By Christopher Younie
Wei Dong Chen’s 2012 comic series Adventures from China: Monkey King1 helps bring Wu Ch’êng-ên’s sixteenth-century novel Journey to the West2 out of the closet. JttW is quite the queer tale despite this aspect generally being neglected in scholarly consideration of the text. JttW’s queerness resides within the tale’s machinations which, I think are brought to the fore when the story is presented in Chen’s comic form. I contend comics are kindred to Queer. Both subjects draw agency from their ability to take to task, and in turn resist, hegemonic procedures operating in society. As a medium all comics’ form is homologous with queer, for it pushes against exclusionary tactics and normativity making “available new and surprising conceptualisations of sex, sexuality, and gender expression as well as new social relations and publics” (Halsall and Warren 28).
JttW reads as an adventure romp, a mythical quest or “historical fiction, political satire, and religious allegory” (Gray and Wang 5). This genre fluidity could account for the story’s perpetual ability to appear in a multitude of incarnations. MK, illustrated by Wei Dong Chen, was published by the Korean-based JR Comics whose CEO JR Han informs us “We’ve set an unprecedented goal of creating comprehensive adaptations of the East’s greatest stories via one of the West’s greatest storytelling innovations: the comic book” (Lovett, JR Comics Giving Away Graphic Novels Based On Chinese Literature At Book Expo).
As noted, JttW has attracted ample scholarly consideration, however, there has been little in the way of examination of JttW’s queer potential. Queer by its very nature is a contentious term, an academic Ouroboros, fluid in form and in subject, deliciously lubricious by definition. Traditionally, “Queer” is a term that refers to something “strange, odd, peculiar, eccentric” or “of questionable character; suspicious, dubious” (Queer, a1). In the 1980s Queer’s etymology evolved to be reclaimed by the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Plus (LGBTQ+) from its derogatory use of “homophobic abuse” (Jargose 1). Queer, as a derogatory label, has attracted punishment and can be deployed to marginalize individuals for not adhering to normative gender ideals. Society instructs at an early age what is constituted acceptable and natural in sexual-gender conscription, effected through various means such as performativity, when functioning as a prevailing social action, Judith Butler explains is “within speech act theory, a performative is that discursive practice that enacts or produces that which it names” (Bodies 13). This is reinforced in across a variety of media. Queer, as a collective noun, operates inclusively in my article and has not been engaged as a replacement term for any specific sexuality.
Comics permit an escape from familiar storytelling modes. Comics are textually ambiguous, baffling categorical assumptions of what constitutes literature. Comics do this in a delightfully queer manner. Scott McCloud, a comic artist/theorist, in Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, explores the agency of comics as an art form. Understanding Comics is essentially a comic about comics. McCloud presents an argument that comics historically derived from art (16-17) and remain art. McCloud has it that comics, as a popular art form, are often associated with “the cheap magazines of childhood or the funny pages in a newspaper” (3). It appears comics are often subject to problems of demarcation, troubling both the popular and the academic. How very queer.
Comics and their authors, McCloud notes, historically have been dismissed as a group with “negative connotations” (18). Darieck Scott and Ramzi Fawaz concur, noting comics have withstood the worst of a bleak social stigma resulting in the medium being deemed “marginal, juvenile, and outcast from the ‘proper’” (197). The pair observe a correlation of these arrangements as “the epitome of queer identity” (197), and like queer, comics “elude or slip through the network of classifications that normally locate states and positions in cultural space’ (Turner 23). Justin Hall offers “a working definition of queer comics. They are comic books, strips, graphic novels, and webcomics that deal with LGBTQ themes from an insider’s perspective” (Linke, “Editor’s Note” n. page), which limits the characterization to the content alone, ignoring the queerness of comics’ form this article assigns. Comics are a visual medium which embodies queerness, for queer misbehaves; it surpasses the normal, “to dismantle all fixities” (Lanser 924). Comics transgress literary binary systems where cultural construction suppresses the ambiguous or interstitial spaces; words are in opposition to images, permitting an escape from familiar storytelling modes, comics are textually ambiguous. Like queer, when employed as a means of critique, comics challenge social structures by rendering their “material conditions of their production opaque” (Eng and Puar 2).
Comics, by rejecting and subverting definitional boundaries, are an ideal vessel for queering classic text such as JttW so as “to shift how people think, see, and feel sexuality as a lived experience” (Halsall, Warren and Fawaz 87). Comics permit a “unique representational space” (Barnewitz 11) where queering representation can flourish and queer readings are invited. Reflecting on McCloud’s struggle of defining comics as a descriptor and form, I would align this challenge to defining queer. For queerness is also resilient in defining too. With comics being an elusive term, fractious and difficult to constrain in definition, then it follows, comics as a form, would be elusive too, fractious and hard to constrain, which may well be surmised as a very queer thing indeed.
Comics’ duality has the potential to be problematic to a symbolic literary order, and this is a strategic goal of Queer theory. JttW’’s 100 chapters operate in an episodic fashion transferring neatly into Wei Dong Chen’s MK’s 20 volumes. MK publisher JR Comic’s Han Jung-rok, explained why they wished to create the series: We read, know, and enjoy your American stories. It makes us understand America better. So I thought if foreigners want to understand China, you must read the basic classic stories. But it is very difficult for you to understand Chinese by reading the real novels and books. Comics are a good form to make people understand the stories. (Baker)
Han is not necessarily referencing a lost in translation scenario, but rather a specific ability of comics to transgress a formal and traditional presentation. Han is calling into question a power structure that posits “classic stories” (Baker) in novel form, against those circulated within comics. Queer theory is one method that lets us disinter this arrangement. If Queer theory were to have Daddy issues, they would have originated with Michel Foucault. Reflecting on Foucault’s argument of sex’s repression as a power play, I question, “the way in which power was exercised- not just state power but the power exercised by other institutions and forms of constraint, a sort of biding oppression in everyday life” (Power 283). Clearly there is a hegemonic system of classification at play here with comics being confined to a margin, disparate to the literary origins, though this my inference and not reflective of Han’s potential sentiment. However, Han’s explanation has comics in a common discourse where they are subject to demarcation not unlike Queer(s).
