Time to hit a few more ki points!
Manhua (Chinese comics) aren’t easy to find here in America. Local comic shops might, on occasion, carry a few old volumes mixed in with the manga stuff, but unless you’re looking for it, you could miss it entirely. I first stumbled upon manhua while browsing the bargain bin at one such comic shop- intrigued by the lovely painted cover, I picked it up and started pawing through. It turned out to be Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre, an adaptation of the famous wuxia novel by Jin Yong, and what I found within was fantastic: full-color artwork with occasional painted inserts, dynamic fight scenes that span dozens of pages, and everything I loved about kung fu movies in comic format. Kung fu and comic books? It’s two great tastes that taste great together!
Compared to manga, manhua can be pretty obscure over here, but it’s not like it’s never been published in English. Jademan Comics published a pretty good number of manhua series in America a few decades back, and ComicsOne also put out a multitude of titles in the early 2000s before vanishing into the ether. The english translations in these volumes are usually pretty bad- hey, I’m not judging, I couldn’t do better- but in most cases, the story’s easy enough to follow and half the text is just describing what’s happening in that panel anyway.
Over the years, I’ve collected a pretty large assortment of these manhua. Some of them I’ve collected deliberately, others I’ve grabbed odd-volume at a time as part of some timely discount. Let’s talk a little about what cool things you’ll find in manhua.
First point: The artwork can be pretty gorgeous. It’s nice enough that most manhua is full-color; and some panels are fully painted, a note usually reserved for the introduction of main characters or big splash pages.
Second point: The fight scenes. Manhua are packed full of action; even compared to Marvel and DC’s stuff, manhua often feel like a rollercoaster ride. A rollercoaster of kung fu! It’s pretty crazy. All the wonderful exaggeration inherent in wuxia fiction is illustrated beautifully here, and the sense of movement and power is done better in these comics than in most Western books.
Third point: They’re totally insane. Chinese Hero: Tales of the Blood Sword, a landmark title by Ma Wing-Shing that pioneered the modern manhua style, features an early adventure in which Dracula appears as one of the henchmen of a crime lord. Dracula. And he uses kung fu. To be fair, he appears to be some ordinary (as far as kung fu masters go) bloke who calls himself Dracula and dresses like Bela Lugosi, but c’mon. One of his special techniques involves hanging upside down from a tree… like a bat. Again, this is a fighting move that he actually uses. In an actual fight.
So let’s say I’ve convinced you to take a peek inside your local comic shop and try one of these guys out. But what’s that you say? You’re not sure which one to start with? Then it sounds like it’s time for some recommendations!
Story of the Tao (Written by Ding Kin Lau, art by Andy Seto): It was the gorgeous artwork that drew me to this one, and I immediately loved the character designs. The story involves a crack team of heroes- each representing a different religious sect- assembled to rescue the kidnapped Prince, who also happens to be sort of living Buddha… whose flesh, when eaten, grants one incredible powers. So yeah, they’re trying to prevent cannibalistic regicide. The characters are pretty cool- our hero, Datura, is a Buddhist priest but a total womanizer, and makes for a pretty cool team leader. The best character, however, is “Evil Taoist” Zhu (“evil” referring to “cold-hearted and ruthless”), who is one of the most badass action heroines I’ve ever seen, wuxia or not. I appreciate that the major heroes are kept on a pretty even level, too- even though Datura is the main hero, sometimes he can’t handle a foe and his comrades get to step up to the plate. The humor, while suffering from ComicsOne’s poor translation, still gets a few smirks thanks to some fun sight gags. It’s gorier and raunchier than any other manhua I’ve found, though, so keep that in mind.
Weapons of the Gods (by Wong Yuk-long): I remember seeing the cover for the first volume of this series and thinking: this is the most heroic-looking character ever. Hero cape: check. Final Fantasy hair: check. Badass sword that appears to have grown out of some demon’s bone: check. It also has one of the coolest opening sequences ever seen: at a gathering of the world’s greatest fighters, a challenger and the host, Yi Nangong, end up drawing weapons so powerful (Heaven’s Crystal! Thunder Cudgel!) that they were never meant for human hands… ending up with a nuclear-level explosion that levels the entire area and wipes out everyone present! Fast forward a few decades, and we catch up with our hard-working hero Wen Tian, bastard son of Yi Nangong, who ends up fighting against the Hell Clan and collecting a ton of the namesake Weapons of the Gods. It’s pretty sweet stuff, with mutant animal-men and some awe-inspiring weaponry. Apparently, it was popular enough to spawn its own tabletop roleplaying game!
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (by Andy Seto): I picked this up, in spite of my dislike of the film, because I knew of Andy Seto from Story of the Tao and Saint Legend. The manhua, luckily, is pretty good. The art is as good as one might expect from Seto, and while it takes place years before the events of the movie, some of the characters you know (and some of you may love- I’m not judging!) are present and accounted for. If you were curious as to how Li Mu Bai first acquired the Green Destiny sword he wielded in the movie, you’ll find out here, and learn a lot about the early romance between him and Yu Shu Lien as well. It’s a little more subdued than most wuxia manhua, focusing more on the relationships between the characters, which works nicely, since you still get a healthy heaping of fight scenes to go with. I was pleasantly surprised by this one, and it seems to be easier to find than the rest of its manhua kin. ...Or, for that matter, the original novels the movie was inspired by. I hear those were less… weepy.
That’ll get you started. So train hard with your sifu, then jog down to the comic shop and see if they’ve got any of these on the shelves!