Thursday, September 20, 2007

In Praise Of: Paul Gulacy and Master of Kung Fu

Occasional Superheroine has this post up as her start of Paul Gulacy week. I'm excerpting a bit here that is one of those quotes that certainly sums things up:
One can only imagine the reaction a kid had to a comic book as kinetically wild and relatively exotic as "The Master of Kung Fu" in the early 1970s. It certainly had an impression on a young Quentin Tarantino, who has been quoted as saying that the title was his favorite.
Valerie, I was that kid, and found myself poring over the Fight Without Pity and the Murder Agency, stunned by the choreography and violence and cinematic beauty of Shang and Shen, awed by the beauty of Leiko Wu, and overwhelmed, to this day, by what Doug and Paul were able to do in a monthly Marvel comic.

Paul forever raised the stakes on the subtlety of character interaction and he had a writer that didn't pull any punches either, giving him some real, true emotion. Do we feel the betrayal of Leiko's feelings in issue #40 when Shang innocently breaks her heart by not realizing that she is in love with him? Or is there a more fully realized death (that has stuck) than Larner's sacrifice in #49, visions of his dead wife around him?

The 12 issue run from Master of Kung Fu #38 to 50, barring #41 which is a fill-in, is a remarkable run from 1976, a literate, adult, kung fu and espionage thriller certainly better than anything the Bond franchise was putting. Doug's plotting was matched by Paul's pencils, and he gave his stories a gravitas because he could pull off the subtle character interaction that made the series. In another artist's hands (and you only have to read issue #41 to see how the series could have looked), we would have lost most if not all of what made the book unique.

Accused early on of being a Steranko clone, Paul certainly wore his influence on his sleeve, but there is nothing wrong with that. In my opinion, Jim went on to become a great designer, but Paul became the greater illustrator. In defense of this, I'll point out the two issues where Paul inked himself, Master of Kung Fu #29 and #40, and the subtlety introduced in the reflected light and shadows of #40 is a quantum leap over the earlier issue. And #29 still rocks to this day with one of the great comic fights of all time between Razorfist and Shang Chi and some deliciously deep and subtle shadows in an issue that would carry three parallel plotlines, a rather ambitious storytelling devise, in the same issue. But issue #40 is brilliant.

Paul went through any number of inkers back in those days; a scheduling issue perhaps? Something, actually, that i've never thought to ask him about. Dan Adkins, Pablo Marcos, Jack Abel, Tom Sutton and, most forgettably, Vinnie Colletta for part of issue #50, contributed to the book. For my money, Paul was best served by Adkins and Marcos. I know that Paul feels that Adkins did the best work on his pencils back then, but I really enjoyed the energy that Pablo brought with his brush work to art. Paul's work is so exacting that it has the potential to stiffen up when traced over, and so I modeled my own inking over him along the line of Marcos and Adkins.

(I finally met Pablo just a year or so ago, and was overjoyed to have the chance to tell him how much I enjoyed his work. I'm not sure that it meant as much to his as it did to me, but I pulled out a stack of Batman work over Gulacy that I had done to show him. His wife, at least, humored me and said that she saw echoes of his style in my brush work. I commissioned an expensive Living Zombie sketch that was really an excuse to give Pablo some money to thank him for his work. Of course, he kicked out an amazing Zombie sketch that I will always have.)

Paul, as you can see from the artwork scanned, has been well and interestingly served by his inkers over the years. I had the pleasure of working over Paul on a number of series, from The Grackle, Eternal Warrior and Turok/Timewalker at Acclaim to Batman: Outlaws over at DC Comics. His work on that Batman series was exceptional, as these scans from my originals show. I'll leave it to the gentle reader to decide how close to the Adkins/Marcos ideal I really hit, but I spent a hell of a lot of sleepless nights trying to get close.

I just upset that I didn't get asked to contribute to the Gulacy book that Vanguard put out. They certainly scanned in enough of my inks for the book.