The common qualities I am proposing between Queer, as a collective term for occupants of LGBTQ+ identities and comics could be countered as tenuous or even insulting. I acknowledge comics have not endured the subjection, persecution and ostracization the LGBTQ+ community members have. It is not my intention to shift perspective from LGBTQ+ struggles, but rather to highlight stigmas attached to both comics and Queers to employ a strategy which illustrates certain cultural approaches to the pair. Both are operating in a socio-politically contained environment even if the history of comics does not equal the historical and psychological trauma the LGBTQ+ community has endured. Queering comics aids the work of dismantling comic’s pejorative connotations: infantile, illegitimate and puerile. Queer provides an intellectual framework for articulating the form’s potential to be resistant and to examine correlations as Valentino L Zullo has noted “the position of queerness in comics and the larger culture has shifted, so has our ability to both learn from it and critique it” (49). Comics are ripe for queering, with Hillary Chute author of Why Comics? devoting an entire chapter to the subject, proclaiming comics “render metaphors concrete on the page in order to make an experience vivid” (259). It’s an admirable discussion, though Chute’s dedication to Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home flirts with the fanatical, fortifying an air of academia’s elitism assigned to this particular graphic novel. Chute reads as dismissive of the more commercial and popular comics, with Ramzi Fawaz reflecting this collective, “offered some of the most incisive critiques of normative American culture and politics of the last century” (591). Comics lend themselves to two specific queer points: one being a manner of textual production and the other as a reading strategy with this in mind let us examine the MK series.
JttW’s origins derive loosely from an actual 7th-century Buddhist monk Xuanzang’s pilgrimage to India on a quest to collect Buddhist scriptures. Hongmei Sun informs us, JttW , is an “accretive text, shaped by many hands at many times, and through interactions with many audiences “(5), with the authorship having been attributed to the scholar Wu Ch’êng-ên. An allocation that has attracted considerable debate regarding the validity, Yan Liang accounts for the link due to a “lack of better candidates” (1290), published in the 16th Century during the transition from the Ming to Qing era. Cuncun Wu when exploring China’s homosexual history in Historical Origins of Qing Male Homoerotic Sensibilities informs us “there are several periods in Chinese history, for example, when male homosexuality was as important an element of the social fabric, and social fashion, as in ancient Greece” (2- 4). This is particularly the case in the most recent dynasty, the Qing (1644– 1911) (2).
Oh what a time to be alive.
Simplified, JttW’s writes Xuanazang as Tang Sanzang, recounting the monk’s pilgrimage, however, now aided by fallen Daoist deities: Zhu Bajie (a pig), Sha Wujing (water daemon), Bai Long Ma (a dragon prince transformed into a horse) and arguably the most famous of JttW’s characters primate Sun Wu Kong. Rallying with Sanzang throughout JttW’s one hundred chapters, “the group encounters and overcomes eighty-one tests” (Sun, 4) in order to achieve atonement for past misdemeanors. It would not be unreasonable to conclude the monk would read as JttW’s central protagonist; however, Wu Kong usurps him in the enduring and broader cultural popularity stakes.
Wu Kong is mischievous, rebellious, defiant and quite the archetypical literary trickster. William G Doty and William J Hynes stipulate tricksters “are often entertainments involving play or laughter, but they are entertainments that are instructive. Tricksters map for some societies just how one “ought” to act” (7), going on to note the trickster’s “diversity and complexity of the appearances of the trickster figure raise doubt that it can be encompassed as a single phenomenon” (2). Wu Kong symbolizes unsanctioned behavior and the punishment of this type of behavior when not acting as one ought. Wu Kong’s duplicity occupies a unique queer space, for the character reflects an intersectionality that Queer theory examines. Wu Kong is not “issuing from a distinct identity or singular standpoint but rather as a critical preoccupation, whose operation can take up diverse forms, methods, and domains” (Reddy 51). As mentioned previously, JttW was formalized during a period where alternate sexualities were entering the popular discourse, and contributed a queer undercurrent. Potentially this version was an inefficacious attempt to nullify any sexuality of Wu Kong, with it precariously confined to literature, to enact control and an attempt of normalization, as Foucault would have it through “a technique, a form of power” (Power 212). However, Wu Kong, emboldened with a queer resistance, is read with the ability to thwart this regulation of how it is best to act (subservient and asexual) particularly in comic form.
MK in the first few pages is already captivatingly queer. Volume 1 commences with Wu Kong’s birth from a stone egg. Narrated though four panels and couched in varying sized gutters, the illustrations arranged in a discordant fashion see figure 1. The comic is making queer elements visible in this instance with challenges to binary orders: linear/irregular narration and not conforming to a singular sex signifier, providing readers an ambiguous gender depiction. MK posits a queer temporality where narration, as a time-line, is bent. Queerness can be in opposition to the tenants of normative time toward a future or futures. These include heterosexuality, education and reproduction, combing to structure society’s life or chorotypes.
Figure 1 further queers time, there is no reproductive future in either figure 1’s sequence or this section of MK’s plot. MK has queered temporality in the linear storytelling; it may be read backward or sideward. All underpinned with Wu Kong’s non-heterosexual birth. The syntagmatic structure of the panels confuses and puts a set Western reading order, left to right, in disarray for “Comics puts productive pressure on what “normal reading” is—not because it is so easy, or immediate, but rather because paths of reading and different moments of time can compete as alternatives” (Chute, 28-31). This is queerness in action. Wu Kong’s form is exhibited as dismembered and scattered amongst various panels. Wu Kong from birth will not have their body regulated by power relations, echoing Foucault’s connection of political fields and how they will act on the body: having, “an immediate hold upon it; they invest it, mark it, train it, torture it, force it to carry out tasks, to perform ceremonies, to emit signs’ (Discipline, 25). There is no fixed reconciliation in this visual archive of Wu Kong’s birth. Not one instance need be contained within a frame, with the imagery suggesting both the form and Wu Kong cannot be imprisoned for they are vigorous and violent. Comic’s queerness is provoking and breaking a conventional or linear reading. The queer capacity of the comic image is realized here, as Scott Bukatman claims, “Language has rules, images not so much” (93). The colors and the lines portray emotions, a syntagm formed from those elements also hints of Wu Kong’s abilities and emerging storyline. Colors prove to be a useful queer tool for they are “frequently aligned with that which eludes control and containment” (Bukatman 96) displayed in an uncaged phantasmagorical fashion in figure 1.
