Wednesday, July 10, 2013

For Heaven's Sake, Shang-Chi, PUT SOME SHOES ON!

Shang-Chi first appeared in 1973, so there's no doubt that Marvel simply wanted a character who could ride the Bruce Lee-inspired martial arts craze that was sweeping through popular culture. According to an interview I read with Roy Thomas (the then-editor at Marvel), writer Steve Englehart and artist Jim Starlin came to him with the idea of doing a book based on the TV series Kung Fu.  That never happened, but doing something similar to Kung Fu was possible. Thomas came up with the idea of making the main character the son of master criminal Fu Manchu (who had been created by Sax Rohmer in 1913), though he now works against his father. So Marvel acquired the rights to Fu Manchu and things took off from there.  Then, a few years later, Marvel lost the rights to Fu Manchu and poor Shang's dad became a nameless master criminal in all future appearances. (Actually, I think he may have been given an alternate name in a more modern story.)

This, sadly, is why it seems unlikely that we will ever get a Masterworks or Essential series reprinting the early Master of Kung Fu stories. Darn you, copyright laws. Darn you all to heck!

Well, the idea of tossing Fu Manchu into the mix did produce a book that was both unique and pretty gosh-darn cool. Shang-Chi soon teamed up with Sir Denis Nayland-Smith, the aging protagonist from the original Rohmer novels. The end product was a clever combination of the martial arts genre and James Bond-esque spy stories. Doug Moench took over writing the series fairly early on in its run and regularly produced complex, action-driven story arcs filled with nifty plot twists, making good use of both Shang and his supporting cast.

Paul Gulacy was the artist through much of Moench's run as artist. Gulacy's clean and energetic art was complemented by his ability to choreograph incredibly fun fight scenes, in which the action flows in a logical and understandable manner while still looking awesome.

For instance, let's take 1974's Giant Size Master of Kung Fu #1. Nayland-Smith and the other supporting cast members are absent from this one, but it's still a good example of the strengths that both Moench and Gulacy brought to the book. There are three Shang-Chi stories (and a reprint of a Yellow Claw story from 1956).

The first story involves Fu Manchu sending a series of assassins after Shang-Chi. It's his wayward's son's
birthday and Fu wants to give him DEATH as a gift.

Shang takes out several of the assassins, then sneaks into Fu's secret HQ to fight the rest of them. Fu gets away, but his plans are thwarted for the moment.

It's a fun story. The premise of the hero being stalked by a cult of assassins is an old trope, but Moench uses it well here, depending on Gulacy's great art to effectively carry the story along while it builds up to its violent climax.

The other two Shang stories each have different artists. One (drawn by Ron Wilson) involves Shang being refused a room by a racist landlord, then attacked by hitmen. The fight ends when he has to save the landlord's life. The anti-racism message is a little heavy-handed, but Shang's actions towards the landlord are part of the character's appeal. He's a hero and he'll save even the jerk who hates him for being Chinese.

The other (drawn by Craig Russell) involves Shang foiling a robbery at a museum. It's another fast-paced and entertaining story, but it also highlights the one thing about this series that sometimes annoyed me. This happens when Shang enters the museum and a guard calls him out for being bare-foot.

Shang comes back with what's supposed to be a wise and philosophical reply: "Why do you fear touching the Earth? Does not the concrete separate you from it enough?"

Gee, Shang, good point. Wearing shoes separates us from Mother Earth and thus is evil. Of course, in a big city, it also separates us from shards of broken glass and used drug needles. But that, apparently, is beside the point.

Just shut up and put some shoes on, will ya?

Moench is a good writer, but he sometimes over-wrote and his efforts to make Shang-Chi seem wise sometimes backfired. This only happened occasionally--most of the time his take on the character gave us a compassionate and clever hero. But there were moments like this where poor Shang said something that was supposed to sound deeply philosophical but was really just really pretty dumb--and you are left wondering why the other characters in the story look so impressed.

Oh, well, as long as Shang remains a likable character who can kick butt and act as the centerpiece for awesome fight scenes and complex stories, then we can put up with little faux-philosophy.


  1. I loved those Master Of Kung Fu stories. It's almost too bad Fu Manchu isn't a public domain character.

  2. It IS too bad Fu isn't Public Domain. Then we could get an Essentials reprint of these stories!

  3. Well, I was thinking I'd like so that Shang Chi could go back to being Fu Manchu's son and also possibly getting a Fu Manchu clix figure.

    But then again, I hate the current administration at Marvel so it might not turn out so well.


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