Archive #36 – Sun Wukong and Battles of Magical Transformations

Last updated: 04-10-2022

One of the most famous episodes from Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592) happens in chapter six when heaven sends Erlang to confront Sun Wukong during his rebellion. After a prolonged, indecisive battle between the two immortals in their respective humanoid and cosmic giant forms, Monkey loses heart when his children are captured, causing him to flee. He tries to hide in the guise of a sparrow but is soon spotted by Erlang. This leads to an epic battle of magical transformations (video 1):

[…] Erlang at once discovered that the Great Sage had changed into a small sparrow perched on a tree. He changed out of his magic form and took off his pellet bow. With a shake of his body, he changed into a sparrow hawk with outstretched wings, ready to attack its prey. When the Great Sage saw this, he darted up with a flutter of his wings; changing himself into a cormorant, he headed straight for the open sky. When Erlang saw this, he quickly shook his feathers and changed into a huge ocean crane, which could penetrate the clouds to strike with its bill. The Great Sage therefore lowered his direction, changed into a small fish, and dove into a stream with a splash. Erlang rushed to the edge of the water but could see no trace of him. He thought to himself, “This simian must have gone into the water and changed himself into a fish, a shrimp, or the like. I’ll change again to catch him.” He duly changed into a fish hawk and skimmed downstream over the waves. After a while, the fish into which the Great Sage had changed was swimming along with the current. Suddenly he saw a bird that looked like a green kite though its feathers were not entirely green, like an egret though it had small feathers, and like an old crane though its feet were not red. “That must be the transformed Erlang waiting for me,” he thought to himself. He swiftly turned around and swam away after releasing a few bubbles. When Erlang saw this, he said, “The fish that released the bubbles looks like a carp though its tail is not red, like a perch though there are no patterns on its scales, like a snake fish though there are no stars on its head, like a bream though its gills have no bristles. Why does it move away the moment it sees me? It must be the transformed monkey himself!” He swooped toward the fish and snapped at it with his beak. The Great Sage shot out of the water and changed at once into a water snake; he swam toward shore and wriggled into the grass along the bank. When Erlang saw that he had snapped in vain and that a snake had darted away in the water with a splash, he knew that the Great Sage had changed again. Turning around quickly, he changed into a scarlet-topped gray crane, which extended its heel like sharp iron pincers to devour the snake. With a bounce, the snake changed again into a spotted bustard standing by itself rather stupidly amid the water pepper along the bank. When Erlang saw that the monkey had changed into such a vulgar creature-for the spotted bustard is the basest and most promiscuous of birds, mating indiscriminately with phoenixes, hawks, or crows-he refused to approach him. Changing back into his true form, he went and stretched his bow to the fullest. With one pellet he sent the bird hurtling […] (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 182-183).

Video 1 – A light-hearted, animated version of the battle between Erlang and Sun Wukong. From the 1960s classic Havoc in Heaven.

My friend Irwen Wong over at the Journey to the West Library blog has analyzed this fight, showing that Erlang’s changes are always a stronger response to the Monkey King’s transformations.

[…] 1.3. Round 3

Type: Transformation
Monkey turns himself into a sparrow and flees by flying away. Erlang notices this transformation and turns himself into a sparrow hawk to attack.
Result: Erlang wins.

1.4. Round 4

Type: Transformation
When Monkey now changes into a cormorant to be able to fly higher, out of Erlang’s hawk’s reach. Erlang was aware of this and transforms into an ocean crane to give chase.
Result: Erlang wins.

1.5. Round 5

Type: Transformation & intellect
Monkey was afraid of Erlang’s powerful transformations and turns himself into a small fish to hide in a stream. Erlang changes into a fish hawk and scans the stream for Monkey’s trace. He cleverly identifies the fish that was Monkey and attempts to catch it.
Result: Erlang wins.

1.6. Round 6

Type: Transformation
Monkey immediately darts out of the water when he sees Erlang and changes into a water snake. Erlang transforms into a grey crane to catch the water snake.
Result: Erlang wins.

1.7. Round 7

Type: Transformation & intellect
Monkey sees that Erlang had turned into a crane to chase him, so he wittily transformed into a spotted bustard to oppose Erlang’s crane.
Result: Monkey wins – Erlang as a crane did not dare approach the bustard.

1.8. Round 8

Type: Transformation & combat
When Monkey changed into a bustard, Erlang was afraid to approach it. Instead, Erlang reverted to his original form and took out his pellet bow. With the bow, he aimed at Monkey’s bustard and succeeded with a strong direct hit.
Result: Erlang wins.
[…]

This magical battle is actually related to an ancient mythic motif involving two warring supernatural beings.

I. Antecedents of the motif

Ioannis M. Konstantakos’ (2016) paper “The Magical Transformation Contest in the Ancient Storytelling Tradition” explains that the motif can be traced to the Near East of the late-3rd millennium BCE. However, the oldest variants instead depict the combatants transforming objects and not their physical bodies in battle. But the outcome is still the same: one competitor produces stronger responses to the other’s initial attack. For example, the Sumerian tale Enmerkar and Ensuhgirana (c. early-2nd millennium BCE) depicts the two titular characters engaged in a magical battle over the fate of their respective homelands. Konstantakos (2016) writes:

The competition of Sağburu and Urğirnuna consists precisely in the magical fabrication of various animals. Each one of the adversaries throws a certain object of witchcraft into the river and draws out a magically produced creature (or group of creatures). Every time, however, Sağburu’s creations are bigger, stronger, and wilder than those of Urğirnuna, which they seize and lacerate as a result. Specifically, the foreign sorcerer produces in sequence: 1) a big carp; 2) a ewe with its lamb; 3) a cow with its calf; 4) an ibex and a wild sheep; and 5) a young gazelle. The wise witch, on the other hand, counters these creations correspondingly with 1) an eagle; 2) a wolf; 3) a lion; 4) a mountain leopard; and 5) a tiger and another kind of lion. In this way, all of Urğirnuna’s creatures are eliminated, and Sağburu wins the contest (p. 210).

This finds parallels with ancient Egyptian stories and even an event from the book of Exodus (7.8-12) (Konstantakos, 2016, pp. 210-213).

The more familiar version of the motif, which sees competitors transforming their bodies, is found in ancient Greek drama. Konstantakos (2016) describes one such tale involving the lustful adventures of Zeus:

The Cypria offers the most expanded and detailed form of the saga. Zeus was amorously chasing [his daughter] Nemesis, but she was averse to his sexual intentions and ran away. In the course of her flight, Nemesis took the form of various beasts; she became a fish in the sea and swam through the Ocean’s stream; then she changed herself into many kinds of animals on the land, in order to escape. In the end, the goddess was transformed into a bird, the species of which is variously given in the ancient sources. … Zeus assimilated himself to the same species of bird, becoming respectively a gander in the former version and a male swan in the latter one. In this form, the great god finally managed to mate with the metamorphosed and bird-like Nemesis (pp. 213-214).

The body transforming motif came to influence later European stories, many involving a battle between a magician and his arrogant pupil (folklore index no. 325) (Konstantakos, 2016, p. 208).

The Greek version is very similar to the battle between Erlang and Sun Wukong, for both feature a character fleeing under different magical disguises while being chased by an assailant who undergoes stronger transformations in response. Given the link between Greek and Indian philosophy, I’d wager that there’s some ancient South Asian version of this motif that came to influence Journey to the West. I’m just happy that Monkey wasn’t handled like Nemesis in the final product. That would have been awkward for everyone!

II. Archive

Below, I archive Konstantakos (2016). The first half of the paper is fascinating, while the second is quite repetitive. It takes up a great deal of space analyzing a Near Eastern-influenced version of the motif in the Greek Alexander Romance. Please keep this in mind.

Archive link:

Click to access The_Magical_Transformation_Contest_in_t.pdf

Disclaimer:

This has been posted for educational purposes. No malicious copyright infringement is intended. If you liked the digital version, please support the official release.


Update: 04-10-22

I’ve mentioned in this article (section 3) that the Bull Demon King‘s story arc shares many similarities with Sun Wukong’s. He too has a battle of transformations, but instead of Erlang, his opponent is the Monkey King. Chapter 61 reads:

[…] Unable to enter the cave, the old Bull turned swiftly and saw Eight Rules and Pilgrim rushing toward him. He became so flustered that he abandoned his armor and his iron rod; with one shake of his body, he changed into a swan and flew into the air.

