Deadly Hands of Kung Fu #9 featured a Doug Moench-Mike Vosburg story whose sole purpose was to reinforce (in the fashion of the hit television series, Kung Fu) that martial arts is about discipline and control and not violence. Of course, making this point provides ample opportunity to portray martial arts violence since conflict is inevitable within the confines of action-adventure storytelling.
The story gets underway when Shang-Chi stops a mugger in the park and finds himself challenged by Johnny Chen, the local martial arts champion whose arrogance and insecurities demand he publicly demonstrate his superiority to Shang-Chi. The fact that Mike Vosburg draws Chen to strongly resemble Bruce Lee (who could exhibit an arrogant side both and on and off screen) only adds another level to the story.
The real key here is the young Asian-American boy who also witnessed Shang-Chi’s heroism and whose hero worship of him leads to unhealthy projection and deception. The dangers of idolizing those we admire is the second plot strand that points back to Bruce Lee in this story. Given that this was another of Doug Moench’s scripts concerned with the non-violent philosophy of martial arts being ignored amidst the martial arts craze sweeping the West, his decision to paint the most recognizable face of martial arts as flawed and highlight the shortcomings of fandom was particularly daring.
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The continuing success of Warren Publishing’s Creepy, Eerie, and Vampirella led Marvel to relaunch its black & white magazine division in 1973. While the best of these Marvel Magazine titles supplemented the color comic line with material that could not easily be published in a monthly Code-approved title (Dracula Lives and Savage Sword of Conan, for instance) or offered unique material not spun-off as a companion title to a monthly (Planet of the Apes and Tales of the Zombie, among others), The Deadly Hands of Kung Fu sought a middle ground as a response to the martial arts craze that had taken America by storm on the silver screen, the small screen, comic books, and even the radio (Enter the Dragon, TV’s Kung Fu, Marvel’s Master of Kung Fu, and Carl Douglas’ novelty hit single “Kung Fu Fighting”).
Master of Kung Fu may have been the lead feature at the start of the magazine’s run, but the title was never built solely around the continuing adventures of Shang-Chi alone. Articles, interviews, reviews, back-up strips, and reprints were just as important for a magazine that wanted not only to exploit the martial arts fad but also be taken seriously by martial arts students. For the purpose of our continuing series on Shang-Chi, we shall only be considering the black & white Master of Kung Fu strip that featured in most issues with passing reference to other material only where appropriate.
Deadly Hands of Kung Fu #1 launched in April 1974 with Master of Kung Fu as the lead feature written and illustrated by Shang-Chi’s creators Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin. Following just a few months after the character’s color comics debut in Special Marvel Edition #15, the story returned us to Shang-Chi’s early years in Honan, China when he trained as an assassin in service of his father. We see that as early as age fourteen, the seeds of doubt were sown in Shang-Chi as he questions the deadly violence of his martial arts training after learning from his mentor, Cho Lin that the assassins he dispatched who infiltrated the temple for the sole purpose of murdering the son of Fu Manchu were actually hired by his father as a lethal training exercise. The largest flaw here is that Starlin clearly drew Shang-Chi without knowledge that Englehart wanted him depicted as a fourteen year old. It is a nice touch to see that the deliberate manipulation of Shang-Chi by Cho Lin is intended as a slow fuse rebellion on his part. The monk recognizes that Shang-Chi will eventually reject his father’s doctrine and the deadly force that is Shang-Chi will be turned upon his maker.
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