I really wanted to like Deadly Hands of Kung Fu #1, by Mike Benson and Tan Eng Huat. After all, what’s not to like about Shang-Chi? He’s cut from a similar cloth to Bruce Lee. He has no super-powers, yet he demonstrates total mastery over the martial arts.
Shang held his own title for nearly 100 issues from 1974 to 1983 in the late, lamented “Master of Kung Fu” series. Capitalizing on the martial arts craze in the 1970’s, Master of Kung Fu (MoKF) combined martial arts mayhem with espionage and over the top villains.
While those thematic elements are present in Deadly Hands of Kung Fu, what’s missing completely is Shang-Chi. Oh, he’s physically there (more on that in a bit), but he’s very much out of character here.
The story starts off with the death of a very prominent supporting cast member and love interest of Shang-Chi. It’s sad (almost degrading) to see a major character from Shang-Chi’s past taken out in such a savage, lackluster way. From there, we move to Shang-Chi on a snow-mobile, in pursuit of CrossBones, who has escaped prison via helicopter. It’s a very Bondian sequence, and to be fair – it works well. The plot moves to Shang-Chi discovering the grim news about his lover’s brutal death. Instead of vengeance, he has made peace with her demise, only to be drawn back into the games of “deceit and death” by villains who have him in their sights.
I have several problems with the book, and many of them have to do with the art by Huat. What absolutely drove me bonkers was Shang-Chi himself. His depiction is wildly off model throughout the book. In several instances, Shang-Chi’s appearance is rendered as Caucasian American, while in others, he takes on a more effeminate look. (Digression: The gross inconsistencies of Shang-Chi’s depiction remind me of “Game of Death“, where Bruce Lee look-alikes and even a cardboard cutout of Bruce himself were used as substitutes for the deceased actor.) Furthermore, it would appear that Shang-Chi’s sinewy muscles have been jettisoned in favor of a more metro-sexual look. Take a look at the panel below. Does that look like Shang-Chi to you?
I realize that some aspects of Shang’s look (the long haircut and red / gold uniform) were dated, but this character, as depicted by Huat, bears no resemblance to the Shang-Chi character in the old Master of Kung Fu title. Other characters in the book, including Steve Rogers and Leiku Wu, also appear off model as well:
More troublesome are the numerous perspective issues that abound. Characters don’t feel properly placed within their environment. Even quiet scenes, including one where Shang-Chi and Captain America speak at Avengers HQ, have really odd staging. The old Master of Kung Fu comics really added cinematic flair to help enhance the story. With DHoKF #1, the cinematic approach taken with the sequential layout is actually its undoing. The fight sequences feel stiff, cramped and unfocused.
From a character perspective, I also found Shang-Chi’s subdued “checked out” attitude to be completely uncharacteristic, especially in light of his lover’s death. While Shang-Chi has often reserved under times of tension, he comes across as being cold and aloof in this story.
His final confrontation in London’s Chinatown feels forced and awkward. But particularly bothersome is how writer Benson completely changes the dynamic between Black Jack Tarr and Shang-Chi. Both characters have plenty of history together, yet this time around, Tarr seems to be playing the role of “juggler”, manipulating Shang into going after the culprit while waiting in the wings.
As a major Shang-Chi fan, I was very much let down by Deadly Hands of Kung Fu #1. I wanted to enjoy this book. But while the plot is serviceable, it’s the art that really brings this book down. Not even the crisp coloring by Jesus Aburtov could save it.
For me, the only highlight is the eye-catching cover by Dave Johnson. It’s a solid cover design, and seeing it makes me wish that Johnson handled the interior art chores as well.
If you’re a fan of Shang-Chi, this is not the character you remembered. I can only take solace in the fact that I still have my old stack of MoKF comic books that I can re-read and enjoy. Deadly Hands of Kung Fu earns 2 Bob Weiners out of 5.
As a tribute to the old Master of Kung Fu series, here is my take on Shang-Chi and company.