My Misspent Youth — Master of Kung Fu by Doug Moench and Paul Gulacy

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

The eagerness Marvel Comics creators displayed in glomming onto cultural trends in the nineteen-seventies is equal parts amusing and enduring. Skateboards, disco, CB radios: It was all fair game. Jaws was a big movie? Great, let’s make sure there’s a spare shark tank around during epic fistfights. When it was the more aggressively kid-targeted — and continuity-free — Spidey Super Stories, they could make the trend surfing even more delightfully blatant.

Early in the decade, Marvel maestros wanted to cash in on burgeoning interest in martial arts heroes, as demonstrated by the success of Bruce Lee flicks and the television series Kung Fu. Plans to license and adapt the latter proved unworkable early on, so writer Steve Englehart and artist Jim Starlin brainstormed until they came up with a hero named Shang-Chi (Englehart said the name means “the rising and advancing of a spirit”) and whipped up a story that appeared in Special Marvel Edition #15. After only a few issues showcasing the fist-flying hero, and establishing a connection to pulp-magazine characters created by Sax Rohmer that Marvel was able to license, Shang-Chi proved popular enough that Special Marvel Edition was retitled Master of Kung Fu and became the ongoing home for his adventures.

Englehart and Starlin might have created Shang-Chi, but they didn’t stick with him long once he graduated to his own mighty Marvel mag. Soon after the Master of Kung Fu came into being, writer Doug Moench and artist Paul Gulacy became the regular creative team on the title.

Moench and Gulacy committed themselves fully to the physical intensity of character, clearly drawing more on the bad-ass fury of Enter the Dragon more than the grasshopper serenity of David Carradine’s broadcast vehicle. They did have some other ideas in mind, though. After finding their footing over the course of a couple issues, Moench started writing the martial artist like he was the star of a series of spy movies. The corollary wasn’t so much the stiff precision of MGM’s James Bond offerings. Master of Kung Fu was more akin to the messy, scrappy knockoffs, such as In Like Flint. The stories feature colorful, executive-level bad guys with grand schemes, sprawling headquarters, and strikingly impractical, yet convincingly deadly, henchmen.

Like the hat-hurling foes who bedeviled Bond, the creatively designed fiends in Master of Kung Fu could appear a little silly. Despite the goofiness of some of the trappings, Moench didn’t let the material lapse into spoofery. In particular, he structured fight scenes with dead-serious commitment. And Gulacy drew it all with such intensity that it wouldn’t have been all that surprising to see flecks of blood from his own fingertips spattered across the page.

Master of Kung Fu was a major departure for Marvel at a time when the publisher was freely trying out wild concepts that stood apart from the rest of the interconnected universe of stories, even as the occasional intermingling of characters inevitably happened. There was also a clear attempt to diversify the characters in the line, an admirable goal that was often imperfectly realized. Shang-Chi is rendered with respect and defined by his resolute integrity and heroism. He’s also colored with a the same palette used in the most regrettable depictions of Asians in old Looney Tunes cartoons, and barely an issue goes by without one of his allies casually using language that is now broadly recognized as derogatory. It’s possible to read old issues of Master of Kung Fu with admiration for all the series and its various creators accomplished while still wincing at the pieces that are now woefully outdated.

Considering the character of Shang-Chi was conceived in a blatant attempt ride the tail of a fad, he had amazing longevity. In its original run, Master of Kung Fu lasted almost ten years, ceasing publication with issue #125. His spirit rose and advanced. More than anyone, even his original creators, Moench and Gulacy were responsible for starting the soar.

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

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