Inside Shang-Chi’s evolution from a forgotten comic book character to a superhero on the big screen

But for many years, Shang-Chi has existed on the fringes of other Marvel stories. Its initial series was even sold out for a while, thanks to a racist character whose use rights Marvel lost, said Steve Englehart, one of the comic book authors who created it.

From a comic book that mimicked kung fu movies to a new series that puts more emphasis on the character’s identity as a Chinese immigrant, Shang-Chi ultimately became one of Marvel’s major leagues. . Get to know the many versions of the Kung Fu Master before meeting Liu’s portrait of the hero.

Shang-Chi’s early problems were based on problematic stereotypes

Each iteration of Shang-Chi has a similar common thread: he’s still a spectacular martial artist, still tug-of-war with his former fighter life and still, always tormented by daddy’s problems. This shot was created by Englehart and Jim Starlin, the two-man team who brought the character to life (Englehart, perhaps best known for his grim and grim take on Batman, also created characters like Star-Lord of “Guardians of the Galaxy,” and Starlin is responsible for MCU icons like his biggest villain, Thanos.)
In the early 1970s, Englehart and Starlin approached Detective Comics (DC) with an idea: a comic book about David Carradine’s “Kung Fu” series. (The series has been criticized for its use of “yellowface” or for choosing white actors as Asian characters. Carradine is white but has played the role of a partly Chinese martial artist.)

Starlin, an artist, loved the martial arts element of the story, while writer Englehart said he wanted to delve into Taoism and other philosophies to flesh out his protagonist. The two thought they had found a match with “Kung Fu” – but DC believed that “the kung fu craze was going to go away,” Starlin said, and passed the idea on.

So the couple took him alongside Marvel, whose executives only agreed after insisting the couple inject pre-existing intellectual property into their comic book, the pair told CNN.

In this case, the company had the rights to the character Fu Manchu, a racist caricature of a Chinese created by British author Sax Rohmer in the early 20th century. The villain was then “grafted onto the show” as Shang-Chi’s father, Starlin told CNN in an interview in August. (Racist depictions of Asian characters had appeared in the comics before, such as the egg-shaped villain “Egg Fu” in a 1965 issue of Wonder Woman and the 1940 character “Ebony White” in the first comic, “The Spirit,” Grace Gipson said). , an assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University who studies race and gender in comics.)

Back then, Englehart said, he and Starlin were tasked with making their character half white. Englehart was used to the racism of comic book readers – as a writer for the character of Luke Cage, he recalled that some stores in the South refused to sell issues of the series because his lead role was black – so, for getting the approval they needed to write their comedy, they made Shang-Chi’s mother a white American woman.

There was also the issue of coloring: Comics back then were limited in the mixes of colors they could use to produce certain shades, Starlin explained. The coloring chosen for Shang-Chi’s skin tone was predetermined, Englehart said, and ended up being an orange-yellow shade shared by other Asian characters in the comics.

“Looking back, it’s embarrassing,” Starlin said of the skin tone chosen for the character. “Shang-Chi was a creation at a time when not only did a lot of people have a limited view of what the world was like, but we were very limited in what could be done technologically.”

Master of Kung Fu issue number 125 published in June 1983. Starlin and Englehart had both left the series by this point.

While both writers agreed to make the problematic edits to create their comic, they were able to tell the rest of the story however they wanted. Englehart wrote Shang-Chi as a budding philosopher struggling with his violent family history and desire to be better, while Starlin had fun sketching out intricate scenes from Shang-Chi’s kung fu fights.

“He’s a pretty moral character in a very corrupt world, in much the same way Captain America was,” Starlin said, noting that Shang-Chi isn’t as “preacher” as Captain America’s. MCU.

“He was raised to be the perfect martial artist character, steeped in Eastern philosophy,” Englehart told CNN in an interview in August. “But then he found out that it had all been in the service of his bad father. So he rebelled against that, and then sort of made his way into the world he didn’t understand, problem by problem, and saw it through the eyes of philosophy. ”

Marvel might not have expected Shang-Chi to be a smash hit – its debut was incorporated into the limited series “Special Marvel Edition # 15”. It was a brief introduction to the character, covering his origins as an assassin trained by his father, a villain who used him to gain immortality, and his realization that he had fought on the wrong side. , but it became wildly successful, Englehart and Starlin said.

