Working Through the (Back) Issues:
It’s 2021 and after two long years, the MCU is back! Once the initial excitement wore off, it became real clear that the post-Endgame world of Phase 4 is setting up to be a different place. After a decade plus of primarily focusing on Iron Man, Captain America and other relatively recognizable names, Marvel Studios is starting to pull out the deep cuts. Like deeper than the Guardians of the Galaxy deep. If you’re anything like me you probably have some pressing questions like “What even is an Eternal?”
For the first time since this all started in 2008, I can’t fall back on what I remember from reading comics up through my early 20s. So I’m taking the plunge and diving into the back catalogs of all the characters in the new slate of movies–and like every other asshole on the internet, I’m going to write down my unsolicited opinions for all to see. Or at least for you to see.
Last time we discussed Shang-Chi’s weird origins as the surprisingly awesome outcome of Marvel’s real weird decision to license Fu Manchu. This time we’ll see the character take another left turn as our solemn, lone martial artsman becomes a team player(?). If you’re reading this I’m assuming you contributed to the movie’s monster box office (as of this writing $422 million worldwide, during COVID!) but if not, I’m about to spoil a bunch of it, including the mid-credits scene.
So SPOILER ALERT for the rest of the intro until the series reviews start.
In Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings the one thing they absolutely nailed about the character’s initial run is his separation from the rest of the Marvel Universe. There was no Nick Fury, no Avengers and barely any mention of the previous movies aside from a few references to the events of Endgame and a speech (and comic relief character) that finally officially retcons a certain terrible creative decision from Iron Man 3. You know the one. Anyway the mid-credits scene sees Shang-Chi and Katy speaking to Captain Marvel and The Hulk by way of Wong magic, setting up Shang-Chi’s integration into the larger MCU (and the presumably new group of Avengers that will eventually take on Kang the Conqueror). If this is indeed what they’re doing, it almost perfectly mirrors the classic and modern halves of Shang-Chi’s comic history. He spent the first part mostly on his own with his own cast of characters, and here in the modern era he spends his time mostly as the other heroes’ cool kung-fu friend that they draft to their team. He does technically have a solo series in 2002 with the 6 issue MAX miniseries by the classic team of Doug Moench and Paul Gulacy but it doesn’t seem to be legitimately available anywhere (MAX titles unfortunately don’t appear on Marvel Unlimited. Thanks Disney) so I can’t speak to its relevance to the mainline comics. Aside from that he’s all team-ups all the time until Spider-Island: Deadly Hands of Kung-Fu in 2011, which even then is kind of a team-up but at least it’s his team-up. Drink every time I say “team-up.”
Even after that he becomes a member of the Avengers and eventually the Protectors, who then officially become Agents of Atlas. That’s five separate teams (and I’m not even counting the various splinter groups of Avengers)! So in other words the once self-contained Master of Kung-Fu is now spread out all over the Marvel Universe. Because of the sheer volume of different series he appears in starting from the the Marvel Knights era, I’m changing up formats from last time and giving mini-reviews of everything I read and whether it’s essential reading or not.
Marvel Knights #1-15 (Skippable)
What a weird series. After Joe Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti helped pull Marvel back from the brink of bankruptcy with their Marvel Knights imprint, it makes perfect sense that Marvel would capitalize with a team up book featuring many of the newly repopularized street level characters. But you know what makes exactly zero sense? Taking said street-level characters and putting them up against Avengers level paranormal threats. I love me some Daredevil, Black Widow and Punisher but good god do I not care about them taking on Ulik and Nightmare (okay Nightmare kind of gets a pass because at least they brought in Dr. Strange). The writers seem to agree with me as from the first issue the dialogue brings up how out of their element everyone is here and after 15 issues the team disbands because they realize they aren’t on the level to fight these kinds of threats.
See? Even Punisher agrees with me.
The only reason to read this as part of a Shang-Chi read through is that Fu Manchu’s resurgence and pursuit of Shang-Chi gets a surprising amount of narrative real estate. Though, because of the rights issues I brought up last time, we never actually get Fu Manchu’s name nor do we even see a clear shot of his face. Instead the vast majority of that arc is handled by his henchman, Zaran with Fu mostly lurking in the shadows. It also just kind of ends on a down note, with Shang-Chi getting set to go back out on his own again. I assume this leads into the MAX mini series but as I mentioned above, I couldn’t find that thing anywhere. So we don’t see our guy again until:
Heroes for Hire (2006) #1-15 (Skippable)
A few years later and another weird team up for Shang-Chi. Weird because at times this book seems like the closest an ostensibly all ages comic can get to rule34 territory. I almost feel like the creative team was trying to parody the sexualization of women in comics by overloading on it because some of this shit is just so gratuitous.
Misty Knight has nipple arrows for chrissakes!
