For more than ten years, Shang-Chi, son of Fu Manchu, walked the way of the warrior…  Now, it has come to an end.  Your Major Spoilers (Retro) Review of Master Of Kung Fu #125 awaits!

Master of Kung Fu #125 coverMASTER OF KUNG FU #125

Writer: Alan Zelenetz
Penciler: William Johnson/Alan Kupperberg
Inker: Mike Mignola/Alan Kupperberg
Colorist: George Roussos
Letterer: Rick Parker
Editor: Denny O’Neil
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Cover Price: $1.00
Current Near-Mint Pricing: $20.00

Previously in Master Of Kung Fu: “Call me Shang-Chi, as my father did, when he raised me 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” and that my body could be forged into a living weapon through the discipline of kung fu.  Since then, I have learned that my father is Dr. Fu Manchu, the most insidiously evil man on earth and that to honor him would bring nothing but dishonor to the spirit of my name.”

So spoke Shang-Chi at the beginning of every issue of his series, and for years he had opposed his fathers schemes, until Fu Manchu kidnapped him and his half-sister Fah Lo Suee, planning to sacrifice his children to maintain his own immortality.  Shang-Chi escapes, saving his sibling and beating a clone whose skills should have been (hypothetically) superior  Shang left his father in a crumbling fortress, leaving the old man to his doom as Fu Manchu desperately tried to lick up the elixir he had created.  Thus, Fu Manchu is dead.

What does that mean for Shang-Chi?

The origins of the Master of Kung Fu are one of those weird things that only happen in comic books: In the early 1970s, Marvel Comics had adaptation rights to both Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu stories and the television series ‘Kung Fu, leading writer Steve Englehart to create a melange of the two for the pages of ‘Special Marvel Edition.’  Shang didn’t end up being much like Chang Kwai Kaine, but his stories managed to make good use of Fu Manchu and the characters thereof for many years.  Most recently (for Retro Review values thereof), writer Gene Day had taken over the book and made it exciting once again after a couple of years of moribund stories.  Sadly, Gene had suddenly passed away after writing #120, which I think probably contributed to the series’ cancellation, with this issue, leaving Shang-Chi to meditate about the holy nature of the relationship between father and son, and whether he succeeded in honoring it without revering his nefarious papa…

Sharp-eyed Spoilerites probably noticed the name ‘Mike Mignola’ in the credits of this issue, in some of his earliest comic book work.  It’s easy to see what would become Mignola’s signature shadows-and-light in these pages, or at least elements of what it would become…

Shang considers his life, thinking of his late father, his deceased “brother” (actually a clone created by Manchu’s cross-breed of science and sorcery) and what he’s going to do with his life now that it’s all over.  Will Johnson and Mignola’s art also gives him a strong resemblance to the late Bruce Lee, an element that has come and gone in this series since the earliest days.

Having returned the tiny tortoise to the reflecting pool, our young Master is attacked by a GIANT one (Remember that magic/science thingy?  Fu Manchu was not selective about it at all.), leading to a battle through the temple, leading him to a golden ceremonial cup with his father’s face carved in it.   Taking the goblet with him, he leaves the temple, feeling the first stirrings of what might be acceptance.  Then, he immediately walks into the middle of a fight!  Seeing a young man surrounded by armed attackers, Shang-Chi leaps in to defend him…

One of the greatest parts of a good Shang-Chi story is how humble and self-effacing he is, responding with embarrassment and good will rather than anger or aggression.  Shang even agrees to stay and see the play that his new friends are performing.  Meanwhile, in a faraway Scottish castle, his associates and allies in the “games of deceit and death” wonder about whether they’ll ever see their young friend again…

Poor Leiko…  She and Shang-Chi have spent more than 100 issues dancing around whether or not they are actually in love or not, and now she thinks she has lost him forever.  It’s heart-breaking stuff.  As for Shang, he’s equally disturbed to find that the play he has accidentally chosen to see is called ‘The Accursed Son’, and echoes his own fears and worries about his recent patricide…

Overcome by his own guilt, Shang flees the village, taking a train south to the interestingly named village of Yang Yin, where he gets a chance to play a bit with his martial arts skills (and also gets a whole new artist in Paul Kupperberg.)

That night, Shang-Chi goes to sleep, hoping to finally escape the terrible dreams of his most recent days.

The good news is, he doesnt have bad dreams.  The bad news?  There’s a celestial demon, summoned by Fu Manchu’s wife, coming to eat his soul…

Trapped in his own memories, Shang remembers Leiko, his lost friend Midnight, even his fathers demise, but rather than succumb to his own fear, he fights back the only way he knows how:  By..  fighting, but…  actually fighting?  Because hes a Master Of Kung Fu, y’all.  #TitleDrop

Their battle rages, moving out of the village onto a beach, then into the sea itself, where Shang-Chi finally defeats the sorcerer (thanks to a massive wave), and returns to find his father’s chalice where he left it.  Having defeated his demons, literally and figuratively, he prepares to drink to a new life…

Rather than drown, though, he finds himself renewed…

Finally leaving his father, spycraft and even his beloved Leiko behind, Shang-Chi decides that Yang Yin shall be his new home, and rather than kung fu, his new calling shall be that of fisherman…

Its a nice ending, made even nicer by the fact that Marvel editorial actually tried to make it stick rather than immediately relaunch him into new adventures and games of blah blah blah fishcakes.  It was nearly a decade before Shang-Chi would return to the spy game, a reminder that for all his faults as an editor-in-chief, Jim Shooter was a firm believer in comics having endings.  Since the very first Retro Review at Major Spoilers (over ELEVEN YEARS AGO) was a MoKF comic, I enjoy returning to Shang-Chi’s adventures every once in a while.  And even though this issue suffers a bit from less-than-compatible art teams (Kupperberg’s work is fine, but it’s hardly the nuanced stuff that Johnson and Mignola give us), Master Of Kung Fu #125 is a very solid issue, sending off one of Marvel’s most unusual heroes in a manner fitting his status as trailblazer, and even the most opaque bits of philosophical nonsense feels like they carry meaning, earning a better-than-average 3 out of 5 stars overall.  As much as I wish comics stuck with endings, I’m glad that this one wasn’t the end for our man Shang (and I wish somebody would bring him back in a high-profile role again, since he’s been sort of missing since Hickman’s Avengers run ended…

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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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