Masters of Kung Fu: A talk with Doug Moench & Paul Gulacy

A series that is fondly remembered by both fans and critics alike is writer Doug Moench and artist Paul Gulacy’s run on Marvel’s Master of Kung Fu in the 70’s. What is there about this work that still strikes chords with people today? Artist Paul Gulacy says “It was a good combination of words and pictures. A hyperbole. I think the series in many ways was like hearing that first great song or album when you were younger and it stays with you through the years. You can reminisce with clarity where you were, what you were doing and all that. Shang-Chi represented much of what the readers felt back then; angst, being different, alone, loneliness, stumbling around with a girl he loves, having a lousy relationship with his father and so on. There was an instant connection. Throw in martial arts action, movie stars, crazy graphic visuals and you had a nice package. And it's no different today. Anyone can still read the back issues and hook up.”

And now, almost 25 years later, Moench and Gulacy are returning to the character they made famous, and whom they would forever be associated with, in Shang-Chi: Master of Kung Fu, from Marvel’s MAX imprint. Gulacy says that “since I left the book back in the day, the question I'm most frequently asked is ‘are you guy's ever going to bring back Master Of Kung Fu?" and I'm talking about all over the world.” So why come back to the character now?

“We were asked to,” states writer Doug Moench. “We were originally asked to by a Marvel editor named Mark Bernardo, who’s no longer with Marvel, and we had started something. Then there was the problems at Marvel, and things were put on hold. Paul and I went off and we did several Batman projects and we did Green Lantern: Dragon Lord, and a bunch of other stuff.”

But the story, obviously didn’t end there. “Axel Alonso, who has been my editor at Vertigo, was always a huge fan of the series,” says Gulacy. “When he made the jump to Marvel he assured me that he would do everything in his power to bring Shang-Chi and the gang back and he did. Axel is the guy to thank for this.”

“Axel, not knowing about the Mark Bernardo situation, asked us if we wanted to do Master of Kung Fu,” continues Moench. “I told him what had gone down and from the original idea, we pretty much revamped the whole thing. But the germ of it comes from that first time, maybe 3 to 4 years ago.”

For those of you who may not have encountered Shang-Chi before, Moench offers this background information on the character and the original series. “ Shang-Chi was raised in isolation in a pre-medieval fortress in a remote area of China, Hunan Province, by his father who was an evil criminal mastermind. He tried to shape his son into the perfectly obedient son who would also serve as a living weapon - a perfect assassin - and eventually rule at his side over a world that had been changed, through various machinations and evil schemes, so that it became more like the world that his father envisioned. Everybody wants to rule the world, but the world they want to rule is the one that they think is the right world. And, by the way, his father had many good points. The world is corrupt and does need to be changed. So it’s not like he was some naive idiot who fell for stupid stuff. These are all things that are apparent to anybody who can look around and see what’s going on. But, after receiving this training and indoctrination and being sent out to commit his first assassination, Shang-Chi realized - on a gut level, a spiritual level, whatever you want to call it - that this was wrong. He rebelled against his father who then went basically insane with rage over this, what he considered to be a betrayal, and has sent out assassins to kill his own son. Then, Shang-Chi, having left the isolation of this remote retreat, had to have his eyes opened by entering the outside world and being a fish out of water and learning the true score. Much of what his father said was true, but a lot of it wasn’t. The series explored both his opposition to his father and the learning process of entering a world that he didn’t know a whole lot about; didn’t know anything about on a personal level; and getting mixed up in what he calls ‘games of deceit and death’ when he was contacted by agents of British Intelligence who have been trying to stop his father’s evil plans. He became a key figure in the efforts to do that.”

So how much updating was done to Shang-Chi and the cast to make them relevant to modern readers? “ There’s a lot of updating, but that’s a tricky thing,” says Moench. “There’s updating in the sense that time has definitely passed. He is older. His situation is completely different. And yet, he’s still the same person. It’s updated in the sense of you had a best friend in high school and then you didn’t see him for 10 years and when you hooked up again, everything about him was different, and yet it was like not a day had passed. It’s still the same guy you remembered. That kind of thing.

“Then there’s the updating in the sense of comics themselves have changed and this is being done in the MAX line which has a much greater degree of freedom in things that you can do and can’t do. It’s not in the Comics Code. Plus, I think that the age of today’s average reader is higher than it was back then. Of course, back then I think Master of Kung Fu appealed to the upper age limits of whatever it was back then. I think it’s always been more of an older readers book. In that sense, it’s not drastically different, it’s still basically the same storytelling style and so on, but there are more freedoms in some of the language. I’m not going hog wild on what you could do in the MAX line, because I don’t think it really fits many of the characters in the series. On the other hand, back then when I would do a character who would use the language, I would have to use substitutes, really lame things. Now I don’t have to worry about that. But it’s not like Shang-Chi suddenly swears like a sailor. He’s pretty much the same as he ever was, but some of the other characters, bad guys and so on, you can try to do a more realistic version of the dialog. And then some things, say, that an ultra-evil character would do in real life that you had to tone down back then for the Comics Code, now you can be more like a novel or a movie.”

