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.
(Throughout the article, click on an image to see an enlargement.)
FEAR NO MAN
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 http://www.mrdankelly.com/csg.html.) “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.
“Famous Jiu-Jitsu and Professional Wrestling Holds, Etc.”
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.
Nevertheless, popular entertainment of the pre- and postwar years painfully demonstrated that its creators and, presumably, its audience, had zilch knowledge of what Asian martial arts entailed. Most pulp fiction and comic book heroes made do with bullets, boxing and brass knuckles, actual knowledge of Asian martial arts being quite rare. A Marquis of Queensbury–ruled punch was good enough for most pulp shamuses, and while the prewar Batman was apt to deliver a swashbuckling kick as he swung from his silken cord, his more identifiably Asian style of fighting came much later.
This did not mean Asian martial arts didn’t turn up occasionally as low-grade deus ex machina, such as when Conan Doyle saved Sherlock Holmes from Reichenbach Falls in “The Adventure of the Empty House.” Here Holmes tells Watson that he used his knowledge of baritsu, the art of Japanese wrestling, to shoulder-flip the nefarious Professor Moriarity to his death. As it turned out, this was a complete contrivance, making mention of it appropriate here. (Research by Holmes scholars showed that Doyle probably meant bartitsu, a martial art created in 1898 by jiu jitsu practitioner Edward William Barton-Wright, who actually did venture to and return from the Far East with martial arts skills.) Later on, in American pulps, the Shadow picked up a few Asian fistic arts while he learned to cloud men’s minds in “the Orient.” Nellie Gray, the face-changing assistant to the Avenger, was specifically versed in jiu jitsu, despite appearing like a “dainty and fragile Dresden doll.” (Cited in Kenneth Robeson’s Death to the Avenger. See this site.) (So many female characters who are actually part of the action (i.e., not simply girlfriends of the hero or damsels in distress) usually have martial arts in their resumes to even the odds with the male protagonists/antagonists: Sun Girl, the Black Cat, Catwoman, the Black Widow, Black Canary and so on.)
Elsewhere, Kato—the Green Hornet’s Filipino/Japanese aide-de-camp—knew multiple unnamed “martial arts” several years before Bruce Lee was born. Comic books saw their earliest Far East-educated hero in the Green Lama, a rich young lad who visited Tibet and returned with super strength, invulnerability, the power to deliver electric shocks and, again, unidentified fighting skills. Even more representative of the theosophical (i.e., “Westerner travels to the Orient and gains quasi-supernatural powers”) motif is Arthur J. Burks’ creation, Chinatown detective Dorus Noel, in 1933. Noel, as his origin goes, lived in China long enough to become a master of jiu jitsu—odd, since it is a Japanese martial art—and, in a bit of oblivious racism, yellow in skin tone, having been “inoculated…with the virus of the ancient land.” (From personal correspondence with Jess Nevins, creator of the Pulp and Adventure Heroes of the Pre-War Years website. Noel’s “yellowface” minstrelsy seemed contagious, as we will see later.)
In such an era of underrepresentation and lack of definition, it’s unsurprising martial arts training ads were equally rare. Yet the martial arts course spiels of the 1960s didn’t emerge from a perfect vacuum. Their precedents rest in a handful of books and pamphlets—each of varying degrees of factuality and educational worth—promoted through health, men’s, do-it-yourself and related magazines. Some were sincere, but most were usually slapped together in pursuit of a fast buck or as a “taster” for what one could expect under the tutelage of the instructor/writer at his school or, more often, from the more extended and expensive full course.
We can’t point at the very “first” manual, but we can assess a few early ones. Most frequently, such booklets were a lagniappe to the later martial arts course ads’ nearest marketing kin: bodybuilding courses. Charles Atlas had long offered a free “outline course” on jiu jitsu (later amended to included karate during the 70s kung-fu fad). Research turned up two older ads in a 1939 issue of multi-millionaire/health nut Bernarr Macfadden’s Physical Culture magazine, promising to provide not only terribly strange and dated workout routines (the idea of a “head harness” fills me with fear) but also “jiu jitsu and famous wrestling holds.”
One of Bernarr Macfadden’s fitness ads
In the 1940s, a smattering of cheaply printed books and manuals on jiu jitsu and judo turned up, all of dubious value in turning anyone into a master—but then, few of them promised to do that. In fact, most are just books of tips on joint locks, throws and strikes geared toward foiling pickpockets or teaching the masher in the theater seat beside you a lesson. Police Jiu-Jitsu by Kato Futsiaka and Professor Butch (1944), Martell’s Simplified Jujitsu by Jules Martell (1942), How to Use Jiu Jitsu by I.C. King (1944) and Self-Defense or Jiu Jitsu by Dewey Mitchell (1942) are only a few examples of such books, all supposedly written by ex-military and police instructors. (Futsiaka and Butch are declared “fantasy figures” by jiu jitsu book collector Torbjoern Arntsen at the site Ju Jitsu Norge. He suggests that they are pseudonyms for Arthur Hobart Farrar, who also wrote Police Wrestling—Mat Holds, Grips, Falls and American Judo Illustrated, both books that present jiu jitsu techniques more for their coolness and mystique—a trend that did not abate in the coming years.) (How to Use Jiu Jitsuis especially
Another Macfadden ad
enjoyable, featuring clip art of 1940s Kate Hepburn–type cuties performing finger-breaking techniques and head butts on churlish males.) They’re largely worth mentioning because they set the template for such pamphlets in later years. (The format, almost to a T, follows dividing each chapter into a different technique (a throw, a leg sweep, etc.), providing each with a paragraph of descriptive though no less confusing text, accompanied by grainy photographs or cheesy clip art of two men, or sometimes a man and a woman, demonstrating the technique. The uselessness of this method of instruction is manifold: The photos provide only one possible view; techniques of several steps are usually shown with only a before and after shot, the transitional steps containing the “meat” of the move being lost and so on. On the other hand, there is the innate hilarity of seeing paunchy men in 1940s gym clothes doing jiu jitsu.) Indeed, some returned in bootlegged or hundredth generation form later on.
The end of World War II is a good launching pad for moving on to the Silver Age ads. As is always the case with the spoils of war, the victor often picks up the customs of the vanquished. Martial arts were no exception.
“THANK GOD FOR YUBIWAZA!”
The 1960s offered a dandy juxtaposition of events that set the stage for something as ridiculous as comic book martial arts ads. Kids suddenly had disposable income and pop-cultural fads dipped into all manner of Walter Mitty fantasies (spies, science fiction, and superheroes dominated). Most sources point to Bruce Lee’s portrayal of Kato on the 1966 Green Hornet TV show as the ignition for ’60s martial arts mania, short-lived as the show was. True, in Kato’s wake a number of karate-and kung-fu-themed heroes appeared in TV, film and comics—DC’s Legionnaire Karate Kid for one—but a number of others were already in existence. In the spy world, James Bond knew judo while the delectable Mrs. Emma Peel of the Avengers (1965-67) was a general-purpose martial arts master. Comics had Judo Joe (1953), another white male transplant in Japan who was at least more respectful than Judomaster (1965), who didn’t let his judo, karate and jiu jitsu training prevent him from referring to his World War II enemies as “Japs”; Karnak (1965), one of the great Jack Kirby’s Inhumans; and Pete Morisi’s Peter Cannon… Thunderbolt (1965). Martial arts in ’60s TV and film veered from being a sight gag (Barbara Eden as a judo expert in Ride the Wild Surf, giving the film’s hero what-for), to a sudden and surprising threat to the hero (Patrick McGoohan’s Secret Agent/Danger Man confronting a judoka who at first has the upper hand but is soon overcome by veddy English boxing) to a bottomlessly hilarious plot device (The Manchurian Candidate, in which Frank Sinatra engages in an ersatz karate battle with Puerto Rican actor Henry Silva in inept “Korean” makeup, leading Sinatra to karate chop a coffee table into neatly sawn pieces).
