If you grew up in the 1970s and were a comic book reader, then you are probably familiar with Count Dante, ‘the deadliest man alive’ and master of Dim Mak – the mythical ‘touch of death’ that martial artists used to kill opponents with seemingly innocuous touches or minor blows to specific points of the body. There are those who believe that Bruce Lee was killed by such a blow, the vibrating palm, which set up a chain reaction that eventually killed him days later. The perfect crime, you might think, if it wasn’t utter nonsense.
And so you might think it was irresponsible, to say the least, to be offering such power to any spotty youth who wrote off for Count Dante’s free brochure in the hope of learning how to take out the school bully with a poke of the finger. At 25c, it seemed a bargain, especially as the brochure came with a Black Dragon Fighting Society membership card – quite a deal, give that the ads assured us that until recently, members were sworn to secrecy through an initiation ceremony of blood. How Count Dante had avoided being taken down by the Tongs for breaking the vow of silence is unclear – but then, he was the deadliest man alive – maybe he killed anyone who came after him.
Dante’s ads were notable for their outrageous promises and bloodthirsty nature. There’s no suggestion here that these deadly fighting secrets were for set defence – no, the ads promise “lethally savage ripping, tearing, slashing, clawing and gouging techniques”, as well as the less delay but probably much cooler ability to break a brick in two with your bare hands – after only MINUTES of training!
With such lurid claims, outrageous ads and a comic book villain-style name, it might be easy to believe that Count Dante was little more than a fictional front for a corporate organisation conning kids with roughly cribbed martial arts informational booklets than no one would ever follow. In fact, Count Dante was a real person, and a genuine martial arts expert.
Born John Keehan into a wealthy Irish-American family in 1939, he had begun to study martial arts in the late 1950s, and by the early 1960s was a 7th Dan Black Belt in karate, as well as a master of other fighting methods. By all accounts, Dante was obsessed with the more brutal martial arts techniques, and developed his own variant, Kata Dante, which emphasised street fighting and rapid fire assault over the more formal methods of other systems. this inevitably led to tensions with other schools, which culminated in 1965 with Dante and an associate attempting to dynamite a rival judo school – hardly the way we have been told martial arts rivals sort out their differences. He escaped the ‘prank’ with two years probation.
In 1967, he changed his name to Count Juan Raphael Dante, claiming that his family had fled Spain during the civil war and changed their name to hide their identity. This was, of course, untrue. That same year, he promoted America’s first full contact martial arts tournament, as which he was declared “the world’s deadliest fighting master” by the World Federation of Fighting Arts Committees. He then retired from the ring, effectively securing the title for life. The next year, he authored World’s Deadliest Fighting Secrets, the booklet that he would go on to advertise relentlessly for the rest of his life (and beyond). The ads would evolve over the years – the original versions, appearing in martial arts magazines, showed Dante with short hair – it wasn’t until he began to appear in the pages of comic books that the familiar afro, fighting stance and ferocious expression were perfected. The wording of the ads also became more dramatic, often punctuated with the more EXCITING words in CAPITALS for tabloid style emphasis, aimed at hooking in the sort of reader for whom a couple of paragraphs of small type might seem daunting.
The ads were so ubiquitous that Monty Python spoofed them in their 1973 Brand New Bok, with a full-page ‘ad’ promoting the Welsh martial art of Lapp Goch (“requires no intelligence, strength of physical courage”).
Although retired from the ring, Dante continued to challenge rivals and form grudges. At one point, he turned up outside Mohammed Ali’s house to challenge him to a fight; Ali ignored him. In 1970, he and several disciples tend up at the Black Cobra Hall of Kung Fu Kempo in Chicago, and the resulting fight saw one man almost lose an eye and another – part of Dante’s crew – dead from a knife wound. The incident did little for Dante’s reputation in the martial arts world.
By 1974, The success of Enter the Dragon and the death of its star Bruce Lee a year earlier meant that film studios were keen to find a new martial arts star to ride the wave of popularity that the genre was having – and if that star could be a white American as opposed to an Asian, all the better as far as producers were concerned. Dante was flown to Hollywood for a screen test, which he failed miserably – unable or unwilling to pull his punches, he injured several of the actors performing with him. The project was pulled, and Dante’s screen career was over before it started. At a loose ebb and not making enough from his mail order death courses, he would go on to dabble in various unlikely careers – as a hairdresser, a beauty stylist, a used car salesman and an adult book seller.
On May 26th 1975 – a week after appearing at a martial arts convention – Count Dante died in his sleep, aged just 36. The official cause of death was unspectacular – a bleeding ulcer. Invariably, there are those who claim a more sinister reason for his sudden demise – that Dante had fallen foul of his own techniques, and that someone has slipped him the hand of death.
The Black Dragon Fighting Society still exists, under the control of Bill Aguilar, the son of Dante’s successor William V. Aguilar. They no longer advertise in comic books.