Friday in the Dojo

by  in Comic News Comment
Friday in the Dojo

Two novels of crime and the martial arts, published over thirty years apart, and they serve as the bookends of roughly half-a-dozen different comic-book series (and a third full novel) starring the same characters in between.

That’s quite a feat of connect-the-dots “nepotistic continuity,” as Overlord Cronin refers to it. Even my wife was impressed; when I told Julie about it she said, “You should do a column about that.”

And so here it is. Yes, I take requests.

It begins with this little 1974 attempt to integrate the then- current Bruce Lee martial-arts craze with the lucrative macho-adventure paperback industry.

Kung Fu Master, Richard Dragon #1: Dragon’s Fists introduced– you guessed it– one Richard Dragon, the ne’er-do-well son of a U.S. ambassador. Richard, despite his aptitude for languages and history, is content to spend his young life brawling and drinking and getting thrown out of various expensive schools all over Europe and Asia, confident his rich influential dad will bail him out. Eventually the jaded young Dragon turns to petty crime, seeing it as a new kind of thrill. One night in Hong Kong he makes the mistake of trying to rob the wrong guy….the O-Sensei, an aging martial-arts master who wipes the floor with Dragon and then tells him that despite Richard’s youthful stupidity, he nevertheless senses potential for decency in this reckless thief — IF he can learn to control his inner rage. “You are a seeker, and, I feel, a worthy one. I am willing to risk some time proving I am correct.” Over the next seven years Richard Dragon learns some manners and eventually becomes a master of all martial arts under the sensei’s tutelage.

This is laid out for us in flashback as Dragon races against time to rescue the O-Sensei’s daughter, Carolyn Wotami, from a gentleman sadist known as the Swiss, who also heads up an international crime ring. Along the way, Richard gets some help from another former student of the O-Sensei, a tough streetwise black fellow named Benjamin. We don’t get his last name (but I’m betting on “Shaft” from the way he carries himself… he’s willing to help out his brother man, he’s a bad mother and no one understands him but his woman.)

The book’s a fun ride, though for a comics/pulp adventure fan like me — and, probably, most of you reading this — it does feel awfully derivative. The O-Sensei, in particular, with his super-martial-art instruction that incorporates all other martial arts, amps human hearing to incredible levels and teaches how to sense infrared, not to mention his sly way of humiliating his students for a laugh, is pretty much lifted bag and baggage from Chiun in Sapir & Murphy’s Destroyer series. The O-Sensei doesn’t call his system sinanju but he might as well. And Richard Dragon has an uneasy relationship with a shadowy espionage outfit called GOOD, much like Remo Williams does with CURE. In fact, you could change the book title below to Dragon’s Fists and give Remo red hair and you’d have a great cover illo for the Dragon book.

You can’t blame them for trying, especially in 1974. Paperback editors were looking everywhere for the next Mack Bolan or Remo Williams back then… spinner racks were filled with numbered adventure titles trying to get a piece of the pie. Riffing on the Destroyer while teaming a white Bruce Lee and a kung-fu Shaft must have seemed like a pretty good bet.

The book was by “Jim Dennis,” which was a pen name for co-authors Jim Berry and Denny O’Neil. I have no idea what the division of labor was there, but having read the book I can tell you that despite the various acts of pop culture theft going on, there are quite a few moments that are so clearly O’Neil signatures that even if I didn’t recognize Richard Dragon I’d know it was Denny O’Neil that wrote this book. A well-spoken philosophical sadist villain with exquisite taste in food and drink, dumb thugs speaking in malapropisms, a hero trying to escape violence but forced to use it, mistrust of government and authority, and action scenes intercut with goofball bystander comments. Anybody reading O’Neil’s Batman or the original Green Lantern/Green Arrow back in the early 70’s would recognize the style.

Most of all, Denny O’Neil knows something about Eastern philosophy and the martial arts, and that shows in the work. Despite Dragon’s superhuman capabilities his actions are always based on a real discipline and O’Neil writes of them with such absolute authority that you have no trouble believing it when, for example, at the book’s climax a barehanded Richard Dragon takes out nine guys that are armed with nunchucks and oriental maces, all attacking him at once.

