Master of Kung Fu #44 kicks off an eight-part story arc that builds upon the events of the series’ preceding six issues while also serving as the culmination of the ongoing storyline involving Shang-Chi’s father Fu Manchu and sister Fah lo Suee and their decades-long battle for control of the Si-Fan. Marvel approved a six-part story with some reluctance, but the team of writer Doug Moench and artist Paul Gulacy were making the series one of Marvel’s very best of the 1970s and had the clout to push boundaries further so long as sales and critical recognition continued. Of course, the first thing the two men did was plot a prelude and epilogue which extended the story from six chapters to eight. The results are both more and less than what one might reasonably expect, though they certainly succeed in terms of ambition and scope.
The principal difference in quality is Gulacy’s art. While never disappointing, he simply fails to match the standard of the previous five issues he illustrated. The challenge of maintaining such a high standard month after month was wearing and would result in Gulacy’s decision to leave the series that had brought him such acclaim. Likewise, Moench remained one of Marvel’s most overworked writers and despite the care he took in structuring the story, it was inevitable that moments appeared rushed and even underwritten. It was never a question of Moench’s skills, simply that he also could not maintain the same high level of quality writing when juggling so many titles each month.
Issue #44 picks up where its predecessor left off at Sir Herbert Griswold’s Swiss estate. Shockwave has been badly beaten by Shang-Chi and Leiko Wu has successfully brought Ducharme, the defecting mole within the Si-Fan, to the safe house. Ducharme relates her tragic backstory of how many decades before (like Fah lo Suee, she also benefits from Fu Manchu’s restorative elixir vitae), she was the lover of a Si-Fan agent who failed in his assignment to assassinate Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie during their first encounter with Fu Manchu. Her lover was slain for his failure. Ducharme fled and was rescued by Smith who deployed her as a double agent within Fu Manchu’s household.
Meantime, Clive Reston is setting off for Switzerland to rendezvous with Shang-Chi and Leiko Wu while Ducharme remains at the safe house with Sir Herbert. Moench then quickly cuts to Dr. Petrie, the mole within MI5, reporting to the Si-Fan by radio of MI5’s latest doings. Sir Denis, with Petrie in tow, visits a seriously injured Black Jack Tarr in hospital. The issue builds to an exciting climax as Reston and Shang-Chi take a high speed chase through the Alps with Si-Fan assassins on their tail while Leiko Wu runs into a Si-Fan ambush in the Alps on motorbike. Lots of gunplay and crashes follow with Reston and Shang-Chi escaping while Leiko Wu falls captive. The issue’s startling dual cliffhanger sees Sir Denis and Dr. Petrie visiting Smith’s nephew, Lancaster Sneed (aka Shockwave) in hospital when Petrie unexpectedly brandishes a gun and shoots Sir Denis at close range while Reston and Shang-Chi infiltrate the Si-Fan’s Swiss headquarters and discover that they have been dealing with a rogue faction loyal to Shang-Chi’s sister Fah lo Suee all along.
Issue #45 maintains the breakneck pace as Fah lo Suee dispatches her best men to kill her brother and Clive Reston. Fah lo Suee has received an update and no longer looks like a stereotypical Dragon Lady, but is now a contemporary (for the 1970s) woman. In fairness, this is in keeping with Sax Rohmer’s description of the character which generally portrayed the daughter of Fu Manchu as wearing the latest fashions from Paris. Unsurprisingly, it was Hollywood that established the Dragon Lady image that Terry and the Pirates later reinforced in the public’s consciousness.
Moench crosscuts to London where Dr. Petrie hurriedly informs the medics that Sneed temporarily recovered consciousness and grabbed Petrie’s gun and shot Sir Denis before Petrie was able to overpower him. Sir Denis’ fate hangs in the balance as the medics rush him into surgery. From there we find MI5 demolitions expert James Larner visiting a recovering Black Jack Tarr and discussing the mysterious Mr. Tarrant who owns the Si-Fan’s base in Switzerland.
