Written and Illustrated by Kagan McLeod
Published by Top Shelf, 2011
“Refreshing” is a word that comes to mind when describing Kagan McLeod’s Infinite Kung Fu. Some graphic novels are refreshing because they abandon the contemporary conventions of their respective genres. They opt to go back to their roots and build something new from there. Kung fu art (meaning films, comics, video games, etc.) has become a spectacle, an often-trivializing exploitation of flashy Shaolin movements. Infinite Kung Fu is one of those graphic novels that reject what their competitors are doing. In his foreword to the graphic novel, Colin Geddes explains that he met with McLeod’s work “just after The Matrix, when so much pop culture was inspired by Hong Kong cinema, but ultimately missing the point about the originality that made that stuff so great.” Infinite Kung Fu clearly doesn’t fall into this category of pop culture. It harkens back to the age of kung fu films released before the DVD era (DVDs were the thing we watched before Blu-Ray discs, kids).
Infinite Kung Fu follows the adventures of ex-soldier Yang Lei Kung, the student of Chung Li Ch’uan, chief of the Eight Immortals. Lei Kung’s mission is to repay his debt to his master by destroying the ghostly emperor. He forms alliances and rivalries as he meets the other Immortals and their students, many of whom have been corrupted by studying various forms of Poison Kung Fu. He races them to collect the emperor’s hidden armor, so he can destroy the pieces and thus the ghost. Sounds pretty cheesy, but it’s difficult to express in my word limit just how well Kagan McLeod uses campiness to get at deeper (often Buddhist-inspired) philosophical underpinnings. You really have to read the graphic novel to understand.
Kagan McLeod balances text-heavy sequences with stylish action. I found myself skimming through the action just to get to the next narrative and dialogue. McLeod’s vision is so vast, his characters so intriguing, that reading this graphic novel was an intellectual treat. As a fiction writer myself, it’s always nice to come across a writer so skilled at developing his characters through their dialogues. Conversations never feel distracting or laboriously expository. Lei Kung and Moog Joogular in particular have very unique voices, and strong character arcs. Because the book clocks in at over 450 pages, thank goodness the writing never stales.
And of course, the art is wonderful. The first section of the book feels a bit too computer-polished, but right after that McLeod abandons digital clean-ups and totally owns his style. Bold, exaggerated lines splash from page to page. The line-work highlights the campy feel of the graphic novel while creating a perfect tension between its more serious undertones. McLeod smashes together visual clichés of the kung fu film genre, and they cancel each other out to create something refreshingly new. Reading Infinite Kung Fu will make you giddier than Aunt Mabel after a few sangrias – you’ll recognize so many conventions yet marvel at the ways McLeod either exploits them or turns them on their heads, making something new out of them. I, for one, loved that Lei Kung was chosen as a student not because he’s any sort of Chosen One (booooooring), but because he accidently kills Chung Li Ch’uan and thus owes him a debt.
You could make worse reading choices than Kagan McLeod’s Infinite Kung Fu this summer. This graphic novel’s long, but never dull. If you’re looking for an action-packed kung fu read, but want some real substance to it, pick up Infinite Kung Fu at your local shop. I expect a thank-you email, grasshopper.