From Weird Terror #7 (1953; click to enlarge)
While Mr. Lee certainly had his greatest influence during the early ’70s, ascribing the ’60s craze entirely to his role as Kato just seems wrong. More likely it reflected what happened when thousands of men returned from overseas service. Stationed in Japan and Okinawa and attuned to war as an occupation, it was inevitable that a number of American servicemen observed and decided to get karate and jiu jitsu training from the source. Was the story of Dorus Noel coming true at last?
Hardly. At first the old saw about Asian insularity seemed true. In some cases, Japanese instructors were more chauvinistic than secretive, believing that Americans lacked the stamina to handle the intensity of karate training and repeatedly turned down all requests until finally breaking down and admitting Americans to see if they had the stuff to see it through. Others, apparently, had no problems with training Americans, such as when career soldier and karate pioneer Hank Slomanski signed up at a Beppu police station for training. (Cited in Michael Colling’s Chito-ryu Diversity, with contributions by Don Schmidt. U.S. Chito-kai.) (Slomanski was a man of many martial art and military accomplishments who later became an Orthodox priest before dying on April 23, 2000. He also has the interesting distinction of being Elvis Presley’s first karate instructor, training and then awarding the King his first black belt.) Elsewhere, American karate school pioneer Robert Trias was approached by Chinese missionary Master T’ung Gee Hsing, who asked to be teached American boxing by Trias in exchange for lessons in Hsing-Yi, a Chinese martial art. There was nothing mystical about the training in any of these situations. Invariably, it was long, brutal and bereft of hocus-pocus. If the stories are to be believed, respect was hard won on both sides. Which makes the later ads all the more embarrassing for the martial artists behind them.
Again, it was a simpler time. Still, you have to wonder why karate and jiu jitsu masters would entrust the promotion of their ancient arts to people more accustomed to shilling joy buzzers than self-defense training. We’ll never know what the marketers thought they were doing; their names and stories have been lost. Officials at Marvel and DC had no information available about employees and advertisers from way back when, and the few comics pros of the period who returned my e-mails told me that the creative and advertising departments generally avoided one another. Unlike the comic artists and writers funded by their ad budgets, none of the marketers are legends. Few, too, probably directly interacted with the instructors themselves, which is just as well as it seems in one case, as we shall see, the instructor was extremely unhappy with the hyperbole.
A typically hyperbolic Yubiwaza ad
It might be best to explore the Yubiwaza ads first. Any discussion of them likely makes the participants, dead or alive, cringe with embarrassment. Including all the colors of the rainbow, the ad is topped by a photo of Nelson J. “Mitch” Fleming, looking a bit imperious and, perhaps, stunned. “Boys! Men!” he says by word balloon:
I’ll help you master YUBIWAZA*
*(Yubiwaza is the secret, amazingly easy art of self-defense that turns just one finger or your hands into a potent weapon of defense–without any bodily contact…)
In just 2 hours after you receive “YUBIWAZA” you will be on your way to being an invincible Yubiwaza Master, at home, this Fast, EASY picture way or it costs you nothing.
It is commonly known that with the aid of Yubiwaza, young men—and girls too! —with only a few hours of training, turn back 2, 3 and even 4 attackers—temporarily DISABLING ONE, putting another to flight, making a third howl with pain, while the fourth begged his opponent to stop!
The experts in Japan, who know and teach these ONE-finger techniques, have now explained that YUBIWAZA is a centuries-old system of Self-Defense which is so simple and so effective that outsiders were never instructed in its use… Many of the very techniques in my Yubiwaza book, once highly guarded secrets of the ancient Samurai warriors never shown to outsiders are now shown to you—FIRST time!
Make no mistake! The world is crowded with anti-social enemies who think nothing of sticking a knife into the ribs…or attacking peace-loving citizens just for the fun of it…or molesting boys and girls shamelessly. There is a crying need for a system of self-defense that relies on KNOWLEDGE, not big muscles or strength…
And that system, yes, you guessed it, is YUBIWAZA.
Accompanying Fleming is a picture of his wife, Yoshie Imanami, who upstages her husband with the ad’s most memorable bit of phraseology:
“I weigh only 98 Lbs. —Yet I can paralyze a 200 pound attacker with just a finger—Because I know Yubiwaza!“
A quarter-page ad also exists, and this one is ceded entirely to Imanami, who makes an appeal to all the young women apparently reading Marvel Comics’ Strange Tales in 1968. Once again, Imanami brags about the power of her pretty little fingers:
“I CAN PARALYZE A 200-LB. ATTACKER WITH JUST ONE FINGER! Yet I weigh only 93 lbs.! YOU TOO can protect yourself with my SECRET Oriental System of Yubiwaza.
“Simply press your finger on one of the vital spots shown in this Yubiwaza system and your attacker may lose consciousness…or become paralyzed—completely unable to move. He releases his grip on you instantly—becomes helpless himself!”
Fleming was likely the first of the comic book senseis. Contemporary accounts indicate he was a serious martial artist, and his intentions to promote his style, Sosuishi-Ryu jiu-jitsu, were apparently good. Regardless, his Yubiwaza ads stand out as a prime example of martial arts marketing silliness. Fleming studied jiu-jitsu in Japan, where he was raised to third degree black belt and to brown belt in Kodokan Judo. There, he married Imanami, who apparently shared in his training.
As the story goes, the publisher of Yubiwaza signed up at Fleming’s New Jersey school for six months of private lessons back in 1960. The publisher convinced Fleming to write a book about his techniques. Fleming did, receiving only 200 bucks for his trouble. Fleming had no input on the advertising either, and here all his troubles began.
Yubiwaza is not a heretofore unknown martial art, which was probably what the publisher tried to make it sound like. Translated as “finger techniques,” it involves pressure point strikes with the fingers and thumbs. Calling Yubiwaza a martial art is akin to calling punching a martial art. What’s more, while some pressure point strikes require very little training (kick to the groin, anyone?), learning to correctly employ one to cause paralysis, or even to drop a weapon, takes years of training. On the off-chance anyone was ordering Yubiwaza with the intention of heading into a biker bar to pick a fight, this was dangerous stuff. It also made Fleming look and feel like a chump.
Fleming was extremely displeased with the ad and Yubiwaza, the manual, in general. Where he imagined a heftier book of 100 pages, the publisher slimmed it down to a mere 14. Yubiwaza was also more intended for women, not Boys! Men!, as shown by the instructional photos within it, showing Imanami defending herself against an “attacker”—namely, Fleming. He received letters of thanks from women who claimed this or that Yubiwaza technique saved their purses, honor, or lives, but Fleming disliked the trickery of it all. According to the Nov.-Dec. 1964 issue of Black Belt Magazine, he was especially frosted that the publisher created a “Yubiwaza Federation” (Yubiwaza came with an official membership card in this entirely unofficial, and wholly fictional, federation.)
While the Yubiwaza ad came to represent how badly Madison Avenue could miscarry martial arts, Fleming weathered the storm and enjoyed a respectable career as a teacher and American Sosuishi-Ryu representative until he died in 1987.
