional misfires; filler issues and an occasional short arc (the War Yore saga – issues #55-58 – being the biggest calamity of them all) that failed, but the long plot arcs – especially those involving Fu Manchu (of which there were three; #38-50; #71-87; #101-118. Although these numbers don’t include some issues which involve foreshadowing) were outstanding in weaving together plotlines to make a story.
Paul Gulacy stayed on the comic until #51, and was replaced by Jim Craig, who was in turn replaced by Mike Zeck (#61) who did the pencils, and Gene Day (inks, #76). Once the Moench/Zeck/Day partnership settled into place, the title moved into the realm of art.
Gulacy was a film buff, and it showed. Shang Chi’s appearance became modelled on Bruce Lee; Clive Reston on a mix of Basil Rathbone and Sean Connery (by repute, his Great Uncle Sherlock Holmes and his father, the “epicurian snob” James Bond), along with minor characters based on the visuals of Marlene Deitrich, David Niven and others. He created a visual shorthand for the characters.
Unlike many comics, Master of Kung Fu takes the time and effort to enable the reader to get to know and get emotionally attached to the characters – before putting them through the wringer.
But the big strength of the series, beyond the intricate plotting and the lush artwork, was the characterisation. All the characters have strengths and flaws, consistently held, and these are integral to driving the plot forward.
The series also wasn’t afraid to deal with tensions. For example, Black Jack Tarr, an older agent (and that would be older when being written in the 1970s) constantly and continually refers to Shang Chi as “Chinaman”. And yet Shang Chi and Tarr are good friends; Shang Chi recognises the tone of voice. Trust me when I say that tone of voice is important. As one character says: “It is the meaning behind the words that is important, not the words themselves.”
Such an attitude might not fly today, but back then, it was a respectable point of view.
Back then, if Ronnie called me “Breed”, (short for half-breed) I’d grit my teeth. If Roger called me “Breed”, I’d cheerfully answer “Budgie”. It was all in the tone of voice and the relationship you had with the speaker. It may have been better or worse than an attitude of zero tolerance towards such casual phrases, but that’s how things were back then.
I digress. Characterisation is always front and centre. We know what Shang Chi’s favourite band is (Fleetwood Mac), what Black Jack thinks about it (he doesn’t like their music), who Black Jack’s favourite artist is (Frazetta, God help us).
Only Master of Kung Fu could get away with an issue (#71) which literally consists entirely of Shang Chi and Leiko Wu having an evening together, doing a jigsaw, listening to music, going to a movie, and so on. The first 30 pages of the issue are extremely domestic. It makes the denouement on the final page, where Nayland Smith arrives at the door, beaten up, bleeding, and in a bad way, with the line: “I resigned."
The end of a domestic issue. A slice of life, and Nayland-Smith certainly got sliced.
The build-up had been charming and wholesome (even though the pizza does get cold), and the final page comes as much as a shock to the reader as it did to Shang Chi and Leiko Wu.
I’ve been raving somewhat, I know. It remains, however, my go-to refutation for anyone who claims comic books can’t produce literature.
I've no idea how long that splash page took, but it's quite neat.
What makes it even more so is that Shang Chi and Shen Keui are basically each other's yin and yang, each becoming more like the other as they continue their conflict. Sometimes art complements the words perfectly.
Next time in this series, I’ll be looking at something that is more traditional comic book fare, but still outstanding: the Alan Moore period of Captain Britain.
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David Flin is editor of the anthology Ten Years Later, where all proceeds go to help rebuild Ukraine, the author of the AH series Building Jerusalem and Six East End Boys, and the owner of Sergeant Frosty Publications.