Moench stretches out Shang-Chi and Reston’s battle with the Si-Fan throughout much of the issue as he continues cross-cutting to a captive Leiko Wu at the mercy of the Si-Fan while Fu Manchu dispatches divers to recover a giant oyster from the ocean floor. Dr. Petrie plots to murder Sir Denis in Intensive Care while Fah lo Suee reveals to her brother that their father’s mole within MI5 is Dr. Petrie. Leiko Wu recovers consciousness and escapes from the Si-Fan while Larner overcomes Petrie just as he is about to murder the comatose Sir Denis. Leiko arrives at the Si-Fan’s Swiss headquarters to rescue Reston and Shang-Chi. Clive Reston unmasks the mysterious Mr. Tarrant as Sir Herbert Griswold, an unexpected double agent. The issue ends with Reston a captive of the Si-Fan while Shang-Chi and Leiko make good their escape.
Issue #46 is framed with MI5’s interrogation of Clive Reston who is under suspicion of being a double agent for the Si-Fan. We then see what has occurred since the last issue as Reston escapes from Fah lo Suee and the traitorous Sir Herbert Griswold before rejoining Shang-Chi and Leiko Wu and leading them up into the Alps to Fu Manchu’s mountain base.
Moench then cuts to Fu Manchu and his giant oyster which has been opened to reveal a giant pearl (what else?). The pearl is shattered and reveals a human skull that serves some mysterious purpose in Fu Manchu’s latest scheme. Reston scouts ahead and is recaptured by Fah lo Suee and her faction of the Si-Fan. He is psychologically tortured in a pit of spiders before being seduced and then hypnotized by Fah lo Suee. The issue ends with the reader’s discovery that Black Jack Tarr has been conducting Reston’s interrogation and determines that despite his fragile psychological condition, he is telling the truth.
Issue #47 starts off with a disguised Leiko Wu and Shang-Chi having successfully stowed away aboard Fah lo Suee’s plane with Sir Herbert Griswold and several Si-Fan agents. Shang-Chi manages to transmit their coordinates to MI5. Sir Denis, still hospitalized, is recovering and has Tarr, Larner, and Reston at his side. Dr. Petrie is undergoing intensive reprogramming by MI5 to counter his brainwashing by the Si-Fan. Moench makes a point of showing that MI5’s methods are as amoral as the Si-Fan. Smith dispatches Larner and Reston to Switzerland and commands Tarr to travel separately as back-up. Tarr passes Ducharme in the corridor and the reader notes he is not entirely at ease with her now that she has been liberated from the Si-Fan.
Upon touchdown, Fah lo Suee and Sir Herbert unmask Leiko Wu and Shang-Chi with the two barely managing to fight their way free. In Fu Manchu’s secret laboratory, we see the human skull has now been fitted onto a human skeleton of one of his ancestors, Shaka Kharn that Fu Manchu intends to revive as his “new” son. The Si-Fan detects Reston and Larner’s plane which Fu Manchu orders shot down. Shang-Chi and Leiko Wu seek shelter from the icy wind and snow in a cave where the two finally make love (Gulacy handles the scene with a tasteful fade to black).
Meantime, Fah lo Suee and her men pull Larner and Reston from the wreckage of their plane when all of them are set upon by her father’s Si-Fan agents. Fah lo Suee shoots and kills Sir Herbert for suggesting they surrender. Shang-Chi and Leiko rescue Larner and Reston while Fah lo Suee escapes. Her remaining men surrender to their comrades who are still loyal to her father. Fah lo Suee is captured by Leiko Wu and, cut off from her resources, agrees to go without a struggle.
