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Exploitation Friday!

Truthfully, I read hardly any comics this week. What I DID do was watch a lot of movies… that a lot of my favorite comics were stolen from.

Comics and movies have always had a vaguely symbiotic relationship, at least here in the U.S. Things that were fads in the movies often eventually ended up having a sort of ripple effect in comics, as well.

 Big in the movies? Then soon it was big in the comics.

Especially B-movie, drive-in stuff.

One of many comics that preferred the rip-off method to actual licensing.

Stan Lee was very matter-of-fact about it in his book Origins of Marvel Comics: if cowboys were big, you did a lot of Western comics. If monsters were hot, you saw a boom in monster comics. And so on.

What got me thinking about this was that, after thirty-some years of reading about it and seeing it cited as an obvious influence, I finally got to watch Enter The Dragon with Bruce Lee for myself.

 FINALLY got to see this.

It was a very nice restored edition with some extra footage edited back in, and I enjoyed it enormously; but what struck me about it was how much of it Marvel stole bag and baggage, back in the seventies. Or, let’s say, paid homage to. Was influenced by. Whatever.

See if you don’t agree: Bruce Lee is a martial arts master living a vaguely monastic life (I think he’s supposed to be some sort of Shaolin monk, but I’m not sure) who’s recruited by British Intelligence to infiltrate an evil warlord’s island headquarters. How familiar is that?

 A Shaolin monk, a pacifist who reveres life yet can still kick ass, recruited for espionage. Hello, Mr. Lee.

Now, of course, we all knew that Shang-Chi was basically Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu novels fused together with Bruce Lee movies, but I’d had no idea how MUCH of the concept had been stolen specifically from Enter the Dragon. Bruce Lee’s character in the movie practically IS Shang-Chi. And his uneasy alliance with wisecracking pal Roper (John Saxon) echoes, in many ways, Shang-Chi’s give-and-take with Clive Reston.

John Saxon actually does a good job here.

You could make the case that Mei Ling, an Asian female agent already on the island that Bruce Lee has to rescue, is the model for Leiko Wu. And so on.

Now, none of this diminishes the work that Doug Moench and Paul Gulacy put into Master of Kung Fu. It’s one of my favorite books and is easily one of the best things to come out of Marvel in the seventies — maybe one of the best things to come out of Marvel ever. Still, I was surprised to see how many parallels jumped out at me while I was watching Enter The Dragon. And it’s not just the kung-fu-meets-James-Bond plot. The film’s dialogue, the structure, the pacing… it’s all echoed in the comic book.

 This dialogue, with very minor changes, could have lifted almost directly from Enter the Dragon.

It really does feel like Shang-Chi: The Movie.

Master of Kung Fu pretty much WAS a movie in print.  Shang-Chi? Bruce Lee? Who can tell?

It was to the point where I was wondering if the actor who played Braithwaite, the British spymaster who recruits Bruce Lee, was actually the visiual model for the comics version of Sir Denis Nayland-Smith. It was that close. It’s almost as if the entire run of Master of Kung Fu is a sequel-to/expansion-of the film.

Or, looked at another way, Enter The Dragon was a movie about three guys that fight crime — a black guy, a white guy, and an Asian guy, all three of them martial-arts masters. Marvel picked up on that premise, too.

I never realized how much Sons of the Tiger lifted directly out of Enter the Dragon.

I think the only reason Sons of the Tiger morphed into something so different was because nobody who worked on it knew anything about martial arts.

Likewise, everyone knows Luke Cage has his roots in blaxploitation movies.

The best of Shaft AND Black Belt Jones. Plus superpowers!

I’d always assumed Luke was basically “Shaft with superpowers”…..

 Who's the black private dick that's a sex machine to all the chicks?

…but that was before I heard about Black Belt Jones.

 I saw this poster and my heart filled with love.

This is a movie that I lust to own, despite it being included in The 50 Worst Films of All Time.

Jim Kelly leapfrogged off Enter the Dragon to a minor movie career of his own, and Black Belt Jones was his opus — it even actually spawned a sequel.

Certainly, Marvel was aware of Jim Kelly’s popularity, and he was a frequent subject of the articles in Deadly Hands of Kung Fu.

 Jim Kelly's character had a lot of Luke Cage going on too.

Luke Cage wasn’t a martial arts character, of course. But if you saw the movie I think you’d see a certain similarity, particularly in the way Black Belt Jones is a champion of the underdog, defending the good people of the ghetto…

 Luke Cage? Kind of, maybe.

….generally while inflicting a lot of property damage.

I won’t go so far as to suggest one came from the other — for one thing, the dates don’t exactly match up, though I do think Jim Kelly’s film persona influenced Hero for Hire to some degree, especially when Don McGregor was on the book. Let’s just say that if you are a fan of the original run of Luke Cage’s book, then Sweet Christmas! but you will love this movie.

We’ve also been watching a lot of old Hammer films this week.

 I came late to this party but by God, it's a good one.

And again, I’m noticing — well, not so much anything that was directly stolen and put into a comic book, but more of… I guess you’d call it a vibe, a sensibility.

