This saga is the tale of Shang-Chi, whose name means "The rising and ascending of the spirit". While the character himself was created by Steve Englehart, who wrote several notable stories with him, it is with Doug Moench, his second writer, that Shang is most associated, and rightfully so. Moench was the writer who steered Shang through the vast majority of his career, and the one responsible for writing the massive story-arcs that most successfully chronicled Shang's growth, "the rising and ascending of his spirit".
This magnificent epic lasted well over a hundred issues, all of which are sadly out of print (and alas, no collections exist either). However, the story deserves another look, as one of the finest pieces of comic fiction existent.
Shang was raised as a child in Honan, the Chinese estate of his father, the immortal Fu Manchu. Skilled in all the martial arts, Shang was raised to venerate his father, who saw Shang as his right hand in the world outside Honan. However, following an early encounter with Sir Denis Nayland Smith (Fu Manchu's nemesis of old), Shang began to realize that his father was actually one of the most evil men alive, and that he could not, in all honour, continue to serve him. This is the tale of Shang's quest for his own identity, and his place in the world outside his father's home.
Besides the thoughtful and detailed chronicle of Shang's growth,
the saga is also rich entertainment, in the spirit of the original
Bond movies. The action passes across the world, as our small
band of spies combats the formidable power of some of the most
dangerous, wildly imaginative men alive. Fu Manchu, the primary
pillar of opposition, is far from the only foe they face.
There's Carlton Velcro, a narcotics magnate with his own
world-conquering plans; Pavane, the whip-wielding warrior woman;
Mordillo, the ruler of an island filled with gorgeously insane toys;
Sata, the assassin with a penchant for gladiatoral combat;
and Kogar, the China Seas pirate, to mention just a few of the more
indescribably colourful opponents in this book.
Shang also has the good fortune to be teamed up with some of the best agents since Modesty Blaise. Under Sir Denis Nayland Smith (British spymaster, and Fu Manchu's nemesis, who's been battling that immortal villain since the 1920's), he works with Leiko Wu (the love of his life, and an exceptionally competent agent in her own right), Clive Reston (the son of Britain's most famous spy, anxious to live up to his father's legend), Black Jack Tarr (the most loyal of Smith's motley crew), James Larner and Dark Angel, to name some of the more prominent ones. Moench gives each of these supporting characters a rich and unique identity, interleaving their lives and their own quests for identity along with Shang's, rendering each of them as real to us as the protagonist of the tale himself.
|and Shang, penetrating Fu Manchu's Arctic city|
Moench and his various artists also experiment constantly with story-telling forms. For the first great Fu Manchu tale, (MOKF #45-50) each chapter was narrated by a different character, giving us the tale from the viewpoint and perspective of that person.
Giving us the six chapters of the first great battle against
Fu Manchu, moving thematically from the son to the father:
Shang Chi: "The Death Seed"
Clive Reston: "The Spider Spell"
Leiko Wu: "Phantom Sand"
Black Jack Tarr: "City on the Top of the World"
Sir Denis Nayland Smith: "The Affair of the Agent Who Died"
Fu Manchu: "The Dreamslayer"
This particular sequence explodes at the reader, leaping from climax to climax, each new revelation leading into the next (and still deadlier) one
One of the greatest strengths of this book is its breakneck pace, the rapid and skillful shifting between storylines, the astonishingly delightful lack of predictability. Under Moench, we move from the thrill of battling Carlton Velcro to the insanity of Mordillo, the power of Fu Manchu to the craziness of Rufus Hackstabber, the pathos of "Smoke, Beads and Blood" (MOKF #76) to the high-tension return of Fu Manchu once more. The book is never allowed to lapse into complacency.
Paul Gulacy's artwork has an extraordinary sense of cinematic flow between panels, an immensity and grandeur that marks Shang's more stellar tales. It's not much of a coincidence that some of his splash pages resemble James Bond movie posters.
Gulacy captures motion extremely well, smoothly drawing the reader's eye across the pages with his lush, beautiful and richly detailed art, shifting rapidly from one high-speed scene to the next, abetted perfectly by Moench's wordplay.
