Bruce Lee Comics (1994)

22 Sep

In looking through boxes of comic books I purchased in the 1990s, I found five issues of “Bruce Lee,” a comic series from 1994, published by Malibu Comics. I have issues #1, 2, 4, 5, and 6. I’m not sure how long the series lasted, but it’s about a character named Bruce Lee, whose similarities to the actual Lee involve getting jobs in the film industry and setting up a school to train students in jeet kune do, a martial arts philosophy Lee devised from his own synthesis of varied fighting styles and methods. The similarity pretty much ends there.

The story is set in southern California at the time it was published, 1994, and not the 1960s when the real Lee was a young aspiring actor and martial arts champion who trained select students, first in Seattle and then in Los Angeles, and took various film and TV acting and fight direction jobs before achieving a short-lived burst of international stardom in the early 1970s, ended tragically by his untimely death from cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 32 in 1973.

I wrote about Lee here in 2013 on the 40th anniversary of his death:

In this comic series, the character of Lee is not particularly ambitious about getting into films and is, in fact, a little skeptical. He’s not shown actively campaigning for jobs or doing screen tests and the like, but instead gets offered gigs after gaining some attention at a tournament in the first issue and after footage of his first film job attracts even greater interest from Hollywood types.

Interspersed with the film scenes are standard-issue crime-show plots, including rivalry with a competing martial arts champ who is dealing drugs on the side; a murder made to look like an overdose designed to frame Lee; a street gang looking to make things rough for Lee and his students; and a Mexican drug cartel, headed by “El General,” using a fake film production to smuggle opium into the U.S. The story arc in the issues available all culminate in a battle in Marina Del Rey between Lee and the General atop a construction crane at a condominium site paid for by drug money.

None of it is terribly original, although I was pleased to see occasional renderings of Lee that looked quite a bit like him…

…and action scenes that made some attempt to get his stances right:

There’s some novelty value in checking out the film references. On his first film job, “The Black Scorpion,” Lee has to fight the film’s egotistical European star, “Stefan Patrese,” clearly modeled on Jean-Claude Van Damme, a Belgian star of martial arts movies during that time, including STREET FIGHTER, in release the same year as this comic.

Lee has to hold back in his fight with Patrese, prompting the star to get rough and put a hurt on Lee, just so he’ll look stronger. He tries to make it up to Lee by taking him to a star-laden party where he introduces Lee to “Warren and Ann,” clearly modeled on then-reigning power couple Warren Beatty and Annette Bening. Patrese challenges Lee to a friendly match at the party and Lee quickly subdues the now-humbled Patrese.  

When Lee has to leave the party after getting a call alerting him to an impending gang attack on his school, Patrese insists on going with him to help, using his own car to drive them, all so he can get “tough guy” street cred. This part is actually pretty amusing.

Later on, Lee’s screenwriting buddy Sheldon informs Lee that “Silver wants you for LETHAL WEAPON IV,” a reference to longtime action movie producer Joel Silver and the next installment of the popular police thriller franchise starring Mel Gibson and Danny Glover.

Interestingly, another Chinese martial arts star, Jet Li, then a big star in Hong Kong in films like FIST OF LEGEND, released the same year as this comic book, would wind up being cast as a villain in LETHAL WEAPON 4 (1998), below in between Glover and Gibson. It was Li’s first Hollywood film.

Lee is not married in the series, as he was in real life, but we meet three attractive blondes who show interest in him, one a motorcycle-riding student of his named Copper Penny and the others women he meets on the sets of his films, Caitlin Thomas and B-film star Glynis Humes (pictured below). I have no idea if any relationships developed in later issues.

The series was put out by Malibu Comics and includes in small print on the first page, “BRUCE LEE is © 1994 the Estate of Bruce Lee. Licensed by Universal/MCA Merchandising, Inc.”

If the estate or any authority on Lee has ever issued comments on this series, I haven’t seen them.

Earlier this year I read the excellent biography, Bruce Lee: A Life, by Matthew Polly (2018/Simon & Schuster). It doesn’t mention the comic book at all. I had planned to do a blog post on the biography, but I got so caught up in reading it I forgot to take the copious notes I usually do and I didn’t get to writing about it while it was still fresh in my head. I’ll have to read portions of it again. For the record, Polly has his own take on the cause of Lee’s death, based on extensive research on Lee’s medical history in the weeks prior to his death. You should read the book if you’re intrigued by this.

For the record, this is all Wikipedia has to say about the comic series and I found little else about it on the web:

Bruce Lee was a 1994 six-issue comic book miniseries published by Malibu Comics and written by Mike Baron and illustrated by Val Mayerik. It focused on a fictional Bruce Lee character striving his way through gangs and rival dojo owners, while building a movie career. Malibu included a Mortal Kombat short story in the first and fifth issues

Writer Mike Baron had previously written three issues of the Green Hornet comic published by NOW Comics, about Lee’s Kato in the 1966 TV show. Val Mayerik had previously illustrated the second Kato limited series (also published by NOW). Baron states inspiration for the comic came from the 1970s Marvel Comics series Shang-Chi: Master of Kung Fu.

I found one site that seemed to list all the issues in the series and there were only six. So I might have gotten all that came out except for #3.

Each Bruce Lee issue offered a 24-page story for the price of $2.95.

That is exactly how many pages were devoted to the stories in the 12-cent comics I used to buy as a kid 30 years earlier.  I’m no economist, but $2.95 was a lot more money in 1994 dollars and cents than a dime and two pennies were in 1964.

It’s quite a coincidence that I located these comics right around the time the Marvel movie, SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF TEN RINGS, was released to theaters. I have some of the Shang-Chi comics, a series no doubt inspired by the popularity of Bruce Lee, but they’re buried in a box in storage. I’d love to dig them out and read them again. For the record, I enjoyed the movie, chiefly for the pleasure of seeing three Hong Kong stars in an Asian martial arts movie made by Hollywood, including superstar Tony Leung (HARD-BOILED, IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE), below, in his very first American production.

Michelle Yeoh:

Yuen Wah:

In the meantime, here are images of the real Bruce Lee from FIST OF FURY (1972) and ENTER THE DRAGON (1973):

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