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Shang-Chi Vol. 1: Brothers & Sisters | Review

Shang-Chi coverShang-Chi By Gene Luen Yang Vol. 1: Brothers & Sisters
Writer: Gene Luen Yang
Artists: Dike Ruan, Philip Tan and Sebastian Cheng
Marvel Entertainment; $15.99
Rated T+ for Teens 13 and up

Marvel’s Shang-Chi By Gene Luen Yang Vol. 1: Brothers & Sisters, the rather cumbersome title given the trade paperback collection of the recent five-issue Shang-Chi miniseries, is a disappointing work, but more so because of the expectations it raised than because of the actual quality, which is mediocre but not poor overall.

Those expectations are raised by the presence of Yang, a fairly brilliant cartoonist whose work has tackled issues of Chinese-American identity (American Born Chinese), Chinese history (Boxers & Saints), and superheroes struggling with issues of identity (The Shadow Hero, Superman Smashes The Klan). He’s an ideal candidate to take on Marvel’s sometimes problematic character Shang-Chi, a Chinese hero created in response to the kung-fu craze of the 1970s in the pages of Master of Kung-Fu, where he was the previously unknown son of pulp fiction villain Fu Manchu (a connection often retconned in various ways after Marvel lost the rights to use Fu Manchu).

Expectations are even further raised by the fact that the relatively minor character is about to get the Marvel Cinematic Universe spotlight, as the film Shang-Chi and the Legend of The Ten Rings opens in September, making this miniseries the first created specifically for new readers; that is, should film fans go looking for Shang-Chi comics, this is seemingly designed to be the one that retailers can point them to.

Yang, as expected, does a rather fine job with the character, particularly given the fact that in the last few decades, Shang-Chi has rarely been more than a guest-star in other heroes’ books, where he is portrayed as a supremely skilled martial artist…and that’s about it. Yang manages to get in his head a bit, explaining why he so often seems like a stereotype rather than a fully-rounded character (“I’ve found that if I slow my cadence and use ‘wise’ words, Westerners look at me, rather than past me, when I speak,” he narrates at one point).

Yang also reinvents Shang-Chi’s backstory a bit, but in a way that seems to reveal more about rather than completely contradict what has come before. His father is here referred to as “Zheng Zu,” while it’s noted that the immortal sorcerer has gone by many names over the years. He is now dead, killed in an earlier comic, but  he still influences Shang-Chi from beyond the grave, in ways realistic and fantastic.

Here Shang-Chi’s father was the leader of The Five Weapons Society, an ancient order that protected China since the Qing dynasty. As his various longevity spells allowed him to outlive the original Five Weapons, five martial artists who have each mastered a different weapon, he founded “houses” devoted to each, and the champion of each house serves as one of the Weapons.

Shang-Chi wants nothing to do with his weird crime cult upbringing, but he is technically “Brother Hand,” champion of the House of the Hand, and when a war breaks out among the houses over who will control the society, he finds himself thrust into it.

What results is a globe-trotting martial arts adventure with connective tissue to the Marvel Universe, but taking place well away from the lives of the other superheroes. Unlike so many of his other recent appearances then, Shang-Chi is presented as a Marvel superhero proper, rather than simply a friend or ally of other Marvel superheroes.

Comics are, of course, more than scripts, and while this is a fairly satisfying—if somewhat uninspired—story, the art leaves a lot to be desired. Artist Dike Ruan draws the majority of the book, the scenes set in the present day. While his art is accomplished and well within the range of the modern Marvel house style, it’s not particularly clear when it comes to the action scenes and, this being a martial arts adventure, those scenes need greater clarity and a degree of crispness in their choreography. Too much of it is too hard to parse.

Worse are the flashback scenes by Philip Tan, whose art is muddy and whose layouts are hard to follow, seeming better suited to static cover images and pin-ups than narrative comics.

The art is surprisingly, unnecessarily gory in a few places, too; the book is intended for readers 13 and up, but one wonders why Marvel didn’t opt for a slightly toned-down version to make it an all-ages affair, particularly considering Yang’s appeal with younger readers (and the appeal of the Marvel movie heroes with kids in general).

While there are a few problems with the book then, it’s still worth noting that they are different than the problems usually associated with the Shang-Chi character, and that disappointing art or no, this is the best Shang-Chi comic Marvel has produced in recent memory. In other words it’s good enough, it’s just too bad it wasn’t better.

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J. Caleb Mozzocco About J. Caleb Mozzocco

J. Caleb Mozzocco is a way-too-busy freelance writer who has written about comics for online and print venues for a rather long time now. He currently contributes to Comic Book Resources' Robot 6 blog and ComicsAlliance, and maintains his own daily-ish blog at EveryDayIsLikeWednesday.blogspot.com. He lives in northeast Ohio, where he works as a circulation clerk at a public library by day.

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