Temporality is challenged in figure 1. A challenge present in JttW and MK’s plot with Hongmei Sun observing, “the Monkey King and other immortals developing around the straight line of Tripitaka’s historical journey,” yet the daemons, of which Wu Kong is one, are “departing temporarily from the line, darting around it” (124). MK’s daemons will be read as queer in this article. In figure 1 Wu Kong is drawn with no discernible genitals. From birth Wu Kong is ambiguous, intermediate and is a site where male and female characteristics are contradictory; androgynous, even sexless or genderqueer. Genderqueer being “a potentially powerful, performative concept that exposes techniques, methods, and structures of power that regulate both gender and sexuality” (Honkasalo 61). Genderqueer’s influence is extended with Wu Kong drawn with a salaciously unfurling tail. The tail may be read as a metaphor for the primate’s penis, functioning as a symbol by ‘helping to bridge the gap between the familiar and the strange’ (Chandler 152). The penis-tail allusion neither fixes nor denies a specific gender identification for it is accomplishing something else: permitting Wu Kong to be “both instrumental and expressive, both assertive and yielding, both masculine and feminine” (Bem 634), though not necessarily of an equal balance. This highlights the instability or even the redundancy of gender binaries.
Wu Kong’s queer ‘birth’ attracts the attention of the Jade Emperor of Heaven. The Jade Emperor and Heaven combine to embody the heteronormative ideology, “that there are two separate and opposing genders with associated natural roles that match their assigned sex, and that heterosexuality is a given” (van der Toom 2020). Imbued with a queer birth, Wu Kong further “vanquishes all possibility of systemic classification” (Cozad 135) by queering death. Wu Kong achieves this by descending to Hell and bullying its Judges to remove the primate’s name from the ledgers of life and death. The Judges normalize earthly subjects, dividing and subjectifying bodies through “natural” based policies, equipped as Foucault would stipulate, to “use institutions and practices to impose order on our society” (Discipline, 40). MK is fecund with instances where, in comic form, narration is queered to then compliment MK’s queer plot moments. Textually functioning in a cross-dressing style. Cross-dressing offers “a challenge to easy notions of binarity, putting into question…categories…whether they are considered essential or constructed, biological or cultural” (Garber 10).
The naturalness assigned to fertility and motherhood are queered in Volume 13 of MK, counterpoising the “normative assumption that there is an intrinsic interconnection between women, pregnancy, and childbirth” (Erbenius and Payne, 28) not unlike “the case of Thomas Beatie, a North-American transman who became famous for his pregnancy” (29). The troop, some years into their journey, find themselves parched with San Zang and Bajie drinking from a “river of incredible beauty” (Chen 13:16) and moments later experience stomach cramps and their bellies swell. Soon the pair are diagnosed pregnant and have ventured in the land of Women’s Kingdom, where, in the absence of men, procreation is achieved from drinking from the river. Here women beget women. There is no heterosexual coupling. This episode certainly unsettles heteronormative ideas of reproduction and family. San Zang voices essentialists concerns by exclaiming, “A man can’t get pregnant! It’s completely against the laws of nature!” (Chen 13:21), with Wu Kong in the upper right corner, delighted at this disruption of the norm and nature, see figure 2. Wu Kong is the symbolization of queer, for the primate is, like Queer theory, an “epitome of authentic resistance and nonconformity” (Flaherty 2). This contention coupled with the primate’s own non-normative birth, positions Wu Kong wonderfully to administer queer mother craft, rejecting the notion of essentialism or biological determinations.
Wu Kong wants the pair to carry the babies to term, exclaiming it would “make the journey fun” (Chen 13:23) and by default queering the power of reproducing futurity and gendered parenthood. This de-emphasizes the biology-based logic that Wu Kong’s master is attempting to employ as explanation. No other MK character adopts this position. Wu Kong is the sole overtly queer operator. Keeping a child is repellant to San Zang and Bajie. Being pregnant locates them in a patriarchal nightmare of a female-assigned task. They are repulsed by operating in a maternal body, ripe with boundary-crossing potential. San Zang instructs Wu Kong to source the cure with the disciple complying. The need for a cure can be read as the heteronormative (Zang & Bajie) performing as a regulatory mechanism eliminating and normalizing others (the unborn). In addition, this incidence has MK presents a queer event of choosing a family, a choice that also extends to the quintet with the commencement of the journey. Nina Jackson Levin , informs us that this phenomenon is where “families formed outside of biological or legal (bio-legal) bonds—is a signature of the queer experience” (1). It is in the Women’s Kingdom we also see Wu Kong and San Zang partake in a queer romantic exchanges, resonating with Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s homosocial and triangular structure, wherein men who fancy each other, whether it be sexual or otherwise, transmit that desire through a woman.
