Look, I get it. There’s a certain ease to looking up your favorite comics site and seeing what the recommended list of the year is. There’s a certain ease to being able to click on an Amazon link that will take you right to the book you’re looking for, and it will be guaranteed delivered within two days. And hell yes there is merit to supporting creators and publishers whose work is new and growing and selling like hotcakes!
There is also, however, merit in being a persnickety, patient, rifling little gremlin when it comes to holiday shopping for comics – and sometimes that involves finding the things that no one really looks for anymore to begin with, but really should be.
So here we are! Hanukkah starts next week and Christmas kicks off just the weekend after, and you’re looking for some last minute gifts – either for yourself or for friends – and have some time to kill beyond clicking a button and giving your money to billionaire dickweeds: we at the Gutter Review have a gift for you.
Below you will find The Gutter Review Holiday Bin Dive: a compilation of truly wonderful comics – either single-run or collection – that are no longer in print, but are well worth the hunt, the sale towards your local shop, and your time.
“But Chloe,” I can hear you say. “If it’s not in print then how will I find it?”
Funny story: go fucking look for them.
Half of the joy we collect here at the Gutter Review is the year-round gift of giving people a comic that they wouldn’t otherwise, and so we come to offer the great comic book nerd tradition of the comic book hunt: the thrill of spending an afternoon, a day, a week, or years digging through back issue bins searching for that one thing that you need to read. (Because of the nature of the beast, a small few of these comics are available digitally, but in the spirit of The Dive, we ask that you go out and support your local shops and comics sales people instead.)
Enjoy the holidays, enjoy the comics, and keep your mind in the gutter!
[gifted by writer and comics historian Reuben Willmott]
I didn’t buy the influential British comic anthology Warrior at the time of its release, but I sometimes saw it at the newsagents while buying Marvel UK comics which sometimes included work by the same creators.
I was however ready in 1989 when a Warrior mk2 appeared in the form of A1. It was compiled by two people who formerly worked at Quality Communications, Dave Elliott and Garry Leach. Many creators from Warrior contributed to A1 and it was the new home for Alan Moore and Steve Parkhouse’s The Bojeffries Saga. Added to this were choice names from Elliott and Leach’s address book along with many of the young upstarts from fellow British anthology Deadline.
Any of the original seven volumes can be read individually, with only Glenn Fabry’s “Bricktop” being a continuing story, but each episode can be enjoyed in its own right.
There’s an interesting cast of characters that pass through in these pages: Tank Girl, Mr Monster, Mr X, Grendel, Flaming Carrot, Bacchus, Dalgoda, Tor and Jeff Hawke.
Plenty of the comics in these are standalone tales, with each issue containing curiosities like collaborations between Dave Gibbons and Ted McKeever (#1), Peter Milligan and Brett Ewins adapting Frank Kafka (#5), a Neil Gaiman and Kelley Jones strip you may not of seen (also #5) or David Lloyd adapting a Ramsey Campbell short story (um…#5 again).
Sure there’s work that’s been reprinted elsewhere, most notably The Bojeffries Saga, but there’s plenty of strips that haven’t. Things that have inexplicably fallen through the cracks, almost forgotten about. There’s plenty of humour in these books, but some quieter perhaps more personal work is provided by Steve Dillon and Phillip Bond.
There’s a line from A1 #2 which has inexplicably stayed with me for the past 30 odd years, and I say it to myself regularly for no reason and remains a source of amusement: “Shit! Parker pen blowout!!”
In King Pant by Jamie (Gorillaz) Hewlett and Phillip (Geezer) Bond, geeky Marvin manages to accidentally kill his favourite band, Pant, with the Parker pen he carries while autograph hunting.Ah, I seem to have spoiled the story for you. Just as well A1 is a quality anthology with plenty of other delights to (re)discover.
Acclaim Comics (Valiant)
[gifted by “The Once and Future Queen” and “The Airless Year” writer Adam Knave]
I remember when I first walked into a comic shop and saw PunX on the racks. Obvious Giffen art (his name on the cover helped, too, of course) and the Valiant logo in the upper right corner. A Valiant book by Giffen? Sold!
Written and drawn by Keith Giffen (inked by Claude Staubin, colored by Lovern Kindzierski, lettered by Jade Moede, and edited by Jesse Berdinka) I knew PunX would be a long-running series full of classic Giffen structure, humor, and style. It’d catch fire in the industry and do really interesting things.
It lasted three issues and an inexplicable special.
They’re four issues that people need to see, though. Taking place in “Acclimation, OR” PunX sort of has a plot about Harada wanting to use Acclimation (which we’re told in a hysterical sequence at the start of the book is a special special place) to grab super-powered people.
Except it doesn’t really get there. It doesn’t get close. The bad guys have a plot to follow, sort of, as mentioned. The lead characters, including people like Cram, and Aztlan, just sort of float through the story, doing nothing much at all. This is a book that declares “Next Issue they use their powers – honest!” and in no way means it.
Someone is told to “give a message” to another char. That person then hands the word balloon off to the char in question as a way of delivering said message. A fight scene becomes a multi-page Understanding Comics sequence, complete with tiny Scott McCloud. At one point the book becomes ” Bernard Chang’s Bad Babes With Butts to Die For” for a while.
You read PunX because it has a vibe that only Giffen can really bring. It’s indulgent, it mocks Valiant openly (including one of the meanest, funniest fake house ads ever), and it leads you down a path that never seems to get anywhere. The scenery is fantastic though, and the walk is worth-while, even if you’re never sure why you went in the first place.
The special, which came out months after issue three, and after the book was cancelled, Is the “Manga Special” (drawn by Kevin Lau) and exists to make fun of Godzilla, and Ultraman, briefly, while being just as aimless and strange, and honestly funny, as everything else PunX did in its short life.
In the 26 years since the last PunX material came out – I still tell people about it. I still ask people to go read it, because it isn’t quite anything else out there and is a must grab for any Giffen fans.
#3. The Luck in The Head
John Harrison and Ian Miller
[gifted by Dark and Golden co-founder Douglas Noble]
If the short-lived VG Graphics are remembered for anything, it’s either for Alan Moore and Oscar Zarate’s A Small Killing, or Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean’s duo of collaborations, Signal to Noise and Mr Punch. However, hidden in the short list of other titles that they put out, there is a one work, excessive and cryptic, that is worth seeking out.
The Luck in the Head is a comic adaptation of M. John Harrison’s short story of the same name, brought to the page by Ian Miller, an artist of such unfathomable talent that each page seems to vibrate with the intensity of the drawing. In the book a poet dreams of his childhood, and a peculiar ceremony in which the women of his village chase a lamb to bake its head into a pie, which is considered lucky. With a poet’s logic, he seeks to understand the dream by wandering out into the city, looking for connections, for insights, for the faces that haunt his sleep. As with all of Harrison’s work, the story is elusive, its conclusions unclear – but it sticks with you, the images come creeping back into your head when you least expect them.
Miller, of course, is the main draw here. Vicious slashes of ink sit side by side with intricate spiderweb lattices of impossible machines and mordant, sad faced soldiers. A woman in a fish-head mask stalks a blasted cityscape, a paradoxical mix of the medieval and tomorrow. Distressed photocopies instead of faces, detail gives way to the crudity of a scrawled line. It’s overwhelming. Miller is not nearly well enough known – his few works of comics are all out of print (Green Dog, Trumpet, The City, this) and even the monograph of his illustration work that Titan published is impossible to get hold of.
It’s worth searching for though. Go out into the city and search.
#4. Gumby’s Winter Fun Special #1
Steve Purcell and Art Adams
[gifted by critic and author of “The Lawman” Tom Shapira]
If you read this site I probably shouldn’t need to tell you who Art Adams is. Adams is, after all, one the most recognizable and influential artists in the field of superhero stories, his ornate and heavily kinetic style seemed like the step forward after the likes of Golden and Simonson. All of that without having a singular long run with which he’s identified.
