It’s to Kagan McLeod’s credit that his immense love of kung-fu and martial arts films that his new graphic novel Infinite Kung-Fu never falls under the weight of genre obsession. Too often creators can become overly beholden to their favorite influences, turning unique inspirations into checklist items but in McLeod’s hands kung-fu is the tool it should be rather than the crutch it could have been. The end result is a brave, passionate work that may not reach the levels of other Western martial arts reinterpretations like, say, Kill Bill but nonetheless stands out as one of the best recent efforts in the genre from a Western creator.
McLeod’s style may be the biggest reason this is so, as his signature visual sense is incredibly elastic, making it a perfect fit for a martial arts epic. Focusing on the martial arts maturation of protagonist Lei Kung as he is trained to be the savior of kung-fu, McLeod’s use of constant motion is ideal for both the intense physical punishment Kung goes through on his quest as well as the graceful beauty of the violence of the book. Given that so much of Infinite Kung-Fu is devoted to physical punishment and violence, it’s necessary for McLeod to depict it in a way that comes across as interesting rather than punishing for the reader as well but even given that high standard McLeod succeeds beyond expectations.
Aiding in that success is the sweeping ambition of the world McLeod has crafted with Infinite Kung-Fu. Saying that the graphic novel is devoted to violence isn’t a dig on the morality of the story or any gritty gratuity but a statement of fact- Lei Kung is a former soldier who has found himself and everyone he knows surrounded by forces of death, as corpses rise and ghost emperors are hellbent on destroying life itself. But McLeod still finds room to breathe life into the narrative, offering up highly inventive takes on standard kung-fu tropes as well as integrations of seemingly disparate elements like zombies, robots and death machines and an incredibly funky kung-fu master named Moog Joogular.
McLeod’s ambition proves that his love of the kung-fu genre doesn’t prevent him from tinkering with the formula and leaving his own stamp. Joogular in particular is a standout, a character who quickly outgrows the novelty of his Afro’d appearance (much more successfully than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did in Game of Death, it should be noted) to become perhaps the most interesting character in Infinite Kung-Fu. The idea of a Bootsy Collins-like star abandoning his musical career to become a student for immortal, god-like figures of kung-fu is brilliant but the darkly introspective edge McLeod brings to Joogular takes him to the next level. Of course, Joogular also unfortunately works as a sign of the failures of Kung’s character, who feels far less developed and is nowhere near as interesting.
Kung mostly functions as a plot device, the stereotypical hero of destiny who can only achieve greatness after going through seemingly impossible trials that test his faith and endurance as well as his skills. Kung isn’t a bad character, per se, he’s just not indicative of the kind of inventiveness McLeod brings to the rest of the work, love for wine and brief dalliances with the dark side of “poison” kung-fu aside. In a story where monks build gigantic spider-like death machines and kung-fu masters can use their own detached limbs as weapons and regrow them as they wish, a stock hero archetype can’t help but feel one dimensional and staid.
Even with that handicap, though, Infinite Kung-Fu feels fresh and exciting, the kind of work that you almost never see, especially in North American comics. To kung-fu addicts, McLeod’s graphic novel will hit all the right familiar beats while adding in enough new touches to keep them coming back. For newcomers, Infinite Kung-Fu is ambitious without being intimidating, its new ideas hopefully acting as enough of an appetizer to point them in the direction of more kung-fu works. McLeod even offers up an excellent primer in the back, guiding fans through the history of martial arts films. That bit of tutoring from McLeod is the kind of feature more graphic novels of this type should provide since it gives new fans of the genre a life preserver of sorts for the references that are made and provides a reason for them to return to the book later, after they’ve followed the genre guide.
Infinite Kung-Fu may not be perfect but with such a contagious love for his subject on display, McLeod makes it an easy work to enthusiastically embrace.
When he’s not writing about the cape and spandex set, Nick Hanover is a book, film and music critic for Spectrum Culture and a staff writer for No Tofu Magazine. He also translates for “Partytime” Lukash Dinovic’s Panel Panopticon.