But for many years, Shang-Chi existed on the fringes of other Marvel stories. His first series even sold out for a while, thanks to a racist character that Marvel lost the usage rights, said Steve Englehart, one of the comic book writers who created it.
From a comic that mimicked kung fu movies to a new series that puts more emphasis on the character’s identity as a Chinese immigrant, Shang-Chi has finally evolved into one of Marvel’s key players. Get to know the many versions of the Master of Kung Fu before meeting Liu’s rendition of the hero.
Shang-Chi’s early problems were based on some problematic stereotypes
Starlin, an artist, liked the martial arts element of the story, while writer Englehart said he was interested in Taoism and other philosophies to flesh out his protagonist. The two thought they had found a match for “Kung Fu” — but DC thought the “kung fu craze would go away,” Starlin said, passing the idea on.
So the pair took it alongside Marvel, whose executives only agreed after urging the pair to inject some pre-existing intellectual property into their comic, both men told NewsMadura.
At the time, Englehart said, he and Starlin were instructed to make their character half white. Englehart was used to racism from comic book readers — as the writer for the character Luke Cage, he remembered some Southern stores that refused to sell issues of the series because the lead was black — so to get the approval they needed to make their comic , they turned Shang-Chi’s mother into a white American woman.
There was also the issue of colors: Comics at the time were limited in the blends of colors they could use to produce certain shades, Starlin explained. The color chosen for Shang-Chi’s skin tone was predetermined, Englehart said, eventually becoming an orange-yellow shade shared by other Asian characters in comics.
“In hindsight, it’s embarrassing,” Starlin said of the skin color chosen for the character. “Shang-Chi was a creation at a time when not only was there a limited view of the world among many people, but we were very limited in what could be done technologically.”
While both authors agreed to make the problematic changes to create their comic, they were allowed to tell the rest of the story however they wanted. Englehart wrote Shang-Chi as a cerebral, would-be philosopher struggling with his violent family history and a desire to get well, while Starlin loved sketching complex scenes of Shang-Chi’s kung fu match-ups.
“He’s quite a moral character in a very corrupt world, in much the same way as Captain America,” Starlin said, pointing out that Shang-Chi isn’t as “preaching” as the MCU’s Captain America.
“He was raised to be a perfect martial artist, infused with the philosophy of the East,” Englehart told NewsMadura in an August interview. “But then he discovered that everything had been in the service of his evil father. So he rebelled against that and then made some sort of way in the world that he did not understand, matter by matter, and it through philosophical eyes.”
Soon Marvel wanted a monthly series, an annual series, some special editions and a black-and-white version of another series that featured Shang-Chi, and Englehart and Starlin were exhausted. By producing so much Shang-Chi content, there wouldn’t be that much time to fully explore complex themes, at least not in the way they envisioned. Both left the series after just a few issues.
“It was just so weird!” said Angelhart. “We were all about it, and nobody else, and then everyone was, and it became too much for us to keep up with.”
The new ‘Shang-Chi’ series rearranges the hero’s identity
Shang-Chi’s “Master of Kung Fu” series was later overseen by Doug Moench and artist Paul Gulacy, whose cinematic references to Lee and Bond gained new fans of Shang-Chi as the series continued into the 1980s. He appeared occasionally in Marvel comics in the years that followed, but was never a main character in the same way he was when he debuted.
It wasn’t until 2020 that writer Gene Luen Yang was tapped to take on a new Shang-Chi series. Together with artists Dike Ruan and Philip Tan, Yang built an identity for Shang-Chi, based on his history in comics and that of the Chinese diaspora.
Shang-Chi was constantly the outsider in his original comic series, whether he was working on the streets of London with spies or with his own family. As a young person, Yang felt like an outsider himself, which is one of the reasons why he had no contact with the character at first.
Born in China but living in California, Yang’s version of Shang-Chi enjoys working in a service position half a world away from his father, now called Zheng Zhu. He shares crystal cookies with an old foe and at one point even thinks to himself, “I’ve noticed that when I slow my cadence and use ‘wise’ words, Westerners look at me, rather than past me, when I speak. ”
While Starlin and Englehart wanted to introduce concepts of kung fu and philosophy to American readers, Yang wanted to show readers that the story of Shang-Chi, although it took him from China to Chinatown and back again, is an inherently American story.
“Superheroes, at their best, express America at its best,” he said on the Marvel podcast. “With Shang-Chi in particular, he’s an immigrant. In the original origin story, he comes as an adult, and he really finds his identity separate from his family, he finds his identity as a superhero here in America.”
Gipson, the pop culture scholar who studies race and gender within comics, said hiring colored writers like Yang to direct series about colored characters is an improvement, but it “is really not a difficult task.” She said comic book creators have made great strides in deconstructing norms of who a comic book reader is and what storylines they want to see, but hiring creators of color needs to be done consistently.
“It’s about making sure that the voices of those being represented always have a seat at the table, as well as a microphone to speak,” she told NewsMadura.
“It gives me hope that the next generation of comic book readers and consumers can see themselves accurately depicted and depicted on the page and the TV and movie screen,” Gipson said.
That is also Yang’s goal in creating a new Shang-Chi story. And with an even newer version of Shang-Chi living on in the film, the character may finally be getting the recognition, and his story with the same care, that his fellow Marvel heroes have long enjoyed.