*Obie, through his dabbling in arcane magiks mixed with ancient corrupt business practices, has had not just the colors of his fur switched, but a complete overhaul of his work ethic as well…I think I’m kinda okay with the mishap.
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Everybody Was Kung-Fu Fighting (Part 1)
When you mention the ‘70s to someone who was alive during that time, many things come to mind. For me, I picture summers at the swimming pool with breaks of miniature golf during the day, and countless hours at the roller rink going nowhere fast while shooting the duck and loving every minute of it. It was disco and Queen, ABBA and KISS, cassette tapes and 8-tracks, and a multitude of radio stations that actually played a variety of music. You could play video games on your Atari 2600 in the comfort of your own living room, or head out to the arcade to line your quarters atop the local Space Invaders or test your skills as a pinball wizard on some of the truly gorgeous machines (I’m looking at you Gorgar!).
Then there was Karate and Kung-Fu.
The martial arts were something most people had zero training in, yet a few jumps off the couch and a few poorly performed—and possibly property-damaging and/or self-injuring—spin kicks in the living room and you were on your way to becoming a master. The ‘70s were also the start of the much loved Bronze Age of comic books and if you were to flip through any Marvel or DC comic of the time, you would find a wealth of ads offering to teach you the martial arts via pamphlets or posters, mainly Karate or Kung-Fu. Oftentimes, you read those ads in some amazing comics that showed you exactly what a martial artist could do. So, let’s take a look at some groovy and radical Kung-Fu comics.
The Hands of Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu
If you’re going to talk about martial arts superheroes, the master of Kung Fu, Shang-Chi, must be a part of the conversation. First appearing in Special Marvel Edition #15 (written by Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin, illustrated by Jim Starlin and Al Milgrom, published by Marvel, 1973), Shang-Chi is the son of the notorious Fu Manchu, a man who Shang-Chi believes to be a benevolent scientist, that is until the day Shang-Chi is sent to assassinate a man who turns out to not be an evildoer at all. Now, on the run from his own father in the foreign land of New York City, Shang-Chi pits his hands and feet against strange foes and colorfully-costumed heroes alike as he tries to thwart Fu Manchu’s diabolical machinations. Special Marvel Edition #16 proved to be the last of that series, but not because of lackluster sales. In fact, the series was such a hit the title changed to The Hands of Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu keeping the numbering at issue #17, and ran to issue #125 in June of 1983, with an annual and four issues of Giant-Size Master of Kung Fu and numerous appearances in other Marvel titles. I only had a couple handfuls of Shang-Chi’s adventures growing up—so many comics, so little money—and for many unfortunate years rights issues to the Fu Manchu character prevented any reprints or collections from being published, but no more! You can pick up the four omnibus volumes today—I have the first one thus far!—and Marvel looks to slowly reprint the run in trade format in the coming years. With additional talents like Doug Moench, Len Wein, Gerry Conway, and Roger Stern on writing, and Paul Gulacy, Walt Simonson, Mike Zeck, John Buscema, Sal Buscema, and many others on art, you can’t go wrong with this martial arts powerhouse. Spoiler alert: in one issue Shang-Chi Karate Chops a shark. You don’t get cooler than that.
Iron Fist, one of my favorite Marvel characters, also began life in a comic series not initially named after him. Marvel Premiere #15 (1974) saw the introduction of Danny Rand, a young boy who, through tragic circumstance, came to be raised in the mystical city of K’un-Lun, where he was taught to become a living weapon and where he gained the power of the iron fist after defeating the fierce dragon, Shou-Lao the Undying. Danny returns to the regular world to seek vengeance upon Harold Meachum, the man who originally left Danny and his family to die upon the frozen wasteland. During his time in New York City, Danny meets both superheroes and supervillains alike and eventually becomes a hero himself. Marvel Premiere ran through issue 25 before graduating Danny to his self-titled Iron Fist, which ran for 15 glorious issues. Written by such greats as Roy Thomas, Len Wein, Doug Moench, and ultimately with Chris Claremont, and illustrated by Gil Kane, Larry Hama, Pat Broderick, and ending with the beautiful line work of John Byrne. Iron Fist cemented his place in the Marvel Universe and his series even saw the first appearance of Sabertooth (Iron Fist #14) and a guest appearance by the X-Men (Iron Fist #15) that totally rocked my world. Equally impactful was Marvel Team-Up #63–64 which saw Iron Fist and Spider-Man facing off against Danny’s arch-nemesis, Davos, the Steel Serpent—as a kid I only had issue #63 and had a painful decades-long wait to get ahold of the concluding issue #64...it was totally worth the wait! He also teamed with none other than Luke Cage, Power Man, in the 1978-debut hit series Power Man and Iron Fist. Starting with issue #50, Power Man and Iron Fist, which sprang from the pages of Luke Cage: Power Man, which sprang from the pages of Luke Cage: Hero for Hire ran to issue 125. Also, you know I love the Ed Brubaker, Matt Fraction, David Aja run on The Immortal Iron Fist, but that love would not be as strong without the earlier work, primarily that of Claremont and Byrne.
