Thursday, January 12, 2017


Marvel’s The Deadly Hands of Kung Fu ran 33 issues from April 1974 to February 1977. There was a Special Album Edition that came out between issues #3 and #4 and the all-article The Deadliest Heroes of Kung Fu that came out between issues #15 and #16. Issue #15 was all-reprint except for some editorial material.

Marvel has reprinted those first eighteen issues and the specials in The Deadly Hands of Kung Fu Omnibus Vol. 1 [$125], published in November 2016. The second volume, featuring the rest of the issues, will be published in June.

I was the editor of Deadly Hands of Kung Fu for a small handful of issues. I wrote a few articles and plotted some comics stories for the magazine. Of all the titles I edited or otherwise worked on at Marvel, Deadly Hands was the most challenging.

Horror and monsters? No problem. I grew up on that stuff. Planet of the Apes? Okay, I didn’t enjoy editing that magazine, but, save for some legal mishaps, it wasn’t particularly difficult to helm that title. But I was a novice to the martial arts and, when I edited or worked on Deadly Hands, I always felt like I was playing catch up. Every other Deadly Hands editor was almost certainly better than I was at editing the magazine.

Time passes. Over forty years of time passes and, out of nowhere, Marvel Comics Collection Editor Cory Sedlmeier asks me to write one of three forewords for the first omnibus volume. My job is to write about the non-comic features in the magazine. It’s an interesting gig. I write what I hope is an amusing, informative piece sprinkled with some personal reminiscences. I like it. Cory likes it. Grass-roots movements spring up demanding that the Will Eisner Awards add a category for best introduction. Okay, I made up the last one on account of it leads us to a cogent point:

As contributor to and editor of The Deadly Hands of Kung Fu, I was pretty much making it up as I went. I had no comics-magazine role model for this type of magazine. I threw stuff against the printing press and hoped it would come out okay. Or more than one occasion, in my useful enthusiasm, I announced stuff that wasn’t actually in the works. I bow my head in embarrassment.

However...readers liked the magazine. And now, that I’m able to sit back and enjoy the issues at a more leisurely pace, I can see what those readers saw in it. Hence, this new ongoing series within the bloggy thing wherein I will share my thoughts about these issues. It won’t be an issue-by-issue, story-by-story, feature-by-feature kind of thing like I do with The Rawhide Kid. It’ll be more along the lines of, hey, that thing in that issue makes me want to write this about it.

This series within the bloggy thing doesn’t have a set expiration date. When I get to the end of the magazine’s run, whether that’s in five columns or fifteen columns or more, I get to the end of it. Hopefully, we’ll all enjoy the journey.

Before we get into the actual issue, let’s talk about those three forewords to the first omnibus. Mine revealed that Marvel’s budget for Deadly Hands and the other magazines only allowed for thirty of so pages of new comics stories. This wasn’t a problem with the horror magazines because we could reprint stories from the 1950s and the 1960s to fill pages. However, Marvel had no such backlog of martial arts comic-book tales, unless you want to count Captain America’s battles with Batroc. Which I did. Once. Out of desperation when a scheduled story was anywhere near completion and an issue had to be shipped to the printer. Not my proudest moment.

Gerry Conway’s “Clawed by a Tiger” piece is a true confessional about how his Roman Catholic upbringing hadn’t exposed him to people of other faiths and nationalities. It’s a wonderfully honest piece in which Gerry is way too hard on himself. His Sons of the Tiger stories do have some martial arts movies cliches, but he treated those characters with respect. The comic-book industry was overwhelmingly white in those days. Guys like Gerry and myself might not have gotten some of this stuff right, but we did our stories with clean hands and honest hearts. For readers seeing characters of color, characters who, for the first time, looked like them, these comics transcend any failings of their creators. In short, Gerry did good.

Doug Moench’s “Color Ain’t Enough?” has him struggling to remember the background of his stories for the magazine. I’m not surprised. Doug wrote scripts faster than I could proofread them and, my mouth to Odin’s ear, they were as clean as they come. No matter how odd the word in a script, Doug spelled it right and used it right. His grammar was equally impeccable and, as I said, he wrote faster than anyone else on our roster.

Doug couldn’t recall coordinating with either myself or assistant editor Chris Claremont on the kind of sort of team-up of Iron Fist, the Sons of the Tiger and Shang-Chi in The Deadly Hands of Kung Fu Special Album Edition. He did, but the story was designed by yours truly to avoid a lot of back and forth between the writers.