If Fleming’s experience was a warning for serious martial artists to beware of marketing wolves in sheep’s clothing (or, in this case, ju jitsu gis), Wallace W. Reumann didn’t learn it—though his ads show slightly more restraint than the Yubiwaza ones. Some have suggested that Reumann was likewise misled by marketers, but it seems he ran far too many ads for too long to be entirely innocent of hucksterism.
A Wallace Reumann ad
A soldier for much of his young adult life, Reumann trained in Chito-Ryu Karate under Senseis Hank Slomanski and Fukamoto for the five and a half years he was stationed in Japan. Reumann’s ads claimed he returned to the States with a fifth-degree black belt (though other sources note this took place later, in 1965, which seems likelier), opened a couple of karate schools in New Jersey (and later in California) and founded the American Karate Federation. (See Blackbelt Communications Inc. “Instructors Profiles.”)
Reumann apparently did double duty when he returned to America. Still working for the Army, he managed to concurrently run a school in Trenton and his mail-order business. A personal description of Reumann from Lee Frank, who worked with him briefly in an Army Intelligence mailroom at the time of the ads, sounds like someone whose fighting and filing techniques were both unstoppable:
Another Reumann ad
“Did I mention Wally was impressive? Six-foot-two, shoulders requiring special tailoring, a crewcut that looked like it could take paint off the wall, and the biggest hands I ever saw. Or shook. These hands were also the strongest I’d ever seen. Other people in the office used the new electric typewriters. Wally used a monster manual Olympic whose keys I could barely depress. Seated at the Olympic, Wally’s hands played a rapid rat-tat-tat, rat-tat-tat, not unlike a machine-gun in both speed and power.” (See Frank’s “Army Me: Going Home,” from I Guess That’s Me (A Reflection).)
No doubt Reumann was a competent karateka and instructor. Still, his ads’ claims are a tad inflated and if not over the top, they’re within fingertip distance of it. A half-page ad for his booklet Super Karate tells us:
Karate is the secret, Oriental art of self-defense that turns your hands, arms, legs into paralyzing weapons…without any bodily contact.
With KARATE you can disarm and disable two, three, and even four attackers. You can apply a simple pressure of your thumb and finger against any one of a dozen vital nerve centers of your opponent and watch his gun or knife fall from his limp hand while he himself sinks to the ground completely helpless and faint.
Unlike Fleming’s Yubiwaza ads—which seem almost like daily affirmations—Reumann’s fear tactics are shameless, indeed almost cruel in their chiding of the mark:
What would you do if you were insulted by a bully?…or if 3 or 4 hoodlums passed remarks about your girl?…or if you were suddenly mugged from behind?…or if someone came at you with a baseball bat?
“If you’re like millions of other Americans, you’d be absolutely helpless—and you’d be ashamed, humiliated, robbed, beaten, kicked—and pitiful in the eyes of your girl or friends.
Like Fleming, Reumann’s ads vaguely pay respect to his Japanese Chito-Ryu training, but that doesn’t mean he and his marketers didn’t exploit a little Orientalism here and there. One ad, from a 1968 Spider-Man, in point of fact, is titled after the booklet it’s selling, Forbidden Oriental Fighting Arts, going for the gut by suggesting those inscrutable yet dangerous Asians possessed more sinister arts that lack even a distinctive name. I suspect that this signals a shift in tastes as the Japanese/Okinawan martial arts discovered during the occupation were made way for Bruce Lee’s New! Improved! Kung-fu—now more Oriental and forbidden than ever. It’s likely Reumann wanted to repackage his karate as something that sounded like kung fu.
Reumann, or his marketers—we may never know who—went wacky with Asian othering. Drawing upon a purposeless Japanese Kabuki mask for a spot illustration and using such buzz words as “forbidden,” “secret” and “outsiders,” Reumann’s advertisers attempted to spookify Asian martial arts. His ads also claim a Japanese wife. Though, unlike Yoshie Imanami, she does not appear in the ads, that relationship gave him that fabled access to the secrets of the Orient: “As a youth in the U.S. Army, stationed in Japan, Reumann met and married a Japanese girl. This gave him the SPECIAL privileges and family ties that allowed him to learn Oriental defense and attack techniques not ordinarily available to ‘outsiders.’ ”
Gaijan Reumann’s marriage is stressed to show that he is an exceptional man, one privy to these secrets despite his whiteness. He has gone beyond the repressiveness of familiar America and exceeded us with this insider knowledge. Unusual that no one told his equally white fellow soldiers—including his sensei Hank Slomanski—they were missing all the good stuff by not marrying into it.
Unlike his half and full-page ads, in “Forbidden Oriental Fighting Arts” karate is only mentioned in passing, and in a very deprecatory way: “Best of all, even if he is a judo expert, or knows karate—you can still flatten him, because the methods in this revealing course are the ‘pure gold’ of self-defense—extracted and refined from the leading Oriental systems, by one of America’s top self-defense experts: Wallace W. Reumann.” Which isn’t saying much for his fourth-degree black belt. All those years of training and his karate could still be easily defeated by his forbidden Oriental fighting flummery.
Say what you will about his ads, Reumann was persistent, outlasting all the mail-order martial artists before and after him. His most persistent appeal, the half-page “I’LL MAKE YOU A MASTER OF KARATE” ad, showed up in a 1982 issue of Marvel’s Daredevil. Reumann must have been a good businessman, because he seemed to have an eye for trends. In this case, an artist named Frank Miller had taken over Daredevil. Suddenly, a hero who was essentially Batman if he was blind became viewed through Akira Kurosawa’s camera lens. Reumann or his ad agency must have sensed an opportunity to clear the warehouse of booklets and giant life-like practice dummies. The rising sun was setting on mail-order martial arts, however, and the original Reumann ad was now black and white. Recycled repeatedly during the ’60s and ’70s—leading to murky yellows and reds back in the ’60s—it became smudged. Standing tall with his specially tailored shoulders, Reumann, still in his 30s, thumbs proudly hooked into his black belt, is practically faceless. Still claiming fourth-degree masterhood from his three years in Japan, offering a “giant lifelike karate practice dummy” and referring to a photo of a 115-pound girl shoulder-throwing her 240-pound instructor in a long-defunct magazine, nothing new is offered here.
While Reumann plays the Asian card a bit fast and loose, he maintains some respect for karate in his more well-known ads. At least one hopes Reumann respected his art and his Japanese wife enough not to wear the mask of “Master Kung Fu.”
Master Kung Fu’s ads didn’t appear in comic books. The only place this author has encountered them is in early 1970s wrestling magazines. Dressed in a giand standing with his arms arrogantly folded,
A kung fu ad
he cuts a bizarre figure in a spooky mask appropriate for the orgy scenes in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. He wears the mask, we are told, because “If you were a Kung-Fu expert, you’d recognize his real name at once, if we were to reveal it. But we cannot, for his Chinese fellow Kung-Fu Masters would punish him severely for revealing the deadly maneuvers he has sworn to keep secret.” The mask is extra creepy because the eyeholes are slightly slanted, assumedly to give them the appearance of eyes with epicanthic folds. The man wearing them, however, seems vaguely non-Asian. Master Kung-Fu’s ad copy seems familiar:
KUNG-FU is the most DEADLY form of defense and attack ever devised! Even a Karate, Savate or Judo expert shudders at the thought of meeting a KUNG-FU master because he knows who the winner will be!
With just a basic knowledge of KUNG-FU learned easily in the privacy of your home, this FAST, EASY, PICTURE WAY, you can beat hoodlums, OUTFIGHT TWO, THREE and even FOUR Karate or Judo experts. Professional Wrestlers or Boxers!
