Or – “Lost Classics Of Days Gone By…”

One of my duties at the comic shop (Gatekeeper Hobbies, Huntoon & Gage, Topeka!  Ask us about our Warhammer Tournament!) is to keep the back issue bins fully stocked with, as bossman Deon puts it, “comics that somebody will actually ever BUY.”  This often proves difficult for me, as I remember the awesomeness about most all the books in our bins (with the possible exception of Team Youngblood) and my natural instinct is to keep awesome cult titles like Howard The Duck readily available to the reading public.  Today, Deon and I culled some deadweight out of the “L” and “M” sections of the back issue bins, and while I allowed him to make drastic cuts in the number of Legion of Super-Heroes titles (only for space reasons), I refused to remove the tab for “Master of Kung-Fu.”  When he asked me why, I told him that my answer would be available this evening at Major Spoilers…

Hi, Deon!  Here’s why:

MASTER OF KUNG-FU #50
Scripter: Doug Moench
Penciler: Paul Gulacy
Inker: Mike Esposito
Cover Artist: Dave Cockrum
Colorist: Janice Cohen
Letterer: John Costanza
Editor: Archie Goodwin
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Cover Price: 30 Cents
Current Near-Mint Pricing: $6.00

Previously, in The Hands Of Shang-Chi – Master Of Kung-Fu:  “Call me Shang-Chi, as my father did when he raised me and molded my mind and my body in the vacuum of his Honan, China retreat.  I learned many things from my father: That my name means ‘The Rising and Advancing of a Spirit’, that my body could be forged into a living weapon through the discipline of kung fu, and that it might be used for the murder of a man called Dr. Petrie.  Since then, I have learned that my father is Doctor Fu Manchu, the most insidiously evil man on earth…  and that to honor him would bring nothing but dishonor to the spirt of my name.”

The man himself pretty much says it best.  Since the discovery that his daddy is a monster, Shang has allied himself with Sir Denis Nayland Smith (who, like Fu Manchu, was a licensed character from the estate of writer Sax Rohmer aka Ward Sarsfeld, a name that Marvel reused for a minor character in the book), and has joined Smith’s MI-6 to try and oppose his father.  Shang is quickly shown that the world is a much more complicated and difficult place than his upbringing would have had him believe, and his disillusionment with the “games of deceit and death” that Manchu and Nayland Smith have been growing.  This issue picks up where the last left off, as Fu Manchu escapes the surly bonds of Earth in his own personal rocket ship, the last step in his plan:  Destroy the moon with a nuclear device (!!) to force the entire planet to return to the simpler values of his youth in the fields of China.

First of all, Paul Gulacy is pretty much freakin’ awesome, full stop.  By the time of this issue, Shang-Chi had been opposing his father for nearly three years (MoKF continued the numbering of another series, and actually began with issue #16) and Gulacy had been on board for most of that run.  Ironically, given my hatred of today’s stunt-casting artists, he often used the faces of real actors in his art, to great effect.  At this stage, there’s still a VERY noticeable Kirby/Steranko influence to the art, especially in the facial expressions (like the awesome Fu Manchu face in that final panel.)  The sinister doctor disembarks to put his plan in motion, unaware that his craft bears a couple of stowaways…

The gray-haired gentleman with Shang is Clive Reston, a British secret agent who likewise works for Denis Nayland Smith.  He often looks like Sean Connery in the art (which is not surprising, given whom all the hints indicate his father to be) and is actually Shang’s main rival for the affections of Leiko Wu (who, at the time of this issue, is believed to be dead, destroyed by Fu Manchu’s escape craft last time.  Reston and Shang swiftly make their way into the orbiting moonbase, with both men striking mortal blows against Fu Manchu’s henchmen as they go.  While Sir Denis discovers a traitor in his midst, Fu Manchu prepares himself for the new world order…

I’ll be honest here:  The only reason this panel is here is to show off the gorgeous drawing of Ducharme, the mole in Sir Denis’ organization.  Gulacy’s art for this issue is chock-full of moments like that, but for some reason, I find this panel particularly striking.  After the odd/awesome vision of Bruce Lee (as Shang-Chi) and Sean Connery (as Reston) discussing how to save the Earth, the heroes split up.  Clive sets off to sabotage the moonbase, while Shang stages an impromptu family reunion.

