There is perhaps no one more qualified to help bring a dormant Asian superhero back to comic book relevance than writer Gene Luen Yang.
Shang-Chi, once heralded as the “master of kung-fu,” first appeared in “Special Marvel Edition” No. 15 in 1973. He had his own series until the early ’80s and a 2015 miniseries during Marvel’s “Secret Wars,” but otherwise has only sporadically appeared in various comic books. He’s not the Black Panther of Asian superheroes … yet. Some might even say he’s not as popular as the X-Men’s Jubilee in the ’90s.
But Yang’s involvement with this comic as well as Hollywood’s big plans for the character could help make him a household name. And the comic, Yang hopes, is creating a more authentic, empowered version of the character, as he’s being shaped by writers and artists of Asian descent.
A big-budget, live-action Shang-Chi movie from Marvel Studios has delayed production because of the pandemic but is still planned for theatrical release in July. The film is being directed by Destin Daniel Cretton (“Short Term 12”), who is half Japanese, and it features Chinese Canadian actor Simu Liu (of the sitcom “Kim’s Convenience”) in the titular role. Having Yang write the comic just ahead of the film is similar to when Ta-Nehisi Coates penned his first “Black Panther” comic a month before Chadwick Boseman debuted on-screen as the African superhero in “Captain America: Civil War” in 2016.
Yang, who is Chinese American, admits to “actively avoiding” Shang-Chi comics at his local comic book shop as a child.
“When I was a kid I went through this period where I was not really into my cultural heritage,” Yang told The Washington Post. “I wanted to divorce myself from being Chinese. So, picking up a comic with a Chinese American hero would almost be like highlighting what made me different.”
The irony of that same Asian American child growing up to become a force for inclusion and diversity in comics is not lost on Yang. He hopes that with this new “Shang-Chi” miniseries he can reach the same type of child he used to be.
“I want to create a comic [with Shang-Chi] where a kid like me would be okay picking it up,” Yang said. “The character would be presented in a three-dimensional enough manner where the kid who might have a hesitant relationship with his own cultural heritage would still be willing to pick it up.”
Yang will expand on the legend originally crafted by Shang-Chi’s creators Jim Starlin and Steve Englehart. Shang-Chi is the son of an evil, presumed-dead sorcerer and martial arts master Zheng Zu. The hero will reside in present-day San Francisco, making new friends, meeting a potential new love-interest and bumping heads with old flames who are very much lethal. Shang-Chi will also meet his many half-siblings on his father’s side and must decipher who really wants to help him and who wants to hurt him.
Rounding out an all-Asian creative team on the miniseries are artists Dike Ruan and Philip Tan. Ruan, a Chinese artist, will illustrate the present-day panels of “Shang-Chi” while Tan, who is of Chinese decent and was born in the Philippines, will draw the comic’s flashback scenes where Zheng Zu plays a prominent role.
Ruan instantly felt like he was a part of something that was not an industry norm when he began collaborating with Yang and Tan, and even more so when he saw that elements of traditional Chinese culture were a part of Yang’s story.
“When I first read the script, I kind of found [someone like] myself in a big story,” Ruan said.“ I used to see a lot of Asian people playing background characters. As a child and young man, it felt like, in the Western comics world, there was not a character that totally represented me and the culture in which I was born and raised. Black Panther’s comics and movies have contributed to represent and empower the Black community via the Marvel Universe, so I really hope this new version of Shang-Chi can play a similar role for the Asian community.”
Tan grew up reading Marvel comic books in the ’90s, but Shang-Chi rarely made it on his radar as a young reader.
“I strongly believe that good work should not be categorized by skin color or other physical nature of the talent behind it,” Tan said. “But having the need to represent an underrepresented group will always mean a lot for talents of said group doing the work. Being part of an all-Asian team to reintroduce the biggest Asian Marvel character, is very significant.”
Yang noticed while reading many of Shang-Chi’s early adventures that the superhero wasn’t always the primary focus of his own story. He found many instances where the character came off as an “other.” Even though the superhero had lots of “on-panel time,” many times the point of view came from side characters who commented on how “weird” and “different” Shang-Chi was. Yang, Ruan and Tan’s goal is to bring Shang-Chi front and center.
“What we want to do in our book is we want to fill him out as a character, so that he is the true point-of-view character so that you really are in his head and he is the most relatable character on the page,” Yang said. “It feels like we’re trying to put together a new mythology around an old character. Life as a whole [during a pandemic] has not been awesome. Writing Shang-Chi has been a blast.”