Thursday, January 26, 2012

A look back: Gray and Palmiotti's 'Daughters of the Dragon'

(art by Khari Evans)

I'm sure there are those of you out there who share the experience of growing up with the Marvel Comics of the 1970's, an era admittedly marked by the company's grasping at the disparate straws of pop culture trends and trying to spin those fads into four-color gold. Short of the Pet Rock, virtually no fad escaped the re-purposing engines of Marvel's writers and artists, and one of the '70's-era's most popular (and surprisingly brief) cultural explosions was the kung fu movie boom, a spark lit by the release of the Shaw Brothers Studios classic Five Fingers of Death in 1972 and truly kicked into high-gear with the advent of Bruce Lee and Enter the Dragon in 1973. (Note: Bruce Lee had already been around for a few years, putting foot to ass in Hong Kong flicks before us Yankee mouth-breathers got wind of his still-unmatched awesomeness.) Also bolstered by the unexpected embracing of the television series Kung Fu (1972-1975, which was originally developed as vehicle for Bruce Lee), the immediately-popular martial arts sub-genre was somewhat-derogatorily dubbed "chopsocky" by media wags, but the public could not have cared less what sobriquet was bestowed upon this new (to Westerners, anyway), visceral, and unabashedly violent entertainment flavor. Kung fu — and karate and what have you — was "in," and the floodgates were officially opened.

So, having already scored a hit (of sorts) by mining the "blaxploitation" genre to come up with street-level super-brutha Luke Cage (aka Power-Man), Marvel wasted little time in cribbing its own chopsocky thrills into the ever-burgeoning ongoing tapestry that is the Marvel Universe, first with the blatantly Bruce Lee-modeled Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu, who was soon joined by the likes of Iron Fist (a character whose abilities were shamelessly "influenced" by Five Fingers of Death)and the Sons of the Tiger. Fun and ground-breaking though that stuff was, Marvel had pretty much glossed over one of the most important elements of the martial arts genre, and that missing aspect was that of the female badass, a storytelling trope that goes back for centuries in Asian legends, literature, and (more recently, obviously) film. That oversight was remedied with the introduction of Colleen Wing and Misty Knight, known in tandem as the Daughters of the Dragon.

As previously stated, Marvel paid careful scrutiny to what was going on in pop culture, so it could not have escaped their notice that the blaxploitation genre — still going strong at the time of the chopsocky boom's emergence — began to gene-splice martial arts into its funkified goings-on, so the Daughters of the Dragon took a modernized version of the female samurai slayer archetype, Colleen Wing, and paired her with a tough-as-nails, sassy, big-assed-gun-wielding black chick with a planet-sized Afro who was unmistakably modeled upon the indelible Pam Grier (a figure as synonymous with blaxploitation as Bruce Lee is with the kung fu genre), one Misty Knight by name. Moreso than any of Marvel's other attempts to nail the exact flavor of what they were trying to ape (with the notable exception Shang-Chi: Master of Kung Fu, when it was firing on all cylinders in its Moech-Gulacy years), the Daughters of the Dragon, most frequently seen as regular characters in Iron Fist's monthly book (and in the subsequent Power Man and Iron Fist series), absolutely got it right and proved to be a real crowd-pleaser of a pairing. Unfortunately, the solo stories featuring the characters were often wildly-varying in effect and were often a sad waste of great potential. Case in point: the sole "classic-era" D.O.D. story that everyone remembers and points to was the highly memorable Chris Claremont-Marshall Rogers black-and-white two-parter that ran in the Deadly Hands of Kung-Fu magazine in 1977. After that story, a work of more than enough kickass content to warrant the green-lighting of an ongoing series, little of note was done with the badassed babes for the better part of the next three decades.

Anyway, all of the aforementioned was an admittedly long-winded way of giving you some background before bringing things up to a more contemporary period and focusing on the efforts of Paperfilms' own Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti in the handling of the Daughters of the Dragon.

Aided and abetted by the dynamic artwork of Khari Evans, the six-issue Daughters of the Dragon mini-series, collected under the title Samurai Bullets, is packed to the rafters with non-stop action and characterization, liberally seasoned with the kind of humor once common in fused genre of chopsocky and blaxploitation. If you groove on old school badassery with that distinctly East-meets-West wakka-jawaka flavor, this series is for you (and it can be had via Amazon). But why take just my word for it? There's a very good review of the series over at Comic Book Resources, so click here for a well-informed second opinion.

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