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Tuesday, September 30, 2014 

Kurt Busiek's inaccurate take on Master of Kung Fu's publishing history

Busiek wrote on his Facebook site:
Back in the 70s, there was only one comic that had first-person narration, moody cinematic storytelling and flawed, bittersweet relationships. That comic never sold well, and was eventually cancelled.

But today…ahh, today!

Today all mainstream comics have become MASTER OF KUNG FU.
Yes, MOKF used some 1st-person narrative by its hero, Shang Chi (unlike today's, there were quotation marks in some of the material I read), but what's this about Marvel's famous martial arts adventure not selling well? This is like some of those press releases I've seen over the past decade or so, where a company announces a title's sold out without even giving a clear sum just how many copies were sold, only here, it's in reverse. I don't know what the exact sales receipts for MOKF were at the time, but a title that ran for nearly a decade is not something you can call a failure by any stretch. One person replied:
But it lasted 111 regular issues, 4 Giant-Size issues and an Annual! Not counting the 30-or-so appearances in the DEADLY HANDS magazine! Even for the seventies and eighties that was a decent run! Too bad Marvel will most likely never be able to reprint it in quality editions!
To which Busiek said:
It didn't, really. Remember it started in #15 of something, and then kept that numbering. But yes, it had a long run, though it struggled to survive for most of that run, going bi-monthly multiple times.
Umm, seriously? I do believe this guy doesn't use the internet to its full advantage. First, the book he can't recall was Special Marvel Edition #15, December 1973, where Shang Chi debuted, and it changed into his own solo book a few months later. With that out of the way, why does he think MOKF went bi-monthly "multiple times" when my search on the GCD shows that it began bi-monthly, but then went on in August 1974 for full time monthly, continuing steadily in that schedule till its end in 1983? How is that going bi-monthly numerous times? Even the Deadly Hands of Kung Fu spinoff magazine went on a monthly schedule for much of its 1974-77 run, and you can't say that a book with 4 specials and an annual is a failure. In fairness, it is possible that during the latter half of its run, sales began to decline. But it still ran a pretty impressive near decade and I don't see how Busiek concluded it was some kind of a financial failure in every way.

I would assume what he really meant is that Doctor Strange was a series that never sold as well as it could've. When Marvel first tried to spotlight the Master of Mystic Arts in his own solo book in 1968-69 (continuing the numbering from Strange Tales), it was a failure because audiences did not find the shift to wearing a mask impressive. Unlike some of the other superheroes, Stephen Strange usually didn't keep a secret ID per se, but rather, a low profile on his night job and sometimes erasing people's memories of his feats in costume, an idea some politically correct leftists have been trying to attack today for all the wrong reasons. When Marvel tried a solo book again in 1974, following success with Marvel Premiere and the Defenders, this volume did better but remained bi-monthly till it was stopped in 1987. It ran at least 81 issues, which is plenty but still well behind MOKF's nearly 110 issues. When it was relaunched the next year, it remained bi-monthly for almost another year before switching to full time monthly; one of the last bi-monthly titles Marvel published at the time. Technically, that may not be very successful, but it still clearly had some kind of success (and I own several issues from both these volumes), and is a much admired take on the Master of Mystic Arts. So how did Busiek end up talking about MOKF instead of Doctor Strange? Gee, I wonder if Baron Mordo changed the signposts at the trans-dimensional doorways so he took the wrong path? By the Hoary Hosts of Hoggoth, that must be it! Dear, dear!

Seriously, the real issue that should be in focus here is why Marvel has made no attempt 3 decades after the original MOKF ended to secure a deal with Sax Rohmer's estate that would allow them to reprint all that great material that features Rohmer creations like Fu Manchu and Dennis Nayland Smith. What, doesn't Busiek want everybody to check out all that cool stuff from the Bronze Age in archive books? Hmm, who's the real strange person here then? Don't know why he'd take the time to make a slapdash note on the publishing history of a famous adventure series but not argue why the time has come for Marvel to be serious about negotiating deals with the Rohmer estate so that everybody will have a better chance discovering the same experience he says he had with Shang Chi's adventures. Because that's where Marvel's really failing - to ensure future generations will have the opportunity to read their best products from the Bronze Age.

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My impression (and, of course, I could be wrong) is that Marvel was really pushing Master of Kung Fu in 1974-75, when there was a fad for martial arts action movies. And "Deadly Hands" may have been an attempt to market the character in a different format, to reach those movie fans who did not read comics.

I suspect sales did decline by the early 1980's. At the time, there was talk that writer Doug Moench quit rather than make major changes that editor-in-chief Jim Shooter wanted.

That's surprising b/c Busiek is supposed to be a walking Marvel encyclopedia

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