Having this published as a MAX title also has an impact on how violence is portrayed. "I don't think our intention is to make it bloody just because of the MAX thing,” says Gulacy. “There will be blood, but not a bloodbath. It's all subjective. Some may think it's terribly violent.”

“It’s still the same two guys doing the same series,” adds Moench, “so it’s not really a matter of ‘Wow! Let’s go hog wild and have buckets of blood!” We’re not doing that. But, on the other hand, back then if you did have a violent situation in an action scene, you had to cover it up. Now, we don’t have to cover it up. I’ve always thought that when you talk about violence in the media being harmful to kids and all of that; what’s worse, showing realistic consequences of violence – this is what happens, people get hurt and die and bleed – or sanitizing it – bang, bang, and they fall and you never really see what happens and everything seems fine? I could make the case that that’s actually more damaging. I don’t see any reason to dwell on hyper violence and buckets of blood. It’s not necessary. But censoring it is not necessary either and may be harmful. We don’t have to worry any more about how do you do a kung fu fight, but you can’t show a bloody nose. If a guy gets smacked in the nose, now you can have a trickle of blood coming down. That’s what happens.”

So, what can readers look forward to in this new 6-issue mini-series? “This is always tricky. How much to say without giving it away?” asks Moench. “Shang-Chi’s situation has completely changed. He was never comfortable with many of the aspects of the outside world having grown up in isolation and being brought up with Zen philosophy and so on. A twisted, corrupted version of it, but he has since gone to the purer, true version and learned, to his spirit, the right path. He’s always wanted to follow that path to inner peace. Even though he was committed to stopping his father’s evil, he was never that comfortable with MI6 - British Intelligence - either because they weren’t exactly Simon Pure themselves. He always felt sort of unclean for participating in it. Once his father’s threat had been eliminated once and for all, we now learn, he basically turned his back on the outside world and retreated again. This time to a much, much more positive form of isolation. Actually, a community of like minded spirits on an island where he is considered a master of the martial arts, a Master of Kung Fu, and also a spiritual leader. It’s a happy little Shangri-La on this island. Everything’s hunky-dory. Then, of course, the outside world intrudes once again with something very big that is threatening not just the outer world, but if the outer world is threatened enough, it will reach even this isolated island. Can you really turn your back on that? Moreover, it’s much more personal because the outside world intrudes in the form of old friends. Even though he didn’t agree with ‘games of deceit and death,’ he did develop relationships, very tight bonds, with some of the players in MI6. He was deeply in love with Leiko Wu, a female agent, and became very good friends with Black Jack Tarr and Clive Reston and a number of others. Old friends are asking you for help. They’re in trouble with a new mega-villain, who in slight ways resembles Osama Bin Laden, even though we came up with the germ of the idea three years ago.

“It’s funny how Shang-Chi’s father and his cult of assassins sort of mirrors the situation today with this fanatical army of terrorists. It’s very much the same thing. The head of it also wants to change the world to his version that he sees as being the better one. There are certain similarities that you can’t avoid. On the other hand, escapism has its place and let’s not try to duplicate today’s current world situation more than we really have to. I don’t want to make it ripped from today’s headlines completely. Just doing a good, true to the past, Master of Kung Fu storyline would inevitably duplicate what’s going on because those were the storylines that we did. There are certain things, certain little resonant chords that are struck, but we are trying to also remain true to the pulpy traditions as well as the spy genre traditions that Master of Kung Fu exhibited and do an exciting action story with strong characters who have these very complex inter-relationships and see how those relationships have changed by the passing of time. What would happen now if these characters came back together again? I think we’ve come up with a number of things that will surprise the old time readers without them saying, ‘Oh my God. That’s all wrong.’ This feels right. At least I hope it will. I think it does.”

But just as things have changed for Shang-Chi, things have also changed for his friends in MI6. “Black Jack Tarr is now in line for the head spot, but there is a rival,” Moench continues. “A new, young hotshot who’s very gung ho, and very high tech and thinks that Tarr is this old man who’s over the hill and doesn’t know that the world has changed. He thinks the old spy methods are obsolete and the high tech way is the way to go every time. We have this double mission for Black Jack Tarr. One is to stop the threat to the world. Two is to make sure that this new hotshot doesn’t blow it by busting in like gang busters and screwing everything up before Tarr and his crew can do the job the way that he thinks it should still be done. The other thing is, the selfish thing is, he’s ready to retire from the field and become the head guy and that’s what he would love to do. The only way he’ll get it is if he’s the one who prevails and stops the bad guy. If the young hotshot shows him up, then he loses the job and he’s too old to go on in the field much longer.”

