Friday, January 23, 2009

Famous First Fridays: Shang Chi, Master of Kung Fu

One of the greatest series to come out of the Groovy Age, without a single doubt, is Master of Kung Fu. Created by Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin, Shang-Chi was brought to comicbook life for two reasons: 1) Marvel got the rights to publish Sax Rohmer's great pulp villain, Dr. Fu Manchu, in comicbook form and 2) to cash in on the Bruce Lee-fueled kung fu craze of the early 70s. While the reasons for the creation of Master of Kung Fu (or MOKF, as we affectionately referred to it) were mercenary, the execution was comicbook art at its finest. From his wondrous website, here's co-creator Steve Englehart's memory of the creation of MOKF:

"Jim Starlin and I loved the television show Kung Fu and wanted to play with its Eastern philosophy. Nobody else at Marvel believed in it, but we got a slot in a previously-reprint title called SPECIAL MARVEL EDITION, and we co-created SHANG-CHI. I meditated for a long time on the I Ching to create his name, which means "The Rising and Advancing of a Spirit," and I envisioned the title as a companion book to DR STRANGE."

In an interview on Universo HQ (3/3/2001), Jim Starlin had this to say about his hand in co-creating MOKF:

"Working with Steve Englehart was fun and I loved the TV show Kung Fu. We wanted to do a comic adaptation of the show but Time Warner owned the show so. The bad thing about that project was having Fu Manchu added to the mix.

"I had never read any of (Rohmer's Fu Manchu books) and had no idea how racist the books were. Many of my Asian friends gave me an earful after the book came out."

Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu made his debut in Special Marvel Edition #15 (September, 1973) and was a smash. Such a smash that two issues later Special Marvel Edition was officially re-christened Master of Kung Fu (MOKF #17, January, 1974) and spun off a companion black and white magazine called Deadly Hands of Kung Fu which ran for 33 issues (January, 1974-November, 1976). Both Englehart and Starlin were the types of comicbook creators who put their all into every page, and they were also quite busy and in-demand, so neither was able to stay on the strip for very long. Starlin was only able to pencil the first three stories, Englehart only wrote the first five.

It was written in the stars for MOKF to remain a high-quality mag, though, because Englehart and Starlin's successors were up-and-coming super-stars in the making: Doug Moench and Paul Gulacy.

Author Doug Moench, who took over with MOKF #21 (#20 was written by Gerry Conway), didn't follow Englehart's plan of MOKF becoming "a companion title to Dr. Strange", but made the book an action/adventure strip more in tune with Rhomer's Fu Manchu books, but with a 70s sensibility and a whole lot of James Bond-ian flair. Shang-Chi, however, remained true to Englehart's vision, ever the spiritual, philosophical, reluctant warrior wearily yet steadfastly battling his father's evil schemes. Moench was wise enough to surround Chi with an intriguing stable of supporting characters, which combined with Shang Chi's unique personality and Moench's action filled plots of espionage, made MOKF the benchmark for mature/adult comics (in the best, most positive sense). Moench would remain the book's main writer until disagreements with editor-in-chief Jim Shooter forced him off the book with issue #122 (December, 1982). Without Moench, the book died as swiftly as it was born, ending with issue #125 (March, 1983).

Paul Gulacy took over the artistic chores with issue #18 (February, 1974) and hit the ground running. That issue was only Gulacy's second professional art job (his first being a Morbius story in Fear #20, November, 1972), and those who remembered his Morbius story were stunned at his artistic growth. Gulacy's style, an almost outright imitation of the fabulous Jim Steranko, got exponentially better with each issue until he reached the point that even Steranko himself once admitted that looking at Gulacy's work was like looking at his own work "without having to do it" (Doug Moench, Comic Book Artist Collection Vol. 3, pg. 34). Though Gulacy drew a comparatively small run of issues (issues 18-20, 22, 25, 29-31, 33-35, 38-40, 42-50, and 53, along with many covers) his style was so strong and ground-breaking that it's still considered definitive. Other artists, most notably Mike Zeck and the late, great Gene Day also produced stellar art for MOKF over the life of the mag.

MOKF is a legendary comic, made all the more legendary because it's kind of difficult to find. It's hard to believe that in this day and age of instant trade paperback reprints, MOKF is missing from the bulging bookshelves of comics shops and bookstores. The reason for that is simple: Marvel no longer owns the rights to publish stories featuring Fu Manchu. So unless Marvel and Sax Rohmer's estate ever work things out we'll never see this most beloved and classic series collected, and that's a downright shame. But this is Ol' Groove rappin' at ya, baby! I can't upload the whole series, but I can give you a taste of the glory that was MOKF! Without further ado, here's Steve Englehart, Jim Starlin, Al Milgrom and the gang's debut MOKF effort from Special Marvel Edition #15! Hee-YA!!


  1. MOKF was indeed one of the highlights of the "Groovy Age" - thank you for giving it its proper due.


  2. paul gulacy was clearly the man for this book, but i always thought that this first issue was one of the best comics that jim starlin ever drew.
    thanks for posting this!

  3. Marvel no longer owns the GODZILLA rights either but somehow managed an ESSENTIAL volume. Surely there's a way! I remember being asked on a radio talk show back in the day what the best comic currently being published was and without hesitation, I answered MASTER OF KUNG FU, only to have to explain myself after the host's laughter as we were many years past the early seventies kung-fu craze by then.

  4. Shang Chi definitely deserves a series of "Essential" collections. It was a surprisingly good kung fu comic with a deep storyline at times.

  5. MOKF was one of the great, unheralded comics of the '70's. Nearly always a great read and a wonderful succession of artists, from Gulacy to Zeck to Day.

    My MOKF original art is some of the prized art in my colletion

  6. hey there, huge fan, first time caller to your blog. I had the pleasure of working with Gulacy on a number of projects as his inker(the Grackle: Doublecross, Batman, Eternal Warrior, Turok/Timewalker), and loved being able to add as many MOKF touches as i could along the way. Glad to see a fellow fan devoting so much time to bringing out the MOKF luv.

    I've also posted a long post on my comics blog that you'll find here:

  7. Thanks for the comments and recollections, dudes! Glad to see there's still plenty of MOKF love out there. You can bet your last dragon Ol' Groove'll be posting a Gulacy-drawn ish or twelve. Mebbe a Zeck ish or two, as well. So help me Black Jack Tarr!

    BTW,Charles, I really dig your site, man! That Gulacy piece is especially sweet!

  8. thanks! I'm inking a gulacy sketch from '80 (round the time of Sabre) and i'll let you know when i post the scan. you'll love it. its an awesome piece.

  9. I picked up most of the Gulacy run yesterday at my local comic shop, and the Gene Day period is hands-down my all-time favorite, and Mike Zeck did a swellegant job during his long MoKF tenure. This has become a huge favorite of mine; more so as an adult than as a kid.

    When I think about it, other than Bruce Lee's films, Master of Kung Fu is the greatest contribution to the early '70s Kung Fu craze (though the show Kung Fu was a fine program, too).

  10. Hmmm....
    I'd actually suspect political correctness and of course all the toys made in China...

    Fu Manchu is clearly public domain now, ref League of Extraordinary Gentlemen for instance...

    Even with the CopyWRONG laws, a judge recently gave the 'estate' that claims ownership of the even earlier Sherlock Holmes a legal punch in the gut.

  11. 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:



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