KUNG-FU will NOT be sold in any store, and is available ONLY by mail to serious students who must vow NEVER to use it as an aggressor–but only as self-defense to protect himself, his friends and family. We don’t ever want a criminal or hoodlum to be able to buy it because of its deadly power.
KUNG-FU is effective whether you’re standing, sitting or even LYING DOWN ASLEEP and OFF GUARD!
Do tell. The capper is that when ordering the book being touted by Master Kung Fu, Chinese Kung Fu, you get the opportunity to buy a familiar title—Forbidden Oriental Fighting Arts. One can only hope that Reumann merely signed over the rights and sold his back-stock to “Master Kung-Fu” and left the modeling to others.
While Reumann’s switch from karate to “forbidden oriental fighting arts” seems a bit mercenary, cross-training is fairly common in modern martial arts. These days, a martial artist will dabble in different styles, seeing what each has to offer and gleaning what techniques they consider to be the most effective. A contemporary of Reumann’s, Bruce Tegner, did this, releasing dozens of books (some still in print) of wavering merit that offered what might today be called a “blend.” The trouble is, most blends are simply presenting techniques like bridge mix to an audience who couldn’t tell one style from another and figured, “Hey, what’s better than karate? Why, karate with a dash of kung-fu, a jigger of savate, a hint of jiu jitsu, and a sprinkling of aikido!” Much of it is taxonomic hocus-pocus, and Ketsugo is a particular offender.
Ketsugo has had an unusually long life. In print since 1966, at least, and and sold through Johnson Smith, Ketsugo was written by S. Hank Roberts. This must be taken on faith, however, since my research has yet to turn up any martial artist by that name. Johnson Smith has the publishing rights to the Ketsugo manual Defend Yourself! Ketsugo, but no one at the company could provide much insight on where it came from. “Ketsugo gives you all the combined arts of self-defense found in Judo, Ate-Waza, Aikido, Yawara, Savate and Jiu-Jitsu…Learn fast and easily without all the ‘mumbo-jumbo,’ ” the come-on reads. Interesting, because there’s plenty of mumbo-jumbo to be had in the Ketsugo ads. Like Yubiwaza, Ate-Waza is the name given to the collection of striking techniques used in judo; it’s sort of like saying, “Learn boxing AND punching!” The rest of the ad is an echo of Bruce Tegner’s piling of one style upon another.
Ketsugo belongs to a subset of martial arts ads; namely, the ads within ads taken out by novelty merchants like Johnson Smith, Honor House and other purveyors of onion gum, itching powder, finger guillotines, and similar complete wastes of time. Max Stein Publishing, a Chicago printer and publisher who specialized in postcards and pamphlets, was one. According to Chicago cultural historian Tim Samuelson, Stein churned out thousands of cheap-grade handbooks on performing magic, hypnotizing people, telling fortunes, playing winning poker games, putting on a minstrel show and kissing properly as well as joke books aplenty and booklets with “titles that suggested something racy, but never really delivered: Confessions of a French Stenographer, etc.” (from the author’s personal correspondence). Among these was a sad little booklet about jiu jitsu, unimaginatively titled Jiu-Jitsu. Jiu-Jitsu is rare indeed, though Samuelson was able to scavenge a selection of booklets from the company’s backstock after it closed shop in 1984. Stein sold a few of these booklets to the novelty folks—Jiu-Jitsu turns up in full-page ads for Honor House and Elbarr Distribution of Niagara Falls, New York.
According to Samuelson’s description (unfortunately, he was unable to locate the booklets in his collection of Chicago historical material), it sounds like Stein was appropriating text and pictures from earlier martial arts books. Ad illustrations bear this out, showing the usual selection of impressive shoulder throws (a key identifying feature of “Oriental” martial arts to the Western eye) and the usual anti-bully pep talk:
YOU, TOO, CAN BE TOUGH
Master Jiujitsu and you’ll win any fight. This book gives you all the grips, blocks, etc., which are so effective in counterattacking a bully or hold-up. You don’t need big muscles or weight, know-how makes you a sure winner.
And just in case you refuse to believe you don’t need big muscles or weight: We also send you FREE book on how to perform strong man stunts, tear a telephone book in half, etc.
Nowhere else are martial arts presented more off-handedly as a cheap gimmick, pimped beside trick baseballs and x-ray specs. The apparent lack of thought given to the beleaguered saps who ordered these books is striking. While Fleming and Reumann stressed life’s ever-present danger and the preparedness martial arts training would give you, here jiu jitsu is a party piece. These tossed-off ads entirely omit the danger inherent in fooling around with bone-breaking grips and shoulder throws. But, then again, these were mostly sold through less macho titles like Harvey Comics’ Little Audrey and Casper the Friendly Ghost, making them confident the grade-schoolers spending their paper route money on such books would confine the techniques shown to their own power fantasies. In reality, Ketsugo and other “novelty-fu” books taught, like most tasters, next to nothing. They contained a series of impressive stock illustrations, imprecise descriptions and nothing more.
If there was one thing that earmarked the 1960s martial arts course ads, it was that however tough they talked, there was something lighthearted, almost charming, about them. The worst that could happen to a mugger was a karate chop (actually called a “knife-hand strike”) to the back of the neck or a Vulcan-like nerve pinch. Then Bruce Lee came back, and his fists were furious.
“HORRIFYINGLY DANGEROUS and BRUTALLY VICIOUS”
The early 1970s saw the biggest boom in martial arts appearances in pop culture until the resurgence in the late 1990s (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel series and, naturally, The Matrix). A glut of Hong Kong chop-socky grindhouse flicks, along with Bruce Lee’s sudden fame and even more sudden death in 1973, was key. Then there were grittier American movies like Billy Jack, whose star Tom McLaughlin and his character were trained in the Korean art of hapkido (though Billy Jack’s flashier moves were performed by McLaughlin’s trainer and stand-in, Bong Soo Han). Martial arts were suddenly less magic and muy macho.
Comics reflected this too, playing up the serene but deadly approach of Bruce Lee in titles like Marvel’s Iron Fist and Deadly Hands of Kung-Fu, and DC’s Richard Dragon: Kung-Fu Fighter. On the animated front, however, martial arts were a joke: 1974’s Hong Kong Fooey is a justifiably forgotten cartoon. Perhaps no worse than most of the time, it shows a shift as some of the awe drops away and martial arts are played for (assumed) laughs. For the purposes of this article it’s worth mentioning Fooey learns all his techniques, quite poorly, from a correspondence course.
Largely though, self-defense was shifting to total offense, and the ads began to appeal to potential students’ bad-boy sides. Since day one Charles Atlas, the martial artists and other self-improvement ads made a point of all but accusing the reader of still having their mother’s milk on their lips, which is no way to do business. Then came along Count Danté, his Black Dragon Fighting Society, and their training manual (really another taster) World’s Deadliest Fighting Secrets (see sidebar) who figured you could draw more flies not with vinegar, but with a fist to the throat and a punctured eyeball.
One of Count Dante’s dim mak ads
The FORBIDDEN and SECRET training manual of the BLACK DRAGON FIGHTING SOCIETY has never before been available to anyone outside of the Society. Recent attempts for regular publication and public exposure have been rejected as the contents were considered HORRIFYINGLY DANGEROUS and BRUTALLY VICIOUS.
Yes, this is the DEADLIEST and most TERRIFYING fighting art known to man—and WITHOUT EQUAL. Its MAIMING, MUTILATING, DISFIGURING, PARALYZING and CRIPPLING techniques are known by only a few people in the world. This is the only book ever written on DIM MAK. An expert at DIM MAK (the most advanced form of Kung Fu) could easily kill many Judo, Karate, Kung Fu, Aikido and Gung Fu experts at one time with only finger tip pressure using his murderous POISON HAND WEAPONS. Instructing you step by step thru each move in this manual is none other than COUNT DANTE—”THE DEADLIEST MAN WHO EVER LIVED.” (THE CROWN PRINCE OF DEATH.)