Volume 14 of Chen’s series has Wu Kong battle Wu Kong, in what I see as the character grappling with his own Queerness. J. Wang has it that JttW’s pilgrimage, especially Wu Kong‘s, is “portrayed as a mind-journey through a jungle of sexual fantasies, enacting repressed desires of his unconscious” (225). Harry Morgan Benshoff informs us, “for many people in our shared English-language culture, homosexuality is a monstrous condition” (1). Whilst queerness need not be exclusively inferred as homosexual, queer is a term of ambiguity. Nevertheless, it is also a space for expressing and describing sexuality, and queer may be interchangeable with homosexual and Benshoff’s claim it may equate to a “monstrous condition”. At this point of the journey, under Zang’s patriarchal reign, Wu Kong’s Queerness is striving to get out. This reading positions the daemons of MK as analogy for queer; antipodal to heteronormative, the descriptor lexicon of daemons and queer often overlapping, for as Laurie Cozad explains:
These figures represent the quintessential “Other”—”that which, for a given culture, is at once interior and foreign” (Foucault: xxiv): interior, as they are present cultural forces with which one must contend; foreign, as they are embodied representatives of a competing ideology, which stands as the foundation of an alternative classificatory structure (126).
Wu Kong blurs the dichotomy of daemon and deity throughout the series, proving resilient despite heteronormative categorization, but their fortitude is beginning to fracture. This can be accounted for by firstly expanding the daemon-Queer parallel. Benshoff surmises critic Robin Woods’s formulation that monsters “can often be understood as racial, ethnic, and/or political/ideological others, while more frequently they are constructed primarily as sexual others (women, bisexuals, and homosexuals)” (5). Benshoff goes on to reference Margaret Tarrat’s postulation that monsters “represented an eruption of repressed sexual desire” (9). I extend both definitions to daemons. The primate is often subject to shame or regulatory tactics regarding their Queer-daemon status, with Wu Kong being admonished, “You are a natural at behaving like a monster” (Chen 4:100). The Gods of Heaven never permitting Wu Kong to truly escape the prescribed daemon classification. Wu Kong serving as a disciple-protector to San Zang, several years into the journey, is in a complex relationship wrought with duality and queer undercurrents. Wu Kong’s protector status serves as a metaphor for being closeted; previously existing amongst fellow primates who “accepted the Stone Monkey as one of their own” (Chen 1:21). There Wu Kong was not subjected to any form of social or cultural power that has gender and sexuality naturalized and essentialized. That only occurs when the primate enters Heaven, with Wu Kong soon punished for their queerness. Up to Vol 14 Wu Kong has killed at the behest of Buddha, whilst grappling with religious doctrine and potentially an internalized voice of normativity. This voice presents queer as a guilt to be expunged. Wu Kong is slaughtering other daemons to kill the daemon within. Wu Kong’s Queer daemon is challenged particularly when situated in a couple-power scenario with Zang, with Wu Kong confessing “you’ve left me no choice, but to accept my nature” (Chen 14:12), solidifying Edward Stein’s claim “people do not choose their sexual orientations without opening up a complex set of metaphysical issues” (263). This complexity and queer ambiguity is realized in Wu Kong’s depiction where the primate battles with the inner daemon, see figure 3.
Panel’s, images and words are also at battle, reflecting Chute and DeKoven claim that comic’s subversive potential functions as a hybrid…a challenge to the structure of binary classification that opposes a set of terms, privileging one…offers graphic narrative a representational mode capable of addressing complex political and historical issues with an explicit, formal degree of self-awareness. (769)
Scott McCloud stipulates a panel has no “fixed or absolute meaning” (99), suggesting an instability and a challenge to classification. In other words, it is Queer-like. Wu Kong’s Queerness correlates with the panels, calumniating in what Eve Sedgwick would have as “homosexual panic” (Between, 83-96), where the primate fears something more than a homosocial bond with the monk. This panic escapes the confines of the frames and enters the gutter to “construct a continuous, unified reality” (McCloud 67). The character of Wu Kong and comic’s queer form facilitate the primate to reach resolution between “permissible and impermissible” (Sedgwick, Between, 83-96). Wu Kong, fortified and resilient from this defined moment of queer internal adversity, emerges in Volume 19, to inform a ruler of a foreign kingdom, “Our senses and our instincts are closer to monsters. But our hearts and natures are good and humane” (Chen 19:20). Wu Kong is shifting categories and definitions of sexualities when we allow for the daemon/Heaven dualities and see “beyond the boundaries of gender, separatism, and essentialist notions” (Queen & Schimel, back cover). MK demonstrates Wu Kong’s stance by exploiting comic’s queer potential by having the Queer primate, front and center. In the background are the heteronormative representatives Baeji and Sha Wu Jing. All share a two-page spread, devoid of any stable borders gloriously depicting queer’s ability to transcend small boxes of any sense, see figure 4.
Wu Kong, being a cheeky character, taps into the queerness of comics and slides into the story, addressing the reader directly, a feat the traditional literary confines forbade in the source material. Wu Kong, in MK, is dismantling a reading fixity by breaking down the fourth wall. Wu Kong will not be “confined to the margins” (Foucault, Society Must be Defended, 39) and sees no need to remain within panels. This is not an exclusive experience to MK or comics. A comic, as Scott Bukatan informs; “makes unique demands of its readers and thereby engages them all the more” (3). Wu Kong is queering narrative devices here and baffling categorical voices contained within texts by looking directly at the reader see figure 5. This challenges our assumptions of what characters should do in text: not to engage with the reader, but remain fixed within the plot itself. Whilst this type of narration has been occurring as the ‘aside’ since Shakespeare’s time, here we have a queering of a homodiegetic voice. In the pages prior to figure 5 Wu Kong is battling daemon Sha Wu Jing, who is yet to enlist in the holy pilgrimage. The monk-Master is crying, and rather than meet their gaze Wu Kong faces the reader instead. At this point, the characters are still navigating homosocial waters. Wu Kong unable to share intimate feelings with San Zang can in comic form, shares the implicit via the explicit by engaging with the reader. John Henry Pratt reasons, “characters may even be aware of narration, as is the case where one of the characters is also the narrator or in the unusual situation where a character reacts directly to an impersonal narrator” (108). Wu Kong is wise that MK is functioning as a story and there is life beyond the margins. In a queer fashion the primate transcends the narrative binaries, both private and public. This process is operating within what Foucault calls the “privileged theme of confession” (History of Sexuality, 61), which has people confess any peculiar sexualities in order to reinforce an heterogeneous array of sexualities (History of Sexuality, 61).
