This year's Free Comic Book Day issue of Amazing Spider-Man gave Shang-Chi an important role to play in the Spider-Man corner of the Marvel Universe — using his "Master of Kung Fu" status to teach Spidey some serious skills, in order to compensate for the title character's recent loss of his Spider-Sense.
Shang-Chi is taking the next step in August by starring in Spider-Island: Deadly Hands of Kung Fu, a three-issue miniseries tying in to the summer's Spider-Man event. Writer Antony Johnston and artist Sebastián Fiumara are the creative team for the series, which also includes prominent roles for Iron Fist and The Bride of Nine Spiders.
Newsarama caught up with Johnston over email to chat about Shang-Chi's place in Spider-Man's world, reuniting with Fiumara, the writer's affinity for the wuxia genre, and some hints about his upcoming work outside of superheroes.
Newsarama: Antony, the last time we talked, it was about Shadowland: Blood on the Streets, and now you're taking on another lesser-known, street-level Marvel hero in Shang-Chi. Yet given the character's recent momentum from appearing in Secret Avengers and now becoming a part of the Spider-Man corner of the Marvel Universe, he may not be "lesser-known" for long. Do you see a possibility of Shang-Chi becoming a breakout Marvel star, much in the way that, say, Moon Knight has elevated in stature lately?
Antony Johnston: It’s a possibility, sure. I don’t think there’s anything preventing any particular character from breaking out, especially at the moment — it’s more a question of them being elevated to a higher status through the attention of a high-profile creator, or an editorial decision.
Whether that’s on the cards for Shang-Chi, I don’t know, but I’d love to see it. He’s a great character, with a rich history and loads of potential.
Nrama: That said, though he is a cult favorite, Shang-Chi as a starring character has traditionally had a hard time catching on with audiences as a whole over the years. What do you think might have kept Shang-Chi from taking off in the past, and are there any lessons to be learned in how you're approaching this project?
Johnston: All I’m doing is trying to tell the best story I can with a great character. I’m not here to deconstruct Shang-Chi, or go all post-modern on him.
As for having a hard time catching on, I disagree. This is a character whose original headline series ran for 125 issues. Just let that sink in a while, you know? These days, if a series makes it to issue #10 it’s a raging success.
Shang’s problem is that, in most people’s minds, he’s intrinsically tied to the 70s kung fu craze. And there’s no way of getting round that — it’s why he was created, after all. But it’s just a perception we need to get people over. Like I said, all it would take is a concerted push from somewhere. Remember when Deadpool was a one-joke character with no future?
Nrama: The big hook of Spider-Island is that all of Manhattan is getting super-powers — including Shang-Chi. Since he's one of Marvel's most prominent unpowered superheroes, what kind of opportunity is it to get to write him with powers (at least temporarily)?
Johnston: It’s fun, it changes some of the things you can do with him and his martial arts. Make no mistake, this book is all about kung fu action. But the events of Spider-Island mean we can now do kung fu with people sticking to walls and jumping eighty feet in the air, like a classic wuxia movie. Brilliant.
Shang’s spider-powers aren’t just about extra-cool kung fu moves, though. They have an important part to play in the actual plot, too.
Nrama: This year's Amazing Spider-Man Free Comic Book Day issue established Shang-Chi's place within the Spidey side of the MU, and this miniseries further cements that status. Why do you think Shang-Chi is a good fit with the world of Spider-Man?
Johnston: Spider-Man’s just more down to earth than many other heroes, and despite all his philosophical Chi musings, so is Shang-Chi. I think they see good qualities reflected in each other. Bravery, honesty, the will to stand up for what’s right, no matter the cost — despite the fact that neither of them has godlike powers, or can regenerate, or whatever.
I’ve said it many times — what makes characters interesting to me is how susceptible they are to threats. There’s a class difference with superheroes; you can either take a bullet to the head and survive, or you can’t. Both Spidey and Shang are firmly in the “can’t” category.
Nrama: Speaking of members of the New Avengers — Iron Fist is also in this series. How big of a role does he play? The Bride of Nine Spiders is also in the series, which is interesting, since the Immortal Iron Fist series was a natural tonal match for Shang-Chi. (And that series helped raise the profile of Iron Fist, like how Shang-Chi might be headed for a similar bump.)
Johnston: Iron Fist and The Bride of Nine Spiders are both major players in this story, you’ll be seeing plenty of them. I was a huge fan of the Immortal Iron Fist series, so I’m very happy to be writing them here.
I agree they’re a good fit with Shang-Chi, it surprises me we haven’t seen them working together more already. Maybe that’ll change…
Nrama: For this series, you're reuniting with artist Sebastián Fiumara, who you worked with several years ago on Alan Moore's Hypothetical Lizard. How has his art evolved since then? And why do the two of you seem drawn to stories with animals in the title?
Johnston: Our next book will be Squirrel Girl.
Seba’s come on leaps and bounds since we did Lizard, and frankly, he was no slouch back then. He’s just a great artist, a clear but imaginative storyteller, and his character designs are great. I love working with him.
Nrama: Outside of Shang-Chi, there isn't too vast of a history of kung fu in comic books, but there is certainly one in film — any particular titles that may have inspired you in the crafting of this series?
Johnston: I’m a fan of wuxia in general, so straight off I’ll watch anything directed by Tsui Hark, or with Yuen Woo-ping choreographing. Donnie Yen’s made some great movies in that vein, as has Jet Li (and they’re great opposite one another in Once Upon a Time in China II) but be warned, they’ve also made some pretty bad stuff which is only worth watching for the fights, like the Legend series.
And then there’s all the other Golden Harvest releases, and Chow Yun Fat’s occasional wuxia roles, the ’70s Bruce Lee classics… the point is, there’s no one particular movie that served as inspiration for this story. It’s just a general love of the martial arts genre, especially wuxia. And if anyone reading this wants to get into it, there’s plenty of stuff out there to choose from.
Nrama: Finally, I just wanted to ask if you're working on anything else you'd like to talk about — I think people familiar with solely your Marvel work may only know you from street-level crime books like Daredevil and Shadowland: Blood on the Streets, but your work first caught my attention with Three Days in Europe, which was pretty far removed from all that.
Johnston: Unfortunately, I can’t talk about the majority of things I’m working on right now. Another series for Marvel, a couple of videogames, and some graphic novels, are all ongoing at the moment, but I’m not allowed to discuss them yet.
If someone who liked my DD work wants to see what else I get up to, they’re probably in for a shock. Most of my work is very far removed from superheroes, like Wasteland (post-apocalypse), the Dead Space games (horror) or even the Alex Rider graphic novels (teen spy).
Even the one thing I can talk about, The Coldest City is different again — a Cold War espionage graphic novel by me and Sam Hart, due out next year through Oni Press.
But it’s all very "me," so of course I’d encourage readers to check all those books out! There’s more info about all my work on my website, antonyjohnston.com.Visit Newsarama on FACEBOOK and TWITTER and tell us what you think!