Rereading comics: Doug Moench and Paul Gulacy on Master of Kung Fu (part 1)

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Shang-Chi Master of Kung Fu, panel from MOKF No. 43, art by Paul Gulacy

Those rare folks who’ve followed this blog for a while, know that I am a somewhat-closeted fan of comic books. I’ve been reading comic books since the mid-1970s when my 4th grade best friend Mike Cranford loaned me a copy of Marvel Triple Action – more on that story in the intro here.

During the rest of my elementary school, junior high and high school, I got my hands on whatever comics I could – then, in college, mostly transitioned to the more adult stuff that I read plenty of today. I remember the last of the Marvel superhero comics that I kept up with were The X-men and The Hands of Shang-Chi: Master of Kung Fu.

Cover of MOKF No. 29, a Moench-Gulacy issue, though the cover art is by Gil Kane. Gulacy drew relatively few MOKF covers.

After my mom passed away recently, I decided it was time to move my voluminous comic collection from its residence in my brother’s garage to my own place. This, of course, precipitated the beginnings of a trip down memory lane, re-reading various titles… some of which haven’t held up all that well, at least to my present tastes.

As I re-read, the comic book series that I have been most impressed with, so far, is Master of Kung Fu (MOKF), especially issues written by Doug Moench and drawn by Paul Gulacy.

I don’t know why these aren’t still in print. They were very popular at the time. They won awards. They’re well-plotted, and beautifully drawn. They have a fairly broad appeal I think – enough fighting for appeal to the kid comic fan, and enough thought-philosophy for the sophisticate. On second thought, maybe it’s the lack of a clear genre that inhibits their popularity. For thinking folks it looks too much like pop kung fu… for kung fu fans maybe there’s too much thinking.

Another thing that might keep them out of print is licensing the use of Fu Manchu and other Sax Rohmer characters. Shang-Chi is the son of Fu Manchu. He joins with British intelligence forces and fights against his father’s nefarious plots.

And another thing that might hurt in reprints is that there are quite a few issues in the middle of the run that aren’t illustrated by Gulacy and that aren’t all that remarkable.

Bruce Lee – photo from Wikipedia

MOKF was started by Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin… but a couple issues into the series, Gulacy takes over the visuals, and very soon thereafter Moench the writing. Gulacy’s early work definitely draws from the visual style of Jim Steranko… but then he infuses the visuals with cinematic flairs. This mix (a bit analogous to Mignola’s riff off of Kirby) gives Gulacy’s work its own distinctive style.

Especially in Gulacy’s depictions, Shang-Chi very much physically resembles the martial artist and movie star and all-around ripped badass Bruce Lee, especially Lee’s shirtless fight from Enter the Dragon.

MOKF started in 1973, in the midst of the United States’ Kung Fu craze. I remember excitedly watching the David Carradine Kung Fu TV show. Though I dug the TV show at the time, I wasn’t into MOKF comics. I think Shang-Chi perhaps didn’t exhibit enough super-human powers for my juvenile tastes. The MOKF comic seemed kind of slow-moving and philosophical, which I guess somewhat describes the TV show, too. We young Linton boys thought it too long for “grasshopper” to wander around and avoid violence before he started kicking some ass.

I didn’t start reading MOKF until quite a bit later. The first issue that I remember connecting with (and being blown away by!) was No. 59, dated July 1977 – written by Moench, but drawn by Mike Zeck. I enjoyed that one and started collecting back issues.

Re-reading lately, I am struck by a lot of stylistic innovations that these 1970s MOKF issues include. These sorts of tricks go on to be wielded by Alan Moore and others… and it seems like MOKF might be where some of the innovations arose. Reading around the blogosphere, Gulacy was definitely influenced by film, and this results in some great visual storytelling techniques. I tend to attribute these innovations to Gulacy, though they’re more accurately a collaboration between Moench and Gulacy. The reason for my crediting Gulacy is that, at various points after and during Gulacy’s stint on MOKF, Moench’s stories are illustrated by other artists… and those stories are ok, sometimes even great… but mostly relatively conventional… just not as visually innovative and compelling as the ones where Moench’s stories are illustrated by Gulacy.

Gulacy (like quite a bit of Steranko before him) frequently nails great whole-page layouts. Here’s an example I really like:

Page 3 of MOKF No. 31 – art by Paul Gulacy

The left column portays Shang-Chi’s leap. The vertical format read from top to bottom, of course, mirrors the fall action going from top to bottom. Panels one, three, and five (a sort of pan sequence – see below) depict Shang-Chi falling. The passage of time between panels is shown by the rotation of his body and the fall progressing downward spatially. These are broken up by the even panels, which also pan vertically (though up and down) the act of the soldier below lighting his cigar. Time in the even panels is more sequential (lifting a cigar, then putting it between the lips, then lighting it) than the spatial differences in the odd panels (Shang-Chi up high, then falling, then falling further.)