[…]

Putting away his golden-hooped rod, the Great Sage shook his body and changed into a Manchurian vulture, which spread its wings and darted up to a hole in the clouds. It then hurtled down and dropped onto the swan, seeking to seize its neck and peck at the eyes. Knowing also that this was a transformation of Pilgrim Sun, the Bull King hurriedly flapped his wings and changed himself into a yellow eagle to attack the vulture. At once Pilgrim changed himself into a black phoenix, the special foe of the yellow eagle. Recognizing him, the Bull King changed next into a white crane which, after a long cry, flew toward the south. Pilgrim stood still, and shaking his feathers, changed into a scarlet phoenix that uttered a resounding call. Since the phoenix was the ruler of all the birds and fowl, the white crane dared not touch him. Spreading wide his wings, he dived instead down the cliff and changed with one shake of the body into a musk deer, grazing rather timorously before the slope. Recognizing him, Pilgrim flew down also and changed into a hungry tiger which, with wagging tail and flying paws, went after the deer for food. Greatly flustered, the demon king then changed into a huge spotted leopard to attack the tiger. When Pilgrim saw him, he faced the wind and, with one shake of his head, changed into a golden-eyed Asian lion, with a voice like thunder and a head of bronze, which pounced on the huge leopard. Growing even more anxious, the Bull King changed into a large bear, which extended his paws to try to seize the lion. Rolling on the ground, Pilgrim at once turned himself into a scabby elephant, with a trunk like a python and tusks like bamboo shoots. Whipping up his trunk, he tried to catch hold of the bear (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, pp. 156-157).

This fight shows that Sun Wukong learned a lot from his encounter with Erlang, for his transformations are far more fierce in comparison.

Sources:

Konstantakos, I. (2016). The Magical Transformation Contest in the Ancient Storytelling Tradition. Estudios griegos e indoeuropeos, 26, 207-234. Retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/25983449/_The_Magical_Transformation_Contest_in_the_Ancient_Storytelling_Tradition_Cuadernos_de_Filolog%C3%ADa_Cl%C3%A1sica_Estudios_griegos_e_indoeuropeos_26_2016_207_234.

Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The Journey to the West (Vol. 1-4). Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

Archive #32 – The Precious Scroll of Erlang (Erlang baojuan) (1562)

The Precious Scroll of Erlang (Erlang Baojuan, 二郎寳卷; full name Qingyuan Miaodao Xiansheng Zhenjun Yiliao Zhenren huguo youmin zhongxiao Erlang Baojuan, 清源妙道顯聖真君一了真人護國佑民忠孝二郎開山寶卷), is an important baojuan from the 1560s that contains the heroic deeds of the immortal Erlang (二郎) (fig. 1), including his defeat of Sun Wukong (PDF page 46). This shows that the Monkey King was mentioned in a religious context 30 years before the standard Ming edition of Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592) was even published. Therefore, apart from recording the religious story of Erlang, it adds to that of Sun Wukong.

I must thank Dr. Benjamin Brose for sending me a PDF of the scroll. I’m excited to archive it on my blog for other scholars to access and read.

Fig. 1 – A relief carving of Erlang as Yang Jian (楊戩) from Investiture of the Gods (c. 1620) (larger version).

Scroll description:

In 1562 a text entitled Erlang baojuan (Precious scroll on Erlang) appeared, providing further information on the emerging Eternal Mother myth. Based on the story of Erlang’s valiant fight with the Monkey King, a famous and entertaining episode from the classic novel Journey to the West (which, incidentally, was given the finishing touches around the same time), the Erlang baojuan describes the final subjugation of the Monkey King by the semidivine Erlang, thanks in large measure to the assistance provided by the Eternal Mother. This text also seems to presage the legend surrounding the building of the Baoming Si, Temple Protecting the Ming dynasty, as described hereafter. In it the story of the bodhisattva Guanyin incarnating as a nun by the name of Lü is first being told. According to this text, the nun had tried unsuccessfully to dissuade Emperor Yingzong from fighting the Oirat Mongols prior to his debacle at Fort Tumu in 1449. When Yingzong was restored to the throne in 1457 after his long captivity, he rewarded the nun for her loyalty and courage and built a temple for her, naming it the Baoming Si. The temple had been reportedly in existence since 1462. By the late years of the Jiajing reign (1522–1567), however, it came under the sway of believers of the Eternal Mother religion (Shek & Tetsuro, 2004, p. 252).

Archive link:

Click to access unnamed-file.pdf

Source:

Shek, R., & Tetsuro, N. (2004). Eternal Mother Religion: It’s History and Ethics. In K Liu. & R. Shek. (Eds.). Heterodoxy in Late Imperial China (pp. 241-280). Hong Kong: University of Hawai’i Press.

Review of DC Comics’ Monkey Prince #0 to #5

Note: For the time being, I’m changing this from a review of issue #0 to a review of the whole series. Until anything of significance takes place in the story (no luck as of issue #5), I’ll confine my thoughts to this page.

Last updated: 06-11-2022

The DC Comics character the Monkey Prince (Ch: Xiao Houwang, 小猴王; a.k.a. “Marcus”), son of Sun Wukong (孫悟空), first appeared in the story “The Monkey Prince Hates Superheroes” from the DC Festival of Heroes: The Asian Superhero Celebration (2021) (Yang, 2021a). In anticipation of the character receiving his own 12-issue series in February 2022, DC released a free digital issue #0 (readable here) (fig. 1) (DC Publicity, 2021). I stated in my previous review of the Monkey Prince that I wasn’t going to evaluate issue #0 due to so many problems with the original, as well as unpromising errors in promotional material for upcoming issue #1. But I changed my mind because I want readers unfamiliar with Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592), the Chinese classic on which the comic is based, to have an informed opinion about the quality of the character design and writing through the lens of the original.

Issue #0 is written by Gene Luen Yang, colored by Sebastian Cheng, lettered by Janice Chiang, and edited by Jessica ChenBernard Chang provides art for the opening and closing pages, while Billy Tan draws the “flashback” scenes, or the majority of the issue (Yang, 2021b, p. 3). Readers of my previous review will remember that Editor Chen thought up the Monkey Prince but also worked with Mr. Yang and Mr. Chang to craft “the origin and the essence of [the character] together” (Aguilar, 2021). 

Those who like this subject might fancy learning about Sun Wukong’s children in 17th-century Chinese literature. See also my review of Marvel’s Sun Wukong.

Fig. 1 – The front cover of Monkey Prince #0 (larger version). From Yang, 2021b. Copyright DC Comics.

1. Story overview

Titled “Apokolips in the Heavenly Realm”, the story opens on the Monkey Prince fighting a nest of insect-like parademon soldiers at night in Philadelphia. When asked how he knew about the nest, Shifu Pigsy (a.k.a. Zhu Bajie, 豬八戒) reveals that he and Sun Wukong had fought their kind once before in the past. This took place centuries ago when Darkseid, a despotic New God, sent his army to conquer the heavenly realm. A flashback shows the Bull Demon King (Niu mowang, 牛魔王), his wife Princess Iron Fan (Tieshan gongzhu, 鐵扇公主; a.k.a. “Rākṣasi”, Luocha, 羅剎), their son Red Boy (Hong hai’er, 紅孩兒), the immortal Erlang (二郎), and the child god Nezha (哪吒) standing against a wave of invading vanguard warriors and a sea of parademons (fig. 2). In the initial clash, Princess Iron Fan uses her famous palm-leaf fan (bajiao shanzi, 芭蕉扇子) to attack Mad Harriet, and the Bull Demon King protects his wife by punching Kalibak. But Big Barda incapacitates Red Boy with a sneak attack from behind. Luckily, the Monkey King swoops in at the last moment to save him from a second, fatal blow. Pigsy thereafter takes Red Boy’s place and strikes at the warrioress with his battle rake.

At the height of battle, Sun and Erlang sense something traveling through time and space. This is revealed to be Darkseid himself when he arrives via boom tube. The evil god then exclaims:

“Hear me denizens of the Heavenly Realm! I am … the sovereign ruler of Apokolips! I’ve come to save you from your own incompetence! You are clearly outnumbered! If you value your lives, you will surrender immediately!” (Yang, 2021b, p. 6, panel #2).

The Bull Demon Family jointly attacks the despot with their magic weapons, but this proves futile against his invulnerable body. Meanwhile, Monkey and Pigsy find and destroy the parademon nest, thereby decimating the invaders’ numerical advantage.

Sun soon after returns to confront Darkseid, comically referring to him as “our most venerable though uninvited guest” (Yang, 2021b, p. 7, panel #3). When the New God claims to have never heard of the famous Monkey King, our hero reveals that he’s destroyed the nest. He goes on to flaunt his power by creating countless hair clones of himself, stating: “It is YOU who are clearly outnumbered” (Yang, 2021b, p. 8, panel #1). Darkseid admits defeat; though, he claims to have a future use for Sun Wukong but not the others. So he unleashes his omega beams and kills the Bull Demon King and Princess Iron Fan. Red Boy is left to mourn over the bodies of his parents.

The issue ends with the Monkey Prince and Shifu Pigsy discussing how the event likely drove Red Boy to a life of villainy (Yang, 2021b).

Fig. 2 – A splash page showing some of the Journey to the West characters fighting Darkseid’s army (larger version). From Yang, 2021b, p. 3. Copyright DC Comics.

