The Monkey King is a retelling of the epic Chinese folktale “The Journey to the West.” This classic tale tells how the monk Xuan Zang journeyed to the west to retrieve sacred Buddhist texts and brought them back to China. He was accompanied on his journey by Monkey King, Pigsy, and a dragon prince in the form of a horse. This 20 volume series, conceived of by JR Comics and written and adapted by Wei Dong Chen is an attempt to bring the story to a wider audience.
The main story does not begin until vol. 3. The first two volumes are background to introduce the reader to Monkey King (drawn as an extremely hairy man with a tail), explain where he came from (he was born out of a rock), and what his temperament is like (violent, self-indulgent, and impulsive). At the end of vol. 2, Monkey King has been imprisoned under a mountain, sentenced to stay there for 500 years. Vol. 3 picks up 500 years later, and introduces Xuan Zang, the Buddhist monk. The gods have assigned Monkey King to help Zang in the hopes that Zang can teach him humility and compassion. To help with this, The Goddess of Mercy has placed a mental band on Monkey King’s head. When the monk says a certain incantation, the band constricts painfully.
Chen has written the story so each volume tells a small piece of the story and gives Monkey King a fight or struggle to overcome. Each volume ends with a bit of a cliffhanger, setting up the next volume. Chen is trying to condense thousands of years of history and mythology in to this series. There are hints of history and religion and politics here, but it’s a little unclear what the full story is.
The art is serviceable. It is not ground breaking or innovative but does the job, with bright colors and a clarity of images that makes it easy to read. It reminded me of some of the more popular shonen manga like Dragonball Z or Naruto.
After reading three volumes, I still felt a bit confused. While each volume was fine, they seemed to lack plot. That is, because only a tiny piece of the plot is revealed in each volume, after only three volumes, not enough of the plot was revealed to see the big picture. Additionally, the dialog was often very stilted. It’s hard to tell if this is because of poor writing or poor translation. Still, for children used to endless rounds of video games where the point is simply to overcome a bad guy and move up to the next level, none of that will matter. Taken at face value, it is all quite fun.