The bottom seventh panel depicts the soldier with feet spread symmetrically wide, standing very stably on floor which is the floor of the panel and of the overall page. The soldier’s stance sort of oppositely mirrors Shang-Chi’s in the 5th panel. Also in the seventh panel, the diagonals of soldier’s right leg, gun strap, and the edge of the doorway lead the reader’s gaze diagonally upward to the right where…

In the upper right, the soldier sees Shang-Chi’s reflection. Now the diagonals are from upper left to lower right. The silent descent has given way to impact, sound effects and shouts. The soldier’s body, all solid straight lines in panel 7 has collapsed to become all curves in panel 10. The arc of the soldier’s body is even reiterated by the smoke of the cigar which has been dislodged from his mouth – forming a pleasant S-curve.

I think that’s a great page!

Gulacy was one of the earlier masters of a comics technique that’s fairly common today. It’s a trick that I don’t know a formal title for… but it’s sort of like a camera panning a scene – so I’ll call it a “pan” or “panning.” (I guess I should re-read some Scott McCloud and see if he’s come up with a word for these tricks.) A pan sequence consists of multiple panels showing continuous aspects of the same location. The pieces of the location are connected, but separated by the white in-between panel space… so the place is continuous, but the panels move through space and time. Most of the time it’s used to track an action that’s moving quickly through space… but it can potentially span a great deal of time. It’s a visual trick that can be excellent, sometimes subtle, sometimes obvious, and sometimes forced. It’s very much unique to comics.

I think that the earliest version of this trick (at least the earliest that I am aware of) may be Windsor McKay’s Little Nemo stilt-bed walking through the city (see the first two panels here) in 1908. After 1908, I don’t know of other instances that precede MOKF. Gulacy, as far as I can tell, uses it first on page 11 of MOKF No. 18, dated June 1974. In the mid-1970s other artists began to use it (I am pretty sure Jim Aparo does in DC’s 70s Spectre stories), and it spreads from there. By the 1990s it’s perhaps overused… but still very cool… kinda stylized.

(I am curious if anyone out there has done any kind of more-throroughly-investigated tracking of this sequential trick. If you know of any article or study… or even if there are other early examples, please include in the comments. Update: I later compiled lots of these multi-pans or polyptichs here. The earliest I found is 1906 by Lyonel Feininger.)

The basic trick is to break up a single setting into multiple panels. There’s a somewhat similar visual trick that I call a multiple exposure panel. It’s when a character is shown multiple times in a single panel – generally to show action that is happening quickly.

The top panel here is an example of a multiple exposure panel:

Multiple exposure panel from Giant-Size MOKF No. 1, art by Paul Gulacy

Even though we see Shang-Chi four times, we know that there aren’t four of him. There are four images, separated slightly by time and space, and drawn sequentially in the same background location. How the pan sequence works is to break up these four snapshots and to give them each their own panel… but to keep the background pretty much intact. (Note that, in that panel specifically: though the action reads nicely, the narration in that single multi-exposure panel is a touch awkward… we read the upper left, then shift down, then up again – all in the same thought-sentence. It’s rather jagged… while the arc of the action is a smooth curve. The pan can help pace the narration better.)

Here’s an example of a fairly straightforward and excellent pan sequence:

Four-panel pan sequence from MOKF No. 29, page 18, art by Paul Gulacy

The character is Clive Reston… and the fall is stop-and-go, so it’s not quite the hugely gracefully vertical fall example shown above. It could work as a multiple exposure… but the panel sequence breaks up and paces Reston’s thoughts nicely. Reston’s figure goes from the small in the top of the frame, to large in the bottom of the frame. The worded thought ballons form an arc that, in the fourth panel, converges with the line of descending figure.

A pan doesn’t need to be all about action. Here’s a much quieter example:

Four panel pan sequence from MOKF No. 44, art by Paul Gulacy

In this case, the panels break up the gaze. Each panel is perhaps analogous to the Shang-Chi’s visual focus shifting across the room, though I say analogous, because Shang-Chi is in the left panel… so it’s the reader’s gaze shifting. By adding Shang-Chi’s internal dialog and breaking it up (to the top and bottom of each panel), the reader is forced to slow down just a bit. Instead of rushing across the page right to left, the readers attention bounces up and down a bit… mirroring both Shang-Chi’s furtive gaze examining the room… but also slowing down to follow Shang-Chi’s sort of restless self-questioning.