A Furvert and a Primate Walk into a Temple
Wu Kong’s Queerness is difficult to contain despite, JttW’s ideological inferences. Wu Kong’s Queerness, aided by the comic medium, moves from the homosocial to culminate in the homoerotic. Wu Kong is, after all, a sexual beast. Hongmei Sun in Transforming Monkey : Adaptation and Representation of a Chinese
Epic, however, contends otherwise, claiming, “sex simply never constitutes a temptation for him, as if his mind can-not fathom the idea of sexuality” (97). Sun is alluding to asexuality, which is a queer orientation because it deviates from the heteronormative sexual expectations. Wu Kong furthers queerness by reminding us “sexuality aren’t made (or can’t be made) to signify monolithically” (Sedgwick, Tendencies, 8). To secure the title of the Handsome Monkey King, the primate in Volume 1 traverses the Water-Curtain cave which Sun has as a “break-through in his life and is accomplished through crossing boundaries” (15). This event shares very similar traits to coming out: surpassing the binaries disclosed/concealed. This achievement has the fellow primates in awe and they appoint Wu Kong as their ruler. They afford the Monkey King a collection of wenches; illustrated with decidedly feminine bodily signifiers, which are nonetheless unsightly due to their simian emphasis, see figure 6. It is an interesting choice by MK’s illustrator, Chao Peng, to depict the wenches in this fashion. MK is presenting heterosexuality as a repellant option, especially when compared to Zang’s beautiful and buffed portrayal. This suggests that for Wu Kong, Queerness is the more palatable option. Wu Kong appears perplexed with the proposition in figure 6 and, in a Queer fashion, rejects this attempt at heteronormative conscription. Rather Wu Kong decrees “Enjoy yourselves until you are tired. And then keep right on enjoying yourselves!” (Chen 1:34). Here we see Wu Kong permitting Alexander Doty’s contention, “when cultural texts encourage straight-identified audience members to express a less-censored range of queer desire and pleasure than is possible in daily life, this “regression” has positive gender and sexuality-destabilising effects” (8). Wu Kong has created an anti-normative utopia, presenting an alternative pleasure from MK’s singular panel. The single frame resonates with the reader as “it accomplishes its closure and constitutes it as an object of contemplation” (Groensteen et al, 34). Wu Kong’s gaze meets the audience, see figure 7, and once again, Wu Kong, in comic form, is “a voice that is textually ambiguous or subverts the conventions of sex, gender, or sexuality” (Genett 926).
Wu Kong is Queer in numerous ways, as I have argued, but in addition, the primate is queer by virtue of the way queer is being represented in opposition to the heteronormative. Wu Kong’s Queerness is accepted amongst the monkeys “as one of their own” (Chen 1:20). However, in Heaven Wu Kong’s Queerness has them banished and imprisoned for refusing to adhere to their normative administration, despite numerous attempts to enlist the primate. The Jade Emperor (embodiment of the heteronormative rule) recognizes Queerness in the primate and threatens to vanquish the trickster. Wu Kong declares “So What? I was born this way” (Chen 1:140), positioning themselves “somewhere between the theoretical poles of essentialist sexuality and social constructionism.” (Benshoff 26). It is from Heaven’s removal the primate is now firmly placed in the Queer camp. This position continues when Wu Kong enters a deep relationship with the monk, San Zang, who sets the primate free from Buddha/Heaven’s punishment. Let us not forget, until this juncture Wu Kong had rejected advances from females, a precedent that continues throughout all MK’s volumes. This is particularly evident in Volume 13 when numerous women attempt to touch the primate. There, these illustrated females are more daemon-like than the androgynous monkey, making queer visible. Wu Kong demands, “Get your hands off me!” (Chen 13:38) or in Volume 17, when they are confronted with naked females, remarking, “Ech. What a hideous sight.” (Chen 14:43). Only with the monk do we observe Wu Kong venture into any palpable attraction. As previously stated, the monk is always presented in a pulchritudinous manner for the Handsome Monkey King.
In order to dispel any contentions of bestiality, I position Wu Kong, and other anthropomorphic daemons as conduits of Queer’s multiplicitous potential, noting a primate is often employed as a Western trope to reference humankind’s primal urges. Wu Kong has a history of acting as a metaphor. Wu Kong’s name, when written in Chinese script ‘意馬’(Carr 149), is associated to the phrase ‘Monkey-of-the-Mind’, which Michael Carr explains derives from “Idea-horse mind-monkey.” Having uncontrollable feelings. (Chiefly when swayed by sexual passions) being unable to settle down and concentrate on work” (149). This is an interesting parallel when we consider it in relation to Wu Kong’s sexual potential and not simply as a Buddhist-based caution. My examination of the couple “is not to blur the boundaries between human and nonhuman” (Barad 126), but rather to explore an “examination of human truths through animal imagery” (Yezbick 43) and how these ‘truths’ may be deconstructed.
MK, as a comic, promotes the expression of a queer erotic tension between Wu Kong and Zang with “suggestively ambiguous narrative contexts, confusing and challenging the articulation of…straight ideological points regarding sexuality, gender, love, and marriage” (A Doty 33). In Volume 3, Zang releases Wu Kong from beneath a mountain, a heavy, shadowy oppressing weight. Again, the concept of the closet is presented and how, symbolically, it serves as a foundation and as an identifier of the homosexual, or the Queer. Coming out pinpoints and names of one’s identity. In Wu Kong’s instance a daemon or Queer as this discussion has it. Negotiating the relationship Zang is unsure how to interact with Wu Kong, who is instantly at ease, relieved from the weighty burden of concealment, assumes a queer position as evident in figure 8. Depicted free of panels, Wu Kong blurs the narrative binaries by engaging in the “privileged theme of confession” (Foucault, History, 6). Wukong reveals their Queerness by stating, “I was born from a stone” (Chen 3:54) and Zang reacting, internally thinks, “I don’t trust this creature” (Chen 3:54) (see figure 9). The primate positioned as subservient to Zang, an arrangement that fluctuates throughout the MK series, and is revealing how a comic “typically uses not only dialogue but also facial expressions and visual gaze between characters to underscore this fantasy of crosspieces agency and reciprocity” (Yezbick 67).
