Shang-Chi: Why Marvel’s most influential comic disappeared.
Shang-Chi was your favorite superhero’s favorite superhero
(Here's why he vanished.)
Shang-Chi is a paradox.
He is simultaneously a cult icon of comics and an unknown entity. In the 1970s, Shang-Chi stood apart from X-Men and Avengers with stories that were a mixtape of martial arts, Blaxploitation, and James Bond. But his subsequent descent into anonymity made mainstream audiences, including many Asian Americans, unaware of his existence.
In 2021, you might know about Shang-Chi through random Googling, or you simply don’t. Here’s why you don’t.
Since his inception, Shang-Chi “was meant to be looked at,” says award-winning writer and Shang-Chi author Gene Luen Yang. He wasn’t like superheroes you could relate to.
“His appeal was, ‘Check out this Chinaman doing crazy things.’ It’s hard to make a spectacle last for decades. That’s why he mutates, [artists are] trying to make him work.”
On September 3, Marvel will release Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, a movie with predominantly Asian actors, directors, writers, and artists.
The story of Shang-Chi — his rise, fall, and renewed resonance — is reflective of the complex Asian American experience. Originally absent from their own narratives, artists of Asian descent now tell Shang-Chi’s story to resemble their own. Shang-Chi’s origin story couldn’t feel more different than the movie that’s coming out this weekend.
“A Changing of the Guard”
It began on a Saturday night in front of a television set in Connecticut.
In 1972, a party of artists spent a night outside New York City, where Marvel Comics still runs its main office, at the Connecticut home of writer Steve Englehart. When guests left for dinner, Jim Starlin, creator of Thanos, chose to stay behind to watch a new television show, Kung Fu. Both artists were intrigued.
“We didn’t know anything about it,” Englehart tells Inverse, “We thought, maybe we should stick around. Starlin and I did, and we came out thinking, We want to play in that arena.”
Kung Fu was a primetime hit that starred David Carradine as a Shaolin monk wandering the Old West. It’s infamous today for the “yellowface” casting of Carradine over Chinese-American screen icon and legit kung fu expert Bruce Lee. Inspired by the show, Starlin and Englehart set out to make a comic book with martial arts. It was the perfect time for something new.
“The late ‘60s was the first wave of fans who took over the industry,” says Reed Tucker, author of Slugfest: Inside the Epic 50-Year Battle Between Marvel and DC. “Comic books started to have a different flavor because of who was producing them.”
The same year Kung Fu premiered, Stan Lee was promoted to Marvel’s publisher. His protege Roy Thomas became editor-in-chief. During this period, rival DC Comics lagged behind in sales. “Marvel was always a more freewheeling place. They were counterculture guys into pop culture, drugs, what was cool at the time,” says Tucker.
“It was a changing of the guard,” Jim Starlin tells Inverse. (He doesn’t deny the drugs.) “At lunchtime we’d go to Roy Thomas’ fire escape. Half the office would come out blasted out of their heads. Stan would not have the slightest idea he was dealing with potheads.”
“We were given creative freedom, which didn’t happen before or after,” Englehart says. “We could do anything, so long as it sold. That’s what led to so much material being in print 50 years later, and the basis of the movies.”
There was briefly talk of adapting Kung Fu as a comic, but the show was property of Warner Bros., owners of DC since 1969. In an email to Inverse, Roy Thomas says Marvel “had no real hope” for the license. Twisting the knife, Thomas heard from his insiders at DC that publisher Carmine Infantino entertained pitches for a DC-published Kung Fu and passed.
“The guys tried to rile him up telling him that if DC didn’t do Kung Fu, Marvel might,” Thomas says. “Carmine said, ‘If they do Kung Fu, we’ll do Fu Manchu.’” 50 years later, Infantino’s casual dismissal (and Thomas’ revenge) would lead to issues Marvel is still wrestling with in 2021.
