The PopCult Comix Bookshelf

Richard Dragon, Kung-Fu Fighter: Coming of the Dragon!
by Dennis O’Neil, Ric Estrada, Wallace Wood and various
DC Comics
ISBN-13 : 978-1779508102
$49.99 (discounted at Amazon)

This collection of mid-1970s comics is a rare treat for yours truly. Richard Dragon, Kung-Fu Fighter: Coming of the Dragon! collects the entire run of a comic book that I did NOT regularly read or buy back in my early days of comic collecting. I think I only had three or four of the stories reprinted here before the volume was released.

This is remarkable because the book is largely the work of one of my favorite comic book writers, Dennis O’Neil, who passed away last year shortly before the publication of this book was announced. The art assignment was passed around to many diverse hands before landing with the overlooked and underappreciated Cuban master of comics art, Ric Estrada. We’ll talk about the art in a moment.

The story itself is a wild adventure yarn, with one foot planted firmly in the early-1970s Kung-Fu craze and the other in the world of gritty pulp novel series like Mack Bolan and The Destroyer. Richard Dragon is a teenaged thief who is taken in, trained in martial arts and put on the right track by O-Sensei. Later Dragon and his dojo buddy, Ben Turner, join an international crime-fighting and anti-espionage agency. Most of this is new to me, and it’s a real kick.

Richard Dragon was not created to be a comic book character. He starred in a single paperback novel, credited to “Jim Dennis,” but actually written by O’Neil and comic strip artist Jim Berry. When the paperback novel didn’t elicit a second volume, O’Neil sold the character to DC Comics, who were looking for a new comic book title to compete with Marvel’s Shang-Chi: Master of Kung Fu and Iron Fist comics.

It lent an air of credibility to the comic to have it “adapted from the novel by Jim Dennis” in the early issues, although it was actually O’Neil adapting his own book.

The stories themselves are top-notch globe-trotting martial arts adventure, presented for a mid-1970s comic book reading audience. There is no explicit sex or language, but there’s plenty of martial arts action and espionage intrigue to keep the action fun and entertaining, and O’Neil was a master at character development and direction.

Once we get past the adaptation of the original novel, O’Neil introduces concepts and supporting characters who have gone on to become major players in DC’s comics, movies and television programs. Characters like Lady Shiva and Bronze Tiger began their lives as supporting cast members of Richard Dragon: Kung Fu Fighter. Dragon himself became DC’s go-to martial arts sensei, turning up in titles like The Question, Birds of Prey, Batman and others.

The art for Richard Dragon: Kung Fu Fighter was provided by a rotating crew before Estrada settled in. The first issue was drawn by Leo Durañona, an Argentine artist known primarily for his horror work for Warren Publishing at the time.

The art for the second issue seemed like it was farmed out to Marvel, featuring pencils by Alan Weiss and Jim Starlin (creator of Thanos) and inks by Al Migrom. All of those artists had previously worked on Marvel’s martial arts comics, and it was really unusual to see them turn up at DC in 1975. I’d love to know more about the art for this issue, but alas, once again DC has skimped on the background info for an otherwise great comics collection.

Issue three was drawn by the legendary Jack Kirby and inked by his then-regular inker, D. Bruce Berry. This was one of the stories assigned to Kirby while he was still contractually obligated to draw four books a month for DC, but was near the end of this contract before his return to Marvel.

It ranks as possibly the least-inspired work that Kirby ever turned in, and it’s a bit odd that DC is stressing his contribution to this book so much, especially since any Kirby fan probably already has this story reprinted in a Kirby Omnibus from a few years ago.

With issue four, Ric Estrada began his run on the book, and he pretty much made it his own. The first five stories that Estrada drew were inked by the legendary and overpowering Wallace Wood. Wood ranks among the greatest comic book artists in history, but by this point in his career he was reduced to taking random inking jobs just to pay the bills. Wood loved working over Estrada’s pencils because he could take Estrada’s strong layouts and smother the finished art under his inks without having to substantially re-draw anything.

The end result was pure Wally Wood eye candy, but his style was so overpowering that it almost didn’t matter who the penciller was. The end result still looked like Wally Wood. It was spectacular, but the original penciller’s style would be buried, no matter if it were Estrada, Steve Ditko, Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez or Walt Simonson, it all had that Wood slickness to it.

That’s not a complaint, but it’s a trip to be able to compare Estrada’s Wood-inked work to the stories where he provided finished art, or was inked by Jack Abel. It can give you a real appreciation for Estrada’s natural style, and also Wood’s ability to make everybody’s art look like Wally Wood.

In addition to the original run of Richard Dragon: Kung Fu Fighter, this book also includes an issue of Brave & Bold, where Dragon teams up with Batman, and a “Whatever Happened to Richard Dragon” short story from the 1980s. The whole book is written by Dennis O’Neil, except for two fill-in issues of the original series, plus the Batman team up and “Whatever Happened To” story.

Text features in Richard Dragon, Kung-Fu Fighter: Coming of the Dragon! are scant. All we get are three profile pages reprinted from Who’s Who in DC Comics, and a single page with four bios of some of the creators, which is a bit of an annoyance. With so many contributors to this book, it’s understandable that they would limit the bios to four, but the creators they picked to spotlight make a person want to scratch their head.

We get short biographies of Dennis O’Neil and Ric Estrada, which makes pefect sense, as they are the writer and pencil artist on the bulk of the book. But after that we get the longest of the four bios for Jack Kirby, who only drew one issue of the original title, and didn’t appear to have put that much effort into it. We also get a bio for Jack Abel, who inked three of Estrada’s issues, and was reportedly a really nice guy, but he has less work in this book that Wally Wood, who is one of the most respected comic book artists in history.

Wood doesn’t get a mention, nor does Dick Giordano, another legendary artist, who provided most of the covers for the original series.

It’s a shame that DC is churning out so many great collections of terrific and overlooked comic books from decades past, but isn’t providing any historical context. There are a lot of questions that could be answered about this material, like “Who approached whom about DC buying the rights to the original novel?” and “Why was there a guest editor in the middle of the run?”

It would be nice to have a little more background.

Still, Richard Dragon, Kung-Fu Fighter: Coming of the Dragon! is a damned fine collection of martial-arts adventures comics. It’s a time-capsule of the Kung Fu craze of the 1970s and it has some excellent storytelling. That DC is still mining this series for movies, TV and cartoons is a testament to its timeless qualities.

You should be able to order this from any bookseller by using the ISBN code, or simply grab it at a discount from Amazon.