Gulacy controls the reader's time-sense well, both with his phenomenally rapid action sequences as well as with his slow, stately sequences. Contrast the introduction of Shen Kuei, Shang's sometime enemy (above), with Shen's two-page battle with Shang later on in the tale (below), to see his skill in both pacing and motion.
Gene Day, one of the finest artists to tell Shang's tale, has artwork easily distinguished by the huge quantity of detailed statuary filling his panels (a tell-tale signature later re-used by his brother, Dan Day, in his own work). Gene's immensely detailed artwork is pitched with the most intricate resonances, as each panel subtly builds up to the larger story being told. While having no less magnificent a sense of flow than Gulacy's, Gene's art tends to pay more attention to the details, as opposed to Gulacy's grander, more cinematic sense of sweep.
Observe his work in "A Painless Result of Having Lived" (MOKF #107), where Shang is on a fast, and practically every person appearing in the tale appears to be eating something, adding to Shang's deep and growing hunger. The combination of Moench and Day's storytelling work to push Shang into forced motion, pulling him from point to point, denying him the chance to break his fast each time, while still tantalizing him with the sight of others eating, all adding up to a terrible sense of all-consuming hunger.
We see another example of Moench and Day's intricate, multi-levelled tapestry in "A Fantasy of the Autumn Moon", one of their finest works together (MOKF #114). Day's art does not supplant the tale told by Moench's words, but serves, rather, to underscore the story, to embellish it, to add tiny, exquisite details to Moench's sweep, and thus produce a much more magnificent whole.
Day, unfortunately, died young, shortly after finishing the third and final Fu Manchu cycle. Moench wrote an end to the tale of Shang-Chi not long after this loss of his last great collaborator on "Master of Kung Fu".
What was Shang's tale about ?
Shang's tale is not unlike that of Frankenstein: a creation which seeks a life outside that decreed by his creator. Other great tales on this line include that of Dante's Lucifer or even Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was forced to choose between his newfound love of God, and his friend, King Henry II, the man who had made him everything he was.
Does the creation have to completely obey the Creator ? Just how far does its debt to the Creator run ? Might the creation not forge a new life for itself, outside the Creator's purview ? Is it forever to be what it was created to be, or might it possibly dream of greater things ?
While there are several distinct story arcs that may be read as a stand-alone tale, the long-term reader is well rewarded in the tracing out of Shang's growth into a fuller person across the years, as he resolves his personal dilemmas, ofttimes in surprising manner.
The Devil Doctor
Fu Manchu, the Devil Doctor, in this case stands as the Creator, Shang's progenitor, a man who has great dreams for the world, but who is reluctant to accept any opposition to the plan, even (especially) from the child of his loins, for whom he had already assigned a grand place in that plan.
Betrayed by an earlier child (his daughter, Fah Lo Suee) whose hedonism led her to give away his plans to Nayland Smith, Fu Manchu remains doubly enraged at the defection of the son he loved; a defection made worse in that the departure was not made out of the weakness that prompted his daughter's choice. This deep loss is continually seen in his plans, each of which has him create a surrogate child, a more obedient replacement for the rebellious children of his own blood. Each of these children also serve as a mirror for Shang-Chi himself, a reminder of what he might have become had he taken the path chosen for him by his father.
There is an essence of pathos amidst the struggle; despite Fu Manchu's ruthlessness, there are distinct moments of love and respect between the father and son in opposition, though these are usually only revealed in the absence of the other, each side reluctant to admit to weakness in their struggle.
And while Shang desperately seeks to find a good cause to champion, all too often he finds there to be no single good choice, with both sides veering into different shades of gray; any choice he makes will contain elements of black.
Which makes it even more difficult to oppose the father he once venerated.
Without demonizing him.
The Great Story Cycles
As he learns more about the world, and sees that not everything Fu Manchu taught him was true, he first turns to Nayland Smith, his father's nemesis, for guidance. Still later, he learns that Smith is also human, prone to error, and sometimes outright deceit in the pursuit of his own aims. This disenchantment drives him away from Smith, and for a time, he wanders, bereft of a cause and direction.
