The Rising and Advancing of the Spirit
I don't generally enjoy Kung Fu movies. Allow me to generalise for a moment, with the understanding that I know that there are films in the genre of terrific wit, profundity and beauty. Those films are rare, and distinctive because of their scarcity. But the remainder of the genre - and there is a lot of it - is mainly dross. Obviously I'm a boy with as much of a liking for physical action as the next boy, and so I like a well-shot, well-choreographed martial arts fight scene in a movie. But I don't necessarily want that fight scene to be the soul of the movie, then get repeated with the slightest of variations for an hour and a half, linked by some desultory plotting and lazily-scripted "character" scenes. I don't see why such films are to be celebrated.
One of the first films my family rented on VHS was "Enter the Dragon". I was maybe 6 or 7, and we were too poor to own a video recorder. But one of my Dad's workmates went abroad on holiday, leaving his VCR with us so it wouldn't be burgled. It was summer. We had four days of visits to the local Video Library with two films borrowed on every visit. "Who Dares Wins", "The Spy Who Loved Me" and "Way of the Dragon" were all later choices. But "Enter the Dragon" made the greatest impression on me, possibly because it was unlike anything I had ever seen before. Bruce Lee seemed liked a being from another universe, more cat than man, but even then, inescapably cool. The fight scenes blew my mind. To a little boy, that one man versus an army mode of action cinema is perfect - simple, exciting, fantastic. Especially when the one man is Bruce Lee, and hes got some nunchacks.
Nowadays you can wander into a High Street DVD store and find a selection of Martial Arts films. Bruce Lee, obviously, but also Jet Li, Jackie Chan, a dozen lesser martial artists, hundreds of titles. It wasn't like this when I was growing up. Video stores stocked "Enter the Dragon" if you were lucky. If not you were left with Chuck Norris. Then the Stallone-Schwarzenegger acolytes emerged on VHS in the late 80s - Van Damme, Seagal, Lundgren, Dudikoff. They all did Martial arts. Their films were studded with scenes of them kicking bad guys who modeled mullets. But the real thing? Shaw Brothers films? "A Touch of Zen"? No. Not in Dublin at that time. So I grew up without that connection with the genre, cinematically speaking at least.
My Kung Fu movies weren't movies at all. They were comics. "Master of Kung Fu" was a title published by Marvel Comics from 1973 until 1983. Originally titled "Special Marvel Edition" it was renamed with issue No. 17 in honour of a character who had made his debut only two issues earlier: Shang Chi, Master of Kung Fu. Of course, I was only eight years old when the final issue was published, so I came to it retrospectively. In June 1987, "Action Force", a Marvel UK weekly made up of a mix of new British and reprinted American (G.I Joe) material, began featuring Master of Kung Fu strips as a back-up story, starting with "The Crystal Connection" from Master of Kung Fu No. 29. I didn't know it at the time, but "The Crystal Connection" is perhaps the most classic MOKF (as it shall henceforth be known in this post) story of all. It introduced the creative team that was to redefine the title - writer Doug Moench and artist Paul Gulacy.
I've praised Moench on this blog before for his fine work on "Moon Knight", but MOKF is the best thing he ever did, a unique and brilliant mainstream comic unlike anything produced before or since. Gulacy broke through with his work on the title, and he went on to work in commercial art, before returning to comics, his reputation even higher than when he left the field. He never really equalled that early work, for me. Back then his Steranko-influenced work jumped off the page, bristling with invention and story-telling brio. Sometimes his grasp of perspective might slip, but his layouts were experimental, his pacing was fantastically cinematic, the detail beautiful, his blacks incredibly heavy, and the whole thing had an energy only present when an artist is excited by what he is doing. Nowadays, while still capable, his work seems a little mannered and repetitive.
