Knowledge Waits is a feature where I just share some bit of comic book history that interests me.
Reader Dylan C. was interested in how Marvel handled the coloring of Shang-Chi, so I figured I'd take a look.
As you likely know by now, comic book companies do not have the best track record of being, well, you know, not super racist in their depiction of cultures and ethnicities other than white people.
In the early 1950s, Marvel (or I guess it was better known as Atlas Comics at the time) released a new series called the Yellow Claw. Stan Lee pulled out all of the stops on the book, as he used his best artist (Joe Maneely) and one of the most respected comic book writers of the era (Al Feldstein) to work on the series, which was basically the Marvel version of Fu Manchu (the infamous Asian quasi-supervillain from Sax Rohmer's novels in the early 20th Century and then many movies since that point). Check out how much of a racist caricature the title character of the series is...
Okay, that's bad, but then check out the HERO of the series, the badass FBI agent whose mission is to take down the Yellow Claw. His name is Jimmy Woo and, well, he is colored pretty gross himself...
That's the HERO of the book, people!
Okay, so that's the 1950s, though. Surely by the 1970s, we would have evolved past stuff like that, right? And, for the most part, that was true. However, even then, we got stuff like the depiction of the main Asian characters in the story of the Master of Kung-Fu, Shang-Chi. You see, there was a big martial arts boom in popular culture in the 1970s and Marvel decided to throw their hat into the ring by doing a martial arts comic book series. They were unable to license any of the major martial arts characters out there, so instead they managed to license Fu Machu himself, from the estate of the deceased Sax Rohmer. They then used Fu Manchu in Marvel Special Edition #15 to launch a new martial arts character, Shang-Chi, trained as a deadly assassin by his father but then he turned on his father and became a hero.
Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin created the character and they took an interesting approach in the design of both Shang-Chi and Fu Manchu. Fu Manchu continued to get pretty much the same caricature stuff that Yellow Claw got, while Shang-Chi got a much more modern approach, except his oddly golden skin...
Shang-Chi was popular enough that Marvel Special Edition was re-named Master of Kung-Fu and became Shang-Chi's ongoing series. Doug Moench took over the writing duties on the series for the next HUNDRED ISSUES, working with an all-star roster of artists who did long stints on the series after the series had a bit of a rotating cast of artists in the early days, from Paul Gulacy to Mike Zeck to Gene Day (Day tragically died before the series ended).
The coloring on both Shang-Chi and Fu Manchu continued. Here is Fu Manchu and Shang-Chi in #27...
I chose that issue in particular (with art by John Buscema) because someone actually brought up the coloring in the letter column!
A reader noted, "I am really annoyed at the artistic representation Orientals are given and I hope this will be corrected in future series. Their skin is not that deathly yellow pallor; neither is it Caucasian, but a suitable mix must be found."
The response was:
There is a single, crucial fact that you should be aware of, Jim, in regard to our coloring of Oriental characters in this and other Marvel titles. You suggest a "suitable mix" between the shades we are presently using, as if it were within our power to designate precisely which hues and tones we would like to use; unfortunately it is not. Our printer offers us a predetermined selection of 48 different colors and shades, excluding black and white, which we have to work with.
Within those limitations, there are only about three tones which might approximate the skin hue of Orientals - the color we use on Sir Denis and other Caucasians, the pale yellow we use on Fu Manchu and others, and the bronze shade we use on Shang-Chi himself. As you can see, there's not exactly a wide variety to choose from, and therefore we have settled on what seems like the only possible color, under the circumstances. Hope this clears things up a bit for you on the subject?
The peculiar coloring of Shang-Chi continued even after Marvel had otherwise said, "Hey, why NOT just color Asian characters with the same color that we use for white people?" Like this bit from Godzilla #1...
The COVERS of Master of Kung-Fu would even often color Shang-Chi using other shades, but he would remain golden in the comic itself.