Crouching Tiger, Running Commentary:
Doug Moench on the Margins of Marvel
In 1976, together with artist Mike Ploog, Doug Moench created an epic fantasy sequence called “Weirdworld.”1 An early attempt at cashing in on the renewed interest in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, the comics themselves are noteworthy for Ploog’s beautiful artwork, but not for much else. Still, the very name “Weirdworld” points to the way in which Moench’s best comics stood out.
Like Marv Wolfman, Doug Moench is a poor candidate for the status of comics auteur. Nor was he associated with any of Marvel’s biggest commercial hits. His 1970s resume has far fewer mainstream superheroes than that of Wolfman; there was an interesting run on the black-and-white Rampaging Hulk and Hulk magazines (1977-1978 and 1978-1980), an unremarkable stint on Captain Marvel (1978-1979), and a small number of scattered issues of other superhero titles here and there.2 In the early 1980s, before he followed in Wolfman’s footsteps and left for DC, his superhero work increased, with Fantastic Four (1980-1981), Thor (1981-1983), and his own co-creation, Moon Knight (1980-1983).3 Moon Knight garnered a fair amount of acclaim, but that was more for the outstanding and inventive pencils of Bill Sienkiewicz.
Despite his relative isolation from superhero comics, the 1970s were a busy time for Moench. Yet his wide and varied output contains few titles that would suggest prestige. He tried his hand at virtually every subgenre the company published, making it difficult to posit to a “typical” Moench comic. Many of these were the sort of assignments that his colleagues were unlikely to covet. Moench did more than his fair share of licensed tie-ins and public domain characters: Godzilla, Shogun Warriors, The Monster of Frankenstein, and one that exceeded all expectations: the black-and-white Planet of the Apes magazine (1974-1977), for which Moench adapted all five films and wrote a great deal of original material, including two long-running features set in the Planet of the Apes continuity. His very best work was spread out over three distinct genres: near-future proto-cyberpunk (Deathlok the Demolisher), horror (Werewolf by Night), and martial arts/espionage (Shang-Chi: Master of Kung Fu). What these three comics have in common (besides the Moench byline) is that what is going on in the protagonist's head is every bit as interesting as what he is doing with his hands, guns, or claws.
In these comics, Moench uses an apparently simple technique: first-person narrative captions. By no means did he invent them; Werewolf by Night was structured around such captions long before Moench took over the title. There is, in fact, nothing particularly radical about the concept; first-person captions appear to be a straightforward equivalent to the voice-over sometimes used in film and television. But their actual form and function is more of a hybrid. Like the voice-over, the captions are linked in time and space to the action unfolding before the viewer, serving as a parallel track. But because they come to the reader in written prose rather than as the spoken word, they are assimilated differently. The voice of the narrator, rather than emanating from an actor, is the product of the reader’s own consciousness (or perhaps subconscious) interacting with the words. The narrator has a voice, but any attempt to concentrate on it enough to describe it is usually in vain.4 A film or television show can be ruined by a narrator with an unpleasant or distracting voice, but this is a problem unlikely to be encountered in prose or comics.
In comics, a first-person narrator (I will omit the word “caption” from now on for the sake of convenience) has some advantage over certain other narrative forms prevalent at Marvel in the 1960s and 1970s. He (all my examples in this chapter are, unfortunately, male) does not fall into the Stan Lee trap of describing what the reader can see on the page, nor is he engaging in detailed descriptions of the general setting or mood (as McGregor will do in a later chapter). Finally, and most important, he is usually not engaging in an inexplicable oral monologue (as Dracula so often does). For reasons that might have to do with habit or tradition, Marvel characters who narrate aloud usually do so in a melodramatic mode, tossing around exclamation marks as though they were trying to meet a punctuation quota. In captions, the tone tends to be more subdued.
In Moench’s hands, first-person narration does double duty, bringing the reader into the hero’s head while also setting a mood that is more contemplative and detached.
The Soul of an Old Machine
In the back pages of Astonishing Tales 25, which introduced a new character called "Deathlok the Demolisher" in 1974, co-creators Doug Moench and Rich Buckler discuss their collaborative process:
RB: I keep telling you. We think alike—cinematically.
DM: But it wasn’t just that. It was more than just sharing a common desire to tell the story in cinematic terms. We actually thought alike as far as the story was concerned.
RB: So mention that in the article too. And say something about how we’ve tried to use simultaneous progression.
DM: You mean having one thing happening in the dialogue while something else is happening in the pictures…?
RB: Not just that, but also having the backgrounds tell something in addition to what’s happening in the foregrounds.
The combination of “cinematic” storytelling with a concern for parallel narration is a feature of some of Moench’s best work (particularly his collaboration with Paul Gulacy on Master of Kung Fu). But it is also a glimpse into the medium’s future. Using film techniques on the comics page was well established, particularly in the 1960s work of Jim Steranko. But on Deathlok, which is narrated by multiple voices within the same panels, Moench and Buckler use cinema to transcend cinema in an early attempt to do in comics what cannot be done in film.
The series’ narrative conceit, involving disparate voices arguing within Deathlok’s head, was Moench’s idea. Buckler and Moench highlight the book’s polyphonic approach:
DM […] And let me tell you, having him locked in this machine-like death really started to get complicated as far as the dialogue was concerned…
RB: Blame yourself for that; it was your idea to play pinball in his head.
DM: Yeah, well... I think it’s worth it, even if Deathlok takes me twice as long to write as any of the other books I’m doing.
Just twelve years later, this would be one of the signature accomplishments of Alan Moore’s and Dave Gibbon’s graphic novel Watchmen, where various narrators are identified by the shape and color of their captions, and where nearly everything contained in said captions is explicitly talking about something that we cannot see in the page, while implicitly serving as a counterpoint to the panel’s action.5 In 2003, what was once an experimental technique went mainstream in Jeph Loeb and Ed McGuiness’ Superman/Batman, which had both title characters narrate in captions in the same panels, distinguished by color and by symbol. But it started with Deathlok.
In his original incarnation, Deathlok headlined Astonishing Tales from 1974 through 1976 (issues 25-28, 30-36), before sporadically bouncing around the Marvel Universe for several more years, and eventually getting killed and replaced by other, more popular versions of the character.6 Moench did not actually create Deathlok, but was a crucial part of the character’s adventures for the first year, credited as scripter or co-plotter for issues 25-27 and 30, and “writer” for issue 31. The credits for Deathlok’s first appearance state that it was “conceived, plotted, & drawn” by Rich Buckler, the creator and driving force behind the character. But where Buckler developed the book’s striking visuals, it was Moench who established the narrative structure.
Set in what was then the dismal, but largely recognizable near-future of the 1990s, Deathlok tells the story of Luther Manning, an American soldier turned into a cyborg after his death in combat. His transformation is not entirely a resurrection; his dead flesh is still dead, drawn as gray and corpeselike next to the shiny silver of his mechanical parts. Even his brain has been partially replaced by computer circuitry. General Harlan Ryker meant him to be an unstoppable, inhuman killing machine, but Deathlok proved more complicated and intransigent. To the surprise of his creators, the cyborg has retained Luther’s original consciousness in addition to the computer that was supposed to be the body’s sole pilot.
Deathlok is a new variation on the Marvel monster hero. We have seen the Jekyll/Hyde dynamic of the Hulk, the eventual synthesis of Ben Grimm’s insides and The Thing’s outsides, and the many silent or near-silent, occasionally non-sentient monsters alluded to so far. Deathlok is a hybrid: not just half-machine, but half-corpse. His in-story creators clearly intended him to be a cybernetic zombie, directed by a computer and unburdened by any vestiges of his humanity. Yet for reasons never precisely explained, Deathok, rather than being an empty husk, has a surplus of selfhood. The first page of his very first appearance drops the reader into a narrative muddle, with the computer providing the simple facts in block letters (“Identity confirmed; target established”) and another voice, represented in italics, turning the events into a prose poem (“hated animal response etched livid and stuffed with bright horror’s screaming lust to live”).
Already by page 2, it becomes easier to differentiate the voices. The computer continues speaking in block letters, its captions blue and usually rounded. Luther Manning himself uses a normal font in rectangular yellow boxes, as the computer issues commands while Luther argues for a more emotional approach:
[Computer]: Fire. Repeat: fire.
[Luther]: No. Not yet. Let ‘im suffer. Let me savor his fear.
[Computer]: Incorrect response. unacceptable. Implies emotion; emotion precluded by nature.
[Luther]: Stuff it. I’m gonna see ‘im squirm. And if that’s emotion, it’s the only one: hate and contempt for his flesh-and-blood guts.
When Deathok finally fires on his target, the mysteriously poetic third voice breaks in:
[Third voice]: Feel the exquisite pleasure of our flex-steel fingers vise-squeezing a streaking spurt of ripping searing boring light.
[Computer]: I feel.
[Luther]: And I feel it too.
[Third voice]: See the hated human target stiffen in beautiful agony, spitting crimson shrieks of death.
[Computer]: Of liquidation.
[Luther]: Of death.
As this example shows, the interplay of the three voices could be successful and fail at the same time. This polylogue is evocative and emotional, but incredibly confusing, especially for the second page of a new feature. For some reason, the computer is using the first-person singular (“I”) and expressing an emotion, while the identity of the third voice is a complete mystery. In the next issue, after another stream of consciousness contribution from this voice (“feel spurting death slicing through scarlet-ripped hated human flesh destroying killing slashing cutting beauty”), Luther asks: “Y’know, ‘Puter, I been wondering—is it you or me who contributed the sick streak to our third personality?” The computer’s response: “Both.”
The third voice’s recognition by the other two only makes its presence more jarring. If its captions had simply been left in the panels unremarked, the voice could have been chalked up to some sort of extradiegetic effect, like mood music heard by an audience but not the characters. As it is, the third voice disappears as soon as Moench stops scripting, reducing the narration to a much more comprehensible dialogue. But the question remains: what was that voice doing there in the first place?
It turns out that Deatholk’s hybridity (part machine, part corpse) is replicated at multiple levels. Deathlok looks like he should be a mindless monster, and that is how his in-story creators designed him, but in fact, he is an entirely different kind of fictional device: Deathlok is a machine that cannot stop producing interiority effects. The first two voices corrpespond to his human and cybernetic halves, but neither one is entirely Deathlok. The third voice that arises to the surprise of the other two is identified by the computer as a synthesis; he is what happens when two halves start to make a new whole.
Deathlok the comic is even more preoccupied with interiority than Deathlok the character. In the end of the very first issue, we find that he is not the only person in the book who is part of a human/machine interface. Ryker’s lover Nina accidentally discovers that the back of his head is a computer port. Subsequently, he turns her into an organic processor for his “omni-computer,” in order to have it guide an unmanned tank. As is fitting for a comic in which the protagonist’s multiple personalities have their thoughts visually manifested on nearly every page, Deathlok the Demolisher has little regard for the boundaries between the internal and the external.
Finally, the same dynamic applies to the comic as physical object and commodity. The comic’s covers promise pulp sci-fi adventure with a high body count, but the pages inside area all about what it is like to be inside this cyborg’s head. In other words, the comic is more than it seems—an assertion made my many a frustrated comics apologist in the 1970s
Man and Beast
As we have already seen in the previous chapter, much of Marvel’s output in the 1970s now looks like it was the product of an algorithm designed to generate increasingly awkward titles (with Giant-Size Man-Thing as the obvious winner). Given Moench’s avowed preference for comics on the margins, it was inevitable that he would get more than his fair share. Which brings us to Werewolf by Night.
Like Tomb of Dracula, Werewolf by Night was the product of an informal committee. Roy Thomas came up with the idea, co-plotted the origin with Jean Thomas, and gave the assignment to writer Gerry Conway and artist Mike Ploog (Sanderson, Marvel Chronicle 154). Stan Lee thought up the name. The first story appeared in the try-out tile Marvel Spotlight (issue 2, February 1972), paving the way for the Werewolf’s own series later that year. The series was passed from writer to writer until Moench took over with issue 20 (August 1974), staying on until the series' cancellation (issue 43, March 1977). Though he did not create the title character and made only a few changes to the series supporting cast, Moench stayed with the series the longest.