Shang Chi had been created by Steve Engelhart and Jim Starlin as a means to capitalize on the success of the "Kung Fu" tv show. Marvel yolked together their idea with a literary property they had just purchased - the creations of one Sax Rohmer, including most specifically Fu Manchu. Shang Chi became his son, allowing for plotlines incorporating modern espionage, victorian characters and kung fu. A strange mix, and one that nobody could make work until Moench got into his stride on his second year on the title. Moench perfected the portrayal of Shang Chi himself, and it was this that made the often silly plots work. Shang Chi was an innocent in the Western world, struggling to deal with morality, political necessity, his sexuality and his search for meaning. His work for Sir Nayland Smith's MI6 led him into a string of violent situations wherein he would bust some awesome Kung Fu moves while monologuing internally about the spirituality of his "art" or about his feelings for violence or Leiko, a foxy Chinese spy also in Smith's employ.
It also allowed Moench to avoid third person captions by having Shang Chi explain what was going on in a characteristically wordy and pseudo-poetic manner. No fight scene was complete without Shang Chi's description of the action, generally something like: "He stretches -- too far, and in doing so leaves himself open. I strike. But he is strong, perhaps stronger than I." This would be over two panels of Shang Chi and a villain kicking and parrying. Here is his narration - spread through a single four-panel page - of his and Leiko's arrival in a Warehouse having pursued a monstrous gorilla (don't ask) from the sewers beneath New York, from issue 92, September 1980:
"It is a vast place of rushing drafts, all masked in gloom, the gutted skeleton of a building long abandoned to death and decay. Pillars and beams and struts section the immense space, but only serve to make it seem larger, suspended as they are in an upward abyss. A rickety stairway is central to the structured chaos of design. Only the chain and pulley are new...I prepare myself-- as the premonition grows stronger again stirring my flesh. It happens near the top. a dark shape rips itself from the deeper darkness -- but halts , as if merely guarding the entrance."
No other comic was ever written quite like that, but every issue of MOKF was, and it is an addictive style. Especially when combined with pages of hardcore martial arts action - which every issue has - and copious romantic soap plotlines, not to mention a great range of villains, Fu Manchu and international espionage.
After that first brush with MOKF in Action Force, it wasn't long before I scored a deeper, more satisfying hit. I came across a bunch of issues - 13 in all, all between 100 and 118 - at a Jumble Sale (in Ireland we call them a "Sale of Work") in a local school. Probably paid less than a pound for the lot. Somebody's Mum threw them out, I could feel it, and feel nothing but gratitude to that mystery woman. They were fantastic issues. With art mainly by Gene Day, they have a darker, more elegiac feel than the earlier years of the series, and the quasi-adult sensibility thrilled me. Since then I've bought back issues wherever I've seen them and never really been disappointed. The series will possibly never be reprinted, since Marvel no longer owns any rights to Fu Manchu, and paying the Rohmer estate reprint royalties would be financially imprudent. If it was available in a black and White "Essential" volume, perhaps it would enjoy a better reputation than it otherwise does, because it had such a lot going for it.
Consider the artists - Gulacy was ultimately followed by Mike Zeck, then a young turk bursting with ambition and possessing a clean and energetic style, which would make him one of Marvel's hottest artists in that decade (he was penciller on "Secret Wars"). Less atmospheric or cinematic than Gulacy, his action scenes were always thrilling and seemed intimately choreographed in a manner reminiscent of Frank Miller. Gene Day, who succeeded Zeck, was entirely different again, his work a baroque, hyper-detailed set of near-perfect but often experimental layouts. His unconventional style was just as tonally unique as Gulacy's and perfectly matched to Moench's world and Shang's character, his range of character expression growing with every issue. But those layouts were his strongest point - that and some oddly beautiful, strangely arty panel composition. It was not uncommon for Day to position two characters engaged in conversation minutely in the background of a panel while filling the foreground with the incredible detail of an ornate mausoleum. But he could also pull off the action scenes - he split the page into small panels so that the action really flows, almost like a flick book. His stuff was almost as heavily black as Gulacy's, but his line was thicker and more solid, making some of it look almost like it was from a woodprint. He died a few months after the series ended from heart problems, his body of work far from finished and not especially enormous, which is why he is not regarded as a legend.
Consider also the characters. Shang Chi is the greatest martial artist in the Marvel Universe. Better than Iron Fist, Elektra, Batroc, Daredevil or any of the hand. When Scott Lobdell used him in an issue of X-Men years later, he held his own against Wolverine. He does all this almost effortlessly, with style and grace. And he dresses in red pyjamas with a headband. He is almost passive in terms of personality; a natural observer, always analyzing, always pondering meanings. He is obsessed with his own complicity in what he calls the "Games of death and deceit" between Nayland Smith and Fu Manchu. This gives him an oddly vulnerable air. Yet he is also something of a rake, unabashed about enjoying an affair with the woman of an arch-enemy when Leiko is off undercover (with that enemy). He seems to toy with Leiko's affections too, and this after stealing her from Clive Reston, superspy, Shang's friend and Sean Connery lookalike. Gulacy made a habit of designing characters to look like movie icons, and so his issues also feature characters "cast" as Marlon Brando, Marlene Dietrich, David Carradine, Bruce Lee and David Niven. Moench had some fun with this - Reston often refers obliquely to his father, the even more famous British superspy (obviously James Bond) and his Grandfather, the famous Detective (Sherlock Holmes). Reston is a great character - insecure and alcoholic yet cocky and deadly, his worldliness a good contrast to Shang's naivete. They are joined by Black Jack Tarr, an old school Brit who always refers to Shang as "Chinaman" and yet becomes his closest friend.
Fu Manchu - the prototypical Criminal mastermind, the ultimate Bond villain, and a vilely racist creation all at once - aside, MOKF also featured some cool but cheesy villains. Like Carlton Velcro, another Bond Villain, combining the jobs of druglord and would-be World Conquerer, and the villain of "The Crystal Connection". Like Razorfist, whose hands have been replaced with long blades by Velcro. Like the Ghost Maker, a sort of super-ninja. Like Mordillo, robot-creating mad scientist-assassin. Like Brynocki, Mordillo's deadliest and most vengeful creation, but also a midget. Like War-Yore, a rogue British assassin with a penchant for dressing like a soldier from a different historical era on each appearance. Like Shaka Kharn, Shang's own ancestor, resurrected by is father to replace him. Like Pavane, whip-wielding lady-assassin, clad in black leather and surrounded by panthers. Perhaps his best villain is Shen Kuei, "The Cat", Shang's mirror-image and near-equal in combat, a former communist Chinese spy and lover of Leiko. He and Shang fight several times over the series, with a true victor never really established, and their respectful rivalry is a complex and well drawn relationship rare in the Marvel universe.
But then there was much about MOKF that was rare in the Marvel Universe. Indeed, putting aside how outlandish some of those villains sound, the series did feel closer in spirit to the work of Ian Fleming - or Sax Rohmer - than to Spider-Man or the Avengers. Which is perhaps its greatest strength. Moench's work was not bound by the same constraints of genre suffered by writers on the more indisputably Superhero titles and so he could take risks, push his work and characters in different directions. MOKF went off on little tangents. Shang Chi would go on breaks to meditate, to find himself again, to escape his complicated relationship with Leiko, and he would encounter comedic figures and profound stories in his travels. Moench gave these stories as much weight as the stories where he fought his father's Si-Fan ninjas on a space Station, and they are generally the book's best issues. Which I mean as incredibly high praise. For MOKF had a stupendously consistent decade of high quality stories, and almost all of it is worth reading now. Moench and Gulacy reunited in 2002 on a mini-series, but the magic was gone, and Shang Chi remains a more generic Marvel hero, appearing here and there as a guest star, never suggesting just how good his own comic was twenty years ago...