2. The art

There’s a noticeable difference in quality throughout the comic. The “flashback” by Mr. Tan has a rough, sketchy style, while the “present day” sections by Mr. Chang, are crisp and dynamic. Mr. Cheng, the colorist, should be congratulated on his amazing work because he helps elevate the mediocre pencils comprising the majority of the comic.

2.1. Character design

The panels of issue #0 are often packed with kinetic figures, making it hard to see detailed, full body images of the characters. I’ve therefore chosen to base my analysis on the character sheets from Blum (2021). I won’t be including Erlang or Nezha in the analysis as their presence is not as out of place as the others.

A major flaw is that the Journey to the West characters are presented as they might have looked during the pilgrimage instead of at the end of the novel. This doesn’t make any sense as the story takes place centuries after the events of the journey. And of course Mr. Chang has taken some artistic license with the designs instead of using descriptions from the book. But, admittedly, some are quite beautiful, such as that for Princess Iron Fan.

The Bull Demon King is depicted as a brown, minotaur-like figure with blue and red armor and matching gauntlets and boots, green pants, and a black battle ax (Blum, 2021) (fig. 3). The problem is that: 1) In the novel, the monster wields his own “cast-iron rod” (huntie gun, 混鐵棍) and a pair of his wife’s treasure swords (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, pp. 137 and 147). I’m guessing Mr. Chang got the idea for a black ax from the 2014 Chinese film The Monkey King (fig. 4). Films are obviously not a good source to use when adapting a readily available novel; 2) his armor doesn’t match that described in chapter 60:

He had on a wrought-iron helmet, water polished and silver bright; / He wore a yellow gold cuirass lined with silk brocade; / His feet were shod in a pair of pointed-toe and powdered-sole buckskin boots; / His waist was tied with a lion king belt of triple-braided silk (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 137).

And 3) while the novel doesn’t note the color of his anthropomorphic form, the demon’s true form is said to be a “giant white bull” (da bai niu, 大白牛) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 157). This is why the faithful 2011 TV show depicts the Bull Demon King with white fur (fig. 5). 

Fig. 3 – The Bull Demon King’s character design (larger version). Image from Blum (2021). Copyright DC Comics. Fig. 4 – The Monkey King (2014) movie poster showing Aaron Kwok’s bull demon summoning energy from his black ax (larger version). Fig. 5 – A screenshot of the white Bull Demon King from the 2011 TV show (larger version). Image found here. Take note of his iron staff.

Princess Iron Fan is portrayed with jewelry and makeup, a layered coif, and an elegant, multi-colored dress (fig. 6). A mini version of her palm-leaf fan is shown tucked inside a white belt at her waist (Blum, 2021). The problem is that: 1) Her main weapons in the novel are a pair of “blue-bladed treasure swords” (qingfeng baojian, 青鋒寶劍); [1] 2) the fan is reduced to a small leaf and kept inside her mouth, and when full size, it is 12-feet long (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 145). This obviously differs from the small, handheld weapon shown in the comic (Yang, 2021b, p. 4, panel #1); and 3) most importantly, chapter 61 expressly states that Princess Iron Fan forsakes her lavish clothing to dress as a renunciate upon the defeat of her husband:

When Rākṣasi heard the call [of the Bull Demon King], she took off her jewels and her colored clothing. Tying up her hair like a Daoist priestess [daogu, 道姑] and putting on a plain colored robe like a Buddhist nun [biqiu, 比丘] [fig. 7], she took up with both hands the twelve-foot long palm-leaf fan to walk out of the door (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 161).

She thereafter follows a reclusive life of self-cultivation (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 163). So there is a huge contrast between her comic book design and how she looks at the end of her story arc.

Fig. 6 – Princess Iron Fan’s character design (larger version). Image from Blum (2021). Copyright DC Comics. Fig. 7 – A drawing of a Buddhist nun (larger version). Image found here. Just imagine Raksasi with her hair tied into a knot on top and perhaps wearing grey-blue robes.

Red Boy is portrayed as a muscular teenager with a red and black undercut hairstyle, a small, purple cape, a bare chest and shoulders with a red, armored stomacher and matching gauntlets and boots, and purplish-blue, baggy pants. Flaming jewels(?) adorn the armor on his stomach, forearms, and knees (fig. 8). He wields a golden, red-tassled spear with a partitioned blade (Blum, 2021). The problem is that: 1) Red Boy’s weapon is described in chapter 41 as an “eighteen-foot fire-tipped lance” (zhangba chang de huojian qiang, 丈八長的火尖槍) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 222); and 2) he’s depicted as a small child in the novel. He’s said to be huskier than Nezha, with a powder white face, deep red lips, and beautiful, black hair (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 222). In fact, his nickname is the “Great King Holy Infant” (Shengying dawang, 聖嬰大王) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 219). [2] And after his defeat at the hands of the Bodhisattva Guanyin (Guanyin pusa, 觀音菩薩), he becomes her disciple, taking the religious name “The Child Sudhana” (Shancai tongzi, 善財童子; lit: “Child of Goodly Wealth”) (Wu & Yu, vol. 2, p. 354). So he definitely shouldn’t look like a teenager; and 3) Guanyin subdues the fiery demon with gold circlets that squeeze his head, wrists, and ankles (fig. 9) (Wu & Yu, vol. 2, p. 251). This story is used to explain the presence of golden bracelets and anklets on modern religious statues of the deity (fig. 10). So a child-like appearance and golden bands are associated with Red Boy in both literature and religion, and yet we see these are totally absent from Mr. Chang’s design.

Fig. 8 – Red Boy’s character design (larger version). Image from Blum (2021). Copyright DC Comics. Fig. 9 – A modern drawing of the literary demon (larger version). Image found here. Take note of the rings on his wrists and ankles. Fig. 10 – A modern day religious statue of Sudhana (larger version). 

Lastly, Sun Wukong is depicted wearing a purple gold cap with lingzi (翎子) feathers, golden armor with a blue cape and gauntlets, a tiger skin kilt, and red pants with black boots (fig. 11) (Blum, 2021). He wields a golden staff with dragon finials spiraling down each tip like a corkscrew. The problem is that: 1) Chapter 3 describes the staff as a bar of black iron banded on each end with a golden ring (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 135); 2) while the armor design is similar to early depictions of the Monkey King (minus the blue cape and gauntlets and the tiger skin kilt), the novel implies that it was stripped from his body once he was captured by heaven. I quote from my previous article (see section 2.2.):

Contrary to popular belief, Sun does not wear the armor throughout the entire story. Though not openly stated, the novel suggests it is stripped from the monkey when he is captured by heavenly soldiers in chapter six: “They bound him with ropes and punctured his breast bone with a knife, so that he could transform no further” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 186). Obviously the knife wouldn’t have punctured the magic armor. And after heaven fails to harm his body during an attempted execution, one celestial reports:

Your Majesty, we don’t know where this Great Sage has acquired such power to protect his body. Your subjects slashed him with a scimitar and hewed him with an ax; we also struck him with thunder and burned him with fire. Not a single one of his hairs was destroyed. What shall we do? (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 186). (emphasis mine)

Prior to his turn in Laozi’s eight trigrams furnace in chapter seven, the story again references the knife in Monkey’s breastbone, suggesting he is still naked: “Arriving at the Tushita Palace, Laozi loosened the ropes on the Great Sage, pulled out the weapon from his breastbone, and pushed him into the [brazier]” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 189). One late-Ming woodblock print actually portrays him naked upon his escape from the furnace (fig. 16). Most importantly, after being released from his 600 plus-year-long imprisonment under Five Elements Mountain, Monkey is expressly described as being “stark naked” (chi tiao tiao, 赤條條) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 309).

Monkey escaping from Laozi's 8 trigrams furnace - from Mr. Li Zhuowu's Literary Criticism of Xiyouji, later 16th-early 17th-c. - small


Fig. 16 – Wukong in his birthday suit escaping from Laozi’s eight trigrams furnace (larger version). From Mr. Li’s Criticism (late-16th to early-17th-c.).

This means he wouldn’t have worn the armor during the entirety of the journey (ch. 14 to 100); and 3) most importantly, the Monkey King is elevated in spiritual rank at the journey’s end, becoming the Buddha Victorious in Strife (Dou zhansheng fo, 鬥戰勝佛; a.k.a. the “Victorious Fighting Buddha”) (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 381). Religious depictions of this historical deity portray him wearing the traditional robes of a Buddhist monk and holding a symbolic sword and suit of armor in his hands (fig. 12). So Sun Wukong should be portrayed as a Buddha and not an armored warrior (fig. 13). 

Fig. 11 – Sun Wukong’s character design (larger version). Image from Blum (2021). Copyright DC Comics. Fig. 12 – The Buddha Victorious in Strife holding a sword and suit of armor (larger version). Image found here. Fig. 13 – A modern drawing of Monkey as a Buddha by Tianwaitang on deviantart (larger version).

