Fists Of Fury: In Praise Of Moench And Gulacy’s Master Of Kung Fu

Sept 2, 2021
The Mordillo saga - possibly the most 007 of all the stories
The Mordillo saga - possibly the most 007 of all the stories
In the early seventies everyone was Kung Fu fighting. It’s true. Someone even wrote a song about it. Bruce Lee had quite literally kick-started an international obsession with exotic (and at the time, little known) martial arts techniques when he starred in Enter The Dragon, a film that took the basic formula of James Bond and added lots of high octane kung fu. Before then fight scenes had been, well… a bit ordinary. Cowboys thumped one another in bar room brawls without hurting their fists and TV heroines such as Emma Peel practised some bizarre from of ‘judo’ which generally involved gripping your opponent’s hair and pulling it before one of the combatants would fall over and be stunned by a pathetic looking ‘judo chop’ to the neck.

So when Bruce Lee arrived with his furious fighting style, a new craze was born. It didn’t take Stan Lee long to catch on that this was a new trend that could shift comic books, particularly during a period of frantic diversification away from Marvel’s traditional superhero titles. Marvel had been experimenting with buying licences for established characters, and was beginning to see some success with at least one such property (Robert E Howard’s Conan The Barbarian). Amongst the licences they considered buying was the (then) hit TV series, Kung Fu, starring David Carradine. Set during the period of the Wild West, but ironically featuring very little kung fu of any kind, the TV show was considered by both Marvel and DC as a programme ripe for conversion to the comics medium. For a while it seemed Marvel might publish a straightforward tie-in to the TV series, but as it happened Marvel had purchased a licence to the Sax Rohmer Fu Manchu novels, probably due to the series of recent Hammer films, and in a moment of genius it was decided to incorporate the Sax Rohmer creations into the new martial arts wing of their shared universe. Their new kung fu character would be the son of the insidious mastermind, Fu Manchu.

The Fu Manchu novels were a curious mix of lurid American pulp literature sensibilities with the style of Victorian detective fiction. Now considered borderline racist at best with their portrayal of ‘the Yellow Peril’, the novels pitted the Scotland Yard detective, Denis Nayland Smith (a clean limbed, blue eyed Son of the Empire – more than a match for any number of deceitful, murderous foreigners) and Dr John Petrie (yes, an investigative detective and a doctor - original, don’t you think?) against the Devil Doctor; a man prone to saying things like, “kill the white men and take their women!”

Often set in the fog shrouded docks of Limehouse in the East End of London, the books have their period charm and are directly responsible for many subsequent ‘Oriental/Asian’ villains such as Dr No, the Yellow Claw and R’as Al Ghul.

Shang-Chi was introduced in the pages of Special Marvel Edition #15, a comic that up until then had simply reprinted back catalogue material. It was written and drawn by two rising stars in Marvel: Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin. In the first issue, Shang-Chi believed that Fu Manchu was a force for good in the world and, under this delusion is sent out to kill Dr Petrie which he apparently does. Only after the murder is committed, and Chi is confronted by a furious Nayland Smith, does the truth become clear. Appalled at the way his father has lied to him all his life, Chi swears to turn against the evil mastermind. The character proved popular enough for a change of title in issue #17 to The Hands Of Shang-Chi: Master Of Kung Fu.

The first handful of issues had set the scene, but it was clear that the formula needed something extra. There was a risk that the comic could get bogged down in a pattern where Shang-Chi would travel across America, opposing his father’s schemes wherever he found them, before walking off into the sunset each time; which is actually what happened in the comic to begin with. That something extra arrived in the form of the new creative team of Doug Moench and Paul Gulacy. Together they tapped into another successful genre – that of the cinematic super spies. Or specifically, early seventies Bond flicks.

This was the era of Roger Moore Bond in the films Live And Let Die and The Man With The Golden Gun. Literary Bond may well have been a burnt-out, humourless thug in a dinner jacket with a thousand yard stare, prone to staving off the nightmares of one too many missions with a steady cocktail of vodka, pain killers and Benzedrine, but cinematic Bond wore a natty line in Safari suits and brandished quips with the embellishment of a raised eyebrow each time. There were gadgets and exotic locations and cartoon villains and secret bases in dormant volcanoes and nylon flares and everything was colourful and larger than life. Cinematic Bond liked his adventure shaken but not stirred. Moench and Gulacy decided Master Of Kung Fu was going to tap into that vibe.

