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The Monkey King Volume 1 (v. 1) Paperback – October 4, 2005
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In his editor-adaptor's afterword, Carl Gustav Horn notes the huge, continuing influence of the anonymous Chinese novel Journey to the West (1590), a fantasy based in the seventh--century renewal of Buddhism through one Chinese monk's pilgrimage to India. He cites several recent appropriations, of which Terada's 1995 work, to be complete in English in three volumes, is the most considerable. In the Journey, a warrior monkey or ape, a bound and gagged Buddhist nun, a pig, and the severed head of a cannibal relentlessly press forward to India, beset at every turn by demons the monkey invariably defeats. Yet the ape seems eager to combat the Buddha himself, though why and how remain unclear as this volume ends. Terada presents one violent encounter per chapter, and transitions be damned. His artwork--every page is painted--explodes with energy, overflows with baroque lineation and voluptuous figuration, exploits color like a chameleon with multiple personality disorder. He doesn't shrink from creating panels that demand scrutiny, nor from injecting sex, never gratuitously, into the spectacular proceedings. Ray Olson
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Since I love mysteries anyway, I rolled with it and thoroughly enjoyed this sumptuously illustrated epic. Each chapter is only a few pages long and ends with an excerpt from the chinese classic novel it’s inspired from (I’m reasonably certain that’s what’s happening).
Even though the main narrative is almost inscrutable to me, if I’m to be honest, the main reason I read any comic is because of the artwork, and this one is no slouch. I don’t know how much time Terada spent painting each and every panel, but this whole thing is one amazing piece of art. For that alone it deserves to be in my collection, but it has also done what no other graphic novel has: intrigued me enough to make me want to track down the original source material and read it. Perhaps that was the point all along?
This is a beautiful piece of work and deserves to be admired, possibly just as much as “Journey to the West”, one of the four classics of chinese literature it’s based on.
With that out of the way, I'd like to address all the good, and boy is there a lot. Firstly, the reinvention of the Journey to the West is brilliant. Yes, it's dark and savage, and possibly a bit sacrilegious to a Buddhist, but the starkness of the hero (if he can be called that) and his rampaging nature really adds a lot to the story. As Goku travels across the land with his charge and his pig companion, all you really get is a constant stream of battles with disgusting demons. Secondly, the book itself is simply beautiful, and rivals that of the manga art found in Robot. All of it is in color, all of it is atmospheric, and all of it is easily distinguishable. And thirdly, this isn't the only volume; more is coming out eventually, hopefully soon.
Though I will say that some will find this manga a little strange, that's completely understandable. The Journey to the West is a fantasy well-established in Asia and a lot of what happens in this manga is never explained. Most of us have only gotten pieces of the story Journey to the West through Dragon Ball Z and Saiyuki, both anime. But if you enjoyed these two anime, and you're of age to read the graphic material inside these panels, then I'd definitely recommend this manga to you. Not a perfect manga by any means, but certainly an artful one worth reading for its beauty alone.
The strength of this book is by far the high quality of the illustrations. The monsters are grotesque and the scantily clad women are beautiful. The rich use of colors really enhances the action in each scene.
This work has several weaknesses. First and foremost, there is very little dialogue. A few chapters are crammed full of dialogue balloons consisting of more than two sentences, while the majority only uses short, glottal single-word sentences or just sound effects like "bang" or "thud". Second, because there is so little dialogue, the chapters have to present a summary of what had just happened. The font, which appears to be a very stylized form of hand-written calligraphy, is very hard to read because it is so small. Although small, some of these summaries read ok when English words are involved. However, the font becomes cumbersome when transliterations of Japanese names are presented. For example, the Japanese name for the Nun "Sanzo" looks like "Swzo" because the loop on the "a" is so small that the more noticeable spine of the letter merges with the neighboring "n" to look like a strange "w". Often times, the letter "i" in these sections looks like a comma (,). Third, I found it hard to read because, despite the beautiful art, the pictures did not always flow the smoothest. I felt like there could have been a few more pages of illustrations added in to help compliment the lack of dialogue in spots. For example, the actual narrative is 11 chapters comprising 126 pages. I estimate that to be a little over 11 pages per chapter. That may sound adequate, but there are probably only 2 - 5 illustration boxes per page. So, the overall presentation is choppy at best.
Despite all of these negatives, I still recommend this book because I feel it captures the "atmosphere" of the original narrative. Past reviewers have commented this book is too dark. For instance, in their one star review on March 27, 2009, Webgrunt complained, "Monkey has [been] changed from a funny, mischievous demigod into a humorless, vicious, bloodthirsty demon." I greatly disagree with this view. The China of the original is a land inhabited by a menagerie of blood-sucking devils, flesh-eating monsters, and sex-craving fairies. Often times, the Tang Priest is kidnapped by monsters for the expressed purpose of eating his flesh to gain immortality. In order to combat these evils, the Monkey King has to be just as ruthless as they are in order to gain the upper hand. In fact, he is portrayed as a cold-blooded killer himself. He has no problem killing ANYTHING, be it celestial, devil, human, or animal. In other words, the world of the original is not all bunnies and butterflies.
There is no reason to describe the plot as the Editorial review already does this adequately, but I would like to point out some of the interesting changes made to Monkey's character. The biggest change I saw is that he is already born with his great strength, magic, and invincible immortality. He searches out an immortal who teaches him magic and the secrets of immortality in the original. However, Katsuya may elaborate on this later. He is born from an alien-like cocoon atop a stone pillar that reaches into outer space. This cocoon is being watched over by a strange race of half-naked bird women. When he emerges, he immediately eats one of his wards. The original has him emerge alone from a stone atop the earth-based Mountain of Flowers and Fruits. His magic cloud has been replaced with a "cloud horse" that looks like a Stingray. Instead of being crushed under a mountain by the Buddha, he is literally nailed to the side of a cliff. Lastly, his relationship with the bound and gagged Nun is very sexually charged. When given the chance, Monkey does not pass up the opportunity to molest the Nun. He is always faithful to the male Priest in the original.
Lastly, I would like to point out a few things. First, if you come to this novel without previous knowledge of the original, you will get lost. I guarantee it. Second, this is not for children. There is a lot of blood, guts, and bare breasts. Although no sex is openly presented, there are instances of woman being fondled against their will.