Despite the book being pretty good, it apparently didn’t do well enough to warrant a Richard Dragon #2. And normally that would be the end of it — there were lots of adventure paperback series that stuttered and died early deaths back then. (I love them almost as much as I love pulps and comics, which is how I happen to know this. I have a ridiculous fondness for weird little forgotten series like Paul Kenyon’s Baroness books or Larry Maddock’s Agent of T.E.R.R.A., among others.)

Anyway, Richard Dragon would have been just another casualty in the he’s-no-Mack-Bolan pile, except that Denny O’Neil worked at DC Comics, which made it pretty easy for “Jim Dennis” to be first in line when DC noticed Marvel’s success with Shang-Chi and started looking for a way to do a kung fu comic of their own.

I’d be interested to know how they worked it out, who came to who. At any rate, in 1975 Richard Dragon got a second chance, this time in the funnybooks, when Kung Fu Fighter premiered.

“Jim Dennis” got a creator’s credit for the book and script credit for the first few issues, which were a very loose adaptation of the novel. A lot of the sex and sadism had to go away, of course, but there were also serious re-plotting and restructuring things going on, and it’s a fun exercise to read the book and then look at the comics and see the changes O’Neil made. Names changed — Carolyn Wotami became Carolyn Wu-San, Benjamin became Ben Turner, and there were other less cosmetic things. The comics are lighter and more episodic; each issue is part of a greater whole but reasonably self-contained. The first ten or twelve issues are a real adrenaline rush, and there really wasn’t anything like it on the stands. Richard Dragon was more of a go-getter, he was so action-oriented and terse that he made Shang-Chi look a little mopey when you put them side-by-side. And the weird O’Neil humor often crept into the book — it takes real chutzpah to name a villain “Guano.” The art by Ric Estrada was pretty good and when Wally Wood inked him he looked great.

Once O’Neil was done adapting the novel he expanded the cast. Pretty soon we met Carolyn’s sister Sandra Wu-San, who had a mad-on for Dragon because she thought he’d killed her sister, and when Dragon set her straight (after throwing down with her, of course) she ended up fighting alongside him a lot of the time, taking the name Lady Shiva.

It didn’t take long for Dragon to get fully incorporated into the DC universe, with all the good and bad that implies. On the plus side, he got to meet Batman.

But it tended to hurt Dragon’s own title. We started to see more costumed crooks, and crossover appearances, and the whole enterprise tended to get sillier. The book made the mistake of going after the superhero audience too hard, losing the fun James-Bond-with-kung-fu feel that made it entertaining. Kung Fu Fighter limped to a halt after eighteen issues. As headliners, Richard Dragon and his friends were 0 for two.

But they kept showing up around the DC universe, nevertheless. Denny O’Neil escorted them effortlessly into the Batman books, where we saw Dragon’s friend Benjamin (who had become the Bronze Tiger by this time, brainwashed into working for the League of Assassins) in “The Vengeance Vow.” Later the Tiger would join the Suicide Squad.

But really it was O’Neil’s revival of The Question that put Dragon, and especially Lady Shiva, back on the DC A-list.

Part of it was that The Question was simply a better book than Kung Fu Fighter; the intervening decade had made O’Neil a much better writer, and he really came into his own on this book, even more than his much-hyped tenure on Batman or GL/GA. The art from Denys Cowan and Rick Magyar was also a step up from anything we’d seen from them before — angular, scratchy, and impressionistic, yet still sweaty and visceral-looking in a way nobody else was doing.

In many ways, though, the thing that was interesting about The Question was that it was almost a remake of the original Kung Fu Fighter in terms of story and structure. An angry young man about to self-destruct from acting out his own impatience and anger learns to center himself and find redemption through learning the martial arts and fighting for justice, with the help of a wise father figure. He meets dangerous women, confronts evil government and other establishment authorities, rejects violence and yet is drawn to it over and over, and tries to carve out a place for himself in a world he doesn’t truly belong to.

Now, we didn’t see that play out very well in Kung Fu Fighter the comic (although it’s there) but I assure you it permeates Dragon’s Fists the novel.

The thing that makes it all such a hoot for old-timers like me is that in The Question it’s Vic Sage as the student, and Dragon himself taking on the sensei role. It’s not necessary to know this to enjoy the Question stories, but it is great fun for those that remember when it was Richard Dragon that was the angry young man who was cursing his enigmatic sensei for being so annoyingly zen. There’s a delightful now-it’s-MY-turn-to-annoy-punks vibe about it.