This page, while an interesting philosophical discussion, also shows one of the few weaknesses of this story:  Due to Marvel’s four-color Bronze Age printing presses, Fu Manchu is damn-near lemon yellow, and Shang is often a bright orangey color (though aging paper has, with some degree of irony, given him a slightly more realistic tone in my copy of the issue.)  Fu Manchu makes the almost rational argument that overpopulation and consumerism will be the death of the planet, and that he intends to save it by returning things to a pastoral life, saving many lives by taking a relative few.  (He’s like Al Gore in a big funny hat!)  Shang vows to stop Daddy Fu, but the Doctor has taken precautions, summoning Shaka Kharn (a resurrected ancient warrior, and also apparently Queen of Funk).  Kharn beat the holy heck out of our hero in a previous meeting, but things go differently this time around…

I find that first panel to be hysterical, for some reason, as Shaka Kharn’s (Shaka Kharn…  Shaka Kharn…  I think I looove yoou!) body has not yet realized that it is dead, and doesn’t have the sense to fall down.  Whether this is intentional, or somehow mandated by Marvel’s 70’s policy about depictions of violence is unclear, but I still laughed.  Shang’s confrontation with is father is a tense one, as Shang-Chi tries to convince his father to embrace sanity.  “Why, father?  Why must you DO this?”  Fu Manchu bows his head, and intones,”There is nothing else to do.”  Reaching for his controls, Shang-Chi realizes that even he isn’t fast enough to stop what is about to happen.  Cue Clive Reston, whom we thought dead in battle with Shaka Kharn (I feel for yooou!) for the last-minute save…

The structure of Doug Moench’s story is fascinating as well, with the villain as narrator, which as the dual effect of giving away that Fu Manchu survives the story (which, since he’s an immortal, was kind of a given) but also allowing us to see the hero as the villain sees him.  His plan foiled by his son, Fu Manchu pulls his Batman Gambit, and escapes into the endless void, leaving his son to ponder if his father’s actions were really as crazy-go-nuts as they might have seemed…

Of course, in the Marvel Universe, no death is forever, and Fu Manchu has returned many times (mostly recently, as of this writing, in Secret Avengers) since then, while Clive and Shang continue to hang about.  Master of Kung-Fu is an odd beast, a title created when Marvel held the twin licenses to the Kung-Fu television series and Fu Manchu, but this issue is one of the best of the sublime Moench/Gulacy run.  These days, an issue of Shang’s solo series runs about six bucks, but there was a time when these were highly coveted comic stories (and the earliest appearances still pop pretty good in terms of dollar value.)  Some say that Bronze Age Marvel is only a pale shadow of what Stan & Jack did in the 60’s, but I believe that there are still gems to be had within those books, and this is one of my fave-raves.  Master of Kung-Fu #50 is a rollicking kung-fu adventure (IN SPACE!), featuring Bruce Lee, James Bond, nice art, and lovely fighty-fighty, earning a damn fine 4 out of 5 stars overall.  (Still a shame about those skin tones, though…)

Rating: ★★★★☆

Faithful Spoilerite Question Of The Day:  Does anybody else miss the 70’s-style metaphysical monologues and deep moral philosophizing by the likes of Moench, Starlin, Gerber and Englehart?

The Author

Matthew Peterson

Matthew Peterson

Once upon a time, there was a young nerd from the Midwest, who loved Matter-Eater Lad and the McKenzie Brothers... If pop culture were a maze, Matthew would be the Minotaur at its center. Were it a mall, he'd be the Food Court. Were it a parking lot, he’d be the distant Cart Corral where the weird kids gather to smoke, but that’s not important right now... Matthew enjoys body surfing (so long as the bodies are fresh), writing in the third person, and dark-eyed women. Amongst his weaponry are such diverse elements as: Fear! Surprise! Ruthless efficiency! An almost fanatical devotion to pop culture!

And a nice red uniform.

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3 Comments

  1. Oldcomicfan
    January 16, 2012 at 7:55 am — Reply

    Why, oh why, does EVERYBODY draw Fu Manchu so he looks like Ming the Merciless?

    • LemmyCaution
      January 16, 2012 at 1:56 pm — Reply

      I think it’s the other way around. Boris Karloff as Fu Manchu (1932) in the movies predates the appearance of Ming the Merciless (1934) in the comics.

  2. January 27, 2012 at 7:29 am — Reply

    One of the greatest issues of one of the great comic books pretty much ever. Truly a shining star for Marvel during the 70s and 80s.

    Such a shame there are no reprints available but then most of the back issues are cheap and easy to find.

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