Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Salute to Doug Moench

Last week I observed the birthday of Sax Rohmer, creator of Fu Manchu. Today marks the birthday of another of my favorite authors and he's also been linked to Fu Manchu; unlike Rohmer, he's still alive and I've even met him. He's Doug Moench.

Moench's career really took off when he was writing for Warren's black & white comic magazines, which led to assignments for Marvel's similar line of magazines. His black & white work is mostly forgotten now (like virtually all 1970s b&w comic magazines), but at Marvel he brought about a remarkable 100+ issue run on the series Master of Kung Fu.

Moench didn't initiate the series - it had been begun by Steve Englehart - but he made his mark, aided initially by the beautiful pencils of Paul Gulacy. I've heard some MoKF fans declare that after Gulacy left (MoKF#50), the series faltered. This might be true of the issues immediately after #50, but there was so much more greatness yet to come! The era penciled by Mike Zeck with inks by Gene Day was another creative highlight:

...And then came the issues where Gene Day handled all of the art chores:

Anyone who bailed on Master of Kung Fu after #50 missed out on both spectacular artwork and stories that were as good (or better) than those of the Gulacy years.

Part of why I find Master of Kung Fu so remarkable is that although it wasn't Moench's creation or property he had control of the characters for such a long period of time that he could set-up long-term payoffs that you seldom see in comic books of any era (even creator-owned). Shang-Chi's initial antagonism towards Nayland Smith melts into an uneasy alliance, followed by an occasionally frayed but professional working relationship until when Shang realizes in MoKF#118 that Smith is like a surrogate father to him and declares "I love you" it's a moment the series has earned from more than 100 issues of development. Likewise how Black Jack Tarr dubs Shang "Chinaman" in the early issues as a racial slur, but by the time the series reaches its 90s it's recognized by both men as a term of affection. Clive Reston is introduced as a friendly, somewhat aloof ally but over time becomes distanced from Shang. Shang and Leiko's romantic life goes through peaks and valleys. All of these character developments occur so gradually and seemingly organically that I never felt Moench was cheating the audience.

Moench's other great work for Marvel was Moon Knight, which he spun out of Werewolf by Night during his term as writer. Moon Knight is one of those characters very few writers seem capable of handling but as his creator, Moench clearly knew what he was doing:

Moench's great unsung work from Marvel is Weirdworld, which appeared in a variety of unlikely titles across a ten year span. Weirdworld was a straightforward fantasy epic, made wonderful by the artists who brought Moench's stories to life.

I keep bothering my editor about reprinting these stories; if anyone reading this wants to see a Weirdworld collection happen, how about getting after the trades department yourself?

Sadly, Moench's time at Marvel came to an acrimonious end in the early 1980s and he's rarely produced work for them since. I think in the last 30 years he's written more Batman comics than anything, but I'm ashamed to admit I haven't read many of them.

On those occasions when I've been in touch with Moench on behalf of my Marvel work he's been very gracious and long-suffering. Seeing him in person at San Diego last year, I appreciated that he spoke "from the hip" to audiences with regards to his career and his conflicts. For all that's been and for all that is to come, happy birthday Mr. Moench!

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