The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 183 | Shang-Chi, Rudy Nebres, and The Deadly Hands of Kung-Fu

Leaving Proof 183 | Shang-Chi, Rudy Nebres, and The Deadly Hands of Kung-Fu
Published on Thursday, May 2, 2013 by
Rudy Nebres only briefly illustrated The Deadly Hands of Kung-Fu, but his run proved quite significant nonetheless for the Comixverse’s Zedric Dimalanta.

When I was about eight years old or so, I came across a plastic sticker featuring Shang-Chi, Master of Kung-Fu. I can’t remember where I got it, although I have a very vague memory of fishing it out of an Ovaltine jar, probably part of some long-forgotten cross-promotional campaign by Marvel Comics and whichever company distributed the malted dairy drink in the Philippines at the time. At that early age, I was already familiar with certain elements of the Marvel superhero universe: My father had introduced me to the Liberty Legion before I was even old enough to go to kindergarten—his battered copy of Marvel Premiere #29, cover-dated April 1976, was the very first American comic book I can recall reading—and I’d read stray issues of Uncanny X-Men, Amazing Spider-Man, Incredible Hulk, and Daredevil growing up in and around a city that had quite a number of import shops that served both the city’s residents and the American servicemen and women who lived and worked at the US Air Force installation that was, incidentally, just located across the street from my school and as luck would have it, also had a newsstand that sold American comics (mostly Marvels).

cover by Rudy Nebres

Master of Kung-Fu #75 (cover-dated April 1979) cover illustration by Rudy Nebres

The copyright notice on the sticker confirmed to me that Shang-Chi was a Marvel character, but I had never seen him before and none of my friends and classmates had heard of him, either. The phonetic quality of his name and the “Master of Kung-Fu” label suggested that he was probably Chinese, but that was all we could really deduce from the sticker. Was he a hero or a villain? Did he have any superpowers? The paucity of any reliable reference material didn’t stop me from making up my own background for the character, though. In my imagination, Shang-Chi had grown in stature as a cross between Bruce Lee and Captain America, an unparalleled martial artist in the Marvel Universe with vaguely superhuman physical attributes. Up until that point, it never really crossed my mind that there could be an Asian superhero. There just weren’t any Asian superheroes of note as far as my limited Marvel Comics reading experience informed me (this was several years before Sunfire resurfaced in Uncanny X-Men #284), although Asian supervillains like the Yellow Claw, the Mandarin, the Radioactive Man, and the Silver Samurai surely existed, as did Asian supporting characters like Iceman’s girlfriend Opal Tanaka and Wolverine’s fiancée Mariko Yashida. I was utterly fascinated by the sticker and the possibilities it represented. Did Shang-Chi have any teammates? How would he stack up in a straight-up fight against Wolverine?

(Before we go any further with this little trip down memory lane, let me first say that I don’t believe in the existence of a strict, “pan-Asian” identity. The history of the continent, as large and as extensive as it is, just can’t allow for its diverse peoples to fall neatly under some all-encompassing ethno-cultural rubric. At the same time however, we cannot and should not dismiss out of hand the complex and deep-rooted ties of Sinitic, Indic, and Austronesian linguistic and cultural influences that bind the region and the underlying sense of affiliation these provide especially as contemporary people of Asian descent continuously seek to define and identify themselves in modern, Western popular culture.

Anyway, going back to my childhood fascination with the Shang-Chi sticker… )

My growing interest in G.I. Joe and Uncanny X-Men, coupled with the abject lack of any readily available Shang-Chi comics, meant that the sticker was soon forgotten, just another obscure pop culture artifact stuck on our aging refrigerator’s door. It wouldn’t be until over a decade later while I was studying at a Manila university that I’d actually encounter my first Shang-Chi comic book in a cramped used book store. It wasn’t even technically a comic book. It was a black & white “comics magazine” published by long-defunct Marvel affiliate Curtis Magazines, issue #12 of The Deadly Hands of Kung-Fu, cover-dated May 1975, with the lead story drawn by Rudy Nebres.

