Shang-Chi strikes a heroic pose.


Original Medium: Comic books
Published by: Marvel Comics
First Appeared: 1973
Creators: Steve Englehart (writer) and Jim Starlin (artist)
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In 1973, Oriental martial arts were all the rage in American entertainment. The Kung Fu TV show had debuted the previous year, and the movie Enter the Dragon was rapidly making a …

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… posthumous star of Bruce Lee. Marvel Comics, trendy as always, could scarcely be expected to pass up a trend like that.

At the same time, Marvel was experimenting with adaptations from other media, both public domain characters like Dracula and licensed ones like Conan. Among the latter was Sax Rohmer's classic Asian villain, Fu Manchu, which they'd licensed from Rohmer's estate despite the fact that they had two perfectly good Fu Manchu knock-offs of their own, The Yellow Claw (who had his own comic in the 1950s and became a S.H.I.E.L.D. villain in the '60s) and The Mandarin (who fought Iron Man quite a few times).

So, when writer Steve Englehart (who had earlier done The Avengers and Captain America for Marvel) and artist Jim Starlin (who later had critically acclaimed runs on Marvel's Warlock and Captain Marvel) proposed Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu, the company "kicked it up a notch" by making him the son of Fu Manchu.

Shang-Chi debuted in an out-of-the-way corner of the newsstand, the 15th issue (December, 1973) of a formerly all-reprint title, Special Marvel Edition. In it, Englehart and Starlin revealed what Fu had been doing since 1959, when the last of Rohmer's stories was published. He'd been raising a son, and doing it — from his point of view — right. Shang's American mother had been carefully chosen for her genetic make-up, but genes were practically all she contributed. Shang was fully trained in all the martial arts and schooled to perfection in a wide variety of practical areas, but he was raised in isolation and knew nothing of the outside world but what his father allowed him to know.

Shang's first outside mission got him involved with the extremely aged Sir Denis Nayland Smith, Fu's arch-foe from his very first appearance back in 1911. Smith set the young man straight about who was the good guy and who wasn't, and Smith's story was confirmed by Shang's own mother (making her only appearance in the series). Thereafter, Marvel's first Kung Fu superhero had a built-in villain with Oedipal overtones, and a classic villain at that — the insidious Dr. Fu Manchu himself.

The series took off instantly. In fact, as of #17 (April, 1974), the title Special Marvel Edition was dropped and Master of Kung Fu took its place. That same month, Marvel launched The Deadly Hands of Kung Fu, with Shang-Chi as its main star, in magazine format (i.e., designed like Mad magazine). A few months later, Giant Size Master of Kung Fu, formatted like a regular comic book but extra thick, was added to the line-up.

Starlin left the series after #17, and was replaced by Paul Gulacy (who had earlier launched a series starring Morbius the Living Vampire for Marvel). Englehart left two issues later, and the new writer was Doug Moench (Big Book of Conspiracies, Moon Knight). Moench and Gulacy kept the series for several years, and became closely associated with it in the readers' minds — in fact, to this day, Shang-Chi is Gulacy's best known work in comics. When Gulacy left to devote his attention to commercial art, Moench stayed on through the tenure of several more artists.

Eventually, Fu Manchu was killed off, possibly because the license expired. (He was eventually brought back, as villains so often are, but not until years later.) Even without him, the Master of Kung Fu title far outlasted the public's interest in martial arts movies — in fact, it ran until June, 1983 (tho the Giant Size and Deadly Hands spin-offs had fallen by the wayside in 1974 and '77, respectively). Shang-Chi starred in a graphic novel in 1991. Even today, interest remains very high in the Moench/Gulacy run.


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Text ©2003-04 Donald D. Markstein. Art © Marvel Comics.