Wednesday, June 25, 2014

When You Just GOTTA Kill Your Own Father!

One of the the strengths of Marvel's Master of Kung Fu series during the 1970s was that it effectively drew not just from the martial arts film genre, but also from the science fiction and espionage genres as well. Of course, many martial arts films drew from these other genres as well, but writer Doug Moench really did put a unique spin on this combination. Of course, the decision to make Shang Chi the son of Sax Rohmer's classic villain Fu Manchu helped give the series its unique flavor.

Moench would occasionally throw Shang Chi and his allies into convoluted, multi-part story arcs. One of my favorites ran from Master of Kung Fu #80 through 89 (September 1979 - June 1980). This was ten months of intricate storytelling as Shang tries to save the world, come to some sort of acceptance with the life of violence he had been living and come to terms with the idea that he was going to have to kill his own father.

It all begins in London. Shang Chi and the elderly Sir Denis Nayland Smith (Fu Manchu's arch enemy from the original novels) are working with their usual ragtag group of allies: former MI6 agents Black Jack Tarr,
Clive Reston and Leiko Wu. This last is currently Shang's girlfriend, though she was once involved with Clive--something that will cause tension between the characters during the course of the story.

Sir Denis gets information that Fu Manchu--thought to be dead--is still alive. An old contact of Sir Denis is bringing more details, but when Shang, Tarr and Clive try to meet him, they run into more bad guys than you can shake a nunchucks at. Not only do they have to deal with Leopard Cult assassins working for Fu, they also run into a rogue faction of MI6 agents. It turns out a power struggle within that agency has led to at least one faction marking Sir Denis and his agents for death.

Well, after a lot of shots being fired, tussles with cultists in London's Underground and a wrecked car or
two, the good guys learn that Fu Manchu is alive and has a hideout in the Amazonian jungle. Also, Sir Denis gets kidnapped.

So Shang and Tarr are off to South America, while Clive and Leiko trail Sir Denis to Casablanca, searching for clues while dodging assassins. In one of several excellent action set-pieces seeded throughout the story, Shang and Tarr are trapped at the edge of a swamp surrounded by Leopard cultists. They make an escape route by by catching a huge crocodile and throwing it at the bad guys. I love that part.

The complex plot slowly unfolds. Fu Manchu is using electronic implants to gain mind control of key politicians and scientists around the globe, planning on using them to bring about world-wide anarchy. The signal for launching his puppets on the world will be destroying New York City with a nuke.

Fortunately, someone inside Fu's organization is helping the good guys, though not necessarily for the most moral of reasons.

The climax comes when Sir Denis frantically tries to remember how to disarm a nuke; Shang and Leiko fighting a huge killer who has been deadened to pain by electronic implants; an encounter with some former humans genetically altered into monsters and a final meeting between an enraged Shang and his arrogant dad.

I love the story--it really is intricate, but ties everything together in the end fairly neatly. I think the genetic monsters are tossed into the story a little too abruptly and for too short a time, but that's a nitpick.

Another nitpick that a reader might make is that there's an awful lot of exposition. At times, we get several pages of dialogue with little or no action--something that can often bog down a visual storytelling medium. But I think it works here. Mick Zeck's strong pencils and changing "camera" angles from panel to panel make even these potentially static scenes seem dynamic, while the dialogue is well-written and kept interesting as it slowly gives us the information we need to eventually figure everything out.

And when the story gets to an action scene, those scenes are fantastic--especially the two issues in which Shang and Tarr fight there way through Fu's South American base, sometimes together and sometimes separated.

Shang's character arc is also a good one. He is a man who believes in peace, but is always being forced to fight and often to kill. And his gradually realization that he can never stop his father unless he kills him is handled well and with a lot of honest emotion.

Sadly, Marvel no longer has the rights to Fu Manchu (though I'm not sure how that works--he's old enough to be a public domain character, but doesn't seem to be). This is too bad, since it means we may never get either an Essential or Masterworks reprint of the original comic book series. But it's worthwhile checking the back issue bins in your comic book store or haunting Ebay for these particular issues. It is an entertaining and powerful story arc.

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