Some comics are like old friends that you miss. No seriously. There are three books from Marvel's Bronze Age that need the reprint treatment but are so tied up in legal shennanigans that it is unlikely that we will ever see that done. Imagine a double release of a big colour Omnibus and a black and white Essential (at the same time, because I would buy both!)? It's not like I don't have the single issues though as these three titles were as good then as they are now.
These titles are in reverse order:
3. The Micronauts.
1. The Hands of Shang-Chi. Master of Kung Fu.
Anyone who knows me will have been bored stupid by my rattling on about Master of Kung Fu (MOKF). It was a title that spoke on so many levels and if you can find a reasonably priced run and have never read it you should throw yourself in now as those reprints still seem like a bridge too far. Ask me what my favourite title ever is and I will flat out tell you without hesitation that it's MOKF.
The book sprung out of a need to have a title that could take advantage of the boom in imported cinema kung fu movies and the tv series of the same name with David Carradine (the first series , not that strange new one that they show all the time on UK TV).
The book itself was a contradiction. The central character was full of existential angst. Although a master of his martial art he didn't want to use it. A man who was pulled into MI6 and was a super spy but just wanted focus and inner peace. Shang was as much a victim as he was a hero. He was a victim of being the son of Fu Manchu (a fact that is where much of the legal problems stem from regarding the reprint). He was a victim of manipulation by his friends and his family. He fought a stream of kung fu villaims. He was also a victim of his emotions, his face would often twist into Bruce Lee rage or he would be caught up as the naive fly in a femme fatale's web.
All books that have Shang as a central character are narrated by him. That is why I think the character is so beloved of many comics readers. He speaks to the reader directly in first person narration in caption boxes. You really get to the heart of his emotions and motivations. You also get to see his vulnerability. Many of his guest starring roles in books much later (Moon Knight immediately springs to mind) they still stick to this rule. We have seen him quite a few times recently. He has had pretty good appearances in Wisdom, secret Avengers, Heroes for Hire, X-Men: First Class and the Spider Island storyline.
'Games of deceit and death.'
The series had at it's heart the writer Doug Moench and much of it's quality is clearly down to his vision. There are at least four iconic art runs on this book as well. Firstly Jim Starlin, next Paul Gulacy (who we will get to later), Mike Zeck and Gene Day. All were equally great in my mind. As styles moved on Shang still kept the flaired trousers and the hippyish outlook. And the title was cancelled at the incredibly poetic issue 125. So incredible in fact I have a page framed and hung from this issue on the wall in front of me. This issue had Shang walk away from everything. His father was dead and he wanted to taste the world afresh and find inner peace finally.
A good MOKF book is missing from the shelves today. Who wouldn't want to see Moench back on this book, or maybe someone like Greg Rucka with Marc Laming or Gabriel Hardman on the art? Shang was that single solitary voice of truth. Always on the outside of the party looking in. Commentating on what his naive eyes saw around him. The cynical part of me says that we need this sort of character more than ever. At the time he had many copy cats (see my recent Richard Dragon review for a good example) but nobody did kung fu as well as Moench and co did this.
In 2002 as part of the Marvel Max line we got a mini series. Here is the review of the first issue. I thought this was a fitting last review in my Month of Reviews.
Master of Kung Fu (November 2002).
'Part 1: Mortal Spirit.'
Writer - Doug Moench.
Art - Paul Gulacy.
Inks - Jimmy Palmiotti.
Colours - Paul Mounts.
Editor - Alex Alonso.
Published by Marvel Comics (Max Line).
I remember not hearing that this book was coming out (I have never been a big reader of Previews - only muttering at my LCS that it should be called 'Spoilers') so I was over the moon when I saw this cover on the shelf. It looks great and is an iconic image of Shang returning to the flames of battle.
The book opens with Leiko Wu (the love interest throughout most of the original run) being lured into a trap in an old castle. She is captured by a mysterious hooded figure and his bodyguard. Taken away and tortured with scorpions for information. Meanwhile we get a brighter different world and Shang is apparently a tutor for a young girl in China. He is clearly still troubled and tries to meditate but dreams of Leiko in danger trouble his peaceful solitude. He is then surprised by a shadowy stranger who he attacks only to find out that it is his old pal (and love rival for the emotions of the aforementioned Leiko Wu) Clive Reston from MI6.
Reston attempts to talk Shang out of retirement and tells him that Leiko has been kidnapped. He also informs Shang that he and Leiko are now married. He needs his friend to help combat a terrorist called 'The Comte de Saint Germain' aka 'The Ghost' who is believed to be an Immortal (ring anyFu Manchu shaped bells Sax Rohmer fans?) The story then jumps nineteen hours into the future and Black Jack Tarr and Clive Reston are caught by Dacoit assassins in an MI6 safe house. A full firefight erupts (beautifully realised by Gulacy and Palmiotti) and as they run out of ammunition Shang appears to help them escape.
This sequnce looks incredible. Shang looks dramatic and a force to be reckoned with. He has that frown again, the one that tells us that he does what he must, not what he wants to do. As they escape he speaks to his old friend Tarr and in doing so links the present with the past.
'And don't call me Chinaman.'
This book does so much in a first issue. We get the familiar faces and themes. But we also get a reflection of how the world has moved on. As always Shang is a mirror for society. We see his defence of his friends using a couple of flaming sticks. He is faced by techno kung fu assassins but doesn't flinch to use familiar weapons. He is still the old Shang, the man out of place but now we see the seriousness in his face and that his clothes reflect stylistically the post Matrix era. I loved this issue.
Moench has not skipped a beat and these are the people I remember. That nod to Shang's and Tarr's old friendship at the end was a really cool little twist. They shouldn't be friends, from their size difference (Tarr is a hulk of a man - a kind of cross between the Rock and Nick Fury physically), to their politics and motivations. Tarr is a life long spy, he is at home with these games. But somehow they are brothers.
Gulacy is a master. Every turn has beauty. His figures are cool and funky kung fu spies of style and his back grounds speak to a tone of menace. I really loved the candle light on the stairs as Shang meditates. Awesome. Everyone is dealt with the intricacy and flair they deserve after all these years. I am a huge fan of this guys work and he needs more Marvel work as he fits that street level noir so well.
Man! I miss this book.