When I was a kid, there weren’t any Japanese comics to be found—I think the first manga I ever saw was a 48 page pamphlet version of Keiji Nakazawa‘s Barefoot Gen called “I Saw It!” that was collecting dust in a quarter bin in some comic shop somewhere. There weren’t any comics from outside the U.S. period, except those found in the pages of Heavy Metal magazine. Chock full of sexy, muscular heroes and beasts, the stories in the magazine-sized European import stunned me with their raw power and lithe, sweeping energy. The magazine reprinted for an American audience some of the most exciting comics to come out of continental Europe from the previous decade or so, but to my eyes they might as well have come from another world, one where half-naked men and women wrestled monsters and spirits and each other for supremacy in strange, alien landscapes.
So imagine my surprise and confusion and excitement when I first beheld Katsuya Terada’s The Monkey King: this book is like the best, most lavish collection of comics from some lost, kick-ass, alternate world Heavy Metal comic, written and drawn by a mangaka unmoored from time and place, washed up on the shores of France in 1981. Only, yes, about the Monkey King.
What? You don’t know the Monkey King? Brief detour: There’s this Chinese legend about the Monkey King, Sun Wukong, who has the strength and fighting skills to defeat any and all of the 100,000 Chinese celestial warriors, a magical staff that can grow to any size, a magical cloud he rides as transport, and a big chip on his shoulder. His pride and arrogance led him to be trapped under a mountain for hundreds of years by the Buddha, until the Monkey King agreed to serve as bodyguard to the monk Xuanzang, who was on a mission to India to retrieve the Buddhist sutras. This last bit is the classic Chinese work Journey to the East. Anyways, this story has formed the basis for lots and lots of stories, including (in comics) Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel American Born Chinese, the anime Saiyuki, and even the character of Son Goku in Dragon Ball. Anyway, the legend is awesome, but also important to even know what’s going on (other than a giant badass monkey kicking butt against demons) in Terada’s The Monkey King. Otherwise, you’ll have no clue as to what the deal is with the pig companion and the bound and gagged nun who seems to be the only way to control the at-times nearly bezerk Monkey King.
This is certainly an eclectic book, unlike anything else I can think of on the manga shelf. It’s fully painted, with gorgeously detailed art. The story is fractured and episodic, moving in and out of the Monkey King legend in an almost surreal fashion. The rating should be heeded: there’s a number of over-the-top sex and violence moments. it’s listed as volume 1, but considering it was published four years ago, and originally published in Japan in ’95, I don’t know that there’s a follow up coming any time soon.
I’d also like to take a moment to point out the extra materials. Dark Horse has done a tremendous job with what must have been a very difficult work to recreate for English speaking audiences. They also didn’t skimp on the supplementary materials, with an afterword which breaks down the source material, an article about adapting the manga, and pages of panel notes.
Given all this, it’s hard to sum up this work, other than to say if you’re open to the broad fringes of powerful, fascinating, and eclectic manga, you should definitely check out Terada’s work.