Tales From The Longbox #1: Japer Revisits Richard Dragon: Kung-Fu Fighter

Every Friday, we’ll be bringing you reviews of meaningful comics found in the collections of our writers. “Long Box” refers to the lengthy, white cardboard boxes most comics find themselves stored within – bagged, alphabetized and numerically ordered.

These reviews, then, are the tales of those collections: illuminating characters, artists, writers – even eras – in addition to the personalities of the very owners of those fine collections.

Richard Dragon: Kung-Fu Fighter #1
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Artist: Leopoldo Duranona

Interest in eastern philosophy-tinged comics saw a surge in the 1970’s, reflecting film and other forms of print. Marvel Comics published a number of books based on the subject and DC, too, had their share.

Under the helm of award-winning writer and resident hipster, Denny O’Neil, Richard Dragon: Kung-Fu Fighter saw its debut in 1975. The title would become the breeding ground and lynch-pin of DC’s martial arts-themed characters for decades to come, having a lasting effect on the whole of the publishing company’s universe.

The opening scene of the first issue sees O’Neil’s career-long interest in eastern philosophy brought to the fore. Dragon, a young loner and thief, attempting to steal a sculpture from the garden of the aged O-Sensei, is confronted by the Asian. “Were the sculpture you are holding mine,” he says to the thief, “I would willingly give it to you. However, it is not mine to give. I must ask you to leave it.” Dragon refuses, lunging at the O-Sensei with a blade. The old man, ably assisted by his masterful training in the martial arts, quickly dispatches the young Dragon and admonishes him. The O-Sensei, sensing a “destiny of greatness” within the young man, recruits Dragon into his care for seven years, teaching him of the ancient ways.

Themes that O’Neil first investigated nearly five years earlier in issues of Green Lantern/Green Arrow are reflected upon again. In Kung-Fu Fighter, the writer gives us a main character who is not only a scoundrel, but a racist. In order to explore this second facet even further, O’Neil creates the character Benjamin Turner, a well-studied African-American, who is also under the tutelage of the O-Sensei. Turner is the device, along with the teachings of their Master, which sees Dragon transformed from his old ways, becoming something new. Indeed, this is a story about youth transmuted into experience, prejudice into tolerance and recklessness into prudence.

Upon completion of their training, Richard Dragon and Benjamin Turner are cast out by their Master and are now destined to forge their own path in the world – as partners.

In the outside world, the two friends, based upon the reputation of their Master, are hired by an international peace keeping organization to take down an East-Indian slave trader named Aki. This storyline has ramifications throughout the next six issues but highlights another of the social commentaries O’Neil is continuously interested in purveying.

The script itself is dated, written in the narration of a close observer who occasionally addresses the reader. The dialogue, too, is full of the vernacular of the time. When approaching a group of thugs to interrogate, Turner states: “I say we go over and rap…friendly like!” Later, in the middle of an Indian bazaar and looking to infiltrate the slave trade organization by selling Dragon, who is dressed in the garb of a slave, Turner tells some low-level villains: “Hey cat, I wanna do a deal with your boss!”

The realistic art, the renderings of human form itself are sketchy in nature but still enjoyable. It’s evident that the artist, Leopoldo Duranona, had some study in fighting techniques.

Richard Dragon: Kung-Fu Fighter #1 is a story that sets the stage for Dragon’s path of enlightenment, both physical and spiritual. In the last panel, he tells Turner: “We’re changed, Ben…we’ll never be the same again! We’ve taken the first step on a long path…and I’m not sure where it’ll lead! But I am sure of this…we can never turn back!”

The characters of Richard Dragon and Benjamin Turner would continue with greater appeal in other comics. Turner would lead the successful 80’s and 90’s incarnations of the Suicide Squad under the persona of the Bronze Tiger. Dragon himself would see further success, albeit later, and, still under the pen of O’Neil, as a martial arts master trainer of both Batman and the Question as well as a myriad of other DC heroes. The series spun off interest in other martial arts-themed publications such as Karate Kid, while solidifying O’Neil’s political and philosophical leanings, forming the basis for many of his seminal works in the following three decades.

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