NOTE: This review was written mostly before the stunning and unprecedented events in Ukraine. If you wish to donate to one of a number of vetted charities to help those suffering due to the criminal actions of the Putin regime, you can do so HERE.
Here’s a challenge for you. Try to find a book, article or blog post about the phenomenon of “Yellow Peril” that does not include a reference to Sax Rohmer’s fictional creation Doctor Fu Manchu.
One of the earliest fictional supervillains, Fu Manchu was a brilliant, devious Chinese scientist and master criminal who sought world domination and was basically the entire concept of the Yellow Peril incarnate in one man. And if you think I’m being unfair to Sax Rohmer, please be aware that the phrase “Yellow Peril incarnate in one man” is a direct quote describing Fu Manchu from the first novel he appears in. He is a hugely controversial creation, and no, not just in these more enlightened times. Fu Manchu has never been uncontroversial and every fresh wave of popularity for the character has prompted massive backlash and accusations of racism which are pretty damn hard to refute as, by his own admission, Rohmer basically just monetized anti-Asian xenophobia and based the character on Bayard Taylor’s notoriously racist descriptions of the Chinese.
But, here’s the thing…Fu Manchu also kinda rules? I mean, he is like Asian Dracula. He is badass. He is cool. He has menace and charisma to burn. He has a moustache named after him. He is a fantastic villain and pretty much codified the whole archetype of the brilliant, dastardly criminal mastermind, even more so than (I would argue) Professor Moriarty. And he has been incredibly influential in film too, having been played by such notable Asian actors as Christopher Lee, Boris Carloff and Nicholas Cage (oh shit, I think we took a wrong turn and ended back in Racism Town).
So on the one hand you have an extremely compelling villain with ninety years of rich history, but on the other hand you have the incredibly uncomfortable creation of the character. It’s a very thorny problem. How do you extricate Fu Manchu from Rohmer and Taylor? Could you do a non-racist Fu Manchu? Is it worth trying? Who would even want to take that on? And how would you go about it?
Well, Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin took a crack at it in 1973.
The comic that would eventually become Shang-Chi was initially pitched to DC as an adaptation of the hugely popular TV series Kung Fu starring noted Asian actor David Carradine. DC passed and Englehart and Starlin took the idea to Marvel who agreed to the basic premise of a kung fu themed comic with the following stipulations:
- That the main character be the son of Fu Manchu, who Marvel had just acquired the rights to.
- That the main character be half-white.
Why 2? Well, Marvel had recently tried to cash in on the blaxploitation craze with their character Luke Cage but had been burned when some Southern retailers had refused to display a comic with a black main character. By making Shang-Chi half white, they hoped to avoid a repeat. Which…how does that work exactly?
Despite that deeply compromised beginning, Shang-Chi went on to become Marvel’s first Asian superstar character, carrying his own book for a very respectable 125 issues (which was only cancelled when Marvel declined to renew their rights to Fu Manchu). While he’s never recaptured the same prominence in the comics that he did during the Kung Fu craze of the seventies and eighties, he’s always been a well respected and popular mainstay of the Marvel universe. So when the time came for Disney/Marvel to turn their all-seeing rapacious eye to the martial arts genre, naturally they first thought of…
But when the time came for Disney/Marvel to make their second attempt at the martial arts genre, this time with an eye to Asian representation (and absolutely nothing to do with cracking the obscenely lucrative Chinese market they’re perennially eyeing like a dragon’s horde to the point that they will desecrate their own properties and literally collaborate with a genocidal regime just for a chance of making some cold hard yuan and I think need to wrangle this sentence back into shape) they chose Shang-Chi.(more…)