Someone might ask: “Who cares what the characters look like?” Well, the creative team had two choices when they elected to adapt Journey to the West. One, they could have done so in broad strokes and laid the foundation for a fresh, new take that departs greatly from the original. An example of this is the South Korean drama Hwayugi (2017-2018), where the characters are gods disguised as humans living in modern Seoul. Or two, they could be faithful to the novel. The team sort of chose the latter as they created a main character that’s a carbon copy of the Monkey King (complete with the same strengths and weaknesses), designed secondary characters how they might have looked in the original, and Mr. Yang even references specific events from the novel in the comic story (see below). So if they’re going to adhere this much to the literary source, they should have at the very least followed the descriptions provided therein. As the old saying goes: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. It would be like me adapting Harry Potter despite never having read the books (I’m looking at you Mr. Chang). [3] My designs would no doubt be so wildly different from the original that the characters would be nearly unrecognizable.

3. The writing

Let me begin by saying that I actually like the idea of Darkseid taking a boom tube to the heavenly realm. It’s a smart way of bridging the dimensional gap between modern comics and traditional Chinese literature. But that’s where my favorable comments end for the most part.

Mr. Yang makes some strange choices in the story. For example, making Zhu Bajie and the Bull Demon Family part of the heavenly army’s main force is odd because it overlooks the 72 commanders and 100,000 stellar soldiers from the original. [4] With the exception of Nezha, they are nowhere to be found in the comic, making it look like Sun Wukong, Erlang, Zhu, the Bull Demon King, Princess Iron Fan, and Red Boy are the sole defenders of heaven fighting to hold back the tide of Darkseid’s invasion (maybe this will be explained in a future issue).

Zhu Bajie would not have been involved at all because he was made the “Janitor of the Altars” (Jintan shizhe, 淨壇使者) at the end of the journey. This position allows him to constantly eat any leftover offerings on Buddhist altars (tan, 壇) from all over the world (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 382). So Zhu would have been too busy selfishly stuffing his stomach to his heart’s content.

Apart from being strange that earth-dwelling villains like the Bull Demon King and Princess Iron Fan would defend the heavenly realm, their inclusion in the story does not mesh with the way their respective arcs end in Journey to the West. As noted above, the monster king’s true form is a giant white bull. His story ends when he is trapped in this form and taken under guard by Devraja Li Jing (李靖天王) and Nezha to see the Buddha (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, pp. 161 and 162). The details of his arc are quite similar to that of Sun Wukong: he’s an iron staff-wielding demon king nicknamed the “Great Sage”, who knows 72 changes, can adopt a titanic form, takes part in a battle of transformations with an enemy, is trapped by a joint effort from heaven and incapacitated by a circular object, and finally faces the Buddha. [5] So it’s not a stretch to suggest the Bull Demon King is also punished in a similar manner. I show in this article (see section 1) that being trapped under the pressing weight of a mountain is a reoccurring sentence for supernatural offenders in Chinese literature. And don’t forget about Monkey’s secondary punishment, a hellish diet of hot iron balls and molten copper. Therefore, the monster king would likely still be imprisoned by the time Darkseid invades heaven.

Before continuing, I should note that Mr. Yang is well aware of the Bull Demon King’s fate, for he references his literary defeat in the comic. During the flashback, the monster asks Sun Wukong: “Would a blood brother have betrayed me to a cosmic net of Buddha’s warrior guardians, Monkey?” (Yang, 2021b, p. 5, panel #3). So this makes the demon’s inclusion in the heavenly army twice as puzzling as he’s still bitter about his defeat.

Princess Iron Fan’s story ends when she “[goes] off somewhere to practice self-cultivation as a recluse” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 163). The novel continues: “In the end she, too, attained the right fruit [zhenguo, 正果] and a lasting reputation in the sutras” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 163). This might imply that she compounds Buddhist merit by performing good deeds or perhaps even religious miracles, becoming a sort of Buddhist saint in her own right. So I imagine she too would be unavailable to fight against the sudden invasion of Darkseid’s army.

On the contrary, Red Boy’s inclusion makes more sense because, as Guanyin’s disciple, she might send Sudhana to “test the waters” (so to speak) to see whether or not a given threat merits the intervention of a higher power. She does this, for example, in chapter six when she sends Muzha (木吒) to help fight Sun Wukong during his rebellion (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 175). But just like his senior religious brother, Sudhana surely wouldn’t be able to stand against the threat alone. He would have to work with the aforementioned heavenly commanders and stellar soldiers.

This brings me to Sun Wukong. The story does make a passing reference to his elevation in spiritual rank. When Darkseid fails to recognize Monkey’s name, our hero states: “Enlightenment sure does a number on fame” (Yang, 2021b, p. 7, panel #5). But that’s it. Sun is not presented as a Buddha, just his regular, pre-enlightened self swinging a staff and resorting to the same old tricks. The narrative could’ve been taken to a new level by featuring the Buddha Victorious in Strife.

The thing that bothers me the most about the comic is the anticlimactic confrontation between Sun and Darkseid. Neither takes any overt action against the other. In my opinion, Darkseid, who has never met the Monkey King, gives up way too easily (fig. 14). You’d think there would at least be a brief exchange of fists so they can gauge each other’s strength. And once the invader realizes he’s dealing with a powerhouse, seeing Sun then multiply himself many times over would make him think twice about sticking around. But this only dresses up the story at hand. See below for my suggested changes.

Fig. 14 – Darkseid gives up the invasion upon seeing Monkey duplicate himself (larger version). From Yang, 2021b, p. 8. Copyright DC Comics.

4. My rating

Overall, I would give issue #0 2.5 out of 5 stars. It is marred by mediocre pencils, designs that don’t match the characters’ description from Journey to the West, and a story that doesn’t agree with how the respective characters’ arcs end in the original. I gave extra points for the beautiful coloring of Mr. Cheng, though.

Now, I have to ask the question: Why would the creative team (haphazardly) cram so many recognizable Journey to the West characters into canon? The first answer is clear: DC is likely after that sweet, sweet money from the Asian market. Sure, sales stateside might get a small boost from Asian Americans, but the target demographic is likely the millions of mainland and diasporic Chinese comics readers. The second answer is that the death of the Bull Demon King and Princess Iron Fan under Darkseid’s omega beams likely sets up Red Boy’s spiral into villainy and a later battle between him and the Monkey Prince. [6] That’s right ladies and gentlemen, we have ourselves some throwaway characters! It honestly would have been better (and more respectful to the original) if the husband and wife had never appeared in the comic.

5. What I would change

(My sugestions for issue #0 build off of the changes I made in the original review (section 5). Read it first to better understand my choices here.)

I would do away with the Bull Demon King, Princess Iron Fan, and Zhu Bajie. Instead, the original heavenly army would meet the brunt of Darkseid’s forces upon their arrival. Playing off of the comic story, and acknowledging my own changes, Guanyin would send her disciples Muzha and Sudhana to take part in the battle. And taking more inspiration from the comic story, I would also have Erlang arrive but instead go toe-to-toe with Darkseid. The “Small Sage” (Xiaosheng, 小聖) is after all the only god to truly defeat the Monkey King, so he would be a worthy opponent. But lets say the invader somehow gets the upper hand, and so I would pay homage to the original novel by having the Jade Emperor call on Gautama Buddha to intervene. But he instead sends the Buddha Victorious in Strife, who obviously has experience with causing havoc in heaven. The Monkey Buddha shows off his power by easily nullifying the attacks of Darkseid’s army and even negating the omega beams by turning them into a shower of flowers, reminiscent of ancient biographies of Gautama Buddha:

The host of Mara hastening, as arranged, each one exerting his utmost force, taking each other’s place in turns, threatening every moment to destroy [the Buddha, but] … Their flying spears, lances, and javelins, stuck fast in space, refusing to descend; the angry thunderdrops and mighty hail, with these, were changed into five-colour’d lotus flowers…” (Beal, 1883, pp. 152 and 153).

I could borrow still more from the novel and have the Buddha Victorious in Strife make Darkseid a wager, recalling Gautama Buddha’s bet with Sun Wukong involving his cloud somersault. But instead of betting that he can’t leap from his palm, the Monkey Buddha makes a wager involving the boom tube.

This is where I run into trouble, though. I don’t know enough about the cosmic hierarchy of the DC universe to go past this point. I say this because Darkseid is considered a “conceptual being” that lives outside of time and is capable of creating avatars of himself (Darkseid (New Earth), n.d.). I’m not sure how this stacks up against DC’s concept of an enlightened being. But from a Buddhist cosmological perspective, I believe the Buddha would be more powerful because he has achieved “nirvāṇa” (Ch: niepan, 涅槃) and broken free of the wheel of rebirth (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, pp. 589-590). However, the New God, even as a deva capable of creating avatars, would still be subject to the “Desire realm” (Sk: kāmadhātu; Ch: yujie, 欲界) of Saṃsāra (Ch: lunhui, 輪迴; shengsi lunhui, 生死輪迴) (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, pp. 230-233 and 411). Therefore, I imagine the Buddha Victorious in Strife plays a trick on Darkseid and is able to trap or even destroy his avatar. As mentioned above, this would make the real villain (in his home dimension) think twice before tangling with Monkey again. 

