Monday, May 23, 2011

Master of Kung Fu

As Don Markstein has commented, Marvel Comics was "always ready to jump on any bandwagon that might sell comic books." So in 1973, with the hit TV show Kung Fu on the air and Bruce Lee becoming a superstar, writer Steve Englehart and artist Jim Starlin proposed adding an Eurasian martial artist to the Marvel lineup. And so Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu, premiered in December, 1973 in the pages of Special Marvel Edition #15, (making him possibly the only character whose series begins with issue number 15). Since Marvel had just acquired the rights from Sax Rohmer's estate to his infamous villain Fu Manchu they decided to combine the two and appeal to the spirit of youthful rebellion by making the new character his rebellious son.

Rohmer himself was an odd duck. He made his living writing lurid thrillers that often featured occult or science fictional elements (e.g. death rays). But he could only write when in a particular mood. When he and his wife, who both lived an extravagant lifestyle, found themselves short of cash she would start a fight with him and then lock him in a room with a typewriter. In a rage he would rattle out his next potboiler which would keep them in champagne for a few more months. He had the most success with his Yellow Peril novels featuring the ridiculously named Chinese master criminal, Fu Manchu. He claims to have based the character on a crime-boss named "Mr. King" he heard rumors of while visiting Limehouse as a reporter. He also claimed to have been a member of The Golden Dawn, and at one point he even insisted that Fu Manchu himself had materialized at the foot of his bed one night to commend his writing. If nothing else the guy had a flair for the dramatic.

By making the protagonist of this new series an Asian (or at least half-Asian) hero, Marvel put an important twist on what William S. Burroughs once called "the racist garbage of the insidious Sax Rohmer." In addition to the obvious Oedipal themes, the series can be read as an attempt by an Asian character to combat the negative stereotypes perpetuated by the Yellow Peril genre. As Shang-Chi battled the minions of his father he was symbolically striking out at the prejudices of society at large. And while the stoic and philosophical Shang-Chi was something of a stereotype himself (although arguably a positive rather than negative one) his long running series transformed the continuing stories of Fu Manchu from an oppression document into a tale of empowerment. A fitting accomplishment for a Master of Kung Fu.


Löst Jimmy said...

Fantastic post Jerry!

I'm delighted to renew my acquaintance with my childhood favourite. If you don't mind I must make reference to your post in my next blog article (and use the Bagpiping cover art)?

Jerry Cornelius said...

Glad you liked it. And of course you can reference it. You don't have to ask permission for something like that.