Hammer movies feel like comics. No matter what the studio was putting out, no matter the source material, a Hammer production had a certain way of doing things and a brand-name familiarity. 

 A remarkably faithful adaptation... right up to the end. Then it gets a lot nastier.

That comfortable sense of knowing exactly what you’re getting into was very similar to what the Marvel Comics house style of the late 60’s and early 70’s felt like. If it said “A Hammer Film Production,” you knew you were in for a wild ride that would last about 90 minutes, heavy on the action, thrills, and chills; hot chicks, evil monsters, a good time to be had by all. My wife Julie claims to hate scary movies, but even she views the Hammer oeuvre with affection.

Certainly, you could find attempts to re-create that same Hammer horror vibe in comics, but oddly enough, Marvel never had much success with it.

 Hammer time at Marvel.

None of their magazine-sized horror books ever really took off. It’s a shame, really, there was a lot of good work there.

 I would be so ALL OVER an Essential collection of this.

You can find a fair amount of this stuff in the Essential reprint books collecting Tales of the Zombie and Monster of Frankenstein, but there’s a lot left. I would be SO ALL OVER an Essential Monsters Unleashed and an Essential Vampire Tales.

 Movies and comics really fed each other in the 70's, it was almost a symbiotic relationship.

God willing, Marvel will get around to it. I think the other horror-themed Essentials have done pretty well for them.

And of course there was the Warren output. Really I think the closest anyone got to the sense of a Hammer horror film in comics was Vampirella.

This could almost be a Hammer poster.

Today the Hammer films themselves are having a bit of a renaissance on DVD; there are some wonderful new collections with lots of cool extras and commentaries, particularly the films starring Christopher Lee.

Nosing around the internet, doing research — I discovered there are as many or more sites devoted to horror movies as there are to comics — I found a couple of items of interest. The big place I wanted to direct you to was Hammer Horror Posters, a website dedicated to the awesomely cool art used to advertise the films.

 We liked this one a lot, despite the fact that it has the DUMBEST HEROINE EVER.

I assure you that if you have any interest in illustration art, you’ll spend hours there. Something particularly rare and cool was an interview with artist Tom Chantrell, with lots of photos and original art scans. As is so often the case, you may not know the name but I am certain you’ve seen the work. I love finding out the names of these guys and seeing what they have to say; their stuff is so pervasive, much more widely seen than the work of fine artists, and yet almost no one except aficionados ever know their names.

 Always wondered who painted those great posters. Now I know. God bless the internet.

Especially interesting to me was the discovery that, quite a lot of the time, Hammer would commission a poster and then go ahead and secure a distribution deal and attach a star afterwards, based on nothing more than the visual. As a result, there were quite a few unused posters and artwork for movies that never got made, and the site has many of them on display.

Anyway, I cribbed a lot of the art for this week’s column from there so I figure I should at least give them a plug. There are also a lot of books about the history of Hammer and you can take your pick. Personally I rather like this one —

 The best of the Hammer histories.

The Hammer Story, by Hearn and Barnes. It’s the best of a long line of history books about the Hammer horror movies. There’s also a British documentary television series, episodes of which are occasionally included as DVD extras on the films they discuss.

None of this is all that relevant to comics, of course, but I figure if you’ve gotten this far you’d probably be interested. There seems to be a lot of overlap between readers of this column and devotees of B-movies.

*

Probably the single biggest exploitation-crossover-ripoff-success in comics didn’t actually come from the movies — it was stolen from a series of paperback originals.

 This launched a whole genre.

Mack Bolan was a Vietnam veteran who, when his wife and child were murdered by mobsters, embarked on a one-man war against the Mafia.

 This series was a huge, HUGE hit.

These were enormously popular books and the series is still going strong, I believe, though today I think the Executioner’s targets of choice are Islamic terrorists.

You know where I’m going with this, I’m sure. In the 70’s Gerry Conway thought a Mack Bolan-type villain would be fun to use in Spider-Man, and the rest is history.

 Just for fun. Who thought he was going to last?

The Punisher was a late bloomer; he didn’t really hit it big until the 90’s. But once he hit, he hit HUGE.

 Mack Bolan hits comics.

After starring in a dozen or so comics titles, hundreds of guest appearances, and even a couple of movies, the Punisher is one of Marvel’s heavy hitters today. You pretty much have to be a geezer like me to still make the Mack Bolan connection at all.

As it happens, Bolan himself had a brief — VERY brief — comics career. The book was even co-scripted by Don Pendleton, the creator of the novel series.

 Bolan ALMOST made it in comics. But this only lasted three issues.

Innovation did three issues before, sadly, going bankrupt. You can read more about it and see some sample pages at Don Pendleton’s web site.

Oddly, Mack Bolan never had a movie version made, despite all his success in print. I can’t imagine, after all these years, that Pendleton or his heirs didn’t at least try and pitch one.

Probably the studio people said he was ripping off the Punisher. Which is, kind of, where we came in. It’s the circle of life.

See you next week.

