It’s been a while since we took a look back at some early comics here in Ye Old School Café but while diggin’ in the crates and sorting through some old comics I came across a few gems. One of them came to the top of the pile while my playlist started blasting Protect Ya Neck and then Triumph so I took that as a sign!
Up from the 36 Chambers!
It’s the RZA, the GZA, Old Dirty Bastard, Inspectah Deck, Raekwon the Chef, Masta Killa, U-God, Ghostface Killah, and the M-E-T-H-O-D Man! But not as the globally dominant Hip-Hop group that rocked stages across the world and sold countless albums. In The Nine Rings of Wu-Tang they are Prince Rakeem, The Genius, Osirus, Dek, Raekwon, Masta Killa, Golden Arms, Ghost Face, and the MZA! A group of warriors, ninja, assassins, friends, and tortured souls destined for greatness. Now it’s not uncommon for music groups to have comics based on them but Nine Rings of Wu-Tang was something completely different as it chose to tell an epic story that tapped into the Wu’s love of martial arts, fantasy, and comic book storytelling. It’s strange that even in this day and age that many don’t know that the Hip Hop super group who have aliases based off of comic book characters and
The series made it’s debut courtesy of Image Comics in the late 90’s and was written by Brian Haberlin and Aaron Bullock with art by Clayton Henry. Now, for all the hype around this being a Wu-Tang comic book they actually don’t kick the series off. The first character we meet is Professor Green. He wasn’t an assassin, powerful villain, or some badass rogue but an archaeologist with mysterious ties to our heroes in The Nine Rings of the Wu-Tang. So for a young Black kid that had grown tired of seeing Black characters in the same roles over and over again this was almost as exciting as getting to see the Wu in a comic. A comic that places you in a fantasy realm complete with all of the things that make this genre so exciting as anything can happen because…well, magic!
Along with Professor Green, writers Haberlin and Bullock introduced us to the Monk who is our bridge between the present day and the past. From here we would meet the members of the Wu-Tang Clan through a series of interconnecting flashbacks that would set up the overall plot of the series. And when we first meet them some are already enemies as Ghost and Raekwon are battling what seems to be a possessed MZA but are spared when out of nowhere, RZA stops the killing blow and is able to cleanse the soul of the rampaging warrior before he ends their lives. These men would soon form a bond and begin a journey that would lead them on the path of the soon to be other members and the evil spreading across the land.
Now when it comes to the Wu members, Haberlin and Bullock do their best to balance out the huge cast however, there’s a lot of character development lacking in some but that can also be attributed to the early cancellation of the series. Characters like RZA, The Genius, Rakeem and others are your basic warrior types with their own personality traits to help them stand apart. However there are members that have special abilities that go beyond martial arts skill. U-God aka Golden Arms gets his name from literally being able to transform his arms into powerful golden weapons. Masta Killa is a sort of lycanthrope who goes full on beast mode when it’s time to throw down. Ghost Face has shadow manipulation skills and his backstory gives us a glimpse of The Brothers of the Dusk also called The Shadow Boxers and why they are hunting him. Another character that gets a deeper role early on is ODB aka Osirus. It seems his deteriorating mental state is due to the fact he’s actually an Oracle who’s power has been prematurely unlocked. However, being on this plane of existence is driving him mad so he’s taken away by angel-like beings after they defeat several Wu members in a fight with a promise to return him. This is a bit of eerie real life foreshadowing considering the rapper’s passing just several years later.
When we shift from the heroes to the villains we get goblins, genies, changlings, mystical warlords, and a wide array of creatures that populate this realm. The main cast’s character designs were some of the best and would stand toe to toe with many costume designs today. Clayton Henry’s Ghost Face and Dek designs are probably my favorites as they stand out most from the group and who doesn’t like a cool looking ninja? One of the villains, Ellion, is a mountain of a man and an unforgiving killer that would have made for one hell of a fight sequence when he finally confronted the Wu-Tang Clan. But this is a fight that the fans wouldn’t get to see Clayton Henry put down in the pages of this series.
While looking back, the book was slightly ahead of it’s time in some ways. At least for me because aside from characters in the Milestone Universe and Image’s The Tribe you just didn’t see a title starring mostly Black characters back then. Especially one that didn’t resort to a cliche urban setting while resorting to overused and disingenuous portrayals of Black people to build their characters off of. It was also evident that Clayton Henry was a Black comic artist which again was something I remember being excited about. Now, I had never seen him but in all the years of me reading comics at that time no white comic book artist had ever nailed the hair of Black men when it came to a fade. Not one. So the fact it was pretty consistent every time Professor Green was in a panel pretty much assured me another brother was out there putting in work with the likes of Denys Cowan, Chris Cross, Larry Stroman, and others.
Unfortunately Nine Rings of the Wu-Tang did end quite abruptly and unexpectedly. And like most books that end this way there were questions as to why along with many unanswered plot points. Several of them actually had the potential to flesh out a pretty unique series that put a different face on a genre that hadn’t been there before. There’s no question that the Wu’s star power at the time is what helped to get them their own comic because I couldn’t tell you of another series in the 90s that had a fellowship of Black men using magic and martial arts to save the world from evil. Though maybe that was the part that many people couldn’t connect with since they only saw the Wu as Hip-Hop artists and wanted something a little more “street”. Or maybe they never saw Black characters have a prominent role in the fantasy genre and thought it odd which is actually worse in my opinion. But for whatever reason Nine Rings of the Wu-Tang’s run was cut short it was, if even for a moment, great to see something like this which showed the influences the group often talked about in interviews be brought to light in a comic. f you’re interested in reading Nine Rings of the Wu-Tang the single issues aren’t hard to track down but you might as well get the trade which has bonus art and stories.
Check out our other classic comics in past Ye Olde School Café colums!