Panels: Detail from Master of Kung Fu #40, inks by Gulacy; uninked pencils from The Grackle #2; Marcos inks on
Master of Kung Fu #49; Yoakum inks from the final page of Batman: Outlaws #1


dff said...

I liked the Grackle - I remember buying a four issue miniseries. Is that what you worked on? Were there any more after that?

I remember Kung Fu from when I was a kid, too. I only saw a few, but they were certainly riveting. Did Gene Day work on that series at some point, or am I mis-remembering?

I also vaguely remember Gulacy's Sabre graphic novel (I note it has its own wikipedia page), and being really impressed.

inkdestroyedmybrush said...

I inked the issues of the Grackle #2-4, but not #1, which was paul himself. Apparently there were more planned after that, but the series fell just under the 10K selling mark, and, as they say, was that. I really liked my work on the series. It was inking without a net, as the duotone pages didn't allow for any white out. Any. At all. So no mistakes allowed at all. I only made one in three issues that I covered so well that Paul never even spotted it.

MOKF had the power to stun and amaze and it was one of the great comics of the decade. Its a shame that it can't be collected by Marvel. Gene Day came on to ink Mike Zeck on his multi-year run later, and when Mike burned out, Gene took over until his untimely death. His brother Dan was helping him on the later issues. I actually prefer the Day issues to the Zeck ones.

Sabre is a great early graphic novel. Doesn't entirely hold together these days: don mcgregor's writing is much, like neil simon's, a part of the times back then. Still, Paul did some beautiful work. I still see Sabre, and Detectives Inc as two of the formative graphic novels of our time.

thanks for allowing me to dig back into the misty past on this!

dff said...

No - thank you.

I own copies of those Grackles, now I'm looking forward to digging them out of whichever long box they're in and comparing 1 to 2-4. ;-)

I don't remember the writing in Sabre so much as the art - I was young, and haven't seen the thing in decades (I don't own it, I bought it for a friend back in the day - birthday present or something).

What's the reason Marvel can't collect MOFK?

inkdestroyedmybrush said...

marvel no longer has the rights to Fu Manchu via the Sax Rohmer estate, so they can't do the reprint. Pretty sad isn't it? money, as usual. The oddity is probably that Marvel even had the rights to begin with back then!

dff said...

Strange... someone's paid for the rights, or some subset of rights: they're making a movie.

Anyway, thanks for all the info.

Alan McK said...

I, too, love MOKF and Gulacy's work in particular. I'm also a big fan of Moench's writing. However, even after all these years, it still bugs me that, collectively, the MOKF creators had real difficulty distinguishing between Chinese and Japanese cultures and mixed them up together with no regard for social boundaries. For example, Shang-Chi was depicted in a Japanese style karate Gi (no good) and in bare feet (really not good). Both these styles are Japanese. No kung fu man would ever wear a Gi or affect bare feet. In fact, in Enter the Dragon, when Mr Han's henchman says, "Mister Lee, why you no wear uniform?" Lee shoots him a classic killer look that just says Are-you-stuopid-or-what? because there's no way Bruce would ever wear a Japanese style pajama suit. And just about all of Shang-Chi's moves were karate rather than kung-fu ... But I won't labout the point.

inkdestroyedmybrush said...

that criticism has been made before, and there was even a letter that they printed with someone complaining that Shang was looking like an american indian in some panels! None of that really bothers me, since the comic was trying so damn hard to do things that no one else was doing and it certainly hit rather than missed. The jump forward technique in #43 didn't quite work, but the multiple narrative work certainly did.

You're right, but that's not what i think of when i'm looking at those comics!

Anonymous said...

You're so right about issues 29 and 40! When Gulacy inked himself it was amazing. The detail in Murder Agency is especially awe inspiring. Please see my restoration of this beautiful comic here:

and a before and after comparison here:

Thank you, and thanks for the great article. I sure wish they'd collect the original Gulacy run of MOKF into a graphic novel. If only the estate of Sax Rohmer would cooperate!!!