Monday, October 05, 2015

Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting

When the Kung Fu craze swept the western world in the early 1970s it was inevitable it would also affect comics. One such publication was Marvel UK's The Avengers weekly which had been tootling along with reprints of The Avengers and Doctor Strange for 27 weeks and then out of the blue came the character seen above. Suddenly even the comic's masthead changed to The Avengers starring Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu and The Avengers strip itself was cut in half to accommodate ten pages of this newcomer's adventures. This was issue No.28, dated March 30th 1974.

I remember thinking that the extended title sounded awkward, and that Shang-Chi seemed an uncomfortable fit as he wasn't strictly a superhero, but over the weeks I grew to really like the series. Master of Kung Fu had only debuted in America a few months earlier, in Special Marvel Edition No.15 (which soon changed its title to Master of Kung Fu) but that comic wasn't distributed in the UK. (Not every Marvel comic was imported into Britain due to some limitation on distribution, although it did start coming through with later issues.)

The script was by Steve Englehart, one of the new wave of Marvel writers, with art by Jim Starlin who had already impressed fans with his early Marvel UK covers and his regular stint on Captain Marvel. The story concerned Shang-Chi being duped by his evil father (no less than the notorious Fu Manchu from Sax Rohmer's books) into killing an innocent man. Upon discovering the deceit and filled with guilt and remorse, Shang-Chi sets out on a path to oppose and destroy his father. Along the way, the strip becomes a spy thriller, with Shang joining British intelligence in their battles with Fu Manchu and his minions.

The original creators soon left the series and Doug Moench became the regular writer, with Paul Gulacy becoming the regular artist, and later Gene Day having a long run. It became one of Marvel's landmark series, with its creative teams raising the bar for more mature comics. Unfortunately the strip has never been reprinted due to legal snags with the copyright owners of Fu Manchu and its related characters that Sax Rohmer had created. Until now that is. Marvel recently announced that starting next summer they will publish four Master of Kung Fu Omnibus editions; huge hardback collections reprinting the entire series. Seems like any legal wrangles have finally been sorted out. The books won't be cheap though. The Marvel Omnis usually retail for around $100 each so start saving now!

Going back to the issue of Marvel UK's Avengers, this edition also featured reprints of The Avengers (natually) and Doctor Strange. As you can see, this was during the period when they thought adding heavy areas of zipatone / Letratone would compensate for the lack of full colour. Sometimes it proved effective but sometimes it obscured the art too much and was too distracting, as evidenced by the Doctor Strange splash page here. 


The Avengers starring Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu remained the gobfull of a masthead for quite a while, and the Avengers part of the logo was even reduced in size after a few weeks. It was evident that Marvel UK felt Master of Kung Fu was the selling point, and I'm sure it was. However, with the comic being weekly, the Shang-Chi strips soon caught up with the American monthly. The solution was to create a few brand new 8 pagers that appeared in the UK edition first, which were then reprinted shortly after in America in Giant-Size Master of Kung Fu No.1. Presumably it wasn't financially viable to do that for long so the Shang-Chi strip was rested to enable more US strips to be generated. It was replaced in the UK weekly by Iron Fist, another Marvel kung fu hero, and yes, the comic's masthead became The Avengers starring Iron Fist for a while then too, alternating with it being The Avengers starring Dr.Strange, and simply The Avengers again. Marvel UK could be a bit messy like that back then, but that was all part of the fun.   

21 comments:

Colin Jones said...

My first Marvel comic was Planet Of The Apes No.5 in November '74 and I loved that Letratone stuff (or shading as I called it - I'd never heard of Letratone/Zipatone till fairly recently) and I was disappointed when they dropped it. I don't know why they didn't do the same with Conan as they'd done with Shang-Chi - instead of that clunky merger just call it "The Avengers starring Conan The Barbarian" for a few weeks until Conan had settled in. Those bloody never-ending mergers are one thing about '70s Marvel UK that I don't remember fondly :(

Paul McScotty- Muir said...

