Monday, June 20, 2011


Cartoonist Shary Flenniken, a former National Lampoon editor (her well-drawn feature "Trots and Bonny" appeared on those pages from 1972 to 1990), published in 1994 a hilarious, 112-page book entitled Seattle Laughs: Comic Stories about Seattle (Homestead Book Company). It contains the work of 38 cartoonists. My very humble contribution is a two-page comic strip called "A Dragon's Tale." 

Set in Lake View Cemetery, where martial artist Bruce Lee is buried, the story presents in 13 panels a young karate student at Lee's grave site. He seeks inspiration for his own practice as he relates for the reader Lee's history from his early days in Seattle when he bused and waited tables at Ruby Chow's restaurant, was for 3 years a student at the University of Washington (he was a philosophy major), where he met his wife, to his Hollywood career and early, sudden death. All that happened years before I moved to the Pacific Northwest. It took me weeks to draw, ink and letter those two pages on Lee's life, and I gained enormous appreciation for the great comic book artists---the Jack Kirbys, Denys Cowans and John Romita Jrs---who produce hundreds of pages of art like this every year. 
 Like most teenagers in the 1960s, I was introduced to Bruce Lee, a student of Wing Chun grandmaster Yip Man for two years starting when he was 13-years-old, through his role as Kato in the dreadful "The Green Hornet" series. At the time what he did on screen looked impossible---just like the spontaneous, inside crescent kick he did in his screen test for that role as he's talking to the camera looked incredibly fast. He was the only thing worth watching in that show. In Alex Ben Block's quickie book, The Legend of Bruce Lee (Dell Publishing Co, 1974), Lee---who struggled against Hollywood's racist attitude toward Chinese and Japanese actors---is quoted as saying, "You know why I got the 'Green Hornet' job? Because the hero's name was Brit Reed and I was the only Chinese guy in all of California who could pronounce Brit Reed, that's why." One assumes from this that other Chinese actors who auditioned perhaps pronounced the name as Blit Leed.
Naturally, I admired Lee as the non-white martial artist who, after repeated rejection in Hollywood (he really wanted the lead role in the "Kung Fu" series that starred non-Chinese actor David Carradine), found he had to leave this country in order to get a break in his career. In 1970, he began starring in films for Shaw Brothers of Hong Kong. Those made him a pop cultural icon in the East. By the time he returned to Hollywood to do "Enter the Dragon," he was earning $1 million per movie and had single-handedly started a genre of American martial arts "action movies" (as he liked to call when he did) that created careers for numerous other practitioners of Asian martial arts in the 1970s and '80s. 
 Equally interesting, though, is the fact that Lee, a martial arts fanatic, created his own fighting system, Jeet Kune Do ("The Way of the Intercepting Fist"), which combines techniques from several martial art systems---he saw it as graduate school for those who already had black belts, and after his death this system was taught by his friend Dan Inosanto, a master of Escrima, or Filipino stick fighting. 
Here in Seattle, just before I went to San Francisco and started training in Choy Li Fut kung-fu in 1981, I briefly studied "modern Wing Chun" with John Beale, a student of James W. DeMile, who was one of Lee's original students when he arrived in the northwest. Sifu DeMile was the first person to teach me how to meditate in the early '80s. Wing Chun is a system known for its close-in fighting techniques, and Lee once said he studied it with Yip Man because (1) He was in a gang after his career as a child actor in 20 Hong Kong films starting when he was 6-years-old (he came from an acting family) and he needed to know how to fight; and (2) Because he was near-sighted and wore glasses, so close-in fighting suited him well if his glasses got knocked off, which always happens in a fight or sparring situation. (That is the only reason I started wearing soft contact lenses in the '80s, i.e., for martial arts class.)The workouts at that Seattle school, where Sifu Beale was the instructor, were intense, rewarding, and memorable.
So, yes, there are things I admire about Bruce Lee. Why else would I work for weeks on a 2-page comic strip about him?

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