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Master of Kung Fu

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Master of Kung Fu #17 © 1974 Marvel Comics. COVER ART BY JIM STARLIN AND ERNIE CHUA.


If the 1960s was the decade of superheroes in the comics world, the 1970s was definitely the decade of fads. Among the horror, sword-and-sorcery, and science fiction genres that captivated fandom, the rise of the kung fu comic was one of the fastest and most unexpected. The popularity of Bruce Lee's movies and David Carradine's Kung Fu television show inspired all the major comics publishers—DC, Atlas, Charlton, and Marvel—to jump onto the martial arts craze. Marvel married the concept of the Far East martial arts hero with the traditional American superhero, and a genre was born.


The first of Marvel's superpowered martial artists, who initially saw the light of day in Special Marvel Edition #15 in December 1973, was Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu, whose name means the rising and advancing of a spirit. It seems that Marvel had held the rights to comics' version of Sax Rohmer's legendary fictional Chinese criminal genius Fu Manchu for some years and, while looking for a premise for its first kung fu strip, decided to join the two properties together. Consequently, the comic opens with Shang-Chi, Fu Manchu's living weapon son, on a mission to assassinate his father's great enemy, Dr. Petrie.


Having seemingly done the deed, Shang-Chi was confronted by Dr. Petrie's longtime colleague Sir Denis Nayland Smith and told the terrible truth about the father whom he had believed was only interested in world peace. Teaming up with Sir Dennis and his fellow Fu-hater, Black Jack Tarr, Shang-Chi dedicated his not inconsiderable skills to defeating his father's dastardly plans. In the strip's early days, creators Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin (soon to be replaced by Doug Moench and novice artist Paul Gulacy) concentrated on page after page of martial arts action as the team countered Fu Manchu's endless quest for power. The comic neatly tapped into the public's insatiable hunger for all things kung fu, and Marvel had a hit on its hands.


Throughout 1974, Marvel unleashed a torrent of kung fu–related titles: Special Marvel Edition was renamed Master of Kung Fu with issue #17; a black-and-white magazine called Deadly Hands of Kung Fu was launched; a new hero, Iron Fist, followed in Marvel Premiere; and, in September, a quarterly Giant Sized Master of Kung Fu comic was added. In Britain, Shang-Chi stories were reprinted in Avengers Weekly, and soon the demand for new strips to be reprinted meant that the U.S. office was effectively drawing episodes for the United Kingdom, to be printed later in the United States. At the heart of what was a genuine publishing phenomenon, the Master of Kung Fu comic itself gradually improved as the talents of Moench and Gulacy matured.


Moench started adding new characters to Shang-Chi's band of Fu Manchu-fighters: Clive Reston (part Sherlock Holmes, part James Bond), the Marlon Brando look-alike Larner, and Leiko-Wu, Asian trouble-shooter and love interest. With issue #29, Shang-Chi and company began working directly for British intelligence and started to encounter other foes in a succession of Bond-inspired extravaganzas. The likes of Velcro and Mordillo lived up to their Bond-villain inspiration with their secret islands, private armies, femmes fatales, and plans for world domination. The new direction built to a climax with the whole cast battling Fu Manchu and his evil daughter Fah Lo Suee on a vast space station, with the fate of the entire planet Earth at stake. In the end, Fu Manchu escaped, Larner died, and Gulacy moved on to other, more lucrative areas, having established his reputation as one of his generation's brightest stars.


As the 1970s progressed, the kung fu craze inevitably waned, and one by one the various martial arts books folded. Shang-Chi was the last hero standing, having built up enough of a following in his own right. The comic lasted until 1983, buoyed by lengthy runs from artists Mike Zeck and Gene Day (who died soon after leaving the feature), and the redoubtable Moench, who stayed almost to the bitter end. In its last few years, old favorites such as villains Shockwave, Razorfist (who had blades instead of hands), the Cat, and Pavane reappeared with regularity, as did Fu Manchu (inevitably), but critics agree the comic's main selling point was the sensitivity of Moench's characterizations.


Following a lengthy hiatus, Shang-Chi was revived in a few issues of Marvel Comics Presents (collected in the 1991 title Bleeding Black) and a Moon Knight special. Fans then had to wait another decade before being reunited with Shang-Chi, this time in a 2002 miniseries by Moench and Gulacy. Despite these rebirths, ultimately the Master of Kung Fu was a quintessentially 1970s concept. —DAR

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