Johnston Prepares His "Deadly Hands of Kung Fu" for "Spider-Island"

Fighting crime in the Marvel Universe usually involves quite a bit of physical combat, and these tussles often become incredibly dangerous because they usually involve super human powers. However, there is one Marvel crime fighter who doesn't need super powers to be dangerous. His feet and his fists make him a force to be reckoned with in unarmed combat. His name is Shang-Chi, the Master of Kung Fu.

Shang-Chi was introduced to readers by Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin in 1973's "Special Marvel Edition" #15. Several months later he graduated to his own series where he used his hand-to-hand combat skills to battle his father's criminal empire and carry out dangerous jobs for British intelligence. Recently, the blind seer Madame Web encouraged Shang-Chi to seek out Spider-Man and teach the wall-crawler his own form of kung fu.

That relationship will embroil Shang-Chi in the "Spider-Island" event this August. He'll be a player in both "Amazing Spider-Man" and his own three issue tie-in miniseries, "Spider-Island: Deadly Hands of Kung Fu," by writer Antony Johnston and artist Sebastian Fiumara. CBR News spoke exclusively with Johnston about the project, which also features two other martial arts oriented characters: Iron Fist and the Bride of Nine Spiders.

CBR News: Antony, your work on books like "Daredevil," "Shadowland: Blood on the Streets," and now "Spider-Island: Deadly Hands of Kung Fu" seems to suggest a fondness for the gritty, pulp-inspired, street level Marvel Universe. What is it about this corner of the Marvel U that you find so compelling as a writer?

Antony Johnston: It hews closest to the kind of stuff I normally write outside of super heroes. My work generally errs on the darker side, and I like a good dose of pulp action. The street level of the Marvel U certainly fulfills those criteria.

It's not just the setting, though, it's also the characters. I have an affinity for the low and non-powered heroes because there's a lot more at stake for these guys. Even Spider-Man can't take a bullet to the head, you know? That appeals to me, because it means you can tell more immediate, relatable stories. The threats don't have to be cosmic and all-powerful to be truly dangerous.

The protagonist of "Deadly Hands" is Shang-Chi, Marvel's Master of Kung Fu. What do you find most appealing about Shang-Chi? Which aspects of his character do you want to examine and explore in this series?

Well, partly it's that vulnerability I already mentioned. Shang-Chi is the Master of Kung Fu, sure, but he's still human. He doesn't have super powers. (Uh, except in this book! But you know what I mean.)

I'm a sucker for all-out martial arts action, and Shang delivers plenty of that, especially in this story, but he also has a great inner dichotomy. He was trained from birth to be a weapon for one of the world's most evil men. His entire upbringing was a lie. So he has this fantastic skill -- and he's grateful for it, because Kung Fu is more than just a martial art, it's a way of life -- but how he got that skill will always bother him, and he's always striving to be a better man. Always thinking about life, spirituality, chi, and the nature of existence.

So obviously all that is going to feature, but I don't want people to think that's all the book is. First and foremost, this is a story about a Kung Fu master kicking the crap out of people to save the world. Just another day in the life of Shang-Chi.

So the official title of this series is "Spider-Island: Deadly Hands of Kung Fu" and we know that during "Spider-Island" New York is going to become a place of bedlam and chaos thanks to an epidemic of spider-powered people. What can you tell us about the role Shang-Chi plays in helping to quell that chaos? Is "Deadly Hands of Kung Fu" a part of the main story? Or is sort of a separate adventure that develops organically out of the events of "Spider-Island?"

It's intimately connected to the main story. For one thing, Shang, like many other people, now has spider-powers. The consequences of failure for Shang would be disastrous for everyone, but at the same time, his story is on the periphery.

It's in the same vein as my "Shadowland" series, "Blood On the Streets;" Spider-Man is in it, so are Iron Fist and the Bride of Nine Spiders, and it's very firmly rooted in "Spider-Island" and the Marvel U. But you could read this book on its own and it would still make sense.

What sets the events of "Spider-Island: Deadly Hands of Kung Fu" into motion?

It all starts with a recurring nightmare Shang's been having, that he's turning into a spider -- and Madame Web isn't her usual all-seeing self, so all she can tell Shang is that his future is "filled with darkness." I don't want to give away much more than that. Suffice to say Shang soon realizes that both Iron Fist and the Bride of Nine Spiders are connected somehow, and that it's going to require an unusual amount of Kung Fu violence to get to the bottom of this mystery.

As for atmosphere, it's practically a gothic horror story, very spooky and mysterious. Just with lots more kicking.

Interesting, the impression we got from the solicit information was a "Big Trouble in Little China" style blend of Kung Fu action, supernatural horror and mysticism.

Ha! Well I'm a huge fan of "BTiLC," so I'm not going to argue with that, but we're not quite as madcap as that movie. The action in "Deadly Hands" is wall-to-wall and outrageous, and we do have supernatural elements, for sure. But there's no David Lo Pan-like cackling villain in our story. More's the pity...

You mentioned that Iron Fist and the Bride of Nine Spiders play roles in "Spider-Island: Deadly Hands of Kung Fu." What's it like writing these two Immortal Weapons? How would you describe their dynamic with Shang-Chi in this story?

For me, "Immortal Iron Fist" is one of the best superhero books of the last decade. Ed Brubaker & Matt Fraction created something really special. So getting to write Iron Fist and the Bride is quite a thrill, because I was such a fan of that book, and they're great characters.

It's kind of surprising that Shang-Chi hasn't crossed over more with the Immortal Weapons, to be honest. You can never have too much kung fu. (Do you sense a theme emerging here?)

Shang-Chi is a formidable adversary on his own and in "Spider-Island: Deadly Hands of Kung Fu" he'll have spider powers, so it would make sense to pit him against some pretty powerful adversaries. What can you tell us about Shang's opponents in this story?

Ah, nothing at all, sorry. That's part of the mystery. Suffice to say, it's quite the challenge for Shang.

You mentioned Spider-Man will be part of the supporting cast of this story. How big is his role in the story?

He's not a major player because he's busy dealing with the main events of "Spider-Island," but his role, and his friendship with Shang, are important points in the book.

Sebastian Fiumara is the man in charge of illustrating "Spider-Island: Deadly Hands of Kung Fu." What does he brings to this book?

Bucket loads of atmosphere, for one thing. I worked with Seba years ago on the adaptation of Alan Moore's "The Hypothetical Lizard" for Avatar, and we've kept in touch since, always saying we wanted to work together again. He's a great storyteller, a great artist and he can really pull off the gothic horror stuff, so he's a perfect match for this story.

Finally, when we spoke with Nick Spencer about his "Spider-Island: Cloak & Dagger" series he said he hoped readers would respond to it because he'd love to do a Cloak and Dagger ongoing series. Is that the case with you and "Spider-Island: Deadly Hands of Kung Fu?" Would you like to tell more stories featuring Shang-Chi? And do you know where you'd like to take the character next?

Absolutely, no question. I've been talking to Marvel about doing a new Shang series for a while -- something filled with Eastern myth, epic supernatural forces and even touching on his espionage past. I want to update him just a little and show off how cool the character can be.

Of course, Ed Brubaker beat me to it with that arc of "Secret Avengers," for which I still haven't forgiven him (*shakes fist at sky*). But I'd love to do Shang justice, headlining his own series again. And who knows, if thousand upon thousands of people buy this book (BIG HINT) then maybe I'll get the chance.

Spawn #301 Preview Showcases McFarlane, Crain & Alexander's Art

More in Comics