I’m now obligated to insert my concept of the Monkey Prince into the story. Since he’s born during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE), he would be alive during the attack on heaven. But as a young, inexperienced disciple, he wouldn’t take part in the battle, just hear news of it from Guanyin during the event and stories of what happened from his half-brother Sudhana after the fact. This way, the Monkey Prince would remember the invasion and yearn to do his part when Darkseid reappears in the present.

Lastly, I feel it’s necessary to give the character a name. The comic calls him the “Monkey Prince” in his hero form and “Marcus” in his human form. I think Sun Taizi (孫太子), or “Prince Sun”, is a great name as it plays off of San Taizi (三太子), the “Third Prince” (fig. 15), one of Nezha’s titles in Chinese folk religion. (Fun fact: This deity serves as a heavenly vanguard in Sun Wukong’s own religion.) Borrowing from existing religious beliefs sparks the titillating idea that Sun Taizi’s heroic deeds would earn him devotees. Beyond his own continuing spiritual cultivation, he would grow in strength as more and more believers pray to and leave him offerings! This wouldn’t be the first time a monkey god is worshiped in America.

Fig. 15 – A religious statue of San Taizi, the “Third Prince”, from the Nine Dragons Prince Temple (Jiulong taizi gong, 九龍太子宮) in Tainan, Taiwan (larger version). Photo taken by the author. 


Update: 12-24-21

I noted in my original review that promotional material for upcoming issue #1 shows Marcus living in Gotham City prior to the events in Philadelphia. The story is said to include Batman, and a sneak peek shows the Caped Crusader accosting Marcus’ criminal foster parents (fig. 16). I predict that future suggested changes to issue #1 and beyond are going to become harder and harder as the comic story is fleshed out. My original changes portray the character as a young demigod who grows up in Guanyin’s earthly paradise and only later becomes acquainted with modern superheroes through happenstance. So I will have to bypass all of these flashbacks and only suggest changes to the broader story.  

Fig. 16 – The Batman panel from issue #1 (larger version). Copyright DC Comics.


Update: 01-26-22

In the above post, I noted that I didn’t know enough about the comic book hierarchy to say whether or not DC’s version of a Buddha would be strong enough to defeat Darkseid. But I subsequently argued in favor of this outcome based on Buddhist cosmology (i.e. the New God is still subject to Samsara and the wheel of rebirth, while a buddha is free). 

I recently read more about said comics hierarchy. The informative answers from this Quora question show that beings like Mr. Mxyzptlk are more powerful than Darkseid because they reside in higher plains of existence. The New God is 4th-dimensional, while the imp is 5th-dimensional. This means beings who reside beyond existence, like a Buddha, would hold infinitely more sway over reality. 

Thanks to a friend’s facebook post, I learned the story for the upcoming Monkey Prince #3 (available 04-05-22). Blum (2022) provides an analysis, as well as a copy of the promotional blurb, which reads: 

The bat’s out of the bag as Monkey Prince and Pigsy both realize what all the demon spirits around the world are after—eating specific superheroes in order to gain their powers! And this penguin demon has his eyes on…Batman! Uh-oh, Monkey Prince, it’s bad enough you have to keep hiding your tail when you’re Marcus, and how your circlet keeps returning latched onto your body as something else every time you try to get rid of it—but now cannibalism is also on the menu? YEOW! (see here)

While I like that there will be an ongoing reference to Tripitaka’s immortality-bestowing flesh (as noted in the original review), a penguin demon just sounds…well…really bad. There’s not one single menacing thing that comes to mind when I think of a penguin. At least the deer demon was big and had antlers. I’m wondering if this creature has any connection to the Batman villain


Update: 02-02-22

Monkey Prince #1 (fig. 17) was released on 03-01-22, and just as I predicted, there’s nothing to build off of regarding suggested changes.

The story takes place in Gotham City, home of the Batman. Marcus is traumatized as a young child when the Dark Knight beats up his adoptive father looking for information about the pair’s criminal activity. This event leads to Marcus developing a phobia around just about everything, including bats, black curtains, water, etc. After briefly living elsewhere, a now teenaged Marcus returns to attend high school in the city. But he’s singled out by bullies for his apparent weakness. Apart from his parents, his only positive role model is a husky, Chinese janitor name Mr. Zhu (i.e. Shifu Pigsy in disguise). Zhu encourages the boy to overcome his fear of water by jumping into a pool. Marcus refuses at first, but after miraculously sprouting a monkey tail in class and subsequently getting beaten up and his shoes stolen by bullies, he takes the plunge. He finds himself magically transported to the “Water Curtain Cave”, [7] home of the Monkey King. He even catches a brief glimpse of his father. Most importantly, he’s transformed into the Monkey Prince, only to reemerge into the present and use his new found powers to beat up his bullies. Damian Wayne, Batman’s son and sidekick, alerts his father to the disturbance. The issue ends when the Dark Knight misjudges his throw and accidentally beheads the Monkey Prince with a batarang. No joke!

Some new information comes to light:

  1. Marcus’ adopted parents are named Laura and Winston Shugel-Shen.
  2. Both are PhD tech scientists who have worked for the Riddler, Intergang, and Captain Cold.

Their new boss, the Penguin, has procured their services to use a large ray to possess an accountant with an ancient Chinese demon. The ray shatters a metal hu-gourd, revealing the Great King Golden Horn (Jinjiao dawang, 金角大王) demon from chapters 33 to 35 of the original. The experiment seemingly fails, causing the Penguin to shoot the victim in a rage. However, the aforementioned promotional material for issue #3 describes a “penguin demon” that wants to eat superheroes to gain their powers. This suggests the demon actually takes hold of the Penguin (Yang, 2022a).

Lastly, the ongoing criminal career of Marcus’ adoptive parents really bothers me. Everyone, even celestials, appears to be oblivious to their illegal activities. Shifu Pigsy either doesn’t know or doesn’t care. Either way, it’s shitty writing. Also, in the beginning, when Batman discovers Marcus watching him accost his father, the Dark Knight simply leaves. He doesn’t attempt to arrest the parents or take the child into protective custody. Again, shitty writing. Ugh.

Fig. 17 – The front cover of issue #1 (larger version). Copyright DC Comics.


Update: 03-13-22

Issue #2 (fig. 18) was released on 03-01-22, and it’s the same bad writing. Batman, Robin, and Shifu Pigsy play a game of hot potato with the Monkey Prince’s head, while the latter nearly dies of asphyxiation before escaping. Marcus subsequently denounces Pigsy and throws away the golden headband, only for it to return with the quaint ability to move about his body. Meanwhile, as predicted, the golden horn demon takes over Penguin’s body, and this monstrous hybrid soon goes about draining the qi energy from countless victims. A shadowy figure with two demon attendants then convinces Penguin to go after the life force of superheroes, thus leading into the aforementioned events of issue #3 (Yang, 2022b).

Above, I suggested Darkseid is still subject to the wheel of reincarnation despite being long-lived. As an inhabitant of the Desire Realm, he too will eventually die. I just came across a fitting line from Buddhist scripture, something that the Monkey Buddha could say to the New God as a warning: “Despite your millions of kalpas of life / It comes to emptiness and annihilation in the end” (Zhang, 1977, as cited in Shao, 1997, p. 110).

Also, this Quora answer features another powerful character, one who lives outside the multiverse, capable of easily defeating even true form Darkseid. 

Fig. 18 – The front cover of issue #2 (larger version). Copyright DC Comics.


Update: 04-06-22

Issue #3 (fig. 19) was released on 04-05-22, and I have to say it was extremely bland. Nothing of substance happened at all. It honestly just feels like stuffing to pad out the series. The length of the comic sort of proves this point. Only 24 of the total 31 pages of the digital version comprise the story. The rest is a teaser for a new Batman storyline (Yang, 2022c).

The issue opens on Shifu Pigsy reciting the band-tightening spell as he and the Monkey Prince soar through the clouds. This teaches the young hero that he needs to concentrate in times of stress, or he’ll lose mental control over his cloud-somersault and fall to his death. At the same time, Marcus attempts to snatch a red envelope from his teacher’s hand. This is subsequently revealed to be a magically disguised gift, a vigilante-type superhero mask to hide his true identity.

The Monkey Prince is later hailed by a young girl (one who unknowingly witnessed his first transformation in issue #1) and tasked with finding her brother: Marcus’ bully. He finds him strung upside down in a stadium and being interrogated by Robin, Batman’s son and sidekick. After a brief fight in which the hero’s forearm is accidentally separated at the elbow, the Monkey Prince successfully returns his former bully to the sister. She kisses him as a reward.

