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The original SHANG CHI: MASTER OF KUNG FU was one of the best comics ever produced. While other books may have shone more brightly for a shorter time, few, if any, maintained a high level of quality for ten solid years, the way SC: MOKF did between 1973 and 1983. And now it's back (albeit just for six issues), rendered by the best artist/writer team to ever work on the title. If you're like me, upon first hearing such news, you do the dance of joy: then reality sets in, and you brace yourself for the inevitable letdown. Can the magic really be recaptured almost thirty years later?
the answer, you can skip to the bottom and count the fanboys, or you can
brace yourself for another long-winded CNG comics history lesson. SHANG
CHI: MASTER OF KUNG FU debuted in late 1973, in the midst of a martial
arts craze sweeping the nation, spearheaded by the great Bruce Lee. Marvel
Comics, like many others, decided to cash in on the fad. But, to set their
effort apart, editor Roy Thomas took the step of acquiring the rights
to the fiendish Asian (or, as he was referred to
back then, Oriental) mastermind Fu Manchu, who wreaked havoc on
the world in pulp novels by Sax Rohmer during the 1920's.
A very cool concept, but after a nice start at the hands of its creators, writer Steve Englehart and artist Jim Starlin, both men had to leave the series due to other commitments. Up and coming artist Paul Gulacy brought his Steranko-esque pencils to the book. Not long afterward, Doug Moench took over the story duties, and a sensation was born.
MASTER OF KUNG FU ran until issue #125, far outlasting America's Kung Fu craze because it was far more than a kung fu book. It had elements of mystery, espionage, horror, philosophy, and even soap opera. And there was more than a smidgen of ass-kicking action to be found as well.
What really made MOKF work for me as the best martial arts book I've read was that the protagonist, Shang Chi, was a fully realized character. He wasn't just a fighting machine with no personality; nor was he a wise, all-knowing master of both mind and body. He was a young man searching for himself. His name, which means "The Rising And Advancing of a Spirit", was also his quest. He had doubts and questions; reconciling his use of violence with his desire for peace, his loyalty to his heritage battling his hatred of his father's evil. And he had a hot and heavy romance with secret agent Leiko Wu, who was every bit his equal but written as a fully realized woman, not as a male character with boobs. Like a real person (but unlike most comic characters), Chi grew and developed as the series went on, and on, for some ten years, never lacking in quality. Epic clashes with Fu Manchu alternated with quiet tales of self-discovery. Some stories felt like a James Bond movie, others like a pulp novel, still others like the best martial arts flick ever made. Hell, #100 had a villain whose mind had been imprinted with the personality of Jack The Ripper.
And the art: wow. MOKF had the amazing good fortune to be the proving ground for no less than three young superstar artists in the making. The first was the aforementioned Mr. Gulacy. The second was Mike Zeck, who came over from Charlton raw and undeveloped and may well have done his best work in these pages. The last was Gene Day, who got his start in Skywald horror mags like PSYCHO, started out on MOKF inking Zeck, and then took over the penciling as well when Zeck left. Day did some amazing work, especially with his intricate page designs, but he is little-known today because he died tragically young at age 31, just as he was hitting the peak of his career, coming off a major storyline in which Shang-Chi took down his father once and (possibly) for all. Soon after Day's death, Moench quit as well, leaving Marvel over a personality clash with then-Editor-In-Chief Jim Shooter. The book stumbled on without him for a few issues, then mercifully died.
After Shooter left Marvel, Moench revisited Shang-Chi in a couple of MOKF serials for MARVEL COMICS PRESENTS in the late 1980's (another was collected as a one-shot giant special titled BLEEDING BLACK, but it was clearly written in eight-page installments as well). They were just okay: the eight-page serial format didn't allow for the kind of introspection and character development that had made the regular book great. (Moench may now be ignoring those stories, as Leiko Wu lost a hand in one of them, and she seems to have it back in the new series.)
But now Moench and Marvel are bringing back Shang-Chi with a vengeance, re-teaming the writer with his favorite collaborator, Gulacy, giving them six issues, and the freedom that comes with a "Mature Readers" label. As of this writing, issue #2 has just hit the stands.
Why didn't I review #1 when it came out? To be honest, it's because I had some doubts about it. Yes, Gulacy's art is up to its usual high standards, although I feel like his work looked better with the old style of comic book coloring rather than the muted, blended tones characteristic of the modern computer coloring the kids are so wild about these days (or maybe I'm just an old curmudgeon who fears any type of change). I do wish he'd experiment a bit more with page layout, the way he used to, but I do know that at least part of the art has been taken from a never-realized MOKF graphic novel project, so maybe that's necessitated keeping things reined in. Hey, bottom line, the art is outstanding. The characters all have distinctive looks, and no one draws action like Gulacy.
My concerns came from the story. I was afraid that Moench might try to "update" a character that doesn't need updating (this isn't the Disco Dazzler, after all) by turning the series into a Hong Kong style action movie, with lots of guys in leather leaping through the air, shooting guns two-handed and sideways with their trench coats flapping in the breeze. And there was some of that in the first issue. I was pleased to see that Shang-Chi's character was the same man longtime readers knew and loved, but the opening, in which MI-6 agent Clive Reston searched him out in the rural area where he's gone to meditate on life or whatever, felt familiar, and the revelation about Shang Chi's old love, Leiko Wu, seemed forced, something thrown in for shock value. Then there was the villain, St. Germaine, a legendary immortal Count who has supposedly been pulling the strings of world powers for centuries. Germaine has been used a lot in comics lately, and his presence here struck me as an inferior substitute for Fu Manchu. But, despite my misgivings, there was something - call it a hunch - that told me to have faith and pick up the next issue. Which I did.
And I'm pleased to say that any reservations I had are now gone. I still have the same complaint I've voiced about almost every modern-day comic not written by Alan Moore: the amount of story in one entire issue would have filled maybe a third of a book back in the day. This is especially frustrating when there are so many unanswered questions I have, like what the hell has been happening to these characters over the past few years. But in #2 we do get to see Leiko being more than a damsel in distress as she fights back against her captors. And we get to see Shang Chi take on St. Germaine's number one assassin, Moving Shadow, who wants to prove himself by defeating Chi in combat. (I always loved the way Moench had Shang Chi take on guys who saw martial arts as a goal in itself, rather than a means to self-awareness, and were defeated as a result.)
My impression now is that Moench knew what readers' expectations would be, and played on them; ultimately giving us what we wanted, but in a surprising way that shows he's not just going to rehash his old tricks. I'm on board for the full ride, and whether you're familiar with the old series or not, you should be too, if you've ever enjoyed a good martial arts film, mystery story, or tale of espionage.
Incidentally, the MAX label isn't a big deal on this book. Like all good creators, Moench knows the difference between being allowed to use R-rated material and forcing it into your story. So far there's nothing in here you won't find in an episode of NYPD BLUE.
Bottom line, this is a kick-ass book by the dream creative team that made the character great. You don't need to know the backstory to enjoy it. Is it as good as the old stuff? Not yet. But it's pretty damn good. Four Rabid Fanboys good. I don't even miss Chi's red pajamas with the yin-yang symbol. Paul Gulacy has said in interviews that, if sales warrant it, he and Moench would love to do more with the character, so go out and buy a bunch of these now and who knows: one of the best comic book series of all time could return to its former glory, like the evil Fu Manchu returning to plague mankind yet again!
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