Maple Lam Is Mashing Up Mythologies In Monkey King And The World Of Myths

Monkey King and the World of Myths Maple Lam Interview

It’s a classic “you got your chocolate in my peanut butter” situation in Monkey King and the World of Myths, the new all-ages graphic novel from writer/artist Maple Lam. In the book, we meet Sun Wukong, aka the Monkey King, going on his classic adventures. The twist? He ends up not just in his own myths, but diving straight into Greek myths as well, teaming up with a tiny Cerberus and exploring the mystery of the Minotaur.

“I am a big fan of history and art history,” Lam told Comic Book Club over email. “I have always wanted to organically integrate some of my favorite artworks into my stories. Bringing the story to the island of Crete is the perfect way for me to celebrate some of the beautiful murals of the ancient Minoan civilization.”

The book, which hits stores on April 2 from G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers and Penguin Random House, is a delight whether you’re familiar with either mythology or not. To find out more behind Lam’s inspiration, and a tease about the next book in the series, read on.

Comic Book Club: I love the mashup of mythologies in this book, versus a straight Monkey King story. Why were Greek myths the right ones to tackle first?

Maple Lam: My hope is to get young readers interested in world mythologies. There is a good chance they already know some of the Greek mythological stories or have heard of the characters. This is because Western society has a very direct influence from the Greco-Roman culture. I think it is easier to start off with something readers are more familiar with, not to mention it is more fun to read a familiar story with a twist. By reading Monkey King and the World of Myths, young readers can experience that fun AND get an introduction to other world mythologies. In Book 1, they will learn a little about the famous Monkey King Sun Wukong and other gods of China.

Also, I am a big fan of history and art history. I have always wanted to organically integrate some of my favorite artworks into my stories. Bringing the story to the island of Crete is the perfect way for me to celebrate some of the beautiful murals of the ancient Minoan civilization.

When you’re tackling iconic stories like these, how do you approach “canon”? Is it a rule, or more of a guideline? What can you break, and when can you break it?

It’s more of a guideline. I don’t have a strict rule on this. How faithful I stick to the original tales largely depends on how well it fits for my story arc. If it deviates, I’ll make changes accordingly.

You’ve also got a lovely theme of acceptance throughout here. Similar to the last question, why was this the right theme to thread throughout the book?

I was born in Hong Kong, and I spent the first eleven years of my life there before moving to America. Growing up, I was constantly trying to juggle and integrate both the Chinese and American culture. There was always this conflicted feeling in terms of identity. Am I Chinese? Am I American? How much of my Chinese culture should I retain in order to feel like I didn’t betray my original identity? How much American culture should I practice to feel like I fit in and belong? Was it wrong to want to be more American or Chinese? Somewhere in there, was there a perfect balance? If so, who got to decide?

In Monkey King and the World of Myths, Wukong wanted to be a god instead of a beast. He believed that “gods get to do whatever they want”, and he would be “happy forever” once he reached godhood. His journey as a monster hunter might be about hunting down monsters in different mythologies, but at its core, it is about him learning to embrace his identity, god or beast.

I think everyone will, at one time or another, struggle with his/her identity. We all have to navigate the different roles we play in our lives. I hope the book will help kids understand and embrace all parts of their identities.

Monkey King and the World of Myths cover

Monkey King has such a unique set of “powers” – was there one you enjoyed playing around with in particular?

While Monkey King and the World of Myths is only loosely based on Wu Cheng’en’s Journey to the West, the fight between Wukong and God Erlang did happen in the original story. When I was a kid, this was such a memorable fight to read. Wukong was a shape-shifter, and God Erlang was the only god who knew how to shape-shift. The two battled each other by continuously shape-shifting into the natural predator of whatever thing the other guy shape-shifted into. It was smart and fun and funny. I only included the early part of the shape-shifting battle in my story – because while it was visually fun, the focus of my graphic novel was on the adventure, not the fights. I made up an element of God Erlang shape-shifting into a dinosaur in order for Wukong to figure out a way to end this fighting sequence fast.

I had so much fun working on this particular scene. It was like a dream come true to draw what I loved so much as a kid into a book that I get to share with kids today. I hope they love it as much as I did when I was a kid.

He’s also arguably the most important character to nail visually… What went into crafting his look?

As this is the first time I am working on a graphic novel, I anticipated a lot of unknown challenges ahead. To make it a little easier for myself, one of the first things I decided was to make sure my main character’s visual design was simplified.

One of the bigger challenges was to include the iconic headband Wukong wore. It looked cumbersome when I had the full headband drawn on the character. I “fixed” this by showing the whole headband around his head when he first wore it, but he immediately tried tugging and pulling the headband, and his hair covered up a majority of the headband from there on. The only part that showed was the most iconic front on top of his forehead. That was a design choice on my end.

I love the idea of little Cerebus… Can you talk about the inspiration for his design?

Cerberus almost didn’t make it into the book.

I needed a sidekick for Wukong as he journeyed through his adventures, and I was hoping it would be a cute-looking, lovable character. Since Wukong traveled from a Chinese mythological world to a Greek mythological world in Book 1, I started looking into potential characters within these two worlds. Cerberus fit the description (for as long as I made him look cute). But I ran into a problem: he had three heads.

In a graphic novel, I always have to keep in mind the simplistic design of the characters. This is because I have to draw them repeatedly, sometimes several times on the same page. A character with three heads would complicate things.

There was another great potential sidekick candidate: God Erlang, the god who fought Wukong in the Heavenly Kingdom in the early chapter of the book, was famous for having a dog with a howling, thunderous sound. That dog would make my illustration life a bit easier (as he had ONE head only!). I contemplated the idea for a while, but I ended up picking Cerberus in the end. I wanted this story to weave in different mythologies, and it didn’t feel balanced if both my main protagonists were from the same mythological world. I just had to convince myself to draw the more complicated dog.

It was worth it. Cerberus turned out to be very lovable.

Given you have multiple mythologies existing simultaneously, do you have some sort of uber-mythology about how they all work together? Or is it more “Greek gods exist in Greece” and you go from there?

I wouldn’t call it an uber-mythology, but there are some “grand rules” that dictate this story’s world. For example, I kept the setting of the “Three Worlds” throughout the book. (In Monkey King and the World of Myths, the “Three Worlds” referred to The World of Gods, the World of Humans, and the World of Beasts.) The concept of the Three Worlds stems from Eastern mythologies/religions, but in order for the whole story structure to stay coherent, the Greek characters also obliged under this rule of the “Three Worlds”. You could see the Greek characters mentioning the Three Worlds periodically.

You end (mild spoilers here) with a tease of a new mission… Do you know which mythology you’d like to see him tackle next?

Yes! Book 2 brings in a brand new adventure that takes place in ancient Japan in the city of Heian-Kyo (modern-day Kyoto), where Wukong and Cerberus meet a wide array of characters from Japanese mythologies and folklore!

Monkey King and the World of Myths is on sale on April 2, 2024, from G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers and Penguin Random House.

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