Failing in finding a father-surrogate, Shang investigates his life in terms of others: Leiko, the Chinese woman who has adapted to the West; Shen Kuei, who clings to his Chinese heritage, despising the West; Juliette, who walks away from her past in the West, choosing the East. And finding no conclusive solution in any of them, is forced to seek his own path.
Moench's chronicle of Shang is full of cycles; cycles of growth, cycles of ascent, and equally, cycles of descent: as some characters grow, others fall, and some fall, only to better aid their future rise. The epic resembles nothing more than a grand symphony where the music rises and falls, ebbs and swells, one musical theme subordinating itself to the next, then building on that theme to rise to a still greater height; softly dying away into silence, only to build to an incandescent crescendo of sound.
Three great cycles dominate Shang's life, all relating to his encounters with his father, Fu Manchu. As Shang struggles to comprehend the new world he faces after leaving his father's mansion in Honan, and finding his own place in it, his battle is still often defined in terms of his old life.
These cycles all see the slow, steady growth of Shang's own personality; an increased confidence, a more steady belief in himself, a greater acceptance of his opposition to his father, and an understanding of why he must do so.
We also see Fu Manchu's plans slowly cycle downwards. His first, greatest plan is to conquer the world through force; the next, to conquer it through deceit and manipulation; and finally, a desperate battle merely to avoid death. As the son's cycle ascends, his father's falls. The locales also reflect this; the first great battle stretches from the Earth to the Moon, while the second is confined to the Earth, and the third and final takes place in Fu Manchu's home, his Honan retreat.
There are also several lesser cycles within the sweep of this tale; the nature of Shang's encounters with Shen Kuei, Shang's quests for surrogate parents, Shang's quest for his own identity, and so on. Leiko and Reston also pass through their own routes, making different choices for themselves and growing into different (and yet strangely similar) people than those we first met. The ripples that Shang makes as he passes through life reflect and echo off those made by his friends, and vice versa; the growth of any influences all.
Moench's chronicle of Shang is equally full of mirrors. counterparts of himself as he might have been, had he chose another route in life. Mirrors of himself, as his father might have wished him to be. Paths that he never followed, or narrowly passed by. The easiest mirrors to see are the surrogate children created by his father, more obedient versions of himself; but Leiko also serves as a mirror to him, a Chinese woman who has adapted perfectly to the West, as he himself seems unable to. And the best mirror of all comes to him from Hong Kong, where he meets Shen Kuei, the man called Cat.
Shen Kuei is Shang's opposite in almost every way; his truest and darkest mirror. Both Shen Kuei and Shang are Orientals, and near-unrivalled masters of the martial arts. Shen, however, despises Shang for choosing the Occidental path, a choice about which Shang himself holds grave doubt.
Shen and Shang mirror-pattern themselves against each other on almost all possible levels; their skills are a near-par with each other, they fall in love with the same women, they face the same dualities in their lives. Even their very names both sound alike as well as bespeak similar meanings: Shang's name speaks of the rising and ascending of the spirit; Shen's of the division between the ascending spirit and the falling body, as the following quote shows:
"In the...bodily existence of the individual...are...two... polarities, a p'o soul (or anima) and a hun soul (animus). All during the life of the individual these two are in conflict, each striving for mastery. At death they separate and go different ways. The anima sinks to earth as kuei, a ghost-being. The animus rises and becomes shen, a spirit or god." [Cary Baynes, ed.; Richard Wilhelm and C. G. Jung, The Secret of the Golden Flower, (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1962), p.64]
Shen Kuei has chosen to oppose the values of the Western world. He is a man who is far more easily moved to anger than Shang, but a man who is no less honourable for all that. Moench presents a cunning choice here: as in much of Shang-Chi's life, nothing is perfectly black and white. Shang is equally aware of the precarious nature of his identity; not completely traditionally Chinese, but not fully British either. And the very fact that he doubts his own choice, while Shen has no ambivalence about his, drives their rivalry further, as the frustration increases the tension between them.
Leiko too, finds a difficult choice here: there is an undeniable attraction between her and Shang's dark mirror. The unequivocal Shen has a direct appeal that Shang's self-doubt does not.
