The Saga of the Monkey King
Interpretations by Gene Yang (2006), Jet Li (2008), and Capcom (2000)
Sun Wukong. The Great Sage Equal to Heaven. The Monkey King.
Chances are, you’ve seen him before. He’s had several incarnations in popular culture – in movies, TV, anime, opera, literature, video games – the list goes on and on. Over the years he’s been studied, reinterpreted, and recast so many times in so many different ways that he may not always be recognizable. And now the Sun Bros are taking a crack at him.
But where did it all begin? Well, it all starts with one of the greatest Chinese stories ever told.
Journey to the West
18th Century Illustrated Edition of Journey to the West
Written in the 16th century during the Ming Dynasty, “Journey to the West” tells the mythical tale of Wu Cheng’en, a Buddhist monk on a pilgrimage from China to India to retrieve holy scriptures. Along the way, the monk encounters a series of unlikely adversaries, even converting a few to be his disciples. The entire text is 100 chapters of varying length, but is divided into four very unequal sections. Curiously, the first part is only 7 chapters long and follows only one character – a prideful, mischievous monkey born from a stone. This monkey, Sun Wukong, learns the secrets of kung fu, steals a bunch of powerful weapons, masters the art of transformation and other powerful magic, and eventually grows to be as formidable as any deity in heaven. However, his boorish behavior, utter self-absorption, and obsession with immortality prevents him from earning a place at the table among the gods … and besides, he’s only a monkey, right? Who does he think he is?
Monkey: Journey to the West (Chen Shi-zheng, 2013)
Unable to accept a place lower on the totem pole, Monkey presses forward to rise in the ranks. But through a series of faux pas, misunderstandings, and indignities, Monkey essentially wages war against the rest of the Chinese pantheon. It’s not until the Buddha himself intervenes that Monkey (now supported by an army of other monkeys on his mountain home) is trapped by his own hubris under a great mountain. And there he stays until Wu Cheng’en happens by. In “Journey to the West,” these adventures serve merely as the precursor to the longer narrative, but it’s the character introduced in these short prologue tales that has captured the imagination of so many artists and creators.
A Beloved Jerk Face
Traditional Chinese Opera Make-up portraying Sun Wukong
So why is he so popular? Monkey lacks plenty of virtue. He’s portrayed unromantically as an immature, drunken brawler who stumbles his way into heaven and wreaks havoc. He cheats and steals. He kills hundreds of people. He throws tantrums and acts like a jerk. He’s kind of an asshole. So why do we love him so much? Why do we, as readers, find ourselves on his side?
On the one hand, the fantastic nature of the story, the colorful and mythical world in which it takes place, and of course the epic kung fu battles are all pretty compelling. Who wouldn’t want to see a talking monkey with an invincible cudgel beat up a dragon and take his magic armor? Still, there has to be something more. There are lots of villains we love to hate who are just as appealing. And yet the Monkey King is not typically understood as a villain. He’s actually someone we want to cheer on. He’s someone we actually want to win. But why?
Dragon Ball Z (Akira Toriyama, 1988-1995)
It seems to me that Monkey’s true superpower is found not in his mythical kung fu but in his utter inability to know his own place. Sure, he has other cool tricks like plucking out his hair and making a dozen copies of himself, but I think what makes him so appealing is that he doesn’t even know when he doesn’t belong. In the strict hierarchical world of the Chinese deities, everyone is given a role, a title, and a place. There is a clear pecking order, and everyone falls in line to perform their responsibilities dutifully. But Monkey (who eventually takes for himself the title “Great Sage Equal to Heaven”) operates outside that hierarchy. The Monkey King lives independently of a system we’ve all experienced at one time or another as arbitrary, vacuous, or even oppressive. He does what he wants, takes what he wants, and doesn’t ever stop to wonder if he has the right to do any of it. Decorum means nothing to him. He is oblivious to social order. He laughs at the unwritten (and written) rules holding our lives together, and to us this makes him something of a champion – even, for some, a hero.
And now it’s our turn. Monkey Fist isn’t a scene-for-scene retelling of the Monkey King stories. It’s not “our version” of a Journey to the West. Instead, it’s inspired by the character of the Monkey King. Using imagery from the operatic makeup and drawing from elements of Sun Wukong’s personality, we’ve crafted our own protagonist – an unlikely hero who doesn’t know his place life, who feels justified in pursuing single-mindedly his own quest without regard for others, and who rages against the hierarchy of Fishy Burger, the popular fast food chain where he works. He wasn’t born of stone, but he does seem to be unmoved by life. He’s no Great Sage Equal to Heaven, but he’s definitely a brawler who won’t back down from a fight. And yeah, he can be a bit of a jerk, too.
Like the original folk hero, our Monkey will encounter more than a few enemies as he goes about his journey. And like his namesake, Monkey will have a few tricks up his sleeve. But unlike the original, this Monkey will not always have fantastic magic powers to help him. He will not have a steadfast army of his countrymen to support him. In some ways, I see the hero who emerges in Monkey Fist as more flawed, more tragic, and more human than his predecessor. His story is not only epic, but whimsical, dark, funny, and violent. And despite all the weirdos and monsters that come out of the woodwork, I think this Monkey will be strangely relatable.
In the weeks and months to come, we’ll be previewing more from Monkey Fist. I can’t wait to show you what we’ve been working on and where we take this character. Good luck, Monkey. You’re gonna need it.