Werewolf by Night was never a particularly satisfying name. For one thing, it’s obvious: when else is a werewolf supposed to come out? For another, it was increasingly inaccurate, as Moench developed more and more ways to bring the creature out during the day time. Worst of all, it was a title that could not easily be applied to the character within the story (“Look! It’s the Werewolf by Night!”). Generally, he was just referred to as the Werewolf.
By day (and by nights without a full moon), the Werewolf was Jack Russell (I know, I know), whose grandfather, after daring to read and transcribe a forbidden grimoire called the Darkhold, was afflicted with lycanthropy. The curse was passed down to his son and grandson when they turned eighteen. Throughout the series, Jack, his friend Buck Cowan, his eventual love interest (a young psychic woman named Topaz), and his younger sister Lissa searched in vain for a cure.
The premise for Werewolf by Night places the comic squarely in the Jekyll-and-Hyde tradition of alternating, opposing selves, most notably developed in Marvel’s Hulk stories. Most versions of the Hulk, however, could speak, at least to some extent. The Werewolf, on the other hand, was, like Frankenstein’s Monster, Man-Thing, and N’Kantu the Living Mummy, inarticulate, growling and howling and, except in his earliest adventures, not shown to have any thoughts of his own. Moench’s predecessors on the title came up with an elegant solution to the problem presented by a functionally mute, mindless protagonist: the stories were narrated by the Werewolf’s alter ego, Jack. It was Jack’s voice that spoke to the reader through the captions, providing continuity of action and character that could cross day and night man and wolf. This also gives the book a more modern feel than many of its contemporaries, in that (like Deathlok), it avoids thought balloons.
But privileging Jack’s voice also frees the writer from having to bother giving the Werewolf any of his own psychological traits or quirks—he is simply a beast. Imagine the Hulk’s stories narrated by Bruce Banner: this would either detract from the monster’s own characterization or turn the comic into a duel between first-person voices: the Hulk as Deathlok. Instead, Werewolf by Night turns the multiple personality problem into a single personality problem. In the narration, sometimes Jack uses “I” when describing the Werewolf’s actions and feelings, and sometimes calls him “the Werewolf.”
This approach to the protagonist(s) characterization was made before Moench came on board, but its ramifications become clear as soon as he has rid himself of the dangling plot lines he inherited from previous writers. Issues 22 and 23 have the Werewolf facing off against Atlas, a handsome actor who was hideous disfigured in a fire. Clearly unhinged, Atlas is a “monster” who is still simply a new iteration of his previous self. By contrast, Jack/the Werewolf looks like a classic dual personality, despite the continuity of Jack's narration. The last panel of the story both reinforces and undermines Jack’s dual self;
The werewolf huddled in the greasy squalor of filth and garbage, licking his wounds and dreading the dawn.
As usual, he didn’t know what had happened.
Dawn wouldn’t be quite so kind to Jack Russell. (22)
They are two entities, but it is Jack who has the burdens of consciousness and comprehension.
The nature of Jack’s dilemma is made clearer in the storyline that followed. Issues 24-26 see Jack and Buck track down Winston Redditch, a scientist who is on the verge of distilling the human personality into purely good or purely bad versions of the original self. Buck thinks this research might help Jack solve his own lycanthropic predicament. Unfortunately for them, Redditch has just made a breakthrough and tested the serum on himself. Even worse, his wife, while dusting the lab, inadvertently swapped the “bad” forumula for the “good” one. Redditch has transformed into DePrayve, his own personal Mr. Hyde.
There is nothing particular interesting or original about the DePrayve/Redditch story. Indeed, it is so familiar that Moench is able to convey their relationship as much through shorthand (explicit references to Stevenson’s novel) as DePrayve’s melodramatic proclamations (“Redditch is dead! I killed him !”). Instead, the story works thanks to its implicit contrast with Jack/the Werewolf. Jack’s alter ego is nonverbal; Redditch’s won’t shut up. And all he wants to talk about is how much he is not Redditch.
When Jack finally does get ahold of Reddich’s “good” serum, it has no effect on him. No explicit reason is given within the story, but then, Buck never makes a convincing case for why the serum should work on Jack in the first place. The obvious answer would be that science cannot remove a magical curse, but there is another possible reason that is much more thematically consistent. In postulating that Redditch’s research could help Jack, Buck has latched on to a faulty metaphor. Even if we assume that “good” and “evil” are relevant categories for scientific inquiry, they are not appropriate labels for the Jack/Werewolf dyad. Jack is good, of course, but there is no reason to assume he is an absolute paragon of virtue. Nor can the Werewolf, a creature of instinct, truly be called evil. And, most important, they are not diametrically opposed personalities. Jack’s recall of the Werewolf’s actions varies in its accuracy according to the needs of the plot, but the very fact of Jack’s continuous first-person narration demonstrates a continuity of consciousness, rather than a rupture.
Body and Soul
Issues 27-37 of Werewolf by Night are when Moench really hit his stride, after which there was one more multipart storyline (38-41) and an ill-conceived pair of issues that moved the character closer to the superhero genre in what must have been a last-ditch attempt to stave off cancellation (why else would Werewolf by Night have Iron Man as a guest star?). Of these eleven issues, 32 and 33 are probably best remembered as a milestone, since they featured the introduction of Moon Knight (co-created by Moench and longtime Werewolf by Night artist Don Perlin). Issue 31 is an unusually disturbing story in which Jack, Topaz, Buck, Buck’s new girlfriend Elaine and young daughter Buttons are snowed in at a ski resort during the full moon. Buttons gets lost, Jack turns into the werewolf and is about to attack her, before she is saved by Buck, whom the Werewolf mauls and leaves for dead.
To an even greater extent than the “Reddicth” trilogy, the two storylines that bracket the ski resort and Moon Knight issues are fairly complex thematizations of the problem of interiority and selfhood, all through the metaphors of magic. Issues 27-30 finally addresses the long-running question of whether or not Jack’s sister Lissa will become a werewolf at 18 (the answer is yes, although it gets more complicated), while delving further into the character of Topaz thanks to the group’s confrontation with her enemy, a bald sorcerer named “Doctor Glitternight” who emits mystic light from the center of his chest. Glitternight, who (of course) wants to take over the world, tends to do two things with his power: move souls in and out of bodies, and corrupt any soul that falls under his sway.
Created by Marv Wolfman and Mike Ploog in Werewolf by Night 13 (January 1974), Topaz is the blonde, white-skinned adopted daughter of a Punjabi sorcerer named “Taboo” (bonus points to anyone who can effectively decolonize this sentence). She has natural psychic abilities, and quickly develops a rapport with both Jack and the Werewolf. Moench had just returned her to the series right before the Glitternight arc, setting the stage for a possible romantic relationship between Topaz and Jack. In issue 27, she finally explains where she has been and what has happened to her.
After returning to India to try to revive her waning powers, she meets Glitternight, whom she remembers as a colleague of her deceased father, Taboo. Glitternight hypnotizes her, and then draws her soul out of her mouth as ectoplasm. He places it within a large clear egg, which he bathes in his energy to turn it completely opaque. Now her soul has been transformed into a hideous monster, a creature that the Werewolf fights at the very beginning of the issue.
This turns out to be the key motif of the Glitternight story: the evil mage repeatedly takes souls from bodies, incubates them, and transforms them into flesh, in a kind of Satanic inversion of the Christian miracle of Incarnation. He does this to Topaz a second time at the end of issue 27, and this is what emerges:
“It was beyond words, that thing—a slick schemers scene of slimy sordid sin…
In the next issue, we discover that Topaz’s father still exists, as a disembodies spirit. Upon his death, Glitternight found him, did his soul/egg trick, and drew forth his ghost. But where Glitternight usually corrupts the innocent, this time he horrifies the previously villainous Taboo into opposing him:
Taboo: “He proposed the methodical murder of every person on earth—after which he and I would such their souls free—/—to create from them an army of hideous, subservient demons.”
Glitternight’s bizarre alchemy is almost a pathology, or at the very least, a repetition compulsion. He simply cannot tolerate the fact that so many bodies roam the earth, containing souls. Instead, he must kill the bodies, steal their souls, and turn them back into something approach physical matter (i.e., bodies). He must make the interior manifest, but in the process, he must also corrupt it, molding it into a newly monstrous exterior.
The timing of the group’s conflict with Glitternight could not be worse. Glitternight attacks them just before sunset on the night of the first full moon since Lissa’s 18th birthday. She starts to change, but Topaz and Taboo combine their powers to try to prevent her transformation. Lissa is simultaneously bathed with moonlight and Glitternight’s energy rays at the same time, turning her into something more than an ordinary werewolf. Long-tailed, blue-furred, and bat-eared, with the ability to shoot flames from her eyes, by the end of issue 28 Lisa has become a “were-demon.” It almost goes without saying that she and the Werewolf are going to fight.
The fight takes place over the course of the following issue, providing the perfect vehicle for Moench’s first-person parallel narrative technique. A battle between two nonverbal monsters might well have its visual appeal, and the fight is well-choreographed by Perlin (a talented visual storyteller whose old-fashioned style meant that he would never be a fan favorite).7 But the emotional resonance would have to be supplied by the words.
The stage is set with a thematic splash page that has a giant Were-Demon facing off against the Werewolf as he stands on the stone letters that form the issue’s title (“A Sister of Hell”), in a move straight out of Will Eisner’s The Spirit:
“A nightmare: my little sister Lissa was about ten. I was a few years older. She looked up to me, raising a skinned elbow, and cried for sympathy.
“Years passed. Full moons, hideous and glaring, came and went. Now I looked up at Lissa, but neither wanting nor knowing how to cry. Besides, I”d get no sympathy form the monstrous thing which was once my little sister….
“You see, through the years and under the moon, we had both changed for the worse.”
Two pages later, the narration restates the conflict while also reminding the reader of the Werewolf/Jack’s complicated ontological status:
“It was brother against sister, and not even the Civil War could’ve mustered an equivalently insane frenzy.
“But in all fairness to the werewolf, it must be remembered that the concept and significance of sibling loyalty was alien to him.
“He was a beast—completely unaware that his human alter-ego, Jack Russell (me!) even had a sister…or what that mean to him/me once the moon went down…
“But as innocent as the werewolf might’ve been, I’ll never forget one screaming truth: the werewolf was me…
“…and I was doing my very best to maul my little sister straight into death and beyond."
A few pages later, the narrator once again frames the Werewolf’s violent fight with the Were-Demon interns of their shared (and temporary forgotten) childhood conflicts:
“Looking back on it all, I get a flash where in this crazy castled hell of sorcery and savagery
“Was reality? Where—?!
“Another nightmare: we would play-fight, Lissa and I, when we were young and stuffed with too much television. She was always the good guy and I was the bad. The roles were locked…
“…and so we’d wrestle around on the living room rug, giggling, panting, more often tickling than fighting.”
[This is a caption floating above a panel showing the Were-Demon slashing the Were-Wolf’s face with her claws]
“One of these sessions stand out more vividly than the others. I had underestimated Lissa’s strength, and she’d succeeded in throwing me off-balance…
“My arm flailed in reflex panic and I struck her across the side of her head. Hard.”
[In this panel the Werewolf mauls the Were-Demon’s face]
“She cried for ten minutes, then demanded that I kiss it better.
“I refused, on the unspoken grounds that it was too mushy and wouldn’t do any good anyway.
“I was wrong.”
Now Glitternight has corrupted and transformed the two women closes to Jack (first Topaz, then Lissa. Glitternight is temporarily captured, both were-creatures survive the night, but they still have to face the following night’s full moon (and Glitternight’s escape from their captivity).
First, though, Jack has a late-afternoon nightmare about a battle between the Werewolf and Were-Demon, but with the human heads of Jack and Lissa. In an inversion of their previous fight, the captions now describe what is actually happening, rather than the past, but this time human-headed Werewolf is “I.” Jack’s perspective is completely subsumed within that of the Weerwolf, while the Were-Demon with his sister’s head tries to reassert their original identities: “No, Jack! It’s me—Lissa—!!”
