As a genre, martial arts thrives in film and TV, but rarely in comics. While every superhero is some kind of karate expert, and characters like Batman and Daredevil are ninja masters, barely anyone’s story ever bothers to explore the romance and responsibility the martial arts teach. It’s these themes that make the best Jet Li and Donnie Yen movies, like Fist of Legend and Ip Man, just so damn engrossing. For a visual medium, comics rarely do kung-fu right.
But don’t misunderstand us: some have. For anyone searching for more kicks in their comics, the following are some of the best martial arts comics the medium has to offer.
Infinite Kung-Fu by Kagan McLeod
In a world ruled by armies, soldier and kung-fu master Lei Kung grows tired of his tyrannical master and abandons his life until he learns of a prophecy that says he’ll be the one to change things forever.
A multi-genre romp that homages everything from Shaw Brothers films to ‘80s horror movies, Kagan McLeod’s Infinite Kung-Fu from Top Shelf is one of the best examples you can get outside the Marvel/DC mainstream. It’s a thick tome at almost 500 pages (which is a lot for comics), so you’re really getting your money’s worth with this acclaimed series from 2011.
Fight for Tomorrow by Brian Wood
Although out of print and hard to find, Brian Wood’s Fight for Tomorrow is an overlooked gem from 2008 worth tracking down. A rare example of a kung-fu noir, Cedric Zhang is a young Buddhist monk who winds up fighting in underground clubs when he develops a bond with Christy, a nurse. Christy disappears without a trace, and Cedric is forced into the criminal underworld of New York City to find her before it’s too late.
The Green Hornet by Mark Waid
Of all the countless Green Hornet comics, Mark Waid’s take on the pulp comics character is more than worth adding to the shelf. While it’s not strictly a martial arts story, it does prominently feature Kato having his fair share of action while having a rift with his partner, the titular Green Hornet, whose accomplishments cleaning up the streets of 1940s Chicago go to his head.
Master of Kung-Fu by Steve Englehart
Shang-Chi is recognized as one of the most formidable masters of martial arts within the Marvel Universe. While he’s overshadowed in popularity by the flashier, sometimes-partner Iron Fist (more on him in a bit), Shang-Chi has not only been an Avenger, but a solo lead in Steve Englehart’s 1972 comic Master of Kung-Fu. The classic series recently began publishing in an Omnibus from Marvel, with Vol. 1 available now.
The Immortal Iron Fist by Ed Brubaker
There are a handful of great Iron Fist comics you can get your hands on, but head and shoulders above them all is Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction’s Immortal Iron Fist. Credited with reinventing Danny Rand for the modern reader, Immortal Iron Fist went full steam ahead with the character’s pulp inspirations and mid-aughts grit that made for a fine work that whiplashes tone without being off-putting.
This is the book that reintroduced Marvel readers today to Iron Fist, and it’s the book most likely to serve as inspiration for the upcoming Netflix series. Because there’s nothing quite like it.
Fist of the North Star by Buronson
Before it became a 1986 animated film that human meme John Cena would admire, Fist of the North Star was an influential manga from the enigmatic Buronson, a pen name because the author loved Charles Bronson so much.
In a world ravaged by nuclear war, Kenshiro is the master of Hokuto Shinken, a fictional martial art that targets the opponent’s vital points that result in an exceptionally bloody and gruesome death. Like a kung-fu Mad Max, Kenshiro wanders the world in Fist of the North Star tirelessly fighting against bloodthirsty raiders and rival martial artists.
Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z by Akira Toriyama
Most are familiar with the animated series, but Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball and sequel series Dragon Ball Z are some of the most celebrated mangas of all time. A multi-genre romp primarily inspired by the ancient Chinese epic Journey to the West, Dragon Ball is about a young warrior named Goku who trains in martial arts while seeking the fabled Dragon Balls, powerful relics that grant its seeker one wish. The series continues in Dragon Ball Z with Goku as an adult, raising his son Gohan and fending off more enemies while, once again, searching for the ancient Dragon Balls.
One-Punch Man by One
Written by the elusive webcomics creator One, One-Punch Man is one of the sharpest phenomenons to come out of modern manga and anime. Saitama is a superhero whose right hook is so powerful it can destroy monsters in an instant. After being this powerful for so long, Saitama is incredibly bored — noted by his uniquely blank facial expression — and wanders helplessly for an opponent worthy of a good fight.
It’s technically not “martial arts,” but One-Punch Man, along with Attack on Titan, is one of the few breakthrough anime and manga sensations in recent years after the medium’s mainstream popularity waned in the 2010s. It’s worth checking out before it finally airs in the U.S. on Adult Swim on July 16.