Meanwhile, Shifu Pigsy locates and kills the two demons who were present when the shadowy figure suggested (in issue #2) that the demon-possessed Penguin should drain the life energy of superheroes. This drives the Penguin to kidnap the Shugel-Shens and hold them hostage, noting in a broadcasted message to the Caped Crusader that he’ll eat them if Batman doesn’t meet with him. The issue ends with a shocked Marcus learning of his adoptive parents’ predicament (Yang, 2022c).  

One thing of interest is that Shifu Pigsy hints Marcus has brothers: “Do you know how difficult it was to locate just one of the Monkey King’s sons? Sure, there are others but…” (Yang, 2022c, p. 8, panel #3). I’ll be interested to see if they ever explain why Sun Wukong knocked up random human women and then left them to solely raise or adopt-out the child. It honestly doesn’t reflect positively on the Monkey King.

Also, I’m still not sold on the Penguin being a demon. Mr. Yang could have gone with other rogues. Killer Croc, for example, is known to eat people. Even the Joker seems like a better choice. A demon-possessed psychopath is far more scary than a penguin.

Another thing that bothers me is the description of the demon itself. Shifu Pigsy claims: “Among your [Marcus’] father’s deadliest enemies was the Golden Horn King. He and his brother Silver Horn King wreaked such havoc across China!” (Yang, 2022c, p. 23, panel #2). But this isn’t the case in the original novel. While they were difficult to handle, Laozi explains: “These youths were requested by the Bodhisattva from the sea three times; they were to be sent here and transformed into demons, to test all of you and see whether master and disciples are sincere in going to the West” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 145). This means that they were never actual demons, and they certainly weren’t among the deadliest, nor did they wreak havoc across China. This is yet another example showing that the creative team doesn’t actually care about the novel.  

Fig. 19 – The front cover of issue #3 (larger version). Copyright DC Comics.


Update: 05-03-22

Issue #4 (fig. 20) was released on 05-03-22, and it’s more of the same fluff. The story opens on the Monkey Prince transforming his cloud into an R-shaped signal (a play on the Bat-Signal) to get Robin’s attention. And when the Boy Wonder arrives, they agree to a brief partnership to find the Shugel-Shens in exchange for the simian hero later answering pertinent questions. Robin then deduces that the hostages are being held in an old auction house where Batman first fought the Penguin.

After briefly bonding over the strictness of their respective masters, the young heroes travel to the auction house, where they are ambushed by the Penguin demon. He attempts to crush them with a large, metal vault door but misses. Batman subsequently appears and retaliates with bat-shaped knuckledusters. But the sight of the Caped Crusader (who cut off the Monkey Prince’s head in issue #1) causes Marcus to lose focus, making him fall through his cloud and explode into several pieces upon hitting the ground. It’s only with the reassuring words of Pigsy that he’s able to collect everything back together. Meanwhile, Batman and Robin work as a team to take down the Penguin, much to Shifu Pigy’s delight. 

The Monkey Prince attempts to untie his adoptive parents, but Batman stops him, revealing that all past victims were found to have worked for the Penguin, suggesting that the Shugel-Shens are fellow hench people. Marcus has little time to process this unsettling information before low-ranking spirits appear to assist the fallen demon. They overwhelm Batman, allowing the Penguin to start absorbing his powerful, heroic qi energy. The Monkey Prince takes this opportunity to free his parents, but he’s called back into battle by Shifu Pigsy before having a chance to fly them to safety. Torn between helping Batman or his parents, Marcus asks Robin to throw a batarang at his midsection, cutting him in half. His torso then helps the Caped Crusader by tackling the Penguin, while his legs release the Shugel-Shens on the street outside.

Upon rejoining both halves, the Monkey Prince takes a can of magic soda previously given to him by Pigsy and throws it at the demon. This somehow disrupts the monster’s hold on the Penguin, allowing Robin to separate the two with a well-placed staff strike. Batman and his ward thereafter question and attempt to apprehend Marcus and Shifu Pigsy, but the latter tricks them into chasing decoys, while the two hide using a magic disguise. Meanwhile, the spirits help the weakened Golden Horn demon escape. They worry that their master will punish them for failing, but one of them states it was a partial success as the monster was able to absorb enough qi to remain in solid form. They’re last seen taking a boom tube back to the “Flame Planet”. The issue closes with Marcus’ bully apologizing to him at the behest of his sister, the young woman who kissed the Monkey Prince at the end of the last issue (Yang, 2022d).

Beyond the lovely art and coloring by Mr. Chang and Chris Sotomayor, respectively, there’s nothing positive that I can say about this issue. The author, Mr. Yang, continues to make odd choices. His characterization of Batman throughout the series has completely missed the mark. The Cape Crusader is overly dramatic and extremely dense. For example, the Monkey Prince tricks him into looking down at his crotch by saying, “You left the house with your fly down!” (Yang, 2022d, p. 18, panel #2). I remind the reader that Batman’s design includes the classic dark gray trunks over light gray pants. So why would he even look down? Ugh.  

The Monkey King’s whereabouts are finally revealed, but the location makes no sense. When the low-ranking spirits first see the “magic monkey” (Marcus), one exclaims: “Impossible! He was lossst [sic] in the Phantom Zone!” (Yang, 2022d, p. 18, panel #4). The Phantom Zone is a timeless pocket dimension that serves as a penal colony for the worst villains in the universe. But it’s not impossible to escape from, for even Superman has done this. So how can a Buddha, a being beyond reality, be trapped in this cosmic Alcatraz? I’m assuming Sun Wukong’s exile there was the work of Darkseid. I guess we’ll find out in later issues how he accomplished this feat.

And lastly, Marcus is shown capable of easily transporting people, Robin and later his parents, on his cloud (Yang, 2022d, p. 6, panel #3, for example; p. 14, panel #4, for example). But Journey to the West is clear that this is not feasible, for Zhu Bajie states: “The mortal nature and worldly bones of Master [Tripitaka] are as heavy as the Tai Mountain…How could my cloud soaring bear him up? It has to be your cloud somersault” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 427). Sun Wukong counters:

If you can’t carry him, what makes you think I can? There’s an old proverb that says:

Move Mount Tai: it’s light as mustard seeds.
Lift a man and you won’t leave the red dust! (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 427).

I show in this article that Mt. Tai is considered the heaviest thing in Chinese culture. Therefore, Monkey and Zhu Bajie are arguing that it’s impossible to lift mortals on celestial clouds.

Fig. 20 – The front cover of issue #4 (larger version). Copyright DC Comics.


Update: 06-11-22

Issue #5 (fig. 21) was released on 06-07-22, and it’s even more bland than issue #3. After leaving Gotham, Marcus and his family move to the seaside town of Amnesty Bay, the childhood home of Aquaman. There, the Shugel-Shens meet with their new boss, Black Manta, who reveals his revised plan to awaken a demon within a silver hu-gourd (i.e. Great King Silver Horn (Yinjiao dawang, 銀角大王)). The scientist couple are hesitant to agree to the new arrangement given that they almost died at the hands of his brother, Great King Golden Horn, but they acquiesce after deciding to transfer his spirit into a seemingly harmless hermit crab (I predict a giant monster similar to Tamatoa).

Meanwhile, Marcus meets a pink-haired, black leather-clad goth girl at the new high school. She shows an unusual interest in him, evening calling him out on the street after school. But once she rips away his shirt, revealing the golden band on his body, she morphs into a long-toothed monster and tackles Marcus into the ocean. This triggers his aquaphobia (see issue #1). After Shifu Pigsy arrives and pulls him to safety, the Monkey Prince drives her back into the water with a timely delivered staff (bestowed by his master) but refuses to further engage the villainess in the aquatic environment. She is subsequently revealed to be Shellestriah, the half-human daughter of the Atlantean villain Trench King. The issue ends with Trench King alluding to the immortality-bestowing abilities of superhero flesh (Yang, 2022e). That’s it. Nothing new is added to further the Darkseid/Monkey King storyline from issue #0. This entire issue was just boring fluff.

Though, I will say that I enjoyed the opening page, which depicts the historical Monkey King at various stages in his character arc, from his rebellion and punishment beneath Five Elements Mountain to the journey proper and his elevation to Buddhahood at the end of the story (fig. 22) (Yang, 2022e, p. 3). But, again, Mr. Chang has wrongly portrayed Sun Wukong as an armored warrior instead of a robed Buddha.

Fig. 21 – The front cover of issue #5 (larger version). Fig. 22 – The opening page showing the Monkey King’s story arc (larger version). Copyright DC Comics.

Notes:

1) The novel doesn’t name the swords upon their first appearance (Wu & Yu, vol. 3, p. 124). They are named slightly later when the Bull Demon King wields them (Wu & Yu, vol. 3, p. 147).

2) Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) translates this as “Great King Holy Child” (vol. 2, p. 219). 