The Deadly Hands of Kung Fu
The mid-‘70s had some Shang Chi, it had some Iron Fist, but in true chocolate and peanut butter two great tastes that taste great together fashion why not combine the two, which is exactly what Marvel did with The Deadly Hands of Kung Fu black and white magazine series that started in 1974 and ran for 33 issues. Now, I have never read this series, but there are two omnibus editions on my radar. The series not only features many of the same great writers and artists who worked on Iron Fist and The Hands of Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu but also introduced and focused on lesser-known martial arts heroes and saw Shang-Chi and Iron Fist cross paths from time to time. In addition to what looks to be some amazing comic book material, the magazine also featured martial arts movie reviews, prose pieces about martial arts, and step-by-step, fully-illustrated how-to pieces so you too could become a Kung-Fu master. Sign me up. Time to get to some couch cushion Karate Chopping.
Richard Dragon Kung-Fu Fighter
Marvel didn’t have a monopoly on martial arts characters. DC comics had a few up their sleeves as well with 1975’s Richard Dragon Kung-Fu Fighter 18-issue series. Predominantly written by Denny O’Neil and mostly illustrated by Ric Estrada, the series followed martial arts expert Richard Dragon who was originally a thief but decided to walk the more honorable path of using his phenomenal abilities for good. Dragon is touted as the best martial artist in the DCU, but even that prestigious honor was not enough to stave off cancellation. Richard Dragon would not have to stay in the shadows for too long, as O’Neil later made Dragon a supporting character in his ’80s series, The Question. I have not read this series, but after having a clear memory of seeing the first issue and now having my eyebrow raised by the second issue (put some pants on, why don’t cha?!), I totally need to bargain bin dive to find what looks to be one heck of a fun series. Something else to note is that Richard Dragon springs from the pages of the novel Kung-Fu Master, Richard Dragon: Dragon’s Fist by Denny O’Neil and Jim Berry written under the pseudonym Jim Dennis.
Determined not to miss out on the Kung-Fu fervor of the ‘70s, DC didn’t let flagging sales of Richard Dragon Kung Fu Fighter stop them from spinning Karate Kid out of The Legion of Super-Heroes and into his own series. The series, sadly, only ran for 15 issues and featured writing by Paul Levitz and David Michelinie and more martial arts art from Ric Estrada as Karate Kid travels from the distant future to the 20th century to take down an escaped Nemesis Kid. This is another one I have not (yet) read, but Karate Kid has guest appearances from The Legion, Superboy, Kamandi, and others. I loved seeing Karate Kid every time he popped up in the pages of The Legion of Super-Heroes and especially in the first six issues of the 1984 revamp Legion of Super-Heroes—a series that thoroughly traumatized me, but you will just have to read it to understand why. Val Armorr (Karate Kid) first appeared in 1966’s Adventure Comics #346 and was trained to be a master of the martial arts, and eventually took to the stars to find new styles of fighting with which to master. He eventually returned to Earth to find the Legion of Super-Heroes looking to add to their roster; Val made the cut. I will also be combing the depths of the bargain bins for copies of this series.
Now before anyone starts griping, I am very well aware of the VERY popular heroes who are accomplished fighters (hint: rhymes with “Matban” and “Aptain Camerica”), and instead wanted to focus on the lesser-known heroes riding that Kung-Fu craze of the ‘70s. Can…you…dig…it?