Friday, March 13, 2009


The Eight Immortals Cross the Sea

A few years ago I was in Singapore and picked up an English language, Singaporean published comic for my brother. It was a retelling of (part of) the legend of the Monkey King, a character well known in Eastern myths, and perhaps most familiar in the west as the basis of Dragon Ball.

It was also something close to my brother's heart (maybe) as he both studied and wrote about it in university.

So it was with some amusement that I recently opened a package from my brother (now living in Taiwan) and discovered he sent me another from this series of comics retelling Chinese legends.

This time it was "The Eight Immortals Cross the Sea" the story of, well, the eight immortals who apparently show up repeatedly in Chinese folklore and are, supposedly, the most popular characters. They also represent the I Ching. Exciting!

The comic itself, is not what I expected. Instead of the eight immortals going off and having adventures together, this is mostly just their individual origins. Each of them achieved immortality in a different way and a number of them would fit in fine with super hero origins. One of them runs away from a battle, finds a mysterious isolated building, studies and trains with the mysterious old man inside, and when he leaves discoveres the building has disappeared. Sure, he's studying the Tao instead of martial arts, but that's a little thing in comparison.

Another sends his spirit off to study with Laozi, but he returns to find his body is gone (burnt in a funeral pyre by an over anxious pupil), so he ends up in the body of an ugly old man who needs a crutch to get around.

The other stories are a mixture of just plain bizarre and cultural teachings I clearly do not understand. Yes, of course, not being sad when your family dies, being incredibly passive when people rip you off, saying that yes, I should indeed be killed for a murder committed in a past life, and eventually not feeling any emotions at all is best! Even I, who sometimes wishes he was a feelingless robot, finds this hard to understand.

The final story, The Eight Immortals Cross the Sea, is more what I expected. In it the eight immortals attempt to cross the sea (yes, I've spoiled it for you), using their various means of transport (a giant lotus, a bamboo container, a paper donkey, and so forth). However they come across the underwater palace of the Dragon King. The Dragon Crown Prince attacks on some flimsy pretense, and kidnaps one of the immortals (the girl, I'm sure you're surprised to know). A fight follows and...why am I even explaining this? You've all read comics were Namor or Aquaman fight the surface dwellers, this is _exactly_ the same.

Except that this story features what is totally the best art in the book. The Dragon Crown Prince may just be a guy in armour with a dragon head (and who's sister looks like a human), but he still looks awesome. And his soldiers? They consist of seahorses, prawns, fish, crabs, sharks, and jellyfish! All wearing armour and brandishing a wide assortment of weapons. They are adorable.

The art in the rest of the book is pretty good too. It's all done in a cartoony manga-y style, which means the demons and monsters who show up in some of the stories aren't actually that scary, but it tells the story.

The writing is where the book really falls down. It was translated by someone (from what language?) and is filled with somewhat awkward phrases. It also frequently is just narrating what can clearly be seen in the panels and is kind of extraneous. Though I guess these are aimed at little kids? The lettering is kind of blah too.

Still, it's an amusing enough book, and I guess if you want a way to learn some stuff about Chinese myths there's worse ways (reading this review for one).

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