According to the evidence, yes, he really talked like that in person.
For those still reading, note the shift in tone and placement. No longer are you the weak-willed nancy-boy getting your lunch money stolen every day. Now you can be the truly powerful bastard you’ve always known you were deep inside. And you will make them pay. Oh, how they’ll pay.
The ’70s ads suggest that advertisers figured maybe it wasn’t such a good idea anymore to question the manliness of the target market. The 1960s ads suggested that the future karatekas, jiu jitsuists, and ketsugoons were currently skulking about their schools and city streets with large yellow stripes running down their backs. Nope, the ’70s ads said, “Hey, champ, want to know how to kill a man twice?”
Perhaps the best-known of the Count’s ads
Silver and Bronze Age comics readers probably have the Count Danté ad indelibly tattooed onto their memories. A study in red and black that appeared in DC and Marvel titles, the ad showed Danté dressed in a black gi, an afro as round as a motorcycle helmet and a beard more diabolical than Mephistopheles’. The Count scowls menacingly at the reader’s right shoulder, his fingers hooked and gnarled as medieval torture implements. The man is not happy, and the reader may be forgiven for trying to remember if he owes the Count money.
As martial arts course ads went, Danté’s were a complete departure from the clean-cut military image projected by N.J. Fleming and Wallace Reumann. Fleming and Reumann were big-brotherly figures who promised to show you how to throw a punch; Danté was the martial arts hellgoblin you secretly wanted to unleash on said bully so the bastard would never bother anyone again. Fleming and Reumann looked like gym coaches. Danté looked like Dr. Doom’s right-hand man. Imagine the shift: Instead of Bruce Lee, potential martial artists were offered the chance to be the bad ass in the black cowboy hat who fought him in the final fight scene.
Danté, or his marketers—though he was more hands-on than the other comic book senseis—were ahead of their time with the “red” ad. While most ads (and even Danté’s earlier ads, appearing in Marvel’s black and white magazine-format comics) tiled every square inch with copy extolling the benefits of their system, Danté made himself the focus (no challenge, since he was a legendary egomaniac). Danté looked the part of the ’70s martial arts master, carefully cultivating his “deadliest man alive” mystique. It’s also worth noting that the picture in the “red” ad is heavily retouched. Danté can be seen as he really looked in ad number 2 (still intimidating, but slightly more rakish, and less reliant on the Ming the Merciless look than the figure in the “red” ad). One is unable to tell if he’s white, Latino, or black (he was actually Irish-American); which might well have been his intention.
Danté gets picked on for his ads’ obsession with damage, and perhaps justifiably so. Following the truism that engaging in self-defense is a situation not entered into lightly, as “winning” a fight means incapacitating of one’s opponent through injury, unconsciousness or, God forbid, death—Danté’s sense of overkill is astonishing (interviews reveal his fascination with eye evisceration and enucleation), even witnessed through the second-hand medium of his ads:
Considered by many as evil and cruel; the lethally savage ripping, tearing, slashing, clawing and gouging techniques which comprise the POISON HAND ARSENAL are used to attack (by strike, touch or pressure) the nerve centers, pressure points, major blood vessels and vital organs of the body.
In two ads, the Count’s promises are capped, peculiarly, by a cut-out form in which the applicant promises to use his future powers to rend flesh and grind his opponent’s bones to make his bread only in self-defense. A necessary qualifier, I suppose, to forestall possible future lawsuits should Bobby thumb out Billy’s eye on the playground. (See the sidebar, “I Promise Not to Kill Anyone.”)
And in case you still have doubts about the potency of the World’s Deadliest Fighting Secrets:
…[W]e can make a $10,000 GUARANTEE that this book is DEADLIER than any other book, manual or course ever printed anywhere, at any cost and that it was, as mentioned before, refused past publication due to its extremely FEROCIOUS nature.
Danté, who liked to fight, must have had it in for Master Kung Fu and the other comic book senseis. In addition to his duties as the Crown Prince of Death, the Count served as the world’s deadliest consumer advocate: “DON’T BE FOOLED BY PHONIES. The undefeated Count Danté personally challenges to “Knock Out” (no holds barred) matches all other mail order “Masked Marvels,” Kung Fu (Killer) Muscle Men, Kung Fu Dragon Masters, Supposed Masters of Karate, Kung Fu or any other Fighting Arts!”
A Weider ad
Hard though it may be to believe, Danté had competititon in verbal escalation with ads by Joe Weider, Trainer of Champions. I have yet to procure a copy of Weider’s booklet Be a Destructive Self-Defense Fighter in Just 12 Short Lessons, but based on the ads I worry it advises drinking from the skull of your freshly slain foe.
Weider’s ads quintuple the testosterone. Muscle and Asian martial arts were insufficient to survive the asphalt jungle. Beneath a cartoon scene of an assumed Weider graduate of great mulletude taking out two badly dressed men, we are asked:
WHAT WOULD YOU DO IN THIS “TIGHT SPOT”?
One goon comes up behind you with a heavy club—ready to bash your skull in. Another creep moves toward you with a broken bottle—intent on slashing you to pieces! Would you know how to handle yourself and come out a WINNER instead of a loser?
Joe’s fantastic system is MUCH MORE than Karate, Judo or Ju-Jitsu alone—it reveals every effective method of Terror-Fighting known to man! Really, most of the terrifying fighting methods used by Commandos, Jungle Fighters and other combat groups!
Another Weider ad
That’s the kids’ version, incidentally; the one appearing in Detective Comics #450 between Batman stories. To get the full fightin’ madness flavor, we need to look to early 1970s wrestling and boxing magazines. Here, beside Count Danté and other mail-order martial arts teachers’s ads, surrounded by photos of face-warping haymakers and geysers of blood shooting from wrestlers’ foreheads, Joe lets fly.
Weider’s course ad, at the height of its hyperbole
Next time a loudmouth says: I’LL BEAT THE H— OUT OF YOU! Which of these three vital decisions will you make?
COWARD’S DECISION–slink away like a whipped dog, bringing shame upon yourself and your loved ones.
FOOL’S DECISION–rush in and get beat up because you don’t have the fighting Know How.
WISE DECISION—unleash a whirlwind attack and utterly destroy the loudmouth because you had the good sense to send for my FREE Terror Fighting Self-Defense course and learn my self-defense TERROR TACTICS.
FEAR NO MAN! IN JUST 24 HOURS…You start using these destructive self-defense secrets to render any bully twice your size absolutely helpless in seconds!
10 TIMES MORE EFFECTIVE THAN BOTH JUDO AND KARATE!
Faster! More scientific! Positively amazing!…Learn how to use in a few days, Karate, Savate, Judo, Secret Police Methods, Foot Fighting, Rough & Tumble, Boxing, etc., to render any bully twice your size absolutely harmless in seconds.
Repetition, listing, and obscure terminology for the sake of impressing the less knowledgeable shows up again. Savate and foot-fighting are the same thing. “Rough & Tumble” is an archaic term for no-holds-barred wrestling/brawling practiced in rural England and back-country America back in the day. “Secret Police Methods”…well, it’s not only vague but also wrenchingly distasteful in its suggestion. Moreso after reading the following, though the Aztec bits tend to distract you from this connection.
