By the time he wrote Master of Kung Fu #35 (December 1975) Doug Moench seems to have been having a lot of fun on the title. The issue opens mid-story, inside a strange auditorium, with beautiful secret agent Leiko trapped in the bottom half of a giant hourglass on the stage as sand rapidly fills the space around her. A man called Mordillo, wearing a leather jerkin, stands by the hourglass firing fire from a special attachment on his right hand. Moench scripts in a juicy manner: ‘Mordillo’s hand, like the man himself, is insane. It spurts fire.’ Shang Chi and another agent, Clive Reston, are fastened into seats in the front row of the auditorium by a metal bar. The fire from Mordillo’s finger attachment ignites the two empty seats on Shang Chi’s left. Mordillo wants to force Leiko to tell him what she knows about Project: Ultra-Violet. Reston tries to persuade Mordillo that the information he wants is locked inside Leiko’s memory—she has been hypnotised to forget it. Mordillo does not believe him and switches to using the third finger on his metal hand which fires a compression dart at Reston. (‘Fortunately, Reston’s spine is fluid.’) Then a robot comes on the stage and distracts Mordillo by attacking him with electrical discharge. This gives Shang Chi the time he needs to focus his strength enough to detach the metal bar restraining him and Reston. At this point, Mordillo flees. It turns out the ‘robot’ was Shang Chi’s ally Black Jack Tarr wearing a robot-shell into which Mordillo had not yet installed the ‘circuit-guts’. Using the metal bar, Shang Chi liberates Leiko from the hourglass just in time.
After passing through a concealed doorway, Mordillo ascends a tower to speak with his female associate Pavane, who is standing on a ledge with a black panther on a leash and wearing a leather bikini. Mordillo tells her that he has decided to move a device he refers to as a solar-chute just in case Leiko and the others manage to find its secret location on the island. Back in the auditorium, Reston is jealous when the liberated Leiko embraces Shang Chi gratefully.
In due course, Shang Chi leaps upon the solar chute as Mordillo takes off in it. Mordillo wants to sell the device to the Chinese for a million dollars but Shang Chi objects to it being used as a weapon of death against the British and Americans. The machine emits freon gas to create a hole in the ozone layer (in terms of popular culture, Moench was ahead of the game on this issue in 1975), so that unfiltered ultra-violet rays can focus through the chute’s octagonal lens. Thus magnified, the radiation is able to devastate large areas. (Leiko has previously explained that Mordillo had been convinced that her memory held the key to making the deadly device operate with greater precision so that it could focus on specific ground targets.) When Mordillo realises that Shang Chi is going to succeed in preventing him from selling the chute to the Chinese he jumps to his death. Brynocki, Mordillo’s little servant robot with a cartoon face, cradles his master’s skeleton vowing to repair him.
The story’s artwork, by Paul Gulacy, is often anatomically awkward and occasionally just strange [see image below], but somehow fits the mood perfectly by being so. As for the letters page, Moench appears to have made the entire thing up in an hour while drunk.
Having enjoyed #35 so much (I’d recently bought it from a local vintage gear emporium), I dug out issues 36 and 37, which I already owned, with artwork by guest-penciller Keith Pollard. Re-reading them, I found that they were even stranger than issue 35! In #36, Shang Chi is contacted in New York by a mysterious old Chinese man called Moon Sun. Moench’s scripting continues to be fruity. Moon Sun, we are told, is one ‘whose purpose builds secrets and whose existence forms no more than a question’. I’ve been pondering that statement ever since I read it and still my mind wobbles. As Moon Sun walks with Shang Chi to his basement lock-up in Manhattan they are attacked by black-robed ninja—the Warlords of the Web. Moon Sun is killed by a dagger in the back. These ninja know how to leap to heights of 30 feet or higher. They can race across sheer walls. They can move faster than the time required to think or see. They can exist in two places simultaneously and disappear from view. Nonetheless, Shang Chi manages to beat all six of them in a kung fu fight. When he’s finished scrapping, Shang Chi discovers Moon Sun is alive. Why aren’t you dead? he asks. In response, Moon Sun says he does not understand why young people have to have answers for everything.
