SHANG-CHI #1/ Written by GENE LUEN YANG/ Art by DIKE RUAN & PHILIP TAN/ Colors by SEBASTIAN CHENG/ Letters by VC’S TRAVIS LANHAM/ Published by MARVEL COMICS
I’ll freely admit to not knowing much about Shang-Chi as a character or having much interest in him to begin with. I never went through the phase many men of my generation did where I became obsessed with martial arts or Hong Kong action movies; not even after the first comic shop I frequented began selling “authentic ninja weapons” to make ends meet when the bottom fell out of the Danger Girl variants market.
I did know that the characters’ origins lay within Marvel Comics’ desire to appeal to the then-booming Bruceploitation genre of film. I did not know that Marvel apparently sought the rights to adapt Kung Fu into a comic book, but was shot down after Warner Bros. (who produced Kung Fu) bought DC Comics. This led them to acquire the license to the Fu Manchu estate and establish their own master martial artist as a hereto unknown son of Fu Manchu named Shang-Chi, who rejected the evil ways of his father and sought to use his mastery of the martial arts to thwart his schemes for world domination.
Thankfully, none of this comes into play in Shang-Chi #1. This may, however, be largely because Marvel lost the rights to the Sax Rohmer estate years ago and they created their own new origin for the Master of Kung-Fu independent of the frankly problematic issues behind Shang-Chi’s creation. To further take the curse off of the proceedings, Marvel assembled a team of creators of Asian ancestry (Chinese, Pilipino and Malaysian) to oversee this mini-series.
The opening flashback establishes the new history of Shang-Chi’s ancestry and the Five Weapons Society, which has protected China under the watchful eye of the sorcerer Zheng Zu since the Qing Dynasty. At least, it did until Shang-Chi killed Zheng Zu and the leaders of the various houses making up the Five Weapons began fighting over who would be the new Supreme Commander. None of this matters much to Shang-Chi, who is living a simple life assisting in the bakery of his new landlady, until he is brought back into action by his old flame, British secret agent Leiko Wu, and the news that war has broken out among the followers of the Five Weapons.
I don’t know how much of this adheres to what came before, but Gene Luen Yang’s script offers an accessible entry point to Shang-Chi’s world. Unsurprisingly given his previous work, Yang is able to spin a thrilling tale taking advantage of the Ancient China and Chinatown settings without falling into the clichés of the genre. He also does a fine job of establishing Shang-Chi as a sympathetic hero, who would gladly give up the way of the warrior for a life of peace but will not shirk the call to action to do what needs doing. There’s also a fair bit of humor in the script, with Shang-Chi noting he intentionally speaks slowly and encourages the stereotypical image of the soft-spoken Eastern warrior because he’s found that doing so encourages people to actually pay attention when he speaks.
The artwork is of the highest quality throughout. The opening flashbacks handled by Philip Tan show an amazing level of intricacy in the linework, with a degree of grit in the inks that do not sacrifice the clarity of the original pencils. The modern scenes by Dike Ruan are similarly complex yet subtly streamlined, with a dynamic level of cinematographism. The colors by Sebastian Cheng offer subtle accents to both sections, with the opening scenes having a slight sense of fade to the colors, as if they had been painted on an ancient scroll.
I’m still not much for martial arts action stories, but I found myself enjoying this comic immensely. I imagine fans of the genre will find it more than satisfactory, as well those undoubtedly curious about the character with all the publicity regarding the upcoming Shang-Chi movie. Whatever the case, this is a great comic I recommend to everyone.