I loved the Avengers weekly at this time and Master of Kung-Fu (with Conan) was one of my favourites strip month in month out (or week in week out in the case of the UK reprints) at the time especially the Moench /Gulacy issues. I would like to get the collected set but not at that price I'm afraid (plus I still have a lot of the US colour and B&W monthlies) maybe they'll do an "Essentials" version later. Strangely despite Kung Fu sporting (for the time) pretty modern art along side classic older art by Heck and Ditko neither strips (for me at least) looked out of place, I suppose class always shines out no matter the style. Marvels recent revamp of the colour "Deadly Hands of Kung Fu" comic (2014) was (imho) a major let down compared to the original series especially without Fu Manchu so hopefully this means the character will be given another chance although maybe this is a comic that is very much of the 70s still.

I'm a big fan of Don Heck's art but that splash page looks like it was tidied up by someone (Romita?) looks nice though.

Lew Stringer said...

I think the Essentials line has ended now, but they do 'Epic Collections' that are around 400 pages in in full colour so perhaps MOKF will appear in that format in years to come. It'll take a while for them to do four omnibus versions though. I suspect they'll only do one a year at most.

Yes Colin, I think Marvel UK were trying to dominate the British comics market by throwing out one title after another very quickly. Many failed and merged but they did the job of unfortunately flooding the market to divert readers away from traditional British material. A bit of competition was healthy though in some respects. I wonder if DC Thomson's Warlord would have heralded the start of more dynamic, grittier UK comics without the incentive of competing against Marvel UK?

Colin Jones said...

Like Paul, I wouldn't pay $100 (that's about £65 I think) for a Shang-Chi collection (and that's only one of the four !). Shang-Chi would have appeared in a Marvel Essentials collection years ago if not for all that copyright palaver - I don't know why Marvel bothered with Fu Manchu and those Sax Rohmer characters anyway when they could have just made up their own characters. I remember reading an interview with Roy Thomas where he said he didn't know why Marvel hadn't just invented their own barbarian character instead of going to the bother of acquiring Conan.

Lew Stringer said...

Those omnibus books are very nicely produced though, and run to around 1,000 pages per book so there's a lot for your money. I have quite a few of them. Most were about £45 or so, but that's when they were $75.

Yes, Marvel already had the Yellow Claw, which was their version of Fu Manchu so they could have used him instead really. However it was the 1970s and the trend was to get the licence to use pulp characters; Doc Savage, The Shadow, Conan, Thongor, etc, so I suppose Fu Manchu seemed a good choice at the time. Seems they didn't think it through.

Manic Man said...

well.. for some time, Dr Fu Manchu has been public domain BUT his name (and later books) aren't. When Marvel brought the character back they changed his name to say it was an alias. So though a real pain, it wouldn't be impossible for them to re-letter (including the odd title when needed).. Fo Munchi would be pretty easy graphic edit and most likely get away from it.. Marvel's version didn't seam that much based on the character anyway.. and there has been quite a bit of interest in the character for some time and reprints in demand..

And yes, they canned the Essential line.. the way they often handled them wasn't that great anyway..

Lew Stringer said...

It's arguable whether it's public domain or not. Chances are it isn't, or publishers wouldn't be so cautious. Altering the comics to reletter his name as something else would be a bit tacky in my opinion, and might not stave off legal wrangles anyway. Still, it sounds like it's all been sorted now so we can look forward to those omnibus books commencing next year.

Richard Williams said...

I well remember this issue and wondering what the hell was going on at the time. I loved the Avengers and when the strip was cut in half I was annoyed! However, like many of you, I too came to love the Shang Chi strip and it was these very reprints which made me seek out most of the originals. I have all of the Starlin, Gulacy & Gene day runs plus a few of Mike Zeck's tenure so I won't be shelling out mega bucks for an omnibus edition yet! I think your right about marvel flooding the market & distracting UK comic readers from original UK editions as I quickly fell under their spell (as I'm sure many others did to) - thank god 2000AD came along when it did and for my brother still picking up Battle!