Soon after he wakes, the moon rises, and Jack becomes the Werewolf. Yet now the Werewolf’s motivations are a mix of his and Jack’s, as though following up on the metaphor implied by Jack’s nightmare:
“Sister” was a concept he could never grasp, but the need to find her was trapped somewhere in the transformational void between my id and the beast’s vapid ego…”
The Freudian terminology is jarring here. It superimposes a tripartite notion of the self onto the Jack/Werewolf relationship, although if we see the Werewolf here as a kind of synthesis of himself and Jack, one could stretch the point and say that the result is a triadic self. But the assignment of id to Jack and ego to the Werewolf looks like a mistake—shouldn’t the Werewolf be entirely id, while Jack’s ego is evident in the narration itself? If we give Moench the benefit of the doubt, this distribution of Freudian concepts further supports the muddle that is the Jack/Werewolf identity. Jack calls the Werewolf’s ego “vapid,” and we have already asserted that the beast doesn’t really have a personality, but, on the other hand, the constant slippage between “I” and “the Werewolf” in Jack’s narration is evidence that Jack does not really know where he stops and the wolf begins.
When the Werewolf encounters Lissa, she has already changed into the Were-Demon, and this time Glitternight has drawn forth her soul from her mouth as ectoplasm, transforming it into a yellow and orange glowing leash extending from his chest around her neck. Topaz is aghast, immediately understanding what has happened, and taken aback yet again when the ghost of Taboo announces his decision to sacrifice his own soul to save Lissa. Turning back into ectoplasm, taboo slides into Lissa’s mouth, whereupon she regains human form.8
This scenario will play itself out again in the haunted house storying (issue 34-37), where skeletons and skulls are hidden inside houses and statues, souls turn into physical material, and a ghost sacrifices his afterlife to save Buck.9 Such sacrifices do not result in any changes to Lissa’s or Buck’s personality, despite the substitution of Lissa's original soul with that of an old magician and Buck’s with that of a man long dead. Souls in Werewolf by Night are both utterly individual (the ghost of Taboo has Taboo’s personality) and shockingly fungible: it does not seem to matter whose soul a character has, the important thing is simply to have one. The soul can be a vehicle for subjectivity (Taboo again), but it is also an ethereal substance that magic easily turns material and even impersonal. For a comic steeped in the folk horror traditions of Europe, Werewolf by Night proves almost Buddhist in its separation of the soul from one’s ordinary sense of self. Perhaps Moench’s use of the term “vapid ego” to describe the Werewolf is not as erroneous as it first seems. The Werewolf and Jack share a soul, but it is Jack who has enough sense of self to be able to be somehow co-present with the Werewolf as first-person narrator.
Orange Is the New Black Belt
Moench’s longest sustained work at Marvel is also his most critically acclaimed: Shang Chi, Master of Kung Fu. He began with the second half of issue 20 (September 1974) and ended with issue 122 (March 1983), missing only two issues along the way (64 and 121), but more than making up for them with annuals, quarterlies, specials, and contributions the black-and-white magazine Deadly Hands of Kung Fu (which ran from April 1974 through February 1977).10 Yet despite the accomplishments of Moench and his collaborators, Master of Kung Fu has had a difficult afterlife, primarily because of the original sins that haunt the series to this day.
Shang-Chi (the protagonist of Master of Kung Fu) was created by Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin, although they did not stay with the series all that long (Moench took over after just a few issues). Just as Marvel’s horror characters were a response to the genre’s revival in film, Master of Kung Fu (along with Iron Fist) was an attempt to cash in on a then-current fad: the 1970s martial arts boom. This period is now best remembered for the films of Bruce Lee, but the real impetus for Master of Kung Fu was Kung Fu, an American television series that whitewashed the genre with a largely Caucasian cast. The show’s combination of martial arts action and faux-Eastern philosophy resulted in a hit that lasted from 1972 through 1975.
Englehart originally was hoping that Marvel could simply license the show, but editor Roy Thomas, whose affection for Golden Age comics characters and pulp heroes is well-known, had a different idea: licensing the characters associated with Sax Rohmer’s early twentieth-century pulp villain, Fu Manchu. This was a decision that would lead to several powerful storylines and fascinating character development, but also impose a burden that the comic would never really escape. On a pragmatic level, the Fu Manchu connection hindered attempts at reprinting the comics years later, after the license had expired, and would prompt subsequent writers to either use Fu Manchu without referring to him by name, or eventually reveal that the unspoken name “Fu Manchu” was actually a pseudonym to disguise his real name (now said to be "Zheng Zhu").
But those are mere technicalities. The real problem is the undeniable racism that surrounds Fu Manchu in the original novels, the movie adaptations, and Master of Kung Fu itself. Usually depicted with his characteristic droopy mustache, talon-like fingernails, and hypnotic stare, Fu Manchu was described in his first appearance as “the yellow peril incarnate in one man.” When fighting against the virtuous (and, of course, white) Denis Nayland Smith, he availed himself of weapons including magic potions, venomous vermin, seductive “Oriental” women, and all manner of treachery. It is difficult to imagine redeeming such a character from the bigotry that birthed him, and if it is possible, it will not be because his white creator’s racism was countered by subsequent white writers’ good intentions. Already a problem to readers paying attention in the 1970s, in the twenty-first century Fu Manchu is positively radioactive.
Unfortunately, the racial blindspots are not limited to Fu Manchu. The coloring process used by comics at the time provided a limited range of hues; by the late 1970s, newly-introduced Asian and Asian American characters in the book were depicted with skin tones that did not differ so starkly from those used for caucasians. Unfortunately, this was too late for characters who had been around longer, such as the occasional antagonist Shadow Stalker, whose skin was colored banana-yellow, or, worst of all, the title character. For the duration of the series, Shang-Chi was as orange as the Fantastic Four’s Ben Grimm. Bad as this was when he was first introduced, it became ludicrous as time went on. Other Asians had skin of more recognizably human hue, but Shang-Chi’s color visually defined him as though he were a member of an alien race. The Skrulls were green, the Kree pink or blue, and Shang-Chi was orange.
Moench was not responsible for the coloring, but, when it comes to the book’s Orientalism, he was not blameless, either. Many of the problems are related to the construction of Shang-Chi’s antagonists: the huge, barely human sumo-wrester whose only dialogue consists of repeating Shang-Chi’s girlfriend name by sounding it out syllable by syllable ("Lei-ko-wu!” Issue 46); the endless supply of faceless, fanatical, and expendable Asian cultists whom Fu Manchu dispatches as casually as one might order a pizza; and the simplistic contrasts between Shang-Chi’s upbringings and “the West.” Even worse, Shang-Chi’s (white) British comrade Black Jack Tarr “affectionally” calls him “Chinaman” for years, despite periodic reader complaints.11
Finally, there is the matter of Shang Chi’s name, which was given to him by co-creator Steve Englehart. Most likely cobbled together from a dictionary rather than created with the help of an actual Chinese speaker, “Shang Chi” is said to mean “the rising and advancing of a spirit.” Depending on the tones, “chi” does refer to vital energy, while “shang” has multiple meanings connected to the concept of “above” or “superior.” In anticipation of the 2021 Marvel film Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, which appears to swap out Fu Manchu for the no less offensive Marvel yellow peril villain The Mandarin, many Chinese speakers have been quick to denounce the film not only for its racist pedigree, but for the unlikely name “Shang-Chi.” Quora users have pointed out that, in addition to being a nickname for the Shanghai Automobile Company, “Shang-Chi” sounds like "a nasty disease,” a “zombie,” or a “depressed corpse.” 12(https://www.quora.com/As-a-Chinese-what-do-you-think-about-Marvel-s-Shang-Chi)
In other words, Shang-Chi: Master of Kung Fu has a great deal working against it. But without apologizing for its flaws, I would argue for its centrality to Marvel comics development of interiority, depth, and artistry in the 1970s. So let us take a closer look.
Fighting and Talking
Starlin only stayed with the book for three issues, while Englehart lasted for five, but the team quickly sketched out the broad contours of the character and his supporting cast before Moench’s arrival. Shang-Chi was the son of Fu Manchu and an American (i.e., white) mother, raised in his father’s fortress to believe that Fu Manchu was a force for good. Sent to England to assassinate Fu Manchu’s enemy, Shang-Chi kills Dr. Petrie, the closest ally of Sir Denis Nayland Smith (the hero of Rohmer’s original novels). Smith confronts Shang-Chi and quickly disabuses him of his faith in his father’s goodness, converting him to his side (but not yet turning him into an ally). Englehart and Starlin also introduce Black Jack Tarr, a younger MI-6 agent who goes out into the field now that Smith is too old.
The most important feature introduced by Englehart, and the one that Moench would run with, is the narration: the entire comic is narrated in the first-person by Shang-Chi himself, in captions much like Jack’s in Werewolf by Night. But where Jack’s captions served to bridge the gap between Jack’s own consciousness and the Werewolf’s animalistic unconscious, Shang-Chi’s testify to his individual growth throughout the series. It is fitting that Shang-Chi’s victim in his first appearance is Petrie; Petrie was the Dr. Watson-like narrator of Rohmer’s first three Fu Manchu novels. With his voice silenced, the narrative reins were firmly in Shang-Chi’s hands.13
For the duration of his comic, first-person narration was one of Shang-Chi’s defining features. Even when appearing in someone else’s book as a guest star, he brought his captions with him. On the three occasions when Moench briefly returned to the character (1988-1989, 1991 and 2002-2003), he continued with the same narrative form, as did Ben Raab during Shang-Chi’s short solo arc of Journey into Mystery (1997-1998). Since the 1990s, however, most of Shang-Chi’s appearances have been in team books (Heroes for Hire, various Avengers titles, and the Agents of Atlas), where there has been either no room or no interest in continuing his interior monologue. In addition, his physical appearance changed: he has cast off his iconic gi, gotten a haircut, and is depicted with a skin tone commonly found among humans native to Earth. Greatly improved visually, he is now a cypher as a character. For a time, he even gained the ability to make multiple copies of himself, which one could take as an unintentional comment on his derivative status.
Since his early days, Shang-Chi has repeatedly encountered Spider-Man, a sales gimmick that proves revealing. After all, Spider-Man is the archetypal Marvel hero as chatterbox: part of his appeal is his non-stop quipping, designed to annoy his antagonists (and sometimes even his allies) but delight his readers. When he starred in his own book, Shang-Chi rarely spoke while fighting; if he had anything to say, it would be delivered as a brief but stirring speech before or after the battle. Yet the reader hears him all the time; indeed, were it not for his interior monologue, Shang-Chi would have run the risk of adding yet another racist stereotype to a book that was loaded with them. He would have been inscrutable.
In fact, when moved to the comics page, the martial arts genre virtually demands direct representation of the hero’s interiority; wuxia heroes, whose fighting maximally resembles actual physical exertion, do not have the comic book hero’s unrealistic capacity to speak at great length while fighting. The greater the verisimilitude, the less talkative the hero (at least during the fight scenes). If Shang-Chi were to be consistent with his onscreen models, his creators could choose between sharing his thoughts or rendering him more object (to be looked at) than subject (to express a point of view).
Moench inherited Shang-Chi’s first-person running commentary, just as he did the similar narrative captions in Werewolf by Night. Superficially similar, the narrative strategies of these two series diverged in one crucial aspect: Jack Russell always tells his story in the past tense, which, in addition to being the most common form of first-person narration, makes sense, in that Jack isn’t entirely present for the Werewolf’s exploits. With a few exceptions (including several pages in his very first appearance), Shang-Chi describes his thoughts and actions in the present tense. The result is a fascinating combination of emotional intensity and detachment. We are usually privy to Shang-Chi’s emotional state, but his manner of “speaking” separates Shang-Chi the narrator from Shang-Chi the character. As readers, we are watching Shang-Chi, while Shang-Chi is watching himself.
