The Cultural Gutter

unashamed geekery

"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." -- Oscar Wilde

Master of Infinite Kung Fu

Carol Borden
Posted March 29, 2012

I always have trouble writing about comics that I think are good, just excellent and existing in their own seamless perfection, which means that here at the Gutter I don’t always write about the comics that I love most. I want to do credit to them and save them till I have more time. Sometimes, I struggle just to say something beyond, “It’s good.” I’ve had that problem with Infinite Kung Fu (Top Shelf, 2011). Fortunately, the book’s also gotten me thinking about action in a static medium and decompressed storytelling.

Kagan McLeod’s graphic novel is a tour de force and like most masterpieces it’s been a long time in the making. I got my first issue of Infinite Kung Fu at one of Toronto’s late lamented Kung Fu Fridays screenings. Later, I heard McLeod was reworking it as a graphic novel. I impatiently watched Top Shelf’s new releases and, finally, when the book was due to be released, it wasn’t. McLeod wasn’t finished. But Infinite Kung Fu was worth all the waiting and even at over 450 well-bound, well-written and beautifully-drawn pages, it’s not too long at all. McLeod’s lush linework, influenced by both Chinese calligraphy and Hip Hop tagging, would be worth it alone. But there’s more. The Master Killer himself, Gordon Liu, and film programmer—and Kung Fu Fridays sifu—Colin Geddes introduce the book. McLeod also includes an essay, Brubaker-style,* on the history of Chinese martial arts cinema from the silent era to the present.

The book’s set in the Martial World. In kung fu and wuxia stories, the Martial World/ Jiang Hu, is parallel to our own, encompassing a subculture of secret societies, itinerant heroes, martial arts masters and their disciples. In Infinite Kung Fu, the Martial World is beset by the risen dead. Yang Kei-Lung is a soldier serving in one of the Emperor of the Martial World’s five armies, but finds his destiny when he encounters the chief of the Eight Immortals, Chung Li-Ch’uan. Chung chooses Yang as his student, tasking Yang with restoring the balance of life and death. There are also evil generals, secret manuals, Shaolin Bronze Men and a kung fu master based on George Clinton (Moog Joogular). And this kung fu comic culminates in an astonishing 84-page end fight.

I’ve written before about comics as a medium for the crazy mash-up. And Infinite Kung Fu does mix worlds, with Moog Joogular and his Funkadelic city grooving in the Martial World’s midst. I’ve also written about comics as a silent medium and comics as a medium for horror. In struggling with how to write about Infinite Kung Fu, I started thinking about action in a static medium. It’s self-evident, but in comics the movement, the action, the punches—whether Superman’s or Yang’s—are illusory. Yet, the most popular comics are two-fisted and action-packed.

McLeod’s gorgeous brush and line work go a long way in creating a sense of motion, speed and power. McLeod’s panel layout and frames not only order the action, but elegantly emphasize a single blow’s impact or a character’s response. The book also features elements of decompressed storytelling, currently, the most common way of presenting action in comics. It’s also called, “deconstructed storytelling,” but “deconstruction” has particular connotations for me.

In decompressed storytelling, action is organized cinematically. It’s an attempt to create the experience of watching the story onscreen. A compressed story is usually complete within the space of 20-some pages. A decompressed narrative is usually complete within 4-6 comics—the number of issues collected in a trade paperback. A decompressed comic’s space allows readers to admire the art. But when action is laid out as if it were a movie, the attempt to immerse me frame by frame distracts me because it makes a comic come across as a quick sketch of a film.

Infinite Kung Fu‘s final fight breaks action down into individual moves, but it doesn’t seem cinematic in quite the above sense. And that’s a little strange, because the book is all about a love of classic martial arts cinema. Maybe it’s that McLeod uses decompression appropriately. After all, Shaw Brothers are right there behind Infinite Kung Fu. And McLeod highlights stances and styles in a way reminiscent of pre-1980s martial arts films, combatants announcing styles or pausing between sets of movements to allow enthusiasts to recognize, say, Mantis Fist. But the action reminds me of something else, too—the diagrams demonstrating stances in kung fu manuals.

Because Chinese martial arts are also a textual tradition using teaching manuals, kung fu has always existed in a static medium. Martial arts stories themselves are rife with secret books and prodigies with eidetic memories learning an entire style in a single glance. In fact, there is a long line of people with very bad or even no kung fu who discover secret books or carvings in a hidden chamber that allow them to become superhumanly powerful. In Infinite Kung Fu, Immortal Chung leaves Yang at the bottom of a cliff with piles of books. Yang can only stack them to climb back up again once he has finished them all. Yang’s rival steals books of poison style kung fu and a secret Shaolin style and becomes inconceivably dangerous—and mad—from studying them.

In the end, portraying action in a static medium has advantages—and not just for mastering secret kung fu styles. In Infinite Kung Fu, it’s easier to believe in the devastating power of the Emperor’s Greater Yin Fist or a head hopping across a battlefield and onto its neck, because those depictions exist on the same plane, in the same style as everything else in that world. Unlike in a moving medium, they can’t be undermined by bad special effects. Further, the creator controls what the reader does and does not see. The action in a comic depends on the creator’s skill in rendering and on both the creator’s and reader’s imagination.

Between art and imagination, kung fu can indeed be infinite.

