Master of Kung Fu in 1978 was in the process of finding its footing again. Paul Gulacy’s departure from the title left an enormous hole for the series’ two new alternating artists, Jim Craig and Mike Zeck to come up to speed and offer readers a comparable level of accomplishment. Just a few years earlier, martial arts mania had swept much of the Western world on the strength and charisma of Bruce Lee. Marvel had quickly responded with the creation of Shang-Chi and Iron Fist (among other characters). Master of Kung Fu soon spawned a companion magazine, Deadly Hands of Kung Fu. By 1978, only Master of Kung Fu was left to showcase a non-superpowered martial artist hero. Morally complex scripts and artwork that took its cue from Jim Steranko’s groundbreaking work for Marvel in the 1960s were the essential ingredients to keep this niche title from fading in sales with the waning martial arts fad.
Issue #61 kicked off the epic-length “China Seas” story arc that saw writer Doug Moench drawing inspiration from Milton Caniff’s long-running newspaper strip, Terry and the Pirates. Moench and Jim Craig launch the story with Shang-Chi having moved in with Black Jack Tarr at the Savoy. Sir Denis Nayland Smith is visiting Melissa Greville in hospital where she is finally recovering from injuries sustained back in issue #51. Leiko Wu is struggling with loneliness and regret as she sits in her apartment listening to “Dreams” from Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours LP. Black Jack Tarr buys a print of Frazetta’s “The Silver Warrior” from an art gallery before meeting up with Sir Denis as Clive Reston arrives to visit Melissa in hospital.
Jim Craig’s artwork was improving dramatically with a truly lovely rendering of Melissa preparing for her discharge. Moench’s script and Craig’s artwork renders the start of Clive and Melissa’s relationship surprisingly sweet. Shang-Chi, lost in his thoughts of Leiko and with Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” running through his head is set upon by a Chinese assassin called Skull-Crusher. Their fight is brutally realistic and intercutting it with the supporting characters’ normal interactions is surprisingly effective. Leiko attempts to rekindle her relationship with Clive only to discover he is now dating Melissa. Shang-Chi is in the dark about who has hired Skull-Crusher to kill him until Clive and Melissa deliver a letter mailed to Shang-Chi care of MI5 from Juliette which will send him back to Hong Kong to aid the other woman who broke his heart and take him back into conflict with Shen Kuei, the Cat in an unexpected call back to issues #38 and 39.
Issue #62 sees Shang-Chi arrive in Hong Kong and pay a visit to The Jade Peacock, Shen Kuei’s club where Juliette was the featured singer. He learns she has moved on, but attracts the ire of the club’s bouncer. The scene intercuts to the club’s loading dock where a cowled figure is involved in a clandestine smuggling operation with the club. The transaction ends in a double-cross with the cowled figure driving off with the merchandise and leaving behind an explosive which destroys half the club. Shang-Chi gives chase.
Meantime in London, Clive Reston returns home to find Leiko waiting for him. Clive rebuffs her advances and tells her she should go to Hong Kong and find the man she really loves. Shang-Chi’s pursuit of the smugglers takes him to the dock and then to a speed boat for a high-speed battle with the smugglers that reveals the cowled ringleader to be Juliette herself. The issue ends with Skull-Crusher arriving in China to inform Shen Kuei he failed to assassinate Shang-Chi. The Cat responds that because of his failure Shang-Chi is now in Hong Kong and Shen Kuei’s brother, who managed The Jade Peacock, was killed in the explosion that cost them their merchandise.
Issue #63 brings us Part Three which sees Juliette explain that she and Shen Kuei broke up once he began working for the Chinese government again. While she claims she hijacked his shipment because of his communist sympathies, Shang-Chi forces her to admit it is because Shen Kuei has taken a new lover. Despite Juliette’s callousness and cold heart, Shang-Chi is eager to rekindle their affair.
Moench gives us a brief interlude with Sir Denis and Dr. Petrie that suggests Petrie is still very much under the control of the Si-Fan. When last seen in issues #47 and 51, Petrie was undergoing deprogramming from his brainwashing by Fu Manchu. It is an interesting story nugget for the future, though one can’t help feeling bad for poor old Petrie who has been manipulated throughout the entire run of the series thus far.
Meantime, everyone converges on Hong Kong. Clive and Melissa arrive and are arrested by police at the site of the bombed-out Jade Peacock club. Black Jack Tarr arrives and sets out to join the smugglers who were working with Shen Kuei. Leiko resolves to head to Hong Kong herself. The reader is startled to learn that Pavane is Shen Kuei’s new mistress (in both senses of the word since she’s a dominatrix).
