Some of the most intimidating Marvel Comics heroes don’t need super powers to fight crime. Heroes like Shang-Chi, Iron Fist and Elektra have mastered their chosen forms of martial arts, achieving a level of perfect that they’ve unlocked techniques that endow them with seemingly super human abilities and become more than a match for many an evildoer.
This May, as the Marvel Universe becomes Battleworld as a result of “Secret Wars,” these heroes will become embroiled in an entire world of martial arts-based incarnations of established Marvel characters. Who they fight alongside and against will be just one part of writer Haden Blackman and artist Dalibor Talajic’s four-issue “Secret Wars” miniseries “Master of Kung-Fu,” which takes readers to the Battleworld dominion of K’un Lun where rival kung fu schools clash and Shang-Chi is an outcast wanted for murder.
CBR News spoke with Blackman about Shang-Chi’s journey across the series, the villainy of his father who serves as Emperor of K’un Lun, and the many martial arts incarnations of Marvel characters that play roles in the book.
CBR News: Haden, you’re known for your work on “Elektra” and “Batwoman,” two characters who are expert hand-to-hand combatants and whose fathers have loomed large in their lives for various reasons. With “Master of Kung Fu” you’re telling a story focusing on another martial artist whose father played a large role in his life, Shang-Chi. Is this a coincidence or is there something you find especially intriguing about these types of characters?
Haden Blackman: Just luck, really. I definitely see some similarities — all three have almost superhuman determination, which manifests in their ability to train relentlessly. But, beyond that, I think they are very different. Batwoman is motivated by a desire to serve. Elektra (at least in my run) is trying to find out who she really is, what lines she won’t cross. And Shang-Chi is trying to prove himself to a father who will never accept him because their moral codes are so different.
Shang-Chi’s story in “Master of Kung-Fu” takes readers to “Secret Wars'” Battleworld, specifically the Dominion of K’un Lun. I know one of the ways this K’un Lun differs from the Marvel Universe one is there are a variety of martial arts schools that often endow their students with seemingly super human powers, but what else can you tell us about it? Do these schools all get along? Are some more powerful in society than others? And what kind of role does technology play in this world?
The schools’ relationships vary. Some are bitter rivals, others are allies. The schools also have a pecking order. The most powerful and popular is the Ten Rings, whose Great Master is also the Emperor. Shang-Chi is also a student of the Ten Rings, though he has turned his back on the school’s teachings. The Iron Fist school is highly-respected, while the Red Hand is feared; but both are allied with the Emperor and join in his hunt for Shang-Chi. Beyond that, there are a number of other schools, from the Panther Clan to the House of the Jade Tiger and the Spider Cult. The schools are so important that anyone who has not trained or has been drummed out of a school for whatever reason is considered a pariah; this is the Lowest Caste of society. Since this really is a supernatural martial arts epic, technology is limited, but the residents of K’un Lun don’t need it…
We know when your story begins the Shang-Chi has become a societal outcast because he was accused of murdering a martial arts master. Exactly how far has he fallen? Who is already after him, and what is he thinking about the situation when “Master of Kung Fu” begins?
When the story opens, it’s been a few years since Shang-Chi was tossed out of the Ten Rings and vanished into the slums of K’un Lun, where he has been trying to forget his past with the help of the bottle. No one expected him to ever resurface, but he’s still a wanted killer; when he is recognized by students of the Ten Rings, the Emperor vows to hunt him down with the help of the Red Hand and the Iron Fist.
Is “Master of Kung-Fu” a redemption tale?
Shang-Chi claims that he wants to forget his past and turn his back on his father and his past completely. But, he hasn’t left K’un Lun for a reason — some part of him will always be seeking his father’s approval, even if he won’t admit it. The question is: Will he become his father in order to prove himself?
Let’s move into supporting roles. Shang-Chi’s father Zheng Zu is of course a prominent figure in “Master of Kung Fu,” but instead of a criminal mastermind he’s the Emperor of K’un Lun, correct? What can you tell us about Zheng Zu’s rule when the series begins? Is he a tyrannical figure or beloved by his people?
Zheng Zu is indeed the emperor of K’un Lun, a position he earned (and has defended multiple times) through a ritualized trial by combat. In the first issue, Shang-Chi reveals that whether Zheng Zu is a benevolent ruler or a despot really depends on who you are — Zu has ushered in a golden age of prosperity, but the Ten Rings training is brutal and unforgiving. Most importantly, Zu’s followers perpetuate the belief that the untrained should be eliminated.
What kind of roles will some of the other martial artists of K’un Lun play in “Master of Kung Fu?” Will Shang Chi have allies? Does the series eventually become an ensemble book or is pretty much Shang’s story from start to finish?
There’s a pretty large cast. Shang-Chi is definitely front and center, but he’ll find a few very important allies and face off against former rivals and friends alike. I’m basically trying to integrate as many of my favorite characters as possible…
The preview art I’ve seen suggests we’ll see new versions of Elektra and Iron Fist, but also a number of X-Men characters as well. Is this series in a sense “What If the Shaw Brothers Designed the Marvel Universe?” Which corners of the Marvel U are you mining for supporting characters and antagonists in this series?
All corners! I started with the Marvel Universe’s most well-known martial artists, a list that (in my mind) always includes Kitty Pryde. Since K’un Lun society revolves around a number of different schools, I’ve been able to incorporate nearly any of these fighters — there will be versions of Black Panther, Taskmaster, Typhoid Mary and others. But, there will also be some surprises…
You’re designing the cast of “Master of Kung-Fu” with artist Dalibor Talajic, who I understand is a real martial arts practitioner. How much fun are you guys having designing these characters and this world? What’s it like seeing Dalibor bring these characters to life?
It’s been a blast. I love world building, and we’re hopefully creating a setting that can support an endless number of stories. We’re really trying to push the richness of the kingdom, from the architecture to its history and traditions to its people. Dalibor has been doing an incredible job with all of that, and perhaps most importantly, with the characters themselves — there’s over a dozen in the first issue alone, and each is fantastically “familiar but new” — a unique take on an existing character. Dalibor is also very inventive when it comes to the panel layouts and designs, which I think is really important to create the sense of place and history.
Finally, if fans take to “Master of Kung Fu” would you be interested in telling more adventures with Shang-Chi following “Secret Wars” and have you already begun thinking about them?
Absolutely. I think that K’un Lun itself lends itself to more stories, and I’d be keen to explore more of the schools, the characters, and some of the areas of the kingdom we only reference. And while Shang-Chi has a definite arc in this series, his journey is by no means complete — if anything, the series ends with him poised for even more adventures and challenges.
I just want to thank all the fans of our run on “Elektra.” Without their support and all the nice things they’ve said about that series, I might not have been given the opportunity to work on “Master of Kung-Fu.” As with “Elektra,” I’m treating every issue of this series as an audition for the next issue.
“Master of Kung Fu” #1 conquers Battleworld this May at Marvel Comics.