When it comes to renowned texts within the Eastern literary canon, Journey to the West towers over its fellows, often being cited as one of the four great classical works of Chinese literature. There is something enduring about the story of Sun Wukong, a powerful monkey king turned Buddhist disciple that must use his immense strength, durability, and supernatural abilities to protect the monk Sanzang on his quest to obtain sacred texts, all the while facing many rigorous trials and demonic threats along the way.
For centuries, it has entertained and enlightened readers with its rich allegories, political commentary, and overall engaging, adventurous plot. It has also been the source of inspiration for countless plays, novels, movies, TV shows, comics, and manga, most notably Dragonball and Naruto. Here, as a visually captivating graphic novel, Chaiko’s The Monkey King: The Complete Odyssey revitalizes the classic tale for an audience that, while most likely familiar with the fruits of its influence, have yet to witness this perilous, strange, yet somewhat comical journey.
While Sanzang technically holds the status of main character in the original story, the refocusing of Wukong as the central character makes the most narrative sense. He displays more character development than anyone in the cast, going from a prideful, violent instigator aiming to topple the Heavens themselves to a loyal protector and disciple of Sanzang capable of showing mercy. His frequent moments of mischief and playfulness make him quite endearing to the reader, playing into a multifaceted nature that can be intimidating yet also charismatic. Wukong is a classic trickster character, similar to Loki and Hermes from Norse and Greek myth respectively, though he is more likely to fight his way out of a situation than through wit or cleverness.
No matter how one chooses to adapt Journey to the West, the main draw and appeal will be its memorable characters and how the creator interprets them for the audience. Along with the chaotic Wukong and devout Sanzang, the other figures that guard the monk during the long trek are the disciples Zhu Bajie, a greedy pig-like being, and Sha Wujing, a quiet, though obedient river ogre. With these varying and certainly clashing personality types, it makes for some standout character moments that give readers an insight into the inner dynamics of the group. At times, there appears to be a familial aspect to how the characters interact with each other: Sanzang as the authority figure,
Wukong the responsible eldest, Bajie the antagonistic foil to Wukong, and Wujing as the peacemaker. Wukong and Bajie’s arguments play off as sibling rivalry at times, making for some hilarious banter and a great deal of tension. It gives another layer to their interactions, as well as establishing another humanizing connection to the reader. In the process of bringing the story into a new medium, Chaiko keeps these relationships intact and maintains the characters as incredibly faithful interpretations, which helps to capture the spirit of the primary text.
What really sets this adaptation apart is Chaiko’s masterful artwork, especially when it comes to ambiance. The art style has a rougher, more traditional appearance, which perfectly puts the reader in the mood for a mythic epic. There is a recurring focus given to grand, natural elements such as cascading waterfalls, lofty mountains, and immersive open landscapes. Chaiko’s use of watercolors gives them a simple, yet elegant appearance, making each part of the journey visually distinct. Color is what ultimately enhances the storytelling, especially in terms of setting and tone. When in the earthly realm, the colors are fairly muted.
Rarely does the reader see anything brighter than the light blue of the sky, or orange of the setting sun. The hues are more reserved and modest, contrasting the bright pinks, purples, and golds that are constantly seen in the heavenly realm or in the presence of divinity. It gives the perfect sense of otherworldliness and reverence to the home of the immortals, inferring that a certain sort of beauty is only attainable when reaching a higher plane. In terms of tone, Chaiko utilizes color to instill certain emotions in a scene. During battles with foes, the panels turn ominous with dark greys and blues, highlighting the intensity and dynamic posing of characters, whereas lighter colors follow more emotional or light-hearted moments. As a result, each scenario gets its desired effect, whether that be raised tensions as a fierce face-off in a dark sky rages on, or a cold feeling of sorrow during a parting of ways in a bright and bare snowy forest.
As to its status as an adaptation, Chaiko does an admirable job of adapting and condensing 100 chapters worth of material into a graphic novel accessible to a modern, international audience. If I were to have one gripe, it would be that the marketing and synopsis describes it as being the complete story of Sun Wukong, When really it does not follow his journey with Sanzang, Bajie, and Sha to its conclusion. The story ends quite suddenly after a climactic moment, only hinting at the rest of the journey they still must undergo. It was somewhat frustrating not to be able to see them to their journey’s end, but it did not bring down the story as a whole.
Though cutting off a bit short, the graphic novel still holds all the intrigue, charm, and feel of the original that has been drawing people in for centuries. If anything, it leaves readers with the chance to discover more of the story themselves, whether that is through consulting with the text or seeking out another adaptation. For those wanting a more complete graphic novel version, I would recommend checking out Adventures from China: Monkey King by Wei Dong Chen, which takes a similar abridged approach in the span of twenty volumes.
The Monkey King: The Complete Odyssey will entertain readers partial to stories of mythic quests, legendary heroes, and beloved folk tales with a thrilling action element. Manga readers especially may be drawn to its art style, as well as through its ties to popular titles they may have already read. Due to its wonderful ability to balance drama, action, and humor with deeper themes and allegories, this title can be enjoyed by a wide age range, though publishers have given a specific recommended age of 13 and up. Librarians and educators looking for titles that may connect readers more easily to classical literature or see a high circulation of titles tied to myths and legends should consider purchasing this title.
The Monkey King: The Complete Odyssey
By Chaiko Tsai
Magnetic Press, 2023
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
Creator Representation: Chinese, ,
Character Representation: Chinese, Buddhist ,