The issue introduces MI5 communications director Ward Sarsfield, an in-joke reference for Sax Rohmer fans as Rohmer’s real name was Arthur Henry Ward, but Sarsfield was a name on his mother’s side of the family that he briefly adopted as a pen-name before hitting upon Sax Rohmer (several of his stories carried the byline A. Sarsfield Ward). Movie buffs will note that Gulacy renders Ward Sarsfield as actor David Niven. Sarsfield equips Black Jack Tarr with a miniature transmitter attached to his chest. Interestingly, Moench portrays the communications director as possessed of a decidedly macabre sense of humor even in the gravest of situations. The issue’s conclusion sees Larner standing guard over Fah lo Suee while Reston, Shang-Chi, and Leiko Wu infiltrate Fu Manchu’s base from within the mountain. The shock ending reveals Ducharme is actually a triple agent who has remained loyal to Fu Manchu and was deceiving MI5 into believing she had defected.
Issue #48 sees Black Jack Tarr parachuting in under heavy gunfire from the Si-Fan. We finally see the awesome scope of Fu Manchu’s underground city built within the Swiss Alps. It is in this issue we learn his scheme is to fire nuclear missiles by rocket into the moon to throw it off its trajectory and into Earth’s orbit. The resulting natural catastrophes (earthquakes, tidal waves, volcanic eruptions) will destroy an estimated 90% of life on the planet. At this point, Fu Manchu plans to rule the remainder of the population as a society built on the principles of Manchurian China.
Meantime, Tarr chances upon Larner and Fah lo Suee who have decided to set out after Reston, Shang-Chi, and Leiko Wu. It is at this point the reader learns Sir Denis dispatched them on a suicide mission as Larner, the demolitions expert, is on hand only to blow Fu Manchu’s mountain base to kingdom come.
Fu Manchu has successfully revived his ancestor, Shaka Kharn and introduces the fierce warrior as his son to the assembled Si-Fan throng. Informed that Shang-Chi and the others have infiltrated his base, he orders them killed instantly with Shaka Kharn given the task of personally dispatching the son who dishonored their father. The fight scenes between Shang-Chi and the Si-Fan assassins are impressive and, like many before them, highly influenced by Bruce Lee. The issue ends with Shang-Chi facing his ancestor, Shaka Kharn in a duel to the death.
Issue #49 starts off with Clive Reston and Leiko Wu making their way to the missile silo. An alarm alerts Fu Manchu that intruders have entered the silo. Setting off to deal with them personally, he is confronted by Black Jack Tarr. Falling victim to Fu Manchu’s mesmerism, the Devil Doctor knocks him over the gantry and Tarr falls into a pit of giant scorpions (more of Fu Manchu’s experiments) far below. All of this is being relayed to Sir Denis via the miniature transmitter Sarsfield implanted in Tarr’s chest. Clive sends Leiko away to safety as he hides inside the rocket. Fu Manchu, convinced that Leiko was the only intruder, moves the launch schedule up to prevent any possible sabotage.
Meantime, Larner prepares the explosives to destroy the mountain. Moench allows us to see a human side to Fah lo Suee who is aghast at the thought of her brother and everyone else on Larner’s side being sacrificed in an attempt to stop her father. Throughout the entire issue, Moench has been crosscutting scenes with Shang-Chi and Shaka Kharn’s duel. Shang-Chi is no match for the warrior who easily overcomes him and sends him plummeting over the gantry into the pit of giant scorpions. Tarr rescues Shang-Chi and the two quickly escape and are reunited with Leiko Wu. Shang-Chi boards the rocket and joins Reston in his suicide mission to sabotage the flight and prevent the nuclear missiles from striking the moon.
Just as Larner is about to depress the plunger and dynamite the mountain, he spies Black Jack Tarr and Leiko Wu fleeing down the mountain while pursued by Si-Fan assassins on skis (shades of Ian Fleming’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service). Fu Manchu and Shaka Kharn board the rocket unaware Shang-Chi and Clive Reston have stowed away. The rocket launches into space. Larner’s delay for his friends has allowed Fu Manchu to escape and may cost them the mission and doom Earth in the process. The delay has also resulted in the skiing Si-Fan assassins riddling Larner with bullets while another severs his cables. Larner’s dying act is to use his body as an electrical conduit and detonate the explosion destroying Fu Manchu’s underground base. The issue ends with Leiko, Tarr, and Fah lo Suee standing over Larner’s lifeless form.