I came up with the basic idea: Fu Manchu would try to start a war between the United States and China. Iron Fist would try and fail to prevent the kidnapping of the Chinese ambassadors to the United Nations. The Sons of the Tiger would fail to prevent the kidnapping of American diplomats. Shang-Chi with his MI-5 associates - British intelligence - would rescue the hostages and stop Fu Manchu’s plan.

Doug wrote the Iron Fist and Shang-Chi chapters. Chris wrote the Sons of the Tiger chapter. I wrote a full-page splash page for the whole thing and a single-page epilogue. I’m not surprised Doug did not remember this minor coordination. I’m surprised I remember it.

The contents page of The Deadly Hands of Kung Fu #1 [April 1974] does not list me as a member of the editorial staff. I do remember seeing the Neal Adams cover in the office and being given a printed copy of the interiors of the issue. My memory gets a little foggy here. I would be added to the editorial staff listing in the second issue, but my becoming editor of the magazine with the third issue might have already been in the works.

The Shang-Chi story by Steve Englehart, Jim Starlin and Al Milgrom was the highlight of the issue for me. The Grand Comics Database has this synopsis of the tale:

Shang-Chi has turned against his father Fu Manchu, and now Fu Manchu wants answers from the priests who trained Shang Chi. Fu Manchu is unable to understand that it is his own brutality that has driven a wedge between him and his son.


That’s only part of the story. One priest was actively working to turn Shang-Chi against Fu Manchu, albeit in subtle ways. This guy is so good Fu Manchu never realizes he has been betrayed, but the last panel shot of the priest’s face says it all. Even before re-reading this story, I remembered that face.


The first issue articles were on Bruce Lee, martial arts training, the Kung Fu TV show and 5 Fingers of Death. Writing as Wan Chung O’Shaugnessy, Denny O’Neil did one piece on martial arts training and one on Kung Fu. John David Warner reviewed Five Fingers of Death, did an article on Kung Fu, and the first installment of his “Under the Pagoda” column. Warner was one of the magazine’s best article writers. Don McGregor was his only equal.

Rereading Warner’s Five Fingers of Death review made me want to view the movie for myself. Fortunately, I was able to get a DVD through my local library. Look for a review soon.

The article on Bruce Lee was by Lorraine Zenka-Smith, who I don’t think I ever met. She might have been someone from Martin Goodman’s  non-comics magazines.

Duel editorials by Roy Thomas and Marv Wolfman don’t stand the test of time. Reading them in 2017, they sort of come off like, “Hey, Marvel figures there’s money to be made from this kung fu stuff, so here we are.” I don’t fault them; we were all feeling our way with this kung fu stuff and I stumbled as much or more than anyone else who worked on the magazine.

Gerry Conway’s first Sons of the Tiger script felt like a martial arts movie. Mysterious assassins attack a martial arts school and kill Master Kee. Lin Sun, Kee’s most accomplished student, is given three amulets. One is a jade tiger head, the symbol of the school, and the other two are tiger paws. There’s an inscription with this gift that has always reminded me of Green Lantern’s oath:

“When three are called, and stand as one, as one they’ll fight, their will be done...for each is born anew, the tiger’s son!”

To avenge Master Kee’s death, Lin recruits two friends and fellow students. Abe Brown uses his skills to fight drug dealers in his neighborhood. Actor Robert Diamond came to the school to pick up a few tricks for his action movies and learned to respect the martial arts and himself. Though some of this origin story’s elements are stereotypical, Gerry was way too hard on himself. He wrote a solid story. Dick Giordano’s art was an attraction as well. I was a fan of his since before his legendary runs as a Charlton editor and then a DC editor, a fan ever since he draw the wonderful Sarge Steel title at the former company.

As I said up top, this isn’t going to be an issue-by-issue series on The Deadly Hands of Kung Fu. I’ll be jumping past stuff to write about the stories and articles that interest me as I reread the issues. But I felt the first issue needed to be covered more fully because of its premiere and pivotal status among the “kung fu” comic books of the era.

This series within a series will continue from time to time. However, for tomorrow, I’ll have something different for you.

© 2017 Tony Isabella


  1. Really enjoyed this honest, confessional and informative piece Tony. Thanks so much for sharing your memories.

  2. Thanks for sharing this. I remember being awed by John DAvid Warner's piece on Enter the Dragon and have desperately sought it online. Don't remember which issue it appeared in, but it was the first one I ever saw, so assuming #1 or final issue.