Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Classic MOKF Post: The Spy Who Face-Kicked Me!!

 This post originally appeared in October of 2008

What do you do when you have the rights to Sax Rohmer's pulp villain Fu Manchu, as well as the right to the TV series Kung Fu?

Why, combine them, of course!!

In a move that made absolutely no sense but ended up working brilliantly, Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin created Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu, in Special Marvel Edition #15. Let's give Fu Manchu a son, raised by monks to become the ultimate fighting machine--but that same upbringing causes him to reject his father's evil, so we'll have joins up with Fu's old nemesis, Sir Denis Nayland Smith of Scotland Yard, to oppose him.

It was a ridiculously wonderful conceit, and Special Marvel Edition quickly changed its title to Master of Kung Fu (well, technically..."The Hands of Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu"...try to file that sucker).

The early run on Master of Kung Fu was all Fu Manchu, all the time. Not that there's was anything wrong with Fu Manchu. He was pretty damn evil, and the fact that he was Shang-Chi's father made for some great conflict.

But when both of the character's creators bailed on the title after a mere handful of issues, Doug Moench was thrown to the lions (after 1/2 of an issue written by Gerry Conway). While Moench seemed to immediately have a good grasp on Shang's character, the instability--seemingly a different artist every issue, no longer range plan on what was going to be done with the character--resulted in a string of stories that, well not bad, stank with a certain deja vu. Gangster tries to kill Shang to curry favor with Fu Manchu; Fu has a plot in Florida, so our cast goes there; Fu has a plot in South America, so we go there; Smith sends Shang to investigate a supposed Fu lair in London, Chi's half sister was starting a war against Fu...

We were caught in a Fu rut. Not to mention, the series was starting to get some blowback for the "Yellow Peril" stereotype that some thought Fu perpetuated.

Well, finally Moench and Paul Gulacy got their ducks in a row, and the blurb at the end of #27 promised a "dynamic new direction!" #28 came out, and it was a fill-in (surprise--it was Gulacy, after all!), and once again promised a "dynamic new direction!" for the next issue. And this time, we got it.

That new direction?

Chi...Shang-ChiKung Fu James Bond.

That's right, 30 years before Fraction and Brubaker gave us "Kung Fu Billionaire," Moench and Gulacy decided to take the odd hybrid character of Shang Chi and plop him down into a wonderful homage/hybrid milieu of Ian Fleming.

Suddenly, Nayland Smith and crew, who had been identified nebulously as working for Scotland Yard, were at MI-6, in Her Majesty's Secret Service.

Suddenly, instead of going after Fu Manchu, they were going after insane megalomanical billionaires like Carlton Velcro:

Evil billionaire...checkVelcro, from his luxurious mansion in a French Mediterranean grotto (seriously), was secretly the world's biggest heroine dealer. Except, it turns out, he was using that front as a front in his quest to obtain and sell nuclear weapons to the highest bidder!!

Of course, Velcro's mansion was insanely luxurious...

Villains love their lady-filled pools...with a hidden underground death fortress that took Ken Adam's set designs for Bond and turned the dial up to 11.

He has to be a billionaire just to heat that place!!The new master villains Shang would face usually had dementedly colorful henchmen (conveniently, most with martial arts motifs):

Obvious jokes avoided, because Chris Sims has already made them
Kitten With A WhipAnd the arcs usually ended, as Bond movies must, with exploding complexes:

Pyrotechincs are much more affordable on the comics pageA minor character who had been introduced earlier, Clive Reston, was made prominent in Chi's supporting cast. His distinction? While they couldn't come right out and say it, Moench would drop hints every issue that Clive was both the son of James Bond and the great-nephew of Sherlock Holmes:

Careful...don't give the lawyers anything they can latch onto
OK, I never said the hints were subtle...Gulacy even tried to draw him as a hybrid of Sean Connery and Basil Rathbone...

And as always, there was still plenty of kung fu to be found:

Better than ANYTHING in The Man With The Golden GunAnd you know what? As silly as it sounded, this new direction once again worked brilliantly. Since they were already operating in a comic book universe that had established an immortal devil doctor with indecipherable super science was trying to take over the world, the Bond pastiches fit in perfectly, with no further suspension of disbelief required. And because the comics page didn't require special effects to show outrageous things, Moench and Gulacy were able to take the whole "super British spies fighting global threats" thing in directions and too extremes that weren't possible (then) on screen.

And sitting at the center of this, the calm eye as the hurricane of nuttiness raged around him, was Shang-Chi, placidly philosophizing about how abhorrent violence was as he face-kicked henchmen and helped James Bonds' son blow up killer satellites and stop insane robot-double building madmen.

Fu wasn't gone forever...but now, when he reared his evil head, it was an event, even a surprise...which made him that much better...after all, who wants Doctor Doom to appear in every issue??

It was crazy, it was wonderful. And sadly, it will likely never be reprinted, as Marvel allowed the Rohmer rights to lapse, which means that any story containing Fu or Nayland Smith is out of bounds..and that was almost all of them.

Maybe someday, Marvel will take the truckload of cash they've sucked from us with Secret Invasion and buy back the rights, at least for reprints. And maybe, someday, someone will have another brilliant brainstorm about how to reinvent Shang-Chi yet again, in another genre-smashing mode that works despite expectations (hint--Heroes For Hire, whatever your strengths, you didn't cut it as a Shang-Chi vehicle).

Final note: I discovered that the first time I mentioned his name I had mistyped it as "Shag-Chi," and the spell-checker didn't object. Hmmm...

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