By Andrew A. Smith
Tribune Content Agency
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the 10 Rings arrives at theaters Sept. 3. If you think he’s an odd addition to Marvel’s line of mostly superheroes, you’d be right. And therein, of course, lies a tale.
It’s a long one, going back to the early part of the 20th century, when Asian martial arts began surfacing in the West.
Jujitsu was invented in the feudal era of Japan as a method to battle fully armored samurai. Judo, both a sport and a philosophy derived from jujitsu, appeared in Japan in the late 1800s. Both made their transition to the West with little fanfare in the early 1900s, with judo demonstrated in exhibition at the 1932 Olympics.
As you’d expect, a new (to them) fighting style is catnip to the writers of superhero comics. Any number of punch-em-up characters could be found using (and usually name-checking) judo in the 1940s. Black Canary, in particular, was fond of shoulder rolls. In 1965, Charlton Comics introduced “Judomaster,” and by then the hero had no need to explain to readers what he was doing.
It wasn’t until after World War II that karate made a splash. The fighting style returned to the U.S. with the hundreds of thousands of American soldiers who had served in the Pacific Theater, and later the occupation of Japan. Karate dojos sprang up in the U.S. in the 1950s, and by the 1960s, karate was ingrained in the fighting styles of heroes on TV shows like The Wild, Wild West and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (Napoleon Solo is a gimme, but where Secret Service agent James West learned karate in the 1800s will have to remain a mystery.)
Naturally, comics were quick to pick up karate as well. DC Comics beat Ralph Macchio to the literal punch, with a Legion of Super-Heroes character named Karate Kid in 1966. Other hand-to-hand combatants in comics could be seen merrily chopping away as the fighting style became a household word.
Then came the 1970s, and kung fu.
It was new-ish to the U.S., but Chinese martial arts go back to at least the 5th century BCE. That was then and there, though. We all know how kung fu made its transition to the West: the kung fu movie craze of the 1970s.
That was a result of the Communist takeover of China in 1949. Many artistic types relocated to Hong Kong (governed by the British at the time) to avoid the censorious Reds. An electric film industry erupted, focused primarily on wuxia movies, an ancient Chinese literary style that involved a lot of martial arts, a lot of magic and, in the movies, even animation.
In his original iteration, Shang-Chi battled Fu Manchu alongside allies such as Black Jack Tarr (top left) and Leiko Wu (top right). Your eyes aren’t deceiving you; Black Jack does in fact look like a buff Lee Van Cleef. (Cover art to Master of Kung Fu Omnibus Vol. 3 by Mike Deodata, copyright Marvel Comics)
A specific type of these movies emerged, which excluded most of the magic, but included some wuxia elements, such as the heroes being chivalrous and the concept of hidden enclaves of monks who practice a martial art. That brand emphasized kung fu (and outrageous physical stunts).
It was enormously popular. And a star emerged: Bruce Lee.
American audiences became somewhat familiar with Lee when he starred as Kato in The Green Hornet (1966-67). But then came The Big Boss (1971), a Hong Kong martial arts movie that broke through internationally. That was followed by Fist of Fury and Way of the Dragon, which also made tons of money, before Warner Bros. jumped on board to co-finance Enter the Dragon. Lee died shortly after the movie was released, but by then the kung fu craze was in full flower, at least in New York and Los Angeles.
Which, in America, is all it takes. NYC and L.A. are our media capitals, and they are where the cameras are.
In 1972, ABC launched Kung Fu, a new TV series set in the Wild West, starring David Carradine as Kwai Chang Caine, an itinerant Chinese émigré searching for his long-lost half-brother. Caine was, naturally, a kung fu master who had frequent flashbacks to his training in a Shaolin temple.
Wuxia lives! And it’s on TV!
There were also two very important viewers of this show, from a comics perspective. Jim Starlin (who created Thanos) and Steve Englehart (who wrote many a Marvel tale in the 1970s and ‘80s). Both were blown away, and Starlin began using Kung Fu philosophical concepts in his space odyssey, Captain Marvel. (This was the male version, who preceded Carol Danvers.)
In the current Shang-Chi series, he is the head of an evil organization that he’s trying to reform, but that brings him into conflict with a variety of Marvel heroes. The first issue guest starred Spider-Man (bottom left). (Cover art to Shang-Chi #1 by Leinil Francis Yu, copyright Marvel Comics)
Later, both approached then-Marvel Editor-in-Chief Roy Thomas with a proposal for a martial-arts themed series. Thomas told them to include Fu Manchu — a “Yellow Peril” villain from the 1930s, to which Marvel had just attained the rights — and Master of Kung Fu was born.