Adams would pop on a title, blow your mind for a few issues, and then disappear. Which kinda makes looking for a defining ‘Art Adams story’ a bit of a problem. But then one remembers the simplest answer – Gumby!
In the 1980’s the comics licensee for the green clay creation was in the hands of Comico, one these proto-Image comics that sought to revitalize the comics market and was (sadly) not long for this world. Comico released just two issues with the 1987 Summer Fun Special and the 1988 Winter Fun Special. The Winter Fun Special is a done-in-one story drawn entirely by Art Adams (written by Steve Purcell). It’s… a bit over the top. The story starts with a cave in at the ‘toy mine’ and Gumby and his Horse Pokey decides to help with their digging machine… which takes them into underground colony of Mole People… and then further down into an amusement park… which is also hell… in which a very special (ho ho ho) prisoner is being held.
A lot happens in these 40 odd pages. How surprised would be by the existence of a Gumby Mecha? Or a Godzilla cameo? Or a cookout? At least one of these things happens in this issue. It sounds like, and it certainly could be, annoying as fuck. One of these modern ‘aren’t we craaayyyyzzzy’ gag fests that treats its own existence as a punchline. But no, the reason this whole thing works is because it is played as straight as possible, not a a single eyebrow is raised. Gumby is a just nice guy/person/toy thing that wants to help people and encounters all sorts of strange things. Adams certainly doesn’t draw it as a throw away, there are a couple of double-page spreads that almost made my eyes pop-out. The sort of organized chaos that today became the hallmark of Geoff Darrow can be seen here. I’m shocked his hand didn’t fall off.
Is the Gumby Winter Fun Special going to make your life better? Dunno.
Is it going to make your life more fun while you read it? Certainly!
#5. EXIT: Under the Sun
[gifted by writer Robin Dabrowski-Haverty]
Exit is a two-volume comic series by British creator Nabiel Kanan, it’s a crime drama-cum-coming-of-age story set in early 90s Murton, Durham (presumably around where Kanan grew-up). To quote the synopsis: “school’s out forever and there’s a new world lying in wait for Karl and his friends [Karl being the closest the series has to a main character].” The plot of the first series revolves around the disappearance of a classmate, Roger, eighteen months before their A-levels and the subsequent search for him. It was self-published by Kanan under the label of Taxi Comics and lasted eight issues from 1992 to 1994.
Kanan’s knack for depicting real, sharply observed, body language is one of his greatest strengths as an artist. There’s tons of little nuances of behavior that I’ve never seen depicted in the comics medium–or any medium for that matter–but that I’ve encountered over and over in real life. Running parallel to the kinesics of the comic is Kanan’s skill as a dialogue writer – lyrical, idiosyncratic and endlessly witty.
Formally he’s no slouch either–though he makes frequent use of rhythmic, clockwork grids and other more conventional page layouts –making great use of a comics technique where multiple of the same figure appear across a static background: the De Luca Effect (after Italian comics’ genius and pioneer of the device Gianni De Luca). Kanan also makes use of negative space, whether it be entire splash pages drenched in ink save for a lone, isolated figure, or pages with missing panels to signify a lull or nuance in pace.
The inclusion of some pre-Exit short stories called Accidents in a few of the issues only further highlights his growth. The art is delicate and minimal – beautifully sparse mark-making; dutifully hatched, backgrounds impressionistic, houses rendered with a few well-placed brush strokes. Artistically, his lineage is hard to trace, but his comics definitely bear resemblance to his contemporaries of the 90s British Alt-comics scene (Phil Elliot, Paul Grist, D’Israeli, et al), while also having something of Dave Sim and Gerhard’s Cerebus too.
If any of this sounds like your thing, you’ll be pleased to know that the easier to find second series can be read in isolation from the first, but I recommend reading the self-published run first. To do that it might be easier to read the first series via its serialization in the legendary magazine Deadline, specifically in issues 62 through 69. Two short stories were also published, one in Deadline 61, another in Negative Burn 12. Overall It’s 14 issues and 2 short stories of some of my favorite comics ever, which I offer with the highest possible recommendation.
