Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Friday, January 05, 2024

Vintage Martial Arts Ads

At Hogan's Alley is a long, exhaustive and entertaining article about martial arts ads that appeared in magazines, comic books, etc. Below is an excerpt. The full article may be read here.


With the world grown smaller and the Far East drawn so near, it's hard to imagine a time when martial arts had an aura of mystery about them. Nowadays, with afterschool tae kwon do, cardio-kickboxing and a slow-motion kung-fu scene in every action flick, martial arts—while still a crowd-pleaser—have long been leeched of exoticism. In the backhanded benefit of cultural assimilation, they're practically quaint. DAN KELLY examines the once-robust campaign of martial arts ads in comic books.


Saying adieu to Orientalism, it's impossible to approach comic book ads touting martial arts training (the golden age of which took place between 1960 and 1985), with anything but snickering derision. (For the purposes of this essay, martial arts refers to the organized systems of hand-to-hand combat and weaponry training originating in the countries of the East, particularly China, Japan, Okinawa and Korea. Western countries, obviously, also practice arts of warfare (boxing, wrestling, fencing, savate and others, for example), but the term has become almost totally associated with Asian styles in the Western public's mind (ironic since the root of the word martial arts is Mars, Roman god of war). (For further details on practitioners of Western martial arts, please visit "FEAR NO MAN!" bellows one ad, promising you the ability to "flatten out any Thug, Mug, Wiseguy or Bully" rendering him "ABSOLUTELY HELPLESS IN SECONDS." Another ad screams a musky-with-man-scent vow to bequeath the power of Chinese Kung-Fu," an art of "...crippling self-defense where every part of your body is a fearful weapon. Your feet, your hands, your elbows, your fingers..." forged into "lethal weapons WITHOUT REQUIRING SUPER MUSCLE-POWER OR BRUTE FORCE." Yet another ad trumps them all, telling the lumpish Superman reader that even his pasty, sow-bellied self can learn "...torturing techniques which are meant to maim, disfigure, cripple or kill and have been used by oriental terrorists and assassins to MURDER!"



Times and people were simpler then—accent on the definition of "simple" as "easily gulled." Seemingly improbable now, back then the ads were semi-convincing because people knew little about martial arts beyond what they saw misrepresented by popular media. Decked out with Chinese takeout fonts, blazingly violent copy, mystical gibberish, fear tactics and flimflam, the ads took advantage of the dying view of east Asia as a place containing ancient secrets of savage violence. "Fill out and mail in the below coupon," ended each ad in a crashing crescendo, "and be imbued with the bone-shattering fighting arts of the Orient"—and for only 99 cents at that!

Naturally, what was promised and what one actually received for that 99 cents were very different things—par for the course with American advertising at large. What made these ads more interesting than others were the freaky mail order senseis behind them, the highly dangerous "product" they allegedly sold, and the unflattering way the ads reflected American attitudes and knowledge about martial arts and their places of origin. Despite what a certain mindworm of a song suggested, not everybody was kung-fu fighting. Some were just faking the moves in order to separate the kidlings from their allowances.

While this article concentrates on ads appearing in so-called Silver and Bronze Age comic books, we should first make a detour to the slightly further past to understand what brought about comic ads for Yubiwaza, Aicondo and other "deadly Oriental fighting arts" puffery.

The biggest myth this article wants to burst is the notion that Asian martial arts were forbidden to non-Asian eyes until recent decades. Certainly, racial prejudice on both sides created insularity and thereby an unwillingness to share and explore ideas. Also, consider the historical truism of conquerors forbidding the conquered from ever practicing how to fight, causing many Asian martial arts to be practiced in secrecy for a very long time (Okinawans hid their karate training from Japanese occupiers by disguising it as classical dance practice, for example.) Regardless, Americans might be surprised at how long certain styles have been taught in the United States. Despite the hype, not all roads lead to Bruce Lee.

A full-scale survey of the presence of Asian martial arts in American history is impossible in this article, nor is it the goal. Better instead to briefly look at how they first appeared here and the way they were initially promoted. The first recorded instance of an American viewing a demonstration of Japanese jiu jitsu took place when President Ulysses S. Grant visited Japan in 1879. Pinpointing the exact moment Asian martial arts were introduced to America is nigh impossible, but it's certain that judo (already present and practiced in Victorian England) sailed to the states in 1902 when Yoshiaki Yamashita, a sixth-degree master, was hired by Great Northern Railroad director Graham Hill to teach his son his not-so-gentle art. Hill and wife quickly decided martial arts were too risky for the lad but obligingly arranged for Yamashita to exhibit and promote judo in New York and Chicago. Shortly thereafter, jiu jitsu became quite the thing to do among the haute monde. Yamashita later trained another president, Theodore Roosevelt, who added a judo brown belt to his list of sporty accomplishments. For more information on the history of martial arts in the United States, visit this site.

In this manner, Asian martial arts slowly trickled into the mainstream. Training wasn't as omnipresent then as it is now, but it was available, though the affluent and particular occupations had the easiest time finding instructors. If one was a cop, one could expect a lesson or three in throwing, joint-locks and pressure-points—useful in the nonviolent, but no less painful, apprehension of ne'er-do-wells—when the Tokyo Metropolitans Police's brand of jiu jitsu came over here (leading to the coinage of the term police jiu jitsu, which turns up in pulp fiction of the time). Any man who did a stint in the armed forces, too, received hand-to-hand combat training, and though it may not have been called jiu jitsu or judo in boot camp, that's what it was. Several army and marine instructors, in fact, went on to produce the precursors of the manuals referred to later in this article. After World War II, organizations like the YMCA added judo training to their curricula, well before the first official karate schools opened. All told, even in the early part of the last century, Asian martial arts weren't invisible in America. 


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