3) Mr. Chang admits that he only heard a few Journey to the West stories as a child and doesn’t know how the novel ends (Ching, 2021)

4) This is based on a passage from chapter five:

[The Jade Emperor] at once commanded the Four Great Devarājas to assist Devarāja Li and Prince [Nezha]. Together, they called up the Twenty-Eight Constellations, the Nine Luminaries, the Twelve Horary Branches, the Fearless Guards of Five Quarters, the Four Temporal Guardians, the Stars of East and West, the Gods of North and South, the Deities of the Five Mountains and the Four Rivers, the Star Spirits of the entire Heaven, and a hundred thousand celestial soldiers (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 169).

Koss (1981) counts 72 commanders from the names listed in the beginning (pp. 83-84).

5) I’ve already mentioned the iron staff above (compare this to Monkey’s weapon). The Bull Demon King takes the title “Great Sage, Parallel with Heaven” (Pingtian dasheng, 平天大聖) in chapter four (compare this to Sun’s title, the “Great Sage Equaling Heaven“) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 156-157). Most of the similarities that I mentioned happen in chapter 61. His skill with the 72 changes is referenced when he takes on Zhu’s appearance (compare this to Monkey’s ability) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 148). The battle of transformations against Sun takes place shortly after he’s overwhelmed by our hero and Zhu in combat (compare this to Monkey’s battle of changes with Erlang in ch. 6) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, pp. 156-157; vol. 1, pp. 182-183). He takes on his cosmic form, a giant white bull, in a last ditch effort to defeat Sun (compare this to Monkey’s skill) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 157). He is trapped on all sides by Buddho-Daoist deities (compare this to Sun’s troubles with heaven in ch. 6) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, pp. 159-160; vol. 1, pp. 185-186). Nezha uses his fire wheel to stop him from regrowing his severed heads (compare this to the diamond bracelet that Laozi (老子) uses to knock the Monkey King off his feet in ch. 6) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 160; vol. 1, p. 186); and he is taken to see the Buddha at the end of his story arc (compare this to Sun’s meeting with the Buddha) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 162).

6) This spiral is implied during the discussion between the Monkey Prince and Shifu Pigsy at the end of the issue (Yang, 2021b, p. 10). 

7) The Water Curtain Cave (Shuilian dong, 水簾洞) is a grotto-heaven located somewhere within the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit. The stone monkey becomes the Monkey King by jumping through a waterfall and discovering the cave in chapter one. His people soon after take residence inside (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 104-106).

Sources:

Aguilar, M. (2021). Jessica Chen Talks Returning Favorites and the Monkey Prince’s Debut in Festival of Heroes: The Asian Superhero Celebration. Comic Book. https://comicbook.com/comics/news/dc-festival-of-heroes-the-asian-superhero-celebration-jessica-chen/.

Beal, S. (Trans.). (1883). The Fo-sho-hing-tsan-king: A Life of Buddha by Asvaghosha Bodhisattva. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Retrieved from https://archive.org/details/foshohingtsankin00asva/mode/2up.

Blum, J. (2021). DC Festival of Heroes’ Monkey Prince Gets Solo Series. CBR. Retrieved from https://www.cbr.com/dc-monkey-prince-solo-series/.

Blum, J. (2022). DC’s New Bad Guys Eat Superheroes to Steal Their Powers. CBR. Retrieved from https://www.cbr.com/dc-villains-eat-superheroes-monkey-prince/.

Buswell, R. E., & Lopez, D. S. (2014). The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton, NJ : Princeton University Press.

Ching, B. A. (2021). Meet the Monkey Prince: Yang and Chang Introduce DC’s Newest Hero. DC. https://www.dccomics.com/blog/2021/05/12/meet-the-monkey-prince-yang-and-chang-introduce-dcs-newest-hero.

Darkseid (New Earth). (n.d.). DC Database. Retrieved from https://dc.fandom.com/wiki/Darkseid_(New_Earth).

DC Publicity. (2021, October 15). DC’s Monkey Prince: New Series to Debut on Lunar New Year 2022. DC Comics. Retrieved from https://www.dccomics.com/blog/2021/10/16/dc’s-monkey-prince-new-series-to-debut-on-lunar-new-year-2022.

Koss, N. (1981). The Xiyou ji in its Formative Stages: The Late Ming Editions (vol. 1 and 2). (UMI No. 8112445) [Doctoral dissertation]. Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database. 

Shao, P. (1997). Monkey and Chinese Scriptural Tradition: A Rereading of the Novel Xiyouji (UMI No. 9818173) [Doctoral dissertation, Washington University]. Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database.

Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The Journey to the West (Vol. 1-4). Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

Yang, G. L. (2021a). The Monkey Prince Hates Superheroes. In Jessica Chen (Ed.). DC Festival of Heroes: The Asian Superhero Celebration (pp. 70-82) [Google Play]. New York, NY: DC Comics. Retrieved from https://play.google.com/store/books/details/Minh_Le_DC_Festival_of_Heroes_The_Asian_Superhero?id=qXUrEAAAQBAJ.

Yang, G. L. (2021b). Monkey Prince, (0) [Digital]. New York, NY: DC Comics. Retrieved from https://www.dccomics.com/reader/#/comics/483798.

Yang, G. L. (2022a). Monkey Prince, (1) [Kindle]. New York, NY: DC Comics. Retrieved from https://www.amazon.com/Monkey-Prince-2022-2021-ebook/dp/B09P45TWKD/.

Yang, G. L. (2022b). Monkey Prince, (2) [Kindle]. New York, NY: DC Comics. Retrieved from https://www.amazon.com/Monkey-Prince-2022-2021-ebook/dp/B09RQ6581L.

Yang, G. L. (2022c). Monkey Prince, (3) [Kindle]. New York, NY: DC Comics. Retrieved from https://www.amazon.com/Monkey-Prince-2022-2021-ebook/dp/B09TV1BQSW/.

Yang, G. L. (2022d). Monkey Prince, (4) [Kindle]. New York, NY: DC Comics. Retrieved from https://www.amazon.com/Monkey-Prince-2022-2021-ebook/dp/B09X5YZGQ5/.

Yang, G. L. (2022e). Monkey Prince, (5) [Kindle]. New York, NY: DC Comics. Retrieved from https://www.amazon.com/Monkey-Prince-2022-2021-ebook/dp/B09ZVH9C5J/.

Journey to the West Artist Spotlight #1: Dario Virga

From time to time I like to post a fun blog not directly related to (though sometimes informed by) my research. Regular articles will resume after this entry.

Anyone who has read my blog will know that I’m an avid fan of researching the history and influences of Journey to the West. But as an artist, I am also a fan of JTTW-related artwork. There are so many talented people in the world who post their traditional and original designs and comics online, so I’ve decided to feature some of them on my blog. My hope is that such posts will expose this art to a wider audience interested in JTTW, while also documenting modern day perceptions and depictions of the novel and its characters.

Our first artist is Dario Virga, who goes by Onibotokemaru on Instagram. They were kind enough to answer some interview questions, as well as allow permission to display a few of their pieces.

I. Q & A

1) Can you tell me a little about yourself?

Real name Dario Virga, from Italy (Piedmont). Interest in eastern culture and literature, mostly from Japan and China.

2) Are you self-taught or did you go to art school?

Self-taught, though I had some help from someone who went to art school.

3) What are your main sources of artistic inspiration?

Usually animals and characters/elements taken from mythology and literature.

4) How did you learn about Journey to the West?

My very first contact with Journey to the West was back when I was younger, in a book about Chinese myths. Later I found an integral translation done by Serafino Balduzzi (translated from a French one).

5) Who is your favorite character?

Tough question, but I like most of the characters. If forced to choose, I’d say Pigsy for the good guys and the Bull Demon King for the villains.

6) Do you have a favorite episode from the novel?

Probably the whole Gold Horn & Silver Horn arc.

7) Does the novel have a special meaning to you?

Not a special meaning per se, but it was a novel I really enjoyed, both for the setting, the narration, the characters within and watching them grow.

8) Can you tell me about your ongoing JTTW-related projects?

Plan to make a gallery of, if not all, at least a huge amount of the novel’s characters.

II. Art and Thought Process

1. As the opening drawing of the Xiyouji-themed Inktober set, I’ve decided to focus not on Sun Wukong himself but rather on Tripitaka, the monk, as Guanyin Pusa appears before him to assign him the quest for the sutras. Guanyin’s reference are commonly-found icons and statues. Between the two of them float the items Tripitaka receives (the cossack, nine-ringed staff and hat).

(Larger version)

2. This is the first time I depict Sun Wukong in the series, and I did it based his design on an article written on this very blog, trying to stick as much as possible to his literary description, especially regarding the clothing (monk’s shirt and tiger pelt kilt held by a rope), short stature, simian face and bald spot on the top of the head (converted to Buddhism). I gave him long spike-like hair in the back because otherwise his head felt too small. The Ruyijingubang has a rather simple design, as I never liked its depictions with pommels on both ends. I also tried to make the inscriptions on the shaft, but ultimately gave up, admittedly.

