With superheroes gracing television screens and movie theaters worldwide, comic books have become relevant again in the cultural landscape. That kind of exposure might be great for well known characters like Spider-Man, Batman, and Superman, but there is a whole world of independent comics that are still being ignored by the masses. Fortunately for fans of the offbeat adventures of the indie landscape, there are writers and artists like Kagan McLeod who still carry the torch of creativity and imagination in a somewhat stagnant medium.
McLeod’s first comic offering, Infinite Kung Fu, is a book for fans of Bruce Lee movies, zombies, ancient Chinese mythology, and any other off-the-wall genre you can think of. Taking place in a world that is ruled by some ruthless kung fu masters, Lei Kung, a soldier in one of the masters' armies, becomes disillusioned by their cruelty and looks for enlightenment elsewhere. He soon discovers that he has been personally chosen to end the tyrannical rule of the masters. What follows is a supernatural tale featuring tons of action, mythology, and the undead!
This a comic for people who look for more than some super powers and useless continuity from their reading material. Put out by Top Shelf Productions, Infinite Kung Fu brings a style that separates it from the rest of the funny books that line book store shelves across the country and lifts comics out of the overly serious rut that the medium has been stuck in for nearly a decade.
Complex recently caught up with Kagan to discuss everything from the state of the comic industry to reading graphic novels about paying for hookers and what rappers he currently listens to.
Interview by Jason Serafino (@serafinoj1)
Complex: So where did you exactly get the inspiration for Infinite Kung Fu?
Kagan McLeod: Well I started doing kung fu comics as soon as I discovered the Shaw Brothers kung fu movies, basically. That was when I was 17 or 18, and I found Master Killer, which was the first one. I had a few Bruce Lee movies before that, but that one sent me down a whole new path and I started drawing that kind of stuff back then.
The book has a great look. What were the more modern influences for it? Did you look at movies like Kill Bill or Tarantino type movies as well?
Well, I certainly like that stuff, but I started working on Infinite Kung Fu before those movies had come out. I always read Lone Wolf and Cub, the manga. As far as the look, are you talking about movies?
Yeah. What inspired the different armors and costumes, that look?
I think a lot of the ‘80s and ‘90s Chinese movies have that kind of stuff, and when you see the older movies they’re just more simple like robes and Mandarin jackets and things like that.
Yeah, like the Akira Kurosawa movies.
Yeah, I liked The Emperor And The Assassin or Crouching Tiger, too. Those ones had more period costumes.
What comics did you read growing up?
Mainly Marvel for me; Spider-Man mostly. At the same time, around 18 or 19, I branched out into things besides Marvel and DC, and found some more alternative comics like Ghost World by Dan Clowes and comics by Chris Ware. But I always kind of liked something in between, which is not so much superheroes in Spandex, but more action than those kinds of alternative comics where it’s usually something biographical. I still like the genre stuff.
Infinite Kung Fu is a huge hardcover book. How long is it exactly?
And you said you were working on it before Kill Bill came out. When was this idea first planned?
2000. I put out issue number one. It’s the same drawings that are in the collection, but I went over them and inked them again just to kind of match my current drawing style a little bit better because back then I did things a little more digitally. So the old stuff is still there underneath, but I reworked it.
At first I printed 300 copies of it and sold it around town in Toronto, and then after that I went through a distributor and published 3,000 of the same issue. I went through seven issues like that, which is about 250 pages of the book, but after that it started to get to be too hard to do on my own. That’s when Top Shelf came around and we worked on something to finish it up.
You see a lot of creators and artists go to a mainstream publisher, but they always wind up back at a smaller comic company after a while. What are the advantages of working at a smaller place like Top Shelf?
Yeah, I never really had any ambition to work for one of the bigger ones, other than for money, really. For the creator-owned stuff, you want to have complete freedom. And Top Shelf gave me so much freedom, even the freedom to spend five years on the book. Basically it’s totally your own and they edit the copy. They didn’t have many notes on the story or anything like that. So I can say that it’s all me, which is cool. And I like starting from scratch too.
Yeah, you’re not anchored to a pre-existing world that you have to follow.
Yeah, and I think that with Top Shelf we can work together with what happens with the property down the line, whereas I’m sure it’s a lot different with the larger companies in terms of the licensing and things like that.
There are a lot of creators that work in comics now solely to option a comic to become a movie. What do you think about making a comic with the sole purpose to turn it into a blockbuster, as opposed to just creating something that readers would like?
It’s always in the back of your mind like “What if this happens” or “What if this is a way to make big bucks,” or something like that. But the truth is that things get optioned and then they fizzle. It takes a long time in Hollywood for things to actually happen.
I feel it’s better to just focus on making good stuff and definitely not count on anything like that happening. That’s when you probably make bad work, or do things to please other people rather than doing something that you really want. A fan can probably smell that a mile away.
It’s noticeable when they do that.
Especially with this being my first book, a lot of people will ask “What’s next?” So I’ll have to be careful not to shit something out next or it will look like that.
What comics do you read currently? Are there any series out right now that you feel people should be picking up?
Yeah, one of my friends, Sam Hiti, from Minneapolis, does a comic called Death Day. The first volume just came out and he’s currently doing a second one and that’s really cool and it’s worth picking up. It’s only available through him; he hasn’t even gone through a distributor yet, so he’s got a whole new philosophy on selling it. It’s good stuff.