Jim Craig’s depiction of the two lovers’ intimacy pushed the boundaries of the Comics Code Authority and shows the definite influence of Gene Colan’s similar work with suggestive scenes in the pages of Tomb of Dracula and Doctor Strange during the same period. Black Jack meets the pirate Kogar in his subterranean fortress hidden behind a waterfall. Shang-Chi arrives with Juliette at her cabin in the swamps only to find Skull-Crusher and Pavane waiting for them. A vicious battle ensues. Shang-Chi is forced to surrender when he finds Juliette has been tortured and badly beaten by Pavane.
Issue #64 unfortunately did not bring us Part Four thanks to yet another problem with the book meeting deadlines. This fill-in issue scripted by Scott Edelman is simply terrible despite great artwork from Mike Zeck which includes a Bruce Lee lookalike as a Si-Fan operative, Shoh Teng and a nice cameo by Doug Moench as an irate driver caught between Shoh Teng and Shang-Chi’s chase.
Too much of the issue is taken up with a Kung Fu-style flashback to give us yet another variation on the childhood of Shang-Chi with yet another fellow pupil and close friend (Shoh Teng) we’ve never heard of before who is manipulated by Fu Manchu in still another manipulation of Shang-Chi by his father.
Edelman’s plot and dialogue are fine, the trouble is we’ve seen this far too many times in the series. More troubling is the fact that Fu Manchu’s characterization is so far removed not only from Sax Rohmer, but even from the villain Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin shaped (drawn largely from Christopher Lee’s portrayal in the 1960s film series). Still, Mike Zeck’s artwork contains many fine moments to more than compensate for the failings of a hastily-written filler issue.
Issue #65 gives us Part Four of the “China Seas” epic from Doug Moench and Jim Craig. Shang-Chi is tag-teamed by Skull-Crusher and Pavane. Knowing Juliette’s life is hanging in the balance, Shang-Chi brutally attacks Pavane and defeats her. Skull-Crusher retreats and leaves Shang-Chi with the two unconscious women. Clive and Melissa realize they have been captured by the Chinese government and not Hong Kong police and make a daring escape. Leiko arrives in Hong Kong and makes contact with the British Embassy seeking Shen Kuei, Juliette, and Shang-Chi.
Having tied up Pavane and spoken with the seriously injured Juliette before she collapses, Shang-Chi breaks open the shipment and sees Kogar and Shen Kuei have been smuggling hashish. Black Jack Tarr is present when Kogar learns Juliette has hijacked the shipment. Shen Kuei learns Skull-Crusher ran from Shang-Chi and abandoned Pavane and beats him viciously. Pavane recovers and attacks Shang-Chi. Their fight is even more brutal with an enraged Shang-Chi beating her and hurling her through a glass window. Juliette recovers consciousness just as Kogar and his men (including Black Jack) arrive at her swamp hideaway.
Issue #66 brings us Part Five. This issue marks Jim Craig’s final contribution to the series and the transition to Mike Zeck as full-time artist. The story itself suffers, as most over-extended serials do, with an entire episode of running around and accomplishing little. Shang-Chi and Kogar fight. Shang-Chi and Juliette escape. There is a boat chase between both parties. Shen Kuei and Skull-Crusher are following their trail on land. Shen Kuei discovers the injured form of Pavane.
Shang-Chi foolishly becomes romantically involved with Juliette though she is clearly not the woman she once was. Leiko undertakes a solo mission on the trail of Shang-Chi and hits paydirt by stumbling upon Kogar’s subterranean base behind the waterfall on her first pass. Clive and Melissa make it to the British Embassy and learn Leiko is in Hong Kong. Pavane recovers and Shen Kuei explains the hashish smuggling is funding a larger operation for the Chinese government, the construction of a neutron bomb to use against the West. The issue ends with Kogar’s men catching up to Shang-Chi and Juliette.
Issue #67 gives us Part Six of the “China Seas” epic. Following a suitably violent battle with the smugglers, we move to Clive and Melissa who resolve to follow in Leiko’s footsteps seeking Shang-Chi and Shen Kuei. Leiko successfully infiltrates Kogar’s subterranean base. Black Jack learns about the hashish and the plans for the neutron bomb by spying on Kogar. Leiko meets up with Black Jack. Clive and Melissa find the hidden mountain entrance to Kogar’s subterranean base. Shang-Chi falls head over heels for Juliette. Clive and Melissa meet up with Leiko and Black Jack. Shang-Chi lets himself be taken by Kogar’s men who bring him before the smuggler who now has Shang-Chi, Leiko, Black Jack, Clive, and Melissa in his clutches.
