Picture the scene: bad guys are doing something bad when there is a polite knock on the door. Gun barrels swivel to target the entrance. Breath is held. Sweat dribbles down faces. The door flies open and, standing in silhouette, is a hero come to claim righteous vengeance for a squished hamster or other crime. And—he is unarmed!
All the best stories stack the deck against the protagonist, none more so than the martial arts action adventure in which, whatever the odds, the hero only has his wits and skills to fall back on. Going up against an armed gang, he is the ultimate underdog and that is something we can all relate to.
From the worlds of comics, book, cartoons, television and movies, here are my favourite fictional masters of unarmed combat
1. Doc Savage (Pulp Novels)
Created in 1933, Doctor Clark Savage Jr suffered from the same problem as many heroes of his era, namely an over-abundance of virtues. Not content with being merely an explorer, inventor, surgeon, physician, detective, athlete and musician, Doc was also the master of every known martial art at the time, everything from pankration to capoeira. And he was a master of disguise. And ventriloquism. And he had a photographic memory. After a whopping 181 novels, The Man of Bronze entered semi-retirement in 1949 to the delight of evil-doers everywhere.
2. Kwai Chang Caine from Kung Fu (TV)
Growing up in the 70’s, with only three TV channels to choose from, meant that family viewing was a serious affair. One of the shows that made the cut was Kung Fu, a martial arts western starring David Carradine as a Shaolin monk wandering
frontier and dispensing justice along the way to outlaws and rednecks. Famed
for its flashbacks, the phrase, “Ah, Glasshoppah,” often preceded much imitation limb
flailing in the school playground. America
The 70’s witnessed a boom in martial arts as the West discovered Bruce Lee, and kung fu fighting made it into everything from James Bond to comic books to the pop charts. One of the more absurd offshoots was Hong Kong Phooey, a Hanna-Barbera cartoon that followed the familiar super-hero trope of the crime-fighting alter ego, but in this case the lead character, a dog, was spectacularly inept, and saved on most occasions by his pet cat, Spot.
4. Daniel Rand, Iron Fist (Marvel Comics)
Marvel Comics’ first martial arts character was Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu, (the fictional son of the infamous Sax Rohmer creation Dr Fu Manchu), but I preferred the gaudy yellow mask and green pyjamas of Iron Fist, partly for his low-rent, hero-for-hire, buddy-comedy schtick, but also because of his special ability, the eponymous power punch.
5. Morpheus, from The Matrix (Movie)
The easy, go-to character for any of The Matrix movies is of course Keanu Reeves as Neo, but the quiet, authoritative Morpheus carries more heft for me. Not only is he human, without Neo’s unique powers, but he also - reluctantly - takes on an Agent in a gravity-defying fight atop a moving juggernaut, and wins. The first film is keen to tell us that no human has ever beaten an Agent in a fight, which makes Morpheus’s achievement all the greater.
6. Elektra (Marvel Comics)
Before Frank Miller came along and revolutionised comics with his work on Batman and
, he cut his teeth on Daredevil, honing his signature style of
shadow and silhouette, heavily influenced by Japanese manga. One of the key characters he created at the time was Elektra
Natchios, a ninja assassin who went on to inspire a slew of ninja-themed
storylines as gang war in Sin City
spilled into new territories. New York
7. Super Duper Sumos (TV)
Humour is important in a grim world, but also in the ascetic world of martial arts, which is why I welcome the goofy, genre-bending adventures of three sumo wrestlers who, using the powers of Peace, Honour and Truth (PHAT) literally work their ample butts off to fight crime. In a pastiche of monster movies, super-heroes and kung fu, a typical episode involves one hero recounting a lengthy flashback to find that everyone else has drifted off from boredom.
8. Batman (DC Comics)
No round-up of fictional martial artists would be complete without the most iconic and tormented of them all, Batman. His prowess in unarmed combat is legendary and this quote from the seminal Batman: The Dark Knight Returns says it all: “There are seven working defences from this position. Three of them disarm with minimal contact. Three of them kill. The other-- [KRAKK!] --hurts.”
9. Lone Wolf, from Lone Wolf and Cub (Manga)
Strictly speaking, the title is Kozure Okami, a 1970’s manga epic recounting the quest for revenge of master swordsman Itto Ogami in feudal
, with infant son in tow.
Running over 8,700 monochrome pages in total, and featuring a 178 page single
fight scene, this was one of the first manga
to be translated into English, back in 1987. The scope, artwork and graphic violence helped
bury the myth once and for all that comics are just for kids. Japan
10. Rama, from The Raid: Redemption (Movie)
Jason is the author of the seriously action-packed Kuromori series, set entirely in modern Japan with an awful lot of monsters, humour and fight scenes.