Master of Kung Fu was a critically acclaimed series in 1977, but one which was burning out its creators in their efforts to maintain the high standard of quality in an industry that required juggling numerous assignments each month in order to earn a living. Artist Paul Gulacy had recently departed over the pressure and writer Doug Moench was struggling to keep up with deadlines as well. The series had just concluded an epic eight-part story arc with issue #51 that saw Shang-Chi separated from both his estranged father, Fu Manchu and the mentor who had become his father figure, Sir Denis Nayland Smith. Readers eager to find out what would happen next in Shang-Chi’s life would have to wait 90 days as issue #52 was a flashback to an untold and largely comedic adventure set a year earlier in the continuity while issue #53 was a reprint.
Issue #52 saw the return of Groucho Marx as cabbie, Rufus T. Hackstabber now paired with W. C. Fields as his equally disreputable cousin, Quigley J. Warmflash in a misadventure that seemed better suited to Steve Gerber’s contemporaneous Howard the Duck series. This Moroccan interlude involved the return of rogue Si-Fan agent Tiger-Claw seeking Fu Manchu’s elixir vitae which he believes is hidden inside an elusive antique statuette of an elephant. The story is a fun mash-up of The Marx Brothers, W. C. Fields, Casablanca, and The Maltese Falcon. A man-sized statue of the Black Bird itself can be glimpsed among the bric-a-brac crowding Warmflash’s curio shop. The story features not one, but two spectacular crashes of Hackstabber’s taxi cab and also provides Warmflash with a lovely (but rather dim) nightclub singer/belly dancer daughter, Dinah. A hoot to be sure and returning guest artist Keith Pollard did an excellent job capturing the likenesses of two Golden Age of Hollywood comedy legends, but Tiger-Claw’s return was squandered amidst the barrage of laughs and outrageousness on display.
Issue #54 began the four-part War-Yore storyline from Doug Moench and one of the series’ two new alternating artists, Jim Craig. Having debuted with issue #51 on very unsure feet, Craig comes much closer to Paul Gulacy’s style here. Admittedly, his Leiko Wu often looks more Caucasian, but this is a minor quibble.
The issue finds Shang-Chi and his friends at a crossroads having left MI5 with no immediate plans of how they are going to make their way in life. Shang-Chi is living with Leiko Wu and adjusting to a more Westernized life. His immersion in her record collection, particularly Fleetwood Mac’s “Over My Head,” is a reflection of the shift in his values as much as it foreshadows the difficulties ahead for them as their relationship progresses too quickly.
When Clive Reston pays a visit to the Savoy where Black Jack Tarr is staying, he is set upon by an assassin disguised as Robin Hood armed with explosive missiles. Reston gives chase, but loses the man in the crowd at Hyde Park. Later, Shang-Chi and Leiko Wu pay a visit to Melissa Greville at the hospital when they are set upon by the same assassin now dressed as Attila the Hun. The fight moves to London Bridge. When Shang-Chi stops to save an innocent bystander in the line of fire, Attila takes Leiko hostage and escapes.
The issue ends with a brief interlude at MI5 where we learn of MK-Ultra Project:War-Yore in which an operative specializing in history, Eric Slaughter was systematically tortured until schizophrenia was achieved and he could be manipulated into believing each of his triggered personalities are actual identities of historical figures. Though highly unstable, Agent Slaughter has been given the assignment to assassinate the rogue agents who recently resigned from MI-5: Shang-Chi, Leiko Wu, Clive Reston, and Black Jack Tarr.