The first-person narrative captions allow Shang-Chi to function on two parallel tracks (the physical and the interior), and at the series’ best moments, when writer and artist were working in near-perfect sync, so, two, did the two tracks complement each other completely. Over the course of Moench’s ten-year run, he had extended collaborations with three different artists: Paul Gulacy, Mike Zeck, and Gene Day, as well as a brief interregnum between Gulacy and Zeck primarily (and infelicitously) filled by Jim Craig. Moench appeared to tailor his scripts to suit the artist with whom he worked, such that the verbal/visual balance would vary over the course of these three periods: more laconic when working with Gulacy’s highly cinematic layouts; more wordy with Zeck, but rarely overwhelming the penciler’s action-oriented large panels; more flowery in conjunction with Day’s exquisitely ornate, small-paneled tight layouts. Whether by coincidence or design, the succession of artists accompanied an ongoing journey deeper into Shang-Chi’s own psyche.
Gulacy's run on Master of Kung Fu is widely considered a high point, and for good reason: by the time he and Moench attained a good working rhythm, the book was visually stunning. The fact that this coincided with shifting the comic’s direction towards spy drama also didn’t hurt.
Gulacy started working on Master of Kung Fu in 1974, only a few months after his initial gig at Marvel. Taking over for Starlin, he drew issues 18-19 for Englehart, as well as Moench’s first Shang-Chi script (the second half of issue 20). He would stay with the book until issue 50 (March 1977), although eleven of the issues between 20 and 50 were drawn by others. He also drew the first three issues of the quarterly Giant-Size Master of Kung Fu. Though some of the non-Gulacy books advanced the series overall arc, for the most part they were stand-alone or fill-in issues. A reader who paid attention only to the Gulacy issues would come away with a very clear sense of the series development from Moench’s arrival through Gulacy’s departure.
One of the joys of reading these issues is watching Gulacy’s talent develop in real time. Already quite distinctive and experimental in his earliest contributions (such as Giant Size Master of Kung Fu 3, which includes an entire page devoted to a fight in a labyrinth drawn like a maze puzzle), his penciling and layouts are significantly more polished and sophisticated starting with issue 29 (whose splash page announces “A blusteringly volatile new direction for Mighty Marvel’s dynamic Master of Kung Fu!”)14 From the beginning, Gulacy wore his influences on his sleeve, most of all the influence of Jim Steranko (1938-). Steranko’s groundbreaking work on Nick Fury and the Agents of S.H.i.E.L.D., initially in Strange Tales (1966-1968) and then in the eponymous series (1968) exploited the cinematic potential beyond anything that had come before it. Master of Kung Fu's turn to espionage plots brought Gulacy in closer sync with Steranko both visually and thematically, By the time he drew his final, 6-part arc, the comic had a more cinematic look than anything else that was currently on the stands.
Cinematic layouts were only one of many aesthetic choices available to artists at the time, but they had the advantage of being both eye-catching and progressive. As some in the comics community were striving for recognition of the form’s legitimacy as an art form, a common rejoinder to the casual dismissal of comics as trash or cheap children’s entertainment was to compare the medium to film. After all, if cinema can combine words and pictures and still be considered art, why can’t the combination of words and pictures on the printed page be taken just as seriously? Aren’t comics essentially movies on paper?15] This argument eventually fell out of fashion, supplanted by an approach most famously exemplified in Alan Moore’s and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen: yes, comics can use cinematic techniques, but why not take advantage of the things comics can do that cinema cannot?
My point is neither to champion nor condemn cinematic layouts, but to emphasize the stakes involved. Cinematic comics periodically slow down the action, making generous use of “movement-to-movement” panel transitions (which, in the case of Master of Kung Fu, prove to be an excellent means of conveying martial arts action). They also tend to avoid those conventions of comics that have no analog in film, such as the thought balloon. And at their most consistent, they are accompanied by scripts that refrain from bogging the action down with excess verbiage.
As a result, Gulacy’s run on Master of Kung Fu is significantly less wordy than the issues that would follow, with thought balloons used sparingly, and only when Shang-Chi is not around (both Tarr and Reston express their thoughts in the occasional balloon). Gulacy and Moench were quite conscious of this cinematic turn. The credits for issue 31, for instance, describe the book as “Produced and Directed by Moench and Gulacy.” This does not mean there is no interiority to the Moench/Gulacy collaboration, but rather that it is much less pronounced than in the post-Gulacy years.
For example, Issue 29, the beginning of the “blisteringly volatile new direction," has a great deal of dialogue in the first several pages, which are devoted to Smith’s convincing Shang-Chi to join his team on a mission that has nothing to do with his father; it is to put an end to the heroin trade masterminded by Carlton Velcro. Shang-Chi is reluctant: “But is there not a path in the middle, where I may work for justice…without becoming dirty?” Smith replies, “Not when you face filth like Velcro,” a line that suggests Moench’s odd choice for his villain’s name might have an allegorical connection to Shang-Chi’s choices. Velcro, after all, is practically a magnet for dirt.
Shang-Chi’s choice to throw in his lot with Smith determines not just the course of the entire series; it establishes Shang-Chi’s fundamental dilemma. How can he maintain moral purity, let alone help his spirit “rise and advance,” if he must constantly compromise his principles? Thus while most of his captions in issue 29 are simply descriptive, by the last few pages, Shang-Chi finds himself second-guessing his team’s actions. Tarr stops (and presumably kills) three enemy combatants with a concussion bomb. In his captions, Shang-Chi thinks: “I do not like this form of fighting, even though I have been repeatedly assured it is necessary…” Tarr tries to rouse him from his reverie, but Shang-Chi continues: “Is death…ever necessary?” A few pages later, Shang-Chi is confronted by two musclemen on a causeway overlooking hungry panthers (as one does) He knocks one of the men off the causeway as he strikes another: “The scream from below are shrill. / The snarls of jungle cats…satisfied. / And the brittle sound of violence…/…necessary?” After he knocks the second man to the ground, to be gnawed on by one of the cats, he thinks “There is nothing to be done here! / I must hurry to Reston…/ It is necessary.” Shang-Chi’s narrative voice here maintains its usually flat understatement, but the conflict between his exquisitely rendered violence and his conscience is always just beneath the surface.
The Velcro story extends over three issues, with most of the narration in issue 30 and 31 devoted to Shang-Chi’s description of and reaction to the violence in which he is engaging. Along the way his team discovers that Velcro is more than just a heroin dealer; he has acquired nuclear weapons as part of a plan for world conquest. The story ends with Shang-Chi at his most decisively violent: piloting a motor-launch into Velcro’s fortress to cut off access the drugs and bombs. The last page shows us that Shang-Chi has, of course, survived this desperate gambit, leaping from the launch into the ocean. It is a page whose visual allegory operates in harmony with the hero’s narration: from the moment Shang-Chi’s head breaks through the surface, the four panels depicting him show a man slowly rising, first to catch a helicopter’s ladder, then to climb it, and finally to fly away. This is an obvious instantiation of the meaning of Shang-Chi’s own name (“the rising and advancing of a spirit”), and yet Moench refrains from rendering the connection explicit. instead, Shang-Chi’s monologue is about the active course he has set himself on since agreeing to help Smith, a course that not only changes the series, but also puts its protagonist on a path of unending internal and external conflict:
“It is over now…the first result of my decision to leave passiveness for a path of direct action.’ [Shang-Chi grabs the ladder]
“And now that it is over, there is time to reflect…and to wonder if the result was worth the decision…” [Close up on Shang-Chi’s face as he grabs one of the rungs]
“I remember a drug clinic in New York and the faces there…etched in the torment of heroin. [part of a panel from issue 29 showing two addicts]
“Yes…to the spirit of those who might now avoid such torment…it has been worth it… [Shang-Chi’s arms hands on two different rungs]
“I remember, too, pictures of a great city in Japan, and the cloud which rose above it.” [Mushroom cloud]
“And yes.. to the flesh of those who might have been seared under similar clouds…it has also been worth it…” [helicopter flying away]
“…though the decision, and its path, still leaves much… to be desired.”
Shang-Chi’s language describes a path forward rather than up, with the exception of his description of the mushroom cloud, which reads like a demonic parody fo the promise of his own name. Upon re-reading this issue (that is, with the knowledge of the problems Shang-Chi will face over the next several years), the contrast between the vertical imagery and the narrations elaboration of horizontal progress is consistent with the hero’s ongoing dilemma. He is definitely advancing, but he might not be rising.
Subsequent issues of Master of Kung Fu will continue to play with the problem of forward and vertical motion (such as the story called “The Journey as Goal,” in which Shang-Chi’s decision to walk a great distance in keeping with his attitude towards ends and means, only exposes him to repeated attacks that could have been avoided). But whether mentioned explicitly or not, Master of Kung Fu is a continual journey, with Shang-Chi’s thoughts serving as our guide.
Games of Death and Deceit
Paul Gulacy went on to draw seven of the next ten issues (40 was a fill-in drawn by Sal Buscema, while 36 and 37, drawn by Keith Pollard, had originally been intended for the Giant Size title before that particular line was canceled). The Mordillo trilogy (32-35) was another fairly cinematic mission against a lone villain, but this time one whose mental illness and bizarre robotic creations lent the story an extra flair. It also introduced Reston’s ex-lover Leiko Wu, a fellow spy who quickly became Shang-Chi’s love interest. Issues 38-39 featured romantic intrigue and a beautifully rendered one-one one martial-arts battle, involving a new character, Shen Kuei, nicknamed the Cat, and his lover, Juliet. Upon realizing that he had been sent on this mission by Smith under false pretenses, Shang-Chi resolves to break ties with MI-6, a resolution he carries out in issues 40. In keeping with the overall approach of the Gulacy years, the narrative captions are minimal, adding little to the reader’s sense of Shang-Chi’s individual perspective.16
Issue 42, the first of a two-parter detailing Shang-Chi’s fight with Shockwave (Smith’s nephew in an electrified yellow suit), is the first of what would turn out to be several instances when the narration reflects the hero’s altered consciousness. The story unfolds over two time frames: Shang-Chi’s battle against Shockwave alternates with the events that lead up to it. Most of the story takes place before the fight, interrupted frequently but unpredictably by single panels depicting Shang-Chi hitting Shockwave or, more frequently, Shockwave hitting Shang-Chi. Multiple time frames in a Marvel comic were not unprecedented, but the lack of explicit transitions, as well as the near-wordlessness of the fight, create an effect that is immediately familiar from film and television.
The comic, entitled “The Clock of Shattered Time," begins with a thematic splash page: Shockwave in the middle, clocks and skulls to his left, Leiko, Reston, and the former spy Larner standing on a coffin to his right, and Shang-Chi sprawled faced down path is feet, looking as though he is trying and failing to get up. There are two narrative captions on the page, each of which establishes Shang-Chi’s fragile state of mind:
“The thought is difficult to form…through the pain… and yet it screams…. from my mind…to every point of and in my…body…
“I am…near death…”
Upon rereading, this page provides the rationale for the frequent cuts to worlds fighting that interrupt nearly all the pages that follow. Even in the more laconic Gulacy days, Shang-Chi usually finds the time and the strength to think (aloud) about what he is doing as he fights. The absence of words in his standoff with Shockwave is more than just cinematic; it signals the near collapse of the consciousness whose presence we have come to expect.
The fight with Shockwave also parallels Shang-Chi’s first battle in “The Clock of Shattered Time”: the latest, but still not definitive, verbal salvo in his ongoing ideological disagreement with Nayland Smith. In the issue’s physical fight, Shang-Chi is silent, but his meeting with Smith requires him to speak forthrightly in a manner that he has only recently attempted to adopt. Refusing to “play [Smith’s] games of deceit and death” (a phrase that, through repetition, will come to encapsulate Shang-Chi’s moral dilemma throughout Moench’s run), he agrees to help on the current mission, but not to blindly follow orders (Smith’s response, in a small font denoting and exasperated whisper: “Oh, please, Shang-Chi…must we go through this again—?”)