Soon Marvel wanted a monthly series, an annual series, special editions and a black-and-white version of another Shang-Chi-centric series, and Englehart and Starlin were sold out. Generating so much Shang-Chi content meant that there wouldn’t be so much time to fully explore complex themes, at least not as they had envisioned. The two left the series after only a few problems.

“It was so weird! said Englehart. “We were totally in it, and no one else was, then everyone was, and it got too hard for us to keep up.”

New ‘Shang-Chi’ series realigns hero identity

Shang-Chi’s “Master of Kung Fu” series was then directed by Doug Moench and artist Paul Gulacy, whose cinematic references to Lee and Bond gained new Shang-Chi fans as the series continued in the 1980s. He appeared intermittently in Marvel comics in the years that followed, but was never a main character in the way he was when he first started out.

It wasn’t until 2020 that writer Gene Luen Yang was hired to reprise a new Shang-Chi series. With artists Dike Ruan and Philip Tan, Yang built an identity for Shang-Chi informed by his history in comics and that of the Chinese diaspora.

Shang-Chi in his original comic was constantly the stranger, whether he was on the streets of London working with spies or with his own family. Yang felt like an outsider himself as a youngster, which is part of why he didn’t initially connect with the character.

Number 1 of "Shang-Chi"  published in May 2021. Gene Luen Yang and Dike Ruan edited this issue.
“I wasn’t a Shang-Chi fan when I was a kid,” he said in a February interview on the Marvel’s Voices podcast. “I encountered these Shang-Chi comics at a time when I didn’t feel comfortable being a Chinese American. So I felt like, you know, the Chinese American kid was picking up the comic book with the Chinese superhero – it was like highlighting what made me different. “
But by taking control of Shang-Chi’s comic book fate, Yang helped reshape it into a story that might have mattered to him when he was younger. That the timing of its release coincided with a surge in anti-Asian hatred was also not lost on him. In an interview with Syfy Wire in 2020, Yang said he wanted his portrayal of Shang-Chi to be a “three-dimensional hero”, to attract readers from all walks of life and “counter this ugliness” of violence and violence. anti-Asian discrimination.

Yang’s version of Shang-Chi, born in China but living in California, happily does a service job halfway around the world from his father, now called Zheng Zhu. He shares crystal cakes with an old nemesis and even says to himself at one point, “I’ve found that if I slow down and use ‘wise’ words, Westerners are looking at me rather than looking at me. overtake me, when I speak.

While Starlin and Englehart wanted to introduce the concepts of kung fu and philosophy to American readers, Yang wants to show readers that the story of Shang-Chi, although she took it from China to Chinatown and vice versa. , is inherently American.

“Superheroes, at their best, express America at its best,” he said on the Marvel podcast. “With Shang-Chi in particular, he’s an immigrant. In the origin story, he comes as an adult, and he really finds his identity outside of his family, he finds his superhero identity. here in America. ”

"Shang-Chi"  hits theaters, showing how Marvel flipped the script in Hollywood

Gipson, the pop culture scholar who studies race and gender in comics, said hiring writers of color like Yang to lead series about characters of color is an improvement, but it doesn’t really is not a difficult task “. She said that while comic book creators have made great strides in deconstructing the standards of who a comic book reader is and what storylines they want to see, hiring color creators needs to be done on a consistent basis.

“This is to ensure that the voices of those represented always have a place at the table as well as a microphone to speak,” she told CNN.

Yet, she said, as a comic book fan herself, she liked to see more representative stories told in mainstream comics. Shang-Chi isn’t the only Asian superhero in the Marvel Universe – there’s Ms. Marvel aka Kamala Khan, a Pakistani-American teenager who will soon star in her own Disney + series and an upcoming movie. . Additionally, Gemma Chan, Kumail Nanjiani, and Don Lee will all appear in the Chloe Zhao-directed MCU movie, “Eternals.” There are even more of them in the comics, like the Arab-American teenager Amulet and the Korean-American hero Silk in the form of a spider.

“It gives me hope that the next generation of comic book readers and consumers can see themselves properly portrayed and portrayed on the page and on the TV and movie screen,” Gipson said.

This is also Yang’s goal in creating a new Shang-Chi story. And now that an even newer version of Shang-Chi lives on in the film, the character can finally get the recognition, and her story the same care, that her fellow Marvel heroes have long enjoyed.

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