The long tenure of Doug Moench on Marvel's MASTER OF KUNG FU series-- favored with above-average art from the likes of Paul Gulacy and Gene Day-- in many ways outshines the early pattern of the kung-fu hero's adventures, as exemplified by the origin tale. There can be little doubt that the idea of tying Shang-Chi to the world of superspy-espionage instilled new life in the original premise of "New Asia vs. Old Asia" (I.e., Fu Manchu's high-kicking son vs, his father, the embodiment of the Yellow Peril).
The years of Moench tenure were marked by exceptional use of kinetic and dramatic qualities. Further, Moench's writing, rather than aping the prosaic style of Roy Thomas and Steve Englehart, often displayed a poetic appreciation for resonant symbolism. That said, like most writers sustaining a regular feature, Moench didn't always have the luxury of crafting mythopoeic scenarios. This 1982 adventure is one of those that succeeds in this department.
"Dark Angel's Kiss" is constructed as a stand-alone story, though a reader can hardly understand it unless he is familiar with the rather expansive cast of characters. Central character Shang-Chi is relatively easy to comprehend, as he is the image of the lover of peace forced to take violent actions, much after the example of Kwai Chang Caine of television fame. His relationship with girlfriend Leiko Wu is of minor importance to the story, as seen in an opening sequence, where she and Shang make interesting use of a tennis-ball cannon.
The character from the title, an agent code-named "the Dark Angel," doesn't do much in the story either in terms of the main action. Her importance is that of a temptress, who draws the interest of Shang's fellow agent Reston, who breaks up with his old girlfriend in order to taste the Angel's kisses.
Shang and the other agents are somewhat taken aback by Reston's coldness toward his old girl, though there's the generally mature understanding that it's not really any of their business. However, Dark Angel, as a defector to England, falls under the sway of MI-6's new boss. Fah Lo Suee, the daughter of Fu Manchu. She happens to mention her current business with Dark Angel when she visits with her current lover, Zaran the Weapons Master, for the purpose of breaking up with him. Zaran, a hunter of beasts and men, does not take the breakup as well as Reston's girlfriend, so that Fah Lo Suee has to anesthetize him.
Zaran then decides to put a hit on the Dark Angel, which brings him into conflict with Shang-Chi at the same time the whole freelance agency decides to undertake an old-timey "fox hunt." Perhaps needless to specify, Shang-Chi keeps Zaran from killing Dark Angel.
In terms of its plot, "Kiss" is an undistinguished "stop-the-assassin" story. But it is one of the richer Moench stories in terms of giving its characters symbolically dense personas. Zaran the master hunter is contrasted with Shang-Chi, who explicitly rejects the passions of the hunting ritual (Shang even helps the fox-hunt's quarry escape). The two warriors battle in a Scottish graveyard, and when Zaran confronts the unarmed martial artist with knives, Shang-Chi arms himself with the thighbones of exhumed skeletons. Says Zaran: "That suits me fine, Shang-Chi-- a primitive, club-wielding savage against an advanced, tool-making warrior!" This opposition between the hero's basic style of fighting and the superior technology of his enemies is a frequent leitmotif of the Moench tenure, and it almost always signals a victory for the Master of Kung Fu. (Arguably, the teleseries KUNG FU initiated this leitmotif as well, though admittedly not within a superspy aesthetic.)
There's no subtlety to Moench's obvious parallels between Shang-Chi's sister throwing over her lover and his friend Reston choosing a new love over an old one. Yet these amours confer on the simple plot a sense of love as an unpredictable force of nature, one always subject to the vagaries of change. This provided a relatively mature attitude toward romance for a mainstream comic book of the period.
Gene Day's marvelous art poeticizes the violence of the encounter, but never more than the splash panel of page one, where Shang, Zaran and the other characters are imagined as playing-cards, implicitly set to 'trump" one another.
SUPERHEROES ARE DAMN-NEAR EVERYWHERE #196
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