Between these two characters, we witness Wu Kong’s refusal of orthodoxy and as the journey progresses observe how the primate delights in revealing the hidden inappropriateness of a heteronormative and religious/philosophy doctrine. Zang recognizing Wu Kong’s “resistance to regimes of the normal” (Warner, xxvi), paired with what I have identified as a subconscious attraction, beseeches the Goddess Guan Yin for assistance in controlling the primate. The Goddess provides a “magic treasure designed to reign in the immortal’s unruly, rebellious nature” (McClanahan, ‘The Origin of Sun Wu Kong’s Golden Fillet’) in the form of a golden circlet activated by Zang chanting mantras. Working as a painful restraint, this device establishes a sadomasochismistic (S&M) bond between the two, resonating with Joseph Roger’s claim, “all theology operates with a sexual ideology rooted in accepted forms of oppression that cause violence for marginalized people” (214). Despite Buddhism’s queer potential, Zang’s theology occupies a position that attempts to reinforce heteronormative standards. Wu Kong, being comfortably Queer however, can see the folly in subscribing to a single narrative and is continually punished for his rebellion. Whilst not exclusively queer S&M remains a marginalized sexuality, even within the LGBTQ+ community who may subscribe to a homonormative trope embodied for acceptance and homogenous palatability. S&M is sufficiently lubricated to be inserted in a queer space for it is a “transgressive subcultural form of resistance to hegemonic sexual practices—in so far as it identifies pleasure outside the procreative act” (Carrette 1). MK’s S&M queer content affords the reader “new ways of representing what it means to be a desiring subject” (Halsall, Warren and Fawaz 87). Wu Kong finds joy in this classification, highlighting the pleasure that can be derived from master-slave role-play. Then, by extension, undermines a regime of normalization “as it provides another option for relationship building and sexual expression that doesn’t subscribe to traditional notions of how these structures should exist” (Glover “It’s Time to Recenter Kink and BDSM as Part of Radical Queer History”). MK illustrates this subversion exquisitely in figure 10 in a topsy-turvy display of words and images. Unregulated by fixed borders or identities where the comic is neither literature nor visual art, playing just as Queer theory insists. The illustration also posits Zang in control, the Top if you will to Wu Kong’s power bottom, a queer pictorial of Zang’s sadistic desire, “the desire for absolute control over another being” (Fromm 101). In Volume 9 Wu Kong adopts the form a daemon snake – a typically phallic embodiment – to playfully inflame the travel companions and indeed to exacerbate the sexual tension with Zang. Wu Kong is fully acquainted with the fact their behavior will illicit the monk’s disciplinary mantra but is happy to occupy a queer daemon role in order to “subvert the role of obedience along with a critical questioning of authority” (Rogers 214). The primate’s penchant for S&M is not exclusive with the monk, as we observe in Vol 6. Bound in rope, Wuk Kong confronted by a whip-wielding henchman, bearing an uncanny resemblance to a Tom of Finland character, see figure 11. Tom, in the 1970s, created a homosexual utopia whose illustrations were drawn to “destroy the stereotypes that equated homosexuality to effeminacy” (Snaith 77).
MK affords us an intriguing juxtaposition where queer intersectionality is at play. In comic form, it invites us into a spectatorship-as-performance by revealing the instabilities of identities and how power prescribed to gender/sexuality is fluid. This is evident in Wu Kong’s androgyny, the henchman’s hyper masculinity, and the queer politics of S&M with Wu Kong’s willingness to be part of it all. Wu Kong knows “Kink includes rather than excludes, because it is built on the foundation of embracing what can otherwise be shunned and misunderstood” (Glover “It’s Time to Recenter Kink and BDSM as Part of Radical Queer History”). The pleasure can be partially accounted by the henchman’s physique when linked to a homosexual clone-look evolving in 1970s USA. The clone look was a questionable effort to escape effeminate association by wearing the wardrobe of masculine tropes from the cowboy to the work- site laborer, packaged with a body-conscious bent. Guy Snaith claims the muscle-bound character that homosexuals were becoming “was quite actually useful for gay men. Their gaydar could pick out at a hundred paces whether a man was gay or straight just by external signs” (80-81). This is explained by noting Wu Kong seems to be equipped with gaydar: the ability to observe “sexual orientation detectable even when people attempt to conceal it” (Sylva, et al, 141). This trait plays an important queer role when we observe Wu Kong engaging in battles with daemons, daemons as metaphors for queer, daemons only the primate can see. In addition, this contributes to the protection and intimacy of Wu Kong and San Zang’s relationship, as we shall now discuss.
Queer Eyes for the Straight Guy
Daemons are figures representing “the quintessential “Other”” (Cozad 126) and in JttW they are “used to usher in a particular religion/ethical alternative” (Cozad 118). MK’s daemons represent and embody queer bodies, marginalized and oppressed by society. Many daemons are banished to earth for failing to curtail their instincts to normative instruction whilst in Heaven. In addition, the daemons are read as sexually repressive obstacles that Wu Kong overcomes in order to secure the monk’s affection. The monk, in turn, unconsciously views the daemons as manifestations of queer fears. MK’s volumes function in a Monster-of-the-Week fashion with my focus narrowed to the White Bone Goblin and the Scorpion Demoness. A consistent factor amongst all of MK’s daemons is they wish to consume San Zang, for “feasting on his flesh will grant one eternal life” (Chen 7:15). Matthew Siôn Lampitt argues, “cannibalism renders visible the melancholic mechanisms of sexuality itself” (320). Both daemons are drawn in decidedly Western gendered female fashion, whilst still being read as queer, they function as circuit- breakers in Wu Kong/Zang’s ambiguous relationship of homosocial and homoerotic affection.
