August 1981 was a big month for music fans because on the first day of that month MTV went live on cable systems all around the United States. Heralded by teaser videos featuring such stars as Billy Idol, Boy George and Sting, the 24-hour music channel was a bit of a revolution for people of a certain age.
My compadre Daniel Elkin and I are definitely old enough to remember when MTV was a great force in our lives, when our daily doses of Duran Duran was almost as important as time spent hanging out at lunch with the cute girls with big ’80s hair talking about Indiana Jones and the upcoming Thompson Twins concert.
But when I was hanging out with my comic loving friends we were talking about the comic book renaissance that was really happening around that time, a renaissance that included a comic with the slightly exploitative name of Master of Kung Fu. I looooved MOKF and I adored the art by Gene Day and would drool over each issue of their run on this series. Until I lost my whole comic collection in the midst of one of my ill-fated moves out of the house and hadn’t bothered picking up an issue of this comic for something like 30 years until I found a copy this past Free Comic Book Day when wandering through the bins at Dreamstrands Comics in Greenwood, Seattle. Surely, I thought, adolescent Sacks must have been wrong. This comic couldn’t be as good as my foggy memory made it out to be.
And adolescent Sacks was wrong. This comic wasn’t as good as I remember it being.
It was better.
Let’s just start with that cover. Look at that amazing cinematic feel it offers with that horrifically majestic Nazi war eagle at the center, and our hero, half in shadow, fighting an anonymous enemy. Meanwhile scuba divers flow around the background, seemingly swimming into action. Doesn’t this story promise something interesting and intriguing, a story that’s far less exploitative or at least far more interesting than the comic’s title seems to promise?
Flip the page and dive into this comic and you’re confronted with an image that’s even more special; a meticulously detailed image of something as prosaic and ordinary and awesomely exotic as a grouping of boats at China’s ‘South Gate’ between East and West. This is clearly a comic book that is going to take us readers to a different place than your average issue of Iron Man, and it’s going to go out of its way to set the scene right.
Then flip the page again and – wow guys, seriously I wish I had a scanner that could show the beauty of this two-page spread in all its spectacular glory because Gene Day could draw back in the day. Here he produces this amazing two-page spread with the issue’s title each created as a panel spelling out the title. Who does stuff like that? Who did stuff like that in 1981 at Marvel freaking comics? And how far above its expected level is such a thing in an issue of a comic that claims to be a kung fu chocky socky exploitation comic? This is the kind of shit that made Jim Steranko a legend but who still remembers the name Gene Day in 2012? 30 years ago this guy was the shit! And I bought this comic for two-thirds of its original cover price! Sacks for the win, goddamn it!
Finally on page four the story begins as we finally get a chance to meet Black Jack Tarr and our hero, Shang-Chi, the selfsame Master of Kung Fu of the title – though not until we get to see one more amazing scene-setting image. Establishing shots! Wow, Day wasn’t just a great artist and clever and moody but he also cared about classic storytelling, too. Anyway, it seems that this whole setup has been important because it establishes normal life on the junks – life that is apparently disrupted by some evil assholes taking over the junks. As Black Jack ominously tells Shang, “there’s no telling who – or what – is now lurkin’ on those bloody silent boats.” Yeah, that’s foreshadowing – a classic literally technique used because, it occurs to me, these creators are actual professionals.
It turns out that Shang isn’t just in this because he’s a kung fu super spy. He’s also got women problems. The gorgeous Leiko Wu has done Shang wrong – and of course this being a great high-minded piece of work this isn’t some sort of shallow heartbreak. No, as Shang tells us, [she] “permitted me to regain my sense of serenity, my ‘lost art’ of living life artfully, with fullness and grace.” This isn’t plain ol’ love; this is a deeper love from a deep thinking kung fu master. And you know what? This scene is also foreshadowing for a great next scene. See that Siamese cat in Leiko’s arms? On the next page, when Shang visits Leiko’s roommate Mary, we see that Mary is tending the cat – who swiftly scratches Shang! It’s a shocking scene, redolent of lost love, symbolic of rejection and – yes – still more foreshadowing.