Learn how to use centuries-old methods of combat taken from the archives of the Indian and Japanese killer cult temples. Nahuatian Tribes, the ferocious Aztecs, Nazi and Communist Secret Police—and now for the first time it’s easy to learn all these hidden shocking secrets in the privacy of your own home in just 15 minutes a day…Here’s everything you’ll ever need to protect yourself and loved ones and never be embarrassed or afraid or get ‘weak in the knees’ again.
Weider’s imagery grows evermore psychedelic and surreal even as his sense of geography and social science retards to a kindergarten level:
Your arms will become powerful, protective shields, your legs will have the piston-like kick of a kangaroo, your fingers will jab like knives, and your shoulders, elbows, knees and feet will be sledge-hammer battering rams of crushing force.
NOW MASTER ALL THESE DEVASTATING FIGHTING SECRETS.
ASSASSINS: From this secret religious Middle-East order of fanatical killer, comes the word “Assassinate”…
SUMURAI [sic] WARRIORS: Proud. feudal warriors of old Japan, learned to kill with bare feet and hands so as not to soil their sacred weapons on the lower classes…
CARIBS: Fierce savage natives, whose frightful methods of fighting shocked even the most brutal cut-throats among men. From them came the word “Cannibals”
FOOT-FIGHTING: The French Underworld perfected Savate—foot fighting. techniques more crippling than the Iron fist of a champion boxer. Here you learn their secrets never revealed for fear of punishment by death…
YOU’LL LEARN, TOO, ABOUT THE BLOOD-BATH SYSTEMS OF SELF-DEFENSE of the awesome, shocking techniques of the VANDALS, THUGGESS, AZTECS—the fierce KARATES from the deep Orient, plus the deadliest modern methods of
and discover in their original form the shocking, dim, hideous secrets from the ancient EGYPTIAN and HINDU temples.
Egyptian and Hindu temples!?! By gum, karate is for pansies!
While completely bizarre, Weider’s ads signified another shift in the American approach to martial arts. His version of self-defense sounds like the bar-fighting and cheap shot methods taught in books sold beside Asian-style handbooks at the bookstore—effective, but not a martial art. But who cares, considering the intended use of the techniques? Though a bodybuilder, Weider shrugs off the novelty addition of jiu-jitsu, vis a vis the Charles Atlas Co., or the me-tooism of other muscle-makers who offered “Kung-Fu training” and makes up his own damn martial art. This is not to say that Weider’s “Destructive Self-Defense” is better or even a real system. It sounds like more of the same recommendations of eye-poking, kidney-punching, and knees to the groin (though perhaps these are special “jungle fighter” knees to the groin). No, this is notable for Weider’s divesting himself from any one particular Asian system—probably because he didn’t practice any of them. Though these ads appeared in the wake of Bruce Lee’s death, perhaps Weider realized the kung-fu craze was dying out, and wanted to provide something new and different enough to catch the interest of his audience.
As it turned out, the hyperbole bit Joe Weider, Trainer of Champions, on the backside later when the Postal Service investigated his ads’ claims. In an amusing court transcript, Judge David J. Knight attempted to decide if Mr. Weider truly could make the purchaser of his course a master of “all of the secrets of history’s most ferocious fighters in 30 days in his home,” which required the jurist to ponder terms like “tiger-tough” and “terror-fighting secrets” in all seriousness. The case didn’t go well for Weider (See “In the Matter of the Complaint Against Joe Weider, Trainer of Champions,” P.S. Docket No. 1/131. Initial Decision of David J. Knight, Administrative Law Judge, P.S. Docket No. 1/131, Dec. 13, 1972). The judge found his claim to offer a free course, personal attention and supervision, and secrets of self-defense and fighting techniques all false. Moreover, it was not possible to become a fighting machine in 30 days. “I conclude,” said Judge Knight, “that the Respondent is engaged in conducting a scheme or device to obtain money through the mail by falsely representing its course.” Imagine.
The Weider case had an effect. Danté’s later ads, for example, carried the qualifier that World’s Deadliest Fighting Secrets couldn’t “make you a Fighting Arts Master or even an expert, as this is up to you.” Other ads carried similar qualifiers, including an ad with third-rate Gil Kane-style art that made it clear, “We do not claim that physically handicapped or other disadvantaged persons can perform these feats. Nor are these techniques claimed to be effective against anyone armed with a loaded gun.” Martial arts ads were losing their chutzpah. The waning of kung-fu mania had a hand in it, but it was with the Weider case and Count Danté’s 1975 death that the old sensei-centered ads vanished. By that point, the soldiers who returned from faraway had taught for at least 20 years, and now their students were opening their own schools. Where once you had to travel to the big city or even further to train in a traditional kwoon, dojo or dojang, now every town seemed to have a martial arts school.
A Universal Karate ad
Those ads that persisted had an anonymity to them. The Universal people didn’t have a front man, but they tried the strutting peacock method of salesmanship. Perhaps taking a cue from Danté, Universal highlighted that martial arts weren’t just for ex-military men with ramrod straight hair but were also for Starsky and Hutch iconoclasts who didn’t really need Asian hokum to defend themselves yet wanted an edge to make themselves all the manlier. Clip art returned, but the hats, suits and ties of the old ads were replaced with funky, dry-look dudes in gis or turtlenecks, with big sideburns and even bigger mustaches. Post-Danté, martial artists got hairier, making the Tegners, Flemings and Reumanns look even more like Coach Crewcut.
Another Universal ad
A Universal ad opens with: YOUR HANDS AND FEET WILL HAVE SUPER FANTASTIC POWER!! Your hands will have the power of an axe and you can use your elbows, knees and feet as death-dealing clubs!…The open hand can deliver a single Karate blow many times more powerful than a boxing champions punch! You’ll quickly learn all the vital striking areas that will flatten the biggest and toughest assaulter…FAST!! You’ll reduce any assailant to cringing helplessness, in just seconds. You’ll fear no man…ever! Our TOTAL SELF-DEFENSE SYSTEM is the most DEADLY form of defense and attack ever devised.
More subdued than Weider’s ads, Universal’s ads removed all suggestion that the reader was bullied. Wretched clip art dabbled in cheesier metaphor, one poufy-haired karate menschholding a fistful of dynamite. As a matter of historical curiosity, one Universal ad includes a martial art never mentioned before: Tae Kwon Do. This is the only instance I’ve come across in which a Korean style (versus a Japanese or Chinese style) is mentioned, hinting at the future market dominance of Korean schools.
Another Universal ad
Lest you think Universal is getting out without a little Orientalism, they cheerfully add,
“Learn the secrets of the Ancient Oriental Masters!”
The ’70s also saw a flurry of fly-by-night trainers and novelty-fu. Certain smaller ads had a way of sneaking into the reader’s subconscience—even if they never took the time to read them—and squeezing in an impressive amount of verbiage into that single inch of space. One was the New Orient School, with its poorly drawn but memorable cobra mascot. Another baited the hook with that little item of clothing that gets beginning martial artists drooling: a black belt.
Now you can learn the World’s Most Effective self defense and attack method in the privacy of your own home. Our course teaches you to: kick, punch, and throw, 1 or more opponents…as well as knife and gun defenses—Also learn Martial Arts Weapons! Free Brick Breaking Course! EARN YOUR BLACK BELT!
Amusingly enough, and according to a former student—whose own martial arts training by mail site I came across on the Internet—his former sensei was still around. Looking him up online, I discovered he was currently employed in running a Web site through which he sold honorary doctorates in exchange for sizable fees. Two e-mail requests for an interview brought no response, much to my shock and surprise.