The Rise of Shang-Chi
Without Kung Fu, Englehart and Starlin began brewing their own hero. The name “Shang-Chi” came from Englehart’s study of the I Ching.
“I was looking for words that meant what I wanted to say,” he explains. “The 46th hexagram [shēng] is ‘Rising and advancing’ and ‘chi’ is life energy. I put those together. Shang-Chi. Rising and advancing of a spirit. That’s the character I wanted to write.”
It would be years before Englehart learned his pronunciation was incorrect. “I’m still not clear,” he admits.
With Shang-Chi, Englehart and Starlin did something unusual: They pitched.
Back then, “You did not go to the editor. The system was you got assigned stuff,” Englehart says. The editors balked. “Marvel was completely disinterested. They didn’t see any value in this at all.”
Despite the freedom of the 1970s, there were still entrenched ideas about what sold and what didn’t. The direct market (comic book stores) hadn’t yet eclipsed grocery stores and newspaper stands. While comics have always had diverse audiences, it is safe to assume who average readers were back then. “Comics in those days were basically for white boys,” Englehart says.
Martial arts had yet to blossom as a genre, too. At the time of Shang-Chi’s conception, Bruce Lee was still shooting movies in Hong Kong. It was not until his 1973 epic Enter the Dragon, released after Lee’s death at age 32 that mainstream caught on to martial arts.
“This was bubbling under,” says Patrick A. Reed, pop culture journalist and co-curator of the art exhibit Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes. “Martial arts films were in theaters in New York before they crossed into the greater culture. Englehart and Starlin have talked about going out, perhaps altered on substances, and seeing these influences.” While Bruce Lee did serve as a major reference for Shang-Chi down the road, the creation was “ahead of the curve.”
As editor, Roy Thomas was game for Shang-Chi but imposed mandates. One was Shang-Chi’s half-white racial identity, but no one is sure who ordered it and why. To Englehart’s view, Shang-Chi’s half-white identity was due to the bankability, or lack thereof, of Asian leads. Incidentally, this is why ABC didn’t cast Bruce Lee in Kung Fu.
“Marvel insisted [Shang-Chi] be half-white,” Englehart tells Inverse. “We wanted to do an all-Asian character. We didn’t want him half-white, but we had to get the deal done.” He says a previous addition to the Marvel Universe, Black hero Luke Cage, caused cold feet. “I was writing Luke Cage and there were parts of the south that would not carry Luke Cage.”
Roy Thomas isn’t sure where it came from. “I don’t recall if that was my decision based on what I thought Stan would want, or if that is what [Stan] wanted,” he says. “We always considered Shang-Chi Asian. Shang-Chi is an ‘Asian hero’ as Barack Obama was a Black President.”
Starlin doesn’t dispute any of this but adds there was a technical reason. “Faces were not my strongest suit,” he says. “[Stan Lee] didn’t like any of the Asian faces I [drew]. That’s how we ended up with Shang-Chi being half-white.” In a self-deprecating tone, he says his drawings “were more offensive than anything.”
Another mandate came directly from Roy Thomas: the inclusion of Fu Manchu, the pulp villain created by Sax Rohmer in 1913. Though he’d be outdated by the end of the century, Fu Manchu still had clout via movies starring Christopher Lee. Englehart says Fu Manchu became Shang-Chi’s evil father to ensure sales for a comic of an unknown genre.
“[Marvel] said there is nothing interesting about kung fu, so we needed a recognized Chinese villain,” he recalls. Englehart and Starlin weren’t thrilled.
“Fu Manchu is problematic,” Englehart says, “He was problematic then and he’s problematic now. But that’s what we did in order to get the book out. Around the second issue, kung fu exploded as a cultural phenomenon.”
“Shang-Chi is an ‘Asian hero’ as Barack Obama was a Black President.”
From Thomas’ perspective, Fu Manchu was payback for Carmine Infantino at DC. “I decided it would be fun to scoop Fu Manchu from Carmine, so he couldn't do a Fu Manchu comic even if he wanted to,” he says. Marvel obtained the rights from Fu Manchu’s copyright owners for $100-$200 per issue.
