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‘The Monkey King: The Complete Odyssey’ (review)

Written & Illustrated by: Chaiko Tsai
Published by Magnetic Press

 

One of my earliest favorite movies as a child growing up in the 1960s was a feature length animated film about an anthropomorphic monkey who has adventures in ancient foreign lands.

Everyone spoke English in the version I saw so I had no reason to believe it wasn’t an American-made cartoon.

The picture was called Alakazam the Great and starred the singing voice of Frankie Avalon.

It would be decades later before I finally realized that it was an early US-release of an Anime feature based on the Chinese legends of the Monkey King, or more specifically, the 16th century novel, Journey to the West.

I watched that movie on our black-and-white TV every time it ran, which in my memory seems surprisingly often.

I guess that’s why the story and scenes in the graphic novel, The Monkey King:The Complete Odyssey, seemed so familiar!

According to the Internet, Chinese artist Chaiko was born more than two decades after me so he likely was never exposed to Alakazam the Great. Chaiko does a terrific job of telling the Monkey King’s classic story, though, beautifully illustrated throughout in a manner combining traditional illustrative styles with a masterful use of the comics format.

The artwork is clearly a high point of the book, with faces being especially evocative, most of all on our wonderfully designed cheeky hero, Sun Wukong.

The monkey is an egotistical braggart with a narcissistic, somewhat violent nature…in the beginning. His growing transgressions achieve for him great notoriety and even popularity in some corners, but a step too far and he is humbled and forced to become an apprentice to a staid, devout monk on a quest to attain the sutras of inner peace.

And a quest it is!

The original quest, I guess! Or close, anyway. For a couple of hundred pages, the monkey king defeats monsters and demons and demi-gods, some of whom then join the monk’s merry little band, which then continues on its way.

All of this, while a little repetitive, is told with such ongoing verve and excitement that the whole book becomes quite the page turner. The group travels from one crisis to another, with supernatural forces acting both for them and against them at different times.

The Monkey King: The Complete Odyssey is a lovely, funny, and at times wrenching adventure, quite frankly a real trip, both for its protagonists and for its reader. The archetypal characters are all a bit familiar from later usage, but they started here.

At the end of the book, their quest continues, but you feel like you have learned something, too, and enjoyed the heck out of doing so.

Someone needs to show this book to Frankie Avalon.

Booksteve recommends.

 

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