The concept was given a try-out in Marvel Special Edition, a reprint title. But MoKF was an immediate hit, and it wasn’t long before Marvel Special Edition was re-titled Master of Kung Fu.
Englehart and Starlin gave us Shang-Chi, the son of Fu Manchu, who had been raised in a bubble learning martial arts, and was ordered to perform an assassination for the good of the world as his first mission for dear old dad.
The victim was a Dr. Petrie, a name Fu Manchu readers will recognize. Petrie was the Watson to Sir Denis Nayland Smith, the British agent who was the hero in the Fu Manchu stories, always foiling the Devil Doctor’s schemes. Petrie was entirely harmless, which Shang discovered in short order.
And realized his dad was a snake.
Thus began Shang’s new mission, joining the now-elderly Smith and his MI-6 associates in “games of deceit and death” to counter Fu Manchu. The subtext of the series was the coming-of-age story of Shang-Chi, whose name roughly translates to “The Rising and Advancing of the Spirit.” He was a master of kung fu, but he had to learn to be a master of his own destiny.
This combo plate of martial arts, Eastern philosophy and Western espionage was a huge hit, especially after the second wave of creators took over. That included writer Doug Moench and extraordinary artists Paul Gulacy, Mike Zeck and Gene Day. Starlin and Englehart had a great concept, but it was Moench and company who realized its potential.
Master of Kung Fu kicked off a martial arts mini-craze at Marvel, which included Iron Fist, the Sons of the Tiger and the Daughters of the Dragon (Misty Knight and Colleen Wing). Master of Kung Fu tended to stand apart, but the others found homes in Iron Fist, Luke Cage, Power Man and the black-and-white magazine Deadly Hands of Kung Fu. Later, when two of those titles were combined into Power Man/Iron Fist, Misty and Colleen became supporting characters.
In current comics, an effort has been made to incorporate Shang-Chi into the Marvel Universe. He’s been an Avenger, he’s trained Spider-Man and his current series is a sort of revamped Marvel Team-Up, with a different guest star in each issue (Spider-Man, Captain America and Wolverine so far).
That seems odd to old hands like me, who miss the concept and supporting cast of the original series. But it stands to reason that Shang would eventually realize that “games of deceit and death” are bad form for an advancing spirit, so the original status quo couldn’t maintain forever. And I’m sure These Kids Today™, who are experiencing Shang-Chi for the first time, aren’t held back by the past.
One aspect of MoKF always grated on me, though: Fu Manchu. He was an ugly cliché, a negative stereotype in a series of novels published in the days when Americans, for some reason, feared the “Asian hordes.” This xenophobia began in the late 1800s when Chinese railroad workers were in abundance, and resulted in legislation like the “Chinese Exclusion Act” of 1882.
Despite the title, the bigotry wasn’t aimed at any one nation, but instead to Asians as a whole. Many of the Japanese-American adults who were rounded up and put in camps during World War II weren’t citizens, despite living in the country for decades — because they weren’t allowed to be. Not that it mattered; their children, who were native-born Americans, were also locked up.
The Yellow Peril was in full evidence in comics. The comic strip “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century” (1929) was initially an adaptation of the novella Armageddon 2419 A.D., wherein the Asian “Hans” had conquered North America. The first issue of DC’s Detective Comics (1937) featured an evil-looking Asian on the cover, complete with Fu Manchu mustache. Lev Gleason comics had “The Claw” in the 1940s and Marvel Comics (then called Timely) published “The Yellow Claw” in the 1950s. All cut from the same cloth.
As was The Mandarin, when he appeared in 1964. Which is one reason Fu Manchu hit me badly: If Marvel wanted to use an ugly Asian stereotype for Shang-Chi’s father, they already had two in the house: Yellow Claw and Mandarin. And since Marvel didn’t own Fu Manchu outright, they would eventually lose the rights and set up the scenario now in play: Shang’s father can no longer appear and can’t be mentioned by name.
Which won’t be a problem in the movies, where his father will be — as he should have been from the beginning — the entirely Marvel-owned Mandarin. Let’s just hope he doesn’t have a Fu Manchu mustache.
Find Captain Comics by email (firstname.lastname@example.org), on his website (captaincomics.ning.com), on Facebook (Andrew Alan Smith) or on Twitter (@CaptainComics).