Here’s another example of a pan action sequence, and how Gulacy plays with it:

Four panel pan from MOKF No. 39, page 23, art by Paul Gulacy 

Shang-Chi chases a his nemesis known as the “Cat.” The setting of the entire four-panel sequence is one continuous place. The backgrounds, though separated by dividers (comics’ white space outside panel borders), are continuous. Each panel represents a sort of camera-shot both spatially and temporally adjacent to the previous and subsequent panel.

One nice trick that Gulacy’s done is that the Cat has gotten to the fourth panel before Shang Chi has, so it’s clear that the Cat has the upper hand. The third white-divider-line is in some ways not necessary, right? The sequence could work without it (with panels three and four combined), but I think it’s there for aesthetics, and as I mentioned, to give Cat the upper hand.

Another thing that makes the Cat sequence work visually are all those perfectly upright vertical poles – which echo the vertical white spaces between the panels.

And another example I really like:

Four-panel sequence from MOKF No. 40, page 23, art by Paul Gulacy

It’s all one setting, and panel by panel, the view pans across the scene. A bomb has just blown up. The smoke extends across all four panels, dragging the reader’s eyes to the right and upward. The diagonals boards do the same across and up.

The direction of the assassins has a deliberate progression, too. In the first panel the assassin’s gaze, his gun, and even the weight of his body, are pointed to the left. In the second panel, the next assassin looks and points his gun straight, more-or-less toward the reader. In the third panel, the assassin gazes and points his gun to the right. The word balloons also have an excellent arc; they go from the tops of the panels, to just lower, then to the fourth panel, where Shang-Chi’s narration comes from below, where Shang Chi is hiding, under the debris. Bringing the reader’s eye to the bottom of the fourth panel leads down to the next row.  The reader panning across the four panels reiterates the assassins’ panning the scene to verify their success. And… the whole sequence acts a sort of calm coda between an explosion and an ambush.

Below is another example from the same issue. Shang-Chi and agent Black Jack Tarr are paying a visit to a down-on-his-luck agent named Larner.:

Multi-panel sequence from MOKF No. 40, page 15 – Art by Paul Gulacy

There’s a lot going on here, perhaps almost too much.  One fun visual element is all those diagonals (sink, rain, car roof and hood, pants cuff, table, armrests,  and bottle/s) going from lower left to upper right. The dripping faucet measures time (and it’s been done before – by Will Eisner) and, as a sort of broken thing in need of fixing, sets up some of the squalor. The pan sequence, this time five panels, follows the rolling of the bottle on the floor… and the motion of the rolling bottle is stopped by the boot of Black Jack Tarr (the angle of Tarr’s boot being the opposite diagonal than the one I noted earlier – the boot angle is upper left to lower right.)

Most of the time Gulacy breaks a pan sequence like this into four panels, but I think that this one works well in five because of the vanishing point of the perspective of the floorboards – being located in the middle of the middle panel.

Close up of panel 3 – art by Paul Gulacy

What I find fascinating about this sequence is that, though I think it works really well, it’s actually, in a way, wrong.

Take a look at the third panel (right). If I look at just this isolated panel, and take it at face value, it depicts two bottles on the floor. Though in the overall five-panel sequence, as I read it, there is only one bottle rolling. One thing that indicates that there’s only one bottle is the way the label on the bottle goes up and down as the bottle rolls.

If one is, say with a movie camera, panning across a room where a bottle is rolling across a floor, one would never get a frame where multiple bottles appear. So, Gulacy has combined both the pan sequence and the multiple-exposure panel (described above.) As I stated, the multi-exposure thing is fairly rare – usually used for something acrobatic and extraordinary… and it’s something uncommon enough that it generally does draw attention to itself.

Gulacy pulls off the multiple-depiction panel melded into the pan sequence… for a pretty ordinary mundane scene-setting detail, a single bottle rolling across a floor. And he does all this in a way that’s compelling visually.

There are plenty more examples of Gulacy pan sequences… but the one’s I’ve shown here were clear and illustrative… and mostly from his later work on the series (where I think his art matured and improved a bit.) If you have a favorite pan that I didn’t touch on, include it in the comments.

(Part two will cover a few more innovative Moench-Gulacy storytelling techniques, and part three will focus on the Moench-Gulacy award-winning multi-part multi-voice MOKF opus spanning issues No. 45-50. Updated – part 2 posted here  and part 3 posted here.)

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14 Responses to “Rereading comics: Doug Moench and Paul Gulacy on Master of Kung Fu (part 1)”

  1. Took Zoxor Says:

    am interrupting my own reading of your so-far wonderful article (lookin fw 2 resuming it after this post) at about where you say

    “forming a pleasant S-curve.

