Friday, July 23, 2010

Fu Manchu in Comics

From his first appearance in print in the pages of The Story-Teller in October 1912, Sax Rohmer’s criminal mastermind, Dr. Fu Manchu took the world by storm. While Rohmer would complete three novels featuring the character between 1912 and 1917, the Devil Doctor would extend his domain to include film and comics in the fourteen years before Rohmer bowed to commercial demand and revived the series.

Leo O’Mealia was responsible for adapting Rohmer’s three original novels into a daily newspaper strip, Fu Manchu from 1930 to 1931 while Warner Oland was occupied starring as the character in three feature films and a short for Paramount. Oland, incidentally, was the second screen Fu Manchu following Harry Agar Lyons in the 1920’s. The comic strips were later colored and edited as a back-up feature in the pages of Detective Comics which top-lined a new comic character in the pulp tradition known as The Batman.

Despite the fact that Rohmer went to great pains to make it clear that the Devil Doctor was clean-shaven, the very first magazine illustrators to tackle the character were responsible for grafting upon his terrifying visage the stereotypical Chinese moustache known today as a Fu Manchu.

O’Mealia presented Fu Manchu devoid of facial hair in his daily strip, but in place of Rohmer’s famous description of “a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan,” the artist depicted a repulsive hunchbacked gargoyle. The resulting figure is not unlike the monstrous Soviet villains in Jack Kirby’s Cold War-era work for Atlas and Marvel or, for that matter, Kirby’s earlier Golden Age portrayal of hideously inhuman Japanese soldiers in his work for Timely Comics.

Despite the unsettling and dehumanizing portrayal of the titular villain, O’Mealia’s strips are surprisingly faithful to the original text. The exception being the final strips in 1931 which offered a more traditional wrap-up to the storyline than any Sax Rohmer book would ever do.

The most accessible source for sampling Leo O’Mealia’s Fu Manchu strip is Malibu Graphic’s trade paperback collection which features two non-sequential episodes. DC Comics has reprinted several Golden Age issues of Detective Comics which reprint the odd installment of the colored strip, but nothing approaching the full run has ever been reprinted. The one Holy Grail for collectors would be an Australian magazine which dedicated an entire issue to reprinting a sequential storyline. Surprisingly, the internet offers little information on this publication and copies are scarce on the collector’s market making it a highly sought after collectible.

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