THIS REVIEW OF ‘SHANG-CHI’ #1 CONTAINS SPOILERS.
by Clyde Hall. Reforging the world with the vision of an immortal sorcerer-cult leader requires centuries, unending conflict between followers and enemies, and bitter family drama. Siblings grapple for position, sons oppose fathers, and when you’re Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu, such discord always involves three-section staffs and swords of various length. In the almost half-century history of the character, Marvel has used each of these elements in Shang-Chi’s rise as an honorable philosopher-warrior. Misled by his villainous father, he became a learned killing machine, then campaigned long against the despotic Zheng Zu on discovering his patriarch’s true nature.
These components are again in play for the first issue of the Gene Luen Yang written, Philip Tan & Dike Ruan illustrated first issue of Shang-Chi but we begin circa 1750, during Zheng Zu’s formative steps to power. He and his younger brother, Zheng Yi, are mages protecting China with the help of five martial Houses. Zheng Zu, ambitious and more callous than his sibling, outlives the others and begins an immortal march to world domination.
Today, that march is ended and Zheng Zu’s son, Shang-Chi, former Avenger and agent for MI-6, immerses himself in a peaceful and mundane life, a normalcy his exotic past never allowed. A friend from Shang-Chi’s espionage days arrives with word of rumblings in the organization his father once led. A new commander has risen; teams of assassins have been tasked with erasing any possible heirs to the throne. Battle naturally ensues and there’s a mic drop moment when Shang-Chi determines who has claimed leadership of the Five Weapons Society.
Yang’s work on New Super-Man, and New Super-Man and the Justice League of China delivered a delightfully diverse and inventive chapter to DC’s Super-Family. His Superman Smashes the Klan, where young Asian American protagonists and Superman gain strength in their shared role as “outsiders” created one of the best reads of 2020.
It’s why I expected something different yet kindred for a new Shang-Chi mini-series. In perspective, Shang-Chi has suffered “secondary-character” syndrome wherein regular appearances are scarce and often supportive. Either his origin struggle, being the heroic son set against the scheming blackguard father Fu Manchu (later changed to Zheng Zu when Marvel no longer held the Sax Rohmer rights) continued in a renewed xiangqi match. Or he was included in the storyline as a gateway by which the primary heroes oppose Zu’s plans.
With Zheng Zu finally destroyed (in a decade-old Secret Avengers tale), Shang-Chi might finally outgrow his defining conflict, embarking on a new phase. Yang didn’t do that, but his may be the wiser approach. Given next year’s cinematic debut of Shang-Chi, an entirely new direction might alienate future readers if they recognize little in common with the movie version.
Thus, Yang kept much of the staple Shang-Chi background but divides the story between the beginning of Zu’s organization and the modern day. A few past characters take part, one especially amusing, while Yang mainlines several new players into the plot. Old conflicts gain fresh focus resonating from Evil Dad’s demise. Spotlights for the supporting cast are narrow, playing on Yang’s strength for impactful personality sketches. In the manner of all good initial issues, he makes us want more of everything: expansion on new characters, renewed relationships with older ones, and the discovery of how the late, unlamented Zheng Zu yet manipulates his rebellious son.
The illusion cast by artists Philip Tan on flashbacks and Dike Ruan on the contemporary story is extremely effective. Their complimentary styles, fused very intentionally, present a material, consistent world filtered by the passage of time. China’s Tianjin Prefecture stands in the same reality as San Francisco’s Chinatown, separation by continents and centuries subtly achieved with respective polish. Sebastian Cheng’s colors play beautifully into the process, his flashback scenes tinted as open-air expanses, his modern era swept with darker interior tones.
Lettering is by VC’s Travis Lanham. He’s one of the letterers you hope for when checking credit pages; he’s that good, and he’s that good once more here. His font economy combined with caption placement emphasizes his expertise. Lanham’s in top form, sweeping us smoothly panel to panel without obscuring expressions or details.
Not what I’d anticipated, this launch, yet Yang’s storytelling prowess persuaded and added nuance to the best elements of Shang-Chi’s background. He’s crafted Chinese cultural elements around the original Shang-Chi touchstone of father-son conflict as his foundation. Using Kung Fu weaponry as mainstays of each House, Yang even manages a nod to the character’s past: Shang-Chi is the ‘Deadly Hand’ as other masters are the Deadly Hammer, the Deadly Staff, etc.
Yang, Tan, and Ruan know their protagonist’s past, the path they’ve placed him on, and have a shared vision for expanding his family’s origin alongside Shang-Chi’s future. Their handling and timing will help the Master of Kung Fu finally take his rightful position as a primary Marvel hero.
Marvel / $3.99
Written by Gene Luen Yang.
Art by Philip Tan and Dike Ruan.
Colors by Sebastian Cheng.
Letters by VC’s Travis Lanham.
8 out of 10
Check out this 3-page preview of ‘Shang-Chi’ #1 (of) 5, courtesy of Marvel!