This book alternates between three different story lines. The first, by far my favourite, is about the Monkey King, who teaches himself all the different branches of Kung Fu until he is not only invulnerable and immortal, but also able to fly, make himself huge, shrink down or shapeshift. He wants to become greater than Tze Yo Tzuh, the God of all the gods, and is instead buried under a mountain for five hundred years because he is too stubborn to change his mind.
The second story is about Jin Wang, who moves from San Fransisco to a neighbourhood with barely any Asians, and is ostracised and bullied as a result. He so desperately wants to fit in, even more so when he falls for one of the American girls in school. His only friend is a kid from Taiwan, Wei-Chen, a geeky boy who also struggles to fit in and has to wrestle with speaking correct English on top of everything else.
The third story seems to be a racist sit-com, complete with awful laugh track, about Danny, recently accepted onto the varsity basketball team. He's quite well-liked and popular at school, but then his cousin Chin-Kee, the worst Chinese stereotype character you can possibly imagine, comes to visit and proceeds to make him more and more embarrassed and freaked out.
The three separate and seemingly unconnected storylines eventually converge into one, and the theme of the whole book seems to be acceptance of one's true self, even in the face of adversity. All three characters dealt with feel alienated or different in their society and fight to change this through various means. I absolutely loved the Chinese mythology bits, and learning more about the Monkey King and his journey towards spiritual peace and acceptance. When I was a student, several of my friends would love to stay up late, watching episodes of Monkey (I only barely remember snippets), but as I kept reading, it became obvious that the mythology behind both was the same.
Having only ever read Boxers and Saints by this author (which was very good, but oh so depressing), I really wasn't sure what to expect. I get what he was trying to do with the Chin-Kee parts, but the super racist stereotype of a Chinese character still made me deeply uncomfortable and I therefore really didn't like those bits too much. Jin Wang was a bit of an idiot on occasion, but as someone who works with teenagers, I know all too well that that is a universal trait, no matter the background of the teen in question. All teenagers are idiots, and being a teenager pretty much always sucks. The hoops they will jump through and the ordeals they will put themselves through to fit in, it astounds me. I'm glad Jin Wang eventually started to see that he would be happier if he accepted his true self, even if he had to have a mythological visitation to do so.
I think I would have been happiest if this entire book was just an illustrated story of the Monkey King and continued with his Journey to the West, without any modern age teenagers or horrible stereotypes at all. The art is absolutely amazing throughout, so expressive.
Judging a book by its cover: The cover is almost all yellow, with line drawings of mountains, clouds and the mountain the Monkey King is buried under in the background. The Monkey King, naturally, looks quite annoyed. On the left-hand side, you see half of little Jin Wang's face in the foreground, clutching one of his beloved robot toys (when he is asked what he wants to be when he grows up, he responds "a Transformer"). Jin Wang and the robot are in colours, otherwise the whole thing is yellow. The back cover has the other half of Jin Wang and his robot and up in the left hand corner, there is a small TV screen with picture of Chin Kee grinning. I like the cover, which captures a lot of the graphic novel in three simple images.