How much input does artist Paul Gulacy have on the story? “In the past he had from none at all to a fair amount,” comments Moench. “Sometimes he would have just a very, very basic idea. ‘Hey, how about if we do a story about____’ and I would say, ‘OK, I’ll see what I can do.’ Other times, he wouldn’t have any idea at all about the basic concept, but he would have very specific scenes that he wanted to draw. Really cool storytelling ideas like Shang-Chi is up on a cliff above a guard. The guard takes out his Zippo lighter to light his cigar and in the reflection of the lighter we see Shang-Chi diving down at him. And then “Boom!” he hits him and the fight is on. Other times, it’s just like, ‘Hey, I want to draw a lot of babes in bikinis.’ Some writers would say him wanting to draw girls in bikinis isn’t really input into the story, but I did come up with a story that had a lot of girls in bikini’s to make him happy. So, in that sense, I guess he contributed to that story.”

In this case, Gulacy had more input. “The basic storyline, premise and ABC's of it, were mine that I submitted to Doug three years ago,” he says. “He ran with it and fleshed it out. The challenge was to bring these characters that many are familiar with to a brand new audience that never heard of Master Of Kung Fu and make it balance.”

What challenges does Gulacy face bringing the martial arts action of Shang-Chi: Master of Kung Fu to the printed page? “Just keeping it fresh,” he replies. “You know, my use of the martial arts didn’t end when I left Kung Fu. I utilized it for years in a ton of stories. I think I've drawn Batman using martial arts more than Shang-Chi.”

But the realism of the action doesn’t come from personal experience as Gulacy never studied the martial arts. “The injury factor always kept me at bay. There was rent to pay. To quote an old James Brown tune – ‘I don't know karate, but I know ka-razor!’ he laughs. “I've studied TV, the movies, books, magazines, attended tournaments and I've been to dojos more than once to talk with trainers. I've known about ten people involved in the martial arts and half of those hold black belts.”

Doug Moench also compliments the work of another Paul on the art team. “We’ve got a great colorist named Paul Mounts. I’ve seen some of the samples that he did and it looks fantastic. I think the book should look really sharp.”

Will this mini-series lead to more Master of Kung Fu stories in the future? According to Gulacy, “If the reception is good, we'll be on it like Blue Bonnet.”

Moench simply says, “ I want to work with Paul. I like working with Paul. In fact, I’ve told him, ‘If you want to keep working with me, I’ll do my best to do whatever it is that you want to do.’”

What is there about the Moench/Gulacy team that works so well? “ style='mso-fareast-font-family: "MS Mincho"'>That's easy. I simply take his script, twist it around, put my spin on it and I'm a happy camper,” laughs Gulacy. “Not really, I'm just kidding. Well, no I'm not. There's a synthesis that takes place. It's like going back home or to some comfortable place. It's pure collaboration that's bonded with trust, mutual respect and a lasting friendship. ”

According to Moench, they create “a final product that’s greater than the sum of its two individual parts. For whatever reason, Paul and I mesh in a way that is really different from the way we mesh with any other collaborators. I’ve worked with I don’t know how many artists, and it feels different with every artist, but for whatever reason, Paul’s style of visual storytelling just meshes with what I like and with my writing in a way that results in what I’ve always thought was a special collaboration.”

And there’s more on the way from both Doug Moench and Paul Gulacy. “ We’ve got S.C.I-Spy coming out right now. Then I have a hardcover graphic novel coming out in November which is called Batman: Hong Kong. It is drawn by Hong Kong’s top artist who most people in America have never even seen. It’s gonna be like this really great artist coming out of nowhere. Well, he’s not new. He’s been doing comics in Hong Kong for quite a while. This thing is a 96-page hardcover and every panel is painted. It starts out in Gotham and then takes Batman to Hong Kong. We created a new Hong Kong costumed hero who is inspired by Batman, drawn by the #1 artist in Hong Kong and it will be not quite co-published, but it will be published in Chinese. I think this is the first time Batman will appear in the Chinese language.”

Gulacy says “There's a possibility of a Hulk series in the not-too-distant future. And no, he won't be using nunchucks.”

Doug Moench. Paul Gulacy. Shang-Chi. The combination fans have waited years to see is finally happening in Shang-Chi: Master of Kung Fu from Marvel’s MAX imprint. This sound like tons of fun. Don’t miss out.