Monday, February 4, 2013

Kung Fu Fighting

Along with the many new titles that Marvel created in the 1970s came its expansion into martial arts-themed comics, which I admit I never got on board with. Martial arts in any medium has never caught fire with me--but since I was a voracious reader of comic books at the time, you'd think that if martial arts ever had a chance of appealing to me it would be on the comic book rack. But no. Because with martial arts stories in comics, it's never as simple as watching your hero take on their villain(s) for that month--you often have to wade through a character's history, or vendetta, or teachings, or ancient rites, or reminders of lessons learned, or any number of other culture-driven preambling or motivation detours. Granted, you can find that at various times in other mainstream comics, but usually only on an as-needed basis--whereas in comics centered on the martial arts, those things become the rule rather than the exception.

That said, these books were reasonably successful, perhaps because they rode the wave of the many similar-based productions of the film and television industries which began to see release in the early 1970s. I think the one that lasted the longest was The Hands of Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu, though there were several other characters that gave it a shot. One of them, Iron Fist, fell totally flat for me. His gimmick was having a super-powered fist punch, which I supposed served as his trump card whenever his own skills couldn't get the job done. Given that this guy was beaten in mock combat by Sue Richards--with Sue using, believe it or not, her own martial arts skills, freshly learned--it was reasonable to wonder if Iron Fist shouldn't be seeking out more comparable foes like, say, Power Pack.

There was really only one Iron Fist story that caught my eye, and that was simply because I was reading Marvel Team-Up at the time. In that story, he was facing off against Steel Serpent, another martial arts foe with, you guessed it, a long and involved backstory steeped in tradition that you had to wade through in order to appreciate how he got to this point. It never seemed necessary to read about, for instance, the Wizard's family or what traditions he was taught while he was going up against the Fantastic Four--but whatever. The pacing of this battle is a little odd, since writer Chris Claremont is painstakingly describing each move and counter-move in detail, giving us the feeling that we're actually watching an instructional slideshow in some classroom rather than a life-or-death battle taking place:

Steel Serpent goes on to defeat Iron Fist by, as he says, taking not only the power of his "iron fist" but also his life force. And get this: he's gotten in under Iron Fist's guard to initiate this process twice before. Maybe if Iron Fist had spent less time assigning the correct proper names to his strikes, he might have been alert enough to avoid Steel Serpent's thrust here. But as you've seen, Steel Serpent was going over the fight in his own head, as well, so apparently he had all the time in the world to get into position. Three strikes, you're out, Iron Fist.

Since Spider-Man was hugely popular during this period for Marvel, it probably seemed like good sales savvy to host this fight in Marvel Team-Up in order to coax readers over to Iron Fist's own title. So why stop there? With the character of Shang-Chi branching out into several titles in 1974, something like this confrontation was bound to hit the stands:

Since these two are both popular-selling heroes, this meeting would be another of Marvel's misunderstanding fights--where the two first meet and battle under a cloud of misinformation, before finally comparing notes and teaming up to meet the mutual threat. But where that would only be a brief dust-up in a regular-sized 20-page book, we get a more expanded fight in this "giant-size" format (albeit a less-than-giant-size amount of room in this case, since this story is sharing the issue with a reprinted Spider-Man tale--and a lackluster one, at that).

The initial two pages have Spider-Man and Shang-Chi feeling each other out, taking each other's measure--which is sensible, considering neither have met before. But as a reader, it feels more like each character is simply being given his due, since it's likely each has his respective fans looking at these pages:

I don't think I've made a secret of the fact that I'm not artist Ross Andru's biggest cheerleader. He had a long run on Amazing Spider-Man, and I winced through each and every issue. His pencilling, in my opinion, just doesn't suit Spider-Man--he seems to apply no special sense of agility or unique style to the character's movements, with his fighting poses often seeming to blend with those of his opponents. For example, if you were to look at any of Spider-Man's fights with, say, a group of gang hoods as drawn by Andru, if it weren't for his costume you'd be hard-pressed to pick him out from the rest. So I get little sense of Spider-Man in this hand-to-hand portion of the fight. Where's that spider-sense that alerts him to his opponent's strikes? Where's the agile leaping to avoid them? Why, in short, is Spider-Man duking it out with this guy as if he's Captain America?

In contrast, Andru seems to shine when he's choreographing Shang-Chi's movements, with the artist's style seeming better suited to a fighter who isn't as mobile and takes a brace/strike/kick approach. Shang-Chi, of course, will have his share of leaping to do in battle--but even though his leaps look similar to Spider-Man's in some respects, the fact that his abilities come more from training make such movements look more natural with him.

In the following pages, we begin to see Spider-Man take advantage of his other abilities, preferring to take on Shang-Chi from a distance. That's a little hard to digest, I agree. Spider-Man will take on foes like the Rhino at close quarters, yet Shang-Chi sends him to the safety of wall-crawling and long-distance web-shooting:

With enough space allocated for this battle that will have no winner, it's finally time for it to come to an end:

The rest of this story is actually pretty entertaining. Shang-Chi and Spidey make a good team, and I've warmed a great deal toward Shang-Chi's character. Not enough to begin picking up his own title--reading page after page of Shang-Chi's trademark thought reflections would get boring fast. And with his quiet and almost solitary manner, it's probably his supporting cast and certainly his foes that would have to carry the bulk of his book's interest, and that wouldn't appeal to me on a regular basis. (Probably one of the reasons I never took to any of the Punisher titles.) But Shang-Chi, as I said, proved to be very popular with readers who were big martial arts followers, and we would see more of him and other such characters blending into Spider-Man's titles as well as others.


Unknown said...

That Spider-Man/Shang-Chi story was pretty dire, as was the whole Ross Andru era on the wall-crawler. I attribute a lifetime's disinterest in Spider-Man to my getting into comics during Andru's era on the book.

Everything you say about Marvel's martial arts books is true, but I regard those complicated back stories as a strength rather than a liability. Iron Fist is a secondary character (though a guilty pleasure), but Shang-Chi's 1970s run at Marvel was one of the finest books of the decade. Read it as an espionage book rather than a martial arts book and you might find much to enjoy.

Comicsfan said...

*gulp* Maybe this isn't the time to mention that I could never get into any of the S.H.I.E.L.D. books, either! :)

Big Murr said...

Six years late to the chat...but I have to jump in and say I was an Iron Fist fan from his first appearance. I think it was the touch of magic and the power of his supernatural fist that did the trick. It bridged the gap between martial artist characters like Shang-Chi and proper superheroes. Shang-Chi, Mantis and all the other pretty much straight-up martial artists were eye-rolling "Mary Sues" for too long in too many stories, where their training somehow made it possible to beat Marvel's heroes.

The aspect of Iron Fist I did enjoy was Danny Rand. Serious and heroic when situation demanded, he was otherwise the antithesis of the brooding martial art master, filled with Far Eastern angst and darkness. Ingenuous without being naive. Enjoying life and rediscovering western culture.

When the writing and art were on point, I loved the team-up of Iron Fist and Luke Cage. Crazy, but ultimately delightful idea.

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