Writer Haden Blackman and artist Dalibor Talajic are bringing the fight to Battleworld.
Their Secret Wars tie-in book Master of Kung Fu takes Marvel's resident master martial artist Shang-Chi and sets him against 13 different schools of combat, taking him from being a drunk vagrant to reclaiming his place at the top of the kung-fu food chain.
Newsarama spoke with Blackman to discuss Master of Kung Fu ahead of its May 20 debut, learning more about the story's version of K'un Lun, the different martial arts schools that populate the kingdom, and Blackman's own history with martial arts.
Newsarama: Master of Kung Fu takes place in the Battleworld version of K’un Lun. How does this K’un Lun differ from the one readers know from Iron Fist stories?
Haden Blackman: Perhaps the biggest difference is the fact that in this version of K'un Lun, all life revolves around martial arts and virtually everyone belongs to one of several schools, each with its own techniques and philosophies. Training in the martial arts unlocks a wide array of abilities and powers, from phasing to flight to pyrokinesis. Anyone who isn't affiliated with a school is deemed part of the lowest caste of society -- outcasts who are persecuted by the current Emperor, Zheng Zu. K'un Lun's Emperor is selected through a trial by combat called the Thirteen Chambers, during which each school's Great Master competes for the throne. The seemingly-immortal Zu has won the tournament multiple times.
Nrama: Speaking of Iron Fist, we know Danny Rand appears in the book. What can you tell us about his relationship with Shang-Chi?
Blackman: Our version of Danny Rand -- Rand-K'ai -- is the current Great Master of the Iron Fist school. He is still haunted by the death of his master at the hands of Shang-Chi. The Iron Fist school is a noble one, dedicated to protecting K'un Lun, and Rand-K'ai is viewed by many as a stern but just "sheriff." He has been hunting for the fugitive Shang-Chi for several years, while also training for the Thirteen Chambers.
Nrama: Tell us about the different martial arts schools that populate K’un Lun.
Blackman: The schools are numerous, and range from huge academies with hundreds of students to small family-run operations with fewer than a dozen pupils. The most revered schools are the Iron Fist and The Ten Rings. The latter is Emperor Zu's school, and is infamous for its brutal training regiments and harsh punishment of "failure," all of which students endure in the hopes of unlocking ten of K'un Lun's most powerful techniques. The Iron Fist school teaches students to focus their chi for a variety of effects. Another very important school is the Red Hand, which has survived for centuries by loyally serving the Emperor in whatever capacity necessary. Under Zu, the Red Hand warriors and their leader, Red Sai, are often employed as assassins and enforcers. Other schools include the Panther Clan, the House of the Jade Tiger, the Spider Cult, Faces of the Moon, and the School of the Spirit Knife, among others.
Nrama: How does Shang-Chi become the central figure in this story?
Blackman: When the story opens, Shang-Chi has been exiled from his father's school -- the Ten Rings -- for the murder of another Great Master. He becomes a drunk vagrant, until a run-in with some of his former classmates and a chance encounter with a group of outcasts.
Nrama: What’s Shang-Chi going up against in the story?
Blackman: Eventually, all of K'un Lun's great masters!
Nrama: What’s it like working with Dalibor Talajic on Master of Kung Fu?
Blackman: Really liberating. I can just write "Two guys fight" and he makes something amazing out of it. I'm really grateful that he has multiple styles as well, which has allowed us to include a very stylized history of the Thirteen Chambers in the first issue. And he not afraid of the two page spreads or intricate panel design -- I've included a lot of both in the series.
Nrama: I have to ask, have you ever practiced any martial arts?
Blackman: Not unless you count brawling with my four brothers "martial arts." These days, I'm more Kung Fu Panda than Master of Kung Fu. Luckily, Dalibor is a practitioner.
Nrama: How closely does Master of Kung Fu tie in to the rest of Secret Wars?
Blackman: It really stands on its own. We reference the world beyond K'un Lun, but the story focuses on K'un Lun itself.
Nrama: Besides Iron Fist, we know that several Marvel characters, including Elektra, with whom you have a personal relationship, will appear in the story. What can you tell us about the book’s extended cast?
Blackman: Part of the appeal of this project was the chance to include all sorts of characters in a new context. Our version of Elektra -- Red Sai -- leads the Red Hand and is intensely loyal to the Emperor in order to ensure her school's continued existence. With Zu serving as Emperor, day-to-day leadership of the Ten Rings has fallen to Laughing Skull - our version of Taskmaster. The outcasts Shang-Chi joins include version of Kitty Pryde, Callisto, and even Wolfsbane and Marrow (and I'm particularly excited about this reality's version of Lockheed). Beyond that, we have dozens of cameos, including some of the most well-known martial artists and a few surprises... We've even found a way to integrate a version of the Silver Surfer. During my run on Elektra, there were frequent requests to include Psylocke in some way; we never got to that story, but a version of Psylocke will appear in this series.
Nrama: What’s the best reason to pick up Master of Kung Fu, even if you’re not reading Secret Wars?
Blackman: Well, the obvious answer is the incredible art. But hopefully, readers will find that it's a nice mix of kung-fu action and character-driven drama. And there's the dragon, of course.