I’m also following illustrator Nathan Fox’s work too. He’s done a comic which was published in Heavy Metal called Fluorescent Black, which is really cool. I also picked up Chester Brown’s comic Paying For It; he's a fellow Toronto artist. It's a comic about his experience paying for hookers for the last 10 years. [Laughs.] That was kind of just for fun. Nathan Fox and Sam are kind of more my type of story, like action based.
Do you think the whole medium now has gotten too hung up on this trend of realistic, gritty superhero stories? Because that’s not at all what Infinite Kung Fu is about, and that’s what is getting it noticed so much.
It’s tricky. I do agree with you that some of those companies might be going about it in a weird way where you see a superhero swear or deal with rape or heavy things like that, whereas that’s not something fluffy like it used to be. And that seems to be catering more towards 40 year olds who are still reading comics, and have been since they were kids and are now more mature.
They do that rather than focus on getting kids into it, but I don’t know, maybe kids are interested in that sort of stuff. But I think there is a place for that kind of stuff, for sure. It’s like anything: The mainstream is one thing, but then there is underground and alternative kind of stuff, which is more charming in ways because they don’t have the full color or glossy pages or anything like that. But it’s got a whole different type of energy.
Do you think that type of comic will ever break through, or will it always be in the underground?
I don’t know. I don’t think it’ll break through, but comics aren’t known for just being for kids now. You have comics getting reviewed as books in the New York Times now. Comic books and graphic novels get treated as actual literature in schools, and that’s a step closer to what it’s like in Japan. I think if you saw a grown man reading a comic book on the subway you might think he’s a little weird here, but it wouldn’t be that way over there.
Even though “graphic novel” is a buzz word now, and the whole movie option thing makes it that every summer movie that has been out in the last few years has been comic-related. So it’s definitely on people’s radar and, even if it’s corny, it opens up the pre-existing works to an audience that probably wouldn’t have gone into a comic shop in the first place.
Were there any novels that you read to inspire you on Infinite Kung-Fu?
Well I found The Eight Immortals in an art history book and that was kind of what I based the world on. There was this one story where one of the masters left his body to go to the celestial regions to tend to some business, and he had his student guard over his body while he was gone. But he stayed away for too long and his student cremated him. So he came back, he had nowhere to go so he entered the body of a dead beggar.
That’s how he’s portrayed in the scroll paintings and things like that, so that’s pretty cool. This Buddhist or Taoist take on zombies and things like that would be different, and that was kind of one of the set-ups for the world. A little bit later I found out about these Chinese wuxia novels by Louis Cha, but there aren’t many translated into English.
But the one that I read and really loved was called The Deer And The Cauldron, and it’s just all kinds of wacky serialized kung fu novels, which was really fun. There is also a sub-genre of kung fu horror movies that were really popular in the ‘70s and ‘80s. A lot of them take place in Indonesia and would deal with black magic. Very similar to Western black magic sort of stuff.
Like Exploitation films?
Yeah, I would say so. They were Chinese produced but would take place in Indonesia or the Philippines or someplace like that.
You did a poster of the greatest rap artists of all time. Are you big into hip-hop?
Yeah, I did that for my friend’s used CD store in Toronto. He needed art, so I did that. I got such a good response from it that I made it into a poster, and ended up taking it around and getting lots of the guys I drew to pose with it or sign it. I got a lot of them because Kangol Kid, from UTFO, had an anniversary party and he put the poster in his gift bag for the party goers, but they all had to pose for it on the red carpet, so that was awesome.
What are you listening to now?
I’m kind of stuck in the late ’80s and ‘90s stuff because that’s what I grew up with, and, as far as right now, I listen to a lot of ‘60s and ‘70s music. But I like Edan from Boston and Busdriver. Who else is doing good stuff? I don't know; I still like that kind of sample-based sound. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of anyone who is super current, like a Complex Magazine type person.
We cover a lot of Kanye and Rick Ross and stuff like that.
Yeah, I like Kanye; I don’t really like Rick Ross. I guess Kid Cudi is pretty good.
For people curious about Infinite Kung Fu, how would you break it down into its essence? Who do you think this would appeal to?
I would say the story is kung fu masters taking on apprentices to save the world. That kind of thing. You know, basically resurrection gone awry and some of those students find evil kung fu manuals and turn bad, while it’s pretty much all going to be up to the last student.
The flavor has some heavy stuff, but overall it's action and fun. I hope that when you read it you can imagine the dubbing as the type of dubbed voices that you should read the voice bubbles as. Just like the kind of stuff that comes off weird in kung fu movies that aren't supposed to be funny, but still makes you laugh.
So you captured it all basically.
I hope so. That’s the idea.
This can be purchased online?
Yeah, at Amazon.
Now, but it won’t ship till September.
OK, so it’s available for pre-order, basically.
Yeah, but there will be a limited amount on sale for San-Diego [Comic-Con] next week.
So there’s going to be a presence at Comic-Con. That’s big.
Yeah, we had the advanced copies Fed-Exed over, so that probably cost a couple thousand. But [Top Shelf] thought it would be worth the big Comic-Con PR.
There are already a lot of reviews out, and it looks like it’s getting ready to become something big.
I hope so. It’s kind of fun. I’m sitting here on my iPhone and Googling myself to see what people are saying.
Interview by Jason Serafino (@serafinoj1)