#6. Video Jack
By Keith Giffen and Cary Bates
[gifted by Popverse staff writer Graeme McMillan]
The lure of the back issue bin isn’t just the promise (always present, never fulfilled) of finally finding that one remaining issue that completes your collection after literal years of searching — Captain Victory and the Galactic Rangers #11, you will be mine one day, I swear — but the possibility of uncovering a new favorite comic that you’d previously barely heard of trapped between the mylar-clad copies of American Flagg and The Bozz Chronicles or whatever. There’s something genuinely thrilling about finding something weird, wonderful and truly obscure with no foresight or forewarning, especially when it leaves you obsessed in its wake.
All of this is preamble to say that, should you have the good fortune to find Keith Giffen and Cary Bates’ Video Jack in a longbox somewhere, you should most definitely pick it up.
Video Jack is a period piece, when read today — something that was intended to be very much of the moment and so-hot-so-now-it’s-cool back when it was published in 1987, which has aged almost hilariously poorly in retrospect: a combination of the supernatural and cable television transforms a small town into an altered reality where TV has replaced the laws of physics, and the only guy who can save the day is a nerd who spent too much time watching the boob tube before all of this.
It’s filled with pop culture references that are even more obscure today than when first published, and it’s drawn in that mid-80s Giffen style that’s part-Watchmen layouts and part-José Muñoz rip-off rendering that’s utterly irresistible to anyone who grew up reading Ambush Bug. It’s more than a little obnoxious and nonsensical, but it’s also entirely its own thing and that’s a wonder to behold in all its breathless glory. There’s never been another comic like it in the 35 years since; I’m still wondering if that’s a good or bad thing.
#7. Silver Surfer: The Ultimate Cosmic Experience
By Jack Kirby and Stan Lee
Simon and Schuster
[gifted by Best of 2000 AD editor Owen Michael Johnson]
I considered myself a middling KirbyHead, of great passion if not encyclopedic knowledge, when I received a second hand copy of this short graphic novel one Christmas from impeccable gift giver and Rebellion graphic novel editor Oliver Pickles.
Sporting a cover painted by Earl Norem over Jack Kirby pencils, I’ve since found The Silver Surfer: The Ultimate Cosmic Experience to be under-represented in discussion of The King’s late-stage period despite being billed – somewhat astonishingly – as the first original graphic novel starring Marvel Comics characters.
One of the final collaborations between Lee and Kirby, what seems for the former opportunity for a glorified film pitch complete with romantic lead modelled on courted star Olivia Newton John, for Kirby it appears to present two opportunities; to fill the page quota on his expiring Marvel contract before exiting into animation, and the chance to recapture the flag on a fondly-created character re-assigned to much resentment by Marvel.
Side-stepping the origin story Lee and John Buscema laid out in Silver Surfer #1, the book chooses to reframe the conflict between planet-consuming Galactus and the Surfer’s banishment to Earth familiar to many from the classic first appearance (Fantastic Four issues 48-50).
This time, in a reality devoid of Marvel’s first family, we’re concerned with all the Wagnerian lung-bellowing and global disaster we’ve come to expect from Kirby (this bombast honed to perfection by a career spent accruing rage towards Nazis, his co-creator, the company who’s reputation he built) and the Surfer’s courtship of Ardina, the star-forged woman intended to break his spirit.
Here, the book shows a surprising tenderness seldom attributed to the artist (assisted by Joe Sinnott and Glynis Wein on pin-sharp inks and colors respectively). The pages in which The Surfer (denied affection or rest for eons) and Ardina acrobatically dance into love are rendered with ecstatic grace, ending in the two reclining on alien grass high above the world. Ardina’s fingertips work to smooth out the Surfer’s frown, crumpled by centuries of existential angst. When the inevitable heartbreak comes, it is all the more operatic because Kirby has illuminated these moments with a quiet poetry and a soulful commitment for so undeserving an assignment, one falling at the sunset of his comics career.
