In the half century or so that makes up most of video game history, there have been plenty of games which have featured swords and swordfighting. From fantasy games to ultra-realistic combat games, most have not gone for any realism except perhaps graphically, though there have been a handful of notable exceptions such as Bushido Blade and Kengo. Until fairly recently that has not been much of an issue. The average video game player, if there can be said to be such a person, has seemed to be more interested in flashy graphics and action than in realistic swordfighting, or at least that is what the gaming market has mostly provided. Yet the last couple of decades have brought about the popularity of Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) with more and more practitioners and proponents joining the leagues every day, along with those who have interests in other martial arts. And these people, the folks who train and compete with swords, they know their swordfighting. Which means when they want to play a swordfighting video game, they want realism not only in how swords look but in how the bladed weapons perform on the screen.
Finally there is a video game for them.
The game’s title is Hellish Quart. Produced by Jakub and Kate Kisiel of the Polish studio Kubold, Hellish Quart is a 3D physics-based, one-on-one swordfighting game in which each fencing move of the characters on screen have been motion captured.
Hellish Quart is currently an Early Access game, which means there is more work yet to be done on it, and so far it is only available for play on a Windows platform. But don’t let any of that fool you. If you are interested in serious, historical fencing, this is a game you will want to look into.
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.
Master of Kung Fu Annual #1 was a reworking of what would have been Giant-Size Master of Kung Fu #5 had Marvel’s short-lived line of quarterly publications not been prematurely discontinued. As it stands it was the only King-Size Annual Marvel published for the series. Marvel Annuals were generally a mixed bag and this is no exception. A few select ones offered truly special longer stories which were a delight for loyal readers, but most were either hurriedly produced or generally disappointing tryouts for aspiring Marvel writers and artists to demonstrate their handling of established properties. Master of Kung Fu Annual fell in the former category with Doug Moench and Keith Pollard tossing off Shang-Chi’s first encounter with Iron Fist.
The story itself isn’t terrible, but Shang-Chi is almost a guest star in what is essentially an Iron Fist story that is centered on the character’s origins. The visit to the otherworldly dimension that Iron Fist calls home to take on an invasion force led by a sorcerer really seems to be more of a martial arts spin on Doctor Strange. The artwork utilizes some of Steve Ditko’s interdimensional concepts, but without any of his sense of abstract wonder. I was not acquainted with Iron Fist having a mystical background and the story did nothing to make me care much either way as it was clearly knocked off quickly by the overworked Doug Moench. Like the companion magazine, Deadly Hands of Kung Fu, this seemed largely a wasted opportunity. Fans of the character may be interested that there is a brief continuity reference to an ongoing storyline involving Daughters of the Dragon in the companion magazine which one suspects might have made for a more engaging crossover for Shang-Chi, although based on their crossovers in the magazine, perhaps it would have fared no better.
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.
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 Apesand Tales of the Zombie, among others), The Deadly Hands of Kung Fusought 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.
Master of Kung Fu #33 sees writer Doug Moench continuing to build upon the series’ new direction while also continuing to deploy offbeat humor sparingly to great effect. This first installment of a three-part storyline begins when Shang-Chi thwarts an assassination attempt on Clive Reston by a highly-advanced automaton. The reader and Shang-Chi learn from MI5 that the automaton is one of the toys of Mordillo, a robotics genius and master assassin who, it transpires, was the force behind Carlton Velcro.
Shang-Chi is provided with his own swank London townhouse (courtesy of MI5). While Clive Reston is showing him around his new digs, they encounter Reston’s former lover, seductive MI5 agent Leiko Wu. Her introductory scene, taking a bubble bath and shamelessly dressing (barely) in front of Reston and Shang-Chi establishes her not only as a Bondian seductress, but also signals her as a confident and capable woman who is content to leave a string of broken hearts in her wake. Doug Moench excels at establishing a sense of fatalism in his work. Just as the reader understands that Shang-Chi compromising his principles in working for MI5 will only lead to regret; so too the reader understands that the innocent and somewhat naive Shang-Chi falling for the far more worldly Leiko Wu is also fated to end in pain and suffering. Shang-Chi, in his professional and personal choices, chooses the short-term good and ignores the fact that the long-term can only lead to misery.
This week I have two reasons to write about The Last Dragon, aka Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon. First, the biggest black superhero movie ever produced arrives in theaters this weekend, Black Panther. If projections are accurate, it will steamroller all February opening records with a domestic box-office take of $200 million and become a cultural touchstone for 2018. It’s the right time to celebrate with one of Black Panther’s earlier progenitors in black superhero movies that isn’t Blade. (Nothing against Blade, but it’s the example the other magazines will cover.)
On a double bill with Big Trouble in Little China, I’d show The Last Dragon first. This is based on my guidelines for crafting double features — a subject I’ve given far too much thought — that either 1) the lesser quality film goes first, or 2) the lighter/less grim film goes second, whichever factor feels dominant. Since both movies are on the same level of buoyancy and feel-good fun, The Last Dragon opens for Big Trouble in Little China.