The premise here is that the Daughters of the Dragon have reactivated Heroes for Hire to work for the pro-registration side during the superhero Civil War. They add Black Cat and Tarantula plus also Shang-Chi and Humbug. So yeah it’s weird because you have a pubescent fanboy’s wet dream of a women’s team, plus also kick ass martial arts dude and a weird creepy incel. There’s no real meaningful addition to Shang-Chi’s mythos here, he’s pretty much there to be stoic and kick ass. They do try to spice things up with a romance between him and Tarantula but all that does is make him go full Bruce Banner, rejecting her because apparently having human feelings turns him into a violent murderer. We do get to see this in action a few times, including one particularly brutal fight scene in issue #8, but outside of that there’s not a ton here if all you’re interested in is Shang-Chi. (There IS plenty here if you just want to stare at buxom comic women and don’t know how to use a search engine though).
Secret Avengers #6-10 (Essential)
Finally, a Shang-Chi book that significantly adds to his lore! This is the book where Marvel finally decided to set in stone how it would address Fu Manchu going forward. In one of the most hilariously to the point retcons I’ve seen in comics, Beast tells Shang-Chi they found out his dad’s real name and unshackles him from the copyright issues of Fu Manchu in the span of a single panel. Despite Fu Manchu Zheng Zu’s promise in issue #6 that it will be terrible, this arc is pretty good. We get Shang-Chi’s final, in canon, battle with his dad (for now anyway), a sparring scene with Steve Rogers that will legit make you mad that the two will never meet in the MCU, zombie Fu Manchu Zheng Zu, and just a whole bunch of good Ed Brubaker action/espionage storytelling. Also interesting is that they introduce the concept that Zheng Zu had a brother here, which won’t pay off until a decade later.
It legitimately upsets me that we’ll never get this on screen (At least until the inevitable reboot)
Spider-Island: Deadly Hands of Kung Fu #1-3 (Read it)
What’s this? A titular series for our intrepid kung-fuist in the modern era? Sure it’s connected to an event (which usually screams cash-in) and sure it’s kind of still a team up book but this one rules. The premise sees ol’ Shang being infected with Spider-Man’s powers (along with everyone else in Manhattan) and slowly turning into a spider while teaming up with Iron Fist and other martial arts characters to take on the badass looking spider-centaur villain Ai Apaec. I know all that sounds awesome already but what really owns about this series is that in most of the fights, every move gets a kickass name in the captions.
There’s three issues worth of this and it rules.
This book is also important because it, combined with the above Secret Avengers arc, really marks a turning point in Marvel’s attitude towards Shang-Chi and leads to him being more of a featured character. There’s a real good write up at the end of the first issue from editor Alejandro Arbona that maps out how big of a fan of the character he is. By the letters page at the end of issue 3 it’s clear the fans agree and are clamoring for more. From here he officially joins the Avengers for a bit before getting a new solo mini series a couple years down the road. It’s a bit of a stretch but in all probability, without this series giving him the spotlight and kicking things off, we might still be waiting on that Shang-Chi movie.
Deadly Hands of Kung-Fu (2014) #1-4 (Essential)
Here it is. This is what the last decade or so worth of Shang-Chi-featuring comics I read was missing. This is the first time he seems to be back in his old 70s kung-fu spy stomping grounds. Also this one makes me into an idiot for telling you you could skip Special Marvel Edition #16 in my last article. Deadly Hands of Kung-Fu is a love letter to the old Master of Kung-Fu stories and brings back all the old favorites (that Marvel still had the rights to) Black Jack Tarr! Leiko Wu! Skull Crusher! Razor freaking fist!
Shang-Chi hears his ex-beloved Leiko Wu has been killed by the nefarious White Dragon (a human, not the white dragon from the movie who is in fact a dragon). He heads to London’s Chinatown to investigate and finds himself navigating the Triad underworld before uncovering a sinister supernatural plot by another returning character to gain his father’s old power. And of course all sorts of awesome kung fu hijinks ensue. I’m being purposefully vague so you can read this unspoiled and enjoy it as much as I did so get to it.
Look at this glorious pulpy cover art!
Master of Kung-Fu (2015) #1-4 (Read It)
With the exception of the last book on this list, this is the one that’s probably most connected to the MCU Shang-Chi, which is funny because it’s technically out of continuity. See this whole series takes place during 2015’s Secret Wars event where the multiverse converged on itself, creating all sorts of wacky alternate continuities on the appropriately named Battleworld. In this one, Shang-Chi’s dad is the leader of the Ten Rings and Shang’s the outcast son who went into hiding after killing one of his father’s rivals. That’s where the similarities to the movie end because his dad here is a total dick without a sympathetic bone in his body. He straight up kills people for perceived weaknesses and rules over the land with an iron fist…literally because he rules K’un Lun and his sheriff is Iron Fist himself, Danny Rand.
Shang-Chi returns to challenge his father’s rule by besting him in the 13 Chambers, a kung-fu tournament held every thirteen years where the winner takes over the realm of K’un Lun.. What this really is is an excuse to just give us some kickass action artwork of Shang-Chi fighting alternate versions of some of your favorite Marvel characters. My only gripe with this is that the fights, with the exception of the last two, are compressed into only a few pages. This concept is tight as hell and should have been 13 damn issues. I know they had to keep it in line with the rest of the Secret Wars event but I want more backstory as to how all these alternate versions of Marvel characters fit into this world.
