Earlier I wrote about the endless narrative possibilities available in the superhero comics genre. Of course, comics are not the only medium to enjoy the fractal narrative. Philip Marlowe, the Continental Op, and Sherlock Holmes are ageless detectives forever solving crimes in short stories and novels. If Jet Li had so desired it, Tsui Hark would probably have made fifty more Wong Fei-Hong movies. And the Brits have the idea down with James Bond and Doctor Who.
But while the fractals can expand forever, artists given to make their own new stories and interpretations can sometimes make changes that are so drastic that they change the nature of the character the audience has come to know. Artists should of course be able to bend and experiment with characters to find new avenues, but there must be limits, no? Because the danger in the course of bending a character is the potential of breaking it.
My brother and I have had many
arguments discussions about Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. He loves them, and I find them merely okay (yes, even The Dark Knight). Let him write his own post about why they’re great. I’d like to tell you my problems with them.
Chiefly, Nolan’s Batman is a terrible Batman. I don’t mean that the role is poorly acted or that he wears an ugly costume. I mean his entire nature is wrong. The character consistently chooses the non-Batman option whenever it’s available to him.
Batman Begins — As the subway train heads toward Wayne Tower with the threat of making everyone in Gotham City scared and crazy, Batman and Ra’s Al Ghul battle it out. Unbeknownst to the Demon Head,
Commissioner Lieutenant Gordon has destroyed part of the bridge and track on which the subway is riding. In the final moments of their duel, Batman finally gains the upper hand and says, “I won’t kill you, but I don’t have to save you.” Bad-ass, for sure. But decidedly not Batman.
Wolverine probably wouldn’t have saved Ra’s, but Batman? Yes, he would. It is a superficially enjoyable moment, but it’s substantively wrong. Batman believes in justice. He believes people should be brought before the courts; otherwise, he’s morally the same as the Punisher. He just kills people slower.
The Dark Knight — Batman doesn’t want to be Batman. This is a problem in Batman Forever too, but I actually think it’s worse in this movie. He wants to do one massive dragnet to capture mid-level mafioso and then call off being Batman? So he can run and marry Rachel — who’s already promised to Harvey Dent by the way. WTF?
I thought Batman vowed to his parents to avenge their deaths by stopping crime. “Mother, father, I will avenge you.” Not, “I will destabilize the mafia for about six months. Then I’m done.”
The Dark Knight Rises — So my problem with TDK is that Bruce doesn’t want to be Batman. So in the sequel, what happens? HE STOPS BEING BATMAN. TWICE. Like wasn’t there a whole thing about not wanting other people who lack training to go be Batman and put themselves in danger in the last movie? Why doesn’t he give a shit about that now?
As technically proficient, beautiful, and even enjoyable these movies can be, I’m always left with a sour taste by Nolan’s Batman. This Batman lets people die. This Batman desperately doesn’t want to be Batman. This Batman STOPS. BEING. BATMAN. Entertaining movies, sure. But the Batman character is irrevocably broken.
Similarly, I adore — but find problematic — American Born Chinese, the award-winning 2006 graphic novel by Gene Leun Yang. It is a thought-provoking book that speaks greatly to my own personal experience as an American Born Chinese. But I am also another kind of ABC: an American Buddhist Chinese. Therein lies my problem.
For while there is much that I love about ABC, turning the Monkey King — the Great Sage Equal to Heaven, the Demon Battling Buddha — into a Zoroastrian-cum-Christian Magus essentially breaks the character for me and takes me out of the book no matter how many times I read it.
Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, is a character hundreds of years old. His adventures in heaven, hell, and earth have been retold in every medium the Chinese have had available to them. He is a timeless character deeply embedded in Chinese culture and language. And dammit, he pees on the Tathagata’s finger. Not the hand of I AM THAT I AM!
I appreciate the notion that to express his own Asian American experience, Yang had to create a Christian Monkey King. But the difficulty for me lies in separating a character — whose name literally translates to “Aware of Emptiness” — from Buddhism. It is not a small choice to excise and change a larger than life character’s religion.
In a post on an old First Second Books blog, Yang discussed why and how he came to applying Christianity onto the Monkey King legend. He talks about his approach being questioned by his friend and sometime collaborator Derek Kirk Kim:
“How would you feel if someone took one of your stories and made it Taoist or Muslim or atheist?” he asked.
It’s a good question. And after much reflection, I’ve arrived at an answer:
I’ve read that many scholars believe the Monkey King himself was derived from Hanuman, a Hindu monkey-god. The original author (or authors — no one really knows for sure) of The Journey to the West took the Hindu source material (perhaps without knowing it) and used it for his (or their) own religious purposes. Furthermore, coincidence or not, this trickster monkey deity is echoed in religions and mythologies all over the world.
So in a very real sense, the Monkey King is universal. He’s been around a long, long time, and I think he’s sturdy enough to follow us wherever we go, to embody whatever philosophies and beliefs we arrive at.
To be honest, I’m not entirely comfortable with that answer.
I believe that the reason Yang’s uncomfortable with that response is because while monkey gods are a universally recurring theme, for sure, Hanuman — a Hindu god — was changed to Sun Wukong — a Buddhist god — and thus became a wholly different character. In American Born Chinese, Yang continues to use all the trappings of Buddhist and Chinese mythology, but chose to make the central character Christian. So in essence, this was not a reinterpretation but a fundamental change to the core of the character.
It’s a brilliant twist — and one I didn’t see coming — but I also find it troubling and disturbing. Quietly, it comes off as a rejection of Buddhism and Buddhists. I am confident that was not Yang’s intent, but whenever I read ABC, I find because of that choice, it is a book that was not written for me.
Yang is a talented writer (obviously) and is especially strong (and important) when he directly writes about faith (SERIOUSLY, GO READ THE ETERNAL SMILE!!!), but clearly we see the Monkey King differently.
- The Ideal and the Infinite Batman or, Why Fractal Narratives Matter (thenerdsofcolor.org)
- Gene Yang, Origins of ABC (firstsecondbooks.typepad.com)
- East Meets West: A Christian Take on Journey to the West (ofepicproportions.blogspot.com)