Shang-Chi Explainer: Who is the Master of Kung Fu?

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Shang Chi

With Shang-Chi: The Legend of the Ten Rings doing so well at the box office that it caused Sony to move up Venom 2, The Marvel Report thought it would be a good time to take a look at just how different the comics were and why Marvel had to make some much-needed changes to the source material.

Shang-Chi has been thumping around since 1973 and has been a part of many Marvel stories. It’s clear from the film that he will play a poignant role going forward and is likely going to be the best fighter on the team.

The Avengers teams usually have one dude that bestows his wisdom on the group in a certain field. Captain America has long been the guy who ran the training sessions and one-on-one sparring sessions to improve the group. That honor will likely fall to Shang-Chi, also making him the battlefield tactician.

But the MCU version of Shang-Chi and the comic version of Shang-Chi are two entirely different things, even if there are similarities within the names and characters cast. Shang-Chi’s legacy is, unfortunately, a lesson in the history of racism in comics, one that’s Marvel has had to work to fix in his modern-day portrayal.

Shang-Chi’s History

Shang-Chi was actually a company decision by Marvel in their attempt to capitalize off the Kung Fu craze of the 1970s. They wanted to adapt the television show Kung Fu, but the show’s owner also happened to be the owner of DC Comics and they had no interest in helping out Marvel. So, Marvel bought the rights to an English pulp villain known as Dr. Fu Manchu, created by Arthur Henry Ward nicknamed Sarsfield AKA Sax Rohmer. It was an extremely popular book and he was fairly well off as a result of his creation. But it was banned Nazi Germany, which pissed Rohmer off because he was absolutely certain his work espoused ideology similar to that of the Nazis. 

Marvel took Fu Manchu and introduced Shang-Chi as his long-lost son. Shang-Chi was a completely new creation, but much of his world was influenced by the characters in Dr. Fu Manchu’s world. These characters were eventually dropped, but not until about 2010 when Ed Brubaker renamed Shang-Chi’s father and said Fu Manchu was just an alias for the real warlord Zheng Zu, who is an ancient Chinese sorcerer who found the secret to immortality. Several other characters were renamed and some characters from the original comic run The Hands of Shang-Chi: Master of Kung Fu were renamed and repurposed. Some characters were completely let go and Marvel no longer holds their rights.

Inspiration

It shouldn’t be any surprise that Shang-Chii is based on the baddest dude to ever take up martial arts, the legendary Bruce Lee. Not only was Shang-Chi’s appearance based on Bruce Lee, but much of his legacy and belief systems stem from Lee’s ideology. This was intentionally done by Marvel to capture the magic of Lee in the pages of Marvel comics. Paul Gulacy, the artist on Shang-Chi, oddly enough didn’t really know much about Bruce Lee when he penned the comic. In an interview about Shang-Chi, Gulacy was noted as saying the following:

When I was given that book, I didn’t know anything about kung fu, let alone Bruce Lee. When I started that first issue, I don’t think I’d even seen Enter the Dragon, and it wasn’t until I went to see this movie—almost a year after he’d died—when I really got hooked into it. I also have a good friend from the same hometown, Val Mayerik, another fellow comic book artist, and he was a second-degree black belt when I knew him, and we would go to tournaments. I would see Val teach at the dojo, and go to these tournaments and so forth, and that’s where I got a real taste for it. I knew there was an artistry behind the whole… There was a philosophy and a commitment. I didn’t want to portray it haphazard; I wanted to give some respect to the people who were into the martial arts. It was a fine line: You had to balance between what Marvel wanted—the thing being a comic book, and the visuals expected from that—with the treatment of having respect for the martial arts as well.

There was a clear intent by Marvel and Gulacy to embrace martial arts at their core. They wanted to show the readers that it was possible to do something different, meaningful, and for it to still resonate with comic readers. They put a lot of time and effort into nailing the character down and it shows throughout the run of Master of Kung Fu. Much of Shang-Chi’s modern success can be attributed to Gulacy’s desire to “get it right.” 

