Monday, November 7, 2016

Comics – The Master of Kung Fu Omnibus, Vol. I

This first volume reprints one of the most beloved properties of the ‘70s and ‘80s, stories of Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu. Created by writer Steve Englehart and artist Jim Starlin, Shang-Chi was the son of Chinese supervillain Fu Manchu and an unnamed American mother. With a publishing history stemming from the early 1900s, Fu Manchu was a well-known literary character licensed from the estate of author Sax Romer. A character original to Marvel, Shang-Chi (whose name means “rising and advancing of a spirit”) is trained from birth to be a human weapon and assassin for his father. Dispatched for his first kill, he is told his target is an evil operative who is a danger to the world. After killing the man, Shang-Chi is assaulted by doubt and eventually learns the truth about his father. Desperate to assuage his guilt for the murder, Shang-Chi joins British spymaster Sir Dennis Nayland Smith and his group of operatives to fight Fu Manchu and regularly save the world. Rounding out the cast is man-mountain Black Jack Tarr, man of style and action Clive Reston (son of James Bond and great-nephew of Sherlock Holmes), and Shang’s lover Leiko Wu.

These reprints start with Special Marvel Edition #15, then the title changes to Master of Kung Fu in issue #17, which keeps the Special Marvel Edition numbering. By issue #21, Englehart is off the book and writer Doug Moench takes over and becomes the creative force most closely identified with Shang-Chi and his adventures.

Moench takes Shang through some very James Bond-inspired adventures, and the group regularly battles Fu Manchu, usually resulting in a draw. Fu sends assassins like clockwork to kill Shang—they come in the form of waiters, lovers, spies and people on the street. Everyone knows kung fu and everyone is out to kill Shang-Chi for the price on his head placed there by his father. It is clear these tales were never meant to be read all at once, put together they can be somewhat repetitive. Even some of the included letters pages bear this out. But the characters and characterization are top-notch. Shang-Chi makes a conscious decision at one point that, while he abhors violence, he must work with Smith to fight villains and evildoers who mean humanity harm. It’s a tough decision for Shang, at heart a pacifist who just wants to be left alone to find himself.

The largest criticism of Master of Kung Fu is the kung fu itself. I’m not sure anyone on the creative team had ever cracked a magazine or saw a movie about martial arts. Forms are wrong, stances non-existent, punches, kicks and strikes are not related in any way to actual kung fu. Some artists are better than others (Paul Gulacy definitely improved as he went along), but this is a massive missed opportunity for the book. Shang-Chi could have brought real kung fu to the masses. Instead, the book turns out to be another superhero punch-fest with little or no authentic martial arts. But this criticism pales in comparison to the general quality of the stories and the characterization of Shang-Chi as constantly divided, always wanting to retire from his “games of death and deceit.” That conflict drives the series and Moench plays it perfectly.

Obviously inspired by the contemporary television show Kung Fu, starring David Carridine, Master of Kung Fu does manage to be its own separate entity. Shang-Chi is not Kwai Chang Caine, he has his own hang-ups and goals. The stories are fun and action packed, and do contain quite a bit of Eastern philosophy and aesthetic. Moench is a thoughtful writer who can write big concepts, meditation scenes and globetrotting exploits. Overall, MOKF gives readers killer plots, explosive action and a lot of bang for their buck. I very much look forward to the next volume in the series.  

The Master of Kung Fu Omnibus collects Special Marvel Edition 15-16, Master of Kung Fu 17-37 & Giant-Size 1-4, Giant-Size Spider-Man 2 and Iron Man Annual 4.  

Rating: ****½ stars out of 5

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