I loved The Question in its own right, despite O’Neil’s revisiting so many of his favorite themes — largely because it felt like he was finally getting to tell these stories the way he always WANTED to, without the restrictions that come with the bigger-name superhero books like Green Lantern or Batman. There are purists who get really peevish about how the book was so completely not the Question as Steve Ditko set him up, but really I think in fairness you need to remember Ditko only did about sixty-some Question pages, in a few backup stories for a company that was by then defunct. You can’t blame Denny O’Neil for treating the book as essentially a blank slate. Anyway, I much preferred O’Neil’s Vic Sage to Ditko’s, and certainly he was more successful.

The Question wrapped up after a three-year run, and it really DID finish. The conclusion was an actual conclusion and everyone — Vic Sage, Dragon, everybody we’d come to know — was given a graceful exit. Taken as a whole, it stands as Denny O’Neil’s opus, like James Robinson’s Starman or Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.

Of course, this is mainstream superhero comics, though, so you can’t ever leave something be. O’Neil was coaxed back for a few issues of The Question Quarterly, and there were guest shots here and there. Richard Dragon, especially, became the go-to sensei for everybody in the DC universe.

He trained Oracle, he trained the Huntress, there’s talk that he trained Dick Grayson and even showed Bruce Wayne a thing or two.

And as I said earlier, Ben Turner, the Bronze Tiger, joined the Suicide Squad and he kept popping up here and there. But it was Shiva that was irresistible to DC writers, particularly Chuck Dixon. She was ALL OVER the Bat books and has been a recurring player there to this day. Shiva played a key role in Knightfall, and since it was Denny O’Neil that turned that whole arc into a prose Batman novel, that almost makes it it a somewhat tangential sequel to Dragon’s Fists considering how important Shiva is to the story. (This is the sort of thing that gets my inner Wold-Newton geek all wound up, although, weirdly, as far as I know no one’s incorporated Richard Dragon into that tapestry yet. He seems tailor-made for it.)

Chuck Dixon also tried a Dragon re-launch not too long ago, but it didn’t really stick. I gather it was okay, but it discarded too much of the history of the characters for fans to embrace it, and it only lasted a year or so.

And last year, Denny O’Neil took one last swing at the story of an angry young man finding his purpose and eventually reclaiming his soul through learning the martial arts and embarking on a quest for justice.

Helltown is not original, exactly; it’s a novel adapting the key Question storylines from the book’s three-year run, not a sequel or a new story. But it FEELS new. Denny O’Neil proved this with Knightfall and Dragon’s Fists but it’s even more apparent here — his gift for adaptation is the best in the business. Comic to novel or novel to comic, there’s simply no one to touch him for finding the necessary arc of a story and keeping just that, while changing or improving anything else that needs it. And though Richard Dragon has only the minor sensei role again it nevertheless feels like the completion of an arc begun thirty years ago in Dragon’s Fists. It’s pure O’Neil, and if you are a fan of his work you’ll be in heaven. (Personally, I don’t think anyone does Batman better in prose than Denny O’Neil, though your mileage may vary.)

Now, for me that completes the story. The arc that Denny O’Neil started in Dragon’s Fists in 1974 ended in Helltown in 2006 and that’s fine. That’s how it should be.

But I know DC can’t leave it alone, and I am watching the events in 52 with a jaded eye. God knows it seems like yet another case of “Let’s put a girl in the costume” and it certainly looks as though Renee Montoya might end up as the new Question.

Now, though I know that’s a groan-inducing idea on the face of it, and I’d much prefer that Helltown be the last word on the Question …there are a couple of nice things about the execution of it. I have to admit it’s a nice tribute to see Vic Sage taking on the sensei role for Renee, as Dragon did for him and the original O-Sensei did for Dragon. Try to do the continuity math and it will make your head hurt — but artistically I can appreciate the parallelism of it. It seems appropriate. So let’s say I’m cautiously optimistic.

At any rate, it’s quite a legacy for a trash paperback that disappeared off the drugstore spinner racks after a month back in 1974.

See you next week.


Nerd footnote: I should mention that the ACTUAL Destroyer got a comic book of his own, a black-and-white magazine from Marvel back in 1989.

It ran less than ten issues but they were entertaining issues, and certainly truer to the novels than that awful movie. I mention that mostly to save people pointing it out in comments, and also because I really like this cover and wanted to run it.

Okay, really done now. See you next week.