Shang-Chi Vol. 1: Brothers & Sisters

by Gene Yuen Lang, Philip Tan, and Dike Ruan
Collects the 2020 5-issue miniseries

Ever since his Eisner-award winning coming-of-age story, American Born Chinese, Yang has been a writer to watch. To follow up, he's adapted the original radio play Superman Smashes the Klan to a 3-part graphic novel, written the Justice League of China, as well as co-wrote for the Avatar: The Last Airbender Dark Horse adaptation, among other things. Now, he takes on the Marvel universe's greatest fighter: Shang-Chi.

Shang-Chi's already had six omnibii of stories published, so you can tell there's some quality reads in there. But I have to admit, for all my years of reading Marvel Comics, I've never bothered to learn about him. If you're in the same boat as me, here's a quick primer: Shang-Chi is the son of one of the oldest Marvel villains The Mandarin, a man known for seizing power through a mystical set of items called the ten rings. Around the kung fu craze of the 70s', fostered by the Martial Arts superstar Bruce Lee especially, Marvel decided to capitalize on it like they had with the horror craze (Tomb of Dracula) and due to copyrights, spun off the story of The Mandarin's son, Shang-Chi. A master of hand-to-hand combat, he was raised by his father to take over his empire, but refused and, so the story goes, killed his father in a conflict.

That catches you up to now, where Shang-Chi is trying to live a normal life in San Francisco, as a bakeshop employee. Check those buns!

His rapport is effortless and it's obvious he enjoys working there. So of course his old life catches up to him, when MI-6 agent Leiko Wu tells him that his sister, also brainwashed by his father, is coming to murder him to claim dominion over the Five Weapons Society, a 300-year-old secret society originally developed by his father to protect China. Part history lesson, part family drama, all action: it's up to Shang-Chi to stop his sister.

Shang-Chi makes some colorful friends along the way. He meets his long-lost brothers & sisters, children who were whisked away from China to protect the Five Weapons society, each of them trained in a different martial art. Shi-Hua is Sister Hammer, who murdered Brother Staff in the first issue, so we don't get to know much about him. But Esme is Sister Dagger, with her headquarters in Paris and Takeshi is Brother Sabre in Japan who accompany Shang-Chi to stop Shi-Hua. Esme is my favorite mainly as the comedic relief, but they each have their own personalities.

At the heart of the conflict is Sister Hammer's vie for ownership over the Five Weapons Society. Here's one thing that the writer does so well: she's not just the villain of the month. She has a story that we learn about over the course of the novel. She's raised an army of Chinese ninja zombies, Jiangshi and even infected Shang-Chi with the same zombie virus. But there's a mystical aspect to this army: they need three things to sustain their undeath: a dead body, spirit energy, and an unavenged grievance. In the last issue, Shang-Chi discovers that Shi-Hua is microchipping each zombie with the same unavenged grievance: her own trauma from her father. It was never about who's stronger or the better fighter. Might doesn't make right, and Shang-Chi shows his inner strength when he attempts to connect to his sister and mend her wounds over their abusive father.

Philip Tan and Dike Ruan split art duties, with Tan on the flashback scenes and Ruan on the contemporary story. Tan's lines are scratchy and reminiscent of the 90s', while Ruan has a cleaner, more straightforward style similar to Stuart Immonen. I'm more fond of Ruan's, but it's important that they're distinct, since the split stories are quite different -- as it turns out, the Five Weapons Society has been a part of China's history for a while. It's here that Yang weaves in actual history, including the Boxer Rebellion (known in China as the Eight Nations Invasion), and the Opium Wars. Did you know Baron Harkness summoned Lord Dormammu and the Mindless Ones in that war? I didn't!

History is so important to identity, and the most powerful scene to me came when his uncle, a ghoul, attempts to commune with Shang-Chi, and so Shang-Chi uses a long-known Chinese ritual: the tomb-sweeping ceremony:

Among plenty of other things, this makes Shang-Chi a uniquely Chinese Marvel comic. His uncle could have communed with him in a dream, or in a séance. But instead he came to him a tomb-sweeping ceremony. It's extraordinary how his uncle comes to life after eating some of the food. This is the kind of stuff I imagine when I go with my family to the cemetery. We still do this today. We drive out there with incense, barbecue pork and paper money. We sweep the tomb of my grandparents and burn incense in front of their graves to wake them up. We eat rice cake, oranges and barbecue pork with them to nourish their bodies, and burn play money so that they have money to spend in the afterlife. My Gonggong, maternal grandfather, especially favored barbecue pork (who wouldn't!). In Chinese folklore, the dead still need food and currency in the afterlife and the tomb-sweeping ceremony is meant to connect with your ancestors in this way. In Shang-Chi's words:
It's a way to remember. To PAY RESPECTS to those who came BEFORE.

To remind ourselves that PAST and PRESENT -- aren't as FAR APART as they seem.
It's pretty wild to see this part of my life represented in a comic. Comic books are meant as windows to different worlds, and sometimes that world happens to be your own. Shang-Chi is this Marvel character with this storied past, and years of acclaimed comics, that can help with that. Marvel did a brilliant job with the artists for this comic book, and I hope they do it for years to come.

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