Dec 4, 2018

Tradecraft: Marvel Plots SHANG-CHI, MASTER OF KUNG FU Movie

Deadline reports that among the next wave of Marvel Cinematic Universe titles to follow in the wake of the fourth Avengers movie will be Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu. For spy fans, this is staggering news! The comic book The Hands of Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu was created in the early Seventies to (obviously) cash in on the kung fu craze of the time. Comics legends Steve Englehart (Batman: Strange Apparitions) and Jim Starlin (Avengers: Infinity War) originated the character, but it was the dynamic writer/artist team of Doug Moench and Paul Gulacy (who would later re-team on one of the best James Bond comics ever, Dark Horse's Serpent's Tooth) who became most associated with Shang-Chi... and who gave the comic a new direction as an espionage series.

Shang-Chi's real world origins at Marvel are a bit complicated, as the publisher had acquired the rights to Sax Rohmer's villainous Fu Manchu character, but Englehart was more interested in the popular TV series of the time, Kung Fu. So he incorporated Rohmer's characters Fu Manchu and his nemesis, British adventurer Sir Denis Nayland-Smith, but invented a new character to star in the series more inspired by Kung Fu... Fu Manchu's hitherto unknown son, Shang-Chi. Though the father had seen to it that the son was trained from birth to be a Master of Kung Fu, when Shang-Chi discovered that the father he believed to be be munificent was actually a diabolical criminal mastermind, he turned on him, and found employment with Nayland-Smith and the British Secret Service. In the hands of Moench and Gulacy, secret agent Shang-Chi encountered all manner of spy hijinks, from moles inside MI6 to supervillains with private islands, gadgets galore, and robotic armies. He also developed a roster of memorable sidekicks, including Nayland-Smith's assistant and bodyguard Black Jack Tarr (drawn by Gulacy to resemble Sean Connery in The Man Who Would Be King), and fellow MI6 agent Clive Reston (drawn by Gulacy at first to resemble Connery in Goldfinger, but later looking more and more like Roger Moore), who is strongly hinted to be the son of James Bond and the grand-nephew of Sherlock Holmes.

While Marvel's most famous spy agency, S.H.I.E.L.D., never showed up in the pages of Master of Kung Fu (though Shang-Chi did eventually team up with Nick Fury and Black Widow in a multi-issue arc of Marvel Team-Up), Gulacy's stunning artwork owed a clear debt to Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. artist Jim Steranko. Like Steranko, Gulacy reveled in quasi-sci-fi technology and weaponry and innovative, experimental page layouts. (One particular standout turned the page into a maze, following Shang-Chi's progress against a variety of opponents as he navigated the labyrinth.) He also brought his own obsessions to the table, like Bond-inspired, movie poster-style splash pages, relentlessly sexy women in proto-Gaultier fashions, and the liberal use of famous actors' likenesses to "cast" the book with everyone from Bruce Lee (upon whom Gulacy's Shang-Chi was clearly based) to Marlon Brando, Christopher Lee (as Fu Manchu, of course), and even Groucho Marx. The result was a truly unique book that far transcended (and consequently outlasted) the kung fu movie trend from which it was born, and drew influence from all sorts of popular culture. I think it may be my very favorite Marvel comic. Long unavailable outside of back issue bins, the entire 125-issue series has at long last been reprinted over the past few years in four massive, hardcover omnibus volumes, which I cannot recommend highly enough. Marvel has also recently begun a line of cheaper paperback "Epic Collections."

As for the movie, it's hard to say how closely it will resemble the comic book. But I certainly hope Chinese-American screenwriter Dave Callaham (Jean-Claude Van Johnson) retains the heightened espionage vibe, and the supporting character of Clive Reston. Marvel is, of course, hoping that a superhero film with an Asian lead and Asian and Asian-American talent behind the camera (they are looking to hire a director of Asian descent) will find similar box office success to their excellent black superhero pic Black Panther and this past summer's megahit and milestone for cinematic representation, Crazy Rich Asians. Not since the kung fu craze of the early Seventies has the moment been so right for a Shang-Chi movie! I can't wait to see who they cast as Shang-Chi, and who gets chosen to direct. This movie has the potential to finally deliver a spy film heightened to futuristic Marvel proportions on a truly epic scale!

1 comment:

TC said...

IIUC, the original Fu Manchu stories are now in public domain, but Sax Rohmer's estate still owns a trademark on the character name. And (again, IIUC) when Master of Kung Fu was cancelled in the early 1980s, Marvel Comics chose not to renew their contract/license on the Fu Manchu name. So, when they have used the character in subsequent appearances, they were careful to call him Zheng Zu or some other name.

I *think* they did publish a trade paperback or mini-series reprinting MOKF, and they made a deal with Rohmer's estate to use the name just for that occasion.

Maybe they will make another deal with the estate for the movie. Or maybe they will again use Zheng Zu, the Yellow Claw, the Mandarin, or some other villain.

Sales on the comic were marginal, and I suspect that a lot of comic book fans passed on it because they thought it was just a cheap attempt to exploit the mid-1970s martial arts fad.