(A note for our younger readers: Throughout the 1970s and the early 1980s, Marvel would get around the content restrictions of the Comics Code Authority by publishing oversized, anthology-style “comics magazines” under their Curtis Magazines imprint. These publications didn’t fall under the CCA’s purview because they were technically magazines and not comics. Along with The Deadly Hands of Kung-Fu, other popular Curtis Magazines were The Savage Sword of Conan, Doc Savage, Savage Tales, Crazy Magazine, Dracula Lives!, and Rampaging Hulk. To justify the magazine label, they would have various articles in between the comics content. The Deadly Hands of Kung-Fu regularly featured martial arts movie reviews and feature articles on martial arts-related topics written by Chris Claremont and other staff writers and freelancers.)

Splash page from The Deadly Hands of Kung-Fu #17 (cover-dated October 1975), pencils and inks by Rudy Nebres.

Splash page from The Deadly Hands of Kung-Fu #17 (cover-dated October 1975), pencils and inks by Rudy Nebres.

Rudy Nebres was a member of the first “Filipino Wave” of artists that started working primarily for DC Comics in the early 1970s, although by the middle of the decade, he was working almost exclusively for Marvel Comics and Warren Publishing. Nebres, who is now in his early 70s and retired from regular comics work, still hits the convention circuit and has an ardent fanbase although offhand, it doesn’t seem like he has the same level of name recognition among more casual comics fans that his peers Tony DeZuniga, Alfredo Alcala, Nestor Redondo, or Alex Niño enjoy, and it’s a bit of a mystery as to why this is so. It’s not because of a difference in the level of skill and talent. His ability as a komiks-style illustrator and renderer compares favorably with that of Alcala or Redondo—John Buscema, in fact, cited Nebres as his favorite inker and Neal Adams is on record in saying that Nebres “puts better lines on the page than any artist or inker I know,”—and as for his storytelling, he was and is equally comfortable using either restrained, traditional panel arrangements or going the more surreal and stylized Niño route. The only reason I can readily think of for his relative anonymity is that he never stayed on a single book quite long enough to develop the kind of consistently large, casual reader following some of the other First Wavers gained: Despite an American comics career that spans almost five decades and hundreds of issues, his 14-issue run as the lead story illustrator on The Deadly Hands of Kung-Fu stands as his longest stint on any single title as a penciler-inker, with a 13-issue tenure on The Savage Sword of Conan coming in at a close second.

Page from Special Marvel Edition #15 (cover-dated December 1973), line art by Jim Starlin, colors by Steve Englehart.

Page from Special Marvel Edition #15 (cover-dated December 1973), line art by Jim Starlin, colors by Steve Englehart.

Shang-Chi is still occasionally held up as an example of the kind of racial stereotyping that was common in American comics of bygone eras. I’ve encountered, more than once, the argument that Danny Rand, the Iron Fist, is “more Asian” (whatever that is supposed to mean) than Shang-Chi. And maybe this is true. Maybe Shang-Chi does come off as an offensive, chopsocky, racist pastiche for certain readers. Or perhaps the character’s incidental ties with Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu pulp novels—seen today as examples of media that took advantage of the “Yellow Peril” xenophobia of the early and mid-20th century—have irrevocably tainted the character for some. But I don’t know. Looking at his first appearance in 1973’s Special Marvel Edition #15, it seems to me that creators Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin deliberately set out to create a character that, while still capitalizing on the martial arts action movie trend that was all the rage in the 1970s, didn’t possess the usual afflictions of design one saw in many other portrayals of minority characters in comics of the period. It’s significant to me that Englehart, who not only wrote the story but is also credited with doing the color art, avoided giving Shang-Chi the sickly, cirrhotic skin tone that seemed to be the standard setting for all Marvel characters of Asian descent up to that point, instead imbuing him with the sensibly bronzed appearance of a lifelong warrior-athlete.

The Deadly Hands of Kung-Fu‘s pulpy martial arts premise became the perfect vehicle for the expression of Nebres’ masterful handle on fantastical anatomy, his electrifying fight scene choreography, his ability to control mood with dramatic contrast and lighting, and of course, his preeminent skill with the ink brush and ink washes.