An early Aicondo ad
On the make-believe martial arts front, we have Aicondo—two ads for which I found in Deadly Hands of Kung Fu. Aicondo, the name of which means absolutely nothing, promised, yes, a blend of judo, karate, aikido, and so on—but only the best parts, mind you. It too realized the importance of waving that strip of black cloth in front of the mark.
Your body is a masterpiece machine, the ad states in a painfully weird turn of phrase. …With training it becomes a weapon of fantastic speed, stamina, and skill…You learn to laugh off verbal abuse. You learn to remain cool until hostile contact is made. Then and only then will you render your attacker helpless with minimum physical force. Dedication to Aicondo will pay off in power, agility, self-reliance, and pride.
DEFEND YOURSELF AND FEAR NO MAN WHEN YOU MASTER AICONDO!™ THE COMBAT SYSTEM THAT CAN SAVE YOUR LIFE AND CHANGE IT
Life is not a Game…
Aicondo is not a sport. It is a deadly self-defense system using the best of Karate, Kung-Fu, Judo and Aikido. It is a razor-sharp system of action response. It is the final answer to violence in the streets…violence by the thief, by the thrill seeker, by the bully; violence that can strike you down and touch the lives of those you love.
Another Aicondo ad
Curiously, I have encountered no mention of Aicondo anywhere else. Some mail-order senseis are better at covering their tracks than others.
“Men Who Could Fight…or Disappear”
The early 1980s were the death rattle of martial arts course comic book ads, and it truly shows. The ads have a resigned quality. Few offered instruction; most only sold doodads and fanboy materials like posters, throwing stars and rubber nunchakus. Once full-page pleas were reduced to an inch of space on cramped retail ad pages managed by companies like S and Schwarz Co. Martial arts ads shared space with plugs for mylar bags, pennies supposedly worth hundreds of dollars and get-rich-quick schemes. Even a resurgence of interest in martial arts, brought about by movies like The Karate Kid, didn’t encourage ad production. Though Wallace Reumann returned with his half-page in that 1982 issue of Daredevil, with tae kwon do schools opening in strip malls everywhere, direct instruction from a master—who may or may not have been legitimate—was more enticing than feeling your way through a taster. No more would husky lads sweat and chop the empty air of their bedrooms, fantasizing about that day when the class bully would feel the brunt of their wrath.
Much of the othering of Asia had vanished or, rather, was replaced by new stereotypes. The Chinese were lockstepping Communists in similar tunics, and Japan was suddenly a nation of dour salarymen, not samurai, more likely to cut throats in the marketplace than on the battlefield. The conquerors were becoming the conquered, and yet Americans were more interested in absorbing other culture’s stuff than vice-versa.
Perhaps in search of new martial arts magic, comics readers moved on to ninja worship. Despite being masters of invisibility, the black-clad assassins were suddenly everywhere. Sho Kosugi’s Enter the Ninja movies and a host of other martial arts flicks appeared on the big screen for a week before getting heavy rotation on cable TV. Meanwhile, a newcomer named Frank Miller updated Marvel’s Daredevil, introducing Japanese themes that, while generally more respectful than past treatment, reflected more of a knowledge of Kurosawa films and James Clavell’s Shogun than any hard knowledge of the martial arts. Miller was sharp enough to consider the marriage of martial arts with sex by creating Elektra, yet another super-powered ninja. Though superheroines and villains with knowledge of judo had existed before, Elektra was a slice of cheesecake filled with razor blades. It was a novel and overdue idea, and very likely Elektra’s popularity in the comic could be seen as the forebear to Buffy, Aeon Flux, Trinity of The Matrix and other asskicking femme fatales.
A ninja ad
The ninja craze came a little too late for the Ninjutsu people, however, who in 1975 ran the impressively weird “Men Who Could Fight…or Disappear” ad in Detective Comics #450. By 1985, our cunning black-clad assassin was reduced to a head glaring balefully from a half-inch of ad space—looking as if he was developing a cramp. “JOIN THE NINJA SOCIETY!” it proclaims in a font vaguely “Asian” but probably not too much so, probably evincing a desire not to offend with the old ching-chong approach. “Learn fighting secrets. Weapons. Invisibility. Mind power.” On top of kicking butt and breaking the laws of light and physics, you got a cool ninja sticker too. A game effort, but with martial arts showing up everywhere, it had lost its power to impress. The fake authority of ads of the 1970s and 1960s was now diluted by repetition and pervasiveness.
“What Is Ninja?” spouted another ad’s headline—a cavemanesque phrase not unlike “What Is Fireman?” or “What Is Pizza Delivery Dude?”—accompanied by the familiar outline of a shadow warrior in a staggered stance. “You can be told these deadly techniques!!! Ultimate in Self Defense!!” says the ad in a teeny-tiny voice. Lots of southern-fried ninjas in Smyrna, Georgia, too, according to the ad’s address. For only $4.95 they’d send you an “Instant self defense system.”—the one real-live ninjas used, presumably. You can sense that the sellers knew no one was buying it anymore. They just got in, offered their shiny ninja toys, and got out.
Two truly pathetic examples put perhaps the final katana in the coffin of the power and mystery of the Far East. One rejects art altogether, offering only five lines of text headed by “FREE! MARSHALL ARTS CATALOG” [sic, and what’s more, ouch]. Another, accompanied by a piece of art that screams “We can save dough if we let my seventh grader draw it,” shows a GI Joe clone in a green union suit getting girl-slapped by a tiny fellow in striped blue shorts and socks. This one pimps for “SELF DEFENSE AMERICAN STYLE”:
No tricks. No gimmicks. Develop your power and muscles and your inner strength. FAST and EASY. The AMERICAN WAY!
If it wasn’t made clear that all that flamboyant Asian martial arts phooey was a thing of the past, it crassly adds, “This is the AMERICAN WAY not oriental. Learn to be strong.”
By 1985 the trend had run its course, and martial arts course ads were no more. Not until the advent of the Internet would there be a cheap and easy opportunity for shifty senseis and martial arts manques to ply their wares.
Whatever Happened to the Deadliest Man Alive?
Count Danté, the Deadliest Man Alive, in some ways never existed.
He likely wasn’t a count, nor originally a Danté; and while an undeniably dangerous man, he probably wasn’t the deadliest man of his time. Even his claim to life became forfeit when he died in 1975. Dead or alive, in print or in person, Count Danté made an indelible, though rarely positive, impression.
A Count Dante ad
Writing about Count Danté is infuriatingly difficult. The man, his admirers and his critics have created such a convoluted legend about him that it’s difficult to separate fact from absolute crap. Danté put it nicely in an interview with writer Massad Ayoob for Black Belt Magazine: “90% of what I’ve told you on tape and off, is bullshit and I’m the only one who knows which 10% is the truth.” Danté later amended this to a fifty-fifty blend.
One undeniable truth was that Count Juan Raphael Danté was born John T. Keehan on the south side of Chicago in 1939. Keehan started boxing when he was 13 and later wrestled in high school. After that he gained instruction in judo, jiu jitsu and aikido before attending different martial arts schools across the country, his father—a surgeon—footing the bill. In due time, Keehan studied Shuri-ryu karate in Phoenix, Arizona, under American karate pioneer Robert Trias (yet another ex-soldier returned from the East) in 1961. Keehan proved an apt and organized pupil, eventually earning his black belt, forming the U.S. Karate Association with Trias and promoting karate in the Midwest. Keehan’s focus and knack for publicity introduced the martial arts to a wider audience. All well and good, but the situation would dramatically change.