Moon Sun leads Shang Chi into a darkened storage space and instructs his guest to talk to a certain canvas sheet, for ‘I must leave you here for several times, none of them long.’ Shang Chi talks to the canvas sheet and it speaks back. Pulling the sheet aside, Shang Chi unveils a satyr in a cage – none other than Pan Sing, son of Silenus, half-brother of Dionysus. Pan Sing begs Shang Chi not to free him. Being at liberty in the world would represent a worse prison to him than confinement in the cage. Also, says Pan Sing, Shang Chi should do whatever Moon Sun tells him. Shang Chi then pulls another canvas sheet aside to disclose a werewolf called Cinnabar. In fact, Shang Chi proceeds to unveil and converse with an angel-hawk, a mermaid, a unitaur (a hybrid of centaur and unicorn) and a two-headed serpent, all in cages. This repetitive sequence occupies 6 pages of a 19 page story!
Moon Sun returns with his beautiful daughter Tiko and explains that he is running a travelling circus. He wants Shang Chi to come along as bodyguard on their next tour to protect the troupe from a man called Dark-Strider and his Warlords of the Web. Shang Chi accepts the offer. That’s where #36 ends. It’s odd. I like it. But my guess is that, at some stage, regular artist Gulacy called Moench and said, ‘You know, I’ve got this great new car, and I could do with two months extra catch-up time, not just one’. (I got this information about the new car taking up much of Gulacy’s time at that juncture from the letters page in #37. Talk about brazen!) Hence, I surmise, Moench turned a one-issue filler into a two-issue one. Otherwise, how explain that 6-page talking sequence? If my guess is correct, you would expect #37’s half of what may have been initially planned as a 1-issue story to also need padding out in a more or less blatant manner.
#37 opens with the circus travelling by train. ‘There is strong mystery here. It has crowded all else from reality … save that which it has devoured.’ (I feel the same way about Amazon.) Shang Chi beats off the Warlords of the Web again and then asks Moon Sun why Dark-Strider wants to destroy him and his circus. Each member of the troupe provides a different explanation. Moench, it appears, had been watching Akira Kurosawa’s majestic film Rashomon but where Kurosawa used multiple viewpoints to demonstrate how people distort experiences when they report them to serve their own ends, Moench arguably employs them as a way of padding out an elongated filler. Thus, the satyr tells Shang Chi that the troupe had been summoned to perform at the home of a powerful mandarin who had liked their act so much that he insisted they reside in his palace for the rest of their lives. When they refused, the mandarin commanded Dark-Strider to kill them. The unitaur, however, says that, on the contrary, the troupe’s performance was terrible and that was why the mandarin sent Dark-Strider after them. And so on through three more different explanations.
Anyhow, overhearing beautiful Tiko curtly refuse to ride on Rynor the unitaur’s back, Shang Chi is appalled by her vanity and conceit. However, when he enters her caravan he finds she is hideously scarred beneath the artificial facial coverings she wears. Humbled, Shang Chi realises he has misjudged Tiko.
Subsequently, Dark-Strider captures the troupe and sticks them on a giant web. Poised at the web’s centre, Dark-Strider confronts Shang Chi. Though his foe has six arms, Shang Chi is victorious. However, the beaten man informs Shang Chi that he fights against the wills of the troupe. At this point, the members of the troupe disappear and are replaced by the Warlords of the Web. ‘Do not guess at the riddle, Shang Chi,’ one of them tells their confused bodyguard, ‘for the question is its own answer.’ The ninja draw their swords and hurl them—not at Shang Chi—but upwards to slash a hole in the circus tent through which the ninja soar into the night sky. Dark-Strider advises Shang Chi not to seek an explanation for the mystery of death, for in so doing ‘life will lose its taste for the world’. After Dark-Strider has also vanished, Shang Chi finds a tatter of Moon Sun’s robe, which he regards as evidence that Dark-Strider and Moon Sun were one and the same being. Deciding it is probably best that he fails to grasp what has happened, Shang Chi walks off into the sunset.
The would-be profound ending would be more acceptable, I think, if the story had occupied a single issue. You don’t need 38 comic pages to communicate effectively the message ‘Accept death as a necessary mystery’. Also, where does Tiko fit into all of this? Having said that, the part which I have regarded as padding in the second part works better, in my view, than its equivalent in the first. Those various narratives which ultimately have no bearing on the story or indeed on anything create an illusion of richness. Unforeseen outcome of pragmatic gambit? You have to admire Moench’s chutzpah. But what is chutzpah? Yiddish for gall, brazen nerve. Brazen Nerve might make a good name for one of those ninja outfits which crop up so often in the series.