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shang-chi beating up some bad guys in Shang-Chi #1, Marvel (2020) Image: Gene Luen Yang, Dike Ruan/Marvel

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Shang-Chi #1 is fistfuls of fun

The refreshing take on the character makes the book shine

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Marvel hero Shang-Chi will finally make it into the Marvel Cinematic Universe come 2021, but ahead of the hero’s film debut comes a revamp of his origin. In its first of five issues, Shang-Chi already does away with some antiquated elements of the hero’s story, jazzing up the lore and reimagining Marvel history. The plot and tension are tight, but the best part of Shang-Chi #1 is, well, Shang-Chi himself — a hilarious, self-aware hero who just wants a break.

Who is making Shang-Chi #1?

Shang-Chi #1 comes from writer Gene Luen Yang, the cartoonist behind National Book Award finalist American Born Chinese; artist Dike Ruan, whose previous credits include Spider-Man and Spider-Verse; artist Philip Tan (in the past sequences), the penciller of Final Crisis: Revelations; and colorist Sebastian Cheng, who also worked on The Amazing Spider-Man and Venom.

Additionally, Travis Lanham does lettering, with a cover by Jim Cheung and Laura Martin.

What is Shang-Chi #1 about?

After escaping his father’s ancient (and evil!) secret society and serving as an Avenger and a spy, Shang-Chi lives a quiet life in San Francisco’s Chinatown. But when a pair of skilled warriors stop an attempt on his life, Shang-Chi is pulled into an intersectional conflict within the Five Deadly Weapons Society.

Why is Shang-Chi #1 happening now?

Yang and Ruan’s new series is a new story about the classic Marvel hero Shang-Chi, the Master of Kung Fu. But Shang-Chi #1 is more than that. In just one issue, Yang started to reclaim some antiquated stereotypes that the original Shang-Chi comics perpetuated. And he’s no stranger to this kind of rehabilitation by reboot. In his work for DC Comics, Yang never shied from an opportunity to call attention to the Orientalist roots of some of the superhero genre’s favorite stock characters, or to rehabilitate those characters themselves.

And Shang-Chi certainly bears the weight of Orientalist stereotype. Created in 1973 by Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin, he was originally the son of the pulp fiction (and very Orientalist!) villain Fu Manchu, an ancient sorcerer, cult leader, and the granddaddy of yellow peril characters. And it wasn’t a stand in for Fu Manchu, either, Marvel was paying to license the character from his creator. When that license ran out, the publisher simply revealed that Shang-Chi’s father’s real name was actually Zheng Zu instead, to sidestep the legal issues.

With Shang-Chi #1, Yang weaves a new mythos for the hero.

Is there any required reading?

Technically, this comic takes place after the events of Secret Avengers #7 - 10, in which Shang-Chi finally defeated Zheng Zu by turning him to stone. But because Shang-Chi #1 reimagines Shang-Chi, you can probably go in knowing next to nothing about the hero (as I did). The first few pages are a lot of lore dump, but it catches you up on basically everything you need to know about Shang-Chi and the world he lives in. Some familiarity with the hero’s original backstory before this retcon might offer insight on what has changed, but for this reader, going in blind did not hinder the experience whatsoever.

shang-chi serves up some chinese pastries using his super strength from Shang-Chi #1 Marvel 2020 Image: Gene Luen Yang, Dike Ruan/Marvel

Is Shang-Chi #1 good?

Don’t let the first few pages of dense lore dump deter you. It can be a bit overwhelming as Yang basically condenses hundreds of years into a couple of pages and introduces a cult, various cult members, the mechanics of said cult, and much more before even mentioning the titular hero. Granted this exposition is done with some high-stakes action panels to help push it along, so it’s pretty streamlined.

Tan’s art in this section is heavy, with a lot of shadows and details. The moment when the warriors of the Five Houses rise up to protect the city packs a lot into one shot — the five warriors all armed with weapons, the glowing sorcerer leaders, Zheng Zu’s determined face — and effectively shows the breadth of the society. Like the lore information, it’s a lot at once, but it’s really cool.

Led by Shang-Chi’s late father, Zheng Zu, the Five Weapon Society was formed to protect China. It’s made up of five different branches, four dedicated to different weapons and one to unarmed combat. The inner workings of the Society start to make more sense once it’s all put into action and the plot kicks off. Compared to the prologue, the art in the modern-day section is a bit brighter, losing some of the shadows for more color, something that translates into the tone as well.

The plot itself is compelling, but the best part is Shang-Chi, the character. Currently working in a Chinese bakery in San Francisco, Shang-Chi just wants a break from his frankly ridiculous life. He’s a wonderfully funny and wry narrator, delightfully self-aware of his actions and the absolute drama of his existence. He laments that he has a hard time holding down a steady job, which he attributes as just another casual side-effect of growing up in a cult.

This self-awareness extends beyond the plot and into more meta aspects of Shang-Chi the character. When M16 agent Leiko Wu comments that his English sounds like a fortune cookie, he notes to the reader that he’s found that more foreigners listen to him when he phrases his English like a stereotypical wise Chinese man. He’s just a delightful character who adds light and heart to the otherwise serious plotline.

One panel that popped

a chinese auntie complimenting shang-chi’s muscles in shang-ch #1 from Marvel (2020) Image: Gene Luen Yang, Dike Ruan/Marvel

Action scenes are all fine and good and great, but I’m really here for seeing Grandma Wang compliment Shang-Chi’s muscles after he uses his strength to speedily package to-go orders at her bakery.

Shang-Chi #1 is available on Comixology.