Just before being shown into Smith’s office, Shang-Chi notes that Smith’s secretary, Miss Greville, is casually compliant with the system in which they all are supposed to operate: “She works for Smith—obeys him. Why is it difficult for me to do the same…”. It is just one panel, sandwiched between two panels of Shockwave punching Shang-Chi in the face. Curiously, these panels establish a pattern that is not immediately apparent: if we see Shang-Chi’s face in one timeline (in this case, the fight), it will be obscured in the other (Shang-Chi’s head is cropped out of the panel that focuses entirely on Miss Greville). It’s an intriguing device, especially when we consider that the argument with Smith (and the encounters that follow) is essentially a sequence of talking heads, while the physical battle is agains a man wearing an opaque, reflective oval mask that renders him faceless. The art reinforces the basic fact of both conflicts: they are about maintaining Shang-Chi’s sense of self. In the case of Shockwave, it is about somehow staying awake and coherent while reeling from multiple electric shocks, and in the argument with Smith, it is about remaining true to a worldview in which he professes aloud to be confident, but repeatedly doubts when he is in the field (that is, when he is fighting physically rather than verbally).
Shang-Chi’s non-compliance inadvertently saves Smith’s life, causing the older man to chase after him after he storms out of the office, seconds before a hidden bomb explodes. The two men agree that they will never understand each other’s positions. On the penultimate page, however, the two time lines finally converge when Smith and Reston find Shang-Chi barely standing after suffering Shockwave’s extended beating. Shang-Chi minimizes the damage, because Reston and Larner do not want Smith to know that Smith’s nephew has become a deranged super villain. Smith blithely gives Shang-Chi instructions for his next mission, at which point Shang-Chi collapses, saying “Smith…/…you ask… / …too…much…” Of course, Smith has no idea why it is too much, but these words apply to their entire relationship. Smith asks Shang-Chi to take an assignment, Shang-Chi objects, but ends up reluctantly doing it anyway, resenting Smith for putting him in this position. The very moments that would appear to signal a truce between them are actually just more instances when Shang-Chi is forced to compromise his principles and doubt his path.
From Solo to Chorus
Shang-Chi’s tensions with Smith come to a head right before the extended storyline that serves as a swan song for Gulacy: the “final” fight against Fu Manchu.17 Consisting of six parts (45-50) a prelude (44), and an epilogue (51, drawn by Jim Craig), this sequence, each section of whose issues is labelled by part number and title (such as “Part VI (Sir Denis Nalyand Smith: The Affair of the Agent Who Died!” (49)), curiously lacks a name of its own. We know we are reading Part III or Part IV, but part of what? It is a strange omission, especially considering the penchant for evocative titles throughout Moench’s work. Even if this is mere editorial oversight, it is nevertheless fitting. While this is a well-crafted story with complex plots and subplots, its signal departure from the almost thirty issues preceding it is in narration and focus. Though the prelude and first issue are, as usual, told by Shang-Chi, issues 46-50 are narrated by the rest of the main cast, in rotation. The prelude includes a four-page monologue by Fu Manchu’s long-term assistant Ducharme (who has convinced the heroes that she is working for them, although she is not), foreshadowing the story’s main narrative shock: its concluding chapter is narrated by none other than Fu Manchu himself.
This game of narrative musical chairs (in order: Shang-Chi, Reston, Leiko, Black Jack, Smith, Fu Manchu) does not actually undermine the series’ emphasis on Shang-Chi’s consciousness, though it does work well with the lead character’s ongoing crisis of conscience and identity. With the exception of the final chapter, we are never given the impression that Shang-Chi’s view of the world is notably incomplete or flawed. Rather, the rotating narrators allow Moench and Gulacy to develop a complicated plot that cannot always involve Shang-Chi himself, but without resorting to thought balloons. Despite the attention the various narrators inevitably draw to themselves by the mere fact of their presence, the shifting focus is ultimately in the service of an increasingly cinematic vision, albeit in a format that, from a twenty-first century perspective, resembles a prestige drama on premium cable or a streaming service.
On a purely technical level, this rotation of narrators involves a number of clever devices to distinguish these chapters from the usual format. Of all the new narrators, only Leiko engages in an inner monologue like Shang-Chi’s, with no external motivation for its existence (and only Leiko gets her own caption box style, with indented corners). Black Jack is transmitting a report to Smith over one-way radio, while Reston is subject to ruthless interrogation by unseen tormenters, who turn out to be MI-6 agents making sure that he has not gone over to the other side. As for Smith and Fu Manchu, these two longstanding adversaries share a mode of storytelling: Issue 49’s captions come “From the Journal of Nayland Smith” (a format to which Moench will return for part of issue 100), while issue 50 is “Excerpts from the Notebook of Dr. Fu Manchu.”
Thus while there are six narrators, their storytelling falls into three types, with the characters sorted into pairs. The lovers (Shang-Chi and Leiko) are telling their stories to themselves; the younger male professional spies (Black Jack and Reston) are making reports, while the father figures (Fu Manchu and Smith) are recording their thoughts for posterity. These chapters also take the opportunity to show us Shang-Chi thorough the eyes of those who know him, highlighting his internal struggle from an external perspective, while also making him something he cannot be when he is constantly talking to the reader: mysterious. Leilko, for example, finds that Shang-Chi “has grown increasingly worried […] perhaps I have been wrong about his inner strength”:
“If so, have I also been wrong about that which is founded on his strength…wrong about my love for him?
“No. Please…no.” (Issue 47)
These stories also emphasize a point that the reader might not have consciously noticed: all the other characters have their own way of referring to the comic’s protagonist. Leiko calls him “Shang,” while Reston calls him “Chi.” Smith alternates between “Shang-Chi” and “Lad,” while Fu Manchu prefers “Shang-Chi” and “my son.” Black Jack’s appellation for his friend is the highly problematic “Chinaman;” a few issues earlier, Shang-Chi finally objects to the word, but Black Jack blithely continues to use it. Only when he is observing Shang-Chi from afar and reporting in to Smith does he give in to the sense of awe provoked by watching Shang-Chi fight, and also to his own emotional attachment:
"As for the white rabbit who can’t hear me…If I don’t see ya again, well—it’s been good knowin’ you, Chinama—
It is fitting that the last two issues are narrated by Smith and Fu Manchu, respectively. These two men have long dominated the comic’s plot, not to mention Shang-Chi’s thoughts, but usually at a remove. Smith is present in Shang-Chi’s life, but never on his adventures, while Fu Manchu is the classic villain who usually works behind the scenes. Yet each of them makes a convincing claim for sympathy. Despite Shang-Chi’s repeated condemnations of Smith’s situational morality, Smith’s narration shows his awareness of the imbalance in his relationship with his operatives:
“While Fu Manchu strides like a bold demon through the thick of this latest match, I must remain a fallen angel on the sidelines—
“…commanding my youthful agents much as a former grandmaster, now maudlin and senile, feebly manipulates his ivory chessmen.”
By contrast, Fu Manchu, who tells his story during a “lonely moment, a time of reflection, standing there in a garden among the stars,” shows no concern for the men who die in his name. Yet the melancholy tone taken by a man describing his recent defeat at the hands of his own son humanizes him to an extent never before attempted.
The rotating narration introduces greater ambiguity into the series. The reader is now in a position to understand all the characters better, but this understanding is entirely extradiegetic: the characters themselves have learned little about each other. Thus when the ideological fault lines between Shang-Chi and Smith crack open in issue 51, we are back to Shang-Chi’s first-person perspective, but now have the wherewithal to read the comic as polyphonic rather than monologic. Shang-Chi rightly calls out Smith for his obsession with defeating Fu Manchu, but his allegations that Smith is unconcerned with the fates of the people who work for him are clearly disproven by Smith’s own words in issue 49. Having returned to Shang-Chi’s narrative framework, we are now better equipped to see its limitations.
Go Your Own Way
With Gulacy’s departure, Master of Kung Fu appeared to have entered its death spiral. Perhaps appropriately for a set of stories predicated around the (temporary) disbanding of the group that had worked so well in the fight against Fu Manchu, the series all but fell apart. It would take nearly two years to emerge from the muddle in which it found itself. Part of the problem was Moench’s collaborator. Jim Craig had signed on as the book’s new penciler, which immediately shifted the comic towards a more static look. Even setting aside questions of Craig’s artistry, he was simply too slow to maintain the book’s monthly pace. Between his first issue (51) and his last (66, co-credited with his replacement, Mike Zeck), Master of Kung Fu published one reprint and five fill-in issues, which meant that Moench and Craig’s first extended storyline, the four-part “Saga of War-Yore,” began with issue 51 and ended with issue 58.
The series picked up when Zeck signed on as regular penciler, but it would not find Its footing until issue 71. Before that, the most memorable development was Shang-Chi’s sudden appreciation for the music of Fleetwood Mac, whose lyrics would intermittently hover in the background to establish the mood. The “War-Yore” storyline was also unremarkable, except that its eponymous antagonist’s dissociative identity disorder inadvertently reflected the fractured sensibility that marred Master of Kung Fu for nearly two years.
At the time, it probably looked as though Moench was lost without Gulacy. But a retrospective assessment of Moench’s years on Master of Kung Fu reveals that the problem was more structural than that. Gulacy’s departure was a great loss, but he was not unreplacable. To the contrary, the transition to Zeck and eventually to Day shows that Moench could produce outstanding work with a variety of artists. What he needed was a talented and reliable partner. Gulacy, for all his brilliance, was but the first of three.
Before taking over as regular penciler, Zeck effectively tried out for the book in four of the fill-in issues that appeared during Craig’s brief run (55, 59-60, 64). Issue 64 was one of the rare stories not penned by Moench (Scott Edelman wrote the script), while issue 55 was a middling showcase for Zeck’s skills (Jim Mooney’s inks were a poor fit with Zeck’s penciling). But the two-part “Phoenix Gambit” was the high point of the fifteen-issue interregnum, already demonstrating the possibilities of Moench and Zeck’s collaboration while also advancing the series’ exploration of Shang-Chi’s inner life.
Artistically, “The Phoenix Gambit” is daring in a manner that is not immediately obvious. Yes, the second page of issue 59 cleverly assembles a six-panel grid in the shape of the African continent, surrounded on all sides by Shang-Chi’s voluminous narrative captions. And Zeck’s characteristically large and open panels give the characters more breathing space than they’ve seen in nearly a year. But the last page of the first half, in revealing that the entire story is part of a perverse chess game between Dr. Doom and a robot called the Prime Mover, alerts the long-time reader that Moench and Zeck are treading on ground previously tilled by Jim Steranko. In issue 167 of Strange Tales (April 1968), Nick Fury was caught in a similar chess match, one of many high points in a widely acclaimed series.18 Presumably at Moench’s behest, Zeck was revisiting Steranko in a book whose best years showcased the work of Gulacy, a man whose debt to Steranko was undeniable. Yet Zeck does not attempt to ape either Steranko or Gulacy; he immediately makes the story his own, with layouts and pencils that rival his best work as the series’ regular artist.
“The Phoenix Gambit” unfolds in a deliberately confusing manner, consistent with the fevered state of our narrator, Shang-Chi. It intermittently features Shang-Chi’s vivid dreams about global cataclysm: the entire world is covered in ice. His first dream (in the beginning of issue 59) is set in Africa, where he meets a mysterious woman who asserts that the animals dying of the cold show “wisdom.” In the second, featuring Smith and Black Jack, London is almost completely frozen over, The third, in the beginning of issue 60, is much briefer, and appears to be set in China, where Fu Manchu predicts his homeland’s ascension.
The “real” action is in London, where Shang-Chi had collapsed on the street before his first dream began. He remembers that when Reston had patted his shoulder earlier, he felt a sharp pain: his friend must have drugged him. Soon he and Leiko are attacked by their former (and supposedly deceased) foe Razor Fist, who turns out to be a robot. After Shang-Chi's second dream (about Black Jack and Smith in a frozen London), the couple are attacked by the robotic duplicate of yet another enemy, Pavane, and by what appears to be an actual robot (one of Mordillo’s mechanical assassins from an earlier story). But the robot is really Reston in a robot suit, brainwashed by Dr. Doom.
