This is the third, and for now final, in a series of blog articles about the comic book Master of Kung Fu – MOKF – and my favorite issues of it, written by Doug Moench and drawn by Paul Gulacy. I recommend you start reading with part 1, then part 2, then read this piece below.
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This third piece will focus on what I think is really Gulacy and Moench’s crowning achievement: a six-issue story arc beginning with MOKF No. 45 – October 1976 through MOKF No. 50 – March 1977.
It’s a cinematic, sweeping arc that reads a bit like a James Bond movie. What distinguishes it from pretty much any comic book that I’ve ever read, is that Moench has written each issue in the voice of a specific character. Usually MOKF featured a sort of internal voiceover narration – the thoughts of Shang-Chi. For these six issues, the narration shifts from character to character. Sometimes internal, sometimes spoken.
These six character voices are often clever and somewhat revealing about each narrator.
It’s a bit like an opera, or say Sweeney Todd, where each character has his or her own voice and themes and patterns that go along with it… ay… though not quite so deep as opera. What an opera does musically, a comic book does more visually.
The story arc actually begins a bit before this – Shang-Chi fights Cat and Shockwave, on his way, before realizing what’s behind it all. Though the whole thing is heading for Shang-Chi’s confrontation with his father Fu Manchu, Manch’s hand is hidden until the last page of issue 44… leading into:
MOKF No. 45
Part One (Shang-Chi): The Death Seed!
I am going to touch on a few things that I think are cool in each issue – mostly visual and other storytelling techniques. I don’t want to do a full recap plot-wise… so, who knows, this may come off a little disjointed. Just enjoy the images!
Issue 45 is narrated by Shang-Chi, which isn’t much of a departure from earlier issues. In some ways, Shang-Chi is worried about being reluctantly drawn into the violent conflicts between his sister and his father and British spy cohorts. But that is sort of how his character works (and part of the whole 70s Kung Fu craze) – he’s a kick-ass fighter, but he only does it when he’s pushed to the wall.
Here’s a panel series I like from MOKF N0. 45:
Shang-Chi has just taken out the assassin (lying at his feet) who was about to kill Chi’s colleague Reston. Clearly this is a multi-panel pan sequence (a technique I discussed at length in part 1), but, again Gulacy is playing with the form. Shang-Chi’s right hand is sticking out of the central panel, which gives him a sort of three-dimensional aspect. It’s as if he’s breaking out of the panel, punching his way off the page. In some ways, it looks like he’s going to step through a doorway space, created by the second panel. Breaking the panel wall is a very common illustration technique, so common that I have no idea how far it goes back – certainly well before the 1960s, probably to the early 20th century. As I mentioned, the pan sequence is much less common. This series is the only place I can think of where those two techniques are combined. In some ways they undermine each other… the pan usually separates actions through time and a bit of space… but these three panels don’t do that… so the pan is sort of a design choice – to make Shang-Chi pop, more than to tell a sequential story… though it works! And it does pace the dialog.
There are quite a few Alan-Moore-esque transitions (where wording from one setting spills over into another – described here) in MOKF No. 45. Here’s an excellent page, that spills into a Moorey transition.
First off, before I show the transition, at the end of the page, I want to show how excellent this page is for just moving our eyes across the page. Gulacy is a master at this.
The way the two men fight and tumble down the stairs pulls the reader’s eyes in a sort of Z-shaped trajectory. I saw a diagram that Art Speigelman did like this for his book on Plastic Man, so I’ve used my very meager computer graphic skills to sort of diagram it out. The overall path through the page is the dotted black line. The red arrows are lines in the artwork that reinforce this path. They’re mostly lines in the setting – stair railing, etc. but also sometimes the implied line of a character’s gaze. The one blue arrow is a transition made by one word balloon following another.
In the last panel on the page above, which takes place in Switzerland, Clive Reston says “Well, Chi, looks like I’ll be –.” That dialog is carried into the next panel at the top of the following page, where Black Jack Tarr, recuperating in England, says “– up and around in a few days…”
That sort of technique of transitioning from one scene to another, using verbal play and other connections, will be used extensively by Alan Moore – in Watchmen, Swamp Thing, etc.
Those transitions happen fairy often in the later Moench/Gulacy MOKF issues. Even at the end of that page (11), Agent Larner muses “Wonder if he’s still operating out of that chalet on Lake Geneva, outside –” and then, atop the next page, the setting shifts back to “– Lausanne.”
MOKF No. 46
Part Two (Clive Reston): The Spider Spell!
It is long hinted that Clive Reston’s father is James Bond, and that his great-uncle is Sherlock Holmes… clever, though Marvel didn’t have the rights to these characters, so it’s never explicitly spelled out.
Reston narrates issue No. 46, here’s an excerpt:
The clever device used to set the story in Reston’s voice is an interrogation. Reston is being interrogated, and he is recapping what has happened. The panels above recap the prior issue. What I think is clever about them is that Reston is speaking into harsh bright interrogation spotlight, so the black outline of his head (set against the bright white light) is shown through these three panels.
The corners of the panels above are rounded, which distinguishes them as past. The contemporary interrogation is shown with right angle corners:
Reston recounts the action. Shang-Chi and Leiko Wu fight bad guys… Reston gets captured, freed.
