Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Gulacy Week: "Master of Kung Fu"

This is the first installment of "Gulacy Week," a look at the great comics artist Paul Gulacy, who has the first issue of "Penance: Relentless" coming out from Marvel this week.

One can only imagine the reaction a kid had to a comic book as kinetically wild and relatively exotic as "The Master of Kung Fu" in the early 1970s. It certainly had an impression on a young Quentin Tarantino, who has been quoted as saying that the title was his favorite.

"Master of Kung Fu" was originally a blending of two different licenses Marvel Comics had at the time -- TV's "Kung Fu" and Sax Rohmer's pulp-era bad guy Fu Manchu. There was no official carry-over from "Kung Fu" into the new comic book, and while Rohmer creations Fu manchu and Sir Denis Nayland Smith made appearances, Shang-Chi, the star of the comic, was brand new.

I'm not an expert on martial arts movies, but I've seen enough of them to recognize Shang-Chi as the archetypal noble warrior/wanderer who would prefer not to use his extensive fighting abilities but of course is forced into using them anyway.

Raised by his evil father Fu Manchu to be a perfect killer, Shang-Chi murders one of his father's enemies on command only to feel remorse over the act. Realizing that his father is evil, Shangi-Chi rejects him and sets out on the path of redemption. (Sounds an awful lot like the origin of the Cassandra Cain Batgirl, doesn't it?)

The character of Shang-Chi first appeared in "Special Marvel Edition" #15 in 1973, written by Steve Englehart & draw by Jim Starlin. But it was not until the team of Doug Moench and Paul Gulacy settled in the title that it became a cult hit.

Gulacy's art in the earliest issues of his run look far different than the style he is revered for. Take "Master of Kung Fu" #20, for instance. While there are snapshot instances of the fine linework and hyper-realistic renderings that are trademarks of Gulacy's craft, for the most part the issue isn't very distinguished from other Marvel books of that period.

Compare that to #39, an absolute masterpiece that showcases Shang-Chi's showdown with the deadly Cat. This issue is Paul Gulacy at his finest -- crackling with a lean, raw, powerful style that makes you hear the "clack" of Shang-Chi's nunchaku and the grit of Cat's clenched teeth. Exciting stuff.

What accounts for the seeming rapid development in Gulacy's style between this span of issues? Was it the regular "learning curve" any young artist experiences on a run? Or did switching inkers from Al Milgrom to Dan Adkins play a role?

I can only imagine what it was like for inkers during this period to go from relatively "simpler" art (in terms of linework) to something like Gulacy's pencils. In an 2002 interview for The Pulse, Gulacy mused that it was hard to find inkers willing to go over all the lines and detail in his drawings.

"Master of Kung Fu" itself, at least based on the selection of issues I've read, was a curious blend of Bruce Lee and a distinctly British flavor of adventure tale along the lines of "The Avengers" and "The Prisoner." Shang-Chi was almost as likely to run into a mime as a ninja.

What kept the more outre elements of the series from overshadowing the action was again the stylized intensity of Paul Gulacy's work. Regardless of the occasional wise-cracking robot boy or incongruously posed glamour shot of a sexy female, the action scenes remain fresh, dynamic, and deadly earnest. It was that sort of artistry that raised "Master of Kung Fu" above the glut of other non-superhero product Marvel was putting out at the time.

Paul Gulacy's run on "Master of Kung Fu" ran, with occasional skipped issues, from #18 to 50. The series itself ran to #125, never quite regaining the acclaim it received during the Gulacy era (except for a brief run with the late artist Gene Day).

In 2002 Doug Moench and Paul Gulacy teamed up once again for a revival of "Master of Kung Fu," this time as part of Marvel's more adult Max line. Since then, Shang-Chi has made appearances in books like "Heroes for Hire," "Marvel Knights," and "The X-Men."

Because of copyright issues, however, it is unlikely that Shang-Chi's father Fu Manchu will ever make an appearance in a Marvel title again. It has been speculated that such concerns are why this excellent series has never been reprinted in a definitive trade paperback edition or as part of the "Essentials" line.

Next on "Gulacy Week," we look at what has been called the "first graphic novel" -- "Sabre"!


  1. That four panel progression about half way through with the pier scene is probably the best thing I will see today.

  2. When I came back to comics in the 70's Master of Kung Fu was in it's infancy and I have to say it was what got me back for good. Gulacy has always been a fav and MOKF was religion in it's purest form. I own a page that I purchased and later had signed by both Moench and Gulacy. That was a high point in my collecting life. Though my interaction with the two creators was a bit of 'you can't go home again'. Still well worth it in the long run. Ah how I pine for the "old" Shang-chi.
    PS The Giant Size with the Groucho character is an all time fave

  3. How can anybody be excited about anything having to do with Penance (besides Thunderbolts, I suppose)?

  4. How can anybody be excited about anything having to do with Penance

    Excited that he might not be PENANCE when it's all over?

  5. I just completed my collection of MOKF this week...ahhh....

  6. As someone who was buying these things off the rack back in the day, I'd just like to state for the record that those of us who loved this title were just as excited about the Zeck/Day issues as we were the Gulacy and Gene Day issues...Moench kept the quality high. In fact, I don't think he's topped this series since.

  7. Well, sure, he might not be Penance when it is over, but NOT being Penance is hardly something buy a Penance comic for, in my book. Plus, well; if Penance = Money, then the Penance thing is likely to stick until that equation ends. Or, well, maybe that is wishful thinking...

  8. valerie - I finally finished a long post about gulacy... in response to yours.

    Yes, I really loved those master of kung fu issues, and the series, while still good during the zeck/day run was good, it was never the heyday of Mordillo and Brynocki, Razorfist and Carlton Velcro. Damn they were good. Anyway, thanks for giving me an excuse to go off about one of my favorite series of all time.