While Shang-Chi dreams at the beginning of the next issue, Reston flies them to Dr. Doom’s homeland of Latveria, where they are immediately attacked by a robot duplicate of Fu Manchu’s homunculus, Shaka Khan. Khan kills Reston, who then proves to be yet another robot. Subsequently Shang-Chi defeats another robot (Shockwave), and then Shadow Stalker. Doom appears, informing Shang-Chi that Shadow Stalker was real, and Shang=Chi killed him. That proves to be a lie, and a fist fight with Dr. Doom resales that Doom himself is a robot (no surprise for longtime readers, since this is the end of half the stories Doom appears in). But then the Prime Mover robot turns out to be Reston in a costume. Reston is crazed, flinging himself and Shang-Chi out the castle window, only for Shang-Chi to discover that they never really left England. They fall into the Thames, end up in a hospital, and, in the final scene, a nurse (who looks exactly like a woman Shang-Chi saw in his first dream) delivers them a box filled with animatronic chess figures of all of Shang-Chi’s foes, including a laughing Dr. Doom. The last line of the story: “The nurse was a robot.”
“The Phoenix Gambit” is the second MOKF story (after the Shockwave story in issue 42) to use Shang-Chi’s altered state as an excuse to distort both the narration and the story structure. In this case, Shang-Chi’s narrative voice, though confused, is still more calm and analytical than one would expect from either the events of the plot or Shang-Chi’s own spoken dialogue. The slight detachment characteristic of Shang-Chi’s narrative captions now underscores the absurdity that fills both his dreams and his real-life battles, mirroring the contrast between Shang-Chi’s physical state and the dreams it provokes. His first words affirm that he is afflicted with a fever, though they are characterized by the usual narrative calm. But in his dreams, where the world has been swallowed up by ice, he is given to emotional declarations and angry shouting.
“The Phoenix Gambit” is almost literally running hot and cold, a good match for the story’s interpersonal concerns. Ever since he met Smith and his agents, Shang-Chi has been torn not only by his discomfort with Smith’s missions, but by his complex relationships with his supporting cast. His second dream, the one in a frozen London, reenacts the comic’s character dynamics so melodramatically as to resemble self-parody. Smith and Black Jack sound like British caricatures. In just one page Smith says, “Bloody frigid on the old Britis isles these days, eh Black Jack?”, and refers to the “ruddy North Pole,” white someone (probably Black Jack) exclaims “By Jove—a ruddy pyramid!”
Shang-Chi’s caption tells us that Smith is acting “too calm,” but Shang-Chi himself is shouting at the top of his voice. The accusations he hurls at Smith are familiar, but in this case, completely inappropriate:
“You!! You are rot blame for all of this, Smith! The animals are dying! You took me away from my father—my home—tried to become my new father—
“—to make this London my new home!
“But you are false, Smith—a false father of deceit and death—and London is a place of destruction and decay!"
Shang-Chi’s longstanding objections to Smith are now a feverish mockery of his actual convictions, but they also make explicit the dynamic that has underlain their relationship from the beginning: Shang-Chi desperately needs a replacement for his evil father, but he finds himself replicating the same adversarial dynamic with his new father figure. This particular dream ends with the appearance of a flaming angelic figure calling himself Amar-Tu, who announces the onset of the “third age of new life” and the advent of “love.” Suddenly, the three men are overwhelmed with mutual affection. Smith and Shang-Chi hug, with Shang-Chi sayings “Smith, I…I…” and Smith responding, “Easy, Lad—I know…I feel it, too..” Whereupon the three men are enfolded in Amar-Tu’s loving embrace and burned to a crisp.
Shang-Chi wakes from the dream and engages in another series of fights, joining Reston on a flight to Latveria. But something of the dream’s sentimentality stays with him. When Reston is apparently killed as soon as they land, Shang-Chi thinks: “Reston—the one man who has been closer to a friend…than any one I have ever known!” It’s a surprising declaration, since their interaction from the very beginning have been characterized more by hostility and rivalry than any kind of easy-going affection. They are connected primarily by Leiko, Reston’s ex and Shang-Chi’s current lover. Indeed, the only way Shang-Chi snaps Reston out of a homicidal hypnotic trance at the story’s end is to distract him by shouting Leiko’s name.
One could chalk this up to Girardian memetic desire (the bond between two men built on their alleged rivalry over a woman), but, aside from the flare-ups of jealousy, there is little evidence that Shang-Chi and Reston spend much time thinking about each other. Leiko’s absence from most of the story, on the other hand, might be a sign of the primacy of the two men’s relationship, but I believe another dynamic is at work here.
Leiko’s role in the story is minor, because at this point, her relationship with Shang-Chi is always being explored on the surface of the text (this two-part fill-in takes place in the middle of another, extended misunderstanding between the two). Shang-Chi’s break with Fu Manchu has left its mark on his relationships with other men, particularly when it comes to issues of ethics and trust; his relations with women are relatively unaffected, as he tells Sandy, the woman he falls for in Giant-Size Master of Kung Fu 2:
“Has taught me many things I have since…
“…turned my back on.
“The traditional Chinese attitude toward women is one of them.”
With men, Shang-Chi is emotionally guarded, his distrust focused on Smith in particular. For the past few years (in real, not Marvel time), Shang-Chi has struggled with the suspicion that agreeing to take part in Smith’s battles has compromised him; he even, we recall, seems to envy Miss Greville for her ability to obey without questioning. "The Phoenix Gambit" obliquely addresses the conundrums that have stymied Shang-Chi so far by continually blurring the boundaries between real human beings and robots. Most of the enemies who attack Shang-Chi are robots, but the robot who attacks him is Reston. And yet that Reston proves to be a robot, with the real Reston hidden in the form of the robotic Prime Mover. Shang-Chi is horrified to think that he murdered Shadow-Stalker, and then outraged that Shadow Stalker was yet another robot. By making robots and humans indistinguishable, “The Phoenix Gambit” breaks through Shang-Chi’s emotional barriers, making it impossible for him to operate on emotional auto-pilot. He is forced to treat the people in his life as people, in order not to fall into the trap of acting like a robot. No wonder he sounds so sentimental during the course of these two issues: the drugs, Doom’s baroque deceptions, and repeat unmotivated attacks have left him vulnerable. He is not yet at the point where he can truly reconcile with Smith, or forge a strong friendship with Reston, but this story makes clear that these are some of his deepest desires.
Just a few months after “The Phoenix Gambit,” Zeck joined Moench as the series’ regular penciler, helping him finish off the plot lines that had been developing since the team’s defeat of Fu Manchu. The Moench/Zeck era begins in earnest with issue 71 (“Nightimes”), which was a chance for the characters to catch their breath and for the reintroduction of the themes hinted at in “The Phoenix Gambit.” This issue leans heavily on Shang-Chi’s internal monolog, appropriately enough for a story that is primarily devoted to character development and reflection. While Leiko works on a puzzle, Shang-Chi recalls the events of the last 20 issues over the course of four pages whose panel borders are drawn to look like the edges of a jigsaw puzzle.
Shang-Chi notes that he has “settled now into a routine, an existence which is finally whole—a unity of mind, body, spirit and emotions.” At this point, the word routine has a positive connotation, but that won’t last for long. Or rather, it won’t last for long as an unadulterated good. Considering Shang-Chi’s ongoing anxieties about blind obedience and conformity, “routine” will prove to be an ambiguous concept. But ambiguity has its own virtues, at least in a story that continually emphasizes balance and the positive coexistence of incongruities (Lekio’s yin/yang puzzle serves as a binding structural motif).
Soon it is time for their “nightly routine,” which is one that Shang-Chi “never resented”: their workout at a local school of martial arts. This is a “routine necessary for the discpline of the both body and mind.” Appropriately, his ruminations about the interplay between mind and body take the form of an extended monologue accompanying his sparring session with Leiko (which soon becomes an exhibition match for the much less skilled (and, incidentally, much more white) school regulars.
Shang-Chi’s narration even reflects, albeit somewhat indirectly, on the paradox of being a thinking, narrating mind during a physical battle. He is bothered by the question of self-consciousness, and uncomfortable with the pride he feels at the students’ admiration:
“I must ignore it. But without being conscious of doing so, devoting all thoughts to the real reality, the inner reality.
“Making of the mind a blank screen upon which anything may be projected…
“….whose unseen patterns every possible image…
“…darling and diverting from the surrounding reality—
“…until the goal is achieved.”
On the surface, his goal is achieved: he ends the sparring match with an impressive back flip. And he is certainly focusing on an inner reality, but his declaration that he must not be conscious of ignoring his own pride is blatantly contradicted by the mere fact of formulating the words.
After a movie, dinner, and a romantic carriage ride, they return home, and an unusually content Shang-Chi notes that coming home is less a routine than a “ritual.” He is even ready to surrender to the charms of a life built on orderly, recurrent patterns rather than intense reflection punctuated by bouts of violence: “Have I underestimated the importance of routines? Perhaps nothing is lacking.” Of course, Shang-Chi’s problem is not just existential; it is generic. The fact that we have reached page 30 of 31-page superhero comic without any real fight scene is exceptional, indeed, unsustainable.
But even without appeal to this meta-level, we can see that Shang-Chi’s idyll with Leiko works precisely because they have separated themselves from all the exterior. forces that dominate their lives. Questions still linger about MI-6, Smith, and the new enemies who seem to have appeared out of nowhere. Even more important, much has been left unresolved on a personal level. Breaking off contact with Smith does not fill the father-shaped hole in Shang-Chi’s life, nor can he really pretend to be indifferent to the fate of his comrades in arms. So Shang-Chi’s musings about routine are put to an end by the sudden appearance of a bloody and beaten Nayland Smith, who falls to the ground, begging for help. The issue ends with Smith prone in Shang-Chi’s arms, revealing that MI-6 is “rotten to the core” and Smith himself has resigned. This, in turns sets the stage for the eventual, unsurprising relation that Fu Manchu is still alive.
Though the actual return of Fu Manchu and the partial resolution of Shang-Chi’s struggle with father figures would only become the main story from issues 83 through 89, Smith’s reappearance signals a new phase in Shang-Chi’s negotiation of independence and authority. Curiously, that new phase is made possible by an extended storyline that revisits the hits of the Gulacy years: the return of Shockwave (72), Mordillo’s island (73-75), a delirious Shang-Chi (78-79), an old friend of Smith’s who may or may not be a mole (the brainwashed Dr. Petrie/ Lyman Leeks and his body double), a close Fu Manchu associate who seems to have betrayed him (Ducharme/Karamenah), and a multi-part confrontation with Shang-Chi’s father that includes a fight with monstrous pseudo-brothers and mind-controlled assassins, an issue narrated by Fu Manchu, and Shang-Chi’s second apparent murder of the man who sired him.
Were Moench and Gulacy simply retreading familiar ground? And if a similar, albeit drastically truncated, set of repetitions characterizes Moench’s subsequent collaboration with Day, is this the sign of dwindling imagination, or perhaps a concession to the dismal, iterative nature of corporate superhero stories? After all, Stan Lee was quoted in the 1970s as urging his writers to craft stories that created the “illusion of change” rather than actual change. Fu Manchu was the closest thing to an archenemy Shang-Chi ever had; if comic book readers knew that Dr. Doom was never really dead, fans of Master of Kung Fu should not have been surprised to see Shang-Chi’s father cheat the grave repeatedly.
There is good reason for cynicism here, but industry standards are not a satisfactory explanation for the development of MOKF from 1978 (when issue 71 was published) to 1983 (when Moench left both Shang-Chi and Marvel). Moench and his collaborators harness the cyclical nature of mainstream superhero comics in order to complicate the metaphor behind their hero’s name. What they show over the course of five years is that the “rising and advancing of a spirit” does not take a straightforward, linear path. Shang-Chi’s sense of himself and his place in the world develops through a compromise between the linear (as suggested by the ongoing sequence of issues of MOKF) and the cyclical (“Fu Manchu’s back! Again!”). Shang Chi moves forward by looping back, revisiting familiar moments with new eyes and under new circumstances. He rises and advances along a spiral path.
Thus when Shockwave returns, his battle with Shang-Chi is not just a replay; it is a rewrite of a familiar script. Their first fight was entirely silent, with Shang-Chi receiving most of the blows. This time (issue 72), Shang-Chi is uncharacteristically talkative. Shockwave informs him that he is going to die: “What do you say to that?” Shang-Chi replies “I say: I am not ready to die, Shockwave. / Are you?” He even repeats his answer while beating Shockwave with a piece of wood. Later, when they are both on Mordillo’s island, Shang-Chi is once again active where he had been reactive.
