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What a Kick: Kagan McLeod

Kagan McLeod has been redefining cool for a while now with Infinite Kung Fu, a hip, fun, totally addictive series that was originally brought to life as a self-published comic and is now available as a graphic novel from Top Shelf. Mixing genres and styles effortlessly, McLeod creates a blend that transpires most kung-fu tropes to be startlingly original. And did we mention how fun it is? Check it out, but first check out this interview with Kagan.

Did you grow up a fan of kung fu movies? Were those an influence on what you’re doing in Infinite Kung Fu?
I didn’t discover them until I was a teenager, in the last few years of the VHS bootleg cassette. The best stuff was made in the ’70s and early ’80s, and since I had missed all that, it was great to discover it. Hunting for weird, wacky, and obscure kung-fu flicks was totally fun, even if I ended up with third- or fourth-generation tapes with Korean subtitles over the English. The material was definitely the influence for Infinite Kung Fu. The thrill of the hunt is gone now that the internet is here. I'd probably never settle for videos with such terrible quality as I did in the ’90s.
When you take a look at the kung fu genre…it’s pretty crowded. What made you want to add something to it?
It wasn’t a master plan in the beginning, it was more like…“What's fun to draw?” I had originally thought that, in the world I set up with cultures reverted to their pasts, I could basically have characters and stories from any genre I felt like. But as I got into it, I did worry about it being too crowded. I ended up focusing on kung fu with zombies as a backdrop; a nuisance more than a real problem for kung fu masters!
Is it tough to convey the action and story of something like Infinite Kung Fu in a comic setting?
It was a challenge, but the first step was probably to realize that I wasn’t making a movie, so that freed me up and let the comic be its own thing. With a theme like kung fu, I wanted to show the certain types of poses, movements, and motions where I could, but also move the story along and not get too tedious. The challenge of it is the draw for me—basically, anything that I’m interested in starts running through my head and I think, “This could make a good comic!”

Tell us about Lei Kung. What do you like about him? What makes him a great protagonist for you?
My favorite aspect of the character comes when he starts to question his allegiances between the Immortals and the Emperor. We know from the beginning of the book that he has good basic morals, and the Immortals’ ideas seem to align with them. But later, when they are cryptic about his mission, he starts to wonder what their motives are, as they’ve made mistakes in the past. Maybe they’re just worried about what happens to Immortals if the world is destroyed, ha-ha. The Emperor seems evil, but maybe he just sees things differently. Lei Kung is in the middle, representing humankind between groups of superhumans. This all comes to light a bit late in the book, and I do wish I’d explored it earlier and a bit deeper too.
This is a very rich, dense story, epic in scale and execution. Was it intimidating to take on something so large when you first began it?
No, I thought at first I would end it after Lei Kung beats the first general (spoiler, sorry). That was my out if the book didn’t do well when I self-published it, in 32-page issues. I got lots of positive feedback and ended up sticking with it. The biggest obstacle was making time for it while also making money. I swore toward the end of Infinite Kung Fu my next project would be a lot smaller in scope because of the amount of work involved. But that’s turning out not to be the case. Go big or go home, I guess.
You spent a decade-plus working on Infinite Kung Fu. Do you still have as much love for it now as you did when you started?
It’s very weird to work on something for 10 years, especially from age 20–30—as I think a lot of maturing happens then. If I had started now, the book would definitely be a lot different. I think I’ve devoured all the kung fu media I can. I still enjoy it, but I’m interested in other stuff, too. Reading the finished comic is a main driving force in actually getting it finished, though it’s frustrating how slow a process working on it is, versus how long it takes to read it. But with the finished book in hand, I think I’ve got a really fun-to-read book, with lots of cool stuff in it, and that’s all I was after.

Considering all the years you spent working on this story, have you yourself sat down recently and read it from start to finish? I’m curious if you’ve noticed evolutions in your style both as a storyteller and as an artist or things that stand out to you as quite different from something you would do now.
Oh, yes, for sure. I’d always been bashful about my writing and only gotten to be a bit brave about it when people started responding positively to it. I see lots of things I could have made better, but after so many years, I had to call it done at some point. I had re-inked the first 150 pages because I was a better artist by the time I got toward the end of the book, and the styles didn't really match.
Which artists influenced your style and drawing technique?
Pretty much anyone from Mad magazine!

Have you been surprised by the types of readers who have been drawn to Infinite Kung Fu? That is to say, it seems to have an appeal beyond traditional fans of kung fu stories. Have you found that to be the case?
I’m most surprised by the age demographics. I always figured it would be most suited for teenage boys with all the blood and guts, but I'm happy to find men and women my age and older enjoying it. As far as the genre, I think it helps if you at least know a bit about the types of movies I'm playing off of, so you “get” the bad wigs, fake sideburns, moustaches, and mid-fight insults. I wrote a lot of the dialogue to echo that awkward dubbed type of speech, where it makes sense but isn’t quite right (because it has to match the actors’ lip movements). If you’ve seen a few kung fu films, this hopefully comes across, but if not, it might just seem weird, I don't know. It’s not the end of the world if you don't get those subtleties, though.
What’s your all-time favorite kung-fu movie? And your least?
I’d say The 36 Chambers of Shaolin is the one that did it for me. It's a good entry point to good old-school kung fu. The one that burned me the most was calledDragon from Shaolin, and the box said it starred Brute Lee, who dazzled with his Buzzsaw fist. Half of it was out of focus, and Brute was old and slow. And boring. I’m sure he didn’t realize he’d be marketed in the West as a Brute, or a Lee, but that’s what got me to buy the movie. There was no Buzzsaw fist.
You alluded to this earlier, but what's up next for you?
I’m starting another epic! Historical fiction this time, the Conquest of Mexico particularly. Not sure how it will come out or when, as I'm in the early stages, but it should be along the same lines as Infinite Kung Fu (without the fantasy)—lots of action and adventure.