John Carpenter has seen plenty of his films underperform when first released, only to turn into cult icons years later. But Big Trouble in Little China, Carpenter’s ninth feature film, didn’t just underperform. It was the biggest flop of his career up to that point, pulling in $1.1 million against a budget of $25 million. This ended Carpenter’s phase with the big studios and sent him back to the indie world.
Big Trouble in Little China started on the page as a Western set in 1899. It was rewritten for a modern-day setting by script-doctor (and Buckaroo Banzai director) W. D. Richter before Carpenter arrived. Carpenter sparkled up the screenplay with his love of screwball comedy characters and dialogue and took inspiration from Chinese martial arts fantasy movies like Tsui Hark’s Zu Warriors of the Magic Mountain. Out of this stew, Carpenter created what he called “an action adventure comedy Kung-Fu ghost story monster movie.” Something for everybody. Kurt Russell promised audiences in a promotional featurette that they’d definitely get their five-bucks’ worth.
But the final product baffled the executives at 20th Century Fox. The studio dumped the promotional marketing into the sewer, contributing to the movie’s massive box-office crash. But, according to the Law of John Carpenter Cult Movies, Big Trouble in Little China gained a second life on cable and video. By the mid-‘90s, when the Hong Kong martial arts fantasy/comedy genre blew up in North America, this ode to Kung Fu, movie serials, Chuck Jones, and clueless macho heroes had become a classic.
Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) is the tough-talking, hoagie-munching truck driver of the Pork Chop Express. He arrives in San Francisco and meets his buddy Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) for beer and pai gow. Jack drives Wang to the airport to pick up his friend’s fiancée, Miao Yin (Suzee Pai), who’s arriving from Beijing. But at the airport, a Chinatown street gang kidnaps Miao Yin to sell to a brothel. When Jack and Wang pull into Chinatown to search for her, they land in the middle of a war between the ancient societies the Chang Sing and Wing Kong — as well as an eruption of strange magic that leaves Jack Burton confused for … well, pretty much the rest of the movie.
Master of Kung Fu #22 sees the welcome return of artist Paul Gulacy who came and went a bit in these early issues. The first half of the story sees Shang-Chi set upon by Si-Fan assassins at a Chinese restaurant in New York before infiltrating his father’s skyscraper base of operations. Fu Manchu has captured both Sir Denis Nayland Smith and Black Jack Tarr. Shang-Chi stows away aboard Fu Manchu’s private jet unaware of their destination. Once on the ground, he follows as his father’s minions lead their captives to a cave in the side of a mountain which has been filled with dynamite. Shang-Chi rescues the two Englishmen and prevents the detonation which would have seen Fu Manchu kill his archenemy in the same instant he destroyed Mount Rushmore. Doug Moench, like Steve Englehart before him, has an embarrassment of riches that are largely squandered with insufficient page count to fully develop his narrative. This would soon change, however, and make the series one of the finest published in the 1970s.
Most of Marvel’s Giant-Size quarterly titles were throwaways, much like too many of their special Annual editions, but Giant-Size Master of Kung Fu #2 was a 40-page epic designed to showcase both the character of Shang-Chi and the talents of the series’ writer and artist, respectively. Doug Moench had been harboring a desire to address racism and bigotry directly and a series with an Asian protagonist gave him the perfect forum to do so. Paul Gulacy now had the freedom to display martial arts fighting as well as moving displays of romance and longing relying solely on the power of his images in a string of panels that conveyed storytelling free of words. Even more significant is the fact that Gulacy’s depictions of lust and attraction never pandered to titillation as the artist evinced a mature understanding of the art form’s possibility. The fact that he was strongly influenced by cinema and Steranko’s pop art work of the 1960s take nothing away from the fact that Gulacy was coming into his own as an artist with this title.
It’s the best part of the reading experience to run across a story with a new voice. Warren Ellis, of The Authority and Transmetropolitan fame, has assumed various voices, but I love his newest one: the narrative perspective of Marvel’s Karnak the Shatterer, a character associated with the Inhumans.
The Inhumans, created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, have been around since The Fantastic Four was in double-digits. Some of you may recall that Karnak is the one with the big head and the super-effective karate chops because his special talent is finding the structural flaws in things.
(Although, to be accurate, Karnak isn’t technically an Inhuman because was never exposed to the Terrigen mists — bring that up at a dinner party for a No-Prize!)
Over the years, Karnak’s powers and perceptions have expanded to include seeing the flaws in arguments, concepts, and people. His greatest achievement is finding the flaw in death, thereby returning from the dead.
It may sound a bit blithe to say it that way, but Karnak’s philosophical viewpoint has been strengthened over the years and bears some thematic resemblances to people like Iron Fist’s warriors of K’un-Lun or the Ancient One (of Dr. Strange fame).
The Inhumans of course, have been increasing in their importance in the Marvel Universe. I’ve seen internet theories that Marvel is downplaying the X-Men while up-playing the Inhumans, because Marvel doesn’t hold the X-Men movie rights.