Issue #55, regrettably, fell prey to deadlines and bypassed the War-Yore storyline to offer a taste of what was to come by way of an introduction to the series’ other alternating new artist Mike Zeck. As a successor to Paul Gulacy, Zeck was better suited than Jim Craig. The story sees Shang-Chi having moved into the Savoy with Black Jack Tarr. Shang-Chi is just settling down to read A Clockwork Orange when he is set upon a pair of Droog-like thugs in an extremely violent confrontation in Tarr’s bathroom. Once defeated, the thugs reveal they were hired by Han-Sung, a previously unknown mentor from Shang-Chi’s youth. A Kung Fu-style flashback shows that Han-Sung was just a few years older than Shang-Chi which establishes the imbalance in their relationship as it is marked by sibling rivalry and resentment that the student is the privileged son of Fu Manchu. Han-Sung is obsessed with learning the secret of Fu Manchu’s elixir vitae. This is the key to the current predicament as this slight filler issue turns completely on the tragic consequences of Han-Sung’s obsession with preserving his youth. Doug Moench’s script is overly familiar (the elixir vitae plot device had been used only three months earlier), but Zeck’s artwork is so startlingly good that the reader is willing to overlook the weakness of the script.
Issue #56 resumes Moench and Jim Craig’s War-Yore storyline with Part Two. Agent Slaughter has now assumed the identity of Saint George the Dragonslayer who views his hostage Leiko Wu as a damsel in distress. Leaving Leiko secured in a cell, Slaughter takes on the identity of a ninja and attacks Shang-Chi, Clive Reston, and Black Jack Tarr in Tarr’s room at The Savoy. Slaughter is defeated, but feigns unconsciousness to escape. His next attack is by bi-plane in the guise of Baron Von Richthofen, the Red Baron. While the resolution to this latest attack forms the cliffhanger for the issue, a brief interlude sees MI5 learning Slaughter has failed to assassinate Leiko Wu and the decision is made that MI5 will have to take matters into their own hands.
Issue #57 sees a spectacular takedown of The Red Baron’s Fokker, but yet again Slaughter manages to escape in the nick of time. The trio of Shang-Chi, Clive Reston, and Black Jack Tarr infiltrate MI5 and learn about MK-Ultra Project: War-Yore and that MI5 has marked them for assassination. Discovering Slaughter’s address from the Project: War-Yore dossier they make their way to his secluded castle. Leiko Wu has managed to escape her cell, but is being hunted by Slaughter (still in his Von Richthofen identity) and the MI5 agents. The issue reaches its cliffhanger as Slaughter (now back in his St. George identity) has a rematch with Shang-Chi while MI5 recaptures Leiko. Suddenly, an MI5 helicopter lands bringing with it a number of high level visitors including Sir Denis Nayland Smith.
Issue #58 is the concluding chapter of the War-Yore storyline and sees Sir Denis outraged to learn his colleagues have targeted his former agents for assassination. The risk of Sir Denis exposing the MK-Ultra project is too great and he has also been marked for assassination. Gunplay begins with Black Jack Tarr and Clive Reston leading the assault on MI5. Slaughter rescues Leiko, his idealized damsel in distress, with Shang-Chi determined to save her as well.
Slaughter’s final incarnation is an attempt to reconcile his schizophrenia with an integrated persona, War-Yore. Leiko is successful in reaching the man inside and convincing him he needs professional help when Shang-Chi attacks just as Reston bursts through the door and shoots Slaughter dead. Leiko is furious with both men for their blundered and unnecessary rescue attempt. She breaks off her relationship with Shang-Chi. The final scene sees Reston lashing out at Sir Denis for not leaving MI5 after witnessing how corrupt the Deep State government has become.
Issue #59 marked the beginning of a surreal two-parter from Moench and Zeck that suggests the influence of European art films and graphic novels. The story opens with Shang-Chi’s bizarre dream of a second ice age gripping the world. He is visiting Africa besieged by blizzards and watches as lions, elephants, giraffes, and rhinos fall prey to the freezing temperatures. Shang-Chi discovers a pyramid in what had been the African Savanna and finds an underground chamber where Africans in a high-tech base are engaged in pagan worship of the deity they believe will be the savior, Razor-Fist. Shang-Chi’s old enemy mercilessly slaughters his worshippers when the dream suddenly shifts to London where Shang-Chi has just been struck by a taxi cab while crossing the street. He is troubled by the recollection that Clive Reston injected him with a drug just before he left the curb. Before he can act on this knowledge, he is attacked by Razor-Fist. Their violent encounter moves from the street through the window of the art museum where Razor-Fist is seriously injured and removed by ambulance. Leiko takes Shang-Chi back to her home to recuperate.