I want LOTR style extended editions of all of this.
Agents of Atlas (2019) #1-5 & Atlantis Attacks #1-5 (Skippable)
This isn’t a bad series and honestly would be worth your time reading were this not a Shang-Chi article. It fails to that end because dude barely has a presence in these books. Definitely check these out if you’re a fan of Marvel’s various Pan-Asian superheroes but there’s nothing for the Shang-Chi fan here.
Shang-Chi (2020) #1-5 (Essential)
The real purpose of this book is to set up a new status quo for Shang-Chi in the new decade but after reading it I also wonder if it was intended to bring his status quo more in line with the movie. Shang-Chi, now living in San Francisco (like in the movie), is unwittingly dragged into finding his long forgotten family (like in the movie) including a sister that wants to kick his ass (like in the movie) and the ghost of a dead family member calling him into a mystical cave (like in the movie). Also we get two sister characters for him with Sister Dagger and Sister Hammer, both of whom I guess were merged into his sister Xialing in the movie since she has characteristics of both. Or maybe Xialing was split into two for the comic considering this only came out last year. No idea. The post ubiquitous MCU era of Marvel Comics is weird like that.
This one also finally goes back to the plot point introduced in Secret Avengers of Zheng Zu and his brother Zheng Yi. With Zheng Yi being Shang-Chi’s guiding spirit, urging him to take over the family business, but for good purposes. Anyway this one rules. The retcon of Zheng Zu’s syndicate to being the Five Weapons Society is some Shaw Brothers shit and I am here for it. We get some excellent fights with Shang-Chi and his clan vs. Sister Hammer and her army of JIANGSHI (aka those awesome Chinese hopping vampires)!
Also, I may be wrong but I believe this is the first Shang-Chi book with an entirely Asian creative team. Good on ya Marvel, it only took 47 years.
Hook this directly into my veins.
BONUS: Fun One-Shots and Single Issues (because apparently the 65 issues I read above weren’t enough for me):
Shang-Chi: Master of Kung-Fu (2009)
This is just a cool collection of black and white stories featuring Shang-Chi. The main attraction is the Jonathan Hickman written, Deadpool co-starring *deep breath* “The Annual Race to Benefit Various and Sundry Evil Organizations and Also the Homeless. Now With Beer and Hot Dogs.” It’s an unessential good time. Check it out if you have the time.
Black Panther #11
This one’s pretty skippable but it gets special mention because it’s another attempt to retcon Fu Manchu, this time into just simply “Han” before they finally got their shit together and set up his real origin in Secret Avengers years later.
Secret Avengers (2010) #18
It’s got Shang-Chi teaming up with Cap to beat dudes’ asses in a M.C. Escher inspired space station. Do you need more than that?
Master of Kung-Fu #126
I briefly mentioned this one last time as it’s a weird one shot that continues the numbering of the original Master of Kung-Fu series, written by CM Punk. It’s a really fun and actually funny Shang-Chi adventure that’s definitely worth your time. That being said, Dr. Mel Prasis is possibly the biggest reach I’ve ever read for a supervillain pun name. Also kudos to the creative team for introducing kung-fu rats and casually setting up a backstory Marvel can use whenever they feel like printing money with a Shang-Chi/Ninja Turtles crossover.
Totally Awesome Hulk #15
This gets the nod for one reason only. It’s the only comic I read where Shang-Chi does some karaoke, which is maybe the most important thing if you’ve seen the movie.
It’s no Hotel California but it’ll do.
After somehow managing to get through 70 plus comic books of variable quality, it’s time to leave Shang-Chi behind. He does have a new ongoing, directly spinning off of the events of the 2020 miniseries. It’s on issue 5 as of this writing and is pretty good from the few issues I’ve read. Next time we’re going back to the 70s with Jack Kirby’s second attempt at a high concept sci-fi epic involving big fancy Space Gods: The Eternals!
I wish I had this react image for the last ten years of DC Films.
Other Notes and Observations:
- In Heroes for Hire #4 Reed Richards mentions a Skrull invasion from “a few years ago.” He’s talking about the events of Fantastic Four #2 from 1962 (i.e. 44 years before this issue!) I love Marvel time.
- Shang-Chi goes through a number of different looks throughout the last two decades so I kind of love that out of all the looks they tried, the one Marvel went with for most of the last decade can only be described as “spandex tracksuit”.
- On that note, who looked at this square jawed, Moe Howard bowl cut having guy on the cover for Marvel Knights #1 and thought “Yeah that’s an acceptable rendition of Shang-Chi”?
- One thing I almost entirely skipped was Shang-Chi’s run as an Avenger, during which he apparently gains the power to replicate himself, Madrox style. I’m guessing they quickly retconned that since it never seems to come up in any of the series that focus on him and also because holy shit is that unfair to the entire supervillain community.