Kagan McLeod’s Infinite Kung Fu is a graphic novel that falls broadly under an ancient Chinese literary genre known as wu xia. Prior to the 20th century, wu xia works were not considered by Chinese classicists as being literary in the strictest sense because they were often populist works that featured low-born protagonists whose skills using martial arts, including kung fu, allowed them to transcend the strict class-bound conventions of Chinese society. As wu xia gained traction in the 20th century, it was often in media that were, in themselves, new such as film. Well into the 1950s, the majority of wu xia films featured predominantly female actors, playing both male and female role, as male actors considered themselves above both the genre and the medium.
These films began making inroads into the American consciousness in the late 1960s and, due to the popularity of actors like Bruce Lee and television shows like Kung Fu, became a recognizable part of the Western cultural landscape during the 1970s until, it seemed, everybody was kung fu fighting. Comics, as the bastard stepchild of America culture during this period, was no stranger to the tropes of wu xia. Characters like Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu, Iron Fist and Daredevil exhibited the influence of wu xia films while adhering to the conventions of superhero comics, resulting in a product that was neither fish nor fowl and, thus, limited in their impact.
One obstacle for the execution of wu xia stories in the Western comics format was the delivery system for the comics themselves. The claustrophobic structure of the American comic book (delivered in 20+ page installments once monthly) placed demands on the story that did not allow for extended visual sequences at the expense of narrative exposition. Thus, fights between characters were largely restrained to two and three panel affairs – a kick here, a punch there – with hefty chunks of dialogue ladled on top to bring the story to a satisfying resolution by its end. Japanese manga, which were characterized by a breathless pace and typically long page counts, incorporated believable martial arts narratives (though not specifically wu xia) into their tradition much sooner, simply because the expectations of the media allowed for it.
Infinite Kung Fu represents something like the middle ground between the middle ground and the real thing. It hearkens back to the 1970s American fascination with kung fu films, as exhibited in comics, while taking advantage of loosened expectations for the graphic novel as a form. While it uses dialogue to move the story along, the book is highly dependent upon McLeod’s visual storytelling. With open nods to Mad Magazine veteran Jack Davis in his style, McLeod pulls out all the stops to deliver a visually exciting story that is at once true to the wu xia tradition and updated with interests more specific to American audiences.
Infinite Kung Fu is the story of a soldier defected from the Mad Emperor’s army who is recruited by a group of supernatural entities to stop his former master’s plan to end the world. Along the way, we are introduced a large cast of players who carry various plots and sub-plots along to converge in the climax at the end. The cultural influence of the 1970s is on display throughout as the characters inhabit broad archetypes which crossed paths with kung fu films of the period. The cumulative effect is a little dizzying as the reader may struggle to retain the backstory and specific purpose of every character as the story moves along.
Ultimately, the story is secondary to execution. McLeod has clearly done a lot of research on kung fu and brings a playful exploration of the various forms to the page. Like the films he pays homage to throughout, the emphasis is not on a faithful examination of kung fu as an actual martial art but to the ways in which it may be exaggerated to blur the line between the possible and the superhuman. In addition to supernatural elements which crop up throughout the story, McLeod also introduces a horror element as the bodies of the dead are inhabited by restless souls to create an army for the practitioners of dark or poison kung fu.
While I found it an enjoyable read as well as a marvel to behold, the characters never really develop beyond the archetypes that they inhabit. The end felt like a foregone conclusion based on my expectations of the form and, with rare exception, I never really developed any emotional connection to any of the characters. The conflicts between them serve a functional use as a vehicle to demonstrate McLeod’s visual prowess but rarely elevated the story to a place where I had an emotional investment in the outcomes. This doesn’t preclude Infinite Kung Fu from being fun and, to some extent, educational but one does get the sense that the book can be opened pretty much anywhere and read to any point and deliver the same reading experience as taking it in from beginning to end. As a work of comics, it is a real marvel but, as a work of fiction, it falls a little flat.