Lew Stringer said...

I'd gone off most uk comics by 1974/75 but the Marvel UK weeklies retained my interest (as did the US imports). Sadly I sold off most of my MOKF comics years ago. (Only have a handful now, plus the four Giant Size issues.) I'm tempted to buy the omnis. I'll see how things stand next summer.

benpeter johnson said...

'70's era Howard the Duck parodied the kung fu comic craze expertly, when a grumpy, cynical Howard investigates a martial arts school he's dug out of the back pages of a comic book, only to be convinced and turned into a master of.... 'Quack fu!'
I remember buying poorly translated reprints of asian kung fu comics in the 80's. We didnt know what 'manga' was yet. Do you remember the ads in the back for martial arts training manuals? There was always a guy or gal standing on a crate of eggs!

Lew Stringer said...

The first I knew about Manga was buying the book 'Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics' around 1883 from a Japanese bookshop in London. (The book itself was in English.)

Chinese comics were available too, in Birmingham's Chinatown in the Eighties. I haven't looked recently to see if they still stock them. In fact I'm not sure if the Chinese supermarket I bought them is still there.

benpeter johnson said...

The first manga i bought was RANMA 1/2. It was about martial arts actualy, which is only partly a coincidence as we're discussing kung fu comics! It concerned a father and son fighting team who changed into a giant panda and a red haired woman whenever they got wet! Que hilarious misunderstandings etc!

Christopher Nevell said...

I remember seeing this when it came out thinking that Thor and Iron Man were rejoining plus a new Avenger, Shang Chi. I was soooo disappointed. However disappointment became shock the following week when the Avengers were momentarily dislodged from the top left picture next to the logo. One of the worst days of my comic collecting life! Right up there with Dez Skinn's Marvel Comic years later.

Hibernia Comics said...

I never knew Jim Starlin was involved, Great artist.

Tim Roll-Pickering said...

There was a brief UK reprint run as a back up in the weekly Action Force in 1987. Grant Morrison before he was famous wrote an intro to Shang-Chi, Fu Manchu and the supporting cast. Then three of the US issues that didn't feature Fu Manchu (but did some of the others) were reprinted to a rather muted response.

Manic Man said...

Rumiko Takahashi is one of the all time BEST Writer-artists in the comics world. Too often people dismissed various countries comics as not comics by giving them a different label (what really annoys me is that fact that 'Manga', being the Japanese term for Comics, should only be given to Japanese comics.. but a lot of companies like Tokyo Pop, like to produce American contain trying to copy the styles and call it 'Manga'.. It's a Comic.. they are all Comics.. If it was Chinese, it would be 'manhuwa'..

anyway.. Rumiko Takahashi is one of the best... She has been doing stuff for years and no sign of stopping now ^_^ (by the way, for people unsure who she is, she is one of the best selling female comic artists in the world. known for such greats as Urusei Yatasura , Maison Ikkoku and Ranma ½)

Lorne said...


"Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting" at that point, including Look In, who gave away a Kung Fu medallion, just over a month later.
The poster magazine Kung Fu Monthly also started that year, though not sure when issue one appeared

Lew Stringer said...

Thanks Tim. My issues of Action Force aren't far away but I didn't have time to check today.

I have that Kung Fu medallion, Lorne. The strip in Look In was very good too. Ah, Kung Fu Monthly! I never bought it but it seemed to be everywhere. Those 1970s poster mags were an interesting phenomenon.

benpeter johnson said...

Folks! Manic man is right to haul me up there! Please don't think I was pooh pooing RANMA 1/2. I loved it! I was simply mentioning that there was some farce based comedy within the plot. Which there was in the first book. I hope I havent offended!

Lew Stringer said...

Don't worry benpeter, I'm sure no one took offense. Everyone respects each other's opinion on this blog! :)

Dixon Kinqade said...

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: http://shangchimokf.blogspot.com/

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