#8. DR FATE
By J.M. DeMatteis and Keith Giffen
[gifted by “Secret Identity” author Alex Segura]
Few writers know how to get into the psyche of their protagonists better than DeMatteis, who has written almost every major Marvel and DC hero, along with meaningful creator-owned works. His work on the post-Crisis on Infinite Earths Doctor Fate mini-series in the 80s paired him with Giffen, who he’d also collaborated on the seminal Justice League International run.
Fate, though, is quite different from the “bwahahaha” of Justice League International, and in fact feels more akin to proto-Vertigo books like Morrison’s Animal Man and Moore’s Swamp Thing – both serve as deconstructions of their iconic heroes while also pushing them forward, and DeMatteis – assisted by some of Giffen’s best art ever – follows suit, crafting a new hero(es) to take on the mantle of Fate, while completely reworking how we see their predecessor did the job. It’s a trippy, thoughtful, but character-driven tale that doesn’t skimp on action, and presents DC’s magical characters and concepts in a grounded but equally mysterious way. If you ever wanted to hand someone a stack of issues to show them why Fate is cool, you could do much worse than this mini-series, which set the table for a long, healthy run written by DeMatteis.
9. The Muppets
by Roger Langridge
[gifted by Shelfdust editor-in-chief Steve Morris]
To my mind, Roger Langridge is the best cartoonist working in comics today. The crucial thing about his work which separates him out from all the other cartoonists who more often get awarded that title? He’s actually funny. From Fred the Clown through to Snarked, Langridge has the deftest of hands when it comes to humour, perfectly syncing his distinct scripting against uniquely satisfying artistic sequencing.
Giving him The Muppets was a fantastic idea for that exact reason: you basically put a group of vaudeville icons in his hands to play with however he wished, and his run writing various Muppet comics was purely funny in a way I don’t think we’d seen since Jim Henson himself passed away. Langridge understood the heartfelt nature of the characters without sacrificing that sense of joy which pervades the best Muppets work. Good luck tracking those comics down without a long hunt, though.
by Marc Hempel
[gifted by The Gutter Review editor Chloe Maveal]
In a period where comics are largely driven by drama and action and a pointed need for…well, a point, Marc Hempel’s Gregory stands alone as a wonderfully depressing, utterly precious, and delightfully low-brow laugh. While those things might seem completely confliction in theory, you have to understand that – for all intents and purposes – the eponymously named Gregory is a little crazy guy of indeterminate age bound in a straightjacket and locked in a mental facility, where his best friends are a surly rat, the occasional cockroach, and his own gleeful noises (as he is not quite bright or sane enough to talk, you see.) But that does not deter Gregory from having a lovely time in the comfort of his padded cell and pee-stained straightjacket.
You’re often so busy admiring Gregory’s cries of “Zub!” and “ACK” that you forget that what’s being drawn in Hempel’s scratchy, busy style is actually incredibly grim, and that’s at least half of what makes Gregory work so well. In many ways –for those of who you were grew up in the 1990s and 2000s – Gregory acts as a proto-Jhonen Vazques work, and something that does like “lol so random” trope in a way that is less insufferably self-conscious and more the delightful ramblings of a cartoonist having fun with a tiny madman. While there are four collections of Gregory – -each very well worth your time and monies – the first collection is arguably one of the most perfect pieces of contained comic book comedy I’ve come across, and I can’t recommend it more. Zub zub.
11. Human Fly #2
By Bill Mantlo, Carmine Infantino, and Dan Green
[gifted by Wait What? co-host Jeff Lester]
At the time Human Fly was published, only comics continually muddied the waters between “priceless” and “worthless.” Just about everything else knew its place, and that place was the trash. A thing’s true value was measured in how easy it was to consume, as the true joy of the day lay in how recklessly and quickly we could consume everything. If we had a litter problem in the ‘70s, it was in part because everything looks like trash when you’re a trash can.
