COMIC BOOK/GRAPHIC NOVEL REVIEWS: MASTER OF KUNG FU 21-25

NEVER COLLECTED: Essential Old School classics


Comics are all hip and happening (yep, I just said hip and happening)… these days, with tv writers, and novelists, and directors, and movie stars all in a hurry to write a comic, in hopes of getting it turned into a movie.

Stuff that was not too long ago considered not to be taken seriously kid stuff, major movie stars are all too happy to make you believe they are comic fans to get that latest role. The world turns.

And I recognize, not all have such a mercenary eye toward comics, but some do.

And that’s fine. More attention, and more talent, and more mainstream acceptance can only help a medium, that quite frankly could use the influx of readers.

That said there was a day when people wrote and drew for comics, not as a stepping stone to something else, but as a thing of and complete onto itself. There was a time, and a breed of people who crafted periodical entertainment, monthly entertainment (in an age when there was no such thing as trade paperbacks or collected editions) for the love of that medium. Wrote for a castigated medium, of Marvels.


That day largely was the 1970s. And the creators were many, but two of the best were a young Doug Moench, and an equally young Paul Gulacy. Together they teamed on a series called MASTER OF KUNG FU. A slightly sensational sounding title, for a slightly sensational, martial arts crazed time.

And the title had that and more, had espionage, and action, and adventure, and romance. MASTER OF KUNG FU was, the best of it, James Bond meets ENTER THE DRAGON, and remains three decades later the perennial favorite of many.

Myself included.

Part of the problem and the draw of MOKF is it’s never been collected. Due to rights issues, over the ownership of FU-MANCHU a central character in MOKF, the series MASTER OF KUNG-FU has never been reprinted.

So it’s a series more mentioned than actually read. Spoke of in general terms, rather than specifics.

And specifics are important, because quality in the issues of MASTER OF KUNG FU varies quite a bit. Generally the issues that don’t have Paul Gulacy’s dynamism, his grounding, realistic influence… suffer for it. They are weaker, less compelling, and in some cases insipid. It’s worth noting it appears most of Doug and Paul’s collaboration was done in the marvel method. Which means Paul was also co-plotter on his issues, and explains the difference in quality… not just in terms of art, but in story… between the issues Gulacy did, and the fill-in artists did.

But when Gulacy and Moench are together, the book becomes very much a love story to the pop-culture of the time, ode to 70s cinema and sensationalism.

Nearing the close of the 2nd year of publication newcomer Doug Moench came aboard the title, so here then is a review of THE MASTER OF KUNG FU, the Moench and Gulacy years:

Issue #21- Very talky, not particularly engaging or memorable art, by Ron Wilson and Al Milgrom. Moench has Shang-Chi fight a shark, and that’s pretty much when I ask for the check. The letters’ page is kinda entertaining though with a letter from someone calling themselves “The Comic Critic” accusing Paul of being a Steranko clone. It’s actually pretty even-handed criticism. As well as letters lamenting the departure of Englehart and Starlin. So a D- on the issue, but good letters page.

Issue #22- The First great issue of MASTER OF KUNG FU is fittingly enough a stand-alone issue sporting the first work on the series by Paul Gulacy and Dan Adkins. Titled A FORTUNE OF DEATH it has a very lyrical opening page that at once sets the scene, a Chinese Restaurant, and showcases Moench’s strength with the internal monologue. A tool that he would use to good effect both in this series, and later ones.

Over a fortune cookie, Shang-Chi, whose name means the rising and advancing of the spirit… finds death.

This book was released in 1974, and the art is fantastic. While Steranko inspired, and foreshadowing Giffen’s work on the DEFENDERS, it’s definitely its own animal. Beautiful and awkward at the same time, svelte and dangerous.

“Nayland Smith is a wise man… who often dons the raiment of a fool.”

Nice story about FU MANCHU seeking a… symbolic victory. Great stuff. B+. Letter pages covers issue #19, Englehart’s last issue, a meeting between Shang-chi and Man-thing (a 70s Marvel Comics version of Swamp Thing). And I think that pretty much summarizes why the Englehart MOKF run is largely considered forgettable and not worth mentioning.


#23- “Thus, Liberty becomes the reward of battle… whether against a league of nations… or the upraised hand of a single man.”

RIVER OF DEATH- Al Milgrom and K Janson do an admirable job on the art this time out. Milgrom is one of those triple threat guys, who I don’t think ever really got his due. Much like Feldstein Milgrom was also a talented artist, writer, and editor. Moench weaves his first espionage tale, an intricate and engaging tale of Nazi plans for a super-weapon and Fu Manchus hunt for them. I found this issue oddly interesting, even the alligator bit here working for me, in a way that the shark scene from #21 failed to. It’s not a great issue, but it kept me turning pages, which it all it has to do. B-. Letter page covers issue #20, first issue with Moench and Gulacy, and mentions Gulacy drawing Steranko into the comic.

#24- “MASSACRE ALONG THE AMAZON” A fantastic Gil Kane cover highlights this issue. And unfortunately it is the highlight as far as the art goes. The interior is a poor mishmash of multiple artists. And me being an art guy, it was hard for me to get into the book, but once I did, it was a really strong conclusion to the Nazi story from last issue. Really pretty strong stuff for a 1975 comic book. After I finished reading this book, I had to actually look at the cover and see if the COMICS CODE AUTHORITY stamp was there, I mean that’s how much death was in this issue. But I have to say it was well done. A story that would take a writer today half a year at least to finish, Moench wraps up in two very dense, but entertaining issues. GRADE: B-. The letter page is notable for a very erudite letter by Peter B. Gillis, a fan who would soon go on to be a writer of Marvel Comics. And from what I remember a pretty darn good, if short-lived writer. His letter actually makes me want to reread the Englehart MOKF issues, as he seems to rate them highly.

#25- This issue’s cover is underwhelming, but conceals a fantastic interior. RITES OF COURAGE, FISTS OF DEATH- Gulacy is back, and boy is it good to have him. The artwork in this issue is sublime, wonderfully inked by a Sal Trapini. The first five pages are worthy of framing. And there’s a huge growth in Gulacy’s style, far more fluid and beautiful then when last we saw it. And surely much of this is due to the inker Trapini. And page #27… wow! A great done in one story by Moench, Shang-chi comes across a baby in the jungle, and must save it from beast… and man. GRADE: B+. Great stuff. The letters page is filled with a negative letter on issue #22, and a negative letter on issue #20 and GIANT SIZE #1 by a seeming Rohmer purist, Gene Christie of GA. The Editor does what I think is a very good job of rebutting this and defending Doug Moench.

Check back often as I bring you reviews of the rest of the series. As i bring you more… UNCOLLECTED CLASSICS!

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13 Comments

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  12. Does anyone have access to MOKF #54? I had a letter printed in MOKF, and I believe it was that issue, but I can’t remember for sure. The name’s Jeff Rogers. Can someone check for me and respond here? Thank you. (The letter was regarding issue #47.)

  13. Hi Jeff,

    Thanks for commenting! I don’t have issue #54, I did check #55 just in case, and your letter wasn’t there. If anyone out there has MOKF #54 please check for Jeff’s letter, and leave a comment to let us know.

    Thanks!

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