"The Cat/Fight Without Pity"

Writer: Doug Moench. Pencils: Paul Gulacy. Inks: DAn Adkins.

Master of Kung Fu #38, 39 (1976)

The Master of Kung Fu was an odd series -- but it came about at a time when Marvel was experimenting with a lot of slightly atypical concepts. It married the then-trendy martial arts craze (complete with a hero who evoked movie star Bruce Lee) with James Bond espionage, yet with roots in pre-war pulp fiction. And then, instead of being solely a gee whiz action series, it was equally a brooding, philosophical series (presumably inspired by TV's philosophical/martial arts series, Kung Fu), as hero Shang Chi's running narration tended toward poetic ruminations on the meaning of life -- yet married with meticulously staged action scenes that were clearly meant to evoke real martial arts moves rather than simply super guys tossing each other through the air.

It's a fondly recalled series, and may well be scripter Doug Moench's pinnacle in the comics field. Yet, so far, Marvel has yet to release an Essential collection, and I suspect it might be a long time -- or never -- before they do, simply because of copyright issues. See, as a gimmick, they had licensed novelist Sax Rohmer's infamous pulp fiction Asian villain, Fu Manchu, as well as a few other supporting characters, like Nayland Smith -- in much the way they had licensed H.G. Wells War of the Worlds for their Killraven series...even though Killraven bore little resemblance to anything in Wells' novel. In the comics, Shang Chi was Fu Manchu's son, but turned on his father -- Fu Manchu was a recurring villain in the series. As such, presumably in order to reprint the series, Marvel would need to reacquire the rights to Fu Manchu (Reacquiring old rights is something I assume they did when they collected their old Godzilla series in an Essential volume -- but maybe the rights to Fu Manchu are pricier than the rights to Godzilla).

At least, all of that is speculation on my part -- maybe there's some other reason it hasn't been collected, in one form or another. But given how fondly the series is recalled, I can't imagine what those reasons might be.


That brings us to this two-parter. The series' premise is that Shang Chi acts as an unofficial agent of the British secret service, and in this story he is sent to Hong Kong, ostensibly to retrieve some stolen documents from a martial arts agent for the other side -- Shen Kuei, a.k.a. The Cat. Complicating things is that The Cat's lover, Juliette, is a British double agent, and Shang Chi's bosses worry her cover has been compromised and she is in danger.

What ensues is a brooding, atmospheric, slightly surreal fable -- a story of love, and hate, and loyalty and betrayal. Taking place all in one sombre, sleepy night, Shang Chi arrives and finds Juliette has truly fallen in love with the Cat, and has no intention of returning to England. Shang Chi, ever the impartial outsider, is willing to concede to her wishes -- so long as he can retrieve the documents -- only to have the Cat discover them together, and assume that Juliette has betrayed him.

There is assorted fighting, between Shang Chi and a street gang, and Shang Chi and the Cat -- and there is much brooding and ruminating. The dialogue isn't especially realistic, but suits the melancholy, philosophic tone, where cold war spies feel like pieces in a bitter, pointless game. Shang Chi even attracts a stray alley cat who follows him, providing a thematic totem in the tale.

Aiding the story is Paul Gulacy's art, with its well rendered environments of dock side bars and twilight beaches, and fight scenes seeming modelled from martial arts stances. And it benefits also from Gulacy's experimental use of panel and composition, sometimes cinematic in the way it breaks down a scene, and sometimes surreal and expressionistic. Figures stand in lonely silhouette, or speak from reflections in rippling water. If Jim Steranko is perceived as a pioneer in comic book composition...Gulacy, at least at this point in his career, was a master. He even throws in a few in jokes -- or resonant images -- such as drawing Juliette to look like vintage movie star Marlene Dietrich.

This two parter is probably as good a sample of the series as any -- and a good sight better than the best of many other series.