The cover for "Shang-Chi" is a small masterpiece of design, not just in terms of kinetic effects but also in terms of conjuring with Asian representations from differing eras. Even though this was the hero's first appearance, most if not all comics-purchasers in 1973 would have quickly recognized the iconography of the young Asian kung-fu fighter. This racial icon had by 1973 been popularized in part through English-dubbed martial arts films made in Hong Kong and distributed to the U.S. According to this site and to Wikipedia, the film known in the U.S. as THE CHINESE CONNECTION, released to the States in November 1972, jump-started the brief American kung-fu craze, though the TV pilot for ABC's KUNG FU teleseries contributed as well, airing in February of that year. Both of Shang-Chi's co-creators, Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin, have asserted in online interviews that the David Carradine TV show was their main source of inspiration, and this is reflected in the characterization of Shang-Chi as an earnest seeker of truth. Even the cover's design uses Chinese iconography to communicate this via the yin-yang symbol on the floor. Note that Shang-Chi's foot stands upon the white, "good" section and his bad sumo-opponent stands in the black, "evil" section-- although some colorist goofed and failed to darken the spot inside the "yang" section.
Looming over Shang-Chi on the cover is the gigantic figure of Fu Manchu, though his name does not appear until the first page of the interior story. Most viewers would automatically call Fu Manchu's image-- given both pointed ears and clawlike fingers-- to be unreservedly racist. I will write no apologias for the pointed ears, but I think it worth pointing out that the widespread icon of the Asian with Clawlike Fingers may have come about as a Western response to the Chinese custom of incredibly long fingernails. For the Chinese long fingernails signified an aristocrat's freedom from the necessities of manual labor, but many Westerners, whether actively racist or not, plainly found the image off-putting and so evolved their own reading of this image. To be sure, as the story reveals, Fu Manchu is an aristocrat in the sense that he hopes to restore the prominence of the Manchu dynasty-- though one cannot necessarily render the same reading for every Asian villain who had "claw" in his name.
Following a stunning action-scene by Starlin-- from back in the days when he could do stunning action-scenes-- Shang-Chi reveals his relationship to the "most infamous villain of all time:"
Having supplied a modicum of action for the impatient reader, Englehart and Starlin then produce in their hero's mind a flashback far longer than any seen on the KUNG FU series. Through dialogue between the son and his sire, it's established that from childhood Shang-Chi has been trained in the martial arts to become a "living weapon." Fu Manchu asserts that he labors ceaselessly for the betterment of the world, and that Shang-Chi's first mission on his father's behalf will be to go to London and assassinate an evildoer named Doctor Petrie. Shang-Chi goes where his father bids him, and though he vacillates when he stands by the bed of an ailing old man, he does slay Petrie with a single blow. However, the unwilling assassin is caught leaving by a gun-wielding old man in a wheelchair: Fu Manchu's long-time adversary Denis Nayland Smith. Shang-Chi disarms Smith, but the older man-- who will in later stories become a new father-figure to the martial artist-- reveals to Shang the truth about Fu Manchu's villainous nature-- in imagery, I should note, that reflects all of the prejudices of the era when both Fu and Nayland Smith were conceived.
Today it might be almost impossible for audiences to credence this association of the Chinese villain and "spiders, rats, reptiles, and other loathsome vermin," much less extend their sympathies to a character, even an older one, who spoke of his Asian enemy as a "yellow devil." Nevertheless, Englehart and Starlin are more careful than Fu Manchu's creator sometimes was, to keep the villain from being a representative of the Chinese people.
The flashback ends with Shang-Chi's tortured realization of his father's duplicity, so he returns to Fu Manchu's stronghold for answers. He battles the gigantic sumo Tak, who was his father's tool in putting Nayland Smith in a wheelchair, and defeats him. He finds proof of Nayland Smith's accusations in his father's laboratory, where he is attacked by a huge gorilla. This battle lasts only two pages, but is less consequential for its action than for what the reader is told via captions about the gorilla: that Fu Manchu endowed the beast with a brain "capable of elementary reasoning," and then tormented the beast so that it would become savage enough to attack anyone trespassing on the laboratory. Though Shang-Chi is not privy to the information in the captions, he's horrified to see that his father's cruelty has resulted in "demons like this [creature]."
After the death of the guard-gorilla, Fu Manchu appears before his son, attempting to cajole his offspring back to the fold. However, Fu only reveals his own monomania by boasting of "an invisible, world-wide empire opposed to all governments." Shang-Chi, a peaceful pluralist at heart, renounces his father as a madman and swears to dedicate his life to preventing his evil schemes.
The series was so successful, albeit briefly, that the title in which the feature premiered, SPECIAL MARVEL EDITION, was quickly revised to MASTER OF KUNG FU, and remained under that title for the duration of its run. However, neither co-creator remained with their creation long: Starlin left with MOKF #17, and Englehart departed with #19. Curiously, neither man had planned to use Fu Manchu in their concept: this addition came about because Marvel had already licensed the "devil-doctor" but had been unable to find a way to make him salable. Editor Roy Thomas reputedly injected Fu Manchu into the mix, but though his main motivation may have been economic-- that of justifying the license-- the combination proved more felicitous than might have been expected. Though Fu Manchu was not as popular in the second half of the 20th century as he'd been in the first half, his presence in the MOKF book forced creators to continually play the old, negative image of the Asian against the newer, positive one for as long as Marvel retained the license to Sax Rohmer's character.
To be sure, although writer Doug Moench and his many artist-collaborators produced some good mythcomics with Shang-Chi, none of them succeeded in portraying the Asian villain with as much dimension as did Englehart and Starlin. It's conceivable that their lack of enthusiasm was rooted in the dominant political view that Fu Manchu was only a racist artifact and nothing more-- or worse, that the prevalence of the many stereotypical Asian villains in pop culture signified that the most archetypal Asian villain should not be used by conscientious persons. It's a view with which I do not concur, as I will address in a future essay.