This was wishful thinking to the extreme, but when Kagan Mcleod’s Infinite Kung-Fu came out, I hoped it would spark a new wave of kung-fu comics. I’m not talking about that late era Iron Fist shit, where it’s basically sub-Dr. Strange mysticism slapped on top of old pulp adventuring. I’m talking about Shaw Brothers-indebted myth and abstraction, stories about masters of violence trying everything they can not to show off their abilities while aware that the nature of man means flying fists and broken bones are a certainty. That new wave didn’t exactly happen, but at the same time, I can’t help but connect the dots between Mcleod’s work and Master of Kung Fu, a mini from Haden Blackman featuring the phenomenal art of the woefully underutilized Croatian master Dalibor Talajic.
Here’s the thing: Master of Kung Fu is a spinoff of the Marvel event Secret Wars. Let it sink in. A tie-in comic for a mega-event is the most exciting kung-fu story I’ve read in ages. Blackman, best known in comics for runs on Elektra and Batwoman, stocks the first issue up with plenty of references to Marvel lore, as filtered through Secret Wars’ Battleworld reality, but they’re extra spice on the dish rather than distracting continuity necessities. This is best illustrated pretty early on in the issue, as Z-list Marvel baddie Razor Fist pops up, except instead of having literal razor fists we’re told he earned the nickname because he “can chop off a man’s head with his bare hands.” This casual connection to Marvel lore runs throughout the story but it always functions this way, with Blackman and Talajic working to ensure that kung-fu fans can pick up the book and not get lost in a sea of unnecessary namedropping or burdened iconography, but instead view it as a natural evolution of kung-fu films’ own odd names and abilities and histories.
When I interviewed Kagan Mcleod back in 2011, he told me what drew him to old kung-fu flicks was “the costumes and the mythology, [characters] reading kung-fu manuals that give you powers based on how you read them or secret techniques that allow you to shoot lasers, that kind of stuff…it’s a whole crazy world” and Blackman and Talajic have honed in on that shared interest with superheroics. The story itself starts with mythology, Talajic laying out the origins of the current political system of the land of K’un Lun through two pages layed out like illustrated manuscripts or scrolls, depicting first an age of chaos where warring schools clashed with one another for supremacy “until only the masters of the Ten Rings and the Iron Fist remained,” leaving the schools of the Red Hand, the Panther Clan, the Spider Cult and others as subordinates.
This is exposition done right, a quick overview of the status quo and how we got here rendered in beautiful iconography, Talajic going chameleonic with his style, emulating the look and feel of those kung-fu texts. Even without Blackman’s narration you would get the message– there used to be untold bodies piling up, as warriors fought for acclaim and honor and power, until rival masters realized this was folly and backed off. From there we get an equally honor bound system, only with a lower body count, as leaders are chosen through mortal combat in the 13 Chambers every 13 years.
Two pages in and it’s immediately clear Master of Kung Fu is the kind of story Kagan Mcleod could get behind, with its smart costume design and deep yet simple mythology. Kung-fu works are defined by their tropes, and Blackman and Talajic are eager to acknowledge that even beyond this introduction. The series’ real story is one as ancient as myth itself, that time honored tale of a rebel son looking to bring down a father who has lost his way, with the titular Master of Kung Fu Shang-Chi appearing as a drunken master, laid low on common streets, looking like a beggar, to the extent that Razor Fist and his Ten Rings cohorts don’t even recognize him beneath his “stink.” But when he humiliates Razor Fist and company in public and some rebel Morlocks are inspired by his action, the plot is set in motion and the stage is prepped for a tale of vengeance and righteousness, that twin path known by so many other kung-fu masterworks.
That simple plot framework allows Talajic’s art to come to center stage, taking the spotlight as he depicts perpetual motion, the martial arts all liquid fire and blurs. This is something Marvel’s other, more recent attempts at bringing their kung-fu comics and characters to the 21st century have missed. Even that Immortal Iron Fist series, which had smart writing and complex characterization, never managed to pull off the motion needed for this kind of story– David Aja is better suited to urban fare, the stillness and linearity of it. Talajic is an artist who gets the elasticism of the genre, how movement can’t be blocky but instead must be balletic and beautiful. Though he moves from woodcarving-like freeze frames in the introductory scenes, the bulk of the issue is on the move, from that fight in a public square between Shang-Chi and Razor Fist’s bullies to the secret passage escape with the Morlocks on down to the closing scenes as the major players are assembled to pursue Shang-Chi.
Modern action comics could use an infusion of this mobility in general. Too frequently the big blockbuster comics are stuffed full of inaction, constant scenes of frozen faces punctuated by slight changes in expression, overuse of captions as though comics is more a written medium than a visual one. Given the free rein that an alternate reality mini allows, Blackman and Talajic have truly risen to the occasion, making Master of Kung Fu more than a promising start but a glimpse at what a little more genre adventurousness in pop comics could lead to.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover