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Want to watch Richard Dragon and Lady Shiva beat up Paul Bunyan? Sure you do. – Richard Dragon, Kung-Fu Fighter #10

November 9, 2012

Every generation and every decade has its fads, its crazes and pop-entertainment fetishes that catch fire and then look ridiculous years later. We’re currently in the midst of one, a sustained zombie/vampire nor’easter. Walking Dead, Twilight, Vampire Diaries, True Blood, World War Z — they’re all a part of the storm surge, and sometimes it feels like we’re going to all drown in an overflow of hacky storytelling. Don’t get me wrong: blood-sucking and brain-eating beasties are all well and good, and I have no objections about either. They can both be part of stories that grab the reader/slash viewer. Conversely, I can watch a British drama that’s all about class and manners so long as it’s done right. But when things suck, they suck, no matter the subject matter. and there seems to be a lot more suck in the current crop.

This brings us to the nub. The problem with fads is that there’s such a rush to get product out to the public before the mass hypnosis wears off, the material suffers. This is most acute with fiction. I mean, some of the properties I listed above are downright awful. Painful. Maybe you can assembly line pet rocks and hammer pants, but quality stories are a different animal altogether. Things can go really wrong.

But that’s not going to stop anyone.

The 1970s had their fads too (oh, did they ever), and disco wasn’t sucking all the air out of the room. One of those brightly-burning crazes made a big-time migration into the world of comic books. Two words: KUNG. FU.

It’s sometimes hard to trace the source of a these things, the flap of the butterfly’s wings that builds to an Atlantic Hurricane. Maybe the kung-fu mojo started with Enter the Dragon — there was certainly no better martial arts paragon to follow than Bruce Lee. Whatever the source, martial arts took off. I mean, it TOOK OFF. Store-front schools, movies, television shows, you name it. And when karate and its cousins become such a potent entertainment theme that people are willing to swallow David Carradine as a lethal chopper and kicker, no matter his legitimate skills, things have gotten real.

The comics transition wasn’t relegated to omnipresent self-improvement advertisements, but found expression in character after character. It was a rainbow assemblage — black, white, asian, and everything else — that bridged the major publishers. To list all the characters, from the big guns right down to the Sons of the Tiger, would take a long time. So would covering every one of the characters here on this blog (though, who knows, we might get there someday).

So let’s pick one. Let’s pick one of the white guys traipsing in the stereotypically Asian world of martial arts — but a guy with an inclusive supporting cast. Let’s go with the guy with the most kung fu of last names. Let’s go with Richard Dragon.

Dragon, a young thief stealing from a dojo who wound up being instructed by its sensei in the martial arts, and then teamed with another student, Ben Turner, to fight injustice wherever it occurred (under the auspices of the poorly acronymed G.O.O.D.), was one of the many ass-kicking clones of the Me Decade. A part of the DC Universe proper, he mainly fought a unique assemblage of side-villains, and never really came up against the big guns of Earth-1 devilry. Hence this Denny O’Neill written, Ric Estrada and Jack Abel illustrated issue, where he fights an evil Paul Bunyan proxy. Paul “Infected” Bunyan, as it were. Ladies and gentleman, I give you Hatchett:

What brings these two irresistible forces (hands of stone, axe of steel) together is Ben inheriting a lot of woodsy acreage. This, combined with recent threats on Ben’s life, is enough for Richard, Ben and gal-pal Lady Shiva (a woman very serious about her craft) to helicopter up there, where they face, of all things, highly refined bigotry:

Good old-fashioned stupidity isn’t the only thing that they find. There’s also a wandering orphaned nephew of Ben’s, whose mother was the former owner of the woodlands:

Am I the only one that finds Ben’s gallantry in this instance a bit showy? I mean, he must have been real close to this sister to know nothing about her owning logging land and having a son. His vowing revenge on their behalf now sounds a lot like the absentee father who shows up with an armful of toys, takes the kids out to ice cream and then disappears for another month. But that’s just me. (Also, how did this young child survive in stone cold murderous racist country for however long it took for Ben to be found and arrive?)

The ass-kicking commences soon, as Hatchett and his flannel-wearing army of lumberjacks (they appear to share a tailor with the very macho Stan Lee) match their fighting prowess against the highly trained trio. It does not go well for the men of the north:

Eventually our heroes and their new ward find themselves in a cabin, and Hatchett gets the bright idea to torch that sumbitch (hey, is that a gahoon or a flamethrower?):

Are flame-throwers actually used for brush-clearing? Is this a good idea? Has Smokey the Bear been consulted about this practice?

The good guys make it out the back door while Dragon, like the true badass he is (or wants to be) goes out the flaming front to distract Hatchett’s men. Lady Shiva still has her own problems in back, though. Have you ever wondered what would win a matchup between a sword and a chainsaw? If so, this comic has a datapoint for you:

Man, it’s so hot when a chick kicks you in the face and calls you a pig at the same time. Or so I’ve been told.

As for Dragon? He has his final, shirtless (naturally) confrontation with Hatchett, and chucks all that fancy training to the side and relies ON A GOOD OLD AMERICAN JOHN WAYNE PUNCH:

Hatchett, we hardly knew ye. (Lame last lines, btw.)

You can’t say that this book is heavy on story. The situation is silly, the execution is predictable, and the wordplay is wooden. O’Neill has been a part of more fantastic stories than I care to count, but this isn’t a part of that august resume. Also, kung-fu is one of those things that’s so hard to translate to the comic medium. Yes, comics are able to recreate movement through artsy trickeration, but it’s nevertheless a static artform. The martial arts craze was built on speed and foley, and “wow I can’t believe a human can do that” wonder. Bottling that on a page is beyond Estrada’s abilities, and, in fairness, the abilities of most every artist out there, at least to my eyes.

All that said, if you were a kung-fu-addled reader in the 1970s — a real true believer — the flying feet of fury were probably all you could ever ask for. This would have been an adequate fix.

You don’t see Richard Dragon all that much anymore. Lady Shiva has far outpaced him over the years, glomming onto the Batman gravy train and thus eclipsing the man in whose title she made her debut. This staying power proves one thing: fads come and go, but ladies in tight clothes holding swords never ever goes out of style. EXCELSIOR.

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