Thomas also deflects criticisms of Fu Manchu’s inclusion. “Fu Manchu’s stories had some racist elements,” he says, but “I disagree strongly with folks who think having Fu Manchu makes us offenders. Any racism would be in handling the characters, not in characters themselves.”
A few complaints were sent to Marvel; Thomas “ignored them.”
“I knew our intent,” he says. In hindsight, however, “I’d probably have pushed Steve and Jim to make [Marvel villain] Yellow Claw the father, or make up a new character. I had no vested interest in Fu Manchu. Really, it was just a joke.”
Jim Starlin has a more blunt take on Fu Manchu and his novels: “These are the most racist pieces of shit I’ve ever seen.”
Shang-Chi made his first appearance in Special Edition Marvel #15 in 1973. He was a hit. Buoyed by Bruce Lee’s posthumous stardom and the buzz of Kung Fu, Marvel’s fans were keen to kung fu fighting. The book was retitled Master of Kung Fu, and now belonged to Shang-Chi.
Neither Englehart nor Starlin stayed long and left as soon as it took off. Both had their reasons. For Englehart, the comic was not the philosophical story he envisioned. Starlin, meanwhile, was “in love” with Captain Marvel. “Spaceships. That’s what I wanted to do,” he says.
Doug Moench replaced Englehart as writer on Master of Kung Fu #22 and kicked off an epic run with artists like Paul Gulacy, Mike Zeck, and the late Gene Day. Moench’s work has been revered for its noir action and sex appeal, which made it different from the other comics on the spinner rack. Englehart and Starlin counted themselves fans. “The later era was wonderful,” says Englehart. “Jim and I take credit for having created the guy, but Gulacy and the others actually did something with it.”
Records of sales for Master of Kung Fu do not exist, which makes Shang-Chi’s then-popularity hard to show.
But its impact can be measured by what, and whom, it inspired.
Soon came the black-and-white series Deadly Hands of Kung Fu, followed by another martial arts superhero Iron Fist. Even after Master of Kung Fu ended in 1983, similar motifs appeared in other landmark titles, like Frank Miller’s Daredevil.
“That shows you the popularity,” says Slugfest author Reed Tucker. “That’s one of the hallmarks of the comic book industry. Take a trend and beat it to death.”
Meanwhile, Patrick A. Reed, who hosts Comic-Con panels on comics and hip-hop, likens Shang-Chi to the golden age of rap music.
“It’s a series based on sampling,” he says. “You get this tapestry of elements, like celebrity caricatures, monster movies, weird science-fiction, and you have Shang-Chi as the constant voice.” Like the fluid artistry of Rakim, his first-person narration unifies the disparate elements. “There is that voice that underpins it all, and that’s what makes it makes sense.”
“Kung fu exploded as a cultural phenomenon.”
“You can gauge impact by how peers talked about it,” adds Reed. “That concept of a musician’s musician. The Velvet Underground didn’t sell many copies of a record, but everyone who bought a copy started a band.” To his point, today’s stars like Gail Simone (Birds of Prey) and Rob Liefeld (creator of Deadpool) have cited Master of Kung Fu as influences.
In ways both frustrating and poetic, Fu Manchu, the villain meant to boost Shang-Chi’s profile for mainstream audiences, was also the entity who doomed him to obscurity. By 1983, kung fu fever cooled and sales of Shang-Chi comics fell. The costs for the Fu Manchu license made it easy for Marvel — with Jim Shooter now editor-in-chief — to cancel the title with issue #125.
The death knell for Shang-Chi’s obscurity came with the advent of comic book stores. “It was tough to find Master of Kung Fu because they weren’t desirable,” says Reed. “In the ‘90s they were stocking Jim Lee’s X-Men. You might find [Shang-Chi] in the 50-cent bin, if you’re lucky.”