No longer shocked by Mordillo’s absurdist creations, he keeps his wits about him, even tricking Shockwave into making a confession that he secretly records on the mechanical voicebox ripped out of one of Mordillo’s robot monsters (Leiko: “Shang, I think you’re catching on to the ways of the West!”) As Shang-chi puts in the penultimate line of issue 75: “And so a monster shall go to the court of kings, and speak of slaying his brothers.” That recording is the lynchpin of the next several issues; at the same time that Shang-Chi grapples with challenges to his fundamental self, his allies and adversaries are continually fighting for possession of Shockwave’s stolen voice. At key points in the storyline, Shang-Chi’s narrative takes on a confessional tone, a nice counterpoint to the fight over Shockwave’s confession.
The next four issues are an extended examination of Shang-Chi’s consciousness as he begins to break down, mentally and physically, including moments that recall his first fight with Shockwave and his drugged confusion in “The Phoenix Gambit.” He meets an old Chinese man on the docks in search of fatherly wisdom (“Tonight I wish…I had a father) (76), and laments that “the sound of my name—/—signals nothing but violence”: “Why must my spirit always be so torn? So shattered?” The old man’s betrayal of Shang-Chi to mercenaries in exchange for cash leave him bereft. Back at Leiko’s, he stares straight into the distance with tears in his eyes, recalling the last good night he and Leiko had together (issue 71, the “routines’ issue), begging Leiko to explain why their peace is always broken by violence.
In both his conversations (with the old man and with Leiko), Shang-Chi’s dilemma is represented visibly and allegorically through images of a broken yin/yang symbol; first, when speaking with the old man, his words are illustrated by two panels of Shang-Chi before a yin/yang gong. In the initial panel, it is whole, while in the second, he strikes the gong and breaks it. When he is on the couch with Leiko, the page flashes back to the yin/yang puzzle she was assembling in issue 71 and its sudden disassembly when their cat, shocked but the noise of Smith at the door, wrecks it with his paw. Even before going into battle, Shang-Chi is emotionally drained.
After a car crash renders Leiko unconscious (and saddles her with a concussion) (77), Shang-Chis is single-minded in his pursuit of Zaran, the antagonist who hurt his lover. He has already been awake for two days, yet rather than allow himself to sleep, he resolves to meditate until nightfall, requiring “silence, darkness, a clear mind, and a fresh body.” The events that subsequently unfold, however, show that Shang-Chi has only pushed himself further into an altered, and even impaired state of mind. Spying on two figures as they meet across the lake, he is unable to identify one of them as his own sister. By the beginning of the following issue, he is barely able to remain awake, with swollen glands indicating the onset of illness.
He and Leiko discover their friends bound and gagged around a dining room table in a castle, captives of Zaran. But when he enters the room, Shang-Chi suffers a near-complete mental collapse reflected in his ongoing narration. Now his captions become a hodgepodge of references to recent plot elements as well as phrases that have played a significant role in his previous narration: the reader has no trouble following, but Shang-Chi has lost the thread of the plot:
“No—can’t be—must be sleep—dreaming—can’t be Zaran—just fought him—in lodge on lake—where the fish opened the Dijon and the stage—its eye watching with the voice of a monster…
“—Mordillo's robot-monster peeking words of Smith’s nephew sneed his veins like lightning carrying fire of electricity to plug in tape recorder to the stag’s eye can talk to prime minster…
“...make him strike down his country’s agency of defense which is worse than my father…
“…up in the snow like phantom sand melting and hissing…
“…with Leiko as in a dream of cold cold sleep…”
The middle four panels of the pages are nothing but increasingly tight close-ups of Shang-Chi’s panicked face, while the lettering emphasizes his inability to prioritize one reference over another (only the word “sleep” is given in bold for emphasis, twice). When Zaran throws a knife at him, he can barely comprehend what is happening, deflecting it only at the last second. Zaran beats him, but Shang-Chi thinks he is merely encountering the embodiment of Sleep, welcoming him rather than resisting. Snapping out of it at the last minute, he stands up, accusing Zaran of trying to trick him. Of the course of another four panels in the middle of the page (this time showing Shang-Chi rising and gearing up for action, rather than staring in a stupor), his narration describes his physical sate in minute detail:”
“I rise, my eyes burning, my veins afire, fueled by streaming adrenalin…
“my tongue tasting the bite of sheared copper…
“,,,my nostrils flared to the brimstone which expands my chest…
“..my fever, my body high and ready to burst.”
The final panel of the page shows Shang-Chi leaping into the air, his foot aimed directly at the reader while his scream expands beyond the panel’s top edge. He is resolute, but he is also completely dissociated:
“It bursts and somehow I leave my body,.,..to watch this strange creature, this maddened beast blazing from the very heart of the martial arts state of awareness.
“I know he cannot be stopped.
“I think….he is me.”
His body spends the next page brutally beating Zaran, while his mind struggles to understand the ramifications of his current state:
“And yet, he is not me, cannot be me…for I have changed. I have been polluted by the sickness of the West, deprived of my father’s discipline and guidance, my teachers.
“I have become lazy and weak—unlike this mad beast who now savages Zaran.
“I have allowed my master of Kung Fu to remain state, perhaps even slipping into decline.
“There has been too little rising and advancing of late…but now it changes.
“The mad thing which is me bristles with intensity—maniacal, almost bestial.
“My body seems to glow.
“A read haze burns from my skin. Energy bleeds from my pores…
“…and I am wild. But wait—I will also be cunning.
“I will stop now—because my enemy has fallen.”
If we recall Shang-Chi’s ongoing concern with the question of routine, then this moment is, indeed, transcendent, for his body has risen above the routine manner in which his martial arts skills have been deployed. But it is an advance that has left his mind behind. Once again he confuses Zaran with the embodiment of sleep, and when Zaran throws an explosive knife at the ceiling, Shang-Chi stares upwards, transfixed, about to be crushed by falling debris. It is fitting that, just two bags after lamenting the loss of his father’s guidance, he is saved from death by Nayand Smith, who, though still bound and gagged, hurls his body into Shang-Chi’s to knock him out of the way. He may not yet be comfortable with the side he has picked in the fight between his two fathers, but one of those fathers has demonstrated total commitment to him.
Mind Over Matter
When the story resumes in issue 80, Shang-Chi’s problems remain, but now he is in a better position to face them calmly, and to share his anxieties with his comrades in arms. Moreover, though he is still not comfortable with the ethical compromises of spycraft, he appears more adept at reconciling opposites when the stakes are lower. Having slept for 16 hours, he is, of course, meditating, but now it is to the sounds of rock music playing at full blast. When Black Jack berates him for his “screechin’ music,” Shang-Chi responds with an inspirational quote…from Mick Jagger. Later, when the team discusses it plan of action, Shang-Chi raises his ongoing concerns about their “games of deceit and death,” confessing “My own name..the meaning of it, the rising and advancing of a spirit…has come to seem strange to me…foreign…alien.” Zeck and Moench devote an entire panel to the silence of Shang-Chi’s friends, who have no idea how to respond
While the seven-issue battle against Fu Manchu only begins in Issue 83 (narrated once again by the “Devil Doctor” himself), the previous seven issues do more than simply set up the plot. They establish the stakes for Shang-Chi as he prepares to face his father for the last time (once again). As a test of Shang-Chi’s sense of his own identity, the father-son conflict is already overdetermined, but now it comes on the heels of Shang-Chi’s extensive rumination about his own personal agency. For years now (in real time, if not comic book time), Shang-Chi has been uncertain that siding with his father’s sworn enemy actually represents a positive moral choice, rather than simply a reflexive move as far from his father as possible. Now Fu Manchu’s latest plan is built on his capacity to turn ordinary people into obedient, brainwashed robots. In other words, into unreflective creatures of total routine.
Issue 84 connects Shang-Chi’s personal dilemma with his father’s modus operandi. On the very first page, Shang-Chi thinks:
“Recent days have seen me too…mechanical.
“Resolved to do what I must without thought or conscience or sensitivity,. I have moved like a machine ever ready to perform but incapable of judging my own performance,.
“It is, I think, a device of psychic defense. Often, actions must be taken for their own sake. But here in South America—where we search for Fu Manchu, my father—amidst so much life, my awareness returns. Spirit merges with body, old lovers again united.”
The reunion is short-lived. Attached by cultists clad in leopard-skin singlets (don’t ask), Shang Chi fights back (“Again I move like a machine”). He wins, but there is not joy in it: “The mechanism has functioned perfectly, but I loathe it.”) He is soon reminded of his own passivity before going on the mission, when he allowed Leeks to threaten a captive without even voicing an objection. The flashback sets up Shang-Chi’s next moral conundrum: he and Black Jack discover dozens fo men and women standing passively in cages, staring straight ahead. Underneath their wigs are clean-shaven heads with electrodes protruding from their skulls, rendering them Fu Manchu’s mindless slaves. Black Jack calls them “zombies,” and Shang-Chi thinks:
“Yes…they too are much like machines, men who still I’ve but whose souls have been slain. And if I have indeed been like them, then it is time for my soul to—“
His musings are interrupted by one of Fu Manchu’s non-brainwashed henchmen; Black Jack tells Shang-Chi to kill the man before he attracts attention:
“Tarr is right, but I cannot do it….cannot at like the machine which kills without thought or conscience. My spirit binds my body and fiercely cries: no!”
Black Jack shoots him anyway, and the issue ends with them surrounded by enemies. Shang-Chi concludes:
“Then…my one act of conscience was a move of defeat in a game such as this.
“I should have killed the man, or at least silenced him.
“Sometimes it is better to act as a machine, without thought or conscience.
“For dragons die…but machines do not bleed.”
Indeed, just two issues later, after an emotional confrontation with a hologram of Fu Manchu he mistook for his actual father, Shang-Chi agrees to simulate mechanical mindlessness, boarding an airplane full of his father’s brainwashed victims:
“We must play more dead than alive, for I am indeed my father’s creation… in many ways. Dragon, machine, monster…
“And now, too, a man whose soul has been slain and replaced by my father’s hand reaching down from the heavens..or so it must seem…but actual a man who will do what he must, having learned well…
“And having learned from my father, I will do what I must to stop him.
“I will do what he would do. Theme has come for the son to slay his father. No love will be lost.
“And so the dragon takes flight.
“His vengeance shall be terrible.”
Shang-Chi begins to sort out his complicated feelings about acting “mechanical” by deliberately mixing metaphors. As his father’s on, he was created and controlled by Fu Manchu; the brainwashed slaves are also controlled by Fu Manchu, reborn (that is, “fathered’) by the man’s evil genius. Shang-Chi’s decision to pretend to be brainwashed is accompanied by his repeated declarations that he is, indeed, his father’s son. Thus the path of his murderous rebellion against his father opens to him only when he accepts kinship with him, accepting that Fu Manchu is “within" him, just as Fu Manchu is “within” his zombified followers. Shang-Chi’s mistake was to see the choice between Fu Manchu and Smith as not just binary, but entirely external to himself.
The (semi-)final battle with Fu Manchu is more than simple generational conflict or Oedipal rivalry; it is, instead, a clash of ontologies. As Shang-Chi gets closer and closer to a physical confrontation with his father, he is obliged to fight against still more variations on the brainwashed slave. In the penultimate issue, he is nearly defeated by Maru, a muscular giant whose devotion to Fu Manchu is unquestioned. Yet despite Maru’s loyalty, Fu Manchu has seen fit to equip him with the brainwashing electrodes. Before the fight with Shang-Chi, Fu Manchu asks Maru if the electrodes are causing him discomfort, but Maru simply responds, “No, Celestial One, I feel nothing but a heightened sense of clarity and awareness.” Fu Manchu literally has Maru on remote control, pressing a button o rob Maru of his will and render him impervious to pain as soon as Shang-Chi appears. With horror, Shang-Chi realizes that Maru “cannot even lose consciousness!” Shang-Chi has no choice but to kill him.