Wu Kong gained the ability to see through daemons’ disguises when consumed by the Fires of Heaven. This is an ability I allocate to being Queer and by extension to the gaydar phenomenon. Wu Kong is the sole character equipped with gaydar, permitting the primate “mating-relevant information, such as identification of potential mates and reproductive rivals” (Lyons et al, 346). This better places Wu Kong to battle daemons, putting Queer theory into practice when “revealing the hidden improperties of disciplinary and celebrating the perversities it is complicit in both erasing and producing” (Schotten 79). In comparison, Zang is innocent, closeted and constructed by the heteronormative, stating to Wu Kong, “What’s wrong with you? I don’t see anything wrong” (Chen 16:119) Wu Kong laments, “You often don’t” (Chen 16:119). Zang denying the daemon’s Queer presence, fixing it in the closet along with his own sexuality. In Volume 7 the troop are approached by a young maiden who Wu Kong identifies as the White Bone Goblin in disguise, informing the crew “She’s a monster” (Chen 7:22). Zang dismisses the claim, seeing only the woman and subscribing to symbolic law informed by a hegemonic rule: the maiden appears to be female so must be female. Wu Kong battles the daemon over three occasions and three separate disguises, ending with Zang dismissing the primate from the band claiming, “I would rather be eaten by a monster” (Chen 7:50). The origins of Zang’s disgust lay not just within a philosophical struggle but also in Zang’s attempt to reason with emotional/sexual truths. This conflict comes to the fore when the young maiden initially appears and Wu Kong teases the master by enquiring, “Wait are you attracted to her?” (Chen 7:22) Here we see heteronormative ideology perpetuating a binary opposition (the female) between homosocial affection and homoerotic desire (Zang/Wu Kong). Zang wishes to remain fixed in heteromasculinity. The daemon works in two senses: a female character inserted to reinforce a male-female, queer-straight grouping, and then as a queer assault on this hegemonic binary, where we are informed desires are fluid and not so neatly categorized. I see Wu Kong and the master’s relationship as ambiguous, flirting with platonic friendship and homoerotic passion. They occupy a space where the only sufficient descriptor is Queer. This is significant as their relationship confounds our understanding of homosocial desire, captured beautifully when Zang forces his disciple from the group in figure 12.
The ‘break-up’ is portrayed as fragmented throughout four panels, not linear but rather fluid and unstable. Wu Kong’s Queerness, favored in the debate of homosocial desire, being depicted on a larger scale and displaying emotions where a setting sun’s reflection could be taken for a tear. Zang is a lone figure at the page’s lowermost section. Here, he is an inversion of how Zang was displayed in Figure 10. He is no longer the Top in the affair. Zang’s brick-patterned coat symbolizes a citadel where heteronormativity is secured and, ironically, homoerotic desire concealed. Reading the comic’s apparent queer preference can be justified as the form grants a fluid narrative where the representation of unstable identities are operable. It demonstrates we can approach Wu Kong and Zang’s relationship from a multitude of angles.
This daemon-female scenario is replicated in Volume 13 when Zang is kidnapped by the Scorpion Demoness. JttW’s plot is reliant on non-human creatures to threaten Zang’s normativity. This includes Wu Kong. In true queer form, Wu Kong usurps this attempt at essentializing identities where the remaining daemons are less successful, for they remain confined in MK’s actual text, deprived of the Queer self-awareness that we see in the Monkey King only. The Scorpion Demoness is a unique foe. MK has the Scorpion Demoness continually and openly slipping between daemon and human form, never rendering a stable gendered-female form. Judith Butler informs us, “The very subject of women is no longer understood in stable or abiding terms” (Gender Trouble 1), the Demoness is never quite a woman, though ‘she’ functions in a female narrative when trying to seduce Zang. When she fails, they revert to daemon form, exposing the instability of gender identities. Wu Kong recognizes the daemoness’s unwillingness to reaffirm normative values especially wavering around marrying or consuming Zang. Wu Kong informs the rival, “Get your hands off him! I am the one who takes care of Master” (Chen 13:145). This is a manifestation of Wu Kong’s queer desire and need for possession. The Demoness, less comfortable or even aware of their queerness than Wu Kong, snaps essentialist insults such as “You look like an accident of nature. Like a circus freak!” (Chen 13:145) referring to the primate as an “ugly man” (Chen 13:147), going on to decree, “I must purge the world of your kind” (Chen 13:147). The daemoness is in a “space of sexual instability that already queerly positioned viewers can connect with in a various ways” (A Doty 8) Wu Kong is then able to rebut, “Clearly you can’t see what’s right in front of you” (Chen 13:160). In this incident, we see how “normal sexuality and the machinery of enforcing it do not bear down equally on everyone” (Warner, xxvi) with the daemoness eliminated by Wu Kong recognizing her as a threat to the homoerotic relationship with Zang. The complex dynamics of desire present a curious situation to reflect upon, as Annette Kuhn suggests, “things are not always quite so clear cut: boundaries can be permeable, and it is sometimes difficult to determine who or what belongs on which side of the divide” (July 1992, 13). This is just as Queer would have it.