Issue #68 sees Kogar order Black Jack to assassinate Shang-Chi to prove his loyalty to the smuggler. Shen Kuei’s unexpected arrival turns the tables. Kogar demands Shang-Chi and Shen Kuei fight to the death. Shang-Chi does his best to reason with Shen Kuei, but The Cat is driven to avenge his brother’s death. Juliette arrives by speed boat and offers to trade the hashish shipment for Shang-Chi’s life. Leiko believes she has lost Shang-Chi to Juliette. Kogar orders Juliette killed.
Shen Kuei realizes Kogar was the one who betrayed him resulting in Juliette’s unintended murder of Shen Kuei’s brother and he throws in with Shang-Chi and company. Black Jack informs everyone the hashish is bankrolling construction of the neutron bomb. Shang-Chi and Shen Kuei team up to destroy Kogar’s subterranean base and the hashish with it. Clive guns down Kogar. The issue wraps up most of the storyline, but Shang-Chi has to make his mind up of whether or not to remain in Hong Kong with Juliette or return to London.
Issue #69 is the coda to the “China Seas” story arc. The issue has special relevance to me. It was the first issue of the series I owned as a kid and the first of three consecutive issues I read with my Mom (I was seven years old at the time). It was my introduction to Fu Manchu (my Mom explained he was a Chinese gangster) and directly led to my desire to seek out the original books and eventually earn the honor of being the second author in over sixty years since Sax Rohmer’s death to continue the series. This is also the issue where Mike Zeck proves himself worthy to carry on from Paul Gulacy with one visually stunning sequence after another.
The issue gets underway with a brooding Shang-Chi delaying his departure for London to visit Po-Lin monastery. A flashback shows us how Juliette broke off her affair with Shang-Chi and told him how Skull-Crusher was waiting for him at the Po-Lin monastery. Arriving at the monastery, Shang-Chi finds the Buddhist monks have been driven from their home by Skull-Crusher. Before the two combatants must meet, Shang-Chi must face three challengers within the monastery dressed as monks. As the progressively deadly encounters build up to the ritualistic confrontation with Skull-Crusher, a further flashback shows us that Skull-Crusher attacked Juliette and left her seriously injured to ensure an enraged Shang-Chi would come after him.
Their battle does not disappoint. Having watched Skull-Crusher be humiliated by Shang-Chi and Shen Kuei in the “China Seas” story arc, the reader can understand that this battle is Skull-Crusher’s personal bid for redemption. Over the course of the “China Seas” storyline, Shang-Chi has become progressively more savage and bloodthirsty. The battle here is no exception, but victory over Skull-Crusher is bitter as an injured Juliette pleads for his life and informs Shang-Chi that Skull-Crusher is her lover and that she “deserved” his abuse because of her infidelity. Shang-Chi walks away from both of them and the praise of the Buddhist monks for his heroic actions in restoring them to their monastery fall on deaf ears. The story points to a new direction for Shang-Chi, but more on that next time.
Issue #70 offered another deadline-driven filler issue with Pat Broderick stepping in as guest artist. Doug Moench’s script makes one suspect that perhaps his own personal life was going through a rough patch as Shang-Chi’s string of bad luck with relationships continues for poor old Black Jack Tarr. The story takes Tarr and Shang-Chi back to Black Jack’s Long Island estate. They are preparing the estate to serve as a safe house for a communist defector from China, Dr. Chow in a joint operation by MI5 and the CIA. The Chinese government has dispatched The Black Demon Tong (martial artists dressed in goofy demon headdress and masks that make them resemble a glam rock band) to assassinate Dr. Chow before he arrives. Tarr mentions the pain of returning to the estate he used to share with his lover (and fellow MI5 agent), a woman named Anna that we’ve never heard of before.
Of course, The Black Demon Tong have infiltrated Tarr’s estate and put Tarr and Shang-Chi through their paces. The highpoint here is the addition of a wall-sized nude portrait of Anna that should embarrass the hell out of him given that Shang-Chi hasn’t even met the woman. Before Black Jack can get his mind around how this wall-sized mural came to be, The Black Demon Tong in full demon regalia burst through the nude wall portrait with what can only be described as glam rock panache and attack our heroes. A quick interlude shows us Dr. Chow is a double agent working with a mole within the CIA. I’ll note that the colorist makes poor Dr. Chow out to look positively jaundiced.
The issue wraps up hurriedly with Anna held hostage by The Black Demon Tong revealed to actually be a Chinese agent herself and the mastermind of the entire operation. A hasty post-script notes that Dr. Chow and the CIA traitor were arrested. A curious issue (and obviously another hastily written filler story) which only seems to reinforce that these guys just can’t help picking the wrong women. I suppose it’s the stuff drama, if not dreams, are made of.
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