    I think that’s a great page!”

    to take the liberty to expand on your extraordinary insight. your insight so far seems, like i said, extraordinary, on a ot fo fronts already, such as, for instance, your thoughts about why you attribute the cinematic influence to gulacy specifically, but i can’t resist writing about more analysis of the masterful page you describe.

    though far more basic than your amazing insights into that page, i will add that there is a fundamental aspect to visual weight and/or weight/direction in any comics page. the simplest trick in terms of weight, is to do a page layout that has thinner top row of panels than bottom row of panels.

    the most historic sample of this is ditko’s page of spiderman lifting a seemingly impossible weight. [link:
    http://media.tumblr.com/880d5ac43bcb706a20844abe2a4c6b36/tumblr_inline_mhcyaxEZHJ1qz4rgp.jpg ]

    in that page ditko broke from his classic 3-equal rows, and by increasing the height of the rows from top to bottom, reversed the gravitas of the weight of the burden vs the force of the hero. (coincidentally, those pages also show the huge presence of the lee/ditko textual exploration and emphasis of the soul of the hero, which not only accentuates the use of the physical challenge in the story as a metaphoric aspect of the hero’s struggle, but goes well with the philosophy/soul-driven aspect of moench’s mokf, as you point out)

    going back to the mokf page you so well analyze, the layout does a few more basic tricks, such as the fact that the vertical column on the left also has thinner panel at top and taller panel at bottom (to this day i’m perplexed by the fact that so many established comics artist do the opposite and thus create rather pages that are unnecessarily heavy and unbalanced because the bottom part of their layout is squeezed thin, crowded, and suffocating) and furthermore the last panel of that masterful mokf page (1) lifts the page up by having the platform elevated significantly compared to the bottom of the panel, again, avoiding a heavy look and in fact lifting the layout, (2) the platform being positioned as it is creates an even more powerful effect of IMPACT from shang chi’s kick, (3) the platform angle going up-and-right (direction of western reading eyes) is also a basic trick to lead the narrative up towards the next page. (think about the nike logo: where it reversed, i argue it would never have been as sucessful. indeed, countless layouts, icons, images form the western world depend on an up-and-to-the-left semiotic effect.)

    as if this was not enough, this mokf page manages incredible levity despite its presence of no less than 10 frames/shots/images by having enough white space, and properly placed.

    most artists are little aware of such basics and create layouts and artwork intuitively. in fact, too much awareness of the techniques might hinder spontaneous art creation. but i find it fascinating to analyze such elements (we are both just scratching the surface of how deep semiotics can go) but countless times even more worthwhile when the semiotics of art and layout serve as vehicle for such engaging and deep text.

    now, then, im goin back to reading your article and lovin it…

  2. Took Zoxor Says:

    sorry about typos etc. and what i meant is “the western world depend on an up-and-to-the-right semiotic effect.)”

  3. Took Zoxor Says:

    “so I’ll call it a “pan” or “panning.” i think steranko was probably doing it before gulacy, but as you point out the two artists are “connected”

  4. Took Zoxor Says:

    a powerful use of the technique by miller on dd http://www.theothermurdockpapers.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/11/Picture-6.png
    which worked powerfully with http://www.theothermurdockpapers.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/11/Picture-7.png and http://www.comicbookgalaxy.com/images/dd191_1.gif

  5. Took Zoxor Says:

    “The sequence could work without it (with panels three and four combined), but I think it’s there for aesthetics, and as I mentioned, to give Cat the upper hand.” ur brilliant. this is just ONE example.

  6. Took Zoxor Says:

    “a bottle is rolling across a floor, one would never get a frame where multiple bottles appear. So, Gulacy has combined both the pan sequence and the multiple-exposure panel (described above.) ”
    don take this the wrong way, but i LOVE you.

    • Joe Linton Says:

      I happy that other folks who are into this stuff are discovering my musings. I love to explore what comics can do that other media can’t – sort of the unique language of comics.

  7. Took Zoxor Says:

    btw i taught a class on this in ’89 or ’90. ur the first i’ve encountered at such level. i bow to u.

  8. Took Zoxor Says:

    as explained on tyra banks’ official youtube channel, https://www.youtube.com/user/tyrabanks/discussion the batman chapter is paused for copyright issues http://4soulmates.zoxor.com/paused-modelland4-chapter11.htm
    is alan moore t’s secret identity? ghost writer?
    wanted: joe linton
    😉

  9. Took Zoxor Says:

    nah. i’m took thorntorn. joe is joe. tyra is tyra.

  10. Dixon Kinqade Says:

    With the advent of the Master of Kung Fu Omnibus and Deadly Hands of Kung Fu Omnibus being released this year, the folks over at the Masterworks Message Board were seeking “The Definitive MOKF/DHOKF Chronologic Reading Order”.

    As part of a larger project, “THE” Definitive MOKF/DHOKF Chronologic Reading Order and Shang Chi Chronology was just completed. If you’re interested, head on over to: http://shangchimokf.blogspot.com/

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