You wouldn’t think a Toronto-based magazine illustrator with a Highlander-esque name would have created one of the greatest martial arts stories of all time told in comics form. Fortunately, Kagan McLeod provides infinite proof of exactly this occurrence.
An award-winning illustrator, McLeod’s work has been published in newspapers and magazines around the world, from “The New York Times” and “The Washington Post” to “Entertainment Weekly” and “Field & Stream.” He’s received awards from the Society of Illustrators of Los Angeles, the Society of Newspaper Design and the Society of Publication Designers, among others.
For many comic fans, however, McLeod is best known as the writer and artist behind “Infinite Kung Fu,” a self-published comic that debuted in the year 2000. Recently, Top Shelf Productions has been re-presenting individual chapters on their website in anticipation of September’s release of the complete, 464-page “Infinite Kung Fu” collection.
McLeod has crafted a story that stands alongside the best kung fu films. Through its ability to blend genres and craft a tale that is complex but never complicated while maintaining a primary focus on elaborate fight sequences and the philosophy behind those traditions, “Infinite Kung Fu” incorporates Chinese folktales, zombies, Buddhist philosophy and exploitation films with mysticism and the requisite non-stop action. An epic tale in every sense, the new collection includes an introduction from a true living legend, martial arts great Gordon Liu. Comic Book Resources spoke with McLeod about the book’s history, his sabbatical and how it feels to finally finish his epic after working on it for over a decade.
You’ve been working on “Infinite Kung Fu” for a long time. When did the project start?
Kagan McLeod: I don’t like to admit it, but in 2000. I self-published for a few years, abandoned it for a few years, then finished it recently. It’s very weird finishing something in your 30s that you started in your 20s. It’s too easy to critique your young, naive and less-talented self.
After abandoning the book, what was it that brought you back to it?
I never actually planned to quit; I was just caught up in other work most of the time. I had been expecting to have the book ready every year since 2007. I work better with a firm deadline, and I also have trouble saying no to anyone. So it’s more a question of what kept me from it rather than what brought me back.
When people ask you what the book is about, what do you tell them?
I hate giving a sales pitch, so I’m glad that in comics you can generally have a flip through and see if you’re interested. People do ask what it’s about, and they want to know that there’s some meat to the story. I usually try to describe the tone of the book overall as fun — inspired by old-school kung fu movies — and then break it down like this: Eight immortal kung fu teachers take on eight earthly students to help set the world on the right path. But five of them learn an evil type of kung fu and defect to the cruel emperor. The sixth student is killed and the seventh is to help the eighth — the last to be chosen — defeat the emperor and his kung fu armies before they can destroy the world.
Tell us a bit about the Eight Immortals and the role they play in “Infinite Kung Fu.”
They were kind of a springboard for the whole story. I found descriptions of them in an art history book and was hooked by the story of Iron Crutch Li. Needing to tend to some business in the heavenly realms, he told his pupil to look after his body on Earth while his spirit was away. The pupil waited six days then burned the corpse, figuring Li had gone on to enlightenment and wasn’t coming back. When Li came back, the only body he could find to inhabit was a recently dead beggar. So that’s how he appears in scrolls and collector’s plates.
Anyway, I loved the idea and thought I could use that kind of mythology. I basically thought of things I like to draw (people in kung fu poses, skeletons) and worked a story around that.
One of the challenges in crafting a work that takes so many years to complete seeing your style and skill change over time. How has yours changed over the years?
I think the drawing is similar, but when I started I think I focused too much, as many do, on having a style. I exaggerated and warped things a lot more. Sometimes it looked great, but when it didn’t you could tell that there wasn’t confidence in the drawing. Confidence only comes with doing tons and tons of drawings, so comics are good for that!
Same with the inking. I started out inking digitally, because the infinite undos seemed way less terrifying than committing to a mark on paper. Doing sketches for people at comic shows totally helped with that. When a fan hands you a sketchbook filled with great stuff and you turn to a blank page, and they’re standing right there waiting for you to perform, you have to make commitments. The more drawings I did, the more I understood the properties of my materials and the easier everything became.
When you first began work on “Infinite Kung Fu,” did you know how big a project this was and how long it would take to complete it? If you had, would you have started at all?
I think I always knew how big the story would be (or could be, anyway). But if I had worked on it from the beginning with no breaks, it probably would have gone in another direction, for sure. I’d definitely start a huge project again but would hope it was more of a main focus than a side project. Then I could finish it in a timely manner and not worry about the few decades I have left before my hand shrivels up into an arthritic paw.
Reading the book in one sitting, the chapter titled “Soul Provider” really seemed to mark a turning point in the story. The tone shifts, and it feels this is where the story became yours. How much of that was planned from the beginning?