But comics, everyone had learned, were collectible. And one day, they’d be worth something, especially the first issue! By ‘77, however, publishers of superhero comics realized the second issue had far less value than the first so hardly anyone would buy it, thus damaging the perception of any present and future worth. To disguise this—to play out the grift a little longer—a special guest star would pop up in the second issue, their prominent positioning on the cover crucial, and if all worked out, the second issue drop would be less severe. The book might even be on its way to becoming successful, and the early issues, as promised, priceless.
I don’t know why the second issue of The Human Fly got Ghost Rider, instead of standard go-to Spider-Man or ever-popular second choice The Hulk, but I’m so glad it did. Although a professional stunt performer like The Human Fly, Ghost Rider rarely got up to much of it in his own book due to essential space eaten up by satanic whingeing. Here, however, writer Bill Mantlo cheerily rips off every single episode of Speed Racer and puts the two characters in a deathtrap filled cross-country race (for charity, of course).
Carmine Infantino’s art is speedy and dynamic (unsurprising) while inker Dan Green takes the biting-on-glass edge off Infantino’s angular art while also smartly finding areas to lay down blacks and give things a bit of depth. And the uncredited colorist also pitches in, giving the desert pages a white and yellow palette with an edge of salmon to make things the setting feel open, flat, and hot.
Is it priceless? Reader, it’s worthless.
Will you find it valuable? I worry you will not.
But to me, it’s still everything a twelve year old would want in a comic starring a sub-par Mister Miracle and a kick-ass van painting embodying some comic book proof of the Peter Principle. It’s a treasured memory of a point in time when all the odd obsessions of an era coalesced into a perfect expression of that era. Forty-five years later, when I start to dig into a quarter bin, this is the book I hope to see staring back.
12. Four Horsemen
By Robert Rodi and Essad Ribic
[gifted by writer and comics letterer Aditya Bidikar]
So, four horsemen walk into a bar. War, Famine, Plague, Death – you know the deal. It’s midnight on December 31, 1999, and the four riders of the apocalypse arrive in Times Square to find themselves in the middle of an end-of-days rock concert. The millennium hits and New York descends into chaos, while the horsemen retire to a pub to contemplate how to proceed in a world that desires obliteration. The story weaves in and out of several characters’ heads, all of them dealing with life in America, but keeps returning to the four harbingers as they struggle with their diminishing roles in bringing Armageddon to a nihilistic populace. Published as a part of Vertigo’s millennial V2K popup event (V2K. Y2K. Get it? You’re probably too young for that to be cool. Sigh.),
Four Horsemen is a bit of an odd duck. A four-issue mini-series written by Robert Rodi as his first long-form comic after a decade-long career as a comedy novelist, and drawn by now-superstar artist Esad Ribić, who was still making his bones alongside several other Croatian artists that DC was working with at the time, Four Horsemen fell between Vertigo’s two boom periods in the ’90s and the mid-2000s, and turned many of the excesses of the imprint to its advantage. Like many Vertigo comics, it is instantly dated – but this time, happily, on purpose. It’s about a specific moment in time, but the feeling of malaise in this comic seems prescient looking back through the eschatological tunnel of the last couple of decades.
Like many comics Vertigo was publishing that can be charitably called ideas looking for audiences, Four Horsemen isn’t clearly for anyone, but I enjoy the idea of an editor commissioning it just because they wanted to read it. It has the smack of glib political commentary that much of Vertigo had, but this time, it’s coming from a gay American instead of a middle-class Brit of ambiguous sexuality, which renders some of its attempts at edginess more endearing.
It might seem like I’m damning it with faint praise, but I’m simply providing some riders. Glibness aside, there are observations here on the culture wars, corporate greed, misinformation and gun violence that are downright eerie, and Rodi filters these through some deft character work. Structurally, the comic is just people talking in a bar, but it also deploys colour and voiceover to get a lot of mileage out of flashbacks. As much as the writing is neat, though, Ribić is, to me at least, clearly the heavy lifter of this enterprise. For one, it would’ve been easy for this book to just be talking heads, but the art is restless and energetic in its staging, even when we’re looking at people just sitting down.
