Kung Fu Comics: The Hands of Shang Chi

I've previously written on my obsession with Iron Fist, and I plan to continue my foray into analysis of later comics in that franchise, taking a look at how they changed with the introduction of Marvel's answer to the Blaxploitation genre, Luke Cage. Before that I want to explore the strange milieu of Marvel's earlier martial arts hero, Shang-Chi, the "Master of Kung Fu." He made his first appearance in Special Marvel Edition #15 in December 1973, six months before Iron Fist appeared and is one of the first heroes of the martial arts comics boom. Created by the interestingly weird team of writer Steve Englehart and artist Jim Starlin to cash in on Marvel's recent acquisition of Sax Rohmer's Dr. Fu Manchu and their rights to the Kung Fu television show, he paved the way for future martial arts heroes.

Shang-Chi is a Wushu master, skilled in both hand to hand combat and and weaponry. He uses both, unlike Iron Fist who tends to just use his hands and feet. Shang-Chi can make a weapon of most available materials, and, at least in the beginning, has no qualms about killing. He has no powers like Iron Fist, and thus relies entirely on his training and skill.

Shang-Chi's origin is similarly tragic, but relies more on pulp conventions. He is the son of Fu Manchu who has been forced to work for his father who he believes is virtuous. Of course, he finds out on one of his first missions that his father is evil and dedicates his life to defeating him, becoming close allies with his father's greatest enemy, Sir Dennis Nayland Smith. Most of his adventures revolve around defeating him and he actually retires at one point once he believes Fu Manchu is dead.

Once Special Marvel Edition was changed to The Hands of Shang-Chi: Master of Kung Fu, the title really finds its footing, focusing on Shang-Chi's internal life as well as all the necessary action. It catalogs his adventures, while never failing to keep track of the various martial arts moves he uses. As in Iron Fist, Shang-Chi is at odds with the modern world often falling into traps or being pursued. The first person narrative makes the title feel more immediate. The creative team of Doug Moench and Paul Gulacy, who began collaborating in issue #22, tightened the narrative arc and increasingly propelled Shang-Chi into the 1970's away from the mythic Fu Manchu 30's from which he sprang.

The connections to Fu Manchu still remained, but the hero was able to find some autonomy as his world was developed and became part of the greater Marvel universe. Gulacy's artwork is realistic, yet prone to surreal moments. Starlin's early work on the title was bizarre, but he still had to navigate the strange blend of Rohmer and the idiosyncrasies of the Marvel product. Gulacy set the template for Shang-Chi and many martial arts comics to follow.

The title is lovely to look at and fun to read, but I have to delve deeper into it in order to fully navigate its impact on comics in general. It sold well, but does not have the impact that Iron Fist had on future comics. Perhaps that is because the latter resembles a superhero more than the former with his bright costume, mask, and chest tattoo. His origin also fits easier into the basic superhero mold, while Shang-Chi is more of a pulp adventurer of old. Like Batman, he has trained to become what he is -- a man on a quest. He is not so easily assimilated into other genres. He might be more fully a product of the times, or the title might have too many historical trappings. The mixture of these spheres is what makes the title so compelling.


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