Written and drawn by Kagen McLeod
Top Shelf Productions, 2011.
The buzz around this book has been damn strong. When books have been praised as highly as Infinite Kung Fu it can be difficult to not be disappointed by the actual reading experience when the enthusiasm fails to take hold of you. Kagen McLeod deserves that praise though, because this is a beautifully rendered, fun page-turner.
At 400+ pages in black and white, one might think that this is a North American product of manga inspiration. That is not really true. Though the subject is of Eastern origin, namely a love letter to Shaw Studios’ kung fu films, the execution is not. The story was originally published as serialized comics in 2002-2003, of which this book is a collection. The art style is more greyish ink wash than the defined black line style common to manga.
The story is set in a fantasy world where society is much like the feudal China of the Qin dynasty, but with one important difference from the traditional Hong Kong kung fu film historical setting. It seems that the laws of karma are in effect but there are more human souls floating around than available bodies, meaning that the corpses of the recently (and in some cases not so recently) dead are being possessed and reanimated by deranged dead souls. In other words zombies are a constant menace to all parties, good or evil.
The narrative follows a lowly soldier who abandons his post in the emperor’s army because he is appalled by the cruelty of the emperor and his generals. He meets one of the seven immortals, who are pledged not to interfere with mortal affairs though still influence mortals to behave with some sense of moral character. Our soldier begins training to become a kung fu master.
As he trains with the various immortals, he learns new abilities of superhuman strength, endurance and perception. This follows the Shaw Studios formulas of a warrior monk who trains and through his education gains the ability to right the wrongs of the world, usually through some form of revenge or the overthrow of a cruel authority figure. This alchemical perfecting of the student is expanded out over several encounters and trials in this book, turning the struggles into an epic.
McLeod creates some excellent and memorable characters. Moog Jugular is of particular note and one of my favorites. He is an homage to blaxploitation films of the 1970s, looks like Bootsy Collins, can detach his arm (using that as a weapon) and can break down poisons internally. This proves to be very useful as the emperor’s evil generals have learned the corrupting styles of poison kung fu. Poison kung fu styles is a major aspect of the plot, and those familiar with the 1978 Shaw Studios film The Five Deadly Venoms will recognize that film’s role in inspiring Infinite Kung Fu. Those familiar with historical kung fu films from the 1970s are sure to love this book for these constant references and easter eggs. Gordon Liu even wrote the introduction.
As far as the art is concerned, this work is a masterpiece of sequential storytelling. The ink wash technique that McLeod uses reminds me of the better moments of the Creepy and Eerie magazines. Titles and sound effects are also inventively rendered in English but using the bold strokes that stylistically recall those found in ink and paper Chinese ideogram calligraphy. Fight sequences are excellently choreographed and adapted to the static panel progressions in such a way that the fluidity of kung fu is translated to the process of reading. The panel layouts in dialog and exposition sequences are pretty amazing.
This book is nothing short of a masterpiece. You should read it. Now.
A preview is available on the Top Shelf website.