And while the version of Shang-Chi drawn by The Hands of Shang-Chi: Master of Kung Fu penciler Paul Gulacy is probably the one that is most closely associated with the character’s 1970s incarnation, Nebres’ take on the character is no less memorable or striking. While many other artists have often resorted to using the late Bruce Lee as the beginning inspiration for the character’s poses and even his visage, Nebres’ intimidating and wild-haired Shang-Chi, while certainly not “off-model” in any way, stood out and apart (although I wouldn’t at all be surprised if it turns out that Nebres took some design cues from Ramon Zamora’s vigilante martial artist from the 1974 Filipino “chopsocky” film Return of the Dragon).

Splash page from The Deadly Hands of Kug-Fu #18

Splash page from The Deadly Hands of Kung-Fu #18 (cover-dated November 1975), pencils and inks by Rudy Nebres

Just as my discovery of the Shang-Chi sticker all those years ago inspired, albeit briefly, a curiosity to find out if there were any other Marvel superheroes of Asian extraction, so did my chance encounter with The Deadly Hands of Kung-Fu #12 and the realization that it was illustrated by one of the best artists in the field—who just happened to be Asian, and Filipino at that—spur in me a desire to learn about the “secret history” of Filipino artists working in American comics through the 1970s and early 1980s, at a time when Alex Niño and Whilce Portacio were the only artists of Filipino descent whose Western comics work I was even remotely familiar with. (I say “secret history” because  while the most outstanding of the Filipino Wave artists had gained some measure of renown in comics fan communities in North America and Europe, they remained virtually unknown in the Philippines for various reasons rooted in late 20th century political, social, and cultural developments.) I think it’s fair to say that this continuing series of articles I’ve written spotlighting Filipino artists in American comics wouldn’t exist if not for my stumbling upon Nebres’ work all those years ago. I never did find out who drew the image that was used on the old Shang-Chi sticker, but I like to imagine that it was pulled from a Nebres illustration. It’s just more fun that way.

On character design catering to marketing concerns…

If we’re to trust British comics artist and historian David A. Roach’s accounting in his 2004 Comic Book Artist magazine article “A–Z: A Guide to the Filipino Comic Book Artists,” no less than 89 Filipino artists utilizing his definition of the Filipino style of comics art (a definition I find problematic, by the way) worked for the major American comics publishers from 1971 through the early 1980s. Eighty-nine! Given that number, it strikes me as a little odd that the only pairing of an Asian artist and a Marvel or DC title with an Asian lead that I can think of from that era was on The Deadly Hands of Kung-Fu.

Whilce Portacio and Karl Alstaetter originally designed Bishop as a Filipino mutant.

Whilce Portacio and Karl Alstaetter originally designed Bishop as a Filipino mutant.

I’m not going to turn this into a screed about the lack of diversity in the comics of yesteryear, of course. The Filipino artists were hired first and foremost to illustrate stories for an overwhelmingly American market, and while many of them did end up creating characters that went on to become significant properties in their own right—Tony DeZuniga designed Jonah Hex and Black Orchid for DC, Steve Gan co-created Star-Lord for Marvel, just to cite a couple of examples—certain elements that constituted those characters’ designs, including their race and ethnicity, were tuned not just to fit the stories, but also to target editors’ perception of what the market wanted to see at the time. For a more recent example, Image Comics co-founder and former X-Factor and Uncanny X-Men artist Whilce Portacio recounted in an interview we did with him last year that the editorial decision to switch Bishop’s ethnicity from Filipino (which was Portacio and Karl Alstaetter’s original design) to “black” was made with marketing in mind: The introduction of a black, male X-Man with a versatile powerset was seen by executives as a way to further expand what consumer research had identified as Uncanny X-Men‘s large following among black comics readers.

There can be any number of potential issues and problems in letting target market demographics dictate character design elements—especially if it means overriding the designing artist whom one would think was selected because he or she possesses a sense of visual design above and beyond that of your typical, non-artist reader—but I’m quite interested to see how well (or how poorly) mainstream superhero designs in the coming years will reflect the rapidly changing demographics of not just the North American market, but superhero comics’ international readership as well.

The Playlist

Lalo Schifrin – Enter the Dragon theme

Yie Ar Kung-Fu main theme

Martin Galway (feat. Jean Michel Jarre) – Yie Ar Kung-Fu title theme, Commodore 64 version

DCult – Deadly Hands of Shang-Chi

Jake Kaufman – Final Palace (Double Dragon Neon OST)

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