For a long time, only aficionados knew Shang-Chi. He made sporadic appearances in other comics; he trained Spider-Man and briefly joined the Avengers in 2013. But for most people, Shang-Chi was more than obscure. Englehart, Starlin, and Thomas tell Inverse they never heard from Asian readers about Shang-Chi. Asian Americans who spoke to Inverse say they never heard of Shang-Chi. If they did, they were repelled by his stereotypical elements, the repulsive Fu Manchu most of all. Only one said he was a fan.
“A Human We Identify With”
“I never heard of Shang-Chi before I was called by Marvel,” says Shang-Chi screenwriter Dave Callaham, himself half-Chinese. “I am a huge Marvel fan. I walked in [to a meeting] not knowing what to expect.” Callaham was expecting to pitch for Amadeus Cho, the Korean-American Hulk. “Jonathan Schwartz, our producer, said, ‘The character’s name is Shang-Chi, and he is the master of kung fu.’ I said, ‘Oh no.’”
Destin Daniel Cretton, director of Shang-Chi, also tells Inverse he never heard of Shang-Chi before his career. “It came to my attention through this movie. That’s when I started reading the comics from the 1970s to the present, familiarizing myself with the history.”
“I knew there was a Shang-Chi,” says Phil Yu, blogger of Angry Asian Man. “But he wasn’t top tier. Or second or third. I read comics, and he never guest starred in the titles I read. I knew he was the ‘Master of Kung Fu,’ and I was like, ‘That seems silly.’”
This is not to say Shang-Chi never had fans. Josh Tsui, a filmmaker and video game developer (his likeness was used for Liu Kang in Mortal Kombat 4) was a big-time reader. “It meant so much as a Chinese kid to see an Asian superhero in a comic that was serious,” Tsui says. “He wasn't some sidekick. The books had real depth, and the artwork was insanely good.”
Gene Luen Yang, now the shepherd for Shang-Chi in comics, says he initially avoided the character. “I don’t think I read Shang-Chi until I was an adult,” he says. Like many Asian Americans figuring themselves out in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Yang didn’t want to call attention to his identity. That extended to his choice in comics.
“I went through a period where I did not want to be Chinese-American. I felt uncomfortable in my own skin,” Yang says. “To pick up a comic with Shang-Chi would highlight everything that would make me different. I didn’t want to be an Asian kid picking up the ‘Asian’ comic.”
After making his career with titles like DC’s New Super-Man and graphic novels like American Born Chinese, Yang was contacted by Marvel editor Darren Shan in 2019 for a new Shang-Chi series. “[Shan] sent me Master of Kung Fu. A lot of them were rough,” he says. “But there was something there, a core of the character I found interesting.”
“He is someone I might actually know.”
Shang-Chi is still “reserved” like in Master of Kung Fu (a known stereotype of Asian men), but Yang strives to deepen that trait with care. “He has a yearning for goodness he’s worried is superficial,” he says. “He meditates because he wants that goodness inside him.”
The Shang-Chi of the 21st century is an evolution from the one in Master of Kung Fu. Originally a replication of a whitewashed warrior on TV, Shang-Chi has evolved into a fleshed-out hero with his own place in the Marvel Universe.
“He is someone I might actually know,” says Wong. “Gene writes beautifully about language. Seeing Shang-Chi code-switch, speaking in an ancient dialect to modern Cantonese to English, feels very real to me. Feeling like you don’t fit in any of the worlds you are supposed to hop effortlessly between. He brings that to Shang-Chi.”
She adds, “That’s why we’re seeing Shang-Chi evolve now because he is written by people who have a direct connection to him.”
“We make sure he is not a kung fu spectacle you look at,” says Yang, “but a human we identify with.”
This has been the second in a three-part series on Shang-Chi’s rise, fall, and rebirth by Inverse senior staff writer Eric Francisco. Read the other parts of the series. Follow Eric on Twitter at @ericfrancisco24.