How the hell did a comic like this end up in the three for a buck bin? How is it possible that something like this isn’t on the top of everyone’s list of comics classics of the early ’80s? Why am I the only one writing about Gene Day and Doug Moench? What the hell is wrong with the world?
Well I shall press on, anyway, because it’s my duty to you all, not to mention my dear friend the vacationing Mr. Elkin, to tell you why you need to buy every one of the issues that this team created together and treasure them like the absolute pure 24 karat comics gold that they are.
So we flash back to Black Jack and Shang sharing a bracing cup of tea as they remember their last encounter with Leiko as she takes on a secret mission – a mission from which our erstwhile heroes will have to rescue her.
Wu is being held prisoner on a certain boat in the middle of the rest of the junks in the harbor. So Shang and Black Jack must make their way on a quiet night across a bunch of boats. Not surprisingly, their ruse is found out and the pair has to fight their way to Leiko’s side.
Also not surprisingly, the whole sequence is managed perfectly by Day. We get a virtual clinic on scene composition, as we get odd angles, black-out, confusing moments and moments of pure storytelling beauty.
Just look at that clever storytelling right above there. It’s tremendously well conceived and composed, depicts the movement of time perfectly, and the use of diagonals as a way of conveying excitement is executed absolutely perfectly.
Battle over; a mysterious figure in green appears to confront our heroes.
And we soon find out that this mysterious figure is a blonde woman named Juliette… umm who? Okay, you can ask, who is that? But the beauty of this comic is that this perfect non sequitur is immediately explained by both writer and artist, and in a way that intrigues rather than confuses. Just look at the complicated look on Shang’s face. Beautifully rendered, huh?
And just in case we were wondering about Juliette, we get a panel that contrasts perfectly with the panel of Leiko above, complete with a cat as a key being – this time – well, dare I spoil this comic by saying that that is still more foreshadowing?
Juliette is a bit slippery, it seems, as she reveals to her former lover that she is hovering between good and bad, and that she is as much philosopher as our hero, as she says “The nights are still seldom filled with the old magic, Shang-Chi, but I have regained some of my strength.” Yeah, these two are made for each other – both beautiful and smart and involved in the espionage game. It’s a rough life that these heroes live, and you need friends and lovers and allies to battle …
… an odd plan to resurrect a long-since-sunk German ship off the coast of Hong Kong with a secret cargo, “some sort of substance more precious than uranium, needed for the development of a new weapons system.” A plan that, you guessed it, our heroes are there to fight.
So now that the truth of this mission is known and our heroes are all gathered, it’s time to lead to the breathtaking climax of this issue and the first of several bone-crushingly awesome moments.
First: the boats are moving! And Shang and Black Jack have to fight their way to the center of the junks. The next two pages are filled with spellbinding action Check out that bone crushing action! Followed by a classic heroic trope …
Shang is so manly – dayamn check out that six pack. Forget the philosopher stuff, this guy should be king!
And after a quick dive to check out the boat, Shang returns to the surface and swims to the center of the boats ready for action. This man is wet and angry and ready for a fight!
And then – yes! Shang has found Leiko!
And then – oh crap! Remember what I said about foreshadowing? About great storytelling? About bone-crushingly awesome moments? About cats? Because that man is Shen Kuei, a Siamese man with a cat tattoo on his chest. And oh holy hell is this a great comic because on the next page it all blows to shit with this full-page explosion!
Yeah, everything went wrong. Shen Kuei is fucking livid but Shang is even angrier and the whole thing has this absurdly, amazingly, gorgeously operatic feel to it.
Every single piece is up in the air, and a political, emotional, physical and existential crisis has played out in the form of this odd international polyglot spy/kung fu/Nazi gold mash-up. The story is masterfully played by two creators at the top of their professions who seem to be trying with painful intensity to create a work of genuine comics art that manages to be both low and high at the same time.
This is a fucking breathtakingly amazing comic book, the kind of thing that practically begs you to be a comics fan. It’s the kind of thing that grabs you by your shirt and screams of endless majestic wonders just waiting on the newsstand for 50 cents in August 1981 when we were all so very, very bored and didn’t even realize it. If Elkin can read shit like Iliad II and it can destroy his faith in comics, this comic can restores my faith in spades. But then again I’ve always been a true believer. Face front!