I’m glad you think so; that’s nice and early in the book! I think I got in my groove a bit later. I had a loose idea of how it was going to go from the beginning but left room for new ideas. I worried I may have been too accommodating with the universe — kung fu, the apocalypse, zombies, blaxploitation — so I began to knock everything back a bit, except the kung fu.
Could you talk a little about the challenge of conveying martial arts in a series of static images? Kung fu has more of a natural flow than the typical action scenes in comics where it’s a fist connecting with a jaw or a kick to the stomach.
I think there are times in comics when it’s best to zoom in on an action and really show how it happened in a series of panels. Skipping around gets the story moving, but sometimes it’s really fun to get the details. I don’t know if I pulled it off all the way through, but I definitely tried to show as much as I could in the end fight. (Spoiler: There’s a fight at the end.)
What was the challenge in making those fight sequences look good in individual panels, flow together as a sequence and come together as a complete page? Or do you not think in that manner?
I think more of telling the story than the design of the page. Panels on a page get the space they deserve based on their importance and how much information they need to communicate, not just for aesthetic reasons. You might notice my layouts were more wacky at the beginning of the book and towards the end I played it more straight. I thought it made more sense for people to be paying attention to the story, not the shape of the borders or figuring out which order to read them in.
What was the challenge of crafting a final fight sequence that lived up to the hundreds of pages that preceded it?
It was challenging. I wanted to be finished so badly, and around page 390 I figured it would take another 20 pages to finish the book, but that turned into 70 pretty quick. There was a fine balance to maintain between a satisfying climax and overkill. There are lots of moments that could have been padded out even more, but you have to stop somewhere and call it done. I’m really happy with it, though. I can’t wait to see how it’s received.
How did you get the great Gordon Liu, best known to U.S. audiences for his roles in “Kill Bill,” to write an introduction for the book?
That came about through two of my film-festival programmer friends, Colin Geddes (Toronto International Film Festival) and King-Wei Chu (Montreal’s Fantasia). I used to buy bootlegged VHS tapes from Colin and trade Chinese DVDs with King. In Toronto a few years ago, when Gordon was in town to screen a few of his movies, Colin somehow got me a seat at a dim sum lunch put on by the Hong Kong Economic & Trade Office. I got to sit next to the man! I didn’t pester him about any future foreword writing but maybe planted the seed. King was there, and I worked with him to get the intro from Gordon and have it translated. Gordon Liu was my first choice, for sure; I had seen Bruce Lee movies, but when I discovered “Master Killer” (or “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin”), it started my whole kung fu binge.
Why did you decide to conclude the book with a six-page written overview of kung fu and kung fu films?
I just wanted something more meaty than pinups or character designs. I don’t tend to have a lot of preliminary stuff, either. I thought if I slapped a few drawings on at the end those last few pages would seem like filler. The flavor I was trying to echo throughout the book is from old-school kung fu movies, so it seemed right to give them a nod.
Top Shelf published the first 250 pages of the book on the web as a promotion for the collection. What was the thinking behind that?
What’s in the preview is pretty much what I had already published myself. We thought we’d use the preview to introduce the story to new readers and reintroduce it to old ones, leading up to the book’s release.
The thing I hate as the artist is that readers probably aren’t viewing it at the size it was designed for, and when printed in ink the blacks should look a lot richer. But I think the odds of us turning more readers on to the book with the preview are greater than the odds of turning away potential buyers because they feel they’ve read too much of the story. JPEGs certainly don’t furnish a room!
You’ve completed this epic project, and I hesitate to ask because you should be able to rest on your laurels for at least a few weeks, but what comes next? Are we going to see more comics from you soon?
I love working in illustration but lately it’s been dozens of small projects, one after another. Comics is a lot more work for a lot less money, but part of the reason why it’s so fun and appealing is the response from readers. People love comics and collect them; magazines they throw away.
I’ve already been researching my next project for about five years, and I think I know all there is to know about the subject, so I’m ready to go. And yes, it’ll be another monster-sized book. I actually can’t wait to get working on it. It’ll be about the Spanish conquest of Mexico.
You’ve definitely piqued my interest. Can you provide us with any teasers or what your thought process is heading in?
Of course. One of the most exciting challenges of a project like this is there’s very little visual reference available to work with. With kung fu there’s a whole genre of film that people are familiar with. With Aztecs, not so much. Pre-Columbian visual sources are rare and really abstract, and post-conquest ones are crudely drawn. But that’s why a project like this is so appealing. The story is so vivid and hard to imagine that I’m inspired to take a shot at doing the imagining on paper. There’s great story material available, more serious in tone than “Infinite Kung Fu” but probably even more opportunity for action and battle sequences. I’ll just have to figure a way to make it my own.
“Infinite Kung Fu” is scheduled to debut at San Diego Comic-Con International before hitting stores in September.