(Larger version)

3. This picture has Sun Wukong fighting against the Iron Fan Princess, who sends him flying away with her Banana Leaf Fan. Once again, I wanted to show how small Monkey is (in comparison to nearly everyone else, though I’m not always 100% consistent) and remind that the Ruyijingubang can increase in both length and width, as seen here where he tries to use it as a shield to block the wind, unsuccessfully. Also of note, the massive stone pillar on which the “address” of the Iron Fan Princess is written.

(Larger version)

4. This one isn’t based on any specific event, but it’s here to bring out two topics: the first is the size of the party members, which I always tried to keep consistent (and tried is the keyword). The idea is that Sun Wukong is the smallest of the group (4 feet), then we have Tripitaka, the “normal” one, and the Dragon (horse-sized): Pigsy (here depicted with a hint of boar) is the second tallest but also the fattest, while Sandy is the tallest of the party (and definitively not a Kappa). The second one is Sha Wujing’s weapon: while it’s usually depicted as a Monk Spade, the actual name is the “Demon-Subduing Treasure Cane” (降魔宝杖, Xiangmobaozhang), making it a stick/staff. However, it’s also worth a mention that the Monk Spade is sometimes called “Zen Cane” (禪杖, Chanzhang), a term which also refers to the ringed staff used by monks. Admittedly, I liked the spade version the most, though I plan to depict this weapon as a staff when Sandy is in his celestial marshal/arhat forms, implying that the staff changed into a spade when he fell from Heaven.

(Larger version)

5. The big battle between Sun Wukong and the Lion Demons working for the Great Sage Nine Spirits (seen in the background, in his giant nine-headed form): this was mostly done because it was one of the rare parts of the book where Sandy actually fights the monsters alongside Sun Wukong (as Pigsy was captured), as well as an attempt to make a big battle scene.

(Larger version)

6. The only god who actually beat Monkey, Erlang Shen. Since the Inktober was focused on the journey itself, I’ve decided to depict their battle as a bad dream. This time, Monkey wears his old, stylish outfit he got from the Dragon Kings, while Erlang is in full battle regalia, including his “Sanjiang Lianrendao” (三尖两刃刀 Three-pointed, Double Edged Glaive) and his Heavenly Roar Dog.

(Larger version)

7. The clash between the three pilgrims and the three Demon Kings of Lion Camel Mountain, from top to bottom: the Blue-Haired Lion vs Sha Wujing, the Yellow-Tusked White Elephant vs Zhu Bajie and the Golden-Wings Peng King vs Sun Wukong. The design of the three kings was based on a series of pictures I loved very much. Once again, a reminder that Wukong’s staff can widen as well.

(Larger version)

8. Sun Wukong fights the three Rhino Kings, who’re kidnapping Tripitaka. This time I wanted to depict Monkey twirling his staff as he fights. Like with the Demon Kings above, the design of the three Rhinos was based on the same set of pictures, even though I remember that in the novel they’re described as “bull-like” in appearence. Particularly like the dust cloud to the right.

(Larger version)

9. Sun Wukong is poisoned by the Scorpion Spirit. Aside from the scenery, I like the scorpioness. I’ve noticed in several arts (even old ones) that she sports a relatively skimpy outfit. As of her weapon, mentioned to be a “fork/trident” in the book, I’ve seen plenty of depictions with both the single trident version and the smaller, dual trident version.

(Larger version)

10. As a bookend, I’ve depicted a scene from the end of the book, the moment where Tripitaka drowns and ascends to buddhahood, so that he can obtain the sutras properly. This is also to represent one of the things I liked the most from the novel, the gradual growth of the pilgrims and the attachment to Tripitaka as a father figure. [Note: Tripitaka sheds his mortal form as he and his disciples are ferried across a body of water to the Buddha’s paradise. See the paragraph above image one and the material between images two and three in this article.]

(Larger version)

Sun Wukong’s Curlicue Style Headband

Last updated: 01-23-2022

My previous article on the origin of Sun Wukong’s golden fillet describes how various forms of media portray him wearing three different styles: 1) a band with blunt ends that meet in the middle of the forehead and curl upwards like scowling eyebrows; 2) a band adorned with an upturned crescent moon shape in the center; and 3) a simple band devoid of decoration (fig. 1). Here, I want to speculate on the origin of the first style, what I call the “curlicue headband”.

Fig. 1 – (Left) Style 1 – From the comedy A Chinese Odyssey Part Two: Cinderella (1995). (Center) Style 2 – From the famous 1986 TV show. (Right) Style 3 – From the 2011 TV show (larger version).

I. The Kaiyuan Temple carving

The oldest example of Sun Wukong wearing the curlicue style headband that I am aware of is a nearly life size stone carving from the Western pagoda of Kaiyuan Temple erected in 1237 CE. He is depicted as a muscular, monkey-headed warrior wearing a circlet, earrings, bracelets, a rosary, arm bangles, and anklets (all prescribed ritual items), as well as a monk’s robe and sandals. He wields a broadsword in one hand, while the other thumbs the rosary at his chest. At his waist hangs a calabash gourd and a sutra scroll (fig. 2). Behind his left shoulder can be seen Xuanzang (a.k.a. Tripitaka) ascending to heaven on a cloud, having won a place in paradise thanks to the protection of our hero. In short, Wukong is portrayed as a guardian deity. The significance of this will become clear below.

The carving’s headband has a gentle double curlicue topped with a wedge shape (fig. 3). This design appears in Daoist art from the same period.

Fig. 2 – The Kaiyuan Temple pagoda carving (1237) (larger version). Fig. 3 – Detail of the headband (larger version).

II. Ink Treasure of Wu Daozi

The Ink Treasure of Wu Daozi, (Daozi mobao, 道子墨寶) is a collection of 50 ink drawings of the Daoist pantheon attributed to the noted 8th-century artist Wu Daozi but likely produced during the 13th-century. It features many protector/wrathful deities wearing body adornments with this curlicue pattern (with or without the added wedge). There are too many examples to post, so I will choose just three (Fig. 4⁠–⁠9). Please note that, with the exception of the headband and rosary, these figures are wearing the same esoteric ritual items as Monkey (i.e. earrings, bracelets, arm bangles, and anklets).

This shows a clear connection between body adornments with the curlicue pattern and guardian deities.

Fig. 4 – The esoteric protector deity Marshal of Heavenly Reeds, a.k.a. Zhu Bajie’s previous incarnation (larger version). Fig. 5 – Detail of the anklets on his feet (larger version). Note that Heavenly Reed’s necklace also features the curlicue pattern. Fig. 6 – A demonic guardian detaining a soul undergoing judgement in hell (larger version). Fig. 7 – Detail of the bangles on his arms (larger version). Fig. 8 – One of Lord Erlang‘s demonic soldiers helping to clear animal spirits (in this case a turtle) from a mountain river (larger version). Fig. 9 – Detail of his ornate headband with spherical elements, giving it a floral quality (larger version). The images have been enhanced slightly for clarity.

III. Possible origin of the pattern

The Ink Treasure of Wu Daozi shows several generals, officials, and guardians wearing headgear with lingzhi mushrooms (靈芝) (fig. 10⁠–⁠13), a real world fungi shaped like a rounded heart with a lacquered reddish-brown appearance (fig. 14). Also known as ruyi (如意, “as-you-wish”),—yes, the same as Wukong’s staff—the mushroom is associated with immortality and magic wish fulfillment in Buddho-Daoist culture. The ruyi pattern (ruyi wen, 如意紋) is a common motif in Chinese art, lining vases, topping S-shaped scepters, appearing as flourishes on traditional style rooftops, repeating endlessly on extravagant silken textiles, etc. (fig. 15⁠–⁠17). It has a familiar double curlicue swirl that reminds one of Monkey’s headband (fig. 18).

Given the fungi’s high standing in religious culture, I could see the lingzhi/ruyi‘s curlicue pattern being associated with the ritual garb of guardian deities since they are the front line of defense against evil influences.

Fig. 10 – A sword bearer (larger version). Fig. 11 – Lord Erlang overseeing his demonic soldiers clearing the mountain and river of animal spirits (larger version). Fig. 12 – Detail of his helmet (larger version). Fig. 13 – One of Erlang’s soldiers driving out animal spirits with fire (larger version). Fig. 14 – A lingzhi mushroom (larger version). Fig. 15 – The Bodhisattva Guanyin holding a ruyi scepter (larger version). Fig. 16 – A marvelous Qianlong-era celadon glaze vase with a ruyi shape (larger version). Note the pattern repeating on the lid and base. Image found here. Fig. 17 – The Ruyi Gate in the Forbidden City. Note the Ruyi elements on the roof (larger version here). Fig. 18 – A comparison of a ruyi pattern and Sun Wukong’s golden headband (larger version).


Update: 01-23-22

I’ve written an article suggesting a mantra for the secret spell that causes the golden fillet to tighten.

The Tightening Spell of Sun Wukong’s Golden Headband