Bruce Lee may have died in 1973, but his fame only grew after that. During the 70s the martial arts movie star became a genuine cult figure and every teenager, it seemed, was beating themselves silly with nunchuks and practicing Lee’s signature poses in front of the mirror.
By 1982 the craze had died down a bit, but that didn’t stop the Los Angeles Times Syndicate from trying to capitalize on the dead star with a comic strip. Actually, though, the idea had been gestating quite awhile. In 1977 the syndicate had approached two living legends, Milton Caniff and Noel Sickles, about doing a Bruce Lee strip. Samples were drawn up but Caniff grew disgusted with what he considered nitpicky suggestions from the syndicate and dropped the project.
What happened with the idea in that long five year period I don’t know, but finally on May 23 1982 The Legend of Bruce Lee began appearing in a vanishingly small number of newspapers. The strip was written by Sharman DiVono, who was also penning the Star Trek strip at the time, and drawn by Fran Matera, veteran cartoonist. Dick Kulpa did some uncredited art assisting.
The small client list might seem odd given the devoted fandom for Bruce Lee. However, we must consider a few factors. First of all, newspaper editors were pretty much convinced that continuity strips were dead, so the strip had a lot of resistance to overcome. Secondly, the market was awash in media tie-in strips at that time — Spider-Man, Hulk, Dallas, Star Trek, Star Wars and others were all jockeying for newspaper space. Bruce Lee may have just seemed like the low man on that totem pole — popular with teens, certainly, but did he have the mass appeal to sell newspapers? Strips featuring much higher-profile media stars were just limping along as it was — why take a chance on a cult figure that many older readers had never heard of?
Newspaper editors looked at all these factors and very, very few decided to roll the dice on The Legend of Bruce Lee. With hardly any clients (and presumably license fees that made the profit point pretty high to begin with) the strip apparently only made it about three months before being canned. As best I can tell the strip ended on September 4 1982 (has anyone seen later?).
EDIT: As you can see from one of the comments below the strip did actually continue on well past my end date. Another reader sent me a link to Comicfans showing original art as late as May 1983, and it seems Matera had quit by then and the strip was taken over by Kulpa. Now if only we could find a US paper running it that late. I really doubt that the strip switched to foreign-only distribution, but I have no evidence otherwise — yet!
EDIT2: Jeffrey Lindenblatt reports that the strip runs in the Wilmington Morning News until November 1982, still bylined by Matera. That’s now our latest U.S. appearance.
EDIT 3/1/2022: Jeffrey Lindenblatt has now finally found a US newspaper that stuck around to the bitter end; the Olympia Olympian ran the daily strip to June 11 1983. In the final panel, Lee says (granted, to a bad guy) “It’s Over!”. Unfortunately the Olympian didn’t carry the Sunday version, so we don’t know if that lasted as long as the daily. Finally getting to see those late dailies, though, we can now report that Dick Kulpa took over the reins (and the credit) on April 18.
5 comments on “Obscurity of the Day: The Legend of Bruce Lee”
Ha, cool. I have a couple Bruce Lee knock-off movies that came out after he died, of the "so stupid it's funny" caliber. When I saw this, I wondered why they didn't just make a comic book, but then I thought, "Oh, they did." I've seen them. 🙂
I remember seeing some of the Caniff and Sickles samples in Comic Buyer's Guide's old "Comic Collector" magazine in the early 1980's. I think that Matera's version looks more action-packed than the samples Caniff and Sickles did, though with a softer edge. I wonder if having a Caniff school version of Bruce Lee in the age of Neal Adams helped doom it.
The Art of Noel Sickles from IDW has some of the Bruce Lee strip art.
hey hey kid, I have a copy of that, and to my shame I have to admit that I paid so much attention to the "Scorchy Smith" strips and the magazine illustrations that the Bruce Lee stuff just fell into the memory hole … I'll have to check that out again.
I did a search and found that the strip ran in the "New Straits Times" (Malaysia) starting 8/15/82. The first strips were dated "5/24". It continues (the scans are incomplete and skip months at a time) until 6/30/83 with a strip dated "6/9". When the scans pick up again on 9/1/1983 the strip is gone. Looks like the strip go past Sept 1982 at least overseas.