20 Comments

Back Issue #26, the latest issue, was devoted to spy comics. They had a long interview with Moench and Gulacy about Shang-Chi. It’s very interesting, and the rest of the mag is quite good too. If you can find a copy, I recommend it.

Oh, I never miss Back Issue. It’s awesome. But I should have remembered to plug that one myself, thanks for bringing it up.

In my perfect world, Bruce Lee never died and made “Shaft Goes to Hong Kong” with Richard Roundtree, which naturally went on to sweep the academy awards and become the number one grossing film in the world.

And of course, spawned the sequel with Christopher Lee: “Enter the Vampire: Dracula vs. Shaft and Bruce Lee.”

I love how scared the white guy looks on that Sons of the Tiger cover.

I think the problem with the monster books is that by the time they came out the monster craze of the 60s, with Hammer at the forefront, was dying out. The CCA prevented DC and Marvel from tackling this material until it was reformed, and I think the non-Code magazines didn’t get going until the 70s either. So they rushed to finally tackle material they hadn’t been allowed to, but popular interest had passed.

I have about 200 Executioner books out in the garage starting with the first one and going in numerical order. Anyway, I forget which one it is (I think the omnuibus version of the first three books) where Pendleton mentioned an “upcoming” Executioner movie starring that swinging young star Burt Reynolds (remember this was the 70’s).

I just read the first Executioner novel recently, so it’s fresh on my mind, and the citation that his wife and child were killed by the mob is actually incorrect. Mack Bolan’s father got in trouble with the mob and, fearing that they would kill him and his family, his father opted instead to kill his wife, his daughter and himself instead of subject them to what the mob would do to them. Bolan’s brother was the only survivor. Odd but true.

I haven’t read that issue of Backstory, but there was a great “Amazing Heroes” interview with Gulacy in the 80s where he admitted to actually clipping frames out of a print of “Enter the Dragon”, turing them into slides, projecting them onto the page, and directly tracing the fight sequences. And don’t forget how many MOKF storylines involved island fortresses and missing hands! (Velcro, Razorfist, others) I don’t mind. I love the movie and the comic.

If you look closely enough, you’d see that the guy whose arm is being twisted by Bruce Lee is none other than Jackie Chan, back during his stuntman days.

I love how the Sons of the Tiger are leaping into a fight with their hands in “karate chop” positions. :P

I suddenly ache to see someone like John Singleton do a Luke Cage movie…and lo and behold, while I’m checking the imdb to make sure I was thinking of the right person, I notice he’s actually been announced as doing one! Oh, it has serious “awesome” potential. An escaped con, on the run, trying to clear his name of the crime he didn’t commit, setting up shop as a private eye…and oh, yeah, he’s bullet-proof. Could be the best movie ever.

There’s enough cheese on those covers for a lifetime of hamburgers. Ah, it’s the cheese…

A Cage movie would be sweet but I wonder if they’re going to do modern Cage or retro 70s Cage.

I also watched Enter the Dragon for the first time the other day, and while I found the first half hour or so charmingly corny, it soon grew tedious. Terrible script. Terrible pacing. The final claws and mirrors fight was pretty cool, but not enough to make up for the dragging second act.

Whether it’s the odd sight of Scatman Crothers as a martial arts expert or the wonder of Jim Kelly’s perfectly formed afro, Black Belt Jones has everything you could hope for in a movie.

Anyway, thanks for the great article. Seeing all these larger than life, slightly silly stories that I love together in one piece made my day.

In my perfect world, Bruce Lee never died and made “Shaft Goes to Hong Kong” with Richard Roundtree, which naturally went on to sweep the academy awards and become the number one grossing film in the world.

And of course, spawned the sequel with Christopher Lee: “Enter the Vampire: Dracula vs. Shaft and Bruce Lee.”

Oh, you make me weep for what might have been.

Still, you got two thirds of that… sort of. This is one of my most favorite movies in the world, and it’s ALMOST Dracula versus Bruce Lee. Check it out.

Does anyone know when the Fu Manchu stories will enter the public domain? Because I’m guessing that only then will Marvel release collections of the MOKF and Deadly Hands issues.

The first story featuring Fu Manchu came out in 1913 so the story is in public domain. However, the character may still be trademarked.

FunkyGreenJerusalem

February 10, 2008 at 9:51 pm

I got myself a t-shirt with the painting from a Hammer poster on saturday.
http://hammerhorrorposters.com/images/100_0158.jpg
It’s just the image (same colours), with Frankenstein written in red down the bottom, and Hammer Films written on the back.

They also had one with this image on it:
http://hammerhorrorposters.com/images/100_0179.jpg

[…] Since I finally purchased Enter The Dragon and wish-listed Black Belt Jones not too long ago — you might remember, I wrote about those movies here — Amazon has decided I must like Jim Kelly movies. And I’m finding that, damn, I really do, especially since I keep finding them for a dollar apiece. You can’t even rent a movie for a dollar around these parts any more. […]

You know,with Nick Fury being played a black actor,we need to balance with a Luke Cage being played by a white actor

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