Apart from providing painted covers that echo both Frazetta and ’90s album art, Ribić uses ink for the interiors – a rarity for him – and pushes for an impressionistic quality in key moments, and also lets loose with epic imagery when the story needs it. It’s still recognisably him, if you know Ribić from his more bombastic work, but this feels punkier, with a lot of inspiration from the work the Image founders did for Marvel. Just as important is Ribić’s work with James Sinclair and Jamison on the colours. Ribić is known for his close collaborations with his colourists, often providing tones for them to work off of.
I don’t know if ideas were exchanged here, but the colouring is integral to the storytelling, taking us from flashbacks to the present, covering multiple scenes clearly, while never feeling it’s doing something just to show off. One of my favourite things about this book is the way they often eschew black for shadows and use unsettlingly light colours to render them, which reminds me of Jim Lee’s style experiment in his Flinch story from the previous year. I wish Ribić had done more work in this mode, but I have a feeling it might have resulted from the need to cede control as a young artist and having to simplify in order to hit deadlines, not limitations he needs to bow to anymore.
I acquired the single issues of this book when a friend sold me a box of his old floppies, and I still vividly remember the jolt I got from reading this. At 19, the story bowled me over – this was modern, political, edgy horror, and yet it lacked the sneer I sometimes found in other comics. And it felt like something I could eventually make, which is in its own way as inspiring as reading a masterpiece. The artwork, which I find more impressive now than I did back then, had this pervading sense of anger and aggression, not just in its characters, but in the lines themselves. It felt like heavy metal music that had chosen dignity and somehow made it work. I’m very fond of the writing, but if not for that, then for the art at least, it’s a minor crime that Four Horsemen isn’t still in print.
13. The Hands of Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu Omnibus
[gifted by Ghost Show Press pitboss Professor Christopher McGlothlin]
Bruce Lee is one of the coolest humans ever, a fundamental truth still reverberating across media. Among its most intriguing echoes is Marvel’s The Hands of Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu (1973-83), a uniquely engaging study in how broader culture embraces and changes a narrative.
Simple as “Marvel Clones Bruce Lee to Make Enter the Dragon Sequels” sounds, Shang-Chi consistently lives up to that premise’s considerable action fun. Longtime writer Doug Moench fully grasped Lee’s tremendous onscreen appeal as the peace-seeking philosopher invariably required to kick every ass in sight, and successfully translated it to printed form with an amazing succession of artists –– Paul Gulacy, Mike Zeck, Gene Day. Their skill and willingness to break rigid panel rules make the fight sequences truly jump off the page.
The book began with some baffling editorial mandates. Shang-Chi was required to be the partly Caucasian son of Fu Manchu (“You know what kids today dig? Old racist pulps!”), and Asian characters were depicted with regrettable coloring choices. Though such cringey bits still flew back in 1973, co-creator Jim Starlin quit because of them. Moench then took over the book and acknowledged in lettercols how problematic these elements are. In time, he overcame them by deepening the characters and scripting their relationships in a mature, realistic fashion (Fu Manchu included).
Moench also embraced his own idiosyncrasies. W.C. Fields, Groucho Marx, and Casablanca’s Rick Blaine wander into stories inspired by Steely Dan and Marlene Dietrich, while Shang-Chi acquires a deep love for Fleetwood Mac. Shang-Chi becomes so uniquely Moench the three issues done after his departure end with as clear a “Throw Hands in the Air & Give Up” as we’re ever likely to see from a major publisher.
Disney clearly has no interest in this iteration of Shang-Chi or paying the Sax Rohmer estate more royalties, and withdrew the original series from print and digital availability. More’s the pity, as it remains a unique and quality work that’s a master class in how creators can Do Better.
Resist the Mouse. Grab up the individual issues and Omnibus editions –– the only way to get the complete run –– while you can.