A typical Gulacy splash page with supporting characters in Steranko style
A typical Gulacy splash page with supporting characters in Steranko style
They began collaborating from issue #22 and swiftly changed the tone of the series. Shang-Chi’s loner days were over as Nayland Smith, now effectively the head of MI6, offered Chi the opportunity to work alongside the British Secret Service in fighting the evil plans of Fu Manchu.

A new supporting cast was established. Chief amongst them were Black Jack Tarr, a Special Forces thug of a man; Clive Reston, a flawed and insecure Oxbridge secret agent whom Moench hinted was the son of James Bond and the Grandson of Sherlock Holmes; and the slinky Modesty Blaise-influenced, Leiko Wu, Reston’s semi-girlfriend who soon took a less than subtle interest in Shang-Chi.

Paul Gulacy’s artistic style had two obvious influences. The first was the work of Jim Steranko during the tail end of his period on the Nick Fury: Agent Of Shield title, and the second was Hollywood. Gulacy drew in a chiaroscuro style that relied heavily for mood on distinct tones of black and white. But unlike many of his contemporaries, he enjoyed turning to film stars for facial likenesses for his characters. The likenesses of Marlene Dietrich, Groucho Marx, W C Fields, Marlon Brando, David Niven and Basil Rathbone would all appear as supporting characters as the series progressed. Furthermore, Gulacy was a man who knew how to draw kung fu fight scenes. He also excelled at capturing a pulp noir mood with his art.

A Gulacy kung fu sequence
A Gulacy kung fu sequence
The combination of kung fu and super spies worked well. It already had a Hollywood precedent. Enter The Dragon had been a kung fu film built on a James Bond formula, and The Man With The Golden Gun had reciprocated by incorporating some kung fu scenes into its superspy plot. Other films too, such as the Sam Peckinpah directed The Killer Elite, with its army of disposable ninjas, tapped into the winning formula. Doug Moench had struck gold with his supporting cast of characters, as he understood that the quiet and contemplative Shang-Chi was at best a ‘straight man’ and therefore he needed more extravagant personalities to counterpoint the zen-like moments when he simply doesn’t say or do much apart from disappearing into the shadows à la Batman. Shang Chi soon had one of the best supporting casts seen in a Marvel series up that point.

In many ways the supporting cast took over to the extent that this period of Master Of Kung Fu reads like a team book, rather than the exploits of a solo star. Yes, Shang-Chi was the lead hero, but at times he shared so much panel time with his co-stars that you might almost forget he was there. The final six issues of the run takes this to the extreme of having each chapter narrated in first person by one of six principal characters, giving the reader differing viewpoints as the tale unfolds. 

Shang-Chi would often say something deep and meaningful about the futility of conflict while his colleagues would get their hands dirty and kill people, after which he would contemplate the senseless waste of life and look sombre and moody. It always worked well and provided a great contrast. 

At the time I was reading Master Of Kung Fu, the comic benefitted from having its own corner of the Marvel universe that wasn’t crowded out by the New York superheroes – namely London and the Home Counties. Marvel had previously done little to sketch out Great Britain beyond the occasional photo assignment Peter Parker might have had in London, and so Moench and Gulacy were able to play up every British cliché they had possibly seen in TV programmes like The Prisoner, The Avengers and Callan, and more often than not avoid the awful ‘Cor blimey guv, stone the crows’ dialogue that Stan Lee and Roy Thomas had been responsible for.  

Sadly, I believe very little of this has been retained for the MCU film. One of the problems is that Marvel lost the Sax Rohmer licence many years ago, and so anything that was tied in to the Fu Manchu books had to be retconned. In addition, I believe they’ve thrown out all the retro super spy elements to offer up instead a film that, from the trailers at least, looks like it owes more to the cinema of Jackie Chan. Whether Shang-Chi can still work, stripped of all the things that made it a critical success, remains to be seen.  

The glory days to check out are the Moench and Gulacy run that ends, with a bang, with issue #50, being the last of a six-part super spy/kung fu spectacular that packs in every 1970s Bond cliché you could imagine, but delivers them with panache, sexy femme fatales and high-kicking exploitative martial arts action. Kung fu comics would never be the same again after that.

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