MOKF No. 47
Part III (Leiko Wu): Phantom Sand
Leiko Wu is a Chinese-British agent, who had been Reston’s love interest, and then, intermittently becomes Shang-Chi’s. She’s also a kick-ass martial artist, but way deferential to Shang Chi. Her narration is distinguished visually by inwardly curved corners, shown in the third panel here:
Leiko calls the snow “phantom sand”… kinda poetic, but also a bit pretentious, I think. Throughout this issue, especially, Gulacy frequently draws Leiko Wu and Shang-Chi with parallel stances – for example in the third panel, their right feet echo each other. I think this is sort of a visual signal that they are more-or-less made for each other.
Leiko Wu’s initial narration describes Shang-Chi and herself as “too young and before the full taste of love.” They find themselves spending the night sheltered in a cave where “it will be warmer with our bodies closer.” Hence, this tender interlude:
Though Wu is a bit in awe of Shang-Chi, I think it works nicely, gently. Overall, I am glad that Moench writes Leiko Wu as a tough assertive independent woman. She’s willing to leave Shang-Chi when she’s disappointed by him. She’s willing to support him when he’s in need. Unfortunately she does get taken hostage a few times a few years later… an irritatingly all too common female role in comics, and other male-authored fiction (the example I have in mind is Linda Wallander the daughter of Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander.)
Throughout the issue, the Fu Manchu subplot is building… he’s reviving an ancestor who will help him battle Shang Chi… and will go to the moon and detonate bombs to knock it out of orbit. Basically, there’s sort of a battle going on between Chi’s sister (Fah Lo Suee) and father (Fu Manchu)… and the British MI-6 agents are drawn into the middle of it, increasing
Toward the end of MOKF No. 47, Moench and Gulacy set up the somewhat James Bond style communication device that enables Black Jack Tarr and Sir Denis Nayland Smith to narrate the following issues. It’s a “wireless microphone” worn by Tarr that’s “capable of picking up and transmitting your slightest whisper.” It only transmits one-way, though, which sets up a good tension in the following chapters.
MOKF No. 48
Part IV (Black Jack Tarr): City in the Top of the World
Black Jack Tarr is a black-haired black-mustached British agent. Tough, but aging a bit; his back bothers him now and then. I like Gulacy’s splash-page portrait of him:
Tarr narrates issue 48 describing what he sees – via his one-way transmitter. He uses fairly colorful language. He drops the g in -ing, uses “bloody” a lot, calls people “birds” and calls Shang-Chi “Chinaman.”
Right at the very end of the issue Tarr transmits: “Someone’s comin’, Sir Denis. Right this way! I gotta cut off before — good lord?? It’s — >click<”
MOKF No. 49
Part V (Sir Denis Nayland Smith): The Affair of the Agent who Died!
Narrating this issue is Denis Nayland Smith, Tarr’s boss and one of the heads of the British Secret Service. Smith can hear everything Tarr says, but the transmission is one-way. Smith forgets this and yells into the equipment occasionally.
Tarr has run into his arch-nemesis Fu Manchu.
Fu Manchu’s hypnotic powers begin to put the whammy on Tarr:
Gulacy and Moench give us a close-up of Fu Manchu’s eyes, beautifully and scarily rendered down to the detailed reflections in the pupils. With Tarr’s voice slurred… and from the title of the story, we know that an agent is going to die… and it looks like Tarr’s number is up.
There’s plenty more tension as Smith, can only hear and fret about the fate of his agents… who are in plenty of danger, but all, except the one you’re least invested in, will make it through ok.
MOKF No. 50
Part VI (Fu Manchu): The Dreamslayer!
Issue 50 is the big bang conclusion where Shang-Chi and Reston foil Fu Manchu’s nefarious plans to blow up the moon.
The issue is narrated by Fu Manchu… and, in my opinion, it’s only ok. I think it must be difficult to write for a villain… seems like the have to be crazy, monomaniacal egotists. Manchu comes of sort of resigned, philosophical, critical of the west… but a lot of what he has to say isn’t all that deep. Shang-Chi asks him “Why must you do this?” and Fu Manchu responds “There is nothing else… left to do.”
Ultimately Manchu’s resurrected ancestor dies. Shang-Chi wins. Fu Manchu escapes.
It, frankly, reminds me a little of an Alan Moore ending… good, fitting, but the real fun is in the telling of the story more than in its conclusion.
And that ends up being the last Paul Gulacy issue of Master of Kung Fu. He contributes an occasional cover.
Doug Moench will stick around through another seventy issues, many excellent. Some artists will try to draw kinda like Gulacy. Most won’t succeed. Mike Zeck and later Gene Day do achieve some great visuals… but I don’t think that the series ever quite attains the mastery that these six issues represent.
The series wins an Eagle Award. It receives lots of letters raving about how much we fans like it.
Reading the internet lately, it looks there have been a few revivals with limited run comic book series. And a Shang-Chi movie is in the works… but apparently Marvel no longer has the right to Sax Rohmer characters, including Fu Manchu, Sir Denis Nayland Smith, Black Jack Tarr, and Fah Lo Suee… so these issues remain out of print.
I’ll give the last word to the cover blurb from issue No. 45:
The Marvel Bullpen proudly presents what we feel is an outstanding achievement in comics art.