The dream shifts again and we see the second ice age has now overtaken England. Shang-Chi sets off with Sir Denis and Black Jack Tarr for the North Pole to investigate a mysterious pyramid that has been discovered there. Within the pyramid is a subterranean chamber holding yet another high-tech base where the savior, Amar-Tu appears as a benevolent being of fire. As he embraces the three men, Amar-Tu turns demonic and incinerates them in a fiery embrace. Shang-Chi seemingly awakes in Leiko’s apartment to find Leiko has been replaced by the dominatrix Pavane who whips him mercilessly. Shang-Chi fights back and defeats Pavane who is revealed to be a robot. Leiko returns home and the two are immediately attacked by one of Mordillo’s killer robots. Defeating the robot, they are shocked when Clive Reston is revealed to be concealed within the robot’s metal plating. The shock cliffhanger reveals this dreamlike state to be a bizarre chess match being played out between Doctor Doom and the Prime Mover.
Issue #60 marked the conclusion of Moench and Zeck’s surreal two-parter. The issue opens with Clive Reston piloting a small plane taking him and Shang-Chi to Latveria to confront Doctor Doom who Reston is aware is the mastermind behind all the bizarre occurrences. While on the plane, Shang-Chi dreams of walking in the snow with his father when suddenly China is reborn in a new prehistoric tropical setting where sauropods hatch from eggs. One of the sauropods quickly matures into a fire-breathing Chinese dragon which, on Fu Manchu’s command, incinerates his disloyal son.
Shang-Chi wakes to find Reston has set the plane down in Latveria. As they disembark, they are set upon by Shaka Kharn. Shang-Chi defeats the warrior who is revealed to be another robot, but not before Kharn cuts down Clive Reston who is likewise revealed to be a robot. Reaching Doctor Doom’s castle on foot, Shang-Chi is attacked by Shockwave who, of course, is easily defeated and revealed to be a robot. Once inside the castle, Shang-Chi is set upon by Latverian locals who are easily overcome and then he is challenged by Doctor Doom’s champion, Shadow-Stalker who assures him he is not a robot, but flesh and blood. However, he is quickly dispatched by Shang-Chi who finally confronts Doctor Doom and the Prime Mover.
At the press of a button, Shang-Chi finds himself in a gladiatorial arena where he is confronted by Mordillo’s robot, Shockwave, Pavane, Razor-Fist, Shadow-Stalker, and Shaka Kharn simultaneously. All six are easily dispatched and revealed to be robots. Shang-Chi then takes on Doctor Doom who is defeated and revealed to be a robot double. An enraged Shang-Chi then attacks the Prime Mover whose metal casing cracks open to reveal the real Clive Reston concealed within. The turret of Doctor Doom’s castle breaks away and is propelled by jet rockets which launch it into the air as Shang-Chi and Clive Reston’s battle carries them both out the window to their apparent death…until they splash into…the River Thames. The battle continues underwater until Shang-Chi defeats Reston and drags him ashore as both collapse with exhaustion.
The finale is suitably bizarre with Shang-Chi and Reston both in hospital being visited by Leiko and Black Jack Tarr. The nurse enters and brings a package from an anonymous well-wisher. Shang-Chi recognizes the nurse as a woman he encountered in Africa at the beginning of the story. He opens the package and discovers a chess set with custom-made figures of all the characters from the story. The final scene sees Doctor Doom and The Prime Mover finishing their chess game. Doctor Doom informs The Prime Mover that the nurse was a robot. A twist ending that shows the influence of The Twilight Zone.
The period of transition for the series was ending. The two alternating artists both proved they could be worthy heirs to Paul Gulacy. One of the series’ highpoints was just around the corner with an epic-length storyline that would bring back old faces and introduce new ones that would change Shang-Chi and the direction of the series.
Previous installments in this series:
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