Issue #50 is, sadly, Paul Gulacy’s swansong for the series. Fu Manchu is on the verge of finally successfully completing one of his grand schemes as the rocket comes in range of the moon. Ward Sarsfield brings a still recuperating Sir Denis the news that intelligence has confirmed Ducharme betrayed them and is still loyal to Fu Manchu. We then see she is at her master’s side as the rocket docks onto an orbiting space station where Fu Manchu plans to wait out the apocalypse he is preparing for Earth.
Shaka Kharn’s nutrient bath is being prepared as he needs to be revitalized periodically or his body begins its natural decay since, beneath his warrior’s armor, he is only a resuscitated skeleton. Before he can be replenished, he learns Shang-Chi has taken Fu Manchu hostage. Shang-Chi’s resolve to kill his father falters when Fu Manchu points out that MI5 are prepared to fire nuclear missiles at China in retaliation if Fu Manchu’s scheme succeeds despite the Si-Fan operating against the Chinese government.
Clive Reston sees Shang-Chi lose his nerve and is about to shoot Fu Manchu himself when he is cut down by Shaka Kharn. Shang-Chi duels with his ancestor a second time, but this time the warrior is suitably weakened and Shang-Chi is able to dismember him as the artificial life force quickly drains from his body. Having succeeded in defeating his father’s greatest scheme, Shang-Chi watches Fu Manchu prepare the escape pod. As the Devil Doctor enters the pod, Shang-Chi takes Reston’s gun and shoots his father who stumbles forward and launches the escape pod into space. Reston recovers enough to stand as he and Shang-Chi watch Fu Manchu’s escape pod hurtle away from Earth into the far reaches of space.
Issue #51 is the wrap-up that introduces Paul Gulacy’s replacement, Jim Craig. An artist very much in the style of Sal Buscema, Craig’s work is jarring though the windswept hair on the mourners at James Larner’s funeral is surprisingly effective. The story opens with Tarr, Shang-Chi, and Clive Reston among the pallbearers while Sir Denis, Dr. Petrie, Leiko Wu, and Melissa Greville stand by the side of his grave.
A flashback to the space station shows us that Shang-Chi and Clive Reston were set upon by Si-Fan agents before fighting their way back to the rocket and making their return to Earth. Unfortunately, Moench tastelessly recycles the electrocution with severed cables as part of their fighting their way to freedom. An unacknowledged reminder of how Larner died that leaves the reader feeling decidedly ill-at-ease.
Following Larner’s funeral, the team gathers at Sir Denis’ office at MI5. Shang-Chi takes his cat back from Melissa Greville who had been watching it during the past few weeks. After Sir Denis admits that a nuclear strike on China was narrowly averted when they learned Shang-Chi and Clive Reston had thwarted Fu Manchu’s plans, Shang-Chi angrily resigns telling Smith he is no better than his father. At that moment, Si-Fan assassins burst through the windows of Smith’s office in a retaliatory strike. Reston, Tarr, and Leiko gun the men down, but Melissa Greville is shot in the stomach during the crossfire. Shang-Chi still chooses to walk away from MI5 and an embittered Sir Denis watches as Leiko Wu opts to do the same. What reduces the old man to tears is that Clive Reston and Black Jack Tarr opt to take a leave of absence as well. Sir Denis, an old man who relies on younger people to carry on his war for him, is left alone and helpless as the story arc reaches its conclusion with both Fu Manchu and Nayland Smith cast adrift with nothing but their own self-destructive obsessions.
William Patrick Maynard is a writer and film historian. His commentaries have appeared on releases from MGM, Shout Factory, and Kino-Lorber. He is the authorized continuation writer for the Sax Rohmer Literary Estate and is the author of new Fu Manchu thrillers for Black Coat Press.