Monkey King Review

By | Thursday, July 06, 2023 Leave a Comment
I first learned about the character of Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, back in 2006. I'd actually stumbled across an ebay listing for a statuette of the character while I was looking for something else entirely, and I was so intrigued by the design and the brief description that I started doing some digging to find out who/what the Monkey King is. As it happened, Gene Luen Yang in the middle of drumming up interest in American Born Chinese, which was about to be published for the first time. The Monkey King appears as a character in there, and Yang was sharing some of his sketches and notes about that online. He went into a fair amount more detail about the character's origins (both real and in print) than what he relays in the book, and I quickly came to enjoy the character.

Since then, I've seen/read any number of variations of the character at this point. The Monkey King is something of a cultural touchstone for China and, as a property well into public domain by anybody's laws, any creator is free to drop him into any story they like. Marvel has a version, DC has a version, Dragon Ball's Son Goku is effectively the same... It's not dissimilar to Robin Hood, who's met with everyone from the Doctor to Lord Blackadder to Bugs Bunny. The original Journey to the West story has been adapted countless times, in all manner of media, with all sorts of different takes. Some are darker and could easily be considered horror, while others are light-hearted camp intended for young children. The specific adventures morph and change with the format and the times and, while the broad outline is relatively well-known, the specifics of the original text are probably much less well-known. Which means that the average layperson's headcannon for the Monkey King is likely a mishmash of elements from different interpretations, again much like Robin Hood.

As such, I can't really say how "accurate" Chaiko's two-volume graphic novel is in retelling the Monkey King's origins. It certainly doesn't feel like there's a bunch of reinterpretation going on, though; it seems to go back to the original text, but I can't truthfully confirm that as I've never read the original in full. (The first English translation was broken up into four volumes, each at around 500 pages, so it's not exactly a quick read!) But Chaiko's version does generally align with what I've read/heard in the past and comes across in a very classical sense; that is, it feels like it's presented pretty much how it was originally intended and doesn't have modern sensibilities or storytelling trends applied to it. (I'm sure it does to some degree, just because it's art and that's how art works, but it doesn't feel like anything is being deliberately or consciously added.)

This version goes a lot deeper than most that I've come across. Frequently, after Sun Wukong gets freed from having the mountain dropped on him, the story either stops and says "he went on to have many adventures" or the adventures they go on to show are just whatever random stories fit within the framework of the particular outlet the story is being told through. That is, if it's a children's show, the stories are kind of generic kids' show stories but if it's a superhero story, it falls into a bunch of generic crime-fighting. Chaiko's version follows the original adventures from Journey to the West as the Monkey King protects the monk Tang Sanzang as he travels to India to retrieve the Buddhist sutras.

Like the original, the adventures here are pretty discrete. The protagonists encounter an obstacle on their journey, they overcome it, and then move on. With the couple exceptions of when they gain a new companion, you could swap the stories around and not really have an impact on the overall tale. I suspect this comes from how the stories were originally told (even before they were written down) in that each tale was told in isolation to relay a particular moral or message. The same as any other set of myths. While Chaiko clearly chose the stories with overall impact (e.g. picking up Zhū Bājiè and Shā Wùjìng) I'm unsure why he might've chosen others. Regardless, they're all entertaining, so whatever reasons he might've had were good ones.

The execution of all these is excellent. You can find samples of Chaiko's wonderful illustrations online easily enough, but the storytelling is masterful as well. Despite some bits that could potentially be hard to follow, Chaiko makes them easily accessible. Also, props to translator Dan Christensen for smooth dialogue; if I didn't know better, I'd have guessed the original script was in English. (They were first published in French, but I'm pretty sure Chaiko wrote them in Chinese. I have no clue what Christensen was actually working from.)

The second book ends with the protagonists still on their way to India with a caption about them having more adventures. As far as I can tell, Chaiko has not had more of these stories published in any language but I don't know if he's planning on (if not already) working on more. Since they have been published internationally, I would assume they're selling reasonably well enough to warrant more, but I don't know if Chaiko personally has any further interest. Regardless, these are the best comic adaptations of Journey to the West that I've seen, and I'd highly recommend folks check them out.

The books were originally Kickstartered but, as of May, are available from Magnetic Press. They have multiple versions available; each of the two volumes are available in hardcover for $29.99 US each and a paperback edition of the two combined also retails for the same price. Additionally, a deluxe slipcase set is available for $84.99 US.
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