MK’s daemon parade is a device that both supports and opposes homosocial bonding for reasons just discussed. The duplexity is credited to Wu Kong, being Queer, inserted into the mix, whilst never permitting the female presence to progress beyond the intermediary and not as a mechanism of bi-erasure. MK continues with an additional queer inversion when we situate Wu Kong as a ‘Final Girl’. Carol Clover conceptualized ‘Final Girl’ as female character, typically within slasher films, able to overcome all odds and defeat a (male) monster (Clover 79). MK extends this paradigm from a gendered lead to the primate character, who like the Final Girl “is intelligent, watchful, and level-headed: the first character to sense something amiss and the only one to deduce from the accumulating evidence the patterns and extent of the threat.” (Clover 79). The threat being the daemons that embody Zang’s repressed sexual confusion, which stems from his internalized heteronormativity. Daemon manifestations proliferate, in all forms and genders, when the couple’s queerness is becoming more intimate and reciprocal. MK and the source JttW, both work as a quest for all the characters all with varying end goals. One outcome is Wu Kong being able to resolve Queerness in themselves and assist Zang in being ‘woke’ to his Queerness. E.P Hollander proposed that a leader and their followers would have “a shared experience, a voyage through time” (55) when working towards a common goal. In this case, the goal is mutual queer attraction.
In Volume 17, the party have almost reached the end of their journey and we see a knitting of the plot’s queerness and comic’s form illustrating Ramzi Fawaz insightful claim “comics, because of their formal investment in seriality, frequently present sexuality itself as an unfolding experience. Sex and sexuality are only occasionally punctual” (87). Zang kidnapped by a daemon and now imprisoned in chains. The couple have progressed beyond the incident captured in figure 5, and Zang implores Wu Kong to look at him in figure 13. We are seeing a queering of time in action, noting, “queer people’s social and sexual developments occur against or outside heteronormative time” (Shomali 139). A sexual development in Zang is apparent in the question, “Am I seeing things?” (Chen 17:156) when viewing Wu Kong. Zang illustrated in the second panel with two heads, an emblematic queer blurring of dualistic sexualities (heterosexual/homosexual). This transgression now equips the monk with the gaydar referenced previously and unanimous with the agreeably Queer. Figure 13 illustrates the flexibility of the Zang/Wu Kong engagement, displaying a diversity in their non-normative S&M arrangement with both parties appearing comfortable, even grateful, with Zang confessing, in chains, “I have never been happier” (Chen 17:158) finally Queerly comfortable in the master-slave relationship. The illustration has positioned the reader as a queer spectator. Witnessing intimate gestures between the pair, basking in the post-daemon-defeated glow, the colors suggest a mood of candlelight, a romantic trope. These panels demonstrate how comics can overtly emphasize queerness by displaying the “disruption of normative sexual paradigms” (Shomali 140) in addition to displaying how comics “can foster nonnormative subjects and behaviours and are thus spaces where queer cultures and kinships might flourish” (Shomali 140). MK in Figure 13 draws Wu Kong staring into the master’s eyes presenting “the main narrative techniques of romance comics” (Weisenburg “America’s Post-War Fling with Romantic Comics”). It takes the pair from the homosocial into the homoerotic. Wu Kong observes in conversation that he has inhabited a queer non-linear position whilst skirting a linear narrative. Wu Kong relates the queer phenomenon of “events horizontally, reliving and re-experiencing past events alongside those occurring in the present” (Roberts, iv), by moving the focus away from a fixed timeline where the couple “wouldn’t have to do this over and over!” (Chen 17:157). This demonstrates yet another aspect of MK’s queer resistance to normative “structures for maintaining and transmitting patriarchal power” (Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet, 25). There is much queer to be examined within MK and all of the JttW cannon, and I have only just begun to open the closet door in these previous paragraphs, hoping others will relish and expand on the text’s queer delights.
As such, we are here at journey’s end and JttW remains queer in its more recent iteration, MK. I’ve highlighted how, in MK’s comic form, JttW’s story depicts and embodies queerness. My aim here was not to insinuate a queer reading as the ultimate analysis, rather to consider how queer has generally been overlooked by academia, resonating Kai Linke’s pondering in Good White Queers? Racism and Whiteness in Queer U.S. Comics; “the dearth of scholarship on queer comics might be mostly due to the lack of overlap between the academic fields of queer studies and comic studies. Whatever the reason, however, I believe it is high time that scholars begin to pay critical attention to comics as an important medium of LGBTIQ self-representation” (35). This queer absence has limited the tale’s very clear ability to trouble the stability of heteronormative identities. Heterocentrist readings of JttW and comics devalue the hybrid bodies found in JttW/MK and marks them as subjects rejected by dominant culture. Yet, when we reflect on the conceptual framework of queer and comics we are well placed to know comic’s hybrid form is matched by Queer theory revealing, “that all social beings are constituted differently through exclusions that return to haunt those subjects through democratic contestation” (Liu 30). I have analyzed how MK’s narrative and form, expedite a queerness. A queerness, which questions binaries located in sexuality, gender, and literature, derived from comic’s multiplicity of symbolic systems. Wu Kong, daemons and comics break down the binaries and disclose the folly of exclusion particularly when referenced against societies’ classifications that privilege the norms. These forms remind us there is no single way to classify identities. There is not one sexuality; there is not one dividing rule to allocate gender. Likewise, there is not only one linear timeline and there is not one ‘correct’ way to read or tell a story. Alexander Doty reflects:
horror and melodrama actually encourage queer positioning as they exploit the spectacle of heterosexual romance, straight domesticity, and traditional gender roles gone awry. In a sense, then, everyone’s pleasure in these genres is “perverse,” is queer, as much of it takes place within the space of the contra-heterosexual and the contra-straight (14). ‘Horror and melodrama’ occupy the comic MK as a place of instability where queer, as an indication of polysemy, permits a unique pleasure for all, regardless of where one may genuflect in the temple. This was achieved through comics being particularly well suited to queer narratives, being rich in transgressive and subversive properties. The central character Wu Kong is a Queer champion, being a non-normative body, invested in actively disrupting systems of oppression and as identity that has been constantly changing since their conception, much like Queer theory itself. By examining Wu Kong through a queer lens, as a character and in their relationship with the monk, we witnessed how the primate functioned as a Queer sexual libertarian. Wu Kong fights for a utopic vision that embodies not only the traditional Buddhist components, but also one reflecting Queer activism. Wu Kong suggests alternative possibilities of life, to ensure we, like the Monkey King, can “tease the Gods, and everyone has some fun” (Godiego).
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