This is a guest blog post from Jim Di Bartolo, author of The Boy Who Became a Dragon: A Bruce Lee Story
“Boards…don’t hit back.” That was a line delivered by Bruce Lee in the movie ENTER THE DRAGON after a fairly larger man punched through a board right in front of Bruce, trying to intimidate him. When I first saw that scene sometime around eighth grade, I just thought it was the coolest! I was already a fan of Bruce Lee by that point, but I remember recognizing the calm disdain in his voice as such a narrative embodiment of the confidence he had in his skills. Old enough to be aware of the separation between movie-fiction and reality, I still couldn’t help but be inspired! Who would bother someone with that level of brashness, let alone with those butt-kicking skills?! If I’m being honest, a fairly big reason why he so captivated me was that I got picked on here and there in Elementary School. Throughout this time, I was working through how to process this situation, and Bruce Lee offered me a source of solace. In going through such challenges, to this day I remain empathetic to all who deal with similar circumstances.
Oozing pure charisma and chock full of a magnetic personality, he was one of my heroes growing up, as I’m sure was the case for many throughout the world. Along with characters like THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN and SUPERMAN, Bruce Lee was a touchstone of strength, confidence, and ability. The thing that made him stand out among those others was that he was real! Yes, those movies were scripted and choreographed, but it was clear he had actual impressive skills to support those fantastical theatrical displays. Everything from his sinewy muscled body, his piercingly intense expressions, and lightning-fast movements were all real and thus, could be replicated! Or, perhaps more realistically, at least regarded as an ever-out-of-reach goal for which to strive. As I learned more about the man – though that early knowledge would later be dwarfed by the research for this book – I soon realized how much of a thinker he was as well. Martial arts magazines at the time still had quotes full of wisdom he had penned, displaying the depth of a man beyond just a fighter. My appreciation of him grew.
Around the same time of my early fandom, I had begun karate lessons at the suggestion of my father as an alternative to football, which many of my friends were signing up for. The idea of learning to defend myself easily outweighed the notion of playing a sport I had little-to-no interest in watching, let alone participating in. Karate was the hardest, most exhausting thing I had ever done…and I loved it! Was I ever going to be as good as Bruce Lee? Of course not, but along the way, he remained an inspiration.
I’ve trained off and on since then, but my life has become more focused on family and my career as an artist and a writer. As such, this book is a convergence of several of my interests: my continued fandom of Bruce Lee and appreciation of all martial arts, my lifelong love of comics, and my want of focusing on a project solely my own. The idea of a book about him had kept returning to my mind for several years, and I have been thrilled at the opportunity to pursue that goal through Graphix and Scholastic.
I began working on the book by taking a deep dive into Bruce Lee by reading articles, interviews, and numerous books. Naturally, a number things came to light. Not only facts I wasn’t aware of – easily, hundreds! — but also that there are small portions of his life he hadn’t documented or written about – at least that I could find -- and where I couldn’t locate firsthand accounts by him there were usually varying takes of things depending on who told the story. It soon became clear that if I was going to make this book about his childhood – and that was my goal – I would have to take small liberties in order to add humor and breathe life into supporting characters. That said, my unwavering goal was to remain respectful to the man, to his legacy and family, and to be accurate when and where facts were well-documented.
Along the way, I learned a fair amount of interesting things about Bruce Lee I hadn’t known beforehand, and here are just a few:
- His earliest years were spent in Hong Kong while under Japanese occupation during World War 2, where his family (as well as most everyone else) lived in fear of physical harm, imprisonment, or even death.
- Before he became famous for his better known movie roles, he was in numerous movies as a childhood actor, even appearing with his father – also an actor – in a movie when he was a newborn!
- He was expelled from school for troublemaking when he was young.
- He won the Hong Kong Cha Cha championship when he was eighteen years old.
- He also won a high school boxing championship, defeating most opponents with first round knockouts and unseating the previous year’s champion by a third round knockout.
As is the case when anyone begins researching a project, they uncover facts, rumors, disputed stories from people from years later, and – when you’re reading about someone so admired and famous -- things that become almost legendary. For example, when I began reading about the fight between Bruce Lee and another accomplished martial artist Wong Jack Man, there were so many varying accounts as to the lead up to the fight, the length of the fight, who won, etc, that I wasn’t certain how to depict the event. The same could be said among people who trained with Bruce Lee. Some were ever-gracious and humble in their descriptions of him while others seemed to hint that they were the training partner that Bruce could never quite get the best of, and really put him through the paces! *eyeroll emoji* Sure, dude.
Ultimately, I had several goals in creating this graphic novel. I wanted to introduce today’s kids to this determined, goal-oriented, flawed, philosophical, ever-restless, ever-striving, focused man – and what better way to do that than to tell the story through someone relatable: the man himself as a child. Along the way, there were troublesome aspects I had to leave out and characters and events I had to embellish when facts were thin, but I hope I’ve created something that not only captures the imagination of kids, but is also fun and informative for fellow life-long fans of the man. Thankfully, the skills I’ve picked up along the way since my childhood and earliest fandom allowed me to create the story, and ultimately the finished book, in what is probably my favorite medium: sequential art/comic book form. I hope those who give it a chance find themselves entertained, informed, and leave with a new or renewed sense of the rarity of someone like Bruce Lee.