Perhaps the best known of the Count’s ads
Keehan’s relationship with Trias and the USKA gradually soured. Figuring out why is difficult since both sides gave differing reasons. Keehan claimed he was ejected for promoting African-American students to black belt rank. Trias said that was patently untrue; what didn’t sit well with him was that Keehan’s promotional methods strained credulity and reflected badly on the organization. Before he was a count, John Keehan apparently had a touch of Baron von Münchhausen in him.
Keehan’s most notorious brag was that he’d participated in secret “death matches” in Thailand and China, winning by killing opponent after opponent before crowds numbering in the thousands. All told, Keehan was known as a hothead and always looking for a fight, but…death matches? With no hard evidence presented for or against the death matches, his claim is hard to either prove or disprove, leaving his reputation intact if only because those who didn’t believe it waved it off, while those who did believe were too afraid to ask for corroboration. According to Ayoob’s inquiries with kung-fu practitioners from the old country, it was unlikely a non-Asian foreigner would be invited to participate in such Bloodsport scenarios, if such events existed at all. No matter what he claimed though, Keehan’s braggadocio made it hard to take anything he said without an arched eyebrow.
‘I Promise Not to Kill Anyone’
An interesting item in several ads’ promises of crippling, disfiguring power was a little checkbox or signature line preceded by a solemn oath not to actually cripple or disfigure anyone—save to protect yourself, of course. Toyotaro Miyazaki’s ad’s admonition is the most terse and to the point: “I promise never to use these techniques as an aggressor.” Others seem to require far more words, but whether this caveat was for legal protection or something else is open to debate.
This language was likely an attempt to preserve the macho mystique of martial arts, representing a subtle promise that while you’ll become suffused with power enough to crush your enemies, drive them before you and hear the lamentation of their women in your ears, you really shouldn’t. I suspect such clauses were added after a lawyer whispered in the great senseis’ ears, done less to keep little Johnny from wreaking havoc on the playground and more to keep him from getting bully-pummeled and his parents from suing the instructor.
How else to explain even the ultraviolent Count Danté adding a tut-tut at the end of one—though admittedly only one—of his ads? After several paragraphs promising his usual eye-popping training, it culminates with a checkbox followed by, “I pledge never to use the deadly techniques of the manual as an aggressor (only to defend myself) and will never abuse the trust placed in me.” Which, strangely, suddenly makes the deadliest man alive sound as if he didn’t approve of running with scissors either.
Wallace Reumann, in all his incarnations, seemed most worried about his mail-order charges using his karate/kung-fu/whatever-it-is-this-week skills for the dark side.
From the I’LL MAKE YOU A MASTER OF KARATE ad: “I understand that by studying KARATE I am morally bound and obligated never to practice KARATE as an aggressor (only to defend myself) and will never abuse it.”
From TURN YOUR HANDS INTO “EXPLOSIVE” DEFENSE MECHANISM! ad: “Make me a master of the Forbidden Oriental Fighting Arts. I enclose $3.98 under your 30-day MONEY-BACK Guarantee. I promise to use these secrets only for self-defense, never as an aggressor.”
From the I’LL GIVE YOU THE SECRET POWER OF CHINESE KUNG-FU ad: “I promise in return to use the deadly knowledge of KUNG FU for defense only and that I will never use its secrets as an aggressor ever.” (He was also preoccupied with keeping those thousand-year-old secrets secret.)
From FORBIDDEN ORIENTAL FIGHTING ARTS ad: “I agree NEVER to use FORBIDDEN ORIENTAL FIGHTING ARTS as an aggressor—only to defend myself, and that I will never abuse the principles of FORBIDDEN ORIENTAL FIGHTING ARTS, nor will I ever reveal the secrets of FORBIDDEN ORIENTAL FIGHTING ARTS to anyone else.”
If, as I suspect, Reumann was in fact the man behind the mask of Master Kung-Fu, he comes off as rather disingenuous: finking out on his ancient not-masters (he was a karateka, not a kung fu practitioner) while asking his students not to likewise screw him: “I agree never to use KUNG-FU as an aggressor—only to defend myself, and that I will never abuse the principles of KUNG-FU, nor will I ever reveal the secrets of KUNG-FU to anyone else.”
Do as I say, not as I do, apparently.
Hatkido: Comics within the Ads
The comics influence on martial arts course ads is slight. Most show only the simple clip art of one figure in a gi shoulder-throwing another. The artistic merit of ad illustration was limited, to be kind, smacking of a freelance hack illustrator being asked to give it a “comic-booky” feel. Those strips with plots make “The Insult That Made a Man Out of ‘Mac'” seem like Chekhovian drama. Humorously, in several strips (see accompanying illustrations) our martial artist is a nebbish’s nebbish, garbed in a suit and tie and a rather dated-looking fedora. But beneath the snap-brim beat the heart of a Shaolin warrior.
It’s all in the hat. (Click to enlarge)
The few martial arts ads that monkey see-monkey-did Charles Atlas’ cartoons followed a familiar pattern. Two thugs inexplicably decide to pick on our hatted friend and his best girl. The thugs portrayed are indeed thuggish, rendered barely human with Cro-Mag foreheads and, if the proportions are to be be believed, are a good two feet taller than the protagonist. Motivations to attack are sketchy. None demand money or sex. They seem only interested in testing the manhood of the martial artist before his screechy lady friend. Easily fooled by the dapper and, compared to them, petite protagonist, they blindly walk were non-karate-trained angels fear to tread. “Let’s push dis little guy around,” says one troglodyte to another, speaking in the language of oafs and native Chicagoans. Bam! Pow! Whammo! With very uncomfortable-looking form—not to mention a command of gravity that allows him to knock over a 240-pound man with no identifiable manner of leverage—our derbied gent wipes out the bounders with rapid, blood-free strikes.
After the ruffians are dispatched, the lady comes to our hero and says not, “Oh my God, are you hurt!?!” or “What are you, some kind of psycho? Those guys didn’t do anything to you yet!” but rather, “Gee honey, Kung-Fu sure is good to know.” Hat locked down and entirely sweat-free, our natty hero says, “Yes, and it’s easy to learn and fast!” We may assume the final unseen panel promises a scene of carnal abandon as the lady fair gives her Brooks Brothered knight his just reward.
President Kennedy, it is said, put the kibosh on the fedora and snap-brim when he appeared hatless at his inauguration. So, what’s with the hats, which kept appearing in martial arts course ads years after they went out of fashion? The suggestion is probably of Clark Kent: weak, ineffectual, milksoppish outside, but within, a powerhouse. Even in the thick of battle, the snap-brim remains unmoved, showing grace under pressure.
Not until Joe Weider’s ad of 1975—sharing a single issue with Count Dante and the Ninja Society—does our cartoon protagonist appear not only hatless but possessed of a hair style usually referred to as a mullet, Tennessee Tophat, or “schlong.” Hats were out. Hair was in, alas. Yet, antecedents of hatted comic warriors exist in Mr. A, the Question, the Spirit, the Clock, Rorsharch, the Sandman, the Crimson Avenger, the Phantom Stranger, Dr. Occult, Dick Tracy, and J.R. “Bob” Dobbs. Beware the hat, my friend, beware the hat.
Dan Kelly is a Chicago writer whose work has appeared in the Chicago Reader, Chicago Journal and The Baffler. His website is mrdankelly.com. He has a black belt in the not-so-ancient Korean martial art of Hapkido, which he earned in Chicago, not at the top of a Himalayan mountain. Really.
This article first appeared in Hogan’s Alley #14 (cover at right). You can purchase a digital download of this sold-out issue here. This individual article is also available for your Kindle—just click here.