In the story’s final chapter, Shang-Chi is initially dazed by Fu Manchu’s mimosa gas, but will not let his faulty perception stand in his way. So his father sends a new round of monstrous servants into battle against him. These freaks are, essentially, pre-brainwashed, existing only to carry out Fu Manchu’s command. But Shang-Chi realizes that they are more than simply mindless monsters:
“My father created them in his laboratory….
“They are the children of mutations, crafts, transplants—grotesque monsters that once were men.
“The children of Fu Manchu.
“And, as the children of Fu Manchu, they are my brothers.
“Fu Manchu has worked his will on their bodies, making of their flesh what has long since made of my spirit…
It would be simple to see the first two extended Fu Manchu sagas (drawn by Gulacy and Zeck, respectively) only in terms of family conflict. After all, each time Shang-Chi has to confront surrogate brothers who would not (or could not) even consider rebelling. But the persistence of the mind control motif emphasizes the true nature of the father-son conflict: Fu Manchu is a father who can only see his sons as the vessels of his own will. How, then, could Shang-Chi’s spirit ever “rise and advance” when his father has always sought to extinguish it?
When Shang-Chi breaks into Fu Manchu’s craft as it flies away, he shouts “You cannot escape me! I am mad! I am a fury! And I am of your making!” The story has reached its climax, but Shang-Chi, whose entire narrative and existential raison d’être is to engage in reflection, pauses. We see him standing before the broken window in a classic martial arts pose, but the caption shows that his mind is elsewhere:
“I am here, facing him, again, at last, and yet I am not here. Time freezes and a thousand thoughts shoot through my mind, all memories of the past days and weeks….All memories of the recent gifts granted by Fu Manchu…”
For nearly two entire pages, panel after panel shows moments not just from the past six issues, but even from the first half of the current one. This is no simple recap for the reader. Indeed, it is not for the reader at all. It is for Shang-Chi, who must reflect on the horrors of his recent past in order to make sense of the moment in which he finds himself:
“All these images, all these memories, all these foul and fatal gifts…bring my blood to a boil.”
Shang-Chi repeats the vow he made earlier, to destroy and denounce his father, But this time, he punches him in the face: “It explodes, from my heart outward.”
The physical assault (“You have desecrated me person. You have blasphemed against me!) is far more intimate than his last attempt at patricide (in issue 50, he shot Fu Manchu with a gun). And for once, Shang-Chi is completely present and integrated in mind and body, word and deed. He smashes the ship’s controls, leaps out the window into the harbor, and leaves Fu Manchu to die in the ensuing explosion.
Gulacy left the book upon completion of his multi-part Fu Manchu story; Zek stayed on one more year after drawing its sequel. HIs penultimate contribution to Master of Kung Fu was two-thirds of the extra-long 100th anniversary issue, in which longtime inker Gene Day made his debut as the series’ new penciler (Zeck pencils issue 101 before leaving for good). In terms of plot, that year saw Shang-Chi in something a holding pattern, engaging in minor adventures such as Asian American gang wars and fanatical cults with secret geopolitical agendas. Shang-Chi has not quite become complacent; issue 97 is an inner-monologue heavy story in which he worries that he has lost his “art” of living. Yet that same story shows a lighter, playful side of the character that was usually eclipsed by his endless brooding. He and Leiko actually banter, and it somehow works.
This lightness would not last. Once he was partnered with Gene Day, Moench’s scripts once again grew heavier and more introspective. Their collaboration would prove short-lived, a term that, sadly could be applied to Day himself: the artist died of a heart attack in September 1982, at the age of 31. His last issue of MOKF, 120, appeared posthumously with a 1983 cover date. As it happened, it was Moench’s penultimate contribution as well: 121 was a fill-in, with 122 (penciled by William Johnson) featuring Moench’s final script. It was not particularly conclusive; Moench left the book abruptly after creative differences with Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter made the job untenable. Alan Zelentz wrote the last three issues, in which Shang-Chi, suddenly struck by guilt over killing his father, abandons his life in London to live as a fisherman in a Chinese village named “Yang Yin.”
Setting aside the corporate drama, the timing of Moench’s departure was close to perfect. By issue 118, he had wrapped up virtually all the plot threads and character arcs that he had been developing for nearly a decade. Had he left then, it would have looked like it was all part of his plan. But that would have been highly unusual. Though his last issue was cover dated 1983, Moench’s trajectory was pure 1970s. Corporate comics had yet to reach the point where a series would be canceled once the creators most closely identified with it had said all they wanted to say.
By the same token, the Moench/Day collaboration, though technically post-1970s, must be considered at least briefly in any assessment of Moench’s run on Master of Kung Fu. Day brought a completely new aesthetic to the tile, abandoning the kinetic dynamism of Gulacy and Zeck in favor of a much more crowded, static, but exquisitely detailed comics page that demanded slow appreciation. From the very first page he penciled, the splash page of Issue 100, Day’s art stood out for its mastery of mood and symbolism rather than action. The page features the story’s title at the top, etched in the ornate stone border that frame’s page’s single image. All along the border are overturned date vessels, either lying on their side (in the top border), or deliberately spilled by the stone cherubs that hold them (on the side borders). Water drips multiple points along the frame, landing on a golden Egyptian sarcophagus and the figure of Fu Manchu. Zeck and Gulacy specialized in action that flowed from panel to panel; Day’s panels feature few action-to-action transitions, forming a comics page that looks as if it came from an alternate universe in which Jack Kirby never existed. Yet that same splash page demonstrates Day’s attention to amore literal flow, modeling the falling water in fashion that is both beautiful and consistent with how liquid behaves in the real world.
If Gulacy’s cinematic layouts exemplified the aesthetic of comics as moving pictures captured on paper, Day’s pages are carefully-assembled compilations of frozen images. His pages were occasionally framed by large drawings of the title character, holding the panels together like bookends; Day was the rare artist at the time for whom the comics page was as attractive for its extradiegetic content (the materials that was not, technically, part of the experience of the characters he drew). The symbolic, oversized human figures surrounding the pages, along with the clever games he played with the issues’ titles (issue 103 contains a two-pages spread whose panels are all contained with the letters of its title, “A City Asea”) show the influence of comics legend Will Eisner, though his figure drawing is more in the faux-realist tradition than Eisner’s caricatures. Day’s pages are chock full of statues and figurines, which best embody Day’s aesthetic: beautiful bodies frozen in a particular moment.
As a result, Day’s work on MOKF is a truly unlikely success: a martial arts comic define by a pervasive sense of stillness. Why does it work?
For the same reasons that Master of Kung Fu merits attention in a book about subjectivity: devoted readers come for the martial arts action, but stay for Shang-Chi’s internal monologue. Day’s gorgeous pages, cramped as they are by frequent small panels, leave plenty of room for the captions that convey Shang-Chi’s thoughts. The fact that Moench once again revisits old characters and plots only emphasizes how much has changed: the latest confrontation with Shen Kuei ends in a much friendlier truce, and Leiko’s infidelity (which was part of her espionage mission) doesn’t even rise to becoming a plot point. Leiko and Shang-Chi have frequent disagreements, but Leiko refuses to let them rise to the level of crisis, telling Shang-Chi that she can be mad and still love him. And when Shang-Chi has what at the time truly appears to be his final fight with Fu Manchu, his father is reduced from an all-powerful, scheming mastermind to a repulsive old man desperate to drink the blood of his children in order to ensure his immortality. This time, Shang-Chi defeats not just his father, but his father complex. After Fu Manchu dies, Shang-Chi visits Smith on his sick bed. He and Smith had already achieved a rapprochement, but now the Fu Manchu arc ends with Shang-Chi saying, “Say nothing, Smith. Your the father I never had. / I love you."
Weirdworld debuted in Marvel Super Action 1 (January 1976), followed by an issue of Marvel Premiere in 1977, a three-issue sequence i Marvel Super Special (1979), various issues of Epic Illustrated (1981-1982), and three issues of Marvel Fanfare (1986). The title was revived in 2015 as part of Marvel’s Secret Wars event, but with only a tenuous connection to the original property. ↩
In a 2000 interview with Comic Book Artist (7), Moench was quite clear on the benefits of working outside the spotlight:
CBA: Looking at the list of books you worked on early during your time at Marvel, they’re all second-tier books.
Doug: Yeah. Well, that’s what I wanted.
CBA: Really? Was that so no one was necessarily looking over your shoulder? So you could have freedom without interference?
Doug: Well, I eventually got Fantastic Four, Hulk, and Thor, but I never had as much fun on those, you know? Because they were so established. When you say second-tier books, that also means they were new books and didn’t have this history. So they don’t have to fit into his mold and you can take chances and do all of these really great things at Marvel—truly good things. [7-8]↩
In the same Comic Book Artist Interview, Moench expressed dissatisfaction with his work on both Fantastic Four and Thor (the latter due to editorial interference). ↩
[Note from that book I taught in Narrative class.] ↩
Between Deathlok and Watchmen, Steven Grant performed a similar feat on his independent series Whisper (1983-1986). Unlike 1970s Marvel comics, Whisper is relatively self-contained, but the inconsistent art in the character’s first several appearances is a barrier to entry. ↩
Depending on how you count them, there have been at least six different versions of Deathlok published since 1974. The most commercially successful was Michael Collins, who starred in his own series in the early 1990s. A Deathlok named Mike Peterson was featured in ABC's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D television show.↩
Perlin’s work on Werewolf by Night (17-43, from March 1974 to March 1977) was some of the best of his long career, aided by the fact that he inked his own pencils. ↩
Lisa is cured of lycanthropy to boot. ↩
This story is a series high point, but an extended analysis would add little that we haven’t already seen↩
Shang Chi was introduced in Special Marvel Edition 15 (December 1973). With issue 17 (April 1974), the comic’s title changed to The Hands of Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu. It is conventionally referred to as Master of Kung Fu, and casually as MOKF. ↩
In the pre-Internet days of the 1970s, the letters pages of Marvel comics were often the site of polemics and analysis that outstripped the actual contents of the books. The Fu Manchu problem, as well as the deficiencies in the book’s treatment of Asians and Asian Americans, we a frequent topic on the letters pages of Master of Kung Fu, particularly thanks to one Asian American reader, Bill Wu.↩
Though Moench cannot be blamed for Shang-Chi’s name, he was notorious for naming characters after random objects and phenomena that caught his fancy. Hence Shang-Chi’s battle against a villain named “Carlton Velcro,” his friendship with Rufus Carter in an issue named after a package of carbon paper (“Carter’s Super Midnight”, issue 96), and his team’s struggle with a cult leader named “Samizdat,” which Moench explained was a “Slavic” word meaning “passing from hand to hand, growing with each passing (when it is actually a Russian word whose literal meaning is “self-publishing”). To be fair to Moench, the Russian language comes into far greater ongoing abuse in the X-Men, starting with the introduction of Colossus (“Lenin’s Beard!”; “By the White Wolf!”).↩
Later Moench would bring Petrie back, disclosing that the man Shang-Chi killed was a double planted by Fu Manchu. Subsequently, Petrie was revealed to be a sleeper agent brainwashed by Fu Manchu. After shooting Smith but failing to kill him, Petrie is eventually deprogrammed, though he never resumes an active role in the Smith’s organization.↩
It probably did not hurt that Gulacy was doing his own inks on this issue from number 30 on, Gulacy’s main inker was Dan Adkins, who complemented Gulacy’s pencils well. ↩
Long discursive footnote TBA↩
The sole exception comes during the last pages of issue 39, when Shang-Chi, realizing his battle with Shen Kuei is pointless, reflects on the seeming inevitability of senseless violence even as he trades blows with the Cat. ↩
There would be two more final battles during the original run of Master of Kung Fu, and yet another in Moench and Gulacy’s reunion miniseries, Shang-Chi: Master of Kung Fu (2002-2003). ↩
Steve Gerber and Jim Starlin had used the Prime Mover two years prior to “The Phoenix Gambit," in Giant-Size Defenders 3 (January 1975). But this story had few other callbacks to Steranko’s original: the robot’s opponent was the Grandmaster rather than Dr. Doom, and the approach to the storytelling was less dreamlike. ↩