Who is Shang-Chi?

Shang-Chi is the child Zheng Zu (Fu Manchu) didn’t know he had. Zheng Zu was a ridiculously powerful sorcerer with skills in almost every field of study in addition to his magical abilities and physical abilities. He is a master combatant and a master spy, capable of taking on any accent and able to disguise himself from anyone while looking like any human on the planet. He is basically good at everything and Shang-Chi was the child he trained like none other, expecting him to become a living weapon. 

Zu sent Shang-Chi out on an assassination mission and while Shang-Chi went through with it, it was because his father had tricked him into thinking he was doing good and eliminating evil by killing an elderly man. Shang-Chi learned he was tricked and he stormed back into his father’s compound and had a frank conversation with his father stating that the next time they met it would be as enemies. His father agreed and said he would be throwing everything he had at Shang-Chi in an attempt to eliminate him. This put Shang-Chi firmly on the path of good and his father on the side of evil. 

Shang-Chi’s Powers and Abilities

Shang-Chi is a chip off the old block. His origin story has his own father stating that Shang-Chi’s intellect rivals the best the world has to offer. He is also trained in mental and martial arts, allowing him a stunning amount of control over his own body and mind even in the face of intense magic and otherworldly abilities. He is capable of beating anyone in hand-to-hand combat, even Captain America, and he isn’t afraid to drop a cocky hero on their ass if they disrespect him in training or pretend like he’s not good enough because he doesn’t have powers. 

Shang-Chi’s most notable power is his command over chi and his mastery of empty-hand combat. Given the fact that Captain America, Kitty Pride, Spider-Man, and Wolverine were students of Shang-Chi, that should give some idea as to the level of ability we are talking about here in hand-to-hand combat. He’s used his abilities to catch bullets and uses his bracers to deflect them. He knows just about every form of hand-to-hand combat, no matter how rare or ancient.

Another power Shang-Chi developed was his ability to duplicate himself as a result of cosmic radiation and Stark Tech, which allowed him to channel his mastery of chi into magical weapons. These powers are usually temporary and they almost always revert back to Shang-Chi just being an epic badass with enhanced kung fu skills and terrific mental discipline. He feels more interesting when he doesn’t have the powers, but Ed Brubaker was just trying to do wholesale changes to the character so Marvel didn’t have to continue to work with the Sax Rohmer estate and his racist ideology. 

Why you should care about Shang-Chi

Shang-Chi is just a great character and some of my favorite moments in the comics occur when Shang-Chi is put in charge of some young punk who doesn’t grasp the concept of a depowered or powerless individual teaching them how to fight and that young punk suddenly finds himself on the ground without knowing where he even got hit because it was so fast and efficient. He also represents an era of culture that was just plain cool. The kung fu craze introduced us to many amazing martial artists, including some who are in Shang-Chi: The Legend of the Ten Rings

The artistry behind Shang-Chi and the way his books are drawn showcase some of our best and worst in comics. You also don’t have to read problematic material to enjoy the character. You can read modern work on the character and it’s just as cool. In fact, modern work with Shang-Chi actually showcases him going much deeper into the Marvel Comics lineup. He’s a much larger character in the grand scheme of things post-2010, which is when Ed Brubaker revamped the character entirely. 

You’re going to see some artwork by diving into Shang-Chi, as well. It will introduce you to a number of Asian artists who have been tabbed to write the comic over the years. So, you’ll actually learn something if you read the more modern version of the character. Unless you really want to spend a lot of cash tracking down the original series as Marvel no longer has the rights to the characters they were using in those books and would have to reobtain those rights to reprint them. This is entirely unlikely and means you won’t soon be betting your hands on the older Shang-Chi comics, for the best. Read the new stuff anyhow, it’s so much better.  

Do you plan on reading Shang-Chi comics after seeing the movie? Let us know in the comments. Shang-Chi is now in theatres. 

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