Several months back, it was announced that Shang-Chi, Marvel’s one and only Master of Kung Fu, would be among the characters/properties to be adapted to film for the MCU’s “Phase Four.” Destin Daniel Cretton has been signed to direct and Dave Callaham to script. I was fairly excited by this news until I reached the end of the article and read that, “Shang-Chi is a master martial artist who eventually was a member of The Avengers and gained the power to create countless duplicates of himself.”
…Member of the Avengers?? Make countless duplicates of himself???
Sweet Lord in Heaven, WHY???????
I was about to hop into the Google-mobile to verify this nonsense, but then I came to my senses. You know what? I don’t wanna look under that rock; I don’t even wanna know. Not putting myself through that; nope, no thanks.
Now there’s a lot I could write about Shang-Chi, but lately it’s been one epic post after another, and I really need to slow down. So I’m just going to keep it simple today, relate a few anecdotes about my own personal history with MOKF and keep it light.
The first issue I ever purchased was Master of Kung Fu #58 (Nov. 1977). I got it down the shore in the summer of ’77, when my diehard fandom was in its first full year of bloom. It was written by Doug Moench, of course (Moench wrote nearly every issue from #21 on), and penciled by Jim Craig. Now great art is a hallmark of MOKF, with lengthy runs from some all-time artists like Paul Gulacy, Mike Zeck, and Gene Day. Craig is probably a notch below those guys, but he does well in this one.
The action was slightly more realistic here then I was accustomed to, certainly not as wild as what you’d find in your typical superhero book, but still fun. This one panel where Shang blocks an axe with crossed wrist bands would be embedded in my imagination forever.
My next encounter with Shang-Chi was sometime around 1980, when I discovered Special Marvel Edition #16 (Feb. 1974) in the back issue bins. I think this one ran me a buck or so, but I figured it was worth it because I found the cover so very intriguing.
I was unaware at the time, but this was only Shang’s second appearance in comics; his debut was the prior issue, #15 (Dec. 1973). The character must have been a pretty big hit right out of the box because it was only one issue later, issue #17 (Apr. 1974), that they changed the title of the magazine from Special Marvel Edition to Master of Kung Fu.
The fact that this particular story takes place so early in the character’s history made it a much easier read—he wasn’t deeply involved with spies or espionage or any of that stuff yet, he was just a karate guy that got into fights. That leaves the plot a rather straightforward and simple one: The evil Fu Manchu is pissed that his son, Shang-Chi, has defied him and walked out on him, so he orders his agent, Midnight (who grew up alongside Shang as practically a brother to him), to go to New York City, find Shang and kill him. The two have a fairly awesome fight at a construction site, as pictured on the cover—certainly no false advertising by the cover in this case!
The original creators, Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin, were still working on the strip at this stage and did a bang-up job. (At this point in history, Starlin, particularly, could do no wrong.) There’s a great behind-the-scenes story about how they dreamed up this tale that is probably best saved for its own future blogpost. (If you have a complete collection of back issues of Comic Book Artist, then you’ll know the story already, but it’s probably still worth re-telling.)
Anyways, outside of this, I would catch glimpses of Shang in Marvel Team-Up and (of all places) Rom, but I didn’t buy any more copies of his own book and I’m not completely sure why. There was a lot of great action in the two issues I’d read, which was what I loved most about comics, so I should have gotten more into this book—so why the hell didn’t I? I guess it boils down to the fact that Shang was not a traditional superhero, and traditional superheroes were all I cared about back then. (Plus I never could really figure out what the hell the MI-6 was supposed to be, and the Zen philosophizing likely went right over my head.)
Then his book got cancelled a couple years later and I was left with this strange sense of remorse—regretful I hadn’t checked out more of the title when I had the chance. Like if I had supported the book (along with a few thousand other kids, obviously) maybe it wouldn’t have gotten the axe. I learned later that I shouldn’t have beaten myself up over this, as after writer Doug Moench left in the wake of a dispute with Jim Shooter, the book was essentially doomed, as no one else could really write it.
The last issue was #125, cover date June 1983, so it was probably released in March of ’83. Within months, I started scrounging for back issues. At the Union Flea Market, there was a stand where a very old man sold a variety of old junk, including some comics. It was there that I came across Master of Kung Fu #110-111 (Mar.-Apr. 1982). I don’t think I bought them both at once; I think I got #110 first.
Then I came back the following week (sufficiently impressed with issue #110) and bought #111. The old man had this bad tremor in his hands and you had to be patient while he looked up the value of the comic(s) in his Price Guide so he could figure out what to charge. I think these were 75¢ a pop.
I figure it was around June when I got these, right around the very end of the school year. It was a very compelling two-part storyline, wherein Shang matches up with a former KGB assassin whose name is translated from Russian as “Ghost Maker.” Written by Doug Moench with succulent art by the aforementioned Gene Day.
That top panel where Shang is swinging back atop the moving train, split-legged, that figure of him evokes a very specific memory of a very specific song for me: Men at Work’s “Overkill.”
This song was either playing on the radio in the car on my way to/from the flea market; or it’s quite possible I bought the 45 (Google it, kids) at the flea market at the same time I bought one of the comics. Checking the Billboard chart, I see the song peaked at #3 on June 4, 1983, so once again, the timeline aligns with my memory perfectly. The song also has the line, “ghosts appear and fade away”—this may also play a part in why it sticks to my memory of these comics, which featured the Ghost Maker as the antagonist.
A little fun fact regarding issue #110: Early in the issue, Shang is having a sparring session with his girlfriend/fellow martial artist, Leiko Wu, and he’s half-assing his way through it. This pisses Leiko off and she rips into him, thusly:
Wait a sec, did that really say what I think it said? Let’s have another look:
Oh dear… OH, DEAR!!
…Everyone remain calm! REMAIN CALM!!
This pretty well captures my emotional state when I first saw this text as a still-relatively-wee lad.
The controversial word was supposed to be “flick.” As in “flick my bic” (Google it, kids). But cheap printing and block lettering caused the “L” and “I” to bleed together, making F-L-I-C-K into… well, you know. It must have taken me a solid ten to fifteen minutes to figure this out at the time.
Unintentional comedy aside, the story and the great art by Gene Day had me hooked.
Over the next several years, I would begin to pick up back issues here and there, wherever I could find a decent deal. Then in college, in the early 1990s, I discovered the Montclair Book Stop, which had expanded into the old space once occupied by The Complete Strategist. They had a ton of old comics for sale, many in less than ideal condition, but what the hell did I care? I was a reader more than a collector anyway. I filled gaps and completed runs of a whole bunch of Bronze Age Marvels courtesy of them, including MOKF and (off the top of my head) Marvel Two-in-One, Conan, Ms. Marvel, Tomb of Dracula, Adventures into Fear/Man-Thing, Power Man, and more.
Though the deeper charms of Master of Kung Fu may have eluded me as a kid, I absolutely loved it as an adult, and it now stands as one of my all-time faves. (Granted, my personal list of all-time favorites is a lengthy one.) At its peak, it was one of the great jewels of Marvel’s Bronze Age—and ol’ Shang couldn’t even make countless duplicates of himself back then. He was just the greatest master of martial arts in the Marvel Universe and that was enough.
3 thoughts on “Kung Foolin’”
I agree Shang-chi is more than fine as the Master of Martial Arts. No “augmented” powers are needed or warranted.
You’re my kinda people, KD.
I didn’t start collecting MoKF until about issue 53 or so, during Craig Russell’s run. Before it was mostly my personal tastes and economics — I was simply more into standard superheroics and my allowance was too small for me to even get everything I did want. But in1977 I was getting a little more money and my tastes were expanding. Also,I quickly grew to love Moench’s writing in the mag, and by this point I was really paying more attention to the writers on mags I liked. I kept on collecting to the bitter end, including those few issues that kept the mag going after Moench’s departure and Gene Day’s death. I also eventually got the entire run of back issues that I had missed. In the ’70s, I wouldn’t have referred to it as one of my favorite comics, but in retrospect I came to regard it as one of the best comics of the ’70s, with usually consistently good, even great art and stories. The last 10 issues of Gulacy’s run certainly hold up as among the best in comics history IMO.
I did see the movie, on tv, watched at a friend’s home, rather than on the big screen. Yeah, it was entertaining enough, but it wasn’t Shang Chi as conjured up by Englehart & Starlin, and chronicled so well by Moench and his collaborators. I wasn’t particularly surprised, but I also felt it was a missed opportunity to do something a bit different, to truly explore the ‘advancing and rising of a spirit.”