Friday, May 30, 2014

DAUGHTERS OF THE DRAGON: DEADLY HANDS

"DAUGHTERS OF THE DRAGON" | "SWORD OF VENGEANCE"
Writer: Chris Claremont | Artist: Marshall Rogers
Letterers: Irving Watanabe w/Karen Mantlo | Editor: John Warner

In early 1977, Chris Claremont was at possibly the most diverse phase of his career. He had not yet become the man known exclusively for writing mutant titles. Instead, he was the regular writer on UNCANNY X-MEN and IRON FIST; he had just added MS. MARVEL to that same résumé, and within a few months, MARVEL TEAM-UP would include Spider-Man's adventures among his monthly credits as well.

Marvel was pretty diverse at the time too, publishing, among other things, a line of black-and-white magazines alongside their color comics. The magazines were not restricted by the guidelines of the Comics Code Authority, allowing creators greater freedom with the content of their stories. One of these periodicals was DEADLY HANDS OF KUNG-FU, which had, over the years, been a showcase for characters like Shang-Chi, Iron Fist, and the Sons of the Tiger. Finally, for the series' last two issues, Claremont teamed up with artist Marshall Rogers for a series about Colleen Wing and Misty Knight, supporting characters from his IRON FIST series now striking out on their own.

The story follows Colleen and Misty to Hong Kong, on a mission to avenge the death of Colleen's grandfather at the hands of a drug lord named Emil Vachon. The women battle Vachon's men across the city, into "junk town" (a floating "village" of boats), and eventually wind up in Vachon's lair, a huge complex within a dormant volcano.

In my review of IRON MAN #130, I noted that David Michelinie and Bob Layton failed to transport me to Hong Kong. I felt like I was reading about someone's simplistic idea of the city, and not the city itself. I even compared the story to some of Chris Claremont's later works, when he sent the X-Men to Japan. And, as expected, Claremont and Rogers pull Hong Kong off much more skillfully and, as far as I can tell, authentically, than Michelinie and Layton. At the very least, the authenticism "feels true", where the Iron Man story rang somewhat false.
Am I seeing things, or does the woman at left have
breasts and a posterior both on the same side of her body??
Claremont takes full advantage of the Comics Code's absence, peppering the story with the occasional mild profanity, and even having Vachon addict Colleen to heroin when he captures her at one point. Rogers tosses in his own "mature" subject matter as well, in the form of a few brief instances of gratuitous nudity (though the nudity is censored in the 2006 reprint).

Unfortunately, the story is not especially engrossing. It's a story that I want to like. It's basically a seventies exploitation film set in the Marvel Universe. Pam Grier and the female Bruce Lee on a revenge mission in Hong Kong -- you can't go wrong. But the story doesn't feel big enough for its premise. We get a street chase in Hong Kong, and the sequence with the junks is exciting, culminating in a massive explosion -- but both those set-pieces occur in the first chapter. The second installment has nothing comparable.

Beyond that, the climax comes much too abruptly. Colleen is addicted to heroin, but shakes it off within an hour, and then she and Misty fairly efficiently dispatch Vachon and his main henchman. It's almost as if Claremont ran out of room to finish his story -- which may in fact be the case, as the serial ends in the final issue of DEADLY HANDS OF KUNG FU. It's possible the story was meant to be longer, but the magazine's cancellation forced its premature conclusion.

Marshall Rogers's artwork isn't all that spectacular here, either. His depictions of the locales are outstanding -- as noted above, I felt transported to Hong Kong -- and he plays with some creative panel layouts, to be sure. But his figures, while dynamically illustrated, are also often quite awkward and almost sloppy-looking. Rogers is only a few months away from his acclaimed run on DETECTIVE COMICS at this point, but this story does not hold much of a candle to that work. It's possible that an inker like Terry Austin, who provided finishes on that DETECTIVE run, could have helped, here.

Lastly, a note which I found interesting: Vachon's headquarters is a complex consisting of several gravity-defying platforms staggered all around. This is a concept Claremont would revisit years later for the home of Forge, in the pages of UNCANNY X-MEN. The names of these places are even amusingly similar: Vachon lives in the "Eagle's Nest", while Forge resides in his "Aerie", atop "Eagle Plaza" in Dallas.

"SAFE STREET"
Writer: Chris Claremont | Penciler: Marshall Rogers | Inker: Bob McLeod
Letterer: John Morelli | Editors: Lynn Graeme & Ralph Macchio

Four years later, Claremont and Rogers returned to the Daughters of the Dragon in another black and white Marvel magazine, BIZARRE ADVENTURES. IRON FIST was long cancelled by this point, and Claremont had left the characters behind as supporting cast members in POWER MAN AND IRON FIST, written by Mary Jo Duffy. But it seems Claremont had one last "Daughters of the Dragon" story in him. The story once more has a seventies exploitation vibe, as Misty and Colleen come into conflict with Angie Freeman, Misty's childhood friend who is now a vampire (and who is inexplicably and quite obviously illustrated by Rogers and McLeod as never wearing a bra).

The story is a bit thin, with a framework consisting entirely of Misty and Colleen being chased around town by Angie's vampire minions, while the events that led them to this point are recounted in flashback. The artwork, whether through Claremont's idea or Rogers's, gets creative, however, illustrating each woman's flashback sequences from her point point of view (so their stories are illustrated as if we are looking through their eyes). Additionally, McLeod's inking adds quite a bit to Rogers's work, making this story look much more polished than the previous one.
But Claremont falls a bit short on the plot. It's just not very engrossing, despite his best attempts to frame it as a mystery. Fortunately, just a little over a year later, Claremont would redeem himself with an outstanding vampire story in UNCANNY X-MEN #159 -- one of my very favorite single issues in the entire run of that title.

I will say, however, that if -- like me -- you just happen to own the soundtrack to BLACULA, this is the perfect story to accompany it.

Art (left to right): Malcolm McNeill, Earl Norem, Paul Gulacy

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