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The Hands of Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu #19

This is a series I missed when it was first published. Having almost entirely given up on new comics, I’m finding there are plenty of gems from yesteryear that I didn’t have the allowance for or that simply didn’t make it to the shelves of the Groveport Pharmacy. Cruising the “bronze age comics” category on eBay, I expect it will be many years before I run out of books to discover for the first time. In the case of Master of Kung Fu, this was a book which was over my head when I first encountered it, being one of a number of non-superhero books with an adult slant which Marvel was launching during their “Phase 2” period in order to expand their readership (the version I briefly saw was the Moench/Zeck model). I’ve recently discovered this little gem thanks to the guest appearance of another old favorite, Man-Thing, in this issue which is Shang-Chi’s fifth appearance in a comic book.

How can issue 19 of the series be the fifth appearance of the title character, you ask? The series was originally called Special Marvel Edition, and featured (if I am not misinformed) old superhero reprint material until Master of Kung Fu debuted in issue 15; the character was a hit, and the title became The Hands of Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu with issue number 17. Imagine that! No passing up a high-numbered issue because you didn’t “get in on the ground floor”; the biggest draw to an issue on the stands was the cover and the promise of story within! If you did get an issue #1, the story was still likely continued from the anthology title the character had previously appeared in (Iron Man, Sub-Mariner, Werewolf By Night, to name a few). The numbers were totally irrelevant except for organizing a stack of your favorite books. Must have been nice. My 11th issue of the Dave Gibbons Doctor Who reprint series became “Series 2, #1”, Dark Horse’s Conan series has inexplicably reverted to a first issue even though it originally promised a continuous narrative of the character’s life, Captain America has seen at least four 1st issues in the last decade… but good luck finding (silver age) Captain America #’s 1-99, Hulk 7-100, Thor 1-82… or Master of Kung Fu 1-14. The necessity of a completist mentality didn’t come into play at all, not fostered by the demands of the audience or the marketing strategy of the publishers. How strange. How, dare I say, accessible.

Back to MOKF: Allegedly Marvel had gained the rights to Fu Manchu and related characters at the same time as securing rights for a comic series based on David Carradine’s Kung Fu TV show. Someone had the notion to meld the two concepts together, giving us Shang-Chi, who discovers one day that the father he revered is actually the greatest force for evil on Earth, so he splits from the family temple to walk the Earth helping people– like Julius from Pulp Fiction– and battling against his father’s plots. This issue opens with a couple of Fu Manchu’s assassins chasing Shang Chi into the Florida everglades, where waits a shambling, barely sentient pile of mud and moss not quite known for his kung fu skills. Our hero is already tripping before he even sees Man-Thing, thanks to an assassin’s poison his body is fighting, so the encounter goes about as badly a conceivably possible.

Luckily, there happens to be a fellow Asian philosopher traveling through the swamp– one who bears a striking resemblance to David Carradine. This stranger rescues Shang-Chi and even makes sure the Man-Thing is uninjured, before binding our protagonist’s wounds and helping him sort through the conflicting emotions he is dealing with since his peaceful philosophy has been thrown into doubt by the conflict with his father. We even get a TV show-style flashback to young Shang-Chi’s youth in the monastery, wherein we learn that artist Paul Gulacy might have encountered Steranko at some point early in his career.

(Gulacy is inked by Al Milgrom here; I was surprised to see both of these gentlemen’s careers stretch back to 1974.)
The assassins catch up to the pair, but Shang-Chi has not only rested, but also become more philosophically strengthened, which of course provides the edge here. Worse for the villains, the David Carradine look-alike points out that the bravado they display is founded in fear– always a bad thing when the Man-Thing is lurking nearby. Martial arts once again prove useless against a walking compost heap, and we’re treated to a double page spread of burning bodies (I’d better not have to explain that).

Steve Englehart wrote this, as well as just about everything else for Marvel in the 70’s, reinforcing my belief that the guy could spin gold from straw until he went horribly astray a decade later (but for Dara’s sake, we won’t go into that…). He and Shang-Chi leave us with some final philosophizing regarding the use of violence for us to chew on after we have put the book down.
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