While Shang is a Chinese man striving to find a place in the brave new world of Britain, his first love, Leiko Wu, is a Chinese woman who has completely assimilated into British society. Leiko was originally Clive Reston's lover, and in her new-found love for Shang, she finds herself questioning her own sense of identity, in an effort to live up to the challenges posed her by her lover. While her earlier life left her unthreatened, Shang now brings in a certain sense of questioning to their relationship. A strong woman, Leiko's always been her own person; and she is reluctant to let herself be defined merely by her relationship to Shang. She seeks out new challenges, things to do by herself, so as to better define herself without any comparison to Shang.
Clive Reston, like Shang-Chi, lives in the shadow of an immensely famous father, and attempts to live up to that reputation. Following in his father's footsteps, both as a ladies' man as well as one of Her Majesty's Secret Service, Reston originally enters the scene as a rash, quick-tempered man. Resenting Leiko's affections towards Shang, Clive tends to react with anger towards Shang, and Shang, still young and easily swayed, finds himself, disconcertingly, moved by that anger to return it in kind, and further, mortified at this induced lack of self-control in himself. This touchy relationship slowly clarifies into a deep friendship across the years, as the two slowly change their own roles, and come to value the other's presence in their lives. Clive slowly grows into a more thoughtful, sensitive person, in no small part due to Shang's influence on him. Unlike Shang, however, Clive seems to come full-circle in his persona, choosing to return to his original personality at the end of the tale, and a happier man for his choice.
Moench, by the way, is a follower of Philip Jose Farmer's Wold Newton theory, which postulates that several famous fictional characters including Doc Savage and Tarzan, are actually related through blood, stemming from an incident in the 1700's (a much more intricate explanation of this is available at The Wold Newton Universe ) We see a fair amount of Wold Newton activity in this book as well.
Farmer's bloodline includes both Fu Manchu and Sir Denis Nayland Smith; Shang turns up by extension from his father. Clive Reston is also a member of the extended Wold Newton family; while several tips of the hat appear to indicate who Clive's father is (he's a ladies' man, a spy, known to work On Her Majesty's Secret Service) the name is never overtly spoken (for copyright reasons, one assumes).
Epilogue (Sympathy for the Devil)
The tale ends with Shang-Chi seeking to better know the man who defined so much of his life, the man he spent such a long time fighting, the man who was now no more ... Fu Manchu.
Fu Manchu had been one of the greatest defining forces in Shang's life: the creator he worshipped, the creator he respected, and the creator whom he must finally destroy to win his own freedom.
Fu Manchu has been called the most evil man alive, yes. And yet, was Fu Manchu as low as that ? Did he not dream his own dreams ? And did Shang not destroy those dreams as well ? Was he not a man of exquisite knowledge ? Did he not lead many people to a far greater wisdom ? Was he not trying to do his best for his own people, a battle to preserve the wisdom of the East from the assault of the West ? Were his plans so much more evil than others ? Did they deserve the fate they met ?
The enemies Fu Manchu fought were often no less cruel than he, a common occurence in the world of death and deceit occupied by espionage agents; they served no greater cause, claimed no more honour than he. So why revel in the fall of one and the rise of the other ? Could Fu Manchu truly be claimed to be completely evil ? Was there no good in him ?
These are the final questions asked, the final search that Shang embarks on; to seek out those that knew his father while he lived, to better understand the nature of Fu Manchu.
As mentioned before, this is sadly a series that has not been reprinted, possibly because Marvel doesn't deem it to be profitable enough, or possibly because of complications with the Sax Rohmer estate, which owns the right to the Fu Manchu name. While somewhat a reflection of the times it was written in, the series still remains an incredibly beautiful tale in its own right, operating on multiple levels, and thoroughly engaging the reader's attention on all of them. This is a story that's well worth the effort to seek out.
Review (c) Bala Menon, 2001
All images on this page (c) Marvel Comics, and used under the Fair Use doctrine
MASTER OF KUNG FU (c) Marvel Comics
visitors and counting, since April 7, 2002 ...