 

*Ed Brubaker and Sean Philips include essays with their comics, Criminal, Incognito and Fatale. It’s a nice trend that’s showing up in other creator-owned books like Near Death and The Rinse.

~~~

Carol Borden regrets that she didn’t buy one of Kagan McLeod’s Bride With White Hair or Lo Lieh t-shirts when she had the chance.

Full disclosure:  Carol received this book as a review copy.  Kagan McLeod designed the poster for this year’s ActionFest, the only film festival dedicated to movies that go BOOM!  Kagan McLeod also designed the trailer for ActionFest, and Carol wrote text for it.  Carol is writing for the ActionFest blog again this year. ActionFest’s director Colin Geddes also wrote a blurb for the Cultural Gutter’s book.  But Carol’s heart is untainted for they were all brought together by the love of kung fu and she would’ve written more about Infinite Kung Fu regardless.

Comments

2 Responses to “Master of Infinite Kung Fu”

  1. Master of Infinite Kungfu | Mysterious Order of the Skeleton Suit
    April 20th, 2012 @ 4:50 pm

    […] FULL ARTICLE This entry was posted in Comics and tagged Martial Arts. Bookmark the permalink. ← Paapi […]

  2. Master of Infinite Kung Fu | Monstrous Industry
    March 20th, 2013 @ 4:10 pm

    […] (This piece was originally published at The Cultural Gutter) […]

Leave a Reply





  • Support The Gutter

  • The Book!

  • Of Note Elsewhere

    At Comics Alliance, Chris Sims talk abouts the art of lettering in comics. “Comic book lettering is up there with inking and coloring in the holy trinity of underrated comic book skills, but it’s also one of those things that, once you start paying attention to it, you’ll never be able to not notice it again. I’m not exaggerating even a little bit when I say that it’s one of those things that can absolutely ruin a comic if it’s done wrong, even if everything else is perfect. But to be honest, of those three elements, lettering is still probably the most underrated. The thing is, when it’s good, it can be absolutely gorgeous in its own right. And fortunately for us, there are a lot of people who do it very, very well.”

    ~

    Comics Alliance suggests seven Star Wars comics to read before Disney makes them disappear. (Including a comic by one of Comics Editor Carol’s favorite creative teams–Corinna Bechko and Gabriel Hardman). “Starting in 2015, Disney’s handing the publishing of any and all new Star Wars comics over to Marvel Comics, with an all new, optimized-for-corporate-synergy canon that will spread across all their media platforms. Anything that’s not a movie (especially one of the Original Trilogy movies), or a Clone Wars cartoon, will be unceremoniously Order 66-ed out of existence, giving future filmmakers a clean-ish slate to make movies (and money) on. But what about all those Dark Horse comics? That’s where we come in with 7 Dark Horse Star Wars comics you should track down before they disappear.”

    ~

    At the New York Observer, Ashley Steves writes about Craig Ferguson’s The Late, Late Show. “No one could ever prepare you for watching an episode of Ferguson’s Late Late Show. A friend could not sit you down and explain it (“Well, it’s really meta and deconstructive and there’s a horse”). There was really no good way to recommend it. It was something you discovered and became a part of. You had to stumble upon it on your own, perhaps restless or bored or simply curious while flipping through channels when your eye quickly caught some of the madness. And that’s the best part. It was an unexpected gift. At its worst, it could still send you to bed grinning and comforted. At its best, it was art. It was silly and fun and truly not like any other late night show.”

    ~

    At Comics Alliance, Chris Sims interviews Ed Brubaker about his work on Batman, Gotham Central and Catwoman. “When I look back at [Catwoman], I’m so proud of the first 25 issues of that book, when I felt like everything was firing on all cylinders. I probably should’ve left when Cameron Stewart left instead of sticking around. That’s one of those things I look back at and think “Ah, I had a perfect run up until then!” (Incidentally, Comics Editor Carol’s first piece for the Gutter was about Brubaker’s first 25 issues of Catwoman).

    ~

    At Sequential Art, Greg Carpenter writes a lovely piece about Charles Schulz’ Peanuts. “After only two installments, Schulz had solidified the rules for his comic strip.  Random acts of cruelty would punctuate this irrational world, and Schulz’s trapped little adults would be forced to act out simulations of human behavior, using hollow gestures to try to create meaning in a universe where no other meaning was evident.  If Shakespeare’s Macbeth had been a cartoonist, the results of his daily grind, “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,” might have looked somewhat similar—each character a “poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage” until he or she was heard from no more.”

    ~

    The Smithsonian Magazine has a gallery of US spy satellite launches. “Just as NASA creates specially designed patches for each mission into space, [National Reconnaissance Office] follows that tradition for its spy satellite launches. But while NASA patches tend to feature space ships and American flags, NRO prefers wizards, Vikings, teddy bears and the all-seeing eye. With these outlandish designs, a civilian would be justified in wondering if NRO is trolling.”

    ~

  • Spilling into Twitter

  • Obsessive?

    Then you might be interested in knowing you can subscribe to our RSS feed, find us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter or Tumblr.

    -------

  • Weekly Notifications

  • What We’